Acting already on the exclusive deal signed this week for first-run rights to Walt Disney Studios productions, Netflix made available a previously unslated celebratory package of the company’s classic and contemporary greats. Pocahontas, The Aristocats, The Great Mouse Detective, The Rescuers Down Under and more are among those not covered below courtesy of said surprise release; a select sampling of the divulged treats does follow, however. Outside of Disney, it’s a very quiet week indeed for new releases, only a handful of major names joining the VOD world. An animated treat from last year and two of 2012’s arguable finest are the standouts: read on to find out what they are.
Not unworthy of comparison to this year’s This Is Not a Film, Alison Klayman’s profile of the titular Chinese artist and social activist similarly examines the censorship of an oppressive government and the role of art in the fostering of free expression. A stirring work with as much in the way of humour as it has incitement to action, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an assured implementation of the documentary form, telling a story few may be aware of but none should be incapable of appreciating. Klayman is talented enough to make the most of her spectacular subject, understanding perfectly Ai’s communion of playfulness and anger and replicating that key dichotomy in the film’s own tone, much as she mirrors his striking visual sensibility in her own work here. It’s a poignant, pointed piece of work with a clear agenda that, like Ai, it always puts above itself. Such selflessness is rare; this is one of the 2012’s finest documentaries. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Disney’s thirteenth feature outing brings Lewis Carroll’s iconic creation to the screen in her first wholly animated incarnation, colourfully rendering the host of familiar characters the young Alice encounters along her way to quiz the white rabbit as to why a creature such as he should need a watch. Though not the definitive film version of the well-known tale—that honour could only ever belong to Jan Svankmajer’s truly terrifying Alice—this Alice in Wonderland is a fitting embrace of the weirdness of Carroll’s world, a committed representation of this strangest of lands. As vibrant and expressive in the pronounced accents which comprise the voice cast as it is in its vivid colour scheme, it’s a film that brings beautifully to life the mad adventures its young heroine finds herself absorbed in, ensuring all the way the key comedy of these bizarre escapades remains engrained. RECOMMENDED.
Introducing himself to international attention in just about as idiosyncratic a manner as possible with Dogtooth in 2009, Giorgos Lanthimos returns with a story equally as odd in Alps, following a group of people hired by bereaved relatives to act as stand-ins for deceased loved ones. Again using an unusual approach to investigate key concepts of humanity and existentialism, Lanthimos here adopts more intimate an aesthetic than in Dogtooth, new DP Christos Voudouris bringing a close immediacy to the images that highlights the heightened normalcy of this set of characters, even within their bizarre psychosomatic purview. It’s a film foremost about people confused and lost, traits heavily replicated in its own narrative structure; for as affecting and entrancing as Alps’ eerily familiar sense of disengagement is, it is itself heavily disengaging, more constrained curio than impactful illumination. What’s troubling is that that’s precisely the point: Lanthimos wants us as cold as his characters, for we are them, and they us. An uncomfortable experience is Alps, but then isn’t life too? HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Determined to rediscover a sense of community in an America fractured by financial turmoil and the insecurities of the modern age, Joe Garner sets out with the intention of living solely off the goodwill of Craigslist users for a whole month, depending on their generosity for every aspect of daily life. An interesting project somewhat undermined by the intrusion of its own apparatus—the very act of documenting the journey considerably amends its outcome—Craigslist Joe is a fitting tribute to the community of cyberspace, Garner’s findings working to dismiss the idea that modern technology has led us to more isolated lives and instead heralds the thriving spirit of “the 21st century’s new town square”. Where the documentary is less successful is its painfully self-important scenes of pronounced emoting, Garner—credited as director in spite of his mostly-silent cameraman’s obvious charge of the visuals—quick to questionable tears at the sight of Katrina’s lingering effects and at the generosity he receives. WORTH WATCHING.
The fourth feature animation produced by Walt Disney Studios, Dumbo also stands as one of the most beloved, its simplified story of a young elephant laughed at for his oversized ears—deliberately a basic plot to counter the perceived sophistication of Fantasia, a damaging flop—winning the hearts of generations anew ever since its 1941 release. A charming piece of work which mostly adheres to its straightforward animated style, it’s in a late sequence of drunken hallucination that Dumbo becomes most interesting, evolving into a disquieting sequence of strange imagery far scarier than one might expect of a film aimed primarily at children. When not exaggeratedly evincing the effects of alcohol it’s a sweet and slight little film that passes by breezily but brightly, its lovable pachyderm protagonist maintaining the attentive awe of the audience with his sad reactions to each new instance of ear-based bullying. They rarely come any more charming. RECOMMENDED.
Roald Dahl’s source material is perfectly suited to the creepy style of Henry Selick, who makes his sophomore effort with James and the Giant Peach, the tale of the titular young boy who escapes the malice of his evil aunts in an overgrown piece of fruit populated by various insect inhabitants. Blending live action with the stop-motion of his first film (The Nightmare Before Christmas, reviewed below), Selick does justice to the characteristic Quentin Blake illustrations so beloved by fans of Dahl’s books, his characters lovingly tailored to respect Blake’s vision while best serving their newly-added dimensions. Enacted by a delightful voice cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Susan Sarandon, and Pete Postlethwaite as narrator, it’s a terrific stowaway adventure with a visual inventiveness that allows it to avoid being dictated by the confines of its fruity setting. And let’s not forget the terrific addition of Randy Newman’s memorable songs. RECOMMENDED.
An aspiring filmmaker in his earlier years, Bud Clayman’s dreams were derailed in the wake of a crippling mental breakdown and multiple diagnosis that rendered his life a nightmarish wreck for years to follow. Three decades on with admirable stability acquired, he dares to revisit his former aspirations, enlisting the help of co-directors Glenn Holsten and Scott Johnston to document his various afflictions and attempt to come to terms with their effect upon his life. It’s a risky medium for autobiography, cinema, yet Clayman and co. are sensible enough to sidestep the risks of indulgence and make of OC87 a universally applicable portrait of mental illness and the concomitant social stigma that’s at once enlightening and affecting. Boasting a handful of visually and formally inventive scenes that take us into Clayman’s mind, this is a documentary that makes understandable conditions that will be alien to most, along the way proudly toasting the therapeutic potentiality of film. RECOMMENDED.
Spielberg’s first foray into the world of animation sees the veteran entertainer put experts in the field to shame with the extent of his visual creativity, unyielding energy, and astonishing technical mastery. Rendered in state of the art motion capture, The Adventures of Tintin is almost frighteningly lifelike, the stunning detail accorded its wacky assortment of characters—from the creased wool of its eponym’s jumper to the thick hair of Haddock’s hand—an incredible attestation of the growing possibilities of computer animation. Scripted by Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish, and Edgar Wright, it buzzes with the wit of its antics, snappy dialogue and smart physical comedy working wonders to mask the thinness of the characters, who find dimensions in visual terms alone. Spielberg has scarcely had such fun away from Indy; here he brings commendable vim to the process, a particular unbroken “take” late in the film a fitting microcosmic example of the ecstatic energy that powers this romp. RECOMMENDED.
An unashamedly cheerful, family-friendly overview of life as a flamingo, it’s not only in its use of select Disney clips that The Crimson Wing compares to the studio’s films: choosing to follow the fate of a single chick, it crafts a narrative entirely in line with the archetypal uplifting narrative Disney has provided for decades. Stunningly photographed in the Tanzanian locales that play home to the colourful birds, it panders the prettiness of the creatures to its intended youthful audience, all but anthropomorphising them in its desire to incite identification. At a brisk 77 minutes, it’s a sweet little piece that tidies up the truth for the benefit of the tykes—do we really believe the flamingo we see at the end is really the adult version of our companion to begin with?—an excusable indulgence given its well-meant intentions. Adults will be less entranced: it’s hard to watch without wishing Werner Herzog would take over narration duties. WORTH WATCHING.
I can’t fairly divorce The Fox and the Hound from the context of personal significance: few people make it through childhood without falling inextricably in love with a Disney production; this, alongside The Beauty and the Beast as a confident understudy, was mine. Subsequent viewings with the benefit of accentuated age, wisdom, and cinematic appreciation easily attest the truth that few would consider this worthy of the studio’s top-tier work, yet with only the fleeting mention of its name come rushing back the memories of a young boy moved to tears by the sad prejudices that drive apart these eponymous protagonists. Expectedly witty and charming, The Fox and the Hound has the appropriate emotional and moral resonances to make it as importantly educational a work as it is an entertaining one. It may stick closely to formula, but it does so with such integral warmth and unsentimental honesty as to be easily forgiven. RECOMMENDED.
Resurrected anew this past year for what looks set to be another prosperous run, Jim Henson’s Muppets made their big screen debut all the way back in 1979, starring in a wonderfully metatextual adventure that sees Kermit the Frog lead an ever-growing band of companions on a quest for Hollywood stardom. Playfully tearing down the fourth wall at every opportunity, The Muppet Movie works not only as kid-friendly comic romp but as smart satire too, as much focus given to sending up the madness of the movie business as to launching these beloved characters into song and dance routines along the highways and ghost towns of Middle America. Overflowing with cameos that ought to delight older viewers, from Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks to Elliot Gould and Orson Welles, it’s as successful a family film as you can hope to encounter, entertaining for every age without ever pandering to one or the other. RECOMMENDED.
The week’s second Henry Selick film (ignore the Burton-heavy focus of its marketing, he but the producer and story originator), The Nightmare Before Christmas sees the stop-motion maestro enact a magnificently weird confluence of holidays as disillusioned Halloween Town celebrant Jack Skellington unwittingly opens a portal to Christmas Town and fancies himself a fine alternate to Santa Claus. Making full use of the inherent weirdness of stop-motion, Selick blends horror and comedy within the trappings of musical fantasy, embellishing the amusing adventure with all the eerie oddity imaginable. The jaw-dropping craft evident in every frame makes the film a treat first and foremost in visual terms, its grotesque and ghastly creations leaping about the screen with a contradictory grace and beauty. Busy constructing a textured aesthetic indebted to German Expressionism, Selick is less focused on the ultimately disposable storyline, though with such visual and technical innovation to distract the eye there’s little focus on the narrative itself. RECOMMENDED.