Friday, February 25, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Alice in Wonderland (1951), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Alice in Wonderland

The animated Alice in Wonderland does not represent Disney's storytelling peak. Even for a movie that takes two surrealist books and hacks up what limited context existed between them, Alice in Wonderland is thin. A series of half-connected vignettes that always seem to be building toward a story that never comes, the film at least uses its nonsensical threads as an excuse for experimenting with animation forms, and the overcrowded staff of highly talented but disparate animators certainly used one of Walt Disney's dearest projects to let loose. It's certainly a beautiful film, especially in Disney's restored Blu-Ray, which lets Mary Blair's striking background colors pop even more, but animator Ward Kimball (one of the Nine Old Men) had a point when he brought up too many cooks being in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, the film is one of Disney's most sumptuous visual feasts, behind only a handful of arguable contenders, and the loopy comedy floats the movie when it sags even at its spare running length. In some ways, the film is ahead of its time, if only because its gentle surrealism made it perfect for the love generation about 15 years later. Seen today, it's more worthy of artistic admiration than actual enjoyment, though it is by no means a bad film; it would probably just miss my own ranking of the top 10 Disney animated films. At the same time, I only ever process it as a whole and can barely retain anything that happens, remembering only the bold colors, the crashing noises and overwhelming contradiction of it all. But I don't tend to remember much about my dreams, either.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Having never even heard of the children's book upon which the film was based, an unappealing trailer failed to grab my attention when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs neared its theatrical release. Even when I started to hear positive reviews in the press and among friends, I never got around to watching it, and when I saw the Blu-Ray on sale the other day I finally decided to give it a whirl. It was fantastic.

The same simplistic premise that failed to grab my attention in the first place -- a wannabe inventor who strikes it big with a device that makes food rain from the sky -- turns out to be its biggest strength. It latches on themes of father/son relationships, feeling unaccepted and the desire to prove oneself, but the film never sags even though its dense 90 minutes covers some surprising story turns and an admirable depth of character. It is also hilarious, from a monkey fitted with a thought translator serving as the protagonist's companion and assistant (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, no less, who shouts one-line non-sequiturs) to a sly bit of satire in the form of a Guatemalan weather cameraman revealed to be a doctor and pilot who came to America looking for a better life only to do menial labor.

And the visuals. Dear God is this film gorgeous. Sony Pictures Animation previously struggled with finding an aesthetic, first going the Dreamworks route with the cartoony but bland Open Season before using more realistic character and background animation à la Pixar. Here the animators have found their niche, using expressive and interpretive character rendering without resorting to the sloppiness of Open Season. The color palettes are dazzling, fuchsia clouds sparkling with cobalt lightning as they dump burgers and ice cream onto a small, economically devastated island. Character animation looks believably human but makes the necessary adjustments to avoid plunging in the uncanny valley, from Flint's sloping nose to the ingenious face of his father, bushy unibrow covering eyes and like mustache obscuring mouth.

I would say that the film forces some of its points, but I rarely have the inclination to take a children's film to task for its childish moments, especially not when so many other areas are grown up. I have a special fondness for the scene where the love interest is acknowledged to be more attractive and true to herself by, in a reverse Pygmalion, putting her glasses back on and pulling her hair back up into a ponytail (and seriously, who decided that ponytails were not, like, the sexiest thing ever in all those "let your hair down" movies?). One of the most charming films I've seen in some time.


  1. I skipped the ALICE review (because I haven't seen the film), but great call on CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. I thought it was hilarious, visually stunning, and the voice cast just about blew my head off.

  2. The voice cast was fantastic. I didn't even realize James Caan was doing Flint's dad and the whole time I kept thinking, "God, who is doing that voice? It's marvelous."

  3. Alice is my all-time favorite Disney heroine. She's so charming and adorable, and Kathryn Beaumont portrayed her perfectly. Also, her bloomers (long frilly underwear) are very cute, and I just love the way her dress poofs up like a parachute. I love the part where she flips over as she waves goodbye to Dinah. And "In a World of My Own" is a very beautiful song I could listen to all day.