Epic

epicHow often do you sit down and watch a movie with no pre-set expectations? When Disney releases a new film, there’s so much hype and anticipation that it’s hard to do. With Pixar, it’s impossible to do. Audiences expect a lot from these animation studios, and they usually deliver. But there’s nothing surprising about sitting down, expecting a great movie, and getting one. Many times, it’s far more exciting for me to sit down to watch a movie for which I have no expectations–good or bad–and then be blown away by an amazing story.

That happened when I watched the movie Epic. I had to google the animation studio that produced this film because I had no idea who it was. Blue Sky, it turns out, which is owned by Fox Studios. Anyway, I sat down to watch this movie with my brother, who had already seen it and swore that it was hilarious. I loved animated movies, especially the funny ones, so I watched it with him, and yes, it was hilarious. But while I adored the sense of humor, there was so much more depth to this movie than I could have ever anticipated.

There are two issues that I always here in the YA lit world–a lack of diversity and strong, interesting female characters. These problems aren’t relegated to young adult literature, though they are very prevalent. These issues affect film, literature, and every art form imaginable. People are always demanding more diverse characters and better female characters. Well, Epic offered both of those things.

Okay, so the three main characters were white, but the fourth (voiced by the one and only Beyonce Knowles) was a strong, interesting, fun black female character. How often do you see that in a movie? Not enough. Tara, the queen of the forest, protects the forest from harm, regrowing things can start to rot and defending her subjects from the evil boggins. She’s a warrior that can defend herself, but also a caring queen who looks after even the smallest person or plant. She’s a great character, and animation, film, literature, and the world could use more like her.

Epic-2013-Movie-Character-Poster-5But at the same time, Tara’s character is not defined by her race or gender. Being a black woman is not part of her character motivation, or even an issue. Being queen, that’s what drives her character. Epic doesn’t try to hit you over the head with it’s diversity agenda. It reminds us that while our gender and race are a part of us, they are not the only things that define us. We are more than our skin color, more than our gender. Our experiences shape who we are, our relationships shape who we are. Tara finds her identity in protecting the ones she loves, and that is not shaped by race or gender. And kuddos to Blue Sky Studios for having diverse supporting characters as well, creating “leaf men” that are men, women, black, and white, proving once again that diversity is not important to fill some kind of quota, but rather a reflection of reality.

Another thing I really liked about this movie is the relationship between Tara and her captain Ronin (Colin Farrell). Where a major studio might hit you with a straight up romance, Blue Sky offers you something different but much more meaningful. Tara and Ronin’s history is hinted at–they were childhood friends and share a close relationship–but nothing romantic is ever explicitly said or demonstrated. They don’t kiss or say “I love you”, but they don’t have to. You see through their actions–their banter and self-sacrifice–that they truly care for each other. A+ for original character development.

Ronin’s relationship with the hero character, Nod (voiced by Josh Hutcherson), is also original. Nod’s characterization harkens back to the hero stereotype. Nod feel confined by expectations, wants to run off and do his own thing. But Ronin shows him the value in standing for something bigger, and their banter is pretty great too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the humor, though. Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Rec fame) is a hilarious slug with a snail BFF (Chris O’Dowd). I mean, Epic is just a win-win-win-win movie. I watched it three times in five days and it was just as great every time. When it was released, it flew under the radar mostly, probably because it doesn’t have “Disney” in front of the title. But it is a great film, with a lot to teach kids and adults. The message is great, the writing is entertaining, and the animation is good. Watch it and see for yourself!

Epic-official-characters-poster

Inside Out

Inside_Out_2015_film_posterI have come to expect great things from Pixar; I think everyone has. All of their films have been amazing, from Toy Story to Ratatouille, each Pixar movie has entertained and delighted. That isn’t to say that some films weren’t better than others. Wall-E isn’t exactly the kind of film you watch over and over again, but you can’t call any of their movies bad. That’s a lot of pressure for an animation studio as it churns out its latest movie. But once again, Pixar comes through with Inside Out.

Inside Out is about the emotions inside of your head that make you who you are–Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. These little guys control your feelings and actions; they are what make you tick. This story focuses on Riley, a twelve year old girl from Minnesota, and the emotions in her head. Riley is a happy kid who loves her family and playing hockey. Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, which, as you can imagine, really sends the emotions of a 12-year-old spinning. Amidst the chaos inside Riley’s head, Joy and Sadness get separated from headquarters and lost in long term memory with Riley’s core memories–the memories that shape her personality. Now, Joy and Sadness must work together to get back to headquarters before it’s too late for Riley.

As expected of any Pixar movie, Inside Out is very funny. The whole theater I was in was laughing out loud, kids and adults. It’s very fun, but also pulls on the emotional heart strings. The voice acting is very good, starring Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Mindy Kahing as Disgust, Lewis Black as Anger, and Bill Hader as Fear. Every character is entertaining, and it’s very funny to get a look at the emotions in other people’s heads (stay for the first few minutes of the credits). And much of the humor is very clever, so it will entertain adults as well as children.

Inside Out - Emotion Poster Collaboration

The only thing I didn’t like was one of the characters who helps Joy and Sadness, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong. I understood the purpose his character served in the plot, but he was too, too weird–like a pink cotton candy elephant. Even in the fun, imaginative world of Riley’s head, he didn’t fit with the rest of the characters. I’m sure the kids in the theater liked him, but I thought he was too weird and discolored the flavor of the middle part of the film.

But Inside Out isn’t just a funny children’s film. As also expected from Pixar films, it had an important message. The message may surprise children, but probably not adults. The message was that sadness has a place in our lives. While we want children, and adults, to be happy all the time and not suffer the pain of feeling sad, sadness is a part of life. And even though it hurts, it serves a good and noble purpose. It makes us sympathetic to others, empathetic to others. Because we have felt sadness, we can comfort those who are sad. Sadness also lets others know we need help, so they can comfort us. It can bring people together as much as joy can.

sadnessjoyLife is a mixture of every kind of emotion–joy, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness. They all serve a purpose. Inside Out is a must-see movie for children and adults.

Cinderella

Cinderella-Movie-Poster-cinderella-7790337-580-814Picking your favorite Disney movie is almost impossible. Sure, we all do have our favorites, but choosing one sometimes makes me feel like I’m neglecting the others. Even though The Little Mermaid is my favorite, there so many Disney movies that are incredibly dear to my heart. One of these is Cinderella.

There are a lot of reasons to love Cinderella. It’s from Disney’s classic era. The animation is wonderful, and in fact Cinderella’s transformation scene was Walt Disney’s favorite piece of animation. The song are lovely, the characters fun. It’s a classic story that everyone is sure to love. But there’s something very special about Cinderella that makes it slightly different than other Disney movies.

Yes, all Disney movies have moral applications and lessons we can learn from them, but the circumstances Cinderella endures are far more like the situations we face in real life than other Disney movies. We will not—probably—ever face a sea witch named Ursula, or slay a dragon called Maleficent, or be trapped by a Beast in a castle. Sure, all of these stories teach us things we do need in real life, but we are far more likely to deal with people like Lady Tremain and her daughters than we are with Jafar or the Evil Queen.

cinderellaCinderella puts up with people who are vain, selfish, jealous, and cruel. They demand a lot of work from her, never show her any kindness, and are always focused on themselves. In short, the villains in Cinderella possess many of the bad qualities we are likely to see in ourselves and other people. People, in general, are more likely to be selfish than witch; more likely to be jealous of you than poison you. Cinderella faces situations that we face in real life, but she always rises above them with kindness and courage.

It’s extremely difficult to be kind to the people who are mean to you. It’s hard to think of the people who are easily overlooked. But Cinderella is always kind, always thinking of those less fortunate than her, and she never lets the hardships of her life stop her from dreaming. My favorite line from any song in Cinderella is from “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”, when she sings, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

cindDisney movies are always telling us to keep dreaming, to follow our dreams. But Cinderella is important because it reminds us that it will not always be easy to chase our dreams. We face hardships in life—difficult people and difficult situations. And Cinderella shows us that the way to defeat these real circumstances is not by using a sword or potion, but by being kind.

I mentioned this earlier with the live action Cinderella adaptation that recently came out (go see it, it’s amazing!), but kindness is a message that’s often overlooked. We are always told to be brave and strong, and we need to be in order to survive the difficulties in our lives, but we need kindness, too, if we are to prevail. Cinderella reminds us of that. We cannot forget to be kind, especially when life is difficult.

Cinderella

cinderellaWhen I was sick, my mom would camp me out on the couch with juice, a blanket, soda crackers, and Disney’s 1950 animated classic Cinderella. Needless to say, I loved that movie as a child, and now as an adult it holds a special place in my heart. I was excited when Disney studios decided to make a live action version. Well, excited and a little nervous. A part of me was afraid they would butcher the movie, try to turn Cinderella into some feminist warrior princess, or change the focus of the story to some modern political or social statement. But as trailers came out I began to relax, because it looked like it would be just as magical as the classic film.

Emily and I saw Cinderella together in Downtown Disney. (It seemed fitting.) We both loved it. Kenneth Branagh, who directed the film, kept the story true to the original, while still making it feel fresh and new. The actors were all amazing, and the costumes were incredibly magical.

This adaptation remained true to the original. Ella has a happy childhood with her mother and father. Before her mother dies, she tells Ella that she must always “have courage and be kind”. After her mother’s death, her father remarries Madame Tremaine (the fabulous Cate Blanchett). Then her father passes away, and Ella’s stepmother and sisters reduce her to nothing more than a servant. But through all of these hardships, Ella remembers to have courage and be kind.

ella-prince-big-cinderellaEveryone knows the rest of the story. Ella, dubbed Cinderella by her stepsisters, meets the prince. With the help of her fairy godmother, she goes to the ball, and runs away leaving a glass slipper behind. The prince uses this slipper to search far and wide for her, and when he finds her, they live happily ever after.

Though I think this is a timeless story, those of you who find it outdated with enjoy the subtle updates Branagh made. There’s some political intrigue, glimpses into Madame Tremaine to make her more sympathetic. But the heart of the story is the same. Ella finds her happy ending while her stepmother and sisters do not because she is kind when they are cruel.

Lily James is wonderful as Cinderella. She captures Ella’s brave but gentle spirit, her courage and strength. Richard Madden is dashing as Kit, i.e. Prince Charming. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are hilarious as Ella’s stepsisters, and Cate Blanchett is incredible as always.

stepmotherBut just as beautiful as the actors themselves are the costumes. Cinderella’s ball gown is the most magical dress I’ve ever seen, and the prince’s costumes are also incredible. Cate Blanchett wears her dresses so perfectly. All of the costumes are beautiful colors and fun styles. Sandy Powell is amazing.

But the real reason why I loved this adaptation of Cinderella so much is because it stayed true to the message. In today’s culture, girls are often told to be brave, to be fierce, to be strong and independent. These are not bad things, but all of these messages overlook a very important part of being a girl—of being a human being. Seldom are girls, or boys, told to be kind. It’s Ella’s kindness that not only wins her the prince, but also sees her through all of the hardships she faces. It’s Ella’s kindness that is her strength, and where she finds her courage. Yes, it is important to be brave and strong, but we must always remember that it is just as important—if nor more important—to be kind.

glass slipper

Year in Review: 2014

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

I can’t believe another year has passed already. I’m starting to feel old, and I’m only 22 (almost 23!). Last year around this time I posted a short review of my year—exciting stuff that happened (I graduated!), books I loved, movies I saw. I thought I’d do the same thing this year because, even though nothing as exciting as graduating from college happened, I did read some amazing books and see some amazing movies.

lovelyphotoI’ll start with books. One unconventional book that I absolutely adored was Lovely: Ladies of Animation, a collaborative art book featuring personal work by Lorelay Bove, Brittney Lee, Claire Keane, Helen Cheng, Lisa Keene, and Victoria Ying. I went to their exhibit in Burbank at the Center Stage Gallery and it was amazing. I love their artwork, and anyone into art, animation, or Disney should check it out.

sinnerNovels I loved include Out of the Easy by Ruta Septys, a story about a hard working girl from the French District in New Orleans. The writing was wonderful and the characters colorful. Another colorful book was Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis, an “Arabian nights” type story set in India. Both those books are full of very different cultures, vibrant and interesting. Another book full of culture is Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse. The culture in this book is fictional, but heavily based upon Roman and Greek culture. I am incredibly excited for the next book, The Winner’s Crime. And speaking of waiting, I waited so long for Maggie Stiefvater’s Sinner, a stand alone companion novel to her Wolves of Mercy Falls series. If any of you like Maggie Stiefvater or werewolves or hot OTP couples, definitely check out this book. All of these books are incredible, and if you haven’t read them, put them on your “to read” list.

The-Theory-of-EverythingAs far as movies go, I enjoyed the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which was not only a moving story set in World War II, but also incredibly close to the book. I also liked The Theory of Everything, the movie about Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. The acting was amazing. And I know this is not a movie, but I also loved watching ABC’s Once Upon A Time. It was a fun, fairytale adventure with lots of twists and turns and villains. I can’t wait for the next season to come to Netflix.

Me under a tunnel of books.

Me under a tunnel of books.

It is difficult, nigh impossible, to top the traveling Emily and I did last year, going to London, Oxford, and Paris. This year was not as exciting, but we did get around. We went to Boston, walked the Freedom Trail, tasted the marvels of Little Italy. On the West Coast, I also visited The Last Bookstore, one of the most famous bookstores in Los Angeles, and it was quite the experience. Emily and I are closing off the year in Chicago together, so more adventures are yet to be had!

I can’t wait to wrap up 2014 watching Lord of the Rings in Chicago with my best friend, but I’m also looking forward to 2015. Hopefully it will be an exciting year and bring about some changes. I’m still thinking about what my resolutions should be, but hopefully they are big and exciting! I hope your new year is the same.

Big Hero 6

Big_Hero_6_film_posterWalt Disney Studios has seen several different ages throughout its history. Under Walt himself the studio experienced a golden age, releasing such movies as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. In the 1990’s, the studio saw a revival of its animation studios—known as the Disney Renaissance—with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Now, decades after the Golden Age and Renaissance, Disney Studios is experiencing yet another revival. Sparked by The Princess and the Frog, the first animated princess movie released in some time, this new revival quickly switched from traditional 2D animation to 3D animation with the popular Tangled and smash hit Frozen. But after three new princess movies, I’m sure the 6-12 year old boys were beginning to feel a tad neglected by Disney, despite charismatic male characters like Flynn Rider and Wreck-It Ralph. So before tackling another princess movie—Moana, the story of a Polynesian princess with a talent for navigating expected to be released in 2016—Disney released a new animated film featuring a male protagonist.

Hiro

Hiro

Big Hero 6 is about a young prodigy named Hiro living in the Japanese/American city of San Fransokyo. After graduating high school at 13, Hiro wastes his genius in “bot fights”, an illegal robot fight league. His older brother Tadashi, also a genius, tries to convince him to do something with his brain, encouraging him to apply to the local tech college. Though Hiro is having none of it, Tadashi takes him to his lab to meet his friends and colleagues—high speed chaser Go Go Tomago, neat freak Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon, and average intelligence school mascot Fred. Tadashi also shows Hiro the project he’s been working on—healthcare robot Baymax, designed to take care of people’s medical needs. While at the lab, Hiro meets famed tech engineer Robert Callahan and becomes determined to go this college.

In order to get in, Hiro designs a new set of micro-bots that conform to the imagination of whoever wears a special headset. After his presentation at the university, the conference hall catches fire, and Tadashi rushes in to save Callahan, who is still trapped inside. The building explodes and Tadashi is killed. Devastated, Hiro sinks into depression, unable to find a reason to pursue his education or any endeavor at all. That changes when he rediscovers Baymax, left behind by Tadashi. After Baymax discovers that someone has replicated Hiro’s micro-bots and Hiro realizes that the fire that killed Tadashi was no accident, Hiro becomes determined to find the person responsible for Tadashi’s death.

From L to R: Fred, Go Go Tomago, Baymax, Hiro, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi.

From L to R: Fred, Go Go Tomago, Baymax, Hiro, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi.

After upgrading Baymax, Hiro brings in his friends Go Go Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred to help him catch the man who stole his micro-bots and killed Tadashi. Together, they all form Big Hero 6, and with the help of his friends—especially Baymax—Hiro realizes that he can’t let himself become consumed by thoughts of revenge. And that it is better to help people than to follow selfish motives.

There are a lot of endearing things about this movie. Baymax is a quite adorable and loveable robot. Hiro and Tadashi have a great relationship, as do Hiro and Baymax, and Hiro and his team. Throughout the movie they learn to work together to accomplish things, and they keep each other on track when one of them—Hiro—begins to stray from their mission. As with most Disney movies, Big Hero 6 is full of humor that will entertain children and adults. The cityscape of San Fransokoyo is fascinating, and the movie is fun and engaging.

Baymax

Baymax

Children and adults, boys and girls, will all enjoy this movie. It is an excellent deviation from Disney’s princess line. The superhero nature of the film leaves it quite open for another one, two, or twenty follow-up films. We may be seeing a lot more of the Big Hero 6 team, and I hope we do. I enjoyed the movie and look forward to watching Baymax again once he hits DVD.

The Little Mermaid

little mermaidEarlier this November was the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of The Little Mermaid. I celebrated by listening to the soundtrack nonstop the entire day. After all, it’s not everyday your favorite Disney movie turns 25. The Little Mermaid has always been my favorite Disney movie. Even though I love Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Tangled, Frozen, and so many other ones, The Little Mermaid has always held a special place in my heart for several reasons.

As a little girl growing up in Southern California, my dream was always to be a mermaid. This is quite natural in SoCal, a place where everyone swims. In addition to being part of a swim club and junior life guards, I also spent more time than I can remember swimming in the ocean and in the pool in our backyard. Much of this time was spent swimming with my legs together pretending to be a mermaid. Even though Ariel’s dream is to trade her fins for legs, for many girls growing up in Southern California, the dream is to trade legs for fins, because nothing could be better than never having to leave the ocean.

The Little Mermaid, Part of Your WorldBesides that early childhood psychological attachment to mermaids, The Little Mermaid is also my favorite Disney film because it has—in my opinion—the best group of songs of any Disney movie. I love songs like “Let It Go”, “Colors of the Wind”, and all those other amazing Disney songs, but as an entire album, “Part of Your World”, “Part of Your World Reprise”, “Under the Sea”, and “Kiss the Girl” are my favorites. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman really outdid themselves. So did Jodi Benson. The lyrics are poetry, and the music is inspired. I could listen to these songs all day. And I did to celebrate the 25th anniversary.

Glen Keane

Glen Keane

But besides my personal preferences, The Little Mermaid is one of the most important Disney movies in history. It began the Disney Renaissance, a revival of a golden age of animated films. The Disney studios had a difficult time recovering after Walt Disney passed away, and for most of the 70s and 80s, it felt like maybe there would never be another Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But when The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it began a new wave of incredible animated films from Disney studios, including Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Several people at Disney were largely responsible for the success of The Little Mermaid and the films that followed. One is Glen Keane, now a legendary animator for his work on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, and more. He has animated some of Disney’s most beloved characters, from Ariel to Rapunzel, and has inspired a new generation of artists to pursue animation.

Alan Menken (left) and Howard Ashman (right) accepting an Oscar for The Little Mermaid.

Alan Menken (left) and Howard Ashman (right) accepting an Oscar for The Little Mermaid.

My other two heroes from this film are Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. These two men teamed up for movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to write Disney’s most beloved songs. Alan Menken has composed for and scored more Disney movies than any other musician, and Howard Ashman’s lyrics are unparalleled by any other lyricist who has written for Disney. Together, they were the perfect team—the best team—and their songs will never be forgotten.

Those are the three reasons why The Little Mermaid is so special to me. As a child, the idea of being a mermaid inspired so much of my imagination. I’m also grateful that The Little Mermaid rejuvenated Disney and led to other amazing films. And I learned so much from Glen Keane, Alan Menken, and Howard Ashman about storytelling. I eagerly look forward to other exciting new animated films from Disney studios, but The Little Mermaid will always be first in my heart.