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!



Realistic Magic

ImageThe Walt Disney Company is in the midst of a slew of highly anticipated films—from the animated fairytale Frozen to the reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty tale Maleficient. But out of the many films that the Disney Company will release in the upcoming months, perhaps none is so special as Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the man himself—Walt Disney.

Well, Saving Mr. Banks is actually primarily about the author P.L. Travers, the pen name of Helen Goff, author of the Mary Poppins books. For twenty years, Walt Disney approached her asking for the film rights to her books. And for twenty years Mrs. Travers turned him down, determined that her beloved nanny would not become a sparkling animated character. But at the start of the movie, Mrs. Travers finds herself in a delicate financial situation, so she flies from London to Los Angeles to consider a movie proposition from Walt and his movie team—the songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman and scriptwriter Don Da Gradi.

The entertainment, joy, and the heart of this movie are all in the characters—their stories and their actors. Paul Giamatti is Mrs. Travers’ friendly driver. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are Richard and Robert Sherman, respectively, and both actors give subtle, yet stellar performances as the musical geniuses behind the songs of many a Disney movie. Schwartzman in particular is spectacular in such a simple way, like in the scene where Richard Schwartzman plays the song “Feed the Birds” to Walt Disney for the first time, famously Walt’s favorite Sherman brother’s song.


Novak (left) and Schwartzman (right) as the Sherman Brothers

And of course, Tom Hanks was a great Walt Disney. He was charming, but with an agenda, a businessman but also an imaginative visionary. Hanks played both Disney’s determined realism and his childlike imagination combined in an honest portrayal of the creative mogul. Likewise, Emma Thompson also balances the complexities of her character P.L. Travers. Thompson doesn’t sugar coat her performance. Travers is hard to please, a stickler for details, and sometimes simply rude. But at the same time, she is endearing and the audience sympathizes with her. Much of this is due to the many flashbacks to her childhood, where Travers drew much of her inspiration for her Mary Poppins books.


Hanks and Thompson as Disney and P.L. Travers

And on this note, I cannot overlook the characters of these flashbacks. Colin Farrell gives a great performance as Travers Goff, P.L. Traver’s alcoholic but doting and imaginative father, and Ruth Wilson is also good as Traver’s mother.


Annie Rose Buckley as a young Helen Goff (P.L. Travers) and Colin Farrell as Travers Goff.

Every single actor in the movie gives a perfect performance—genuine, subtle, and emotional—because both the story of Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks are geunine, subtle, and emotional. They are both stories about people, people who have a lot of flaws but a lot of love. Mrs. Travers may harbor disappointment and resentment at life, but she loves her nanny with the talking umbrella. Walt may be willing to do anything to get his way, but his movies are labors of love. Flaws make these people realistic, but their love makes them magical. And that is Walt Disney’s true gift—magic. It’s only fitting that a movie about the man behind the mouse also be magical.