They’re the Clades

Strange World may be the worst Walt Disney Animation Studios movie I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about CinemaScore, but it’s worth noting that Strange World has the lowest rating of any Disney movie since 1991. Even lower than Home on the Range or Chicken Little. I know there are several objectively worse Disney movies, but at least I can still feel nostalgia when I watch them. Strange World is too modern for its own good. Which is why it bombed hard with a pathetic $54.1 million dollar box-office gross against a budget of $135-180 million. Thanksgiving is usually a good release schedule for Disney, but Strange World was almost completely overlooked by audiences. As I said in my Lightyear review, Disney sure does love losing money with the direction they’ve been taking.

Encanto wasn’t a financial success either, but the studio can’t keep blaming the Pandemic for their failure. This time you can’t deny that diversity and LGBT characters were more important than good storytelling. Of course Disney’s sixty-first animated film was banned like everything else they pushed in the last decade. Strange World is the brainchild of longtime Disney filmmaker Don Hall. He was inspired by pulp magazines and adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, and King Kong. The teaser was made to look like a classic 50’s trailer, and that was the extent of Disney’s creativity. I’ll always know when a new Disney movie comes out, but I don’t blame anyone who had no clue Strange World even existed…

98. Strange World

Strange World

Strange World is basically a modern day Post-Renaissance Disney movie. Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet, Strange World is a science fiction adventure that lost a significant amount of money for the studio. Proving once again that musical fantasies and talking animal movies are more likely to be successful. Atlantis and Treasure Planet both got a much needed cult following, but Strange World doesn’t deserve it. Nor does it deserve the 100 year Disney studio banner. I had little to no interest in Strange World, but my brother and I did end up going a week after its release. Our theater was packed with children and they were dead silent the entire time. Strange World was written by Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Qui Nguyen, and it shows. None of the jokes are funny and the story is more boring than it has any right to be. I love a good old fashioned adventure, but Strange World is a clunky mix of old and new themes. The Clades are a family of explorers who end up lost like the Robinson family.

After Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red, Strange World is yet another Disney movie where family trauma is more important than having a villain. There’s actually a scene in the movie where characters literally say having no villain is bad storytelling. Surprisingly, being self aware about the problem just makes it more annoying. It’s almost like Disney is too afraid to have genuinely evil characters anymore. Instead the conflict is between three generations of fathers and their sons. Jaeger Clade is a stereotypical manly man adventurer with a long handlebar mustache. Searcher Clade is his less adventurous son who cares more about botany. I completely forgot Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal previously played father & son in The Day After Tomorrow. Quaid is almost unrecognizable, but I’d recognize Gyllenhaal’s nasal voice anywhere. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, Searcher doesn’t want to be like his father and Jaeger never listens to what he wants. On their latest expedition in the arctic, Searcher makes an important discovery, but Jaeger chooses to continue his adventure and leave his team behind.

The discovery is a bioelectric green energy based plant called Pando. Strange World takes place in a fictional mountainous land called Avalonia. 25 years later, Pando is farmed by Searcher and his family who use it to power their civilization. Farming is no more exciting in a futuristic society as it is in real life. Avalonia looks like the 50’s, but it’s filled with advanced technology like hovercrafts. Though Strange World isn’t centered around a specific culture, it does feature an interracial family. Searcher is white, his wife Meridian is black, and their teenage son Ethan is biracial. There’s also a three legged dog named Legend since disabilities need to be represented somehow. I do love seeing interracial families since I myself am biracial with a white father and black mother. Unfortunately, I have a hard time appreciating it since it was only included for diversity sake. Calling attention to them kissing several times in front of their son feels especially manipulative. Meridian is a strong-willed pilot who barely makes an impression even with Gabrielle Union as her voice. Despite all the unique names in the movie, Ethan has the least exciting name.

Disney continued to pat themselves on the back when they announced Ethan as the first openly gay character in a Disney animated movie. Openly gay comedian Jaboukie Young-White practically voiced the same kind of character in the Baymax! shorts. Ethan has a crush on another boy named Diazo and it’s so forced that it’s actually painful to watch. Trying to be awkward and relatable is cringy regardless of the character’s orientation. Ethan continues to talk about his crush throughout the movie, despite it having no relevance to the plot. You’d think it would be a source of conflict, but Ethan’s parents and the grandfather he never met are all unquestionably supportive of him. Instead, Searcher is afraid Ethan’s adventurous spirit will turn him into his father. The chance for adventure comes along when the President of Avalonia arrives with a special mission. Callisto Mal is yet another generic strong female character for Disney voiced by Lucy Liu. She’s an old friend of Searcher who leads an expedition to find the reason why Pando is dying out.

Naming their airship Venture is a not so subtle reference to King Kong. The crew includes Dopinder himself Karan Soni as a significantly less funny nerdy crewmember and a bunch of other unimportant redshirts. Since the cast isn’t limited to one ethnicity, Alan Tudyk voices an actual character. Duffle pilots the Venture and gets immediately killed just like Wash from Firefly. Ethan is a stowaway on the airship that Meridian ends up piloting. They end up journeying to the center of Avalonia in the titular Strange World. The red and magenta landscape is not as exciting as Journey to the Center of the Earth. Everything seems random from moving cliffs to red dragon-like creatures. Searcher and Legend end up seperated, while Ethan does some exploring on his own. They run into giant carnivorous creatures called Reapers, but Searcher is rescued by his father Jaeger who somehow survived over 25 years stuck in the Strange World. He uses a flamethrower on the Reapers and leads his son across acidic oceans in the hope of finding the airship to escape.

Meanwhile, Ethan runs into an amoeba-like creature that he names Splat. As silent Disney sidekicks go, Splat is no Magic Carpet. Splat initially leads Ethan to the Reapers, but he changes his mind after he shows him kindness. All three generations are united when the women come to their rescue. Jaeger gets along with his grandson, but Searcher continues to hold back. They end up playing Ethan’s favorite card game Primal Outpost which spells out the moral of the movie. Since Strange World has a not so subtle environmental message, almost all the heroes end up looking bad. Searcher and Jaeger eventually see eye to eye when they use Pando to attack the creatures. Ethan starts to have second thoughts and he ends up making an unexpected discovery with his dad. SPOILER ALERT! The twist is kind of obvious when you notice how much Strange World resembles the inside of a body. Hence the Fantastic Voyage inspiration.

Splat and the rest of the creatures are basically antibodies and Pando is a virus attached to the heart. Jaeger leaves once again and Callisto has the Clades locked up, but they still aren’t the villains. When they escape, the Pando is destroyed and they’re forced to live in a world without the energy source. In the end, all three generations grow closer inside and beneath Avalonia which is actually a giant World Turtle. Strange World is somewhat reminiscent of pulp magazines, but the comic book aesthetic is only around in the beginning and end. I might’ve liked the movie a lot more if they stuck with the much more unique 2D pulp animation accompanied by the catchy “They’re the Clades” adventure tune. Instead Strange World looks like every other round glossy computer animated Disney movie from the last decade. Character animation, clothing, and locations are technically well rendered, but nothing impressive. Strange World is a serious wake-up call that Disney hopefully learns from.

97. Strange World

The Clade family explore the center of the world

To Infinity and Beyond!

Lightyear is Pixar’s most desperate attempt to profit off the success of their most beloved franchise. Buzz Lightyear has been a fan favorite ever since his introduction in Toy Story. Every appearance has brought something new and entertaining to the Space Ranger. A feature-length spin-off is the last thing Lightyear needed. Mostly because an origin story was already done a lot better 22 years ago in the traditionally animated direct-to-video movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. Even the animated series was a better interpretation of the character. Heck, the 3 minute video game opening in Toy Story 2 is more epic than anything in Lightyear. Lightyear asks the question, what was the movie that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure?

The idea came from Pixar animator Angus MacLane. Though he directed the computer animated portion of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, MacLane envisioned a sci-fi adventure inspired by the films of his childhood. So despite being part of a long-running franchise, Lightyear is technically another passion project for Pixar. Considering my disappointment with Toy Story 4, I wasn’t sure how to feel about a solo Buzz Lightyear movie 3 years later. After dumping Soul, Luca, and Turning Red on Disney+, it was encouraging when Lightyear became the first theatrical Pixar film since Onward. Then I grew worried with every character change or modern update. For one reason or another, Lightyear bombed at the box-office. Proving just how out of touch Disney has become…

52. Lightyear

Buzz Lightyear narrates in front of Alisha Hawthorne

Lightyear doesn’t come with a short despite its theatrical release. Every Pixar movie should be seen on the big screen, so I’m glad they finally realized that. Lightyear is one of my least favorite Pixar films, but the state of the art computer animation is more lifelike than ever. The best comparison would be an even more advanced version of WALL·E. Director Angus MacLane wanted the animation to be “cinematic” and “chunky” like Star Wars. Which is why landscapes, clothing, and vehicles are more realistic looking. Turns out MacLane used LEGO builds instead of traditional concept art. There were actual LEGO sets later on, but I still think it’s a cool idea. Character designs are mostly stylized, but made to look a lot more human than anything in Toy Story. Compared to the toy he’s based on, Buzz Lightyear maintains his general head shape and large chin, but it’s obvious they’re going for a live-action feel. I’m not sure why they didn’t just make a live-action movie. There comes a point when something is so realistic that it defeats the purpose of animation.

Lack of imagination and fun are big reasons why Lightyear failed. People tried to blame the Pandemic or at-home convenience, but I laughed all the way to the bank when Minions: The Rise of Gru grossed significantly higher without even trying. What should’ve been a fun space romp ended up being generic and boring. An audience full of children barely reacted to Lightyear. I’ve loved Buzz Lightyear since I was a kid, but there’s no way someone as young as Andy would claim this as their favorite movie. According to an on-screen text, Lightyear is meant to be a movie within a movie released in 1995. We’re seriously expected to believe a clearly 2022 movie actually came out in the 90’s. Despite centering around Buzz, Lightyear pushes diversity just like every other Disney and/or Pixar project. The movie lost a significant amount of its foreign audience with another easily edited same-sex kiss. The scene was cut out originally, but former Disney CEO Bob Chapek used it as an act of defiance. I won’t get too specific, but I will say Disney seems to love losing money with their “progressive” content.

The most obvious misstep was recasting Tim Allen with Chris Evans. Tim Allen will always be Buzz Lightyear no matter what anyone thinks of him. Disney claims the decision wasn’t politically motivated, but even his good friend Tom Hanks agrees they should’ve cast him. Buzz was always a good source of comedy, but Allen could still be serious when he needed to be. Chris Evans is a great Captain America, but he is not Buzz Lightyear! The only similarity is a grand sense of heroism that works a lot better with a toy who thinks he’s a Space Ranger. Aside from using “Starman” in the trailer’s, Michael Giacchino replaces Randy Newman for a more adventurous soundtrack. Lightyear’s trademark space suit has the same color scheme, but it’s a clunky prototype suit with several missing features. Space Rangers are issued laser swords, blasters, cloaking technology, and an inflatable escape button. This version of Buzz also shows off the hair underneath his purple cowl, and it’s just as distracting as hearing Evans voice. The movie begins with Buzz as a young Space Ranger who serves Star Command alongside his partner Alisha Hawthorne.

Most of the cast is respectable, but it’s clear a lot of them were chosen for the sake of diversity. Which is probably why the African American Uzo Aduba voices Lightyear’s best friend and commanding officer. Even his iconic catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” is something Lightyear and Hawthorne say together. They explore a planet called T’Kani Prime on a Star Command vessel that Buzz refers to as “the Turnip.” Any attempt at humor feels forced, but several moments lean heavily into dialogue from the Toy Story movies. I can’t say no to nostalgia, but it only highlights the movie’s flaws. Lightyear turns away a rookie named Featheringhamstan that ends up caught in the planet’s deadly vines. Hawthorne saves them both and Buzz attempts to steer the Turnip away from danger. Lightyear does have a villain, but Buzz ends up looking bad when he causes the ship to be marooned on T’Kani Prime. Get used to it, because we’re stuck on this one generic looking planet the entire movie. Though he takes responsibility for his actions, Alisha gives him the mission to fix their hyperspace capabilities.

1 year later, Star Command crew have colonized the planet and Buzz is a test pilot ready to fly into space with the fuel crystal needed to achieve hyperspace. Pedro himself Efren Ramirez briefly voices another friend of Buzz who sees him off. The slingshot maneuver is explained, but I’m not sure how well kids will follow it. After a failed first flight, Lightyear returns 4 years in the future after his 4 minute flight. Time dilation has been done several times before, but it’s the driving force of the movie. Buzz discovers Alisha is engaged and casually asks who the lucky lady is. As Buzz continues to test the hyper crystal, Alisha grows old with her wife Kiko. The split second kiss is barely in this supposed 1995 movie. In order to cope with the loss, Buzz is issued a robot therapy cat named Sox voiced by The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn. I know everybody loves Sox and he is a scene stealer. In fact, I’m pretty sure Andy would rather have a Sox toy after seeing the movie, but to me it’s the same old cat jokes with a robot twist. Sox attempts to figure out the hyper crystal problem during Lightyear’s next few flights.

The intended tear worthy moment is Buzz returning to a vacant office where the now deceased Alisha leaves him a final message. Isiah Whitlock Jr. voices her replacement Commander Burnside who confirms the termination of the Space Ranger program and their journey home. So Buzz hijacks a ship with Sox in order to test the stabilized hyper crystal. The successful hyperspace launch pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also lands Buzz 22 years into the future. Since it was a big year for her, Keke Palmer voices Alisha’s grown up granddaughter Izzy Hawthorne. She pretty much picks up where her grandmother left off in terms of personality. The only difference is Izzy wanting to become a Space Ranger despite her fear of space. Izzy saves Buzz from Zyclops robots that can only say “Zurg.” I knew Zurg would be the main villain, but they make way too many changes to the Evil Emperor who isn’t even an emperor. Aside from his helmet and booster gun, Zurg appears to be a massive purple robot with legs and no cape. Zurg barely resemble the toy we saw in Toy Story 2.

His robot minions attempt to penetrate the laser shield protecting Star Command. So Izzy and Buzz devise a plan to destroy the ship that controls the robots. They enlist a rag tag group of Junior Cadet rookies who haven’t seen combat. Orange is the New Black star Dale Soules voices short hispanic elderly convict Darby Steel and the overexposed Taika Waititi voices himself voicing frantic deserter Mo Morrison. Lightyear is an animated movie with limitless possibilities, yet this was the best they could come up with?! A wannabe Space Ranger, an old lady who’s good with bombs, a guy obsessed with pens, and a robot cat are seriously the extent of Pixar’s imagination. There’s also another robot named DERIC that gets left behind and an AI named I.V.A.N. that Buzz doesn’t like. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command had alien Princess Mira Nova, giant frog alien Booster, and repurposed robot XR. All of them have significantly more personality than these losers. Izzy’s crew stumble through a Zyclops attack and attempt to find another Armadillo ship when there’s is destroyed. It’s in a ship hangar that Buzz suits up in his old Space Ranger uniform.

Unfortunately, his new crew is also given different colored Space Ranger suits that end up causing an alien bug attack. They also end up at an outpost where they’re trapped in red capture cones. When they escape, they get some downtime eating sandwiches. I’ll admit the meat sandwich with bread in the middle is about the only clever joke in the movie. Buzz ends up with a wrist mounted laser weapon that he uses against an attacking Zurg. All is revealed when Zurg captures Buzz and takes him to his ship. SPOILER ALERT! Though he looks like his father, James Brolin actually voices a much older Buzz who ended up in an alternate timeline. I’m pretty sure they only cast Brolin, because Evans previously fought his son. Having no villain is one thing, but an evil Buzz is just a lazy attempt to shock the audience. The only reason he’s called Zurg, is because the robots can’t say the word “Buzz.”

Zurg-Buzz wants the hyper crystal to travel back in time and become a hero again after he was rejected. Buzz-Prime nearly agrees, but he changes his mind when he realizes it’s better to accept the life they have. When Zurg turns against himself, future Sox gives him time to escape with the hyper crystal. The climax is an internal conflict between Buzz and his future self. Everyone gets something to do. Sox uses concealed tools, Izzy conquers her fear with a perilous spacewalk, Darby builds a makeshift bomb, and Mo finally uses his useless pen. Buzz commandeers a ship with the hyper crystal and Zurg follows with a rocket pack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my brother pointed out the fact that Buzz doesn’t fly in any of the trailers. Turns out they were saving that moment for when the ship gives him a pair of wings that he uses to stop Zurg and keep his crew from crashing.

It was a cool moment at the time, but flying is such a big part of the character that they didn’t use till the last minute. Though furious, Burnside reinstates the Space Ranger program and the authentic Space Ranger suits are also not seen until the last second. Which means Andy wanted a toy that was barely featured in the movie. Buzz and his crew head to the Gamma Quadrant of Sector 4 and the very last post-credits scene reveals Zurg to still be alive. Though the director wanted a trilogy, there’s no way that’ll happen now. The Toy Story franchise has grossed over a billion dollars at the box-office with Rotten Tomatoes scores as high as 100%. Yet it was all ruined when Lightyear ended up with a 75% and a pathetic $226 gross against a $200 budget. Lightyear is nowhere close to infinity and beyond.

53. Lightyear

Buzz Lightyear vs. Zurg

Spin-Off of: Toy Story

You’re Never Not On My Mind

Turning Red is Pixar at their most awkward and relatable. Chinese Canadian animator Domee Shi became the first woman to helm a Pixar short. The Academy Award winning Bao won everyone over with its unique premise where a mother learns to let go of her son. Though Brenda Chapman co-directed Brave, Shi also became the first woman to helm a feature length Pixar movie. When Pete Docter became the new chief creative officer of Pixar animation, the studio embraced more passion projects like Luca. Turning Red is another personal story based on the director’s adolescence as a Chinese immigrant growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Though it’s another Asian influenced Disney movie, Turning Red stands out for one big reason.

Turning Red asks the question, what if a hormonal teenager transformed into a literal beast? A girl turning into a giant red panda is certainly different, but there’s more than enough Pixar magic in the movie. Turning Red is practically a spiritual successor to Inside Out that takes place in the early 2000’s. I was won over the moment I heard The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in the trailers. At this point I wasn’t surprised when Turning Red went from theatrical release to streaming exclusively on Disney+. It’s another shame since it would’ve been an interesting theater experience. Turning Red had an all female production team that focused on a lot of taboo feminine experiences. Though I can’t always relate, Turning Red is one of the better Pixar movies I’ve seen in a long time…

50. Turning Red

Mei is the life of the party

Turning Red never came with a short, since it’s the third Pixar movie in a row to be streaming exclusive. Though they blamed it on the Pandemic, I’m pretty sure Disney didn’t have enough faith in the movie to keep it in theaters. Soul, Luca, and Turning Red are all original projects that Disney underestimated the impact of. After Brave, Turning Red is the second Pixar movie about a complicated mother-daughter relationship. The main difference is a Chinese perspective. Bare in mind Everything Everywhere All at Once was released the same month, but both movies couldn’t be more different. Turning Red begins with 13 year old Chinese Canadian middle schooler Meilin Lee as she talks about honoring her parents and potentially forgetting to honor herself. Then the serious tone shifts the second Mei breaks the fourth wall. Newcomer Rosalie Chiang was born to voice Mei-Mei. The 12 year old aspiring actress was originally a temporary placeholder voice, but Pixar soon realized she was perfect for the role. Chiang captures Mei’s overachieving personality, inner conflict, and quirky sense of humor. It’s refreshing to see a Pixar movie that actually tries to be funny up front. Lately there’s been way more emphasis on emotion than comedy.

Turning Red is one of the funniest Pixar movies in recent memory. Backgrounds and clothing are very colorful since the movie is from a tweens point of view. The warm and inviting computer animation is distinctly Pixar, but Turning Red is a lot more unique and stylized. Similar to Bao, Domee Shi was influenced by Anime like Sailor Moon and video games like Pokémon. The flashy imagery and big bright anime eyes are unmistakable. Though Mei’s Chinese ancestry is a big part of the movie, there’s just as much attention given to Canada. Despite the modern sensibilities and usual emphasis on diversity, Turning Red is set in the year 2002. Since I grew up in the early 2000’s, nostalgia was another reason I enjoyed the movie. Mei has a Tamagotchi and is totally obsessed with the fictional boy band 4*Town. So now Coco, Soul, and Turning Red have all centered around era appropriate music. 4*Town looks and sounds so much like every boy band from the late 90’s and early 2000’s. They’re ethnically diverse with matching outfits and boyish good looks. Robaire is the front man who speaks French, Jesse is the artistic one, Tae Young loves animals, and Aaron T. & Aaron Z. also exist. Despite being less than 1 year old at the time, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell flawlessly capture the sound of a 2002 boy band.

Though they have other hits like “1 True Love” or “U Know What’s Up,” “Nobody Like U” is their catchiest signature song. It’s the song that Mei often sings when she’s goofing off with her friends. Turning Red is very unique for featuring a sisterhood of close female friends. Mei’s circle of equally quirky friends includes Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Miriam is a Caucasian tomboy with braces voiced by singer Ava Morse. She’s arguably Mei’s best friend, since Miriam sticks up for her the most and keeps everyone else in check. Priya is Indian with a deadpan personality voiced by Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Abby is Korean with a short fuse and a lot energy voiced by storyboard artist Hyein Park. Mei’s friends are the right combination of weird and hilarious. Though they aren’t exactly unpopular, Mei does deal with her obnoxious biracial bully Tyler voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen. Most of the respectable cast is unknown, but there are well known Asian stars like Sandra Oh. This is Oh’s third computer animated mother role in 3 years after Over the Moon and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Ming is Mei’s overprotective mother who sets a lot of rules and wants her daughter to be the best. She doesn’t approve of 4*Town or Mei’s friendship with Miriam for unexplained reasons. Oh manages to make Ming funny in an embarrassing parent kind of way. Though people might call her a “tiger mom,” Mei has a very close relationship with her mom. They spend time cleaning up and giving tours in their family’s ancient temple. Although Mulan included praying to ancestors, Turning Red has more overt references to Buddhism and a mystical connection to red pandas. I’m not crazy about those story beats, but at least the food looks delicious. There’s plenty of Bao, along with a Miyazaki-esque cooking scene filled with other Chinese dishes. Orion Lee is Mei’s soft-spoken father who does most of the cooking, but tends to stay in the background. Though the story could’ve gone in all sorts of directions in this day in age, Mei and her friends are all boy crazy fangirls who make 4*Town their rite of passage into womanhood. Turning Red more than earns its PG rating with a lot of surprisingly risque jokes and edgy topics for Pixar (or Disney).

It all starts with Mei saying “crap” after a failed spontaneous cartwheel. Mei’s friends spend time gawking at boys like the 17 year old Daisy Mart clerk Devon. Mei’s hormones flare up when she impulsively draws several “sexy” pictures of her and Devon. Teen lust is not something I ever expected to see in a Pixar movie, but I imagine this is what Inside Out 2 would be about. It’s another hilarious sequence, but Mei’s mom finding out and showing Devon is next level embarrassment. Ming accuses Devon of doing drugs and causes Mei to question what she did. Overnight, Mei undergoes a startling transformation into a giant red panda. Transformations are another anime staple, but Turning Red is one of several Pixar movies influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. Like Totoro before her, Mei is a large huggable monster with soft fur. Red pandas aren’t as well known as actual pandas, but the adorable animals did receive attention in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. The title Turning Red has several meanings. It can refer to embarrassment, Mei’s literal transformation, or the film’s most taboo subject. Mei becoming a red panda is a metaphor for puberty, but Ming mistakes it for her first period.

Growing up as a boy who never had sisters, I didn’t learn about menstruation until I was older. It was just something no one ever talked about. Especially not in a movie meant for children. The only other kids cartoon to explore menstruation was Braceface in 2001. Ironically, Braceface and Turning Red are both set in Canada and deal with the messy side of growing up. Though the word “period” is never said, it’s obvious when Ming brings out an assortment of pads and herbal tea for cramps. Mei has several mood swings and attempts to hide her panda from her parents. Only when Mei calms down does the panda go away. Though her black hair is red from now on. Mei covers her hair with a hat and tries not to show any emotion at school. Except when Tyler picks on her and she sees another boy that she likes. The panda finally comes out when Ming shows up at school with more pads. A big pink cloud hides Mei’s identity, but her mom and a girl with diabetes manage to see her. Panda Mei runs across the city until she gets home. Turns out her parents know all about the red panda curse.

Mei learns about her ancient ancestor Sun Yee who prayed to become a red panda in order to protect her village. Since then every female descendant has had to deal with becoming a red panda once they reach a certain age. The only way to contain the curse is by locking it in a talisman during a red moon ritual. Turning Red is very unique for Pixar, but it is similar to The Incredible Hulk since strong emotion brings out a beast. It’s also similar to Teen Wolf since it takes a casual approach to a hereditary teen monster going through changes. Believe it or not, even I once had an idea for an adolescent superhero who transforms into a red animal during puberty long before the movie came out. At first, Mei keeps her power locked in her room just like Elsa in Frozen. Until she accidentally exposes herself to her friends who are excited for 4*Town coming to Toronto. Priya, but especially Abby are enamoured with Mei’s adorable red panda appearance. Miriam manages to cheer Mei up with an impromptu “boots & cats” beatbox of “Nobody Like U.” Their friendship is enough to neutralize the panda, but her parents still test her emotions in a variety of humorous ways. When Mei passes she takes the opportunity to ask to go to the concert. Mei shows signs of rebellion when her mother says no and it’s revealed that Ming had a similar relationship with her mother. Encanto had more than enough generational trauma in it, but at least Turning Red doesn’t dwell on it.

After her recurring role as Madame Gao in the Marvel Netflix shows, Wai Ching Ho voices Mei’s grandmother Wu. Her facial scar is later revealed to be the result of Ming’s red panda. Wu arrives for the red moon ritual and is joined by Mei’s four interchangeable aunts. When Ming continues to helicopter parent, Mei grows even more rebellious. Like Teen Wolf, Mei grows increasingly popular when she exposes her panda to the rest of the school. Together with her friends, Mei uses the red panda to sell enough merchandise to afford going to the concert. Ming assumes Mei joined a math club, and everything goes well until Tyler promises to pay $200 to have the red panda at his birthday party. When she accepts, Mei’s grandmother tells her the more she transforms the harder it will be to control. Mei goes to the party anyway, and her friends convince her to transform. The red panda is the hit of an early 2000’s party that includes era appropriate songs like “Cha Cha Slide” and “Bootylicious.” Problems arise when it turns out the night of the red moon is the same night as the concert. Mei loses control when she attacks Tyler with her red panda. Then it gets worse when Mei sides with her mother who accuses her friends of making her use the panda.

Miriam, Priya, and Abby go to the concert alone while Mei prepares for the ritual. Mei’s father finally speaks up when he tells her about Ming’s panda and encourages her friendships. Of course Turning Red wouldn’t be complete without James Hong as local shaman Mr. Gao. He leads the red moon ritual in a chalk circle where Mei’s relatives must sing from the heart. Mei enters an astral plane where she must cross a veil in order to lock away her panda. SPOILER ALERT! In a surprising twist, Mei chooses to embrace her panda and disobey her mother to go to the concert. Ming is so distraught that her talisman breaks and she becomes a red panda too. I expected more than one red panda, but Ming is the size of a ten story kaiju! Mei rides her transformation cloud all the way to the concert where she makes amends with her friends. They also discover Tyler is a 4*Townie and embrace him as one of their own. The concert kicks off without a hitch, but it all comes crashing down when the building size Panda Ming embarrasses Mei once again. This time Mei is ready to confront her mother. Turning Red has what may be the weirdest climax in Pixar history. Panda Mei finally confesses to lying, liking boys, and she shakes her butt in defiance.

It gets to a point where Mei knocks out her mother in the middle of the SkyDome. Mei’s remorse mirrors the regret Ming had for hurting her own mother. With time running out, the only hope to get rid of the pandas are by recreating the ritual in the middle of the concert. Grandma Wu, Aunt Chen, Aunt Ping, Aunt Helen, and Aunt Lily all transform back into red pandas in order to help pull Panda Ming into the chalk circle while continuing the ritual chant. Would you believe they somehow found a way to have a pop song be the thing that saves the day? That’s exactly what happens when Mei’s friends convince 4*Town to sing “Nobody Like U” to complete the ritual. In a tear worthy moment, Mei is taken to the astral plane where she reconciles with a past version of her mother. Ming reconciles with her mother and the aunts who are ready to walk through the veil. Never thought I’d see so many Asian women with red hair in one scene. Ming makes one last attempt to reason with Mei, but she ultimately agrees to let her grow up. In the end, Mei finds a way to balance her family life and personal life without letting go of the red panda within her. Turning Red isn’t always comfortable viewing, but that’s all a part of growing up.

51. Turning Red

Mei goofs off with her friends

We Don’t Talk About Bruno

Encanto is Disney’s biggest cultural phenomenon since Frozen. Walt Disney Animation continued to make successful films, but nothing came close to the 2013 hit. Since musicals like Moana and Frozen II tend to make a stronger impression, Lin-Manuel Miranda followed up the former with his own Latin inspired musical. Miranda had a ridiculously busy 2021 that included In the Heights, Vivo, and Tick, Tick… Boom! Though he still hasn’t won an Oscar, Encanto managed to win Best Animated Feature and top several Billboard charts with its soundtrack. I’m glad the sixtieth Disney animated movie made such an impact, but it was far from the traditional Disney magic.

Unlike Tangled, Encanto was another original project centered around the next marketable culture. This time Disney was influenced by Colombian culture and a Colombian Cultural Trust was formed similar to Raya and the Last Dragon. The non-Hispanic directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard made Encanto their next project after Zootopia. The story changed many times, but family was a constant theme. Though it later gained new life on Disney+, Encanto wasn’t a success at the box-office. Most people blame the Pandemic, but I’m pretty sure there was a lack of interest. Although I didn’t take part in the obsession, I do understand Encanto eventually connecting with a new generation of Disney fans…

95. Encanto

Mirabel shows off the Casita

Encanto looks and sounds different than most Disney animated movies, but it is similar to Coco. Both are about large Hispanic families righting wrongs across several generations. I have no problem with Pixar experimenting, but I just haven’t been a fan of the new direction Disney has been taking. Diversity is expected, but I’d like something with animals or a fairy tale every once in awhile. There’s so much emphasis on family and complex emotional drama. My brother and I saw Encanto in a packed theater, but the audience of children wasn’t very lively. The traditionally animated raccoon short Far from the Tree didn’t get much of a response either. Encanto was hailed for its use of transgenerational trauma, but is that really what kids want to see? Luckily the colors are vibrant and the songs are enough to keep kids distracted. There’s a considerable amount of complex backstory, but it is easier to follow than Raya and the Last Dragon. I’m neither Hispanic nor Colombian, but Disney went the extra mile to ensure the setting and community was accurate. Unlike In the Heights, Hispanic characters have different skin tones that I never expected to see in an animated movie. There’s brown skin, light skin, and darker Afro-Latino skin.

Encanto was inspired by Colombian folklore and history with a twist of magical realism. The Madrigal family flee their home in order to escape the Thousand Days’ War. Tragedy gives the family a miracle candle that shields their community in a magical Encanto protected by mountains. The Madrigal family lives in a magical Casita come to life. Between Encanto and Moana, Disney really likes living inanimate objects lately. Similar to the water in Moana, the Casita shifts its architecture and helps the protagonist on her journey. Most members of the Madrigal family are given a gift that they use to help their community. Encanto is like a superhero movie without the action or villain. Lack of romance and Disney villains continue to frustrate me. Now it’s just familial love and characters who end up looking bad for the sake of tension. Encanto feels more aimless than usual with one location and an ensemble cast of 11 family members. Disney found it particularly difficult fitting so many multilayered characters into a 90 minute kid’s film.

Encanto has a mostly Colombian cast that Spanish audiences may recognize more. Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Stephanie Beatriz voices the quirky Mirabel Madrigal. Mirabel is an awkward 15 year old teenager and the first person born to her family that doesn’t have a gift. As a Disney heroine, Mirabel is unique for her large glasses and mostly plain appearance. The movie was originally about Mirabel desperately wanting a gift, but it was appropriately changed to Mirabel feeling left out and seeking purpose in her family. The Madrigal family is made up of three generations. María Cecilia Botero voices the stern, but well-meaning family matriarch Abuela. Abuela has been holding onto the magical candle ever since her husband Pedro was killed. She was left with fraternal triplets that all received gifts from the Casita once they reached a certain age. Angie Cepeda voices Mirabel’s caring mamá Julieta who can heal injuries with her cooking. I expected Colombian cuisine and staples like coffee, but there’s not too much focus on food.

Julieta gives her daughter motherly advice along with her equally supportive husband. Fez himself Wilmer Valderrama voices Mirabel’s accident prone papá Agustin who benefits from his wife’s cooking. Mirabel’s older sisters are Isabela and Luisa. Diane Guerrero is mostly known for her TV roles, but she makes the perfect Isabela. Isabela represents the beautiful primadona golden child who has the power to make flowers bloom. Jessica Darrow has the right kind of deep voice for the buff Luisa. Luisa has super strength and does most of the heavy lifting. A big muscular woman was wierd for Disney, but she ended up being a standout character. Julieta’s sister is Mirabel’s lighter skinned Tía Pepa. Carolina Gaitán voices the high strung Pepa who has the ability to change the weather with her mood. She’s the polar opposite of her shorter Afro-Caribbean husband and Mirabel’s Tío Félix, but they’re a nice interracial couple. Lesser known singer Mauro Castillo voices the fun loving Félix who doesn’t have a gift just like his brother-in-law Agustin. Mirabel technically has people in her family she can relate to, but it’s different for people married into the family.

Mirabel’s cousins are Dolores, Camilo, and Antonio. Latin singer Adassa voices the soft spoken Dolores who has the gift of super-hearing. Dolores is my personal favorite character since her power is useful and I like the humming sound she makes. Runaways actor Rhenzy Feliz voices the mischievous Camilo who can shapeshift. Since his gift is used mostly for comic relief, Camilo isn’t given much of an arc. Child actor Ravi Cabot-Conyers voices the youngest Madrigal Antonio who receives his gift at the beginning of the movie. Dolores and Camilo are definitely mixed, but Antonio is the spitting image of his dark skinned papá. Antonio is a little sweetheart who has a close relationship with his cousin Mirabel. He worries about not getting a gift, but he’s also sad that Mirabel doesn’t have one. The gift giving ceremony is a major event involving the entire community. Antonio chooses to walk with Mirabel and Abuela officiates the ceremony by reciting the responsibilities of his gift. All members of the Madrigal family (except Mirabel) receive a magical door leading to their much bigger bedroom that represents their gift. It’s a cool Dr. Who concept, but I do wish we saw everyone’s room.

Since Antonio loves animals, he’s given the ability to talk to animals. His bedroom is a jungle treehouse filled with Colombian animals like jaguars, capybaras, and toucans. You’d think Disney’s focus on diversity would make it difficult to include Alan Tudyk, but he once again voices an animal companion. Even though Pico the toucan isn’t much of a character. Mirabel continues to feel isolated, but she finds purpose when cracks start to form in the Casita and the magic starts to go out. So Mirabel sets out on an adventure to save the miracle. The trailers are kind of false advertising since she technically never leaves home. Mirabel tries to get answers from Dolores since her hearing should be enough to solve most problems in the movie. She points Mirabel in the direction of Louisa who felt weak at the time the magic started to wear off. Louisa opens up about the pressure she feels doing all the heavy lifting and it makes her even more relatable. She points Mirabel in the direction of their Tío Bruno. Who I haven’t mentioned since we don’t talk about Bruno. Disney sure does like that name after its other explicit use in Luca.

Bruno is the mystery relative who was ostracized by the family and community for his gift of seeing the future. Mirabel journeys into his perilous sand covered tower where she finds a broken vision that shows her at the center of everything going wrong. Despite warnings from Pepa, Félix, and the rest of her family, Mirabel’s papá ends up seeing the vision and Dolores overhears everything. In terms of humor, I didn’t think Encanto was very funny, but the dinner scene is comedy gold. Dolores passes the information to everyone as they start to freak out. Colombian singer Maluma voices Isabela’s lovesick suitor Mariano who remains clueless to the family losing control of their powers. As they storm off, Mirabel follows a mischief of rats to a space between the walls. SPOILER ALERT! She chases a mystery figure who ends up being Bruno. John Leguizamo is easily the most well known actor in the movie. I knew he was Spanish, but I never realized he was Colombian. Leguizamo has the right kind of skittish voice for the reclusive Bruno. Though his “acting” and mannerisms are odd, Bruno never left since he still loves his family. Mirabel tries to convince Bruno to reinterpret his vision.

Antonio discovers them using his rat companions and gives them the space he needs to see a new vision. I’ll admit Isabela showing up in the vision came out of nowhere, but she has been not so secretly resenting her younger sister throughout the movie. Mirabel is led to Isabela’s floral bedroom where she has to reconcile with her oldest sister. Isabela also opens up by admitting she doesn’t want to marry Mariano and she doesn’t want to be perfect either. There was originally supposed to be another imperfect guy in Isabela’s life, but it would’ve been too much. Instead Isabela embraces an imperfect cactus and Mirabel for encouraging her to let loose. Encanto may not have a villain, but Abuela comes across very antagonistic when she repremends Mirabel for her actions and openly admits disappointment in her for not receiving a gift. Mirabel accuses Abuela of hurting the family and being the reason the magic is dying. It’s enough to completely destroy the Casita and extinguish the candle for good. Mirabel runs away, but she’s soon joined by Abuela who explains her entire tragic backstory and reason for holding on as much as she did. Despite the complex nature of family trauma, everything is resolved in only 15 minutes.

Abuela embraces Bruno, Bruno is embraced by his sisters, the community comes to rebuild their Casita, Dolores admits her feelings for Mariano, and Mirabel helps everyone work together without their gifts. It would’ve been a fine moral to end on, but the magic returns anyway. The only difference is Mirabel being the glue that holds her family together. Encanto was the most ambitious computer animated movie Disney made at the time. Despite the Pandemic, animators still managed to make research trips in order to get Colombian architecture and clothing right. There’s so much detail packed in every dress and pancho. Each member of the Madrigal family has an outfit that reflects their gift. Except for Mirabel who has pictures from everyone else’s gift. Character design is a bit stylized, but still recognizable to the Disney brand. Colors stand out the most with Mirabel’s side of the family dressed in cool tones like blue, indigo, and purple. Meanwhile, her cousins are dressed in warm tones like red, orange, and yellow. Bruno stands apart with his trademark green pancho.

As pleasant looking as the movie is, Encanto will mostly be remembered for its Lin-Manuel Miranda soundtrack. Like Hamilton, every song serves a purpose in moving the story along. I just wish they weren’t filled with so much slang. Despite taking place sometime in the early 1900’s, I expected Disney to once again incorporate modern slang into the movie. However, Miranda does respect Latin tradition by writing songs in English as well as Spanish. The spirited “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is the primary theme that was used in promotions of the movie. “The Family Madrigal” was deliberately written to introduce every member of the family. Though it’s an entertaining bit of exposition, it does become very rambling near the end. Similar to the final song “All of You” that incorporates every family member with several styles mashed together and characters practically talk singing the entire thing. They couldn’t resist a reference to “Let it Go,” but there are several attempts at an Oscar bait song. “Waiting on a Miracle” is Mirabel’s “I Want” song where she freezes her family to express her desire to belong. It’s very similar to Jasmine’s new solo in the live-action Aladdin.

Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?” is probably the most underrated. It’s a good way to show Isabela’s transition from perfect appearances to messy colors and mismatched flowers. Though it’s Louisa’s song “Surface Pressure” that ended up making a stronger impression. Louisa carrying her family is represented by action scenes that include Hercules, the Titanic, and dancing donkeys. The beat is infectious, but the “tick, tick” lyrics are suspiciously similar to Tick, Tick… Boom! The only song that truly deserved Oscar attention was “Dos Oruguitas.” A Spanish folk song that beautifully depicts Abuela escaping the war and losing the man she loves. An English version can be heard during the credits, but it’s better in Spanish. Yet every song pales in comparison to the impact of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Bruno isn’t an antagonist, but the ominous lyrics and sinister imagery is as good as classic Disney villain songs.

Pepa and Félix talk about their hurricane wedding, Dolores mentions hearing Bruno in the walls, Camilo gives him an unflattering description, Isabela brings up her perfect life, and Mirabel pieces together the prophecy all before dinner. The song gets more catchy everytime I hear it, but I still don’t think it’s a perfect song. It’s another song that mashes together several styles and not every portion is easy to remember. There’s a difference between a popular song and songs that deserve a Best Original Song nomination. The Oscars made the mistake of performing the song anyway and disappointing countless viewers with a lame remix. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” did receive unprecedented attention on the US Billboard Hot 100. “Surface Pressure” reached No. 8, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” managed to top the charts at No. 1. Encanto is like the Madrigal family, not perfect, but it means well.

96. Encanto

Mirabel and her family

Silenzio Bruno!

Luca is the most easy going Pixar movie I’ve ever seen. Italian Pixar animation director Enrico Casarosa made a splash in 2011 with the short film La Luna that premiered alongside Brave. The short was a charming Italian fantasy between three generations tasked with cleaning up stars on the moon. 10 years later, Casarosa was finally able to direct his passion project. Luca is a deeply personal story based on the director’s childhood summers in the Italian Riviera. After Ratatouille, Coca, and Soul, I wasn’t surprised to learn there would be another Disney & Pixar film centered around a specific culture. Italy is my favorite foreign country, but Luca didn’t feel like a Pixar movie until sea monsters were added.

Luca asks the question, what if sea monsters became human on dry land? Imagine The Little Mermaid if the heart of the story was male friendship. Of course modern audiences immediately assumed Luca was a kid friendly Call Me By Your Name, but sea monsters are just a metaphor for being an outsider. Innocent summer friendships are something most people can relate to. I was annoyed when Soul was released straight to Disney+, but it didn’t surprise me when Luca was given the same treatment. Fortunately, Luca was still nominated for Best Animated Feature since a short and simple Italian vacation was the most perfetto movie for people during the Pandemic…

48. Luca

Luca and Alberto as sea monsters

Luca is another Pixar movie without a short attached. Though intended for theaters, I’m not sure they ever had a short in mind. Luca begins under the sea with the titular sea monster Luca Paguro. Like Ariel, Luca is a kind hearted dreamer who becomes fascinated by everyday objects that sink down to the ocean. In this world, sea monsters are feared by humans who hunt them on the surface. They were inspired by sea monsters from Italian folklore and given a colorful design consisting of tails, fins, and scales. Similar to La Luna, Luca is a lot more stylized with round simplistic character designs reminiscent of Aardman claymation. Pixar continues to outdo itself with breathtaking computer animated water that’s as crisp and inviting as it is during the summer. After their success with Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, you’d think the underwater world would be the most immersive, but it’s actually the most boring. Since Luca is a shepherd boy who herds goatfish.

The beginning of Onward wasn’t very funny either, but at least it got funny when the adventure got going. It only takes 12 minutes for Luca to start getting very funny. Alberto Scorfano is the troublemaking sea monster who took objects from humans in the cold opening. Although the original concept made it seem like Luca was a human who befriended a sea monster, it makes more sense for both boys to be sea monsters. They’re still an unlikely Pixar duo since Luca is shy and sheltered, while Alberto is outgoing and adventurous. Alberto teaching Luca to walk like a human is especially funny. Of course Luca and Alberto’s friendship would be nothing without two of the best child actors working in Hollywood. Luca voice actor Jacob Tremblay has a lot of experience being excited about the outside world. Alberto voice actor Jack Dylan Grazer has a lot of experience with secretly vulnerable characters who overcompensate by acting like a know-it-all. Alberto is still a good friend who teaches Luca to loosen up by telling his inner voice to “Silenzio Bruno!”

Most of the respectable cast isn’t Italian and I’m glad no one made a big deal about it. Maya Rudolph is Luca’s overprotective mama Daniela who wants to keep her son away from the dangerous surface. Jim Gaffigan is his papa Lorenzo who goes along with whatever his wife says. Sandy Martin is Luca’s grandma who understands his curiosity. Luca sneaks off with Alberto to experience the mostly incorrect joys of being human. The sea monster world is fine, but it’s obvious that the human world is meant to be the real dream location. Vespa’s are suddenly the coolest thing ever after Alberto and Luca become obsessed with the Italian scooter. They build a makeshift Vespa at Alberto’s lighthouse home and dream about riding one around the world. Luca’s parents threaten to send him away when they learn about his secret trips to the surface. Sacha Baron Cohen is a hilarious scene stealer as Luca’s creepy anglerfish Uncle Ugo who promises to take him to the deep dark trench.

So Luca and Alberto run away to the Italian fishing town Portorosso. Pixar animators went the extra mile by studying the Italian Riviera on a research trip. Luca is reminiscent of a Federico Fellini movie, but the mythical sea monsters are more akin to Hayao Miyazaki. Seeing all the ways Luca and Alberto narrowly avoid getting wet is a particularly funny running gag. Luca’s parents do exactly that when they search for their son on the surface. You’re guaranteed to get hungry when Luca and Alberto enjoy gelato and delizioso pesto pasta for the first time. Luca is a carefree experience that benefits from a straightforward Pixar villain. Ercole Visconti is just a pathetic grown up bully who fawns over his Vespa and treats his cronies like dirt. He picks on Luca and Alberto for being outsiders, but the young Giulia Marcovaldo steps in to help. Luca isn’t entirely driven by male friendship since Giulia comes between them. Emma Berman is enthusiastic as an underdog who wants to take down Ercole in the Portorosso Cup.

The three part relay race includes a swimming portion, an eating portion, and a biking portion. Since it’s their best shot at winning a Vespa, Luca and Alberto join Giulia in the race. Luca trains for the biking portion, Alberto trains for the eating portion, and Giulia handles the swimming since neither of them can do it without transforming. Mrs. Marsigliese sponsors the race that requires an entry fee. Luca and Alberto earn extra money working with Giulia’s intimidating papa Massimo. He has the thick eyebrows and mustache of several cartoon fathers, but Massimo stands out with his one arm and big heart. Giulia’s mustachioed cat Machiavelli is a lot more suspicious of them being sea monsters. Another funny running gag before their situation gets serious. Despite being a sea monster, Luca wants to go to school with Giulia. As they grow closer, Alberto tries to hold onto their dream of owning a Vespa. SPOILER ALERT! I was shocked when Luca decided to turn on his best friend after Alberto outs himself as a sea monster to Giulia. Ercole drives him away and Luca is left to face the consequences.

I’m glad it didn’t take long for Giulia to discover Luca was a sea monster as well. She stands by her friends, but Alberto isn’t so forgiving. Turns out Alberto was abandoned by his papa and Luca tries to fix their friendship by winning the Vespa. Luca competes in the race by himself, but rain slows him down. A forgiving Alberto saves Luca by outing himself to the entire village, but Luca returns the favor by revealing himself as well. Giulia manages to save both of them from Ercole and Massimo makes the first step by accepting the sea monsters. Luca’s parents reunite with him and more sea monsters are revealed in the town. Although they won the race, the tear worthy moment comes when Alberto sells the Vespa to help Luca go to school with Giulia. Luca bids an emotional farewell to Alberto, but you can always see more in the Disney+ short Ciao Alberto. Luca ends with one of several Italian songs throughout the movie. In a time where Pixar movies prioritize emotional complexity and deep themes, sometimes it’s nice just to relax and spend time in Italy with sea monsters. Though I wasn’t expecting much, Luca ended up being the closest thing to a classic Pixar movie I’ve seen in a long time. Ciao!

49. Luca

Luca and Alberto as humans

Be Brave, Be Strong, Never Waver

Raya and the Last Dragon is the last thing I expected to see from Disney. Since the last two Walt Disney Animation Studios films were Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II, I informally referred to it as the sequel era. Raya and the Last Dragon is the first original Disney movie since Moana in 2016. Now the only thing that distinguishes this era are the primarily female production teams led by newly appointed chief creative officer Jennifer Lee. Like Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on another culture that was yet to receive the Disney treatment. As the fifty-ninth Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of three recent Asian influenced Disney projects including the live-action Mulan and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I can’t say I’m surprised, because the 2020’s continue to push diversity regardless of quality. Unlike Mulan, Raya and Last Dragon is entirely original with influence from Southeast Asian culture. Specifically the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and Timor-Leste. Disney went so far as to establish a Southeast Asia Story Trust made up of consultants from each country. The writers are Asian, but co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are not. Despite centering around a fictional country, people still complained about the cast not being Southeast Asian enough. You just can’t seem to please anyone these days. Raya and the Last Dragon was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but its cultural impact is debatable…

93. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya encounters Sisu

Raya and the Last Dragon is basically Disney’s attempt at Avatar: The Last Airbender. You’d think I’d be won over by the martial arts influence, but I’m kind of tired of Disney heading in this direction. I’d rather have an original take on a classic fairy tale than something entirely original. I had no immediate interest in Raya and the Last Dragon, but I was glad they didn’t dump it on Disney+ like Pixar. Of course the Pandemic affected production and the movie was moved from November 2020 to March 2021. Unlike Mulan (2020), Raya and the Last Dragon was the first Disney movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and with Disney+ Premier Access. My brother and I saw it in theaters alongside the animated short Us Again. I think I prefer the romantic dance short over the movie I saw. Since its original, Raya and the Last Dragon has a tendency to over explain with a complicated plot that may go over kids heads. Making the same mistake that Frozen II made.

All Southeast Asian countries are merged into the fictional land of Kumandra. Divine magical dragons based on Nāga bring water to Kumandra, but everything changed when the ancient Druun attacked. The titular last dragon uses a gem that stops the Druun, but leaves Kumandra unprotected. Since a boring black & purple cloud is the antagonist, Raya and the Last Dragon is yet another Disney movie where human discord is the real enemy. It’s another heavy handed message, but I’m not surprised at this point. Kumandra is literally divided between parts of a dragon called Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang. I honestly don’t think Disney expects the audience to remember each land, since they’re all so standard and lacking a unique personality. Making a circle with their hands is kind of memorable though. Heart is the peaceful home of the dragon gem and the titular Princess Raya. It’s easy to forget Raya and the Last Dragon is technically a Disney Princess film. It’s not a musical and there’s so much focus on action. It’s more like something from the Post-Renaissance with James Newton Howard composing for the first time since Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet.

The different direction turns Raya into “strong Disney heroine #21.” I’m fine with female empowerment, but Mulan did it just fine 23 years ago. Raya is the second Asian Disney Princess, but her look is distinctly Southeast Asian. She’s a warrior with long hair, attractive features, a red cloak, and her signature salakot hat. Raya was originally voiced by the half Filipina Cassie Steele, but she was replaced by the Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran instead. They claim it was done because Raya was originally too stoic, but I think Disney just wanted to give Tran a second chance after the backlash of The Last Jedi. Raya is still mostly stoic and kind of nondescript in my opinion. As a child, Raya has a traditional topknot and lives with her loving ba Chief Benja voiced by Daniel Dae Kim. Benja teaches his daughter to be a warrior using a variety of martial arts techniques. The fighting is well put together, but I can’t say it’s anything I haven’t seen before. There’s also heavy emphasis on Southeast Asian cuisine that’s also been done so many times by now. The signature dish is the Tom Yum soup made up of ingredients from each tribe that Benji uses as an olive branch.

Raya’s only quirk is being a “dragon nerd” which she shares with Fang girl Namaari that she befriends. Since Raya is yet another Disney Princess without a Prince, people once again interpret their relationship as romantic. I’ll admit it’s harder to argue considering Namaari’s haircut, but she does betray Raya at the first chance of getting the gem for her kingdom. Further division causes the gem to split apart with each tribe taking a piece for themselves. The conflict unleashes the Druun and Raya’s ba is turned to stone. 6 years later, Raya is an adult seeking help from the last dragon Sisu. Raya’s animal companion is her rideable giant pill bug armadillo Tuk Tuk. It was the only character that Alan Tudyk could voice since he’s not Asian, but now has to be in every Disney animated movie. Creatures range from giant Serlot cats to beetles with the immature name Toot & Boom. Raya’s first stop is the desert Tail where she revives Sisu using the gem and water. Like most Disney movies, the comic relief doesn’t show up right away. Sisu is a Southeast Asian dragon crossed with a fuzzy aqua blue My Little Pony character. Between Raya and the Last Dragon and Pete’s Dragon, Disney doesn’t seem to think a scaly dragon can be friendly.

I was willing to accept Sisu at first, but casting Awkwafina made it very difficult. I know I complain about her a lot, but her obnoxious voice gets very grating when she’s the primary comic relief. People comparing her favorably to Robin Williams as the Genie was the only thing that made me laugh. Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t really make me laugh at all. Sisu’s jokes are way too modern with cringy slang like “besties” and “booty.” At least the Genie had an excuse to reference the modern world. “Binturi” is the only slang term exclusive to the movie. Namaari is a Binturi who hunts down Raya on her quest to stop the Druun. Gemma Chan voices the adult Namaari who isn’t exactly a villain. She’s mostly influenced by her ma voiced by Sandra Oh who wants to bring respect to their fortified kingdom of Fang. Sisu isn’t what Raya was expecting since she isn’t as powerful as the legends say. She’s just a good swimmer who inherits the magic of her brothers and sisters who turned to stone.

I know she’s a comedian, but I think Awkwafina is better at Sisu’s dramatic moments. She’s a compassionate dragon who pushes the film’s message to trust everyone you meet. It doesn’t always hold up when Raya and Sisu are constantly being double crossed by people like the Lucille Soong voiced Talon chieftess. As they collect each piece of the gem, Sisu gains the power to glow, create mist, bring rain, and shapeshift into a human. Her human appearance is an odd mix of dragon features. She needs to stay in disguise when Raya and Sisu meet several forgettable traveling companions. Before leaving Tail, they find Boun. Izaac Wang voices the confident young boy who runs a shrimp boat restaurant and lost his entire family to the Druun. Talon is a waterfront marketplace where they find Little Noi and her monkey-like ongis companions. Thalia Tran voices the toddler con artist who lost her ma to the Druun. A baby that does martial arts isn’t as entertaining as it should be.

The final traveling companion is from the icy bamboo forest Spine. It’s pretty on the nose for Benedict Wong to voice Tong, a burly warrior who lost his family and entire village to the Druun. Boun, Little Noi, and Tong left so little impression that I forgot all of their names as soon as I left the theater. I know they’re only in the movie to represent the five lands of Kumandra. Sisu reveals herself as a dragon to the group and Namaari who’s in awe every time she sees her. Since the last gem piece is heavily guarded in Fang, Sisu recommends a peaceful exchange that Raya reluctantly accepts. SPOILER ALERT! Namaari betrays Raya once again and the latter ends up looking bad when her distrust causes the former to accidentally kill Sisu. Her death causes all the water to dry up and the Druun to nearly take over the world.

Raya and Namaari fight to the death, but Raya ultimately chooses to trust Namaari the same way Sisu’s siblings trusted her. I know everyone turning to stone is supposed to be a powerful moment, but it didn’t really affect me. Similar to how I felt when Sisu is revived and Kumandra is finally brought together with families reuniting. I completely forgot the song “Lead the Way” that plays during the credits. Though I didn’t care much for the story, the computer animation is breathtaking. Water is especially realistic and every Southeast Asian inspired location or article of clothing is packed with detail. Southeast Asian patterns and 2D animation are also utilized for specific scenes. Character animation is fairly basic compared to the far more cartoony dragons. The animation is especially impressive when you realize it was all done remotely during the Pandemic. I’m glad I could see Raya and the Last Dragon on the big screen, but it’s just not for me.

94. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya faces Namaari

What Day is Today?

Scrooge: A Christmas Carol is more “Bah, Humbug” than it should’ve been. Merry Christmas everyone! The most recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella is sadly the second worst one I’ve seen. It’s a computer animated Netflix movie that looks more like one of those annual Christmas commercials. Scrooge: A Christmas Carol seemed unremarkable until I learned it was a reimagining of the 1970 musical with the same screenwriter. Except that those familiar songs are nothing compared to how they were in the original and a lot of them are replaced by less memorable songs. The biggest problem is just how off script the movie is. So many iconic lines are left out or butchered for no good reason. Though it takes place in the 1800’s, the cast is diverse and characters talk like it’s modern day.

Ebenezer Scrooge is far too soft and they once again make the 1997 mistake of giving the old miser a kindhearted dog named Prudence to care for. Fred is renamed Harry like the 1970 version, but he’s much more jovial. Scrooge rebuffs him, denies idiosyncratic charity collects, and keeps Tom Jenkins in debt. Yet Scrooge feels too remorseful of his actions. Luke Evans uses an elderly voice, but he sounds too youthful while singing. Jonathan Pryce is a more goulsih Jacob Marley with coins over his eyes. I didn’t like how cosmic and otherworldly the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come were depicted. Olivia Colman is too mocking and annoying as a literal living wax candle. Past actually rips off the line from The Lion King about how the past can hurt. Scrooge’s past is more like the 2004 musical where his father is in prison for debt. Fan is renamed Jen for some reason and Isabel is made the daughter of old Fezziwig voiced by Jessie Buckley.

Another change is making Scrooge responsible for Bob Cratchit’s poverty when he was a child. Present is traditional, but he rips off Aladdin by saying his slumber has been disturbed. He’s also accompanied by fairy type creatures. Harry’s party and the Cratchit family dinner play out like the 70’s movie. Except that Tiny Tim’s sister is less eager to sing with him. At least “God bless us, everyone” is unaffected. Present transforms into Yet to Come in a blaze of fire that turns the fairies into demons. The future is almost exactly like the 70’s musical, but Scrooge’s dog undermines the impact of his death. Christmas morning is also too different with Scrooge talking to an older man from his window and getting street urchins to set up a party in his house. Rather than go to the people, the people come to Scrooge. Scrooge: A Christmas Carol is not the best way for children to be introduced to the classic story.

Scrooge A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scrooge watches the clock

Do a Little Good

Spirited is an overstuffed Christmas extravaganza. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been modernized before in Scrooged and other lesser known adaptations, but nothing like this. Spirited is a modern day musical comedy that treats haunting like a business. The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come are all part of an annual Christmas operation where they haunt anyone in need of redemption. I wasn’t sure I’d accept something so different, but I found myself laughing early on. Spirited has the combined comedy of Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.

It’s Ferrell’s best Christmas performance since Elf as the unfulfilled Ghost of Christmas Present. Most of the time he’s dressed in a green suit, but he does go full Dickens later on. Sunita Mani is a horny Ghost of Christmas Past who swoons over their next perp. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a standard silent reaper with the unexpected voice of Tracy Morgan when he’s off duty. Since Patrick Page is Marley, I knew Ebenezer Scrooge had to play a part in a not too surprising way. Present is determined to redeem the unredeemable Clint Briggs. As much as I like Reynolds, he is easy to dislike as a media consultant who uses cancel culture to get ahead.

Spirited is a little too modern, but a reimaged Tiny Tim being the victim of cyberbullying does make sense. Present spends a lot of his time with Clint who refuses to change no matter what. Clint’s past relationship with his late sister touches him, but he’s also trying to change Present at the same time. They become bros and Present ends up falling for his Bob Cratchit type assistant Kimberly played by Octavia Spencer. The ending was the only natural way the story could turn out. In terms of songs, it’s a little annoying that everyone knows they’re in a musical, but “Good Afternoon,” “Do a Little Good,” and “Ripple” stood out. Spirited is a fresh take with more good than “Bah, Humbug.”

Spirited

The Ghost of Christmas Present haunts Clint Briggs

All in One Night

A Christmas Carol (2009) is the first of 2 motion capture animated movies from the now defunct ImageMovers Digital. Robert Zemeckis had a strange obsession with mo-cap in the 2000’s. Directing The Polar Express and Beowulf before establishing his own animation studio. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was another classic Christmas story he wanted to tackle. Like every other motion capture film, A Christmas Carol (2009) is an acquired taste. It was the main reason I avoided seeing the movie in theaters. Not counting Mickey’s Christmas Carol or The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol (2009) is the first traditional adaptation from Walt Disney Pictures. Since it is so faithful to the book, the animation needed to stand out and Alan Silvestri needed to fill it with Christmas music. We see every inch of London as we’re introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Jim Carrey is an odd choice, but he already has experience hating Christmas after playing the Grinch. Most characters are uncanny, but Scrooge is an aged and exaggerated version of Carrey. His performance as the miserable miser is surprisingly respectable. Carrey emphasises his “Bah, Humbug” and has a bit of manic energy. Colin Firth is one of several respected Brits who plays Fred. Gary Oldman is an unusually short Bob Cratchit and an overly creepy Ghost of Jacob Marley. Despite being a Disney movie, A Christmas Carol (2009) is filled with creepy imagery like Marley talking with his detached jaw. The Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come are all a reflection of Scrooge himself. Which is why Carrey plays all three as well. Past is an accurate living candle with a cap and haunting Irish accent. We see the usual lonely childhood and apprenticeship with old Fezziwig played by a fun-loving Bob Hoskins who also plays the more sinister Old Joe. Robin Wright is both Scrooge’s dear sister Fan and his lost love Belle.

Scrooge extinguishing the past is exaggerated with him rocketing to the moon. Present is particularly jolly with a hearty Yorkshire accent. They actually never leave Scrooge’s house while seeing the town on Christmas day. The Cratchits are traditional with Oldman performing the motion capture for Tiny Tim who says “God bless us, everyone.” The reveal of Ignorance & Want is even more disturbing with them aging into criminals and Present becoming a laughing skeleton. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come quickly appears as an ominous shadow. The future is a little too abstract with Scrooge being chased by wild horses and shrinking. His death and Tiny Tim’s fate are treated the same way, but there’s a bit more emotion when Scrooge sees Bob face to face. Like Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Scrooge nearly falls into his hellish grave before changing his ways. Carrey lets loose with his love of Christmas and good deeds. A Christmas Carol (2009) isn’t for everyone, but the classic tale can still shine through.

11. A Christmas Carol 2009

Ebenezer Scrooge takes a stroll

Christmas Together

A Christmas Carol (2004) is another great musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic. Unlike the previous musicals, this version was based on a 1994 stage play with music by Alan Menken. The 2004 made-for-TV movie reads like a stage performance with several iconic scenes reworked with songs. It’s the kind of musical with near constant songs, but it is possible to pick out a few favorites. Sideshow Bob himself, Kelsey Grammer, is brilliant as a more theatrical and curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge. “Bah, Humbug!” is spoken at the stock exchange where a sick Bob Cratchit is given Christmas off, singing charity collectors are denied, and Scrooge refuses to pity a father in debt. Fred has his usual “Merry Christmas” on the way out where Scrooge has several other encounters.

A Christmas Carol (2004) is unique for taking a Wizard of Oz approach to the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Be. They’re all people in the real world before they appear as ghosts. Jason Alexander is an interesting choice for Jacob Marley, but he’s a lively ghost accompanied by several other selfish souls. Jane Krakowski is first seen as a lamplighter before she comes to Scrooge as an attractive dress wearing Ghost of Christmas Past. She uses a book to illustrate a very different version of Scrooge’s past. Young Ebenezer, his sister Fan, and mother witness his father being locked up for a debt. He learns a lesson in business from the traumatic event, but old Fezziwig sets a better example. Another difference is having Scrooge and Marley as young businessmen denying their former employer despite his kindness. Which means Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Emily has a better defined reason to break off their engagement. Marley’s death feels more tragic when Scrooge attempts to aid his only friend.

Jesse L. Martin is a boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present who first appeared selling tickets to a charity show. He talks about the joys of Christmas in a stage play before going to the Cratchits and Fred’s party. Tiny Tim has a leg brace and many hopes for the future. “God bless us, everyone” is sung several times, but Tiny Tim does get to say it at the very end. Ignorance & Want are a reminder of what’s yet to come. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be is vastly different in more ways than just its name. Geraldine Chaplin is a blind beggar woman who transforms into a silent sorceress who shows Scrooge his future at a cemetery. Scrooge’s transformation is particularly joyful with Grammer’s demeanor changing from a hunched over old miser to an upright generous soul who spreads Christmas cheer directly to the Cratchits and his nephew. A Christmas Carol (2004) is the best of both stage and screen.

10. A Christmas Carol 2004

Ebenezer Scrooge in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be