I’m Almost There

The Princess and the Frog brought Disney back to their traditionally animated musical fairy tale roots. After the 2D animated Home on the Range proved disastrous, Walt Disney animation abandoned the medium altogether. Favoring computer animation for the next 5 years. With Pixar head John Lasseter’s influence in full effect, he chose to give the artform a much needed second chance. Although Bolt was a bigger success in the Post-Renaissance, it’s really The Princess and the Frog that feels like the start of something truly magical. The forty-ninth feature brought back Disney mainstays Clements & Musker, gave us a new broadway style musical, and returned to the tried-and-true fairy tale format. While at the same time embracing modern sensibilities in a way that defined what has become the Disney Revival era.

The Princess and the Frog retells the classic Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince. In a way that’s closer to the 2002 book The Frog Princess. I don’t know much about either story outside of the basic kissing of the frog. Apart from its animation, Disney made the simple fairy tale stand out in many ways. The Princess and the Frog sets things in the magical city of New Orleans and gave us the first ever African American Disney Princess. Both worked out when distance was given between the film and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and Oprah Winfrey was brought in to improve some racial issues. In spite of its Best Animated Feature nomination, The Princess and the Frog was unfortunately not the major success Disney was hoping for…

74. The Princess and the Frog

Tiana spots a frog

The Princess and the Frog was exactly what my brother and I wanted to see in theaters after years of watching Disney. My more cynical 14 year old brain was proven wrong thinking I’d outgrown the magic. Although I was skeptical of Disney returning to traditional animation this far into the 2000’s, the familiar look won me over immediately. Same with the instantly catchy original songs and detailed focus on New Orleans. Whether it’s the flavorful food, jazzy music, or Mardi Gras. Of course working in a Louisiana themed restaurant increased my appreciation of the movie years later. Once Upon a time in 1920’s New Orleans, there lived an aspiring young cook with dreams of opening a restaurant with her loving father.

It took awhile, but Tiana is Disney’s first official black Princess. As well as the first from a major American city. I’m so glad they didn’t go with the unsuitable chambermaid profession and more unsuitable name Maddy. Tiana is beautiful whether she’s wearing a waitress uniform or regal blue Princess costume. Of course Tiana’s differences extend further than race. She has a strong work ethic and doesn’t believe wishing on a star will make her dreams come true. Although it takes place in the 20’s, I’m glad they don’t make any of her struggles about race. Tiana’s struggles are really about earning money and losing sight of what’s important in life. Singer/actress Anika Noni Rose has a voice that was perfect for the Princess to be. Tiana’s wealthy and enthusiastic Southern Belle friend Lottie helps push her dream in the right direction. Encouraging her to clean up the old mill with her mother to keep her and her father’s dream of a restaurant alive.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to royalty arrives in the form of Prince Naveen. An ambiguously brown Disney Prince with a Brazilian voice actor from the fictional country Maldonia. His unspecific race was a bit of a compromise for having a blackish Prince that could also be in an interracial relationship. Naveen struggles with being cut off from his parents, but makes the most of it by having fun, flirting, and playing his ukulele. Really the only one struggling is his hapless valet Lawrence. While enjoying the sights & sounds of New Orleans at first, they soon find themselves caught in its dark underbelly. Dr. Facilier is a truly memorable return to form Disney villain. It only made sense for him to be a voodoo witch doctor with the charismatic voice of Keith David and flashy style of Baron Samedi. Along with an evil shadow that earned him the nickname “Shadow Man.” Naveen & Lawrence foolishly accept his reading and Lawrence makes a deal behind Naveen’s back.

Although things seem to be going up for Tiana at Big Daddy LaBouffe’s party, skeezy real estate agents crush her dream. Lottie tries to encourage her with a Princess costume and Tiana even restores to wishing on a star. What she finds is the famous frog we’ve all been waiting for. The frog is Naveen who mistakes Tiana for a real Princess and is inspired by the book The Frog Prince to kiss her. Tiana does it in exchange for money to start her restaurant, but the unexpected happens. Turning Tiana into a frog for a majority of the film. I try not to read too much into it. Personally I like how it blends Disney’s tradition of fairy tales and anthropomorphic animals together. So frog Naveen & Tiana set out on an adventure on the bayou in hopes of finding a cure. Unaware Facilier is using voodoo magic to help Lawrence pose as Naveen in order to marry Lottie and gain LaBouffe’s power for himself. In turn, giving his “Friends on the other side” control over New Orleans.

In their small green mucus covered form, Naveen & Tiana narrowly avoid deadly alligators and frog leg hungry hillbillies. Along the way meeting two wacky Disney sidekicks of varying effectiveness. First is friendly but fearful alligator Louis who wants nothing more than to play his trumpet with a jazz band. Second is cooky Cajun firefly Ray who’s forever in love with his sweetheart Evangeline (the evening star). Ray takes them to the crazy old blind voodoo queen Mama Odie. Jenifer Lewis puts some zing into the sort of Fairy Godmother who passes on her knowledge with a message they both need to learn. Naveen needs to learn to work for what he wants and Tiana needs to learn to loosen up and have fun. Making Tiana & Naveen a Disney couple that perfectly compliment each other. He teaches her to dance and she teaches him to mince. They’re on their way to get a kiss from Lotti when she’s crowned Princess of Mardi Gras, but their feelings can’t be ignored. Misunderstandings and voodoo spirits pull them apart.

Leading to an intense climax that results in the unexpectedly dark (SPOILER ALERT!) death of comical sidekick Ray. Played a lot straighter than you’d think. Tiana crosses paths with the Shadow Man and he offers her a deal that’ll make her restaurant come true. She chooses love and breaks his talisman. Resulting in a particularly disturbing death where Facilier is literally dragged to Hell. Lotti’s kiss doesn’t work, but the subversions come to a satisfying conclusion when Naveen & Tiana’s bayou wedding makes them human again. Since Tiana is now a genuine Princess. Which is why her leafy green dress is her official look. It’s nothing short of heartwarming to see Tiana finally open Tiana’s Palace and live happily ever after. The Princess and the Frog is great at linking modern ideas with old fashion sincerity. The animation may seem like a downgrade, but they don’t need CGI to break new ground. It’s far from the director’s previous effort with Treasure Planet.

Characters have the classic Disney look, animals are the right kind of stylized, and backgrounds are made to look painted. The hand drawn look was even able to make food like gumbo and beignets look just as appetizing as they are in real life. The dearly missed broadway style music is really what Disney needed. While at the same time blurring the lines with Pixar by hiring Randy Newman to write original songs. Along with a more R&B song from Ne-Yo after the credits. There’s the Oscar nominated Louisiana anthem “Down in New Orleans.” The long awaited villain song “Friends on the Other Side.” An infectiously energetic colorful number that was the studio’s first since “Hellfire.” There’s the easygoing jazz tune “When We’re Human.” There’s Ray’s vastly different solos and Mama Odie’s spirited jubilation “Dig a Little Deeper.” Finally, there’s the very Oscar worthy Disney Princess song “Almost There.” A smooth dreamer song that greatly benefits from a black voice. Blame it on their risky choice to use 2D animation, but The Princess and the Frog is groundbreaking regardless of box-office performance.

75. The Princess and the Frog

Tiana, Naveen, and Louis wish to be human

Vengeance Has a Name

Punisher: War Zone is the most faithful Punisher ever put to screen. No wonder it’s so unwatchable. Gory shootouts, decapitations, non-stop profanity, Punisher: War Zone takes full advantage of its hard R rating in only 1 hour & 47 minutes. Becoming the biggest Marvel box-office bomb to date. Punisher: War Zone is notably the last Marvel movie I didn’t see in theaters. Punisher is the first superhero character to receive three separate movie adaptations. The Punisher (1989), made before the genre took off and The Punisher (2004), made when the genre was in flux. When The Punisher 2 lost its star and director, it was reworked into Punisher: War Zone. The first to be made after the start of the MCU. So you can’t blame me for not knowing the best time to review them.

Although it bares the logo Marvel Knights, Punisher: War Zone is a lot closer to Marvel Max. A very adult imprint formed in the 2000’s. Ray Stevenson is perfectly standoffish and looks just like the Punisher. Although I fully understand Frank Castle’s methods and need for vengeance, the excessive violence does cross a line with me. Only because a child is in harm’s way and it’s just so freaking graphic. Granted, the kills are over-the-top in an occasionally darkly humorous way. The Punisher literally punches a guy’s face in, shoots off faces, blows someone up mid-air, and guns down criminals while hanging from a chandelier.

I wish it didn’t distract from the faithful comic elements. Like the use of Wayne Knight as armorer Microchip and archenemy Jigsaw played by an extremely evil Dominic West. His stitched up face is grotesque and his cannibal brother is just overkill. The movie is so macho that it’s sort of surprising that it has a female director. One who didn’t even want to use his trademark skull logo. What is with adaptations and not embracing the skull?! She comprised by having it be barely visible. Frank’s only desire is cleaning up crime in a brutal war zone. Maintaining his Punisher image no matter what. Punisher: War Zone may please fans of the anti-heroes bloodier tendencies, but I’ll take his Marvel owned Netflix outings over anything else.

The Punisher 3

The Punisher guns people down

Prepare for War

The Punisher (2004) is the closest thing to a good Punisher movie. Which isn’t saying much. The Punisher was created in 1974 by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita Sr. First appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 as a Spider-Man villain. Stan Lee was unaffiliated, but he did suggest the name. Fortunately readers saw something more and the Punisher grew into a more complex anti-hero. Standing out as one of the only Marvel characters willing to kill his enemies. His mature war on crime is the main reason for my limited exposure growing up. I only enjoyed his less violent depiction on Spider-Man: The Animated Series and ignored his movie’s entirely. But like the equally R rated Blade trilogy, I couldn’t avoid them forever.

The Punisher (2004) was released at the peak of Marvel’s adaptation frenzy. Since Marvel foolishly sold their rights to Lionsgate, the film is more independent with a very low budget. Practical effects and stunt work are in place of any special effects. Although I’m willing to call The Punisher (2004) underrated in an age that’s embraced R rated superheroes, clichés and a first time director hold it back. Along with excessive 2000’s hard rock edginess. Almost like Daredevil if it went a step further. Flaming logo and all. It’s violent, but not overly graphic. Thomas Jane was a good physically imposing choice to play Frank Castle/The Punisher. Although he does feel a bit nondescript.

Frank is turned into a retiring FBI agent, but he does retain his military past. A sting operation results in the death of a mob bosses son. Resulting in not just the death of Frank’s wife & kid, but his entire family reunion. Which is so needlessly excessive. When he recovers, Frank adopts a much better skull t-shirt and black trench coat ripped straight out of the comics. Until he trades it for an illogical sleeveless look. A lot of comic storylines are used almost word for word. Some are cool like Frank’s popsicle interrogation and intense fight with the hulking Russian. Others are lame like including one-off tenants instead of more well known allies like Microchip. The Punisher’s quest for vengeance leads to some badass gunplay, but John Travolta isn’t good enough as a generic mob boss. The Punisher (2004) makes the most of a standard revenge plot.

The Punisher 2

The Punisher takes aim

The Bloodshed Continues

Rambo is the misguided 20 year return for Vietnam vet John Rambo. By this point in his career, Sylvester Stallone began to reevaluate his older work. Even though we all thought he was crazy to be doing it at his age. He did get back into fighting shape and still knows how to shoot an arrow, but the shirt stays on. Although Rocky Balboa was a success, the simply titled Rambo shouldn’t have been made the way it was.

The reason for the gap between Rambo III was Stallone’s lack of a good story to work with. Eventually returning and directing like everything else he starred in at the time. The idea was to make a Rambo film with Rambo’s direction. No wonder it ended up being one of the most violent movies ever made. Which is why I could barely be entertained by it. Rambo is way too realistic in its depiction of war brutality. You just can’t change the world with a Rambo movie. Nobody wants to see women or children being killed and abused. It’s sad to know it exists, but it crosses the line even for a franchise like this.

John Rambo is brought out of his peaceful life to transport Christian missionaries to Burma. Taking the action to a very real warzone. Without Trautman to keep him centered, Rambo is more brutal than ever in his mercenary rescue mission. Although his despicable enemies deserve it, the action is just too excessive to stomach. Decapitating, cutting through people with a mounted machine gun, and pulling out the leaders intestines in a particularly bloody finale. Rambo may be trying to say something, but I’m too disgusted to hear it.

4. Rambo

John Rambo aims his arrow

Preceded by: Rambo III & Followed by: Rambo: Last Blood

Send in the Clones

The 6th Day presents the question, what if scientists were successfully able to clone a human being? An ethical question that will clearly never become a reality. At least not in the way it’s always been depicted in sci-fi. The 6th Day is named after a passage from Genesis in the Bible. Since God created man on the sixth day of creation. The movie itself uses the passage as the moral reason why cloning humans is illegal.

In the distant future of 2015, animals are commercially cloned in a messed up process called RePet. Now you never have to explain death to a child. There are also sexy virtual girlfriends, holograms, self-driving cars, and creepy realistic robot dolls. I’m sure I would’ve known it existed, but I only watched The 6th Day for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was his first action film of the 2000’s. Arnie can always enhance a generic role, but that can only go so far sometimes. His character, of course named Adam, is unknowingly cloned during an eye examine.

Clones can be identified by dots under their eyelids. He wakes up to find a clone with his wife and daughter. Adam is promptly marked for death by the company that illegally made the clone. A young Terry Crews makes his debut playing one of the assassins. There are gun fights, car chases, and mostly standard fight scenes. Along with a few good Arnie zingers. Having him cloned means two Schwarzenegger performances for the price of one. The 6th Day has a genuinely interesting premise, but not always the best material to make it stand out.

The 6th Day

Adam gets cloned

Brittany and the Chipettes

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is the awkwardly titled squeakquel to the unexpectedly successful Alvin and the Chipmunks. In fact, The Squeakquel practically became infamous for that lame pun alone. That didn’t stop me from once again getting excited the moment I saw the teaser. My brother and I gasped the second the Chipettes were revealed. They were just as much a part of our childhoods as the Chipmunks, so we were hoping they’d make the leap to CGI live-action too.

The Chipettes were created in 1983 just to cover female songs of the time. Although they have minor differences, they’re really like every other gender flipped counterpart. I don’t think it was a performance issue, but Jason Lee is in almost none of the movie. With Dave in the hospital, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore get a babysitter fans would think is Miss Miller. Except it’s just a younger discount version of Dave played by Zachary Levi. The Squeakquel feels like a major downgrade since the Chipmunks trade their global popularity for attending high school. Which is bizarre not just because they’re small chipmunks and seem more like kids than teenagers.

The cliché plot is very unfocused. It’s either about David Cross returning as Ian to get revenge by exploiting the newly discovered Chipettes, the Chipmunks fitting in and falling out, trying to save their school’s music program, or winning a talent show. Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor were given the same updated treatment since their looks were distinctly 80’s. Their personalities are just too softened and their romantic dynamic with the Chipmunks feels off. Along with the just as unrecognizable voices of Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, and Amy Poehler. They also throw in the gopher mascot from NASCAR for some reason. The story feels just as juvenile, more low stakes, and pop songs are equally frequent. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel can still do no wrong for me regardless of direction.

3. Alvin and the Chipmunks The Squeakquel

Alvin and the Chipmunks perform with Brittany and the Chipettes

Preceded by: Alvin and the Chipmunks & Followed by: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

ALVINNN!!!

Alvin and the Chipmunks is one of a few live-action versions of a cartoon that I was legitimately excited to see. You better believe I was geeking out the moment I saw the cryptic teaser. I gasped the moment I heard Alvin and the Chipmunks sing “Funkytown” in their new CGI forms. Yes, my brother and I are just that big a fan of the iconic animated band. It may not look that way on the surface, but Alvin and the Chipmunks is different than most live-action cartoon adaptations. Since it was actually made by dedicated son of the original creator Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife Janice Karmen.

Their voices weren’t used for the sort of pointless reason of having celebrity voices Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney. Not that you’d even hear their voices sped up like that. Unlike the cartoon, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore are the actual size of chipmunks. With designs that are stylized, but still realistic. Their trademark personality traits are there, if a bit watered down. They’re first seen singing in a tree before entering Los Angeles during Christmas time. At least the movie doesn’t fabricate a new character since Dave Seville already acts as the human mediary. Jason Lee is just a bit miscast, has a lifeless romantic subplot, and a very weak “ALVINNN!!!” He may have been picked on for the role, but it’s really David Cross who steals the movie as sleazy record agent Ian.

Alvin and the Chipmunks enter Dave’s life and show off their singing talent. Singing “Christmas Don’t Be Late” (their real first song). Then they’re given decade appropriate hoodies instead of those weird robes, but Alvin is missing his trademark hat. The modern pop covers are obviously dated, the humor skews into poop & fart territory, and the plot is the same old “band let’s fame go to their heads” cliché. Yet I still enjoyed Alvin and the Chipmunks enough just seeing the band in real life and hearing some modulated favorites.

2. Alvin and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks perform live

Followed by: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

So Who’s Getting Married?

Wedding Crashers brought back the raunchy R rated adult comedy. Becoming a rare comedy that was a major box-office success. I remember it being a big hit when it came out, but I was obviously too young and not the biggest fan of those kinds of comedies. Seeing it years later I wish I’d seen it earlier, because Wedding Crashers is hilarious. The Frat Pack duo of Owen Wilson & Vince Vaughn are at the top of their game. They play John & Jeremy respectively.

They’re a pair of partying divorce mediating wedding crashers who get a thrill from drinking the free booze and scoring chicks. Something people of course do in real life, but it’s sleazy whatever the intention is. Although the wedding crashing doesn’t make up the entire movie. Since John starts to get second thoughts about the lifestyle. Wilson is more the straight man while Vaughn does his motormouth thing and takes the most abuse. At the wedding of a high profile secretary’s daughter, John falls for his other daughter played by Rachel McAdams. While Jeremy hooks up with the remaining daughter played by Isla Fisher.

John develops a meaningful connection with Claire that’s only a problem due to her colossal douche of a boyfriend Sack played by pre-fame Bradley Cooper. Meanwhile, Jeremy deals with the clingy nympho Gloria. Then again almost every member of their family are sex crazed psychos. Fisher is a major scene stealer, but it’s Will Farrell’s unexpected cameo that takes the wedding cake. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wedding Crashers didn’t rely on profanity and that the raunchiness didn’t take away from a genuinely believable message of love & friendship.

Wedding Crashers

John (left) and Jeremy (right) crash a wedding

Super Dog

Bolt barked the end of Disney’s long experimental Post-Renaissance era. Although John lasseter was around when Meet the Robinsons was being made, Bolt is really where his influence came in. Elevating Walt Disney animation into something that made greater use of its computer animation. Fur, environments, and lighting are far crisper with backgrounds made to look like paintings. Like more than half of the movies released in the era, Bolt is totally original. The story for Disney’s forty-eighth feature was always about a TV star dog, but it was originally titled American Dog. Lasseter took the idea and gave it the old Pixar charm. Despite the near critical acclaim and Best Animated Feature nomination Bolt received, the box-office performance was still average. Bolt was a major stepping stone for the subsequent Revival era, but I wouldn’t consider it to be the start of it.

Bolt unfortunately faded into obscurity. Something that happens to most non-musical animated Disney movies. I was part of the problem since my brother and I didn’t see Bolt in theaters for whatever reason. I guess at 13 years old, I thought it seemed a bit mainstream. We absolutely loved Bolt when we saw it of DVD not long after. Ironically, we didn’t see the first movie of the Post-Renaissance in theaters either. Proof of how spotty that era really was. Bolt is a little like The Truman Show in how it portrays a celebrity who doesn’t know they’re on a TV show. Bolt the Superdog is the hottest thing on television, but the heroic White Shepherd doesn’t know that. He thinks his person Penny is really in danger of a cat stroking green-eyed villain called Dr. Calico. Which is all a gimmick to boost ratings for the true villains, sleazy Hollywood agents.

He’s an odd choice, but John Travolta brings a lot of personality to the confused canine. Casting Miley Cyrus as Penny was obvious commentary about her role on Hannah Montana. Both Cyrus & Travolta contribute a strong original song titled “I Thought I Lost You” for the movie. When Bolt thinks Penny is still in danger, he inadvertently winds up in the real world without the powers he thinks he possesses. While lost in New York, pigeons direct him to a feral cat that he assumes is working with Calico. Streetwise cat with a past Mittens is dragged on Bolt’s mission to get back to Penny. The cross country trip to Hollywood is filled with clever misunderstandings and fun animal humor. The comedy really kicks in when Bolt fanatic Rhino the hamster roles in with his hamster ball. They make an unusual trio that learn an expected lesson about what’s truly important in life. Without sacrificing Bolt’s true heroism in the end. Bolt is a super, heartfelt treat, and a crucial piece in Disney’s renewed success moving forward.

73. Bolt

Bolt protects Penny

Keep Moving Forward

Meet the Robinsons offers an optimistic look at the future. You don’t see that often. Meet the Robinsons was the forty-seventh Walt Disney Animation Studios film and the first one under that banner. Since Pixar was purchased by Disney at the time, John Lasseter was named the head of both studios. Meaning Disney could receive the computer animation help they didn’t get for Chicken Little. The 3D animation for Meet the Robinsons isn’t overly polished, but it is a step in the right direction. With more charming colorful visuals than before. Along with good futuristic pop songs. Meet the Robinsons is based on a 1990 children’s book titled A Day with Wilbur Robinson. A picture book about a kid meeting his friend’s wacky family one by one in an effort to find lost teeth. I neither read nor heard of the book, but it’s more the spirit of the book that was adapted.

Meet the Robinsons is actually the first movie my brother and I saw by ourselves. We were 14 and 11 respectively and our parents trusted us to go to the theater without supervision. Not that we needed it since it was G. So I have a strong attachment to the underrated Post-Renaissance film despite not watching it too often. In the movie, the role of the kids are expanded and given a lot more unexpected depth. Lewis is a computer animated boy genius with weird hair most people forget about. He’s a gifted young inventor who just wants to be adopted. When that doesn’t work out, he works tirelessly to build a device that scans memories in hopes of finding his mom. Even at the expense of his drowsy roommate Goob. His machine is sabotaged by an evil mustachioed Bowler Hat Guy. A seriously underappreciated Disney villain. Wilbur Robinson travels to the past in order to ensure Lewis’ future. The future is bright and whimsical with instant buildings, bubble travel, and time machines all invented by Wilbur’s dad Cornelius.

A man who lives by the important motto to “Keep Moving Forward.” Which is also the motto Walt Disney lived by. The movie briefly follows the book when Lewis meets Wilbur’s oddball Robinson family. Consisting of a golden robot, a goofy grandfather & grandmother, a couch potato uncle, a train loving aunt, an uncle married to a puppet, a cannon firing uncle, a planateering pizza delivery uncle, a painter cousin, a strangely dressed cousin, two cousins living in flower pots, an octopus butler, and Wilbur’s mom Franny. She teaches frogs to sing like crooners. Most of the humor is reliant on their wacky antics which vary in effectiveness. The Bowler Hat Guy shakes things up by controlling a T-Rex and things go awry when the truth is revealed. There are several unexpected twists I wasn’t expecting, but I won’t give them away. I’ll just say that the solutions to problems are extremely simple. Leading to a heartwarming ending that makes Meet the Robinsons a real understated gem.

72. Meet the Robinsons

The Robinson family