I’ve seen quite a few movies over the pandemic but haven’t reviewed many of them. I shall now start on short reviews of them, categorised by type. This one’s on animated movies!
Read on for my thoughts on: Raya and the Last Dragon, Patema Inverted, Belle (The Dragon and the Freckled Princess), Soul, Encanto
Raya and the Last Dragon (2020)
Raya is Disney’s Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy about Raya, princess of the Heart tribe, and her quest to restore the land of Kumandra with the help of the dragon Sisu. It was alright. I do feel it was perhaps a mistake to try and mask all the Southeast Asian cultures together, and that it might have been a stronger story if they had chosen one country and drawn inspiration from that alone. (They would probably just have defaulted to Thailand but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as a start.) The story was average. There are only so many ways you can portray a story that’s ultimately about uniting people who don’t like each other.
The baby who was a con artist was cute in design but I found the concept of the character to be “meh” and unbelievable. I mean… It’s a baby, but this baby can not only con other, but apparently understands full adult conversations?? It was just too silly.
I wish I liked this movie better, but just being inspired by Southeast Asia is not enough to make me say that it’s more than a solid entertaining movie with nothing extremely remarkable about it beyond its inspiration.
Patema Inverted (2013)
I caught this movie via this year’s Japan Film Festival website (which offered a string of Japanese movies for free, one-time online viewing during the two weeks of the festival).
Patema Inverted (サカサマのパテマ) is a sci-fi film about a girl named Patema who lives in a semi-dystopian future where Earth’s gravity was reversed due to a failed scientific experiment and part of the population was thus lost. Many years after the tragedy, curious Patema lives underground but falls down a shaft one day and encounters a boy, Eiji, who seems to be upside down. In fact, it’s not just him, but his whole world. For Patema it’s like she’s constantly walking on the ceiling and talking to Eiji who is upside down. For Eiji, he’s the right way up and it’s Patema who’s upside down. Gravity seems to work the opposite way for her in his world, Aiga. If she is outdoors in Aiga and not holding on to anything, she’ll float up and away into the sky.
The premise of the story was intriguing, though the resolution was not entirely surprising and a part of it was unsatisfactory (the reversed gravity issue was never really resolved and I was left wondering if I’m supposed to assume both societies just learn to deal with it or if they found a way to fix it?).
I thought the movie did a very good job of presenting the idea of how difficult it can be to really see things from a very different point-of-view of one’s own. When things are the wrong way round for Patema, they’re correct for Eiji, and vice versa. It isn’t until Eiji experiences the reversal for himself by going to Patema’s world that he understands how terrifying and disorienting it must have been for Patema to be in his world. The depiction of kindness and development of awareness in the two main characters was well done.
Side note: I hated how the subtitles gave Eiji’s name as Age. I just did not understand that translation. “Eiji” is a normal Japanese name. Why did it have to become “Age”?
I much prefer the original Japanese title of this movie. haha It’s called 竜とそばかすの姫 (The Dragon and the Freckled Princess).
Anyway. Belle is inspired by the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, and was directed by the famed Hosoda Mamoru.
Belle is about the timid Suzu, who used to love singing but can’t sing anymore after the trauma of seeing her mother drown saving a child from a flooded river. She’s distant from her father and most of her classmates, except for a few. Her best friend, Hiroka, introduces her to a virtual world called “U.” There, Suzu exists in avatar form as a beautiful, pink-haired and long-limbed girl who goes by the name of Bell (“Suzu” means “bell”). Bell rapidly becomes incredibly popular with the rest of U for her beautiful voice and beautiful appearance. This leads to people referring to her as Belle – for “beautiful.”
She becomes so popular that Hiroka begins organising virtual concerts in U, attended by thousands. It is in one of these concerts that she encounters the Dragon, whom some consider to be evil because of the way he fights (this part wasn’t entirely clear to me). Long story short, Belle eventually meets the Dragon, who is mostly as prickly as Beast was in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and manages to discover who Dragon really is but only after revealing her real self to the rest of U.
Suzu goes to the rescue of Dragon, who turns out to be a young boy living with an abusive father. This was the part where the movie fell apart for me. Her father and the friendly neighbourhood ladies in the choir just let her hop on a train and rush from Kochi to Kawasaki abruptly, without anything or anyone else, just to hug two abused boys and confront this violent adult man?? (I checked Google Maps – the train journey from Kochi to Kawasaki, a combination of several changes of line with a bullet train ride in the middle takes about 7 hours!!) And then, what? She stands up to the man and he for some reason, suddenly cringes and goes away… That’s not a clear of satisfactory resolution to me. What happens to the boys after that? Do they go stay with someone else? Did they make a police report? What happened??
I did like how Suzu gradually grew in confidence. I also liked the real-world parts where she’s interacting with her friends and I wish there had been a little more of that. The Dragon part almost didn’t seem important or as interesting.
U felt a little aimless – like what do people even do there? Most of the avatars seem to just be floating around doing nothing in particular.
As far as Hosoda’s movies go*, I think Belle was one of the weaker ones although it’s certainly a different interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.
* I’ve seen 6 of Hosoda’s 7 animated feature films: One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island (did not like it; but it’s a critical success with many One Piece fans and I can see why), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (excellent movie), Summer Wars (pretty good but a more difficult to parse because of how its rooted in a traditional Japanese game), Wolf Children (also excellent), The Boy and the Beast (not bad either). I’ve only not yet seen Mirai, which was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Oscars.
Directed by Pete Docter, Soul is Pixar’s foray into the topic of existence and the purpose of life. Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed. I should have been much more entertained by this movie because I like jazz music in general, and the main character Joe Gardner is a jazz pianist. Perhaps there was too little jazz and too much 22 (the other main character), whom I did not particularly like.
Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz musician, finally lands the gig of his life but right after that, he falls down a manhole and dies. He ends up on a travelator to the “Great Beyond” but Joe doesn’t die easy and attempts to get back to earth. He can’t die when he’s just achieved his dream! He falls into the “Great Before”, which is where unborn souls are prepared for life on Earth. Joe accidentally gets assigned a soul to train, the stubborn soul #22 who doesn’t want to go to Earth. A good chunk of the movie is Joe and 22’s shenanigans when they accidentally (lots of accidents in this movie) fall to Earth, but 22 ends up in Joe’s body and Joe ends up in a cat’s body.
Soul had a really interesting base – the question of whether one’s dream is the same thing as one’s life purpose, and the idea of how a passion could actually prevent you from experiencing everything else in life. But somehow the overall movie didn’t deliver the emotion or though-provoking impact that many of the earlier Pixar ones did. I’m not sure what exactly was missing for me… I’d need to think about it a lot more.
The one thing I really liked was the design and animation of the counsellors in the Great Before. Fun, Picasso-type lines! And hilariously all named Jerry. With a shorter, squat version named Terry who’s the accountant. hahaha
Out of the recent Disney or Pixar offerings, I found Encanto to be the strongest alongside Luca. Encanto is the story of Mirabel Madrigal, the only non-magical member of a family where all blood members receive magical gifts at age five. Besides Mirabel the only ones who don’t have some sort of magical powers are her father and uncle, who both married into the family. Mirabel finds out that their enchanted home, Casita, is in danger of collapse and thus so are all their magical gifts. An old “prophecy” by her missing uncle, Bruno, seems to foretell that it’s Mirabel’s fault that everything will fall apart. Or is it?
Bright, lively, and supported by musical numbers from Lin-Manuel Miranda, this movie was significantly more enjoyable that Soul, although it doesn’t try to tackle a question as deep as that of one’s life purpose. But what Encanto did do well was explore family dynamics a little and the crushing weight of expectations – particularly that of Mirabel and her two older sisters, the perfect Isabela and super strong Luisa. Mirabel and Isabela don’t get along, and though Mirabel seems to get along with Luisa, she finds that both Isabela and Luisa struggle privately with meeting everyone’s expectations. Luisa is overburdened by constant requests for help from everyone in the village, and when she starts to lose her gift, she freaks out – who is she without her super strength? Isabela lashes out at Mirabel for ruining Mariano’s proposal of marriage to her, but really, she’s cracking internally under the pressure of being perfect.
The story ends up being entirely about the weight of expectations – stemming from their grandmother’s high expectations for everyone in the family due to her fear of losing them after losing her husband. All well and good, but the resolution of Isabela’s worries and Luisa’s was a little… Unclear? They’d clearly come to terms with it by the end of the movie but it wasn’t clear how Isabela arrived at that (one conversation with Mirabel didn’t feel sufficient to me) or what Luisa’s conclusion really was.
I’m not that fond of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical style. Sometimes the songs are nice, but most of them are less to my taste, being more modern and slightly more pop in style. (I prefer Alan Menken’s classic Broadway style. haha) They’re not bad, but they’re not memorable to me. And I cannot understand why people love that We Don’t Talk About Bruno song so much… I preferred the opening song, The Family Madrigal.