The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

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A visual ‘Feast’

It was love at first bite. A single greasy french fry solidified the friendship between a man and his dog.

Directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell, and Raymond Persi, the Oscar-winning animated Disney short “Feast” is an irresistible potpourri of colors and sensations. It’s four-footed star is an adorable gray and white Boston Terrier mix named Winston.

Osborne gives us a dog’s eye view as Winston eats his way through pizza, pasta and popcorn. However, Lady-and-the-Tramp-style dinners are quickly replaced by Brussels sprouts and cilantro when his human meets a waitress at a restaurant.

Winston reluctantly settles into being the third wheel, but as he learns, sometimes there’s more important things than pizza.

“Feast” was directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell and Raymond Persi. The six-minute short won the 2015 Academy Award for animated short film.

‘Cinderella’ retells the story we’ve all imagined

If our obsession with Will and Kate’s royal wedding was anything to go by, we love fairy tales! Which is why there’s much to love about a live-action revival of a 1950’s animated classic.

“Cinderella” screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh tastefully transform a tale as old as time into a magical 105-minute picture.

Part of “Cinderella’s” charm lies with its lead, a good and wholehearted heroine that we can emulate. Lily James’s very likable and animated as Ella. She has a happy childhood with her father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Hayley Atwell) until her parents pass away. But as the story goes, she’s mistreated by her cruel and jealous stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two gaudy stepsisters (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) while she bears a grin, talks to mice and lives by her mother’s maxim, “Have courage and be kind.”

Filmed by Haris Zambarloukos and edited by Martin Walsh, “Cinderella” is visually stunning and shows off Sandy Powell’s costume designs. There’s an ariel shot of Ella’s two stepsisters in bed surrounded by frumpy dresses. James looks gorgeous in blue — spinning in the prince’s arms. And Blanchett makes a pretty picture in a vibrant green dress that would make Scarlett O’Hara jealous (this one’s not made out of curtains).

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother, the Lady Tremaine?

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother? 

Although Weitz and Branagh’s live-action version follows a safe and predictable script, it sweeps us off our feet in the same fashion as Kate Middleton’s real-life “Cinderella” story. 

Prince Charming goes by the name as Kit (Richard Madden), and pretends he’s an apprentice at the castle. Courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella attends his ball dressed up as a princess. And they — like Prince William and Kate Middleton — lived happily ever after.

“Cinderella” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz. 

‘Big Hero 6’: Disney’s AwesomeLand

Remember how “Modern Family’s” Phil Dunphy invented AwesomeLand in this season’s Halloween episode? No? Well, basically, he put everything he thinks is Awesome on the front lawn of the Dunphy’s home.

That’s what Disney’s latest animated picture, “Big Hero 6,” feels like. Taking place in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (Yes, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. Why? Because it’s awesome.), “Big Hero 6” is about 14-year-old boy-genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his band of “Avengers” — Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller).

Loosely based on a 2008 Marvel comic, “Big Hero 6” is another superhero origin story.

Raised by his enthusiastic Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother, Tadashi (because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the parents weren’t either absent or dead), Hiro wastes his potential winning loads of dough in illegal robot fights. That is, until Tadashi (Daniel Henney), introduces him to his acclaimed robotics university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and his life’s project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) — a portable and personable inflatable medical robot.

To apply for admission to SFIT, Hiro pitches his microbots: tiny electromagnetic legos that can do anything the mind tells it to.

“If you can think it, microbots can do it,” says Hiro, echoing the words of Walt Disney. “The only limit is your imagination.”

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That seems to be the limit of Disney’s latest 3D animation as well. Like the fusion city, “Big Hero 6” is held together by imagination (and hundreds of animators and visual effect artists).

The film — by nerds for nerds — pays homage to others in its genre. Baymax wears an Iron Man-esque armor. His Hulk-like strength protects Hiro from danger. Hiro keeps a dalek on his bookshelf. Stan Lee’s portrait hangs on the walls.

“Big Hero 6” feels like a Pixar film (like how “Brave” felt like a Disney film). The animators have inserted dozens of hidden Easter eggs, including a basement filled with comics and action figures. Hans’ (from “Frozen”) mug shot hangs on a “wanted” poster at the police station; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” featured on a billboard over the city.

Directed by Don Hall (whose credits include “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tarzan” and “Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Mulan”), “Big Hero 6” is a safe feel-good movie — filled with Disney’s perfected formula of both funny and poignant moments. Watching Baymax and gang in “Big Hero 6” is the perfect medicine for a bad day.

“Big Hero 6” was written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Duncan Rouleau, Steven Seagle, Paul Briggs and Joseph Mateo. The film was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. 

Former Disney animator’s lyrical ‘Duet’ displays life’s dance

Sometimes we need art to show us the immense beauty in the world. That’s what animator Glen Keane gives us with his breathtakingly beautiful three-minute short, “Duet.”

Directed and animated by Keane (whose credits include Disney’s “Paperman,” “Tangled,” “Tarzan,” “Pocahontas,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”), “Duet” features the dance between a boy and a girl.

Their song is one with many codas. The boy and girl meet again and again (not in as many lifetimes as the characters in “Cloud Atlas,” but at different stages of their lives), circling the same axis.

The boy somersaults through the grass. The girl performs perfect pirouettes. He catches her when she stumbles, and can’t seem to let go.

Their’s a fluid simplicity in Keane’s animation. The boy and girl are outlined in a ghostly blue, yet their world is full of color. We see it in their movements. We hear it in Zack Lydon’s music. It makes our eyes spin around them with jealousy and admiration. If this is the circle of life, we want to be a part of it.

Magnificent ‘Maleficent’

Fractured fairy tales often recycle the same tropes (look at “Frozen” or “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but Robert Stromberg’s “Maleficent” is a beautiful, new rendition of an age-old story.

Written by Linda Woolverton (who worked on half a dozen Disney movies including “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice In Wonderland”), “Maleficent” does with “Sleeping Beauty” what Gregory Maguire did with “The Wizard of Oz.” Woolverton re-imagines the story from the villain’s perspective.

Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell and the magnificent Angelina Jolie) is a good, peaceful fairy, who guards and protects the magical land of Moors. She falls in love with a human boy (Michael Higgins and Jackson Bews) who becomes a greedy man (Sharlto Copley) that rules the human kingdom.

King Stefan rapes Maleficent to earn his title. And thus, Maleficent becomes Charles Dickens’ Miss. Havisham from “Great Expectations” — the jilted old woman in her wedding dress. Her “Estella” on men is her magic. So she curses Stefan’s only daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to an endless sleep upon her 16th birthday.

Stromberg — an Academy Award winning visual effects artist whose credits include  “The Hunger Games,“Life of Pi”, “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — makes a stunning directorial debut with “Maleficent.” The scenes in the Moors are heavenly — full of vibrant colors and creatures. He (along with more than 500 visual effects artists) shows off Jolie’s high cheekbones, piercing eyes and plump lips.

Jolie, herself, is radiant in this role — vengeful and glowing with wicked glee as she gifts Princess Aurora. But this Maleficent is also forgiving and fierce; sweet and savage; motherly and mischievous. She saves a raven whom she turns into a man (Sam Riley). And she’s not too different from Khaleesi from George R.R. Martin’s epic “Game of Thrones” saga.

Though Maleficent’s certainly ethereal, she’s more humane than her human counterparts. Copley’s character longs for a seat on the Iron Throne; his obsession with the crown rivals those playing in the “Game of Thrones.” All would be well, of course, if he’d give Maleficent her dragons.

“Maleficent” was directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton. The movies based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” and Jacob and Wilheim Grimm’s “La Briar Rose.”

‘Muppets Most Wanted’: the unwanted sequel

I really wanted to like the “Muppets Most Wanted” — the direct sequel to the 2011 “The Muppets” revival. But the most entertaining part of the most recent Muppets movie — the 7th sequel to the original 1979 motion picture (adds Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) — was its self-aware opening song.

“And everyone knows the sequels never quite as good,” sings the cast, consisting of the familiar faces of Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmore), Fozzie the Bear (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) and more.

The plot may be overdone, but its decent enough. It follows Kermit and friends on their world tour. Ricky Gervais plays Dominic Badguy — a scheming producer and accomplice to evil frog Constantine (“Sesame Street” voice actor Matt Vogel). Dominic and Constantine use the touring muppet show as their alibi to their thefts across Europe. It helps that Kermit looks exactly like Constantine, so Constantine switches places with Kermit — becoming head of the muppets while Kermit gets mistakenly locked up in the Siberian equivalent of Sing Sing with warden Nadya (Tina Fey).

Like director James Bobin’s “The Muppets” (2011), “Muppets Most Wanted” pays homage to the original Jim Henson films (in some scenes we see Constantine watching the old Jim Henson clips while he tries to learn and replicate Kermit’s vocal patterns). The new film even follows the familiar formula of “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984): an obvious diabolical villain character, Kermit’s distance and reunion with his friends, the frog and pig wedding, the cameo appearances from celebrities (this time including Lady Gaga, Tom Hiddleston and Usher). The plot of the 1984 film even gets mentioned in “Muppets Most Wanted.”

“It’s about getting The Muppets back together again to stop an evil oil baron from demolishing the old studio,” says Fozzie Bear.

Still, “Muppets Most Wanted” feels like its trying too hard. It feels as phony as Tina Fey’s stereotypical Russian accent (though, at least the Russian accents give voice actors a forgivable excuse for sounding a tad off). The gags are repeated, but they’re nowhere near as avant-garde as what Henson created in the late ’70s to ’80s films.

But even if this muppet movie — written by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller — feels forced, the muppets are a relatively lucrative business for Disney (who bought the franchise in 2004). And we can be sure this won’t be their last act.

“Muppets Most Wanted” was directed by James Bobin and written by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller.

Animated short ‘Silent’ chronicles films of the ages

Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg of Moonbot Studios — who brought you the Academy Award-winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” (2011) and Chipotle’s ” The Scarecrow” (2013)  — are at it again.

Their 2014 animated short, “Silent,” is to motion pictures as “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” is to books. It even features the familiar Morris Lessmore from the latter film.

This silent two-and-a-half minute love letter to cinema centers on two street performers who get caught in the rain.

They run into an empty run-down theater for shelter and as if by magic — Mr. Lessmore tumbles into a silent picture.

In order to show the evolution of cinema, Fabian and Oldenburg’s short animates iconic scenes from movies: the black-and-white action sequence of Godzilla on the Golden Gate Bridge; the hand-drawn animation of Disney’s “Zip-a-Pa-Dee-Doo-Dah”; the zombies from the stop-motion picture “ParaNorman”;  the ship from “The Pirates! Band of Misfits!”; and the “Inception-esque” free fall off of a skyscraper and into an “Alice In Wonderland-esque” rabbit hole.

Written by William Joyce, Fabian and Oldenburg and dedicated to the art and science of storytelling, “Silent” shows us how easy it is to escape into another world — if only for a moment.

“Silent” was directed by Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg; produced by Moonbot Studios; and distributed by Dolby Laboratories.

Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Once upon a time on ‘Thor: The Dark World’…

According to Celtic myths, Samhain, the first of November, marks the end of summer — when ghosts, spirits and fairies can haunt our world. People honored the dead by dressing up in costume, going door-to-door for food — a tradition memorialized in the modern Halloween festivities.

So perhaps it’s fitting that “Thor: The Dark World” was released in Samhain (the Irish word for November) — days after U.S. daylights savings time. The dead return to our world as the day grows shorter and darker.

The second of Marvel’s post-Avenger’s films (the first was this summer’s “Iron Man 3”), “Thor: The Dark World” chronicles the Convergence — a once in a blue moon phenomenon when nine planets overlap and objects can be seamlessly transported from one place to another.

Normally, that would be a magical wonder — one that astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) explains with science. But the legend of Thor’s made out of the stuff from myths and fairy tales.

No, not Disney’s “Tarzan” (although Jane and Thor did have a few Tarzan moments when he fell out of the sky in the first Thor movie).

This fairy tale is made of grimmer stuff — the kind where fairies stole you away like the Pied Piper.

The dark fairies in this story are from the Unseelie Court, led by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith created a liquid weapon called Aether, which is supposed to bring darkness to the world.

While Asgardians stopped Malekith’s evil plot years ago, the Convergence would be the perfect opportunity for the dark elves to try again: unleashing darkness on all nine worlds, including Earth.

That’s the backdrop to this movie, and Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay’s layered like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

On one level, they’re dealing with the aftermath of “The Avenger’s” and the alien invasion of New York City; prisoner-of-war Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is brought back to his home planet in chains. His hammer-wielding older brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fights to fix Loki’s mess.

On another level, the writers are threading the plot of the mediocre 2011 “Thor” film — which plays out like a typical Shakespearean rom-com. Jane, her snarky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) return, studying anomalies in Earth’s gravity. Jane feels slighted by her crush Thor, who never contacted her after he abruptly left.

Luckily, the dark elves play matchmaker, and their nefarious plot reunite Jane and Thor.

“Thor: The Dark World” offers a much more dynamic plot-line than its predecessor. Unlike the first Thor movie, which divided its time evenly between the wild magical woods of Asgard and the rigid mundane cities of Earth, time spent in Earth’s brief.

But that doesn’t mean this fairy tale’s “once upon a time” gets a “happily ever after.” After all, the Marvel sagas continue with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in spring 2014 and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately for us, movie-goers, suffering through each superhero blockbuster until the release of Joss Whedon’s next highly anticipated (and highly lucrative) Avengers movie, most of the characters in this film, including our titular hammer-wielding muscleman, are as flat as the comic book paper they came from.

“If we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended.” — Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The only exception is Loki (and Tom Hiddleston — who won best male newcomer and best villain for his reprising role). The honest trickster god captured our hearts in “Thor” and “The Avengers” and promises to be as mischievous as the prankster Puck.

Just remember (because Shakespeare taught us well): it’s all fun and games until somebody dies.

“Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor of “Game of Thrones” fame; the screenplay was written by Christopher Markus, Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely, based on Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s story and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber’s Marvel comic books.