These monsters are not your standard Disney fare. They include Nobodies -- gray shells of skin, unzipped and hanging open at the mouths. And there are the Heartless, which range from imps to giant jack-in-the-boxes flopping around with carving knives. They all come from the videogame worlds of Square Enix, publisher of the popular Final Fantasy series. These are games inhabited by brooding heroes with spiky hair, over-fastened trousers and enormous swords. Much of Kingdom Hearts II's appeal comes from seeing Disney characters and motifs weave their way into this strange gameworld.
Unfortunately, most of Disney's big names present themselves in abridged, videogame versions of their films. The voice impressions of the many characters aren't all that true to their sources, and they prattle on, repeating scenes and jokes from movies such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Occasionally I get the chance to fight alongside the likes of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, or a twitchy Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow. But between each battle is a tedious story, as though I wanted to play the game simply to watch a digital puppet show of Mulan or Hercules.
At least when I finish clicking through the mini-movies (or skipping them), I get to step into Square Enix's more interactive world. Waves of jerky foes pop out of the air to attack me. I leap wildly, arcing over the battlefield to land precisely on top of my opponents. Swaths of my sword send Heartless vaulting through the air, radiating cartoon stars of pain before they vanish in a wisp of darkness. Battles this engaging and stylized pull me into the story's conflict with an immediacy no film can duplicate. In Kingdom Hearts II, it's just a matter of locking on a target and clicking away.
THE GOOD: Both Square Enix and Disney perform their trademark tricks. From Square Enix, the battles are colorful and sleek. From Disney, many of their classic films are retold, and a few characters make new appearances. (Stitch, who crawls all over my television screen, is a highlight.)
THE BAD: Kingdom Hearts II is a sequel that took years to arrive, meaning that it dates back to a time when someone thought it would be a good idea to include Chicken Little. The game's age is also apparent in the generic, bland colors and textures that cover all of the surfaces in the game, making the storybook setting of Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood look like the Chinese forests in Mulan.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Having run out of new and exciting ideas, both Disney and Square Enix are now rehashing old but reliable ones.