Magical Movies Tour: Pocahontas

Oh boy, Pocahontas is gorgeous to look at, and has some damn good songs (To be fair, I’m a complete sucker for Steven Schwartz. Godspell! Pippin! Wicked! This piece of garbage), but jeez, are the story and script a hot piece of trash.

I mean, we know the obvious, really racist, two sides of the argument vague native American spiritualism stuff, plus you know…Mel Gibson, but it’s also just super shallow. Pocahontas is headstrong, but it’s not really grounded in anything the way it was with say, Jasmine or even Ariel and Belle. Plus you know, it’s hard to have agency when you fall in love with Mel Gibson, then his friend Christian Bale kills your fiance and your father tries to kill him.

Seriously, the story is a big old mess. I’m not even getting into the historical inaccuracies, because I have no problem with historical fiction deviating when the work is good. (I know far more about the Romanovs than I do Jamestown and I still think Anastasia is a delight despite it getting everything wrong) (Also, I realize for racism reasons they are not remotely comparable, but from a strict analytical sense, they work) (Also, I wrote this post MONTHS ago, but this is a really cromulent point right now because the Hamilton discourse is turned up HIGH right now)

That said, it’s still stunning, visually. Really, the painted backgrounds and character designs are deeply appealing, those vaguely defined nature spirits shine against the more muted earth tones around them. “Colors Of The Wind” is a beautifully animated sequence, in particular.

And, as I mentioned up top, I have a serious soft spot for this music. Again, I’m a sucker for Schwartz and his too clever wordplay, which in this movie is most on display in “Mine, Mine, Mine,” and my favorite song on the soundtrack, “Just Around The Riverbend.” Both have this quick patter of words that are easily identifiable as Schwartz and has always drawn me into his work. (It’s different than Sondheim’s walls of words, which I also love.)

Overall, I think there’s a reason I stopped rewatching this one once I got to elementary school, despite continuing to have the soundtrack on repeat. It’s terribly flawed as a film.

Next week we’ll get into ANOTHER flawed piece, that others remember as a masterpiece and I haven’t watched in at least fifteen years, and has beautiful Steven Schwartz music, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame 

Magical Movies Tour: The Lion King

My brother Mike and I have this weird game we play, where we try to explain the arc of any artist’s (or in the case of Disney Animation, a large group of artists) work into the same frame as Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is our monomyth, our artist hero with a thousand faces, and the thing is, his career does fit a good arc for most.

So, if we’re talking Springsteen, Oliver And Company is Greetings From Asbury Park, the first gasp of breath, the promise of something beautiful and special. The Little Mermaid is The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, the formula is there for the first time, the people who are paying attention know that there is something special here, but it isn’t getting the attention it deserves yet, Beauty And The Beast is Born To Run, the breakthrough to the mainstream, something beautiful, unique, special and once in a lifetime. Aladdin is Darkness On The Edge Of Town something different and yet of a piece, and The Lion King is The River, a monumental and untouchable piece of pop art that stands on it’s own beyond what came before. The Rescuers: Down Under is The Promise, the weird not an album of songs Bruce recorded in this time but the record company wouldn’t let him put out that are all really good. And after that, things went downhill for a little bit and picked up again in a decade. (Pocahontas to Meet The Robinsons is Nebraska to Lucky Town, The Princess And The Frog is The Rising. We’ve put a LOT of thought into this.)

I love The Lion King, I love the movie, I love the Broadway musical and I never got around to the new version, but I’m sure I’ll love that too whenever I watch it. I actually burst into tears during the opening on this viewing, which was new. (I hadn’t even been drinking much, I was on my first glass of wine) There’s also a lot of affection for the Elton John songs, and again that fabulous voice cast. (Jeremy Irons! Nathan Lane! Whoopi Goldberg! Matthew Broderick! James Earl Jones! Moira Kelly, although to be fair, when Nala is scolding Simba I can now only hear, “I raised you to be a better man than this Luke!”) And the English major in me loves all the Shakespeare. Sure, it has the bones of Hamlet, but Simba himself has much more in common with Prince Hal of the Henry cycle than the Melancholy Dane, which makes for a much more triumphant story.

I love The Lion King so much that instead of pressing on the night that I watched it (which was the same day I watched Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin) I called out to Alexa to play the Broadway cast album. (Part of why I didn’t rush out to the remake was because they’d gone for new songs instead of giving me Beyonce and Donald Glover versions of “Shadowland” and “Endless Night” or just bypassing it entirely with a  John Oliver version  of “The Morning Report”)

Next year we start to climb down the mountain of great to the just good with Pocahontas.

 

Magical Movies Tour: Aladdin

Aladdin is almost as good as it’s predecessor, and has a few things really pushing for it to be better, but it doesn’t quite cohere in the same way. Likely this is because of the lack of Howard Ashman’s guiding hand. He worked on it early but his AIDS diagnosis and the progression of the disease stopped him from taking the real hand he wanted in it. (Aladdin was his dream project)

It’s still very good. The animation is lovely, the songs are great and frankly, as much as I love the balanced ensemble cast of Beauty And The Beast, the shining beacon of Robin Williams as The Genie is very, very hard to resist.

It’s an exceptional performance, a magic never again replicated by Disney Animation. (Danny DeVito in Hercules and Eddie Murphy in Mulan are the only ones even playing the same game and they’re not in the same league.) The way the animation is tailored to William’s outsized performance style, and ability to touch your heart is exceptional work, and the performance it’s self introduced an entire generation to this master performer and what he did.

It also has what I rank as the number two best Act II duet ever written in “A Whole New World.” (The number one is another Ashman And Menken classic, a little ditty called, “Suddenly Seymour.”) There’s something magical about the song, your typical Disney love song being about the thrill of the first date but “A Whole New World” is about the second date, about that feeling that you’ve gotten past the pleasantries, and something magical is about to happen.

I found myself more entranced than I thought I would be watching it again. It’s the one from this era I go back to the least. (It’s Mike’s favorite, so we watched it a lot as kids. Little Mermaid was mine and Oliver was Mary’s. It might be the only time I was more normal than my siblings) But I was absolutely thrilled to be watching it again.

I want to talk a little about Jasmine. The first Disney Princess Of Color is a more interesting character than I think people give her credit for. All of the previous princesses were beautiful but none of them seem conscious of that beauty’s power like Jasmine (actually none since are either.) Jasmine knows who she is, as a princess and a beautiful woman she has certain privileges and she uses them. She’s imperious and insistent on her due, she uses Aladdin (while he’s posing as Ali)’s & Jaffar’s lust against them. She’s actually pretty fascinating. There’s something a little problematic about the fact that she’s the first non white female lead in a Disney film and half her character is using her sexuality but that doesn’t make it less interesting in a vacuum.

Next week we feel the love for The Lion King. 

Magical Movies Tour: Beauty And The Beast

As much as I personally prefer The Little Mermaid (and it is quite a bit.) there’s just no way to deny that Beauty And The Beast is an outright masterpiece of a film, and should be on those lists of “perfect movies” and yet it somehow never makes it.

Beauty And The Beast is flawless, the stunning animation, the pitch perfect voice performances, the simple and yet emotionally resonant love story, those songs. My God, those wonderful, wonderful Ashman and Menken songs, “Be Our Guest,” “Belle,” “Something There,” “Gaston,” “The Mob Song,” and of course the title track, performed with heartfelt timelesss musical theater precision by Angela Lansbury and then with deeply of it’s moment pop gusto by Celine Dion and Peabo Bearnson.

I have a lot of opinions about this movie and the many pop culture conversations that have sprung up around it, and, thankfully, the conversation has turned from the “Belle has Stockholm Syndrome” narrative that dominated a few years ago. (Nope. It’s just that your high school English teachers failed you and you don’t know how to parse a pretty straightforward narrative about growth and forgiveness without taking everything so fucking literally.) But it’s difficult to somehow say that this movie is widely and universally acclaimed and yet still somehow, underrated?

It is so good though, so beautiful and special that it is somehow, universally loved and acclaimed and yet somehow underrated. Watch it again, any time you get a chance and see something you hadn’t seen before, because there’s always something.

Next week, none of us have ever had a friend like Aladdin. 

 

Magical Movies Tour: The Rescuers Down Under

There was a window of years where American Pop Culture was really into Australia. I was quite young for this but I still remember it reasonably clearly. Nerf Boomerangs abounded and The Rescuers Down Under came out. (Oddly, in my mind this movie and Fievel Goes West are linked. I looked it up and they didn’t come out near each other so I think it’s just the way time works when you’re little.) I don’t know if it was because of Crocodile Dundee or because we were all smitten with that Mel Gibson fella (boy, do we regret that one now) but we were super into Aussie crap in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Which brings me to The Rescuers Down Under, the last Disney animated flick to not be a super mega hit for about 10 years. It’s a charming little tale, and if like me you’re enamored of Bernard and Bianca, then it’s a straight hit. I don’t like it quite as much as The Rescuers because it’s technical marvels and huge natural scope are less charming than the original. Also Cody, a little boy kidnapped because he caught poacher in the act is nowhere near as endearing or well drawn a character as Penny. (He’s also a good deal less pathetic. Just a dead dad, his mom’s waiting at home for him.) Also I can’t figure out why he’s American? What the hell is an American kid doing running around the Outback?

There’s some great details here, the restaurant for critters in a chandelier in New York, the collection of animals that Cody’s befriended. (I assume the rules of this universe dictate that children can talk to animals and it’s just something we all forget as we grow up?) Bernand constantly trying to propose but Bianca getting sidetracked, an evil Geela Monster named Joanna, this is all good stuff. It’s just not quite as good as the stuff in The Rescuers.

Next week it’s onto the undisputed crown jewel of this era in Disney Animation, Beauty And The Beast. 

Fangirl Loves Star Wars: Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

The thing about becoming a pop culture blogger, and excited fandom tracker and frequent Comic Con goer (I’m really missing cons this year. So much) is that you just accumilate junk knowledge, but it also can suck the magic out of stuff, because a part of this kind of work, which I love doing, is figuring out how to see the strings.

So I decided to let the magic of The Mandalorian linger for a bit and not watch the behind the scenes Disney Gallery specials about the show. But as I realized that I’d maybe watched The Imagineering Story too many times, I decided to check it out.

First of all, I loved the format of the show, which reminded me of Jon Favreau’s delightful Dinner For Five. (I’ve heard The Chef Show does something similar, I might watch that too) Favreau used to host a show where he held a dinner party for five people and rolled cameras. It’s an intensely fun way to have a talk show. On Disney Gallery he takes a similar approach, doing roundtable interviews with different people involved in The Mandalorian, talking about their experience with Star Wars in general, this show in particular, and laughing a lot.

Some really cool stories come out, and there’s interesting behind the scenes talk about the technical and writing processes, tons of info dumping from Dave Filoni, and Bryce Dallas Howard telling an incredible story about a childhood trip to Japan. (This is in the “how did you find Star Wars” section. She starts with, “so when I was six, my dad,” and everyone just groans. She laughs, “I know, OK! But I promise this is cool!”)

The stuff about Baby Yoda is cool, but I was really fascinated with the way Favreau talked through building new tech as he moved from Iron Man to Jungle Book to The Lion King and now in The Mandalorian. And not for nothing, it’s always a joy to watch someone talk about something passionately, and if there is anything I know from following his career for most of my life, Jon Favreau loves movies and loves artists and loves film history, so talking about how special effects have grown to be able to create something as special as The Mandalorian is a real treat.

I’m also completely in love with Gina Carrano. My God, that woman is beautiful and funny and charismatic as hell.

Magical Movies Tour: Oliver And Company

There’s a definite thematic connection between Oliver And Company and 101 Dalmations. If the older film captures the feel of everything going on in London in the 60’s, there’s some real true 80’s NYC vibes.

It also happens to be the first Disney movie I can really remember falling in love with. We had both the soundtrack cassette, with those great songs, “Once Upon A Time In New York City” sung by Huey Lewis, “Why Should I Worry” by Billy Joel, “Perfect” by Better Midler, and the less high profile but still excellent, “Streets Of Gold” and “Good Company,” a read along Golden Book cassette featuring actual sound samples for the dialog, (“Yeah, yeah! When we gonna get those hot dogs?!” was oft repeated by the Nayden children) and the movie itself on VHS. Mary had a stuffed Oliver, we knew the movie by heart.

Retelling Oliver Twist with animals, casting Oliver as a teeny adorable kitten was a stroke of genius, and since most of America knew Dickens’s novel best as a musical anyway, that also follows. As an adult I have some questions, but they’re the kind of thing that I can brush off in a children’s film. Things like, “Fagan is definitely a heroin addict, right?” “Is Sykes with the mob, or a drug dealer? Like, what’s his deal?” “Did 5th Avenue types have butlers still in 1989?” Regardless of these niggling questions, the movie is a great watch.

Look, in the coming weeks I’m going to have trouble evaluating these movies with any kind of clear critical eye because I adore them so much. We’re into the Renaissance now, the movies that defined my childhood and lifelong Disney fandom.

Yes, next week we dive deep into nostalgia, with The Little Mermaid. 

 

Better Than It Has Any Right To Be: The Legend Of The Three Caballeros

Remember back when time had meaning and I watched The Three Cabelleros and Saludos Amigos and was completely and utterly charmed. Well, this week, in an attempt to escape from just you know, life in general, I rewatched Gravity Falls(On second viewing, still totally rules) and then the first season of Duck Tales, and then a few episodes of season 2, until I got to “The Town Where Everyone Was Nice” which is where Scrooge, Webby, the boys and Donald go to Brazil and meet up with Jose and Panchito, who in this story were in a band with Donald in college. (They’re also, like Donald, lovable losers.) (They have an episode in season 3 as well, “Louie’s 11” and it is a delight) (So much Caballeros this week you guys!)

Then I remembered that the long whispered about in the corners of the internet where we all talk about how Duck Tales is better than it has any right to be, that The Legend Of Three Caballeros was also better than it had any right to be. I could have this conversation about Duck Tales infinitely, because Duck Tales is incredible and I love it so much. (Also I miss Aless and our morning after a night of fun ritual of ordering breakfast sandwiches and watching Duck Tales.)

But hanging with Jose and Panchito again, I decided to check out their show.

And it is, indeed, better than it has any right to be, and suiting The Cabelleros, it doesn’t make a lot of sense and is super silly. It subtracts the racism for the most part so, yay! The idea is that Donald, Panchito and Jose’s ancestors were mystical adventurers and it’s their turn to take up the mantel. There’s also a whole thing with a trapped goddess named Xandra, a villain who has been transformed into a magical staff, Daisy’s nieces, April, May and June. (They are fine, but I miss my boys).

The animation is great, and the story is bonkers and the jokes are good and you get to hear “The Three Caballeros” 13 times, because that’s how many episodes there are. (There are a few other songs too.) Donald gets angry a lot, a Jose flirts with every woman they meet and Panchito dives into adventure without thinking and it’s great.

Because I love those stupid birds and their dumb guitars and their absurdly catchy song.

“THEY SAY WE ARE BIRDS OF A FEATHEEEERRRR…”

It’s on Disney+ and I think people should check it out.

Magical Movies Tour: The Great Mouse Detective

For an Anglophile, I’ve never cared much for Sherlock Holmes stories. They’ve just never hooked me, and hearing everyone talk about they’re the best detective stories (when Poirot exists!) always bothered me. But I’m a sucker for stuff like The Great Mouse Detective, as we learned during The Rescuers and Robin Hood, the secret parallel world of animals, is going to get me.

The Great Mouse Detective is also just a very good movie. The story is fun, Basil, our Holmes stand in is a manic bit whirlwind of a her. Professor Ratigan is a wonderful villain, the music  numbers are delightful vaudeville confections.

I also like Olivia, the little girl who seeks out Basil to find her kidnapped father, and Dr. Dawson, our Watson stand in. Just in general, it’s a lovely little movie. I don’t have much more to say, it’s just a quality little flick, which despite my lack of enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes in general, really got to me.

Sorry this is so short.

Next time, it’s Once Upon a Time In New York City, and my nostalgia goes into overdrive with Oliver And Company. 

Magical Movies Tour: The Black Cauldron

Note: These are the only things I’ve felt like writing for the past two weeks, so I’m going to start posting two a week. I’ve gotten way ahead of myself and want to share my thoughts! Hooray!

Well, that was better than I expected.

Everyone always talks about what a tremendous failure The Black Cauldron is, as a film on it’s own, and as an adaptation of the wonderful The Chronicles of Prydain, and in reality it is perfectly fine as both. The movie takes on the first two books in the series, The Book Of Three and The Black Cauldron, and omits so reasonably important characters, (Wither thou, Gwydion?) but it does an OK job by them.

Taran’s relationship to Hen Wen is perhaps given a bit more weight, (Hen Wen is an oracular pig, in case you forgot.) and Gurgi is given a bit more weight. (To be fair Gurgi is kind of a perfect Disney character.) Eilonwy is pefectly sketched as in Fleudeur Flam (though his true self, a king in his own right, is never revealed). The Horned King is terrifying and clearly the portion of the film the most love was given to.

I’m not saying The Black Cauldron is perfect, and you can certainly see how many of the people working on it moved on to work with Don Bluth, because it reminds me much more stuff like Thumbelina and A Troll In Central Park than anything else Disney’s ever done, but it’s wasn’t the awful mess I was expecting. It got the characters right, at the very least, and inspired me to purchase the books for Kindle. (This was another Quarantine Watch)

Next week, the awakening begins with the light stirrings of The Great Mouse Detective.