Magical Movies Tour: The Princess And The Frog

Isn’t it nice when the stars align and an important movie is also a good one?

The Princess And The Frog earns the first distinction, “important,” by being the last hand drawn animated feature from Walt Disney Animation and for it’s black, working class leading lady. Tiana is a waitress for New Orleans, who after being raised by a bus driver and seamstress, has worked her whole life to open her own restaurant.

She crosses paths with Prince Naveen who is transformed by the wicked Dr. Faccillier into a frog and then because they didn’t follow the rules explicitly (Tiana is not a princess) she turns into a frog rather than him turning back into a man.

It’s, more than a little convoluted when you write it out, but presented visually, Tiana and Naveen’s journey through 1920’s Louisiana is a delightful rom-com, opposites attract romp, punctuated by super fun character designs, and some catchy tunes by Randy Newman.

I really love this movie, and every time I watch it I’m only more enamored. There’s some stuff that I think could have used another pass. (There’s no real connection between Tiana and Dr. Facillier, for example, this feels like an odd error.) And as I get older and more interested in social justice narratives in popular culture, I am in awe of the decisions made with this film. Tiana is in complete control of her destiny from minute one, but this doesn’t prevent conflict or growth. There’s a variety of black faces and bodies on display, the music, that slow New Orleans style jazz is so much fun.

I’m generally on board with The Princess And The Frog getting more attention whenever possible, and am thus super excited for the upcoming retheme of Splash Mountain to a Princess And The Frog ride. I think it’s a brilliant decision that also means we’re going to get Louis Audio Animatronic, which I think fits into Imagineering’s sweet spot perfectly. Also, replacing an attraction based around something super racist, with something based around a strong and exciting Black female protagonist sends the right message.

Next time we continue down the path of magical princesses ,and see the light with Tangled. 

 

Magical Movies Tour: Bolt

Full disclosure, I watched Bolt with a pretty open heart, since it comes from a storytelling tradition I like out of Disney, and the lead is voiced by John Travolta and I watched it the day after Kelly Preston died, so I was disposed to treat him kindly.

That said, Bolt is a sweet little flick in the tradition of Lady And The Tramp, 101 Dalmations and Oliver And Company. It isn’t as good as those, by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t disgrace the tropes either.

Bolt is an adorable doggie actor, the star of his own TV show and he’s spent his whole life being trained to believe he’s the character he plays on TV is who he really is, and his co-star, a child actor named Olivia, is actually Penny, his owner on the show. (She’s also voiced by Miley Cyrus, and they sing a duet together, and I just thought, “MAN, it’s nice that those two charismatic dummies with excellent singing voices got to sing a song together.” I have opinions.)

They’re separated due to shenanigans and Bolt races across the country to get back to his human, while Olivia worries about him and the grown ups around her pressure her to accept his replacement.

On his cross country journey, Bolt makes a reluctant ally in Mittens, an abandoned cat and Rhino, a stuck in his ball hamster who ADORES the show. There are running gags about pigeons as regional locals, which hit the nail in the perfect way.

The jump animation-wise between Meet The Robinsons and this is exceptional, the hair on the animals is well animated, and the character expressions more nuanced. It’s impressive. The movie isn’t as good, but it’s worth a watch if you want something cute. I wish it were a bit more of tear jerker, frankly.

It is an interesting thing that happens sometimes in Disney Movies, where they criticize a major portion of their bussiness model. It is made clear that being a child star sucks, Olivia is miserable. As Miley herself has talked about a lot as she’s become an adult, she hated being Hannah Montana, really hated it.

Next time the new era of greatness truly begins, it’s time head down to New Orleans with The Princess And The Frog

Magical Movies Tour: Meet The Robinsons

I was so excited to watch Meet The Robinsons again. A movie I saw in movie theaters several times. (I went to the movies a lot in college, and this played for a while.)

There’s just so much that I love wrapped up in this movie. Retro-futurism. Time Travel. Eccentric Wealthy Family Shenanigans. A dinosaur. Conflict Solved Through Compassion. Utter Silliness. Lounge Singing Frogs.

I just love it so much. The animation is still a little wonky, but it’s leaps and bounds better than Chicken Little, and the environments are clever and the characters are distinct and well performed, and there’s no atrocious Spice Girls Covers.

Plus the Bowler Hat Man/Goob is one of the most brilliant comedic villains ever.

I could also quote this movie all day long.

“Everyone will tell you to let it go! DON’T LET IT GO!”

“I have a big head, and little arms. I don’t think this plan was very well thought out, Master.”

“You think I’m crazy, too!”

“Hey Goob, cool binder!” “Want to come over to my house today Goob?” “They all hated me.”

There’s also just a ton of delightful comedic anarchy in this movie and heaping ton of heart. I spend a lot of time thinking about this movie, and how much fun it is and how underrated. Silly doesn’t get enough credit in this world, and it’s a damn shame, because silliness is sublime when applied correctly. (Later this week, we shall dive deeper into this, when I finally get around to writing about my new favorite show, Star Trek: Lower Decks)

And Meet The Robinsons applies that silliness almost perfectly. It also has a classic, almost out of nowhere Disney Scary Scene, where Doris, the evil Bowler hat. (seriously this movie is the best) creates a bowler hat centric apocalypse where humans are slaves to her whims.

Orphaned Lewis and his future son Wilbur Robinson are also delightful kid protagonists, all full of energy and brightness, not whiny or too cool for school, and behave like young teens. (This has become a new hill to die on for me, kids that are written age appropriate. They are often written to old or too young.)

There’s also just the whole retro-future design of the thing, which I don’t know enough about, but I just absolutely love to look at. And there’s the fact that the whole ethos of the movie, “Keep Moving Forward” is an actual Walt Disney quote and the general idea behind Imagineering.

Next time we re-enter a secret animal world with Bolt, which is another new one for me.

Magical Movie Tour: Chicken Little

I went into Chicken Little with the confidence that it would at least be better than Home On The Range.

It is not.

Like Home On The Range this is Disney animation attempting something that they are not particularly adept at. (This time, a Dreamworks style “all ages” cartoon, with modern reference humor and pop soundtrack) Unlike Home On The Range, it is also really ugly to look at and has a convoluted alien invasion plot that’s almost impossible to follow.

hated this movie. If I had watched it previous to this project, I probably would have just skipped it.

It is terrible. It’s not funny, the voice performances are lazy, the music choices are cliche and grating. Even the original song, “One Little Slip” by The Barenaked Ladies, a band I often defend (I have a soft spot for 90’s pop rock) is an atrociously lazy effort that I thought before the singing started was their seminal masterpiece, “It’s All Been Done.”

But the crummy animation, there’s just no excuse. None. It’s the first fully computer animated flick from the studio, and it is clunky and ugly and the idea that this movie came out in 2005, when Pixar had been doing their thing for nearly a decade at this point, there’s no excuse for the awfulness. I can usually get past bad animation if there’s something else to hold onto in the story, but there’s nothing, just nothing redeeming in Chicken Little.

Well, that’s not true, the credits have a fun cover of “Shake Your Tail Feather” by The Cheetah Girls, but that’s one of those perfect songs and it would be exceptionally difficult for a group of talented vocalists like those ladies to screw that up.

Next time, I revisit the truly delightful, Meet The Robinsons. 

Magical Movies Tour: Home On The Range

If The Emperor’s New Groove is what happens when Disney attempts a Looney Toons style sense of humor and exceeds beyond anyone’s expectations, Home On The Range is what happens when they miss the mark by quite a bit.

There are elements of Home On The Range that work. I’ve actually always liked the music which pops up on Disney playlists from time to time, so there’s that. “A Little Patch Of Heaven” performed by K.D. Lang is in particular a charming little ditty. There are a few gags that work. The voice performances are pretty good, there are some super fun but wasted cameos. (Patrick Wharburton is back as a particularly dense horse!)

Just in general it doesn’t gel, and the plot is too simple to engage without some great gags and the gags are not particularly great.

I also, just really don’t like Roseanne Barr, and her voice is super grating, though suited to the role that she’s playing here. Just in general this movie is so deeply unmemorable. I haven’t been this blah about any of these since Dumbo, and that at least left some impact via the music.

This is just, not good. And it was a turning point for the studio as well. While there were a few movies in development that got finished, this is clearly the place where the decision was made to get back to basics.

First though, we power through some odd ducks, or in the case of our next entry, Chicken Little. 

Bittersweet And Strange: Howard Shines a Bright Light on The Voice Of My Childhood

It is absolutely impossible to calculate the depth of Howard Ashman’s influence on me, and countless other people like me, who fell in love with musicals as a medium because of his work with Disney.

The new documentary on Disney+, directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty And The Beast is of a piece with Hahn’s equally wonderful, Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicles Ashman’s life, from his working class Baltimore roots, to his tragic death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

The movie deals with his early work and relationships sensitively before settling into his life long partnerships, creatively with Alan Menken and his life partner Bill Pausch, both of whom tell some of the most touching stories about him.

What I like so much about Hahn’s approach here, and why I think it surpasses Waking Sleeping Beauty (which I happen to really like a lot) is that here Hahn doesn’t have an axe to grind. He wants to share his friends life and work, especially his work, with people. And the work so often speaks for itself.

Old footage of Ellen Greene singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” or Jodi Benson recording “Part Of Your World,” or an incredible demo of Ashman singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or the joyous look on Jerry Orbach’s face as he listens back to “Be Our Guest” for the first time, this man wrote such wonderful, perfect, musical theater songs. There are no talking heads, narration is provided by Hahn himself, or by stories told over old photographs, which makes it much more intimate. Occasionally an old interview with Ashman will pop up, and listening to him talk about his work is transfixing.

Thinking about AIDS is something I do, and have done A LOT, in my life. I was too young for the most dangerous time of this disease, but I live in the New York area and love art, so pretty much every bit of the art I love was shaped by the disease, by the generation of men who were lost.

Watch this one with tissues, y’all. It’s going to break your heart. And be prepared for one final punch in the gut over the credits.

Magical Movies Tour: Treasure Planet

In the great “Ninjas or Pirates” debates of the early internet I always landed squarely on the pirate side. (Daredevil and Batman aside) This was largely because of Disney stuff. Disney fricking loves pirates and I grew up loving them too. I think the company has adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate novel Treasure Island 3 times, if you count Muppet Treasure Island (and you should because it is a delight).

For all it’s steam punk and sci-fi trappings, Treasure Planet is a very straightforward adaptation of the story which is actually a smart decision. And it’s also proof that if you’re going to go back to the well, the best way to do it is in spectacular fashion, or straight back to basics.

Treasure Planet somehow manages to do both, and it’s a really special movie for that. The animation is spectacular and smooth, the characters are memorable. Although I could really do without giving Jim Hawkins that early 2000s “You’re not my dad!” energy. He’s supposed to just be a sweet kid who wants to go on adventures, what’s wrong with that. (I love Treasure Island and have many opinions about it.) This sticks to the Tarzan, “Soundtrack not musical number” style, although this time the songs are by John Rzenick of The Goo Goo Dolls, which is, a choice. It feels like a dated choice even for 2002, when the flick hit, The Goos are kind of a 96-98-ish phenomenon.

Unlike Atlantis, which definitely shares some DNA with this movie, I 100% can see why this didn’t hit. It is super niche. But if you’re the kind of person who is very into Emma Thompson voicing a sexy cat lady pirate (and I think by this time y’all should know that I am) then you will probably be on board for the rest of what’s going on here. Long John Silver as a cyborg, the parrot replaced by a shape shifting alien, a whacky robot instead of a marooned former sailor, I loved every bit of it.

Next week, we discover our true selves with Brother Bear.

Magical Movies Tour:Lilo & Stitch

Much like The Emperor’s New Groove there’s a certain stripe and age of Disney Fan for whom Lilo & Stitch is the be all end all. Unlike New Groove, it’s footprint is bigger, and I don’t like it that much.

It has it’s charms and as a grown quirky imaginative kid, I appreciate that kids like me a little younger had Lilo to look to. Not to mention non nuclear families and people of Polynesian decent. Stitch is a fun character too, and probably the reason why the film left a bigger footprint than the rest of the ones from this era.

As a Disney parks fan, escaping Stitch is impossible. He is fracking everywhere at Walt Disney World and has been pretty much since the movie came out. And again, I see the appeal, Stitch is little kid Id writ large, running around causing mayhem and being only lightly corrected. That kind of energy is very at home in a theme park setting.

The movie does what it does well, and balances it’s intergalactic adventure and family dramedy portions spectacularly, I’m also really into the soundtrack, a combination of new songs and a good selection of Elvis’s greatest hits, but I don’t know why I just can never get into it. I’ve tried a few times and it just never quite clicked with me.

I of course, am not made of stone so therefore, “Ohana means family, family means no one gets left behind or forgotten” and “This is my family, I found it all by myself, it’s little and broken but still good, yeah, still good,” make me weep like a baby.

Next time, we’ll blast off looking for Treasure Planet 

Magical Movies Tour: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

I think that if Titan AE didn’t exist, Atlantis: The Lost Empire would have a bit more of a cult following, but the type of people who’d love it, already gave their hearts to Titan AE, and didn’t have room for this.

Other people that would love this movie, The Firefly people. (I’m not a Firefly person, but most of my friends are. GUYS! WATCH ATLANTIS! YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE IT!)

The thing that stands out the most to me on this is the unique look. It doesn’t really look much like anything else. The characters are boxy and angular and the world of Atlantis itself is alien and beautiful and captivating. It’s also exceptionally fast. We’re on the road to Atlantis, dishing out exposition along the way, about 10 minutes in. It’s actually quite impressive how expediently it gets you into it’s world and on it’s wavelength.

I’m not a big “celebrity voices don’t belong in animation” person, but I will say that Michael J. Fox’s performance as Milo is both very good and super distracting. Maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of his, (I was a weird kid who was super into Spin City.) but I find his voice and style of delivery so distinct that hearing it come out of an animated character, even one that in his youth and when he was healthy, he could have easily played in live action, just feels eerie. (Odd that I don’t feel this way about Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, but I don’t. I do a little bit about Kevin Kline as Phoebus in Hunchback.)

This sounds like the movie itself didn’t make an impression on me, but it really did. I think it’s a pretty fun movie that got buried somehow. I’m not sure how, I suppose it is that there’s nothing else quite like it, and it was also a time before everyone realized those 70’s and 80’s nerds who loved Superman and Star Wars had preteen and teen kids who they’d passed that nerdiness onto.

Next time we’re on that Hawaiin roller coaster ride with Lilo & Stitch. 

Magical Movies Tour: The Emperor’s New Groove

There are no other Disney Animated Movies, and few movies period as gloriously and delightfully and wonderfully silly as The Emperor’s New Groove.

I admit we’re currently in a stretch that if I saw the movies at all, it was likely on a bus on a field trip or a plane or something. I was a little too busy being in middle and high school and thus being in rehearsal every night of my life while all of this was going on and these movies weren’t even musicals so like, who gives a crap?

(I missed out on some cool shit with that thought process, let me tell you.)

And missing out on something as good as The Emperor’s New Groove until some uhhh…chemically altered viewings in college was a huge bummer. (But seriously, this is a fun movie to watch with a bunch of nerds who are stoned. If you’re wondering.)

The Looney Tunes style slapstick is perfectly executed with a fun character style and really game vocal performances by David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt and Patrick Wharburton.

Especially Wharburton. Kronk is definitely the breakout character, a loveable and vain lug who fell in with Yzma (Kitt), but actually wants to do the right thing. That’s not to say that Kuzco and Pacha (Spade and Goodman, respectively) and their odd couple buddy adventure isn’t spectacular, because it totally is, just everytime Kronk does something completely lunkheaded Wharburton’s dopey barritone compliments everything perfectly.

I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this as much this go round (sans Cannabis) it’s just a delightful romp, with excellent gag after excellent gag.

Next week we get to the adventuring with Atlantis: The Lost Empire