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

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 

Magical Movies Tour: Dinosaur

Wow, Dinosaur is boring.

The thing it has going for it, the photo realistic dinosaurs are kind of cool, but their appeal is exhausted after the first twenty minutes. After that there’s still like an hour and a half of movie.

The plot, such as it is, involves a baby dinosaur who is orphaned and raised by monkeys, who one day finds a heard of his own kind who are escaping a comet and moving to their nesting grounds. His monkey guardians are psyched about this, because they were very worried their adopted dino son was never going to meet a nice girl and mate. Luckily, there is a nice girl dino of his own species. She’s got a dickhead brother though who’s stubborn belief that he’s right is going to get them eaten by a Carnosaur.

Anyway, then they walk to the valley and our lead dino and dino girl have babies of their own.

Look, this movie is visually stunning and is definitely a technilogical marvel, but it is so dull. There’s just nothing exciting or interesting that happens. Even the few chases involving the Carnosaur are over quickly and don’t hold much suspense.

This did inspire a fricking TERRIFYING ride at Animal Kingdom that I have vowed to never ride again.

Anyway, next week, we’ll enter the hilarious cartoon world of The Emperor’s New Groove

Magical Movies Tour: Fantasia 2000

Watching Fantasia woke up something inside of me. I think it’s an incredibly special piece of art, interesting and idiosyncratic and unique. It was also a deep financial failure for Disney Studios and despite years of trying, Walt’s desire for a sequel never got off the ground. When Roy Disney took over, it became his dream to chase and, based on the reading I’ve done this year, really bugged the crap out of everyone else at the company.

The result of that war (besides Michael Eisner losing his job and Bob Iger becoming a thing) is Fantasia 2000, which is an interesting beast, and nowhere near as lovely as it’s predecessor. Choosing a slate of new pieces and remastering “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” the film is presented much more like a splashy symphonic event concert, complete with celebrity introductions and projection screens.

It is nowhere near as charming and the work on display feels a good deal less magical.

I liked a few of the pieces more than others. Interpreting “Rhapsody in Blue” as a bustling day in 1930s New York, drawn in the style of Al Hirschfeld is inspired and the resulting piece is a lot of fun to watch. “The Firebird” is interesting if imperfect and “Pomp And Circumstance” is a lovely little fable that features my good friend Donald.

At the bottom of the barrel is probably “The Pines of Rome” where several blue whales migrate and jump out of the water. While I’m sure this sequence seemed really cool on Imax screens in 2000, now the CGI looks dated and there’s no majesty on my home tv.

The celebrity narrators are well chosen and acquit themselves well, but still feel, off, I guess?

Next week, we’re talking about Dinosaur, which I genuinely cannot remember if I’ve ever watched before.

Magical Movies Tour: Tarzan

Tarzan has a weird distinction for me as a movie that I like perfectly fine but I know a ton about the production process of, even before I started tracking that sort of thing because it was released in the summer of 1999 and that was the first summer that my family had The Disney Channel.

The cable station had been around forever but that year our cable company shifted the package around so we finally had access to it. As life long Disney nuts, and you know, a ten and twelve year old girl, Mary and I were glued to it. Disney Channel was our default, “what do you want to watch?” choice. And because of that, we saw just about every “making of” clip available for Tarzan. We knew every song by heart before the movie came out, we knew that Phil Collins had the idea for “You’ll Be In My Heart” before he even started working on the movie, (He was writing about his daughter), and we knew that Tarzan’s movements were modeled after extreme athletes (skateboarders, snowboarders and surfers).

Outside of all that intimate knowledge was really loving the music. I think our transformation from pop loving giggling girls to prog rock teens is definitely marked here. (Obviously the Tarzan soundtrack is not actually Prog, but Phil Collins, as a former member of Genesis has that in his musical DNA). Also, we were in choir. If you were in choir from 1999 to 2010 you probably had to learn “Trashin’ The Camp” at some point. “You’ll Be In My Hear” got the Oscar, but I’ve always felt like “Son Of Man” is the really standout song of the pack. I’ve also always loved that they used the music as a soundtrack rather than a Broadway style cast album, (Except for “Trashin’ The Camp” which gives Rosie O’Donnell a stand out moment.) because it helps the episodic feel of the movie. It’s like a series of beautifully animated music videos, rather than a straight musical, kind of cool and creative.

My real affection for the music though, does not take away from the fact that Tarzan is pretty forgettable as a movie. It’s fun enough, the animation is clear and creative, but it’s just kind of there. It doesn’t do much of anything new with the Tarzan mythos, the characters aren’t particularly distinct (compare this to The Jungle Book, which is perhaps unfair, but you remember something about each animal Mowgli encounters.) and everyone feels like they’re just caught up in the story beats that they have go through in order to make a Tarzan movie. It actually made me think of the when I saw Spectre and Aless and I walked out going, “Well, that sure was a Bond movie, alright.” Nothing wrong with it, just nothing particularly right with it either.

I’m trying not to get to hyped about next week when we take on Fantasia 2000, because, I know it’s been a little while, but do you guys remember how fucking much I loved Fantasia? 

It’s Movie Season Shrimp Rolls & Moscow Mules

Movie season was one of my favorite traditions that I was happy to also say a complete goodbye to this year. It’s not that I didn’t love and don’t love going to the movies. I absolutely adore it, it was just the routine and way I was doing it for six summers was starting to feel stale.

Also it’s a pandemic and movie theaters are closed ya dope.

Anyway, last Thursday I settled in to watch The Old Guard and decided to make an approximation of what I’d have eaten before seeing the movie if it had been released in theaters and I’d met up with Kristi and Aless before.

That meant, basic sea food, fries and a simple vodka cocktails.

Shrimp Rolls

1/2 lb Easy Peal Shrimp

1 Cup Vegetable Broth

1 Tbl Mayonaise

1/4 Cup Cole Slaw Mix

Salt, Pepper & Old Bay to Taste

Brioche Hot Dog Roll

1 table spoon butter

Garlic Powder to Taste

Heat the broth to steam the shrimp, I use the instant pot steam setting for 3 minutes, but you can also boil the broth and steam for about 5.

Place the shrimp in the ice bucket to cool down and then peel.

Chop the shrimp into smaller pieces and combine with mayo, slaw mix and spices.

Melt the butter with the garlic and brush onto the roll, toast in toaster oven to medium.

Place shrimp salad on the toasted bun.

Enjoy!

Moscow Mule

1 Shot Vodka

Juice of 1 Lime

1 can or Bottle Ginger Beer

Take a large glass (or a copper mug if you’ve got one, I do not own one…oddly enough) and fill with ice.

Squeeze lime directly into the glass

Add Vodka

Add Ginger beer

The fries on this plate where frozen and baked in the toaster oven for 30 mintues.

Story Time

I mentioned back in Marvel and Margaritas that after we outgrew Lucy’s, Aless and I moved our movie night hangs to PJ Clark’s at Lincoln Center. When Kristi started joining us it made even more sense for us to stay there, Aless heading uptown, Kristi back to Connecticut and me to Jersey.

It shifted the way we ordered too. Seafood sandwiches, and steaks and vodka cocktails replaced the margaritas and tacos and tortas. I actually usually get a martini, and the Moscow Mule is Aless’s go to. But I wasn’t quite feeling up to the martini, which I’m still struggling with (I CANNOT get my vermouth balanced. I’m getting better.)

So on Thursday, I settled in to watch The Old Guard with this very nostalgic meal, and missed my friends but managed to feel normal for a little while, which was nice.

Magical Movies Tour: Mulan

I know last week I WENT OFF about how Hercules is my favorite of this run, but that was of course before I watched Mulan again which is as different from Hercules as could possibly be, and also might be my favorite?

Mulan is a really special movie for so many reasons. I do really love the “girl disguises herself to go to war” trope, which of course started likely with the Ballad of Hua Mulan, (though my Western Catholic example was always Jeanne D’Arc.) and Disney’s version of the tale is remarkable for a few reasons.

First of all, there are several truly incredible animation sequences. The battle with the Huns on the mountain side, and the final battle at the Imperial Palace have always been stand outs, but this time, I was really moved by the montage of Mulan getting ready to leave home.

It’s moody and epic and a little bit foreboding. The music helps that but the images in that sequence are just absolutely incredible. Mulan sitting on the Great Stone Dragon, seeing her parents in silhouette, and the lightning crashing as she makes her choice.  I was really moved by it.

I also was super moved by the ending when all of the city bows to Mulan after the emperor, but I think that’s just because I watched The Return Of The King the week before I watched it and had a bit of an emotional hangover.

There’s some of the Aladdin formula at work here as well, and it’s really the only one after that where it works. Eddie Murphy’s performance as Mushu is a delight of comic relief, the antics of the cricket are also fun, and the ancestors as a kind of comedic Greek chorus make for a nice bit of business too.

There’s still a steep drop off in quality this run from The Lion King, but it’s also not nearly as pronounced as I remembered. Pocahontas is a stinker, but everything after that is actually pretty good to great. (Mulan and Hercules)

Next time, that “pretty good” streak continues with the Tarzan.