Magical Movies Tour: Moana

I love Moana. I love Moana so much. Trying to decide what to focus on for this essay is almost impossible, but I’ve decided very specifically to focus on how Moana, the character in the movie Moana, goes perfectly on every step of “The Hero’s Journey”

Shall we?

The Call To Adventure

From the time she’s a literal baby, The Ocean is calling on Moana to venture out and save her people, she drops the Heart of Tafiti into her tiny baby lap. Of course we must first establish her normal life, as the chief’s daughter she’s learning to lead the tribe. It’s going very well.

Refusal Of The Call

Moana spends her whole life resisting this urge to go out onto the ocean and leave her home behind. She has responsibilities and also her father really hates the ocean. BUT, her island is in trouble and she goes into a cave and has a vision of her people’s history as voyagers and realizes what she needs to do.

Supernatural Aid

The Ocean itself finally sends Moana on her way, as does the spirit of her Grandmother, who passes away right as Moana realizes her true calling.

Passing The Threshold Of Adventure

I mean, she LITERALLY HAS TO GET PAST A REEF SURROUNDING HER ISLAND TO BEGIN HER QUEST. (To find Maui and replace the heart of Tafiti) Also, when she meets Maui and convinces him to join her

Belly Of The Whale

Moana fight the Kakamora, realizing that this journey will be perilous and not as easy as she thought.

The Road Of Trials

This is largely the battle with Tomatoa, but also the journey across the ocean, where Maui teaches her to sail, and regains his powers of shapeshifting with his hook. This is also when Maui and Moana fail at their first attempt to get the heart to Tafiti, blocked by the demon TaKa.

The Meeting With The Goddess/Atonement With The Father/Abyss/Apotheosis

After Maui flees in their failure, Moana communes with her ancestors, especially her grandmother and realizes that she is a hero and she needs to finish her quest. (I weep, and weep like a tiny baby.)

Here the hero is supposed to have a greater realization about themselves and their quest, here, Moana know at last, who she is and what she wants.

The Final Boon

Moana restores the heart! She wins! Also, she realizes that trauma is not the defining portion of a person’s life and soul, when she returns the heart and it is revealed that Taka is the heartless Tafiti.

The Master Of Two Worlds/The Freedom To Live

Upon returning to her people, Moana teaches them to voyage once again, and takes her place as the next chief. Also, Maui returns to his place as a great hero.

I left a few categories and steps that didn’t apply, but otherwise, it’s a pretty straightforward telling and I love it so much. Frozen II also fits pretty well, but we’re mostly going to be talking about feminism and matrilineal lines of power when we get there.

Next time, I do my best to finish a movie that I feel asleep watching on planes like 4 times, Ralph Breaks The Internet

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. 

 

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: 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. 

Magical Movies Tour: Hercules

*Contented Sigh* I love Hercules.

In the course of this project I’ve been compelled to get my butt off the couch and dance a total of five times, “Bear Necessities,” “Why Should I Worry?”, “Streets Of Gold,” and then, “Zero to Hero,” and “A Star Is Born.” Which I think says something. Hercules is, as the kids say, a BOP. This movie SLAPS. It is so much fun, just oodles and oodles of fun.

It doesn’t hurt the cause that it is an adaptation of Greek myth, a genre I am inordinately fond of. (Have you heard the gospel of our lord and savior, Rick Riordan? How about Lore Olympus? Wanna talk about Lore Olympus?) To be fair Disney’s Hercules is a loose adaptation of the greatest hero Greece has ever known. (Or, “My jerkiest brother” as Jason Grace calls him.) (Oh no, I gave myself a sad) It’s still a really fun ride.

It’s incredible watching this after watching Pocahontas and Hunchback, because I really do like it so much more. Perhaps it’s because it’s less self serious? Because it uses a different music style? I like that it leans into being a cartoon quite a bit. Hercules’s strength is used for physical comedy as much as it is for incredible action set pieces. (And that fight against the Hydra is really cool.) I also like the voice performances. James Woods is an unrepentant dick head but he’s perfect as Hades and Danny DeVito slays as Phil. Tate Donovan is completely winning as Herc, and Susan Egan creates a GODDAMNED ICON with Megara.

There are few songs in the world that have implanted themselves as much in my brain as “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” It’s a wonderful song and so much fun at karaoke. (If you’re wondering I usually take the Muses part and someone else takes Meg.)  (That someone else is often Kristi.) (I miss karaoke)

I don’t have more words to spill here but I just had a blast watching this movie again.

Next week, we’ll bring honor to our families by watching Mulan. 

Magical Movie Tours: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

I’ve never read Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris from which all the adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stem. I always figured if I was going to muddle through thousands of pages about Paris architecture and Hugo’s penchant for excruciating detail and bloated casts it should be for the story that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a child.

Which is why I’ve read Les Miserables like 4 ish times (sometimes I start and get frustrated, other times I just skip to the good stuff, but I’ve read the whole thing front to back 3 times), but I’ve never bothered with Notre Dame.

When The Hunchback Of Notre Dame came out I was a little too old for being fully into Disney and not quite the Broadway musical obsessed teenager I would become. It was firmly in my preteen attempts at being a normal person. I regret those years mightily. (This instinct would rear it’s ugly head and lead to misery my sophomore year of college as well). So it just hasn’t imprinted on me the way it has a lot of other people. The music though, once I did become that Broadway musical obsessed teenager, did work it’s way into my heart. “The Bells Of Notre Dame,” and “Out There,” and “God Help The Outcasts” are just absolutely stunning works of musical theater music. It’s some of Alan Menken’s strongest work, all dreamy strings and triumphant horns, and Steven Schwartz’s lyrics are deep and strong and moving.

The art is once again incredible, capturing a time and place so mythic and golden that it shines with God’s love, and yet corrupted and foul with hypocrisy and obsession.

Speaking of “obsession,” having not read the novel, I assume if Frollo is at all faithful Hugo had a bug up his butt about hypocritical sticklers, huh? “Hellfire” is a terrifying song (even if it’s a little bit stolen from Sweeny Todd, Alan and Steve? I see you.) and his determination to burn Paris to “cleanse his own sin” is horrible and really cool.

I get why people love this movie, I really do, I see it. I just, don’t love it. It’s not in my heart, I appreciate it tremendously and love things that it’s given us. (Seriously, that music, just heavenly.) (There was also a time when wandering around Epcot that Mary and I tripped over Esmerelda and she taught us a dance and it was easily one of my favorite character interactions ever, I think I was 12?)

Next we get into the movie from this era that did get into my heart, and that’s Hercules. 

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: 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: The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Another anthology of sorts, this time just two stories, both adapted from popular children’s books, The Wind In The Willows and Tales of Sleepy Hollow, and both shorts excellently executed.

The Pastoral English tale of Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, that foolish fop, captivated by adventure and his poor put upon friends trying to reign him in. Toad decides one day, at the urging of the troublesome horse, Cyril, that he absolutely MUST have a motorcar. Meanwhile, back at Toad Hall, Angus McBadger, Mr. Mole and Mr. Rat are trying to make sense of this newest mania for their friend, but before they can, Toad has traded the hall to some duplicitous Weasels for their car.

They then take him to court, claiming he stole it. He’s thrown in the tower and a wild escape attempt later, the weasels are discovered and all is well…or at least until Toad brings home an airplane! Oh will he ever learn?

The Ichabod Crane half, which as a kid I never finished due to terror, is my preffered. Yes, I know a few weeks ago I railed against the American Folklore stuff, but I like this one. (Maybe it’s the Old East Coaster in me. The western stuff doesn’t do it, but give me those New York Dutch ghosts any old day.) Narrated by Bing Crosby (I mean REALLY!) We learn the story of the lanky school master Ichabod Crane, who comes to Tarrytown and sweeps the women of town off their feet with his intellect and cultured ways. When he starts pursuing the beautiful and rich Katrina VanTassel, town bully Brahms decides it’s time to put him in this place.

At a party Brahms relates the story of The Headless Horseman, a spook who rides through the Hollow on Halloween Night, searching for his head. The song that does this is really great, but I’m also super partial to Bing Crosby, as he was my mom’s favorite crooner, I grew up with his voice.

Leaving the party Ichabod has an encounter with the Headless Horseman, and the next day is gone forever from Sleepy Hollow, did he survive and just leave town, scared by his rivals warning? Or was he taken by the spirit?

It’s such a fun ghost story, and one that I’ve always loved, even if I couldn’t watch this particular version without nightmares as a kid.

Both shorts are charming out the butt, with creative animation and character design and fun music. I rate this one a win.

Next week we start into a pretty classic stretch and I’m very excited about it. We’re doing Cinderella, and I am so so ready for my favorite princess.

Magical Movies Tour: Fun And Fancy Free

“Mickey and The Beanstalk” is a full stop perfect Disney Classic, doing some things that Walt did best in story telling, reinterpreting a classic fairy tale, incorporating the Mouse and his friends in ways that are both creative and satisfying. It’s also funny, has some neat music and cool character designs.

The rest of Fun And Fancy Free doesn’t quite live up. The title song performed by Jiminy Cricket is a delight, but the first short “Bongo The Circus Bear” is interesting but goes on too long and ends in a bizarre bear dance number about slapping to prove love. The middle segment is a showcase for veltriloquist Edgar Bergen, who is very talented and also narrates the Beanstalk portion, it’s quite a non sequiter, and doesn’t quite do it for me, despite Bergen obvious talent for a mostly lost art form.

But wow, I love “Mickey And The Beanstalk,” especially the opening segment which shows the depths to which Mickey, Donald and Goofy have sunk, with Mickey slicing that bean three ways to make sandwiches on bread sliced thin enough to be transparent is comic genius, as is Donald’s subsequent blow up. Willy the Giant is also a great deal of fun and the singing harp does the job as well as possible.

Seriously, I’m enjoying these anthologies much more than I thought I would. I was kind of dreading this month, and I actually burned through all of them in a weekend (giving myself a nice little cushion going into warmer weather!) and I will probably be revisiting them for casual cleaning the apartment or cooking type viewing. They’re such a delight!

Next week, we continue down this path with Melody Time, will I continue to love these? All signs point to yes!