Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Darby O’Gill is a walking cliche, that “drunken” old Irishman you find in every pub telling tall tales about his escapades with leprechauns and other Fair Folk. What’s different is Darby doesn’t drink and his stories are all true; so when he is finally sacked by Lord Fitzpatrick, the land-owner whose estate he’s supposed to be tending, his frienemy King Brian steals him away to the innards of Fairy Mountain, where he will naturally live out the rest of his days. Darby, who has a daughter he cares for more than anything else in the world, isn’t having that. So what’s a wily old man to do?
I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, which is to say not much at all. When you hear about a live-action Disney film from the 1950s, you naturally think of the corniest all-ages entertainment you can think of — at least, I do. And while Darby O’Gill and the Little People is definitely a G-rated movie, it’s also surprisingly engrossing. The film exists so comfortably in its own skin that if you take it on its own terms you might just find yourself having a pretty good time.
What makes the movie work is how well they’re able to capture the rhythm and flow of a good faerie tale. Sometimes Brian — the King of the Leprechauns — is a friend and confidant, and other times he’s a dangerous adversary with powerful magic who must be outwitted. Darby O’Gill is sometimes a clever old man who tricks leprechauns as easy as breathing, and sometimes he’s a poor mortal wretch so far out of his depth you can’t imagine how he’ll get out of trouble. The dynamics of power and emotional investment are always changing, and even by the end of the movie you’re not entirely sure his experience with the fae is ultimately positive. It’s fun to watch the stakes shift as much as they do.
A pre-007 Sean Connery is the romantic interest here, and he’s so young he doesn’t have any of that urgency or gravitas that we’ve come to know him for. But he does make for a good crooner, and it’s fun to watch him drift in and out of Darby’s narrative. It’s also neat to live in a setting where everyone knows the rules of magic better than you do; their reactions tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on, even though the finer details are missing.
Still, if you haven’t quite gotten into the movies of old Hollywood, chances are this isn’t the movie that’s going to sway you. If you’re more comfortable with the rhythm of old cinema storytelling, this works well. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is an old-fashioned story, but it’s still well told.
John Waters made this film right after the unexpected success of Hairspray, when movie studios were practically beating down his door in order to work with him. The fact that he made this wonderfully insane ode to trash and 50s teen idol musicals just makes me love him more.
Here, Johnny Depp is playing around with his teen-idol image in ways that are actually more effective than burying it under a ton of pancake make-up. He plays the leader of a “drape” gang named “Cry-Baby” Walker; he earned the nickname by squeezing out only a single tear when something upsets him. Cry-Baby is backed up by his perpetually-pregnant sister, Pepper; “Hatchet Face,” a legit crazy woman who steals every scene she’s in; Milton, Hatchet Face’s devoted boyfriend; and Wanda Woodward, a sexpot played by none other notorious porn actress Traci Lords.
Cry-Baby falls in love with a “square,” a good girl being groomed by the stuck-up parents in charge of 1950s Baltimore society. Allison falls for his rock-and-roll singing as well as his single tear trick, and ends up forsaking her clan for the chance to live with the drapes for a while. That’s the basic story, though there are all kinds of detours through it that are surprising and hilarious.
No matter what your expectations coming into this film, Waters manages to upend them. The characters are varied and expertly-drawn, so idiosyncratic that you know who they are by the end of the film’s prologue and opening credits. The fact that their backstories are still surprising when they’re revealed is impressive.
I can’t think of another director who delights in his own weirdness as much as John Waters, and that’s what ultimately makes Cry-Baby so fun. Walker’s gang of drapes are undeniably insane and fundamentally broken, but there is such a passionate and loving bond between them you can’t help but see them as good people. Waters has been the champion of loving weirdness throughout his career, and the fact that he made one of his weirdest and most passionate films as the major studio release here shows a dedication to that vision that’s been simply unwavering.
The third act of the film falls apart a little bit, but it’s still a lot of fun and really engaging. Well-drawn characters are sacrificed to get the “everything and the kitchen sink” finish that Waters wanted, but it doesn’t eat up too much of the goodwill the movie earns. If you’re an neophyte in the ways of Waters, I’d say Cry-Baby is an excellent film to cut your teeth on — if you hate it, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll love anything else he’s written or directed.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The 70s and 80s were rough on Disney animation; after The Jungle Book, there weren’t too many films that were looked upon fondly before this one. Even though I liked quite a number of the animated films of that period, there is simply no question that The Little Mermaid raised the bar for the company and began a creative high period that would take them through most of the 1990s.
Ariel is the title character, a mermaid princess who is fascinated by the human world above the surface of the oceans. Her father, King Triton, knows the cruelty that man is capable of and wants to protect his daughter from being hurt — his isolationist demands runs counter to her curiosity and optimism. When the terrible sea witch Ursula grants Ariel’s fondest wish — to be human so she can marry a prince she’s fallen in love with, the fate of two kingdoms is suddenly hanging in the balance.
The songs in this movie are some of the greatest in any Disney musical ever. “Part of Your World” is a fantastic, ideal “I want” song; “Kiss The Girl” is the most romantic song that I can think of in a Disney film; and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is so delightful that it almost gets you on Ursula’s side for a hot second. The animation has to be better just to be worthy of the words, and Disney steps it up in wonderful ways here. Taking fish, crabs and other sea-creatures into anthropomorphic territory is not easy. Sebastian scuttles nervously, and you at once recognize he’s a crab (ew!) and that he has these intense emotional desires (aw!) that endear you to him. Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s hench-eels, are creepy, predatory, yet hypnotic. It’s easy to imagine how naive Ariel could be pulled under their sway.
There are some problems. This time around I found Ariel’s character design a little weird; her head feels really long, accentuating the forehead in this distracting way. And Prince Eric is kind of a terrible character, this wishy-washy dude who seems to be mostly defined by his love of alto voices. Even when Ariel gets Eric in the end, you get the feeling that she could do so much better; the humans in the story are more bland than sadistic, so what was King Triton even worried about there?
The stakes are supplanted by the battle between Ariel and Ursula in the third act, and even then Prince Eric effectively kill-steals the encounter. What did Ariel actually learn through this? How will she be a bit more discerning and a bit less reckless in the future? How did she earn her happy ending?
The argument could be made that this is not that kind of children’s movie, and you might be right. But Ariel’s flaw — the thing that gets her into trouble — is never really identified and addressed through the course of the story. The happy ending feels just a little lessened because of this, even though the rest of the movie is nothing short of delightful.
Still, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen The Little Mermaid, it is definitely worth another look. The songs are amazing, the environments and (most of) the character designs are fantastic, and its ambition is really something to admire. After the long dark time of Disney’s lesser canon, it’s a great example of how you can take Walt’s original passion for telling great stories and update it for modern audiences.