Between classes, my day job and the crushing despair of the election, I haven’t had a lot of energy to write. I’ve been wanting to step back into the writing projects that have kept me anchored when the rest of my life is flying apart, and that starts with this blog. There is an awful lot on my mind, as you might imagine, but given that most of the people who would read this are more than likely in Chicago at a convention and I wanted to ease back into things, I thought I would start with a few Disney reviews.
We’re out of the Disney Renaissance now, and into that short, troubled period where Pixar was ascendant, DreamWorks Animation was the hot new kid on the block, and Disney Animation was struggling to keep its voice and remain relevant. A lot of the movies in this period aren’t as bad as you might expect, though there are a number of clunkers. For now, though, the scattershot approach yields mixed results as Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, and The Emperor’s New Groove were released in the year 2000.
Fantasia 2000 (2000)
Sixty years after the release of the original Fantasia, Disney Animation finally produced a follow-up that was booked as an exclusive IMAX engagement starting in January 2000. The wide release came a bit later in June, but by then most of its money had been made — nearly $65M of its ultimate $91M total came from the IMAX screening. Just like its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 blended various animation styles and techniques with a wide range of classical music. The end result is consistently entertaining, but it lacks a truly iconic sequence — the ambition of the animators is admirable but rarely met.
The crown jewel this time out is “Rhapsody in Blue”, featuring the wonderful jazz instrumental from Ira Gershwin played against characters inspired by the artist Al Hirschfeld. The music is a natural fit for the chaos of New York City as we follow various residents caught between their dreams and the reality of their lives and responsibilities. There’s a black construction worker who longs to be a jazz musician; a hen-pecked little man who wants to break the monotonous dignity of his one-percenter life to do something fun instead; and a little girl who just wants to be with her successful, busy parents. That first trill of the clarinet gets us off to the races, and the chaos never stops from there. It’s genuinely delightful, and the one sequence that really strikes its mark.
Donald Duck stars in “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is another solid entry that offers another seamless marriage of music and classic animation. The stately, driving beat that serves as the backbone of the music anchors the action here, lending a good sense of rhythmic momentum that moves Donald’s simple, funny, and surprisingly touching story from its set-up to its climax. There are a number of visual gags that work really well here, and it’s nice to see the studio finding new ways to stretch out its stable of iconic characters.
How you feel about the other six shorts depends on your interests. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” scores an animist fight between a Forest Spirit and a Volcano God that’s surprisingly polished for its time; Resphigi’s “Pines of Rome” serves as a soundtrack to a truly surreal short cartoon featuring arctic, flying whales; “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale” by Camille Saint-Saens is a great companion to a silly tale about dancing flamingos and one yo-yo obsessed bird. Each piece tries to blend traditional animation with computer effects; while a lot of them hold up really well, the limitations of the art show in more than a few others.
Fantasia 2000 might be Disney’s best package film, though it was widely regarded as a flop at the time of its release. That’s unfortunate, because the inventive, challenging nature of these shorts really help keep Disney’s animators trying new things. I think there’s worth in updating this series every decade or so; it serves as something of a time-capsule for the state of the venerable House of Mouse, and that’s a great thing for any Disney fan. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2040, though, for someone to complete the trilogy.
Disney’s first computer-animated film was a creative disappointment but a box-office success, making nearly $350 million worldwide. While it was a fairly big technical achievement at the time I guess, the story is plodding and the characters aren’t distinctive or memorable. The visual splendor of the movie is front-loaded; once the characters are established and the first act ends, there’s little more than post-apocalyptic wasteland as a backdrop. Dinosaur is ultimately kind of a boring movie, with bland characters impressively rendered against live-action environments that still somehow look bleak and colorless.
Aladar is an Iguanadon adopted into a family of lemurs after his egg is carried far away by a Pterodon. While he’s accepted as a part of the tribe, his huge size and the fact that there are no other dinosaurs on their island means he’s unlikely to find a place where he truly fits in. All of that changes when a meteor strikes the planet, causing a cataclysmic upheaval that destroys the lemurs’ home and forces them to travel far to find another place to live. Eventually, they find a caravan of dinosaurs searching for a mythical “Nesting Ground” that promises food, water, and safety. Aladar must earn his place among his own kind by acting on the lessons he learned as an adopted lemur, which of course isn’t easy.
The characters are more archetypes than fully-realized beings, and they behave the way they do mostly because the story demands it. Aladar is the uncertain young idealist who always does the right thing; the leader of the dinosaur caravan, Kron, is a straight-up Darwinist who believes that only the strong should survive; Kron’s sister, Neera, is torn between dutiful obedience to her brother and her growing feelings for Aladar. The band of misfits that serve as Aladar’s allies feel like a grab bag of character traits — there’s the huge but prim brachiosaur Baylene; the elderly, wise triceratops Eema; the fun-loving, wise-cracking lemur Zini. There isn’t much sense of who these creatures are beyond their service to the story, and since the story is your basic “keep your morality in the face of disaster” fable, it isn’t strong enough on its own to keep our interest.
The scene of the meteor strike is intense, though. The action is chaotic but well-choreographed, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the devastation of an event like that rendered so realistically, especially from ground level. Knowing that this is likely the extinction-level event that ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs, it’s a little strange spending the rest of the movie watching the desperate survivors search for a safe haven that either doesn’t exist or will quickly dry up. This being a Disney movie, though, they gloss over that bit for the happy ending the tale demands.
That dissonance might be why the movie is ultimately so disappointing. The struggle for survival isn’t quite bleak enough to make Aladar’s morality and optimism feel like the beacon it’s meant to be, but the situation itself demands a gravity that means the story can’t be much lighter than it already is. In the hands of a better storyteller, Dinosaur could have been something special. As it is, though, it feels like a missed opportunity that still did well enough to be counted as a commercial success.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
The Emperor’s New Groove was once an entirely different movie called Kingdom of the Sun; it was supposed to be a more serious movie that borrowed elements from The Prince and the Pauper, Incan mythology and romantic adventures. Then Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t do so well, production fell pretty far behind, and executives threatened to shut the whole thing down. Out of the chaos, a minor miracle happened — the film was completely overhauled into a road-trip buddy comedy that was better than it had any right to be. Even though The Emperor’s New Groove is a relatively minor film in the Disney animated canon, its sheer comedic energy, creativity and brisk, confident attitude makes it a pleasant, if somewhat dated, surprise.
The film has voice talent that feels firmly planted in the late 90s. David Spade is Kuzco, a spoiled Incan emperor who plans to bulldoze an entire herding village to make room for his summer palace. John Goodman is Pasha, the poor villager whose home is slated to be destroyed. Little does Kuzco know, however, that his adviser Yzma (Eartha Kitt) is planning to kill him and take the throne; her plan hits an unexpected wrinkle when her good-hearted but bumbling assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton, because of course) mixes up a dose of poison with a potion that turns the emperor into a llama. Now, Kuzco has to team up with Pasha to get back to the palace before Yzma takes over the kingdom.
It’s a much better film than it has any right to be. David Spade strikes the right balance between his usual smarm and the demands of his character’s arc, while John Goodman is a wonderful grounding influence as the straight man. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton make for a great comic duo; Kronk walks away with the movie as a supernaturally capable yet mismatched villain’s henchman. Everyone seems game for the movie’s breakneck pace, quipping like they’ve been doing this forever and knowing when to slow down enough to make sure the story’s emotional beats land with the weight they need. The proceedings are cartoonish in the best way — inventive and self-aware, but with perfect timing and pacing.
I’m not sure that the movie has aged so well in fifteen years, though. When it was first released, I loved it enough to watch it several times over. This is my first rewatch in a very long time, and a lot of the comic set-pieces come across as a bit more thread-worn and old-fashioned. It’s a small disappointment that the surprise of the film’s quality has dimmed somewhat; even though it holds up fairly well, it’s not the kind of movie that can stand a whole lot of repeat viewings.
That being said, this is a really strong blend between the traditional Disney storytelling model and a post-modern irreverence that was really big among animated features of the day. The chaotic, nearly disastrous production process for The Emperor’s New Groove may have been the best thing for it; the desperation to get the movie into theatres forced the studio to scrap so much of its initial plans for it and improvise. That al-dente, anything-goes style of storytelling infects every frame of the movie, and it’s kind of amazing that the high-wire act is more or less a success.