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(Review) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reading 150The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State. 

One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand. 

Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion. 

It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks. 

The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.

And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving. 

John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with. 

Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.

Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now? 

Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.

The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink. 

The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure? 

This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2019 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

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He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Review) The Cloverfield Paradox

Entertainment 150It’s weird to realize that Cloverfield is ten years old this year, mostly because there are still so many questions I want to be answered. Where did Clover (the nickname given to the kaiju) really come from? What was the deal with those parasites, and why did they cause people to explode? Was the brief moment of capturing another guy filming on the Brooklyn Bridge really a seed planted for a possible sequel? What happened after the bombing in New York???

So when Netflix aired a trailer during the Super Bowl promising we would get some answers in a surprise sequel they’d make available right after the game, something short-circuited in my brain. I’m not going to lie, JJ Abrams’ brand of viral “mystery box” marketing is made for pop-culture obsessives like me, and this worked like a charm. I even made my poor, long-suffering husband leave our Super Bowl party early so we could go straight home and watch The Cloverfield Paradox. The chance to be in on the ground floor of this genre “event” was just too good to pass up, but I probably should have.

The Cloverfield Paradox was, for the longest time, a different movie entirely called The God Particle. The basic premise was the same — above a near-future Earth desperate to solve its energy crisis, scientists aboard a space station turn on an enormous particle accelerator and cause the planet below to simply disappear. It’s a killer hook, and when I heard that it would possibly be the third film in the anthology of films the Cloverfield franchise would eventually become I thought it would be a good fit. Unfortunately, Abrams and company decided to make The God Particle and the previous Cloverfield film part of a connected meta-story and this is where it goes wrong.

It’s impossible to talk about the film without talking about the marketing behind it. The original Cloverfield had a masterful marketing campaign, shrouding just about everything in the movie in mystery while teasing tiny droplets of information and connections through obscure websites and weird videos posted online. While it wasn’t the very first movie to build mystique through the internet (I’m looking at you, The Blair Witch Project), it was one of the biggest to do so and kind of formed the template for the modern Abrams hype machine. With The Cloverfield Paradox, announcing the film during the Super Bowl and making it available right afterward tapped into that same feeling of mystery and excitement while updating it for an audience that had gotten several surprise album drops over the last few years. This was the first time a movie studio surprise-dropped a sequel, though, and it could have been one of those things that signaled a fundamental shift in how films are released. The gambit only works, though, is the movie is good.

I’m sorry to say The Cloverfield Paradox is not good. By shoehorning The God Particle into this universe the writers took an intriguing premise and stuffed it with bad pseudo-science that insults the intelligence of its audience, moments of weird for the sake of being weird, and head-scratching moments that frustrate more than they surprise. Worse yet, The Cloverfield Paradox takes the shine off the mystery-box model and reveals how hollow that hype machine can be. Perhaps worst of all, it wastes the talents of an amazing, diverse cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Zhang Ziyi.

I do have to give props to Abrams for tapping neophyte Nigerian director Julius Onah for the film, and for centering Mbatha-Raw as its leading actor. How many sci-fi movies do you see with a black woman as the main character? Hopefully, a lot more, because she is probably the best thing here. Even with all of the inexplicable craziness decimating the crew around her, Mbatha-Raw’s Ava manages to hold the story and keep it somewhat grounded in real human motivation. Her supporting cast does its best to roll with the twist and turns of the story, but ultimately they’re defeated by a script more concerned with shocking its audience than telling an entertaining or coherent story.

Ava Hamilton is one of a number of scientists aboard the Cloverfield Station when it disappears after a successful particle accelerator test turns out to be…not so successful. Meanwhile, the husband she left behind on Earth has his own disaster to deal with — an unknown event has destroyed much of the city he lives in. The set-up is the best part, and when the first act turns on the terrible thing that unleashes chaos on the station and the planet, it’s easy to get hooked by all of the questions it raises.

Except The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t interested in providing engaging answers here. After the scientists discover they’re in another dimension weird things happen to the crew that can’t be explained by that: Volkov’s eye suddenly goes into business for itself and he talks to himself in a mirror; the ship tries to straight-up eat chief engineer Mundy (O’Dowd); an Amazonian blond is discovered fused with the wiring behind a wall; the station’s gyroscope is found in the last place you’d expect to see it. Almost none of this is explained through the rest of the action, because the scientists are picked off one by one in ways you’ve seen done better in other sci-fi horror movies.

Back on Earth, Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) isn’t faring much better. He’s basically stuck trying to explain this movie’s connection to Cloverfield in one-sided phone conversations, staring into the dark and smoke of his ruined city, or laughing with kids in old videos that Ava watches. We cut to him at weird times, so it’s hard to be really interested in his subplot — we just want to know what the heck is going on with the station. Ultimately he sets up the final stinger in the movie, one last surprise that denies anyone a happy ending. By that time, your disbelief isn’t so much suspended as assaulted and thrown in a ditch. Oh, that happened? Sure, why not?

I really wish The Cloverfield Paradox was a better movie than it turned out to be. The franchise could have been the heir apparent to thoughtful, twisty sci-fi adventure that’s been sorely missing in pop culture for some time now; instead, it looks like Paramount, Bad Robot and Netflix tried to make lemonade out of a botched story that wasn’t good enough to release in theatres. The actors, director, and audience deserved better.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2018 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) Twin Peaks, Season 3: Parts 1 and 2

Entertainment 150Grade: B

I was beyond excited about the news that Twin Peaks would be coming back for a third season this year. For those of you who have never seen it, you missed a hell of a ride back when television just wasn’t doing that kind of thing. David Lynch and Mark Frost told a winding, frustrating, weird story over thirty episodes that drew from small-town mystery, soap opera, supernatural horror and surrealist tropes to create a TV show unlike anything else on the air at the time or since. Thinking back on the sheer bizarreness of the arcs, I have to say it’s a minor miracle that it made it to air — or that it was a cultural phenomenon for two glorious seasons.

Twin Peaks is the town where FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called to investigate the murder of hometown sweetheart Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). His search for Laura’s killer draws him (and us) deeper into the town’s mysteries and the truly strange residents who inhabit this sleepy, Pacific Northwest town. Through dreams, visions, and odd connections Agent Cooper learns the horrible truth of Laura Palmer’s life as well as the terrible secrets that dwell deep within the forests surrounding her hometown.

The end of Twin Peaks was the first really frustrating TV finale I ever encountered; I hated the whole series for about a year after I finished watching it. But after that initial shock, I came to appreciate the show for what it was — and its influence has guided my storytelling sensibilities for over a decade since. Seeing Frost and Lynch return to the setting that turned the course of American serialized drama on its ear is a rare treat, especially knowing they’ve been given such creative freedom from Showtime, the cable network that aired season 3, otherwise known as “The Return”.

So, after 25 years, how was it coming back to this singular piece of television history?

SPOILERS BELOW…

twin peaks
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Posted by on November 1, 2017 in Reviews, Television

 

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(List) A Definitive But Thoroughly Subjective Ranking of the Disney Animated Canon, #20 – #1

Disney Animation

Over its 93-year history, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced 56 feature-length animated films. Its partner, Pixar Animation, has produced another 18 for a grand total of 74; that’s a lot of movies! However, out of all those wonderful films only 20 of them can be the 20 greatest films in all of the Disney/Pixar Animated Canon! Which ones are they? Well, let me tell you!

A couple of caveats first. This is a full ranking of all 74 movies released by Disney and Pixar except for Cars 3 and with the addition of the live-action/animation hybrid Song of the South (not considered part of the Canon officially). Also, this is a totally subjective list; these aren’t actually the greatest Disney and Pixar films of all time — they’re just my favorite. Feel free to register your agreement or disapproval in the comments, or tell me which movies are your personal favorites!

If you’d like to know where all of the other movies landed, no worries; I’ve got you covered! The other 54 films are all here:

Day One: #74 – #57
Day Two: #56 – #38
Day Three: #37 – #21

Now, my favorite 20!

#20. Big Hero 6 (2014)
People seem to have cooled on this movie since its premiere a few years ago, and I could see why in the age of Superhero Fatigue. Still, this tale of a boy and his helper robot is one I love quite a bit; it manages to combine an examination of grief and loss with a straightforward superhero team origin story. Baymax is such a wonderful character, a robot unlike any other in all of Hollywood. The best feature of Big Hero 6, however, is its mash-up setting of San Fransokyo. Seeing distinctly San Franciscan neighborhoods infused with Japanese aesthetic is a delight and perfectly reflects Hiro’s own comfortable Asian-American background. The other members of the team are aching to have their stories told, so it’s a good thing we’ll be getting a follow-up series soon.

#19. Ratatouille (2007)
Wait, this movie is ten years old? Where does the time go! Brad Bird’s second feature for Pixar takes a high concept (a rat who wants to be a chef) and fuses it with another (said rat can control a friendly human by pulling his hair) to create something weird and wonderful. Bird’s consistent themes — of frustrated genius, self-discovery, and a hostile, unapproving world — combine here for a beautiful, funny, and ultimately satisfying film. Remy, the rat at the heart of the film, is a little snobbish but his earnest passion makes him a protagonist to root for.

Up

This bird is too ridiculous for this old man

#18. Up (2009)
The second of Pete Docter’s Pixar films is a true wonder — and not just for the eight-minute prologue that the rest of the story tries to live up to. Carl Fredricksen is that perfect blend of lovable and caustic, and Russell — the Wilderness Scout who stows away with him on his one-way trip — is the perfect companion to get him to come back to the world. Kevin, a giant exotic bird, and Dug, the dim but loyal talking dog, round out the troupe as they get way more adventure than they bargain for. Carl’s quest is as much internal as it is globe-trotting, and seeing him learn to re-engage with a world he left behind is heartwarming.

#17. Moana (2016)
Disney’s latest film also happens to be one of its best. The team of Musker and Clements strike gold again with this story based on Pacific Islander folktales through crisp and beautiful animation, a brilliant heroine, and one of the catchiest soundtracks ever. While the studio continues to balance commercial demands with its desire to serve the cultures it mines for its stories, Moana gets a lot more right than it gets wrong — its spirit of adventure and sense of heart make it a truly excellent movie.

#16. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Pete Docter’s first of three films for Pixar is technically brilliant and emotionally stirring, with a perfect sense of comedic timing and cracking dialogue. John Goodman and Billy Crystal star as Sulley (swoon!) and Mike, an all-star monster team that end up turning their world upside-down just by trying to do the right thing. The climactic chase in and out of the closet doors of children’s rooms leaves me breathless, and that final shot of Sulley reuniting with Boo is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Docter is a master of carefully constructing truly emotional moments.

#15. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo had a seven-year run as the highest-grossing animated film of all-time, which is just bonkers to think about; but it’s a truly excellent movie that deserves the wild success it received. Marlin is the ultimate helicopter parent, but his quest to get his son back after Nemo is taken by divers teaches him just how capable he is — and how almost everyone in this big, scary world finds a way to not just survive, but thrive despite their own issues. Technically, the movie is astonishing when you think about where Pixar was just eight years prior in Toy Story. The design of a bewildering array of sea life is impressive in its own right, but the aquatic environments are simply masterful. This movie is beautiful, in just about every sense of the word.

#14. Inside Out (2015)
Pete Docter’s latest film is his best; fourteen years after Monsters, Inc., he constructs a meta exploration of our inner lives, the painful process of growing up, and the difficulty of honoring our most difficult emotions. Amy Poelher is an inspired choice to play Joy, especially as the film gradually leads us to an appreciation of Sadness and how the pursuit of happiness above all else can actually stunt out emotional growth. Still, watching Riley’s personality anchors crumble, one by one, is hard to watch — and the representation of depression as it spreads through the central console is truly terrifying. But it’s all in service to a roller-coaster ride that presents a mature and sympathetic look at just how hard it is to deal with change. Not only entertaining, but elevating as well.

Pinocchio Cricket

Hey Jiminy, nice spats!

#13. Pinocchio (1940)
This is Disney’s best film out of his Golden Age, hands down. The animation pushed the boundaries of what people believed possible at the time, and the scene with Monstro the whale is particularly intense and impressive. I think this also established the time-honored Disney tradition of retooling a fairy tale or story to soften the roughest edges and add touches to make it more commercially palatable. It’s hard to argue with the results here — Pinocchio is strange and sublime, a true masterpiece in the craft of storytelling.

#12. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Beauty and the Beast deserves its place as a crown jewel in the Canon. The songs of the Disney Renaissance are some of the best in movie history, and the songs here are some of the best in the Renaissance. What I love most about the movie, obviously, is Beast — he’s one of the most crush-worthy animated characters ever made, but his arc is also a revelation and rehabilitation of the fairy tale. Belle serves more as the catalyst for his internal transformation, a beacon that brings him back to the highest of human ideals, love and compassion. Gaston, the selfish and egotistical brute that he is, highlights how self-love can be just as destructive as self-hatred.

#11. Toy Story 3 (2010)
A perfect cap to the trilogy, Toy Story 3 takes Woody, Buzz and the gang through a kind of death and rebirth. I love how the film never shies away from the difficulty of moving through the end of a relationship but also cautions against letting that loss harden your heart. Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear is underrated as one of the most evil villains ever, in my opinion; I think the comeuppance he got didn’t even go far enough. The scene at the junkyard stopped my heart, and when the gang reaches for each other to accept their fate it gets me every time. The payoff of that scene — fourteen years in the making — is one of the most delightful examples of emotional whiplash ever. It’s just too bad they milked the ending a little too hard; it breaks the spell the rest of the story weaved so well.

lilo-stitch

Ohana.

#10. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
I didn’t realize how many of my favorite movies deal with struggling through loss and tragedy, but here’s another one. Lilo & Stitch is one of the absolute best films about the act of emotional kintsukoroi ever made — the titular pair find each other when they need something to help heal them so badly. Another Disney film that’s quietly revolutionary, Lilo & Stitch features native Hawaiians, a broken home, and emotional trauma without feeling exploitative of any of it. The character design is so distinctive and wonderful, and all of the character and comedic beats land with assured precision. Also, Captain Gantu? Whew. WHEW.

#9. Tangled (2010)
Released the same year as Toy Story 3, Tangled gets buried a bit under the avalanche of Frozen. But it’s so much better than the later film; Rapunzel is an exceptional heroine, her spirit irrepressible under the manipulative thumb of Mother Gothel. Gothel is a terrifying villain, not because of any external power, but because of the precise method of emotional control she uses to keep her ward in check. The romantic journey between Rapunzel and Flynn is expertly crafted, with standout song “I See The Light” bringing the plot and personal arcs together in one sublime moment. Also, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that makes such tremendous use of each and every side character. Maximus the horse is the best Disney horse, and you can fight me on that.

#8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Quasimodo is one of my favorite Disney heroes ever: I have a true soft spot for people who remain hopeful and upbeat despite difficult circumstances, and the hunchback is one of the purest souls ever. There are so many scenes in this movie that function like emotional body-blows, from the opening song “The Bells of Notre Dame” to Frollo’s shocking “Hellfire” to Esmerelda’s bitter, plaintive “God Help The Outcasts”. The lyrics to the musical numbers of this film are some of the absolute best, and it might be one of Disney’s most nakedly-political movies ever. I understand how fans of Victor Hugo’s novel might dismiss it, but I think this is the most underrated entry in all of the Disney canon.

#7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid has the most killer soundtrack of all the Disney Renaissance films, with that tiny little crab Sebastian doing most of the heavy lifting with “Under The Sea” and “Kiss The Girl”. Still, “Le Poisson” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are genuine five-star classics, and Ursula is a delightfully fierce villain — modeled after Divine, the muse of John Waters. The music is enough to overlook the truly problematic implications of Ariel’s romantic choices, though an argument could be made that she really gave up her voice to be part of a world she had dreamed about for so long.

#6. The Incredibles (2004)
I’m a sucker for superheroes, and this Brad Bird-directed homage to Golden Age capes is just about pitch-perfect. Imagining a world where litigation actually spelled the end of costumed vigilantism, The Incredibles makes a pretty strong case for the idea of people being far more capable than most would give them credit for. The relationship of the Incredible family is the glue that keeps the story so tight, and Helen is an unsung hero for her quick thinking, incredible patience, and wise counsel to her children in life-threatening circumstances. Honestly, I think she steals the show.

Dory Wilderness

Alone with thoughts

#5. Finding Dory (2016)
A lot of people give Pixar flak for its shifting stance on sequels, but if the animation studio can keep producing follow-ups of this quality I’m all for it. Finding Dory is the rare continuation that not only justifies its own existence but elevates what came before it, reinforcing and deepening the themes of Finding Nemo. This might be one of the most insightful and sensitive stories about disability I’ve ever seen, showing us how much even small gestures of support or criticism can be the difference between someone’s success or failure. Hilarious, uplifting, instructive, and thoughtful — all of things that make a Pixar film so special.

Lion King

Best cast ever.

#4. The Lion King (1994)
There are an awful lot of folks who are sick to death of The Lion King, and I kind of get it. Among furries, it’s been lauded so much that even the most die-hard fans are at risk of burnout. But have you seen it recently? Because it is the best movie to come out of the Renaissance period. The animation is just stunning, the songs are great, and each character is just about perfectly cast. The pacing and tone are almost exactly where it needs to be at any given moment. It really is one of those movies where everything comes together. I almost hate to say it, but The Lion King lives up to the hype. It’s the real deal.

toy story 2

The full set!

#3. Toy Story 2 (1999)
This is Pixar’s best sequel — a film that reinforces and deepens the world it created in its first entry. Woody has to choose between his ego, which will see him shipped off to a museum where he’ll be forever separated from anyone close to him, and the difficult but more rewarding prospect of living amongst the toys in Andy’s room. The choice between alienation and appeasement is an interesting one, and what’s best is that the story makes a compelling case for both of them before making its choice. “When She Loved Me”, though, is forever one of those songs that reduces me to a blubbering mess.

zootopia streets

Can I live here for a minute?

#2. Zootopia (2016)
I know that this is really, really high for a relatively brand-new cartoon, but come ON. Judy Hopps is literally my spirit animal, a little grey rabbit whose enthusiasm for making the world a better place knows no bounds. She makes a perfect partner for the street hustler Nick Wilde, a fox who gave up on the world because the world gave up on him. Zootopia is perhaps the best-realized furry universe ever created, with an astonishing variety of wildlife all doing their best to live together harmoniously. There’s no skirting around how difficult that is; even Judy herself makes a mistake with terrible consequences. But ultimately the film asserts that we must continue to try, and that doing our best is always going to be the right thing to do. The character designs are amazing, the world on the screen is unique and immersive, and the social consciousness of its story is perfectly topical and timeless as well. Zootopia is everything I hoped it would be and that much more. I can’t stop gushing about it, but I’ll have to because…

walle

Beauty everywhere you look

#1. WALL-E (2008)
I know, I’m surprised too. But WALL-E is perhaps the most ambitious and beautiful animated film of all time. The first sequence, which establishes the ruined Earth our robotagonist is tasked with fixing, is haunting, melancholy, and almost wistful in the way it gives WALL-E a powerful longing for the culture that designed him. When EVE arrives and they head off to the generation ship Axiom, the disruption is enough to shake humanity out of its helpless torpor. WALL-E can’t help but change everyone he comes into contact with. His interest and willingness to engage and help triggers a cascade effect and brings people back to more immediate engagement. It is such a beautiful thing to watch; WALL-E is such a pure and earnest character, and the way he helps humanity find its way back to its home is incredibly inspiring. I love it, wholeheartedly, unabashedly. This is my absolute favorite Disney/Pixar film, even though the only other animal in it is a cockroach.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2017 in DisneyFest, Furries, Movies, Reviews

 

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(List) The Definitive But Thoroughly Subjective Ranking of the Disney Animated Canon, #37 – #21

Disney Animation

Walt Disney Animation Studios is a venerable institution that still produces amazing feature-length animated films even to this day. It’s amazing that a movie studio can be so dominant for so long — since their first release in 1937, they’ve been the standard bearer for animation. Along with Pixar Animation, they’ve produced 74 traditionally-animated and CGI films, and since I’ve seen just about every single one (excepting for Cars 3, of course) I thought it would be fun to present a definitive and subjective ranking! Welcome to day three!

The criteria for my ranking is fairly simple; which movie would I rather see? I did that with every release until I had the full list of films from most to least watchable. Chicken Little is at the bottom of the list, but what’s at the top? All will be revealed on Friday! For now, here are the movies that are better than average but still just outside of the top 20.

If you’d like to see which movies are ranked in the bottom half of the Canon, follow these links here:

Day One: #74 – #57
Day Two: #56 – #38

Rescuers DU Jake

Hiiiii Jake ❤

#37. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
This is the only animated Disney film set in Australia, and the entire Canon is poorer for it. Jake is just the bee’s knees, all smooth and confident and action-adventury! He makes a great foil for Bernard, who after years of pining after his sophisticated partner Bianca is ready to make a move. The subplot plays out while they’re rescuing a human child and giant eagle from the clutches of an evil poacher, and it ties together rather nicely. Jake doesn’t even mind losing out on Bianca’s affections! What a champ. The production values and character designs are wonderful, and the animators really make the most of the setting. It’s a shame the film underperformed as badly as it did; I think the Rescuers would make a nifty film or TV series.

#36. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
One of the things that I’ve learned through this project is which names to pay attention to in the director’s credits. John Musker and Ron Clements have been consistently excellent, and that’s no exception here. Based on a book series I’m upset I didn’t know about before, The Great Mouse Detective shrinks a Sherlock Holmes story down to mouse size and gives him an outsized foil in Ratigan, a mouse on steroids who hates being called a rat. The film is more actiony than a typical Holmes caper, but that’s all right. The characters are engaging, and the world of murine London is simply entrancing. The climactic battle within the gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, especially considering how young the movie skewed up until then.

#35. The Rescuers (1977)
Even though the sequel has Jake, I have to give the edge to the original recipe Rescuers; the world-building is that much more delightful and the peril it places its human child in is that much darker. Penny is a precocious child who ends up in a terrible situation, and it’s impressive that no punches are pulled to get across the dire nature of her predicament. As great as it was to be down under, there’s something about the understated warmth of this version of the hidden world of mice that I love that much more.

#34. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Disney’s first feature with a black Princess is a solid addition to its Canon, though it has a few story problems that are too persistent to ignore. Tiana’s problem — that she focuses on work too much at the expense of forming the relationships to make it worthwhile — is not the issue; it’s the social forces that push her into thinking that way and how they’re ignored. Still, this love letter to the music and culture of New Orleans is pretty great and Doctor Facilier is such a wonderful villain; Mama Odie makes an excellent foil for him, too. And even though he’s dead-stupid, Ray’s ballad to his Evangeline is unexpectedly sweet.

Headless Horseman

Well this is terrifying

#33. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Disney’s last package film is its best — possibly because it’s less a scattershot of shorts and more two great stories not quite long enough to be feature-length. I’m a die-hard fan of The Wind in the Willows, and while it’s slightly disappointing that Disney chose to focus on Mr. Toad instead of, say, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, the adventure of Toad and his motorcar is really fun. The tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is a standout though; Ichabod is a character I’ll never get tired of watching as he tries to woo ladies and gets lost in the woods. The animation has such spirit and distinctive personality. It really is a joy to watch.

#32. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Cruella De Vil is an all-time great villain, but there’s so much more about this movie to love. I’m a sucker for “shadow world” stories, magical realities that exist just inside the peripheries of our own, and Disney has a lot of them around this time in their history. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a bit darker than I expected, with the puppies all spirited away and forced to hike the English countryside in the dead of winter to make their way back home. But the characters take the edge off with sparkling, lively personalities — the trio of Colonel (a sheepdog), Captain (a horse) and Sergeant Tibbs (a housecat) are great helpers. Overall, it’s a really fun movie whose stakes give it an unexpected weight.

#31. Aladdin (1992)
Credit where its due: the animation, character design, and music of Aladdin is all excellent. Jafar and Iago are a dynamite villainous duo, and Jasmine is actually a really great Princess with agency and a distinctive personality. But man, Robin Williams almost single-handedly tanks this film. Every time some genuine emotion is about to sink in, his Genie comes in and chases it away with anachronistic mania. What’s frustrating is that Genie isn’t a bad character — he works well when he’s acting as Aladdin’s big blue Jiminy Cricket. But I really wish he had been reined in a little more. There’s WAY too much pepper in the soup.

#30. Fantasia (1940)
Walt Disney had high ideas for Fantasia, and it’s a shame they were never realized. I really love the idea of releasing a “concert film” every so often that marries beautiful music with boundary-pushing animation. Most of the vignettes are really enjoyable, with standouts being (of course) “Night on Bald Mountain” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. However, the less said about the rather uncomfortable history of “The Pastoral Symphony”, the better.

Robin and John

Just two bros hanging out in the woods with no pants

#29. Robin Hood (1973)
Ooh de lally, what an enjoyable mess this movie is! The fact that this movie is so low doesn’t mean I don’t love it; like most of you, I grew up fascinated with the vulpine Robin of Loxley and his ursine companion Little John. I even have a special place in my heart for those tiny church mice who help Friar Tuck! But there’s denying the thinness of the story and the shoddy animation; while I love the warmth and imperfection in the lines, there are so many mistakes and obviously cut corners that you can’t help but notice them. This isn’t a good movie, but I love it just the same.

#28. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Fun fact: this is the movie I always bring up when trying to relate what psychological triggers really are. Calhoun is tough-as-nails but emotionally traumatized, and the way her small subplot is handled is a slice of perfection. The rest of the movie is great, too, with countless background gags stuffing a wonderful story about carving out your own self-image when the rest of the world refuses to see you for who you really are. The voice talent is so good, the characters are funny, the setting is inventive, and this might be the first real artistic commentary on video games for a mass audience. This is a gem of a film, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

#27. Dumbo (1941)
Timothy Q. Mouse was one of my first crushes, with his smart little uniform and his willingness to help an orphan elephant in dire straits. Dumbo was made to recover from the failure of Fantasia, made on the cheap but with Disney’s trademark emotional punch. The cruelty of the world almost breaks this little guy again and again, but he’s lifted up with support from the most unlikely places — like a tiny mouse and a troupe of jive-talking crows. It’s a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story, the perfect mix of bittersweet. My heart feels full every time I think about it.

#26. Tarzan (1999)
This is the film that marked the end of the Disney Renaissance, and I think people sleep on it a little bit for that. But the action scenes are some of the absolute best in all of the Canon, with Tarzan swinging and surfing through a fully-rendered jungle that’s breathtaking to behold. His position between the world of his youth and the world he “belongs to” drives his personal arc, and it’s something I sympathize with a lot. Jane is awesome as his guide back towards human contact, and the ultimate resolution is great. His triumphant trademark yell feels earned right at the end.

#25. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Sixty years after the original, Roy Disney tried again to fulfill Walt’s vision. Unfortunately, this one was a commercial failure, too. Still, it’s a creative improvement! “Rhapsody in Blue” alone justifies the existence of the sequence, and “Pomp and Circumstance” (which casts Donald Duck as one of Noah’s helpers aboard the ark) takes it over the top. Disney’s animators used a variety of techniques in various sequences, playing around with computer animation to get a better feel for the tech. There’s only one or two vignettes that don’t quite work, but for the most part this concert film is killer.

#24. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
It’s weird to learn that this film didn’t do very well at the box office, pushing the animation studio away from fairy tale adaptations for 30 years — the next one would be 1989’s The Little Mermaid. But the sheer style of this film is awesome in and of itself; the character design is a mixture of early Disney models and touches of Medieval and Renaissance art, encouraged by the distinctive background art of Eyvind Earle. Maleficent is a gorgeous villain, and it’s hard not to appreciate just how goofy and heroic Prince Phillip is.

#23. Toy Story (1995)
Pixar’s first feature holds up well even after twenty years of technological advancement, and that’s all due to the wonderful characters that were created in Toy Story. Woody and Buzz Lightyear are a mismatched buddy duo for the ages, and Andy’s room is populated with a whole gaggle of iconic and engaging characters. What I appreciate more now that I’m older is just how creepy this movie can be — both intentionally and not — and how Sid’s toys influence the sequels both in theme and design. What’s off-putting initially isn’t necessarily bad; it really is worth getting to know people you might find scary or awful at first sometimes.

#22. Mulan (1998)
I have a confession to make: I’m not that big a fan of Eddie Murphy. He’s done good work, though, and his talents are used well in Mulan. The story itself is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, and I love that Disney took great pains to serve the culture in which it’s based. There are so many things in this movie that are quietly progressive, and I think that Mulan herself tends to be overlooked as a great role model in the Disney canon. Her motivation is at once dutiful and personal, and the fact that the film takes great pains to show the work involved in her success is something I really appreciate. Also, the romantic subplot — if you can even call it that — is such a slow burn that it only becomes a possibility at the end of the film.

Jim_and_Silver

Almost perfect

#21. Treasure Planet (2002)
I cannot tell you how much I love this movie. The world building is truly special, with its mixture of storybook warmth and sci-fi elements that make it unlike almost anything else I’ve seen. Having an old-school schooner as a spaceship makes for an entrancing visual, and the wide range of aliens — with touches of recognizably animal traits — allows even the background characters to be distinctive and engrossing. But it’s the bond formed between young Jim Hawkins and the cyborg Long John Silver that makes this film so special; the montage of Jim learning how to be a sailor, set to “I’m Still Here” by the Goo Goo Dolls, is one of my favorite sequences ever. So…why is this film so low? B.E.N., the ‘zany’ robot played by Martin Short, single-handedly keeps this film out of the top 20. He is THAT annoying, and there is legitimately no reason for him to be included in the story. He serves no purpose beyond making everything worse. It’s so frustrating, because if it weren’t for him, I’m fairly sure Treasure Planet would have made my top five.

Tomorrow: the top 20 Disney movies of all time! The best film of Disney’s Golden Age! The best film of the Renaissance! The best of Pixar!! And the best films in the Disney Revival era! All leading up to my absolute favorite! Woo!!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2017 in DisneyFest, Furries, Movies, Reviews

 

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