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(Movie Review) Mice in Australia, A Bookworm and Her Monster, and a Djinn with ADD

Entertainment 150The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that hot second in the 90s when Australia was the coolest thing ever? It was a strange moment in pop culture — all of a sudden, Paul Hogan was awesome again, and boomerangs were a fad, and Yahoo Serious was unleashed on the world. I’m still not sure why Aussie fever overtook the States for a few glorious years, but I am pretty sure that it was a major formative experience for me.

Part of the Australian wave was The Rescuers Down Under, the very first sequel ever produced as part of the animated Disney canon. Made 13 years after the first installment, it continues the adventures of mice Bernard and Bianca — two of the best members of the Rescue Aid Society. It’s sort of a United Nations of rodents dedicated to helping children and animals whenever they’re in need. This is such an amazing idea, and just typing it makes me fervently wish for a third Rescuers movie.

Cody is a young Australian boy who has the ability to talk to animals; he spends most of his days in the Outback befriending the local wildlife and saving them from dangers they face. He saves an enormous eagle named Marahute, which doesn’t sit well with a poacher named Percival McLeach (a seriously underrated villain in the Disney canon if you ask me). McLeach kidnaps Cody in order to force the location of the eagle out of him, and that’s when the Rescue Aid Society gets involved.

Bernard really wants to propose to Bianca, but it never seems to be the right time. When they meet dashing Australian kangaroo rat Jake, Bernard has to basically prove his worth against this rough and tumble tour guide. Because this is a Disney movie, of course he does — he saves the day, proposes to Bianca and Jake approves with no hard feelings. It’s a breezy little film that has a few really breathtaking action sequences, and even though the stakes feel relatively light in comparison to other Disney films you never feel bored or resentful of the investment the movie asks to make of you. The movie is populated with adorable, well-designed characters and Marahute is a stand-out; an eagle the size of a roc, with that sort of alien and almost goofy look that almost — almost — makes you forget how dangerous such an immense creature would be.

The world of the Rescuers is the true joy of the movie, though. I couldn’t handle the montage of Cody’s distress signal being transmitted by a team of dedicated mice, and the thoroughly sadistic doctor mouse and his team of eager nun nurses were wonderful interludes between action set-pieces. Jake is definitely one character who deserves more attention, and both Bernard and Bianca feel like old friends.

The Rescuers Down Under was the least-successful of the films of the Disney Renaissance; it was released on the same weekend as Home Alone, came in fourth for the domestic box office during its debut and had all of its advertising pulled soon afterward. It’s also the only Renaissance movie that doesn’t feature musical sequences, so there aren’t any instant classic songs to keep it fresh in our memories. All of this makes it a bit of an odd duck in the Disney animated canon, but it’s not any less enjoyable for it. In fact, if you’re an Australophile it might just be one of your surprise favorites.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The 30th film in the Disney animated canon is a landmark for the studio; it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and four Golden Globes (winning Best Picture – Musical or Comedy), the third-highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and man, did it inspire a whole generation of furries who were sorely disappointed by the “happy ending”. It was the film that restored Disney to greatness after its stock had diminished through the 70s and 80s and proved The Little Mermaid was no fluke. The cultural impact of this film is staggering.

Belle is the beauty, a lovely girl who would rather read books than be more “traditional”; she takes after her father, Maurice, a crackpot inventor who moved to this provincial town in France only recently. She’s pursued by the handsome but arrogant Gaston but would rather have someone (or do something) more interesting; her suitor’s constant wooing is rejected as she hopes that she can live a more exciting life.

Enter the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster for refusing hospitality to an old witch. If he can find someone who will love him despite his fearsome appearance by his 21st year, the curse will be broken; if not, he’ll have to live as a beast forever. When Maurice seeks shelter after being attacked by wolves, the Beast takes him prisoner until Belle offers to remain within his castle instead. And we pretty much know where it goes from here.

When you aren’t dazzled by the truly amazing songs and score, the wonderful environments and the distracting, er, qualities of the Beast, you start to notice how truly insane this story is. An enchantress goes around disguised as an old beggar woman for…what purpose, exactly? And she punishes a prince who is pretty much at the worst age possible for a test of compassion and hospitality instead of his parents? And every single servant in the castle is also cursed to be furniture, silverware and various tools because their lives weren’t hard enough? And the nearby town has completely forgotten that there used to be a king in a castle before his son was cursed just ten years ago? And….

I know it sounds like I’m ragging on the story, and I’m not. (Well, only a little.) Despite the very questionable details within the story, Beauty and the Beast holds up as well as it ever has. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are outstanding; the musical sequences are amazingly animated, and the character design is Disney at its most creative. Gaston is a villain for the ages, all bluster and noise, and Belle is a well-drawn heroine in her own right. The Beast is a unique and awesome creation, and the way both he and Belle are changed through their deepening relationship is wonderful to see.

Despite the strangeness of the underlying story, there’s almost nothing that doesn’t work well here. There are a few minor quibbles with how the Beast and his servants move from frame to frame, but their designs are so unusual it’s hard to fault the animators for not having the character models totally consistent. Belle, Beast and Gaston are all-time great characters, and the supporting cast is populated with wonderful, colorful personalities. There’s so much here to like, and there is nothing that makes you question the good will the movie earns.

So yes, Beauty and the Beast is a top-five all-time great in the Disney animated canon, no question. I’m really pleased that it’s aged as well as it has. It’s an easy movie to love, warts and all.
Aladdin (1992)
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially when the person in question succumbed to an illness that personally affects me. But I was quite surprised by how little I enjoyed Aladdin, and most of that comes down to Robin Williams’ manic performance of the Genie. When I thought back on the movie, he was the biggest deal in it — and I think that’s true for almost everyone. But the Genie’s schtick simply hasn’t aged well and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There’s not much energy left for the rest of the story to breathe.

Jasmine is a princess subject to that time-honored tradition of movie royals; she must marry a prince within a certain time frame or consequences will happen. Jafar, the Sultan’s trusted advisor, has been searching for a treasure hidden within the Cave of Wonders in order to simply take over the Sultanate of Agrabah, but can’t seem to find the right rube — the diamond in the rough — to be allowed entrance and snatch it up. That’s where street rat with a heart of gold Aladdin steps in; he’s manipulated into stealing the treasure for Jafar (in disguise as an old man), but ends up getting it instead.

It turns out to be a genie’s lamp, and the Genie fulfills his wish to become a prince so he can have a shot with Jasmine — the mysterious princess he met before when she attempted to escape the castle. Aladdin’s courtship is rocky at best, mostly because he tries to keep up the charade far longer than he should, and eventually his deceit yields disastrous consequences.

What’s interesting is the main characters — Aladdin, Jasmine and the villain Jafar — are all engaging, well-drawn and relatable. The fantastic elements of the story elevate the movie’s themes (the danger of pretending to be something/one you’re not) really well, and hyper-extends the consequences of the conflict while still making it understandable. I really like the writing in the story; the plot is tight and well-paced, the dialogue (especially between Aladdin and Jasmine) is brisk and natural, and the animation is fluid, smooth and imaginative.

And that’s why it’s such a surprise to me that Aladdin is my least-favorite film so far in the Disney Renaissance. But the Genie is a real problem; his constant barrage of hyper-kinetic joking and impressions is so distracting you’re left wondering what on Earth he’s talking about half the time. Maybe it’s that his joking is so topical that it’s this glaring time-stamp on what would otherwise be a timeless tale, or maybe it’s a sign that my sensibilities are aging enough that I’m just not into what comes off as aggressive, almost desperate whimsy. (I know how that sounds, considering the life-long struggle Williams had with depression; maybe that knowledge is even shading my perspective of his performance.) But the Genie tends to work best when he serves as the oversized conscience of Aladdin, his shape-shifting served to illustrate or punctuate a point. Less is certainly more in this case, and Genie’s presence feels so out of place with the rest of the movie’s tone it’s legitimately jarring.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but Genie takes this movie down a peg or two, and I wish it weren’t so. Disney’s strength in storytelling is its ability to walk a tightrope with tones, themes and ideas so that everything is executed carefully and with balance. One of the few times it allows itself to give in to excess earned it way more short-term gain at the cost of long-term enjoyment.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) A Leprechaun, a Mermaid, and a Greaser

Entertainment 150Darby 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.
Cry-Baby (1990)
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.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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