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(Reviews) The Circle of Life, The Colors of the Wind, The Virtue of Playing Nice

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we’re up to the latter half of the studio’s first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he’s embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar’s “Be Prepared”? I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and “Hakuna Matata” is one of those songs that’s fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba’s plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what’s come before. When it’s job is done, it’s time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It’s ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they’re at the top of their game, there’s simply no one better.
Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it’s the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn’t work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don’t talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough — when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she’s come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe’s strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange “new world” for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they’re simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew — headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe — cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it’s useful.

What’s impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It’s a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can’t think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.
Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge — it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That’s not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it’s also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven’t aged that well in the two decades since the film’s release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn’t that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy’s room. He runs a tight ship, but he’s a benevolent dictator — as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That’s a good thing; Andy’s family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what’s worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody’s jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy’s home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That’s what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy’s-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor’s house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What’s scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar’s catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it’s a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that’s why they’ve pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 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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