Archive for movies


Beauty and the Beast Movies

I ended up unintentionally doing a themed movie weekend, and didn’t realize one of the themes until I was thinking about it later. The theme was fantasy romantic comedies with a beauty and the beast theme. Yeah, pretty specific.

The first one was Strange Magic, something I stumbled upon on Disney+. I’d never heard of it, but it was about fairies and was a musical, so I figured why not. It turns out that it’s not Disney or Pixar animation, but rather Lucasfilm. They seem to have turned the people at Industrial Light and Magic who do those animated creatures that get inserted into regular movies loose to do a fully animated movie. Lucas himself was executive producer and has the story credit, so this must have been in the works pre-Disney buyout (and it was released after the buyout, which makes me wonder if Disney maybe buried it and that’s why I never heard of it). It’s an odd little film, kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Much Ado About Nothing meets Beauty and the Beast meets Moulin Rouge. Like Moulin Rouge, it’s a jukebox musical, with existing pop/rock songs instead of original songs. Oddly for a Lucas story, it’s hard to sum up the plot and really give the sense of it. Basically, a fairy princess has to brave the Dark Forest to rescue her sister from the Bog King who’s trying to eradicate love. But it’s not really about that.

The voice cast has a lot of Broadway cred, though Evan Rachel Wood plays the lead, and I don’t know that she’s done Broadway musicals (she is the voice of the mom in the Frozen movies, where she gets to sing), but she’s got serious chops and holds her own with all the Broadway people. As you can imagine when it’s ILM, the animation is gorgeous. The more humanoid fairies have a weird uncanny valley animated quality to them, but everything else is basically photorealistic. I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but I have to say that it made me rather happy. My face hurt from grinning all the way through it, and I’ll probably watch it again. If you want a sense of what this is like, here’s a clip of the heroine confronting the Bog King (Alan Cumming):

Then the next night, since I was in the mood for fantasy rom-coms, I watched Penelope on Amazon Prime (leaving at the end of the month). This is another one I didn’t hear of when it came out, but I had seen it before when it was the recommended viewing for a writing workshop I was taking. This is essentially a gender-flipped beauty and the beast story. A wealthy family has been cursed so that any girls born into the family will have the face of a pig until someone of their own kind loves them as they are, til death they do part. When a girl is finally born into the family after more than a century, the family sets out to find a man from their class who’ll be willing to marry her. Meanwhile, a reporter is scheming to get a photo of her, and he finds a black sheep from a prominent family who’s down enough on his luck to be bribed to present himself as a suitor. But Penelope has other ideas about her own fate and is tired of being locked away.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure I’d call it a full-on romance, as the main plot is more about Penelope figuring things out for herself, and she’s only with the guy a bit at the beginning and end, but it’s still romantic. It’s also sweet and heartwarming. It’s got a surprisingly A-list class for a movie that seems to have been mostly forgotten, with Christina Ricci and James McAvoy as the leads and people like Peter Dinklage and Reese Witherspoon in supporting roles.

I found the production design interesting in that it’s sort of modern retro, which gives it a fairy tale aura. It was made in 2006, so that would be pre-iPhone, but there are no cell phones, the cameras are all film cameras, they’re using typewriters instead of computers, the cars look maybe 1980s, and a lot of the clothes are more 1930s-1950s. So it’s an indeterminate not now, but still sort of present-day. Add to this the fact that it was filmed in London, so it has an old-world sense to it, but seems to be set in America. Most of the British cast members are doing American accents. The style reminds me of the original Willie Wonka movie, which was filmed mostly in Germany, but most of the characters were American, so it had this weird fairytale sense to it.

This is definitely a feel-good movie, one I think I may want to get on DVD so it’ll be handy for when I need a pick-me-up.


Recent (ish) Disney

I picked up on the Disney animation again, hitting a couple of the somewhat more recent films that I missed at the theater.

First, Moana. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it at the theater, since I’m usually all about the musicals. I think the Thanksgiving release date may have been the challenge, since it came at a busy time of year, and Rogue One came out not long afterward, so I would have been distracted. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It’s another one of those “no villains” movies. There isn’t really anyone truly evil who’s working to thwart our heroes, other than maybe the crab, but he’s not a movie-long villain, just a minor obstacle. Otherwise, there’s conflict between Moana and Maui and Maui has to get over himself, but he’s not a villain.

The animation is beautiful and vivid and makes the islands and ocean look inviting, even though I’m very much not a beach person. As a bonus for me, a tiny bit from this movie sparked an idea that was the answer to a problem I was having with the book I’m working on, so watching it counted as work. The music is catchy, with a few songs I’ve caught myself singing around the house.

There’s a trend in some of the modern-era Disney movies that I think I’m picking up on, so I’ll have to watch more and see if my theory holds together.

Then I was in the mood for an adventure story, so I went with Atlantis: The Lost Empire. This should have been right up my alley, with an adorkable hero and a steampunky aesthetic, but I didn’t find it very engaging. I may have just been tired. This was a last-second selection when I was planning to watch the live-action Little Mermaid but found out that it was two hours and twenty minutes long, and I wanted something a lot shorter. It was a sharp contrast to the no-villain Moana, with a very obvious mustache-twirling evil villain who had to be defeated.

I couldn’t tell you what about it didn’t fully engage me, but I kept drifting off and thinking about other things, then I’d snap out of a daydream and realize I’d missed a chunk of the movie. Lots of stuff happened and it had a lot of action, so maybe it was just the frame of mind I was in. I think perhaps it was just uninspired and I didn’t connect with any of the characters. It did have an impressive voice cast and it looked great.

I’m not sure what I’ll watch this weekend. I spotted something I’d never heard of that looks interesting, so I may try that. But then they’ve also added a lot of the DC superhero movies to Prime Video and I never saw the second Wonder Woman film. I’ll have to see what mood I’m in and what my focus level is. I had my flu shot this morning, so I probably won’t be at my best this weekend.


Dungeons & Dragons

Last weekend’s movie was Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is now on Prime Video. I thought it was a lot of fun. I’ve never played D&D, but I’ve hung around with a lot of people who do, so I’ve absorbed enough about the game to get the gist of most of the references, though I’m sure I missed a lot. Even without knowing anything about the source material, I thought it was a good fantasy adventure movie that didn’t take itself too seriously.

The gist of the story is that a thief and his barbarian sidekick escape from prison (after they got caught in a failed heist while the rest of their crew escaped) to find that a member of their crew has set himself up as a ruler and is raising the thief’s daughter, turning her against him. The thief pulls the rest of his old crew together, picking up an additional member, in order to pull off the heist that will get back what the one who betrayed him took. Of course, they have to go on a number of quests to find the things they’ll need to pull off this heist, and along the way they learn what’s really going on and that it’s far bigger than just a grudge against an old colleague.

It’s not quite a spoof of fantasy movies or games, though it still has some wink/nudge moments mocking the tropes, but it’s funny and yet it’s still a good fantasy/adventure. It’s not quite on the cleverness level of The Princess Bride, but it’s in a similar vein in that it manages to straddle the line between spoofing a genre while also being a good example of the thing it’s spoofing. The casting is just about perfect, and they flip a few tropes — the barbarian is a woman, the relationship with the female sidekick remains platonic, and the wizard is the youngest, least experienced member of the party instead of being a white-bearded elder.

I will confess that in spite of never having played D&D, I’ve long had a fascination with it. I just never had the chance to play. I think I first heard about it in junior high, when a guy in one of my classes mentioned it. He wanted to copy one of my doodles in class because he thought it would make a great dungeon design. Unfortunately, he lived on the other side of town, so I couldn’t join his game. Then we moved to the country outside a small town that was caught up in the whole satanic panic thing. They had seminars about how rock and roll music was of the devil, so I doubt anyone played D&D. Even if they did, I wouldn’t have had transportation to get together with them. When I got to college, the people I hung around with were hard-core, experienced gamers who didn’t have the patience to deal with a newbie. They had a long-running campaign going and didn’t even like me watching or asking questions while they played.

I don’t really like competitive games where there are winners and losers, but this looks like collaborative storytelling and it might be fun. I’m now at the phase of life where finding times when everyone can get together is challenging, and the people I know who are into it have their own groups already. I’d just like to try one short session to see if I enjoy it. The idea of gathering with friends to do that sort of thing appeals to me. Maybe if I ever get back to going to conventions, I can find an “intro to gaming” session and play.

In the meantime, at least we have one more big-budget fantasy movie to add to the rotation, something that’s not as serious as Lord of the Rings but not as cheap and silly as all the Fantasy Cheese movies.


Disney Girls

One thing that struck me in my recent viewing of Disney animated films was the role of female characters. Even though most of these movies are targeted toward a female audience and many of the main characters are female, there actually aren’t a lot of girls or women in these movies.

Most of the female roles come down to three categories, the heroine (or love interest, if the main character is male), the mother figure, and the villain. Very few of the female characters have female friends. For the heroines, the only women in their lives are either mother figures or villains. These movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test. This is a very low-bar test for female representation in movies that merely requires that there are two female characters who have names and who talk to each other about something other than a man.

For the fairy tale movies, some of this is baked into the stories, especially before they started going beyond the basics of the tales and fleshing them out with characters and details. The only female characters in Snow White are the evil queen and Snow White, and I guess there’s not a lot of room to add female characters unless some of the dwarfs are women. This one might even sort of pass the Bechdel Test, given that Snow White and the queen in disguise have a conversation about the apple, but the queen doesn’t get an onscreen name, so I’m giving it a fail.

In Cinderella, we have female villains and the mother figure of the fairy godmother. Cinderella sort of has conversations with her stepfamily, so I guess it passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s interesting that her animal friends who get names are all male. The female mice are more in the background and don’t interact directly with Cinderella. If they were going to make up characters to add to the story, it seems like it would have made more sense for her confidants to be female.

Sleeping Beauty still has the heroine/mother figures/villain triad, and about the only conversation Aurora/Briar Rose has with the fairies is about the prince, though this is one of the few of the fairy tale movies that is full of active female characters.

Jumping ahead to more modern Disney princesses, all of Ariel’s fishy friends are male, as are most of the enchanted objects Belle interacts with, with the exception of Mrs. Potts (mother figure) and the Wardrobe. But all their conversations are about the Beast. All of Rapunzel’s friends are male. We finally get an actual female friendship with Tiana and Charlotte in The Princess and the Frog, but Charlotte spends most of the movie offscreen, and most of the other characters are male. Frozen has dual female heroines, but the only other female character is a female-coded troll (the sequel does a bit better).

Maybe the secondary characters in the female-led movies are male to balance it out. Except the male-led movies are also male-dominated. The Lion King has the mother, who’s offscreen most of the movie, Nala, and a secondary villain. So, about the same number of women as the female-led movies, only less screen time. In Peter Pan, Wendy, her mother, and the mermaids are the only women who get any dialogue. Tinkerbell just chimes, while Tiger Lily never speaks. The mermaids only talk about Peter. We get two mother figures in The Jungle Book, the wolf at the beginning and the elephant. Then the girl shows up at the end and sings her song but otherwise doesn’t talk. At least Lady Cluck and Marian are friends in Robin Hood, though I think they mostly talk about Robin, and then there’s a female bunny child and a couple of mothers among the villagers. Cluck is a rare character who doesn’t fit the heroine/love interest, villain, or mother figure mold. In Aladdin, Jasmine is the only female character (unless there’s a cameo moment I forgot). We don’t even have a mother figure or female villain there.

I could go on because almost all of them are like this. But this isn’t unique to Disney. When I was helping with the church youth musicals, we ran up against this in trying to find a show. The audience for musical theater is predominantly female. Most of the people interested in participating in musical theater are female. And yet most of the roles in most shows are male. I suppose they don’t have a hard time casting male roles for pro productions in New York (though I’d bet they have a smaller pool to choose from than they do for female roles), but for amateur productions, especially those for teens, it’s nearly impossible to fill all the male roles while there are dozens of girls trying out for each female part. For our musicals, they ended up gender flipping every role that didn’t absolutely have to be male and bringing in adult men to fill some of the male roles, so that they only needed maybe three or four teen guys, and even then there might be two who were actual theater kids (often the ones from the performing arts high school in another city who couldn’t get lead roles in school productions and wanted to beef up their resumes) and a couple who could manage to walk on stage and say a line or two. Meanwhile, the chorus would be packed with girls who had voice and dance training (in these shows, everyone who tried out got some kind of role). The lead female actress would be Broadway-caliber. About the only “girly” show that actually has mostly female roles is the Broadway version of Cinderella.

Or look at the Star Wars saga (other than the TV series, which are a lot more balanced). Even when the main character is female, they keep the girl and two guys combination for the main trio. Rogue One had a female lead, but only two women with speaking parts.

I guess I can partially thank this tendency for my writing career because the fact that just about every work of popular culture when I was a kid, aside from Charlie’s Angels, had only one female character meant that I had to make up my own characters to play when we were playing whatever TV show or movie as we ran around the neighborhood. I had to make up another nurse or doctor when we played M*A*S*H, another Enterprise crew member when we played Star Trek, a female cop when we played CHiPS, a female X-wing pilot when we played Star Wars, etc., if I didn’t win the argument about who got to play the one female character in the show or movie.

By the way, the post title is a reference to a Beach Boys song later also recorded by the Captain & Tennille (which is how I know it), though I think it was more about the live-action movies Disney did in the 50s and their TV shows (like the Mickey Mouse Club) than about the animated princesses.


A Question of Destiny

I didn’t do any Disney movies last weekend because I got sidetracked and ended up creating a thematic double feature.

First, on Friday night I watched Megamind. I’d been thinking about this one after seeing a Cinema Therapy video on it. Cinema Therapy is a fun YouTube channel in which a filmmaker and his therapist friend discuss movies in terms of mental health and relationships. They may discuss a particular movie, using it to highlight a relationship or mental health issue. They may do a roundup or top ten list, ranking movies for things like depiction of healthy (or unhealthy) relationships. They do spotlights on heroes, showing the issues the heroes face and how the way they overcome them is what makes them heroes. And they look at villains and what kind of help they’d need to get over their problems. I recently watched the episode they did on Megamind, using it to illustrate the issue of the “nice guy” who’s only doing good things to get attention or praise and expects to be rewarded, as opposed to kindness, which is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, without it being transactional. When I saw that the movie was on Prime, I decided to watch it. I thought I’d seen it on HBO back when it first came out, but I’m not sure. Maybe I saw clips.

The movie is sort of a spoof on the Superman story. A baby on another world gets put in a pod by his parents and sent away from a dying world. But there are actually two pods from two different planets. One is basically Superman, but the other is a blue-skinned creature with a giant brain. The Not!Superman pod lands with a wealthy family, and the other lands in a prison, where the prisoners adopt the child and bring him up. When he ends up in school with the other kid, he realizes he’ll never be able to compete at being good, so he decides to be a supervillain and the nemesis to MetroMan. They’re fairly evenly matched, so all of Megamind’s evil schemes always come close to succeeding before he’s foiled at the last second by MetroMan. But then one of his schemes actually works and he gets to take over the city. Now what? Maybe he needs to create a hero to be his new nemesis, since a villain is nothing without a hero to fight. But what if the new hero actually turns out to be bad? Can a villain become a hero?

I normally don’t have a lot of patience for the “poor, sad villain can’t help being evil and it’s all the hero’s fault for not being nice to him” story, but I actually buy this one because in some respects it’s true. Megamind doesn’t stand a chance, growing up in a prison and being raised by felons, and MetroMan is kind of a jerk and a bully. But ultimately, it also makes it clear that it was Megamind’s choices that made him a villain, and different choices can give him a different outcome. The story is ultimately about the idea that there is no destiny, that you choose who you want to be, and the choices you make reflect the kind of person you are. This becomes clear when the wrong guy ends up getting turned into the new superhero. He’s the guy who thinks he deserves the girl because he’s “nice” to her, but he’s only nice because he wants her, and he gets mad when she doesn’t respond to him the way he wants.

The movie is a lot of fun, has some great laugh-out-loud moments and an excellent cast (including Brad Pitt having fun mocking his own image as MetroMan — he really does seem to like those roles that allow him to mock himself) and is thought-provoking.

Then I noticed that The Iron Giant is also on Prime and is leaving at the end of the month, so I figured that would make a good Saturday movie to fit the theme, since that whole move is about the giant choosing what he wants to be. In the late 50s, during the Sputnik era, a strange thing crashes to earth. A young boy in rural Maine discovers a giant metal man and befriends him, hiding him from the authorities. But what is the iron giant, and is he a threat? Maybe he can decide for himself.

I remember watching this movie on HBO, and I remembered the major points, but not a lot of the details. It’s directed by Brad Bird, who went on to do The Incredibles for Pixar. I found myself wondering how this movie would have worked if it had been a Pixar film. It has that kind of heart. Most of the movie is more conventional hand-drawn, 2-D animation, with the robot being computer animated. I’m not super crazy about the hand-drawn animation. There’s a Saturday-morning cartoon feel to it, which may have been deliberate. It’s nowhere near as rich as the Disney animation, especially with the human characters. But would there have been the robot vs. human contrast if the whole thing had been done Pixar-style?

The movie is quite sweet and gets into that issue of deciding who you want to be and whether you’re a friend or an enemy depends not on what you are but on what you do. It gets a little heavy-handed at times and isn’t quite as amusing as Megamind, but it does bring a tear to my eye a few times.

And now I’m inspired to go out and create my own destiny!


Rescuers Down Under

My Disney movie last weekend was The Rescuers Down Under. I had never seen this one. It looks like it came out around the time I was starting my first job out of college, so I’d just moved, and I was dating someone, so any movies I went to around that time were more “date” kind of movies. I have to say that I wasn’t fond of this one. The flying sequences were lovely, but the story just didn’t work for me.

This may fall into the category of “overanalyzing an animated movie for kids,” but I had a hard time getting past the fact that they did that whole relay thing to signal from Australia to New York for them to send someone to rescue the kid, when all the mice along the way were a lot closer to go to the kid’s rescue, and then they had a local mouse/rat helping them once they got to Australia. It seems like an unnecessary delay to wait for someone to go from New York to Australia when there was a kid in need of help. It takes at least 24 hours to fly from the US to Australia by airplane, probably longer when part of the journey is via albatross. Surely there are adventurous creatures in Australia, in addition to the one who helped them. It struck me as rather American-centric, as though the rest of the world has to wait for the Americans to show up and take care of things for them (yes, Miss Bianca was Hungarian, but she was based in New York). I know they were trying to bring in the recurring characters, but maybe they could have been in Australia for another reason and joined the rescue effort. And then both the kid and the villain had American accents. In Australia. The kid was living in Australia and had a mother with an Australian accent, but sounded American (apparently, the actor was actually Norwegian?).

Then I thought the story was lacking the heart of the first one and had a mean streak to it. There was whatever torture the doctor was setting up for the albatross who threw his back out. That whole segment seemed unnecessary. Then there was the way the local rat kept “accidentally” letting Bernard get into danger, like he was trying to get rid of a rival, and Bianca was utterly oblivious or even accused Bernard of not being friendly. I hate that trope in romances, where the rival is clearly out to get the guy and the girl doesn’t seem to care what’s happening to her friend. Whether or not she’s interested in the rival, she should care that her friend is being put in danger.

And then there was the kid. It was nice that he had his own rescue aid thing going on, but he kept getting in trouble because he didn’t listen when someone was trying to warn him that he was walking into a trap. You’d think he’d have learned the first time not to talk over the person (mouse) trying to warn him and blunder on.

Spoilers for the ending here
Finally, it was left weirdly unresolved. Yes, they rescued the eagle and the kid and Bernard proposed to Bianca, but we didn’t get to see the eagle seeing her chicks and we didn’t find out whether they rescued all the other captive animals. I was surprised when the movie just sort of ended without wrapping up the loose ends. It would have been nice to see the other animals freed and the kid reunited with his mother and the eagle getting to see her chicks. At least in the first film, they had the TV news story to show us what happened with Penny. Here, they escaped, but we don’t know what happens to some of the characters. It felt like the movie just ran out of steam, or maybe ran out of budget and they just left off where they were.

It was all pretty dissatisfying. I think part of the problem was that this was made-for-video quality that got a big-screen release, possibly because they were playing with the computer animation technology. Also, they’d forgotten a lot of what makes the Disney films work. The primary audience may be kids, but they’re enjoyable for adults. I didn’t feel like this one had any of the adult appeal or hidden depth.

Incidentally, my mom found the “story and songs” record of the first movie in the collection of Disney records, which explains why I remembered bits of dialogue and the songs in spite of only having seen the movie once.



Last weekend’s Disney movie was The Rescuers. This one was a weird experience for me because it was both strange and familiar. I remember going to the theater to see it but didn’t remember anything about it, other than that it involved mice and that Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart were the voices, but then once I started watching, I would have these weird flashes of memory in which I not only knew what the next line would be, I knew exactly what it would sound like. I could sing along with the Rescue Aid Society theme song. I didn’t have this record, but it’s possible that my younger brother did. When I saw it, I was 8, almost 9, and I’d see Star Wars a couple of months later, so I was at a point when I was suddenly no longer interested in Disney movies. I became obsessed with Star Wars and left behind the Disney stuff for a while.

But if my little brother had the record for this, that might explain why some of the lines were so familiar but the story wasn’t that familiar. I might have overheard enough to recognize bits of the movie without knowing the story as a whole. With the earlier ones, I listened to them myself and acted them out. This might have been one I overheard through the wall, so I picked up on and memorized bits of dialogue without getting the context.

Anyway, it’s a rather cute movie, though maybe not as memorable as some of the classics. It’s not a musical, like the earlier films. The characters only sing that group anthem, which is sung as part of the story. The rest of the songs are just part of the soundtrack, playing in the background during scenes. But some of the artwork is lovely, there’s some imaginative use of objects to create the world of the mice, and the treatment of women is better than in a lot of these films. They actually acknowledge the sexism, as the male mice try to keep Miss Bianca from doing things, but she goes right ahead and proves to be more competent than the men. She doesn’t really have to be rescued. She does the rescuing. Since they’re helping a child, they use a similar trick to that the Aristocats used, with the leading lady avoiding having to be the damsel in distress because there’s a child (or kitten) involved. And here, even the child plays an active role in her rescue. She’s the one who gets out the distress call, and then she comes up with a lot of the plan for her escape. She’s even the one who drives the getaway vehicle.

The villains’ plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, so little wonder that I didn’t remember it (and was guessing at something a lot more elaborate than it turned out to be).

I’m still trying to figure out who, exactly, the protagonist is. It’s mostly told from Bernard’s perspective and he’s the one whose life is upended and who has a growth arc. His ordinary world is just being the janitor, then he gets the call to adventure when Miss Bianca drafts him to join her on the rescue mission, and he ends up becoming a real agent instead of just a janitor. But it’s Penny and Bianca who drive a lot of the action and who make the actual decisions. Bernard is mostly swept up in the wake of Bianca, who is a force of nature. But Bianca is mostly a catalyst. She doesn’t change, but she makes things happen.

I guess now I need to watch The Rescuers Down Under, which I never saw.


Disney Silliness

I doubled up on the Disney last weekend, hitting movies that make me laugh. First, Robin Hood. I’ve read commentaries that refer to this as one of Disney’s weaker movies, but it’s still one of my favorites because it’s just so much fun. Yeah, there are some logical leaps and the music is so specific to the movie that there weren’t any breakout pop hits, but it’s highly entertaining, to the point that my face hurts at the end from smiling so much.

I actually saw this one at the theater in first run, so I experienced it first from the movie and then later got the record album, but since I grew up in the days before home video, I still mostly knew it from the album, and I have the sound from a lot of the scenes permanently etched on my brain. If you’re looking for some kind of coherent worldbuilding, you’re out of luck, since we have an Old West sheriff and his deputies in medieval England and we have a fox and a hen being best friends, but I find a lot of that to be part of the movie’s charm. Weirdly, I’m not sure this movie would have worked so well if it had been a more straightforward telling using human characters, like they did with the fairy tale movies.

It’s a somewhat different experience watching as an adult with some knowledge of history, since “good King Richard” wasn’t all that great and had little to do with England, and he was the reason they had to raise taxes to pay for his crusades and the ransom when he got himself taken prisoner. John taxed the nobles rather than the peasants (though the nobles probably did pass it on to the peasants). But the more you know about Eleanor of Aquitaine, the funnier the “Mommy!” bit is.

You know, so many of the Robin Hood films end with good King Richard showing up to get Prince John back in line. I want one that has Eleanor showing up and dragging him off by the ear. Historically, that’s somewhat more likely.

Brian Bedford as Robin Hood has to be the MVP of this movie, given that he plays essentially multiple roles. He’s Robin, but then he’s also Robin as the lady fortuneteller, Robin as the old beggar, Robin as the stork archer, and Robin imitating the deputy, and all of them are distinctly different voices with very different accents, but with just enough Robin in them to make it clear that it’s Robin in disguise (this was clear even on the record album). The deputy is particularly good because it’s a dead-on impression with only the slightest hint that they didn’t just fake it with the actor who played the deputy providing the voice of Robin-as-deputy.

There are a lot of jokes online about how girls of my generation got their definition of sexy from a cartoon fox. He is one sexy fox, but I think a lot of the appeal is in how expressive they manage to make his face. He’s mostly got that sly, cheeky look, but when he’s trapped in the burning castle, there’s a raw vulnerability on his face that makes him even more appealing. My DVD (I loaded up on the classics at the used bookstore when people unloaded their collections after Disney+ launched) includes an alternate ending in which Robin is wounded during his escape and is threatened by Prince John as Marian tends to him. That would have been a massive tonal shift, plus seeing the sexy hero that vulnerable might have been a total overload of “sexy fox.”

I was in need of a smile Saturday night, and I’d recently done a Norwegian unit on tools that included the sentences “Pull the lever!” and “Wrong lever!” so I ended up watching The Emperor’s New Groove for the third time in the past couple of years. (If you’ve seen the movie, you know why that made me think of the movie, and if you haven’t, it’s a running gag. And given the degree of nerdiness in the Duolingo Norwegian course, I’m certain it was meant as a reference.)

That movie is just so very satisfying. We have a good transformation arc, a good villain comeuppance, and the day is saved due to the innate goodness of a couple of people. The story is about a selfish young Incan emperor who gets turned into a llama by his evil advisor who’s trying to do away with him, and he finds himself dependent on the peasant whose home he planned to destroy in order to build a summer palace. It’s a delightful burst of pure silliness wound around a sweet heart, and it just makes me happy. I should probably find a DVD because I don’t want to risk it getting pulled from streaming. It’s become one of my go-to happy place movies.

Since I’m doing this for fun, I’ve decided not to worry about Dumbo, Bambi and Pinocchio. I don’t have any kind of assignment making me watch these, so if I don’t want to, I don’t have to. I’m thinking of trying The Rescuers next. I remember seeing it at the theater when it came out, but I was a little beyond the Disney record album stage then so I didn’t have anything to allow me to relive it away from the movie, and I don’t remember it at all. Also, I saw Star Wars not long after I saw it, so my interests shifted entirely away from that sort of thing. I never saw The Rescuers Down Under because it came out when I was an adult, and since I didn’t remember much about the first movie, I didn’t care all that much about the second. There are actually a lot of Disney movies from the 90s that I missed. I saw the major ones like The Lion King, Mulan, and Aladdin, but missed most of the others. I may focus now on the ones I don’t remember or haven’t seen.


Swinging with The Jungle Book

Last weekend’s Disney fun was The Jungle Book. This one was a favorite when I was a kid, mostly because of the music. It might even be partially responsible for my love of jazz. There’s also a lot of humor and heart, with lovable characters (even if you love to hate them) as Mowgli makes his way through the jungle. I actually saw this as a kid, but I’m still mostly familiar with it from the story and songs album. They included a lot of actual scenes from the movie, so there’s still a lot I can quote from memory. I even remember how the voices sounded, so I had a few moments of realizing why the voice sounded a certain way at a certain time in the movie — on the record, there would be a time when a voice suddenly changed, and then in the movie you see that the person speaking had something happen to him in that moment. I remembered the sound but didn’t remember what had happened.

I’m not sure which of the main songs is my favorite. “The Bear Necessities” is a lot of fun. “I Wanna Be Like You” is a great swing number that gives us a scat-off between Phil Harris and Louis Prima and that makes you want to dance. But I also love the vultures’ song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” You can tell by the character design that the vultures were meant to be the Beatles, and apparently that was the original plan, with their song being a Beatles-style number. But the Beatles pulled out, and they rewrote the song to be the bouncy barbershop quartet number, which I think actually works better.

The whole vulture scene is pretty much seared into my memory since the whole “What do you want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” routine became a recurring family joke. Anytime someone said something about being bored and someone asked what they wanted to do, it would trigger this whole scene getting played out.

In analyzing the structure, I realized that, for a change, we actually have a protagonist! Bagheera is the one telling the story, but I think Mowgli is the protagonist. He’s the one who learns about a change in his life, and he reacts to it, which drives the rest of the story, as he first ditches Bagheera, then decides to stay with Baloo, and then ditches everyone before having to confront the villain himself, rescuing himself, then making the decision of what to do with his life. Bagheera does have the goal of getting Mowgli to the man village, but nothing much of what he does actually has any effect on what happens.

Fun trivia note: the actor who voiced Mowgli also voiced Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh movies being made around the time this movie was made, and the actor who voiced Kaa the snake voiced Winnie the Pooh. That gives a whole new sense to the scenes between them here. It might be fun to switch the animation and have Pooh talking to Christopher Robin like that.

I don’t know what I’ll watch this weekend. Maybe Robin Hood while I’m in this era. I guess eventually I should go back and look at some of the other early films, but I’m not particularly eager to watch Dumbo, Bambi or Pinocchio. I recall liking Pinocchio as a kid, but I wasn’t a big fan of the others.


Fun with The Aristocats

Since last Friday was Bastille Day, I decided to go for something French for my Disney animated movie. Now that I think about it, The Aristocats might not have been an appropriate choice, but then it is a fantasy about the wealthy ending up meeting the needs of the poor, so I guess it kind of works. Anyway, I needed something fun, and this one is fun.

The Aristocats was one of my favorites when I was a child. It was released when I was a toddler, so I don’t remember if I saw it in the original theatrical run, but I did see it during my childhood because I related the story and songs album to the movie itself instead of the other way around. I identified with the kitten Marie since Marie is my middle name, and I loved the dogs. Watching as an adult, I still enjoyed it. I laughed out loud a number of times, especially during the parts with the dogs, and I could barely sit still during the “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” musical number. Supposedly, this was during the “cheap” era for Disney, and there is some sketchiness to the artwork, but it works as an artistic choice. The images look like they’ve come off a sketchbook. Possibly because there are so few songs, the story and songs album contained a lot of clips of scenes from the movie, and I can still recite some of the dialogue from memory, right down to inflection.

There’s an oddly timeless quality to the movie because of all its anachronisms. About the only clue that this movie was from 1970 is the fact that a lot of the cast were from fairly recent sitcoms. They cast from The Odd Couple, Green Acres, the Andy Griffith universe and The Beverly Hillbillies, and this movie seems to have formed something of a Disney repertory company because most of the cast also ended up in Robin Hood. Otherwise, we’ve got early 50s beatniks and be-bop type jazz, some 30s-40s swing performed by someone who was a star of that era, and some late 60s psychedelic imagery in a movie set in Belle Epoque Paris. And yet it all works.

I wonder if the music and the inclusion of Phil Harris were that era’s equivalent of Pixar making movies on two levels, with stuff to appeal to kids and broader themes that speak to adults, but he was really even from before the time of the parents of that generation. It would kind of be like making an animated movie now and getting Boy George to voice one of the characters and do the singing, with the animated character being based on his early 80s persona. Harris was a 1930s radio and movie star as a big band singer, and then he had a career revival as a popular Disney voice.

One thing I found fun is that the cats are drawn and animated differently depending on whether or not humans are present. When humans are there, they’re drawn more “realistically” (for cartoon drawing values of “realistic”) and move and behave a lot like real cats. Then when humans aren’t around and they’re talking, they’re more like anthropomorphic cartoon cats. You get the impression that the humans can’t hear the animals talking to each other. But then at the end, the humans apparently can hear the cats playing musical instruments, so that illusion of reality shatters a bit. I’m not sure if the evil butler could understand the dogs when they were talking to each other while he was trying to retrieve his belongings from them.

This movie does a little better with gender representation than a lot of the Disney films I’ve been watching, from either the “Classic” or “Revival” era. We have Duchess, Madame, Marie, the horse, and the geese as female characters. Having Marie around means Duchess doesn’t have to be the damsel in distress so O’Malley can show his valor by rescuing her. He gets to rescue the kitten instead, and then he gets rescued by the geese. I guess you could even say Duchess has a female friend in Madame.

Fun trivia note: the scene in Rebel Mechanics in which Henry has to go to the Rebel headquarters to warn them and they’re hostile to him because of who he is was largely inspired by the scene in which the mouse has to go to the alley cats to ask them to come to the aid of Duchess and the kittens. It was mostly just the idea of someone having to go among people who would see him as an enemy, but this scene was definitely in my mind.

I did notice a few things as an adult that would have flown over my head when I was a kid. For one, who was the father of Duchess’s kittens? They’re not that old, maybe a few months, so it’s been maybe six months at most since she was with another cat. She’s a pampered pet with no knowledge of the outside world and no survival skills, so it wasn’t as though Madame took in a pregnant street cat. Duchess clearly wasn’t allowed to roam, so how did she get pregnant? Did Madame breed her? The idea of that gets a bit icky when you’re looking at Duchess as an anthropomorphic sentient, talking character. Either this was nonconsensual or she developed a relationship, only to be taken away from her lover after the deed was done. Marie looks just like Duchess, so it doesn’t seem like Madame took in some kittens and Duchess adopted them.

The other thing that I picked up on was a reference to Madame having been some kind of opera performer, so either a singer or a ballet dancer. Basically, she was Christine from Phantom of the Opera — and probably would have been performing around that time. But it also means she’s not actually an aristocrat. An aristocrat wouldn’t have become an opera performer. She also might not have obtained that much wealth just from her success as a performer. There’s a pretty good chance she was a mistress to an aristocrat, and she got some of her wealth that way. She might have moved in those circles in companionship to her patron, but not in her own right. It’s her pets who become the aristocrats because they were born into wealth and status and were going to inherit money.

From a story structure standpoint, this one gets a little odd. It’s mostly a villain-driven story. It’s the butler who has a goal, comes up with a plan to achieve that goal, and faces conflict in attempting to reach that goal (before failing). But as with many villain-driven stories, there’s no real character arc for him and he doesn’t learn anything or change. Duchess has the goal of getting back home, but she isn’t all that active in going after it. She just accepts the help that comes up and doesn’t really initiate anything (though she does make decisions about who to accept help from). She also doesn’t really learn anything, aside from developing an appreciation for jazz. The character with the growth arc is O’Malley, who starts out not wanting to get involved with a lady with kids but ends up becoming a protective father figure to the kittens and giving up his alley cat life. But he doesn’t really have any goal. He’s helping them get home, but that doesn’t matter that much to him, and he even discourages them from going home when they get to Paris. He’s not keen on getting involved with someone with kids until later in the story and only comes along on the journey more or less by accident, so he doesn’t seem to have the goal of winning Duchess. So, who’s the protagonist?

The fact that so many of these movies don’t have some of the key story ingredients suggests that maybe all those writing gurus don’t know everything. I doubt you’d sell a screenplay in today’s Hollywood without having the key structural elements, but you clearly can have a successful, entertaining story without ticking all the boxes, as long as it works. If your audience is saying, “But what do they want?” you’ve got a problem, but if they’re having too much fun to notice, then it works.

I’m afraid the line “That’s just a little ol’ cricket bug” is going to work its way back into my regular vocabulary. I’d forgotten this was where that came from, but it used to come up a lot, along with “I’m the leader.”

I may stick with the “jazzy” theme this week and watch The Jungle Book. For that one, I may not even set up my lounger. I’ll need room to dance around the living room.