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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.

movies

Rescuers

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.

movies

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.

movies

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.

movies

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.

movies

The Problem of Peter Pan

My Disney movie for last weekend was Peter Pan. This is another one I don’t have a lot of memories of. I thought I had the record album, but most of the music wasn’t familiar. I didn’t remember that the “We’re following the leader” song came from this movie, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t use the lyrics for “Never Smile at a Crocodile” in the actual film. That’s just the theme from the score that plays when the crocodile is present. My mom said she didn’t recall taking me to see it as a kid. I tried to watch it when it came on the Disney Channel when I had cable, and I noped out while the mermaids were mean girling Wendy. I think I’ve seen some clips because there were scenes that were somewhat familiar, but I may not have seen it all the way through. I’m a lot more familiar with the Broadway show, which is unrelated to the Disney version.

This is another film in which the title character isn’t really the protagonist. Peter Pan is essentially a secondary character. It’s Wendy who mostly drives the story. She’s the one who has the goal of going to Neverland, and she has the plan to save Peter’s shadow so he’ll have to come back. Then she’s the one who urges the others to action throughout. She’s also the one who has the growth arc of realizing that growing up isn’t entirely a bad thing and that not growing up has had some negative effects on Peter Pan. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing that Peter’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s entirely selfish, has to be constantly reminded of the needs or even peril of others, and the only time he seems to care at all what happens to anyone is when he thinks Tinkerbelle has been killed while saving him from a bomb. He does get a bit better after that, and that’s when he comes to the rescue of Wendy and the others, but he’s still not ready to grow up and return to the real world, while Wendy is.

Though I have to say that in a movie that involves flying with the aid of pixie dust and being able to crawl unscathed out of a crocodile’s stomach, the most unbelievable thing is the idea that a tween girl at an age when she’s crushing on boys would resist moving to her own room instead of sharing a nursery with her younger brothers. But they treat that like it’s a kind of death.

The ending leaves it a bit ambiguous as to whether the whole adventure was just a dream. If it was a dream, then there’s some interesting stuff going on in Wendy’s head that she made her crush object turn out to be a disappointing sociopath. The fact that her father seemed to have some memories of Neverland does hint that it might have been real, though it’s an odd flip on the way the book ends, with Peter Pan coming to find an adult Wendy and taking Wendy’s daughter with him.

The actress who voiced Alice in Alice in Wonderland also voiced Wendy, and it sounds like she did a lot of voice training in between, since she’s a much more polished singer and manages to stay on pitch. My memory of my Alice album is hazy, but I think from hearing her singing in Peter Pan that she might actually have been the vocalist on the Alice album. She did continue voicing Alice in other Disney projects for decades (while working as a school teacher!), so she might have done studio re-recordings of the songs for the album. I think she also narrated the story on the album. Sadly, the kid who voiced Peter Pan got fired by Disney before the movie came out, after having been one of their big child stars (he was Jim in their live-action Treasure Island), and he came to a pretty bad end.

The elephant in the room in discussing this movie is the pretty obnoxious racism. They run a disclaimer about it on Disney+. The thing about the original play/book is that it was basically full of the pop culture references of the day, all the things that would have said “adventure!” to kids of that time. The Robert Louis Stevenson pirate books were popular, and there were pulp novels about the wild west. The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show came to London. The “Indians” in Neverland were essentially the pop culture figures from pulp novels and Wild West shows, not any kind of real representation of real Native Americans, just as Captain Hook and his crew bear little resemblance to real pirates. If you were to write something similar for kids of our time, they’d be traveling to a land full of Marvel villains, Imperial Stormtroopers, and maybe some videogame characters. That makes the depiction of the “Indians” tricky. Even presenting them as more authentic versions is still demeaning because their role in the story is to be pop culture villains who are fun for kids to fight. Various adaptations have tried different things, from getting Native American consultants to make the representation more accurate to just making them some made-up culture with no parallel in the real world, and I don’t think anything’s worked too well. Maybe the best way would be to make it that cast members from a Wild West show got transported to Neverland, so they live authentically on their own, but put on their roles when dealing with Pan and the boys. At any rate, Disney somehow managed to take something that was already pretty racist and make it even more offensive. The “Indians” get the “freaky” character design, aside from Tiger Lily, who gets the more normal human character design, and that song is just plain awful.

Between the sexism of all the female characters other than Wendy and Tiger Lily being mean girls and Tiger Lily not getting to speak at all and the racism, the movie is pretty cringeworthy. But after the scene with the “Indians” the movie gets a bit more fun. I think the best parts are the antics of Hook and the crocodile. Those bits are genuinely funny, and they give the crocodile a lot of personality. I even laughed out loud a few times.

Perhaps because of the problematic elements that are baked into the story, I’ve enjoyed retellings of Peter Pan more than direct adaptations. There was an interesting one on the Sci Fi Channel about a decade ago, in which Neverland was another planet and the various groups got brought there by some kind of wormhole portal. The fairies were the native life form. There have been a number of “Pan is actually the villain” novels, with a subset of those in the “and Hook is hot” category.

Altogether, this isn’t the most successful of the Disney animated films. I may do Pinocchio this weekend. That was a favorite of mine when I was little, and I’m curious what I’d think about it now.

movies

Alice in Wonderland

I needed something short to watch Saturday night, so I doubled up on the Disney last weekend and watched Alice in Wonderland. This is another one I experienced mostly through the “story and songs” record album, and this is definitely one that didn’t use the actual movie soundtrack for the songs. The record is very different from the movie. I’m not entirely sure I’d seen the whole movie before. It looks like it was rereleased when I was a small child, but I was shocked by how different what I remembered of the record was from the actual movie when I saw bits of it on the Disney Channel, back when I still had cable, and while I still knew most of the songs by heart watching it this weekend, there was a lot of it that was totally unfamiliar, so it’s possible I’d never seen the whole movie before.

On the album, the songs are a lot more polished. Alice’s songs are done almost as torch songs, like you’d sing them in a cabaret. I used to love to sing along with them, and “Very Good Advice” was one of my favorites. In the movie, they’re done more in character and in the context of what’s going on in the story. Alice is frequently off-pitch, so she sounds authentic for a little girl singing (the actress was 13 when she recorded the movie soundtrack, and she apparently had a lot of trouble with the singing). Then she sobs her way through “Very Good Advice,” so it’s not even singing. I wish I could find a good recording of the version on the record. There’s also a full version of the “Twas Brillig” song the Cheshire Cat sings bits of, done as a full-on big band jazz number.

Like most of the “classic” era films, there’s a whole segment in the middle that’s essentially a standalone cartoon short dropped into the movie, the Walrus and the Carpenter story. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that these pieces were ever shown on their own (though I haven’t done extensive research). I wonder if it’s just that in the early years of the studio, the cartoon shorts were what they were familiar and comfortable with, so they started there and built movies around them, or maybe they thought the audience would get bored with the whole movie and threw in something that could stand alone in the middle. In Snow White, there’s the whole bit about the dwarfs washing up for dinner. In Cinderella, there’s the mice trying to get past the cat to get corn from the yard. The bit with the cake and dress in Sleeping Beauty is a little more integral to the plot, so you couldn’t just cut it out the way you could those other segments, but you might be able to show it on its own as a funny cartoon short. And then here’s the Walrus and the Carpenter, which is an entirely separate story that has nothing to do with Alice. It’s just a story someone tells her.

Needless to say, Disney got a lot more rigid about story structure in the revival era. There’s no three-act structure, hero’s journey, or anything else like that going on in these older films.

I’ve got to say, this movie is kind of boring. It has some fun moments, like the tea party (which makes me want to set out tables under the trees and have a fancy outdoor tea party) and the croquet game, but it doesn’t all hold together. Apparently, Walt Disney himself was afraid it lacked heart. The book itself doesn’t have a lot of structure. It’s a bunch of incidents strung together, so there wasn’t much to work with. I think the idea of Alice and Wonderland is more interesting than the actual story, so you’re almost better off not trying to follow the book and just making something up. That seems to be a lot of what Tim Burton did with his version, and I quite liked the Wonderland spinoff of Once Upon a Time, which follows an adult Alice who went back to Wonderland to get proof that she’d actually gone there.

I may try Peter Pan this weekend. I turned it off midway through the last time I tried to watch it on the Disney Channel because the sexism of “all the girls hate each other because they’re jealous of each other over Peter” got to be a bit much, but as I recall, it has some fun music.

movies

The Princess and the Frog

I decided to keep going with the Disney “princess” theme and watched The Princess and the Frog last weekend, and this has to be the great unsung Disney film. I saw it at the theater when it came out, and I think I watched it on the Disney Channel back when I had cable, but I hadn’t thought about it in a while. You almost never hear anything about it, but it really is one of their best. For one thing, it’s utterly gorgeous. They combined the warmth of the hand-drawn characters with the richness and detail of computer-animated backgrounds, so every frame is like a work of art. The music is wonderful, and there’s plenty of it. Tiana is a great heroine. She has a life goal that she’s actually working toward. The movie goes against the usual Disney mantra and states that wishing on a star doesn’t do you any good if you don’t also put in the work. Tiana doesn’t fall in love with the prince at first sight. They only fall in love after going through adventures together. Both Tiana and the prince have growth arcs, things they have to learn from each other. Most of the other fairy tale princess movies don’t involve any real character growth for the princess. She’s already a good person at the beginning and is more or less the same person at the end, but Tiana actually grows and changes.

Tiana also has a female friend, something I’ve realized is lacking in almost all of these movies. The only women other than the heroines are either maternal figures or villains. If the heroines have sidekicks, they’re all male. Cinderella did have a few female mice, but they didn’t get names and weren’t the main sidekicks. It was Jaq and Gus who were Cinderella’s friends. Belle had Mrs. Potts and the wardrobe, but they were more motherly figures. There wasn’t a household object who appeared to be about Belle’s age who could hang out with her as a friend? There are some uncomfortable racial issues with Tiana and Charlotte, but they have a nicely non-toxic friendship, with Charlotte being willing to sacrifice her dream of marrying a prince in order to help her friend.

And that issue of race would be my one quibble with this movie. I’m a little uncomfortable with the way it glosses right past the fact that in 1920s New Orleans, Jim Crow laws and segregation would have been in full force and this was the heyday of the Klan. Someone in Big Daddy’s position probably would have held a high rank in the Klan. But then I remembered something a Black friend once said about how weird Southern racism can be, about how it’s on a societal level, while one-on-one people can be quite nice and friendly to individual Black people. And then I considered what this movie shows. Charlotte might be generous and kind to Tiana and willing to give up her dream to help her friend, but she doesn’t invite Tiana to her party until she needs to hire her to serve beignets. White people go into Black spaces to be served or entertained, but Black people aren’t included in white spaces unless they’re serving or performing. They managed to walk a very fine line here of not making this fairytale movie aimed at children openly address segregation and related issues while still depicting that society fairly accurately in subtle ways. They did sand off the most horrible edges and not depict the truly ugly parts of that world but they also didn’t show it as some kind of color-blind multiracial paradise.

I suppose none of the other films showed the Black Death or the abuse of peasants, or any of the other realism from their time periods, but their settings are all vague. Beauty and the Beast specifically mentions France, but everything else could take place in a secondary fantasy world where it’s possible society worked differently. They give a very specific place and time in the real world for this movie, and it’s a place and time within relatively recent memory. All my grandparents were alive at that time (and mostly living in Louisiana). There are still a few people alive now who were alive when this movie took place.

I hadn’t thought of this movie when I was listing examples of the Romantic Fantasy Road Trip, but it definitely is one. We get the Bargain when she agrees to kiss him to break the spell in exchange for him to help her buy the building for her restaurant. Then there’s Bickering when that doesn’t work and they’re both stuck as frogs. They have totally opposite worldviews, so there’s a lot of clashing. They come under Attack by the frog-hunting Cajuns, then they Bond after working together to save each other from the hunters. They Dance while Ray sings about his love for Evangeline. The Departure/Return sequence is a bit different because the Departure doesn’t involve a temporary return to their old lives before they decide to go back to each other. I guess they’re trying to get back to their old lives before they accept that they can’t and decide to stay together. The more standard approach to this kind of story would involve the spell breaking, but he then realizes he doesn’t enjoy being a prince without her and she doesn’t want to own a restaurant without him, but they did something different that’s actually rather clever.

I may need to get this one on DVD, just in case Disney does something dumb and removes it from streaming. It’s definitely a good happy-place movie that leaves me with a sigh and a bit of a tear in my eye. It’s also weirdly motivating. I feel shamed by comparison by how hard Tiana is willing to work to reach her dreams, which spurs me to get my act together.

Although I’d originally planned to watch these movies in production order, switching back and forth between Classic era and Revival era movies has made some of the differences clearer. One difference is that I think there’s stronger and deeper characterization in the newer movies. The characters have goals and motivations and are more complex. The newer movies are also longer, so they have more time for character development. The older movies were around 75 minutes, while the newer ones are about 110 minutes. Another change in the newer movies is the introduction of the villain song. The Evil Queen, Lady Tremaine, and Malificent don’t get musical numbers, but the villain songs are a staple of the new movies, starting with Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in The Little Mermaid. Gaston gets his big number, and Dr. Facilier has his song.

Up next, Alice in Wonderland.

movies

Beauty and the Beast

Last week’s Disney movie was Beauty and the Beast. I remember going to see this at the late showing on opening night, back in the day when I could manage to go out to a movie that started after the time I’m usually in bed now. I wouldn’t even start watching a movie that late at home these days. Ah, youth. It seemed to be a movie specifically made for me. We had a brunette, hazel-eyed Disney princess who liked books! Having moved to something like a “poor provincial town” when I was a teen, I related to her not fitting in. I even went as Belle for Halloween the following year (and was terribly disappointed when no one at the party had any idea who I was supposed to be. Most people thought I was doing Maria’s nun outfit from The Sound of Music, which looks nothing like Belle’s blue dress. Not to mention that I copied Belle’s hair just about perfectly).

But looking at it now, I have some issues with this movie. For one thing, the setup doesn’t entirely work, and that makes me increasingly uncomfortable with the “moral” it teaches. Supposedly, the prince is punished for not letting the old woman in, since he judges her by her exterior, not what’s within — but she goes on to curse not only him, but all the servants in the household, who had absolutely nothing to do with it. So maybe he judged her correctly? Not to mention, it says the last petal on the rose will fall in his 21st year, and later Lumiere says it’s been ten years, so he was 11 when this happened. I think he kind of had a point about turning her away if she’s the kind of person who’d curse a child and his whole household for not letting a stranger in. And this isn’t even in the original fairy tale. I’ve seen a version in which he’s cursed by an evil fairy for refusing to marry her, I’ve seen a version in which it was someone trying to take his estate, and I’ve seen a version in which no reason at all was given, so this was something Disney made up. It doesn’t seem like they thought this through, and they must have realized it, too, since they corrected it in the live-action remake, where the prince is an adult and is more openly obnoxious, and they give a reason why the servants share the blame for him being that way (though I think that one’s a bit of a handwave). I actually think it would have worked even better if the person he rejected really was a poor old person rather than an enchantress in disguise, and then the enchantress showed up in defense of the poor old person. Then there’s no deception going on and you don’t have the issue about her being a pretty mean person while he’s being lectured on judging by appearances. I’ve also always found it amusing that he breaks the curse given to him to teach him to see past appearances by falling in love with the most beautiful girl in town.

As much as I love Belle, there is a whiff of “not like other girls” to her, where the girls who don’t share her interests are treated as being shallow and siding with the bad guy. That’s another thing the live action version fixed by adding her making an effort to tutor the girls in town. Then there’s the bookstore big enough to need that rolling ladder in a town where only one person reads and she borrows the books. The adjustment in the live-action version in which Belle merely borrows books from the local priest’s small collection makes a lot more sense, as does the fact that she’s reading Shakespeare, not just fairy tales.

But once the movie gets going, I forget the nitpicks. The whole sequence from the attack by the wolves where they save each other through the ballroom scene is totally swoonworthy. I remember how stunning the computer-animated ballroom scene was when this movie first came out. I’m not a huge fan of their computer animated character design, and I think this is one of the better uses of the technology, having the more realistic and graceful hand-drawn animation against the vivid computer-animated backdrop. I also loved that, for once, the couple actually got to know each other as people before they fell in love, and they went through a real crisis together. It wasn’t just one dance, and then they were ready for marriage. It’s even left a little vague as to whether they got married right away. There’s no obvious wedding scene.

Although Belle is the one who gets the “I want” song, the Beast is the actual protagonist of this movie. He’s the one with the goal. We learn later that he considered that she might be the one who could break the curse the moment she said she’d take her father’s place, though you can see the realization on his face. So his goal is to get her to fall in love with him and break the curse, though the servants have to remind him that he also has to love her, and he has to behave like someone she could love. Gaston, our villain, is set up as a foil to the Beast, someone who’s vile inside while attractive on the outside. He’s even more of a beast than the Beast is.

They may not do any real traveling in this movie, but it still fits my romantic fantasy road trip pattern. We have the Bargain of Belle agreeing to stay with the Beast in exchange for her father’s freedom. There’s all the Bickering of him demanding she join him for dinner and her refusing. They come under Attack by the wolves and save each other. That leads to Bonding as they get to know each other, culminating in the big Dance. After that, there’s the Departure, in which she returns home to check on her father, and the Return, when she comes back to assist the Beast.

I’ve realized that the Departure/Return doesn’t necessarily have to involve the protagonist. In this case, the way it signals that he’s changed is that he lets her go and accepts his fate. But then she returns to the normal world and realizes she doesn’t belong there (not that she ever did, so this isn’t much of a change).

In my pastor’s sermon on this theme last weekend, he focused on the passage from the Bible about how it’s not the things you take in that defile you, but rather the things that come from within. It’s what’s in your heart that matters, and the condition of your heart also affects the way you see other people. Though he focused on the prologue in using this as an illustration, and that’s the part I don’t think is done very well since she’s actually pretty cruel and he wasn’t entirely wrong.

My personal connection to this one is that I saw the actor who voices Gaston as Lancelot in a production of Camelot — with Robert Goulet as Arthur (so no pressure at all). Just imagine that voice singing “If Ever I Would Leave You.” And he’s quite physically attractive in real life, too. I’ll just assume he doesn’t share Gaston’s personality.

My pastor has ended that sermon series, so now I have to figure out for myself what to watch. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. I haven’t seen Pinocchio, Bambi, or Dumbo in a long time, but they’re all a little depressing. Any votes for what movie I should tackle next?

movies

The Road Trip Romance

A couple of years ago, I got somewhat fixated on the subgenre I called “romantic fantasy road trip.” That was a story about people on some kind of journey or quest, and along the way they fall in love. I realized this was a thing I liked when I started watching a cheesy fantasy movie on Amazon and paused it to go make popcorn because I could tell from the setup that this was going to be something I wanted to revel in. The gold standard of this would be Stardust (both movie and book, but they have different structures), but you also find it in Disney movies like Tangled. Frozen fits it pretty well, if you look at Anna’s side of the story. It struck me that a story idea I came up with decades ago fits, too, but I couldn’t find any examples pre-dating me coming up with that idea, so I have no idea where it came from. I looked up some things I thought might fit, but it turns out they didn’t really.

I believe I’ve now figured out what I must have been modeling it on: the road trip rom-com. The gold standard of this, and probably the first example, would be It Happened One Night. These movies follow the same sort of structure I identified, just without the magic.

There’s the Bargain — the hero and heroine agree to travel together, with both of them usually getting something out of the deal. In It Happened One Night, he’s a journalist who needs a story to get his job back and she needs to reach her new husband in New York after running away from her father but is clueless about traveling alone and has lost her bag and her money. So, he agrees to help her in exchange for getting the exclusive on her story. It’s not quite a quest or bringing a fallen star to the woman he loves, but it still fits.

They do a lot of Bickering, with a clash of backgrounds and worldviews. Because this is a Depression-era screwball comedy, she’s an heiress and he’s a down-on-his-luck working man.

Then they come under Attack — detectives hired by her father find them, and they work together to throw the detectives off the trail by pretending to be a low-class long-married couple.

Thanks to the effects of the Attack, they Bond, working together from that point on (though still with lots of banter and personality clashes).

Then there’s an interesting two-part braiding of the Departure and Return sequence — he leaves her sleeping (like Stardust) to go to New York to sell the story after she confesses her love for him, planning to be back with the money they need for the rest of the journey before she wakes, but the landlady at the motel notices the car gone before then and throws her out. Thinking she’s been abandoned and hearing that her father has relented on accepting her marriage, she calls her father to come get her. Meanwhile, our hero sees her motorcade leaving just as he returns and he thinks she was kidding him. But he does another Return when he shows up to ask her father to reimburse him for the travel expenses—but refuses to take the reward money. When she learns about this at the wedding ceremony to formalize her unconsummated courthouse wedding, she flees the ceremony and runs to him. So they both Depart and Return, which is fitting because I think they’re fairly equal protagonists. The story mostly seems to be from his perspective, but we see the setup for her story first.

The one part of the pattern that’s missing is that there’s no dancing. In almost all of these stories, there’s some dancing involved in the Bonding sequence, and that’s when the feelings get romantic. In this movie, they do join a singalong on the bus earlier in the movie, and I guess the part where he takes off his shoes, rolls up his trouser legs, and carries her across the creek while she playfully uses his shoes to kick him in the rear might count.

The more modern (and significantly lesser) take on this kind of story, Leap Year, also fits the pattern. I honestly don’t know how that movie got made. With all the scripts that go nowhere, there have to have been dozens better than this. About the only things that make it work are the cast and the scenery, but on paper it had to have been a stinker. The premise—a woman making a desperate trip to and around Ireland so she can propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day, according to an old Irish custom—might have worked in the 30s or maybe even the 50s, but in the 21st century it’s hard to imagine someone going to that kind of desperate effort and expense when there’s nothing stopping her from just asking him to marry her at any time. Then there’s the fact that both of them need each other’s help, but they’re both unnecessarily obnoxious to each other. And then there are all the dumb slapstick and too stupid to live moments. I utterly adore Amy Adams, and she almost salvages her character, but this woman must have been utterly vile in the script without the subtle depth Adams manages to give her.

Still, this movie hits all the road trip romance beats I identified. There’s just no magic. I’m sure there were a ton of romance novels that fit this pattern, as well, especially the historical romances that included adventures and often involved a couple forced to travel together and falling in love along the way.

Interestingly, even though there’s no travel, the Disney Beauty and the Beast also fits, but I’ll discuss this in my next post.

It makes sense that I would have taken a kind of story I liked and added magic to it, given that this is essentially what I did with the Enchanted, Inc. series, which is a rom-com or chick lit with magic added.

In watching my two example movies last weekend, I’ve added something else to my pattern. I realized that a reason for the Departure/Return sequence, in which one character leaves the other (usually to go back to a significant other/would be significant other) only to realize he/she is in love with the traveling companion, is that this shows how the journey has changed them. They have to try to go back to the old life, then realize they’ve changed enough that they no longer want them same things, before they can finalize the relationship with the traveling companion.

This realization has been a big help in the book I’m revising, since it helps me figure out how to work out a fiddly bit near the end.