Archive for movies


The Prince with a Personality

Sleeping Beauty isn’t my favorite fairy tale (although I’ve written an adaptation of it), but Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney princess movie of the classic era, and is among the top even for the modern movies. It’s not because of the title character, herself, who does very little in this story. It’s because this is the first “princess” movie in which the prince is an actual character. He gets a name that’s actually used onscreen. He has a personality! We get our first hint of that when they show him as a child meeting the infant Aurora and clearly not being impressed. He gets to do stuff! We actually see his conversation with his father about who he wants to marry instead of hearing it secondhand (as happened in Cinderella). He gets captured by Maleficent and fights a dragon. In short, he gets to be heroic. Prince Philip has been my animated boyfriend for most of my life. I’m a little embarrassed by how many times I saw this movie when it was re-released when I was in my late teens, and most of it was because I was crushing on Philip.

I’m not sure he’s really the hero of the story, though. If you look at it structurally, the fairies appear to be the protagonists. They’re the ones who come up with the plan to save Aurora, then they go rescue Philip and help him battle Maleficent. He does a lot of the work, but they’re the ones who have the goal from the start and have the plan to achieve the goal.

On the other hand, they’re also the ones who almost ruin everything. There’s a lot of Too Stupid To Live going on in this movie, which has the effect of weakening Maleficent. She doesn’t have to be all that clever to get the drop on the good guys when they practically hand it all to her on a silver platter. The biggest error is that they spend 16 years keeping Aurora safe, only to take her back to the place where she’s most in danger at the time she’s most in danger, right before the curse deadline. Would it have killed them to wait until the next day before breaking cover? At least wait until after sunset. Not that Maleficent would have abided by that deadline. There was nothing stopping her from harming Aurora after sunset on her 16th birthday. Still, they didn’t have to hand it to her so easily. And then there’s the mess with the magical wands. First, there’s the problem of how they lived without magic for 16 years and still didn’t know how to cook or sew at all. The discussion I’ve seen mentions that they switched off roles for this occasion, but even if you’d only watched someone else bake you’d know you don’t just fold whole eggs in the shell into the batter or ice the cake and put on the candles before you bake it. Wanting to do something you’ve never done before when it’s a special occasion is rather egotistical. Then they gave away their location to the villain by having a petty spat over what color the dress should be (blue).

This is one I’d like to see a live-action remake of, along the lines of the way they did Cinderella, where it wasn’t a direct remake of the animated movie but rather a new telling of the same story, using some of the same elements. In this case, I wouldn’t mind a closer remake since I’d want to keep the stuff created for this movie like the battle with the dragon. But undo some of the Too Stupid To Live stuff from the fairies and maybe flesh out the relationship between Philip and Aurora. Maybe they’ve been meeting in the woods for some time and have become friends. She’s already living under an assumed name, and maybe he’d make up something because he doesn’t want to be seen as a prince. He’s enjoying just being himself. I wouldn’t even mind skipping the music because the musical numbers aren’t all that memorable. The music itself is, but the “musical” elements in this movie are kind of weak. I would even be okay with losing the Tchaikovsky score and letting Patrick Doyle do his thing (in this movie of my dreams, the whole Cinderella team does it, and if we have Kenneth Branagh, that means we have Patrick Doyle).

I saw the ballet this movie is based on a few years ago, and I was surprised by how out-of-context the music is in the movie. The “Once Upon a Dream” music isn’t a romantic pas de deux in the ballet. It’s just the village girls dancing at a festival.

Some fun trivia: The voice actor for Philip dubbed the singing for Freddie in the movie version of My Fair Lady, so he’s the guy who sings “On the Street Where You Live” on the soundtrack. I grew up hearing both Sleeping Beauty and My Fair Lady and can’t believe it took me that long to make the connection (it was only when I got the My Fair Lady soundtrack on CD that they credited the actual singers). Now, though, it’s really obvious when I hear it.

This week’s sermon is tied to Beauty and the Beast, so that will be this weekend’s movie.


Finding Nemo’s Story Structure

It turns out, last Sunday’s sermon movie was Finding Nemo (they sent out the newsletter late), and that’s a good summer movie because it’s about the ocean, which makes you think of the beach (although I’m not really a beach person).

This is another one of the Pixar adult perspective movies, since it’s mostly about a father and his relationship with his son, though it also has a parallel plotline about the son on his own. Like most Pixar movies, it’s very well-structured, with internal and external goals and lots of internal and external conflict.

At the beginning of the movie, Marlin’s personal goal was to maintain the status quo and keep his son safe. But since the status quo doesn’t make an interesting goal, he has an underlying need to let go so that his son can grow and be strong. Meanwhile, his son’s personal goal at the beginning is independence. He wants to be able to explore, meet new people (fish) and see new things without his father hovering over his every move. These two goals are in direct opposition, and that’s what sets off the story, when Nemo goes a bit too far away to prove his independence and gets scooped up by a diver. Now Marlin has to give up his safety and security to go find his son, while Nemo gets more independence than he ever wanted when he’s on his own in an aquarium full of strangers, and he has to figure out how to escape. There’s so much conflict there between personal goals and story goals and the characters’ clashing agendas that the movie doesn’t really need a villain. The dentist who takes Nemo and his niece are as close as we come, but they mostly just provide the ticking clock. They aren’t evil. The dentist thought he was saving Nemo, since he was a young fish with a bad fin who was far from his normal habitat. His niece doesn’t seem to be evil, just a bit clueless about caring for animals, which is the fault of the adults around her.

Last week I was reading a book on story structure, and this movie provided an interesting illustration. Per this book, in the first half of the story, the hero is trying to do things the easy way, then in the middle of the story events force him to start doing things the hard way. But in this movie, things are hard for Marlin in the first half. He runs up against sharks, nearly loses the goggles, gets chased by the anglerfish and then has to get through the jellyfish. In the second half, he catches a ride on the current with the turtles, gets a ride with the whale to Sydney, then gets a lift from the pelican, so things get easier. Except the “easy” and “hard” here aren’t what’s objectively easier and harder. It’s what’s easy and hard for the character. Maybe a better way to phrase it would be inside the comfort zone, then outside the comfort zone. Marlin has a hard time in the first half because he’s doing things the way he usually does, seeing everyone and everything as a threat, freaking out and overreacting, and not trusting anyone, pushing away anyone who might be able to help. Dory’s his biggest potential asset, and he keeps trying to ditch her. But then in the second half he has to start accepting help and trusting. That makes his journey easier, but it’s so much harder for him to do. He struggles and is uncomfortable the whole time. He’s still freaking out and fights Dory every step of the way as she quickly trusts everyone they meet. Figuring that out gave me some insight into the plot I’m working on.

For my pastor’s sermon on this movie, he tied the “just keep swimming” thing to the verse about running with endurance the race that is set before us, with the reminder that we aren’t running/swimming alone and that even when we’re in a bad place, that’s not our ending. We just have to keep swimming to be able to move on, and we have to be willing to look for and see the help that’s provided to us. There’s also something in that verse about setting aside burdens, the things from the past that hold us back, like Marlin’s grief and guilt about not being able to protect his family, which was interfering with his relationship with his surviving son.

This is a really beautiful movie, both thematically and artistically. The way the sea is depicted is gorgeous, and the emotions the movie evokes are genuine, while there are still some good laughs. They do a good job of making something that’s kid-friendly that children can relate to while still making a movie that makes adults think.


Cinderella Without Cinderella

Cinderella has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, probably because the heroine actually does something instead of lying there and waiting to be awakened. She has a goal that she sets out to achieve. She gets help along the way (the nature of the help and where it happens depends on which version you’re looking at), but she does at least strive toward a goal.

The Disney Cinderella was one of my childhood favorites. I’m pretty sure I saw the actual movie at some point, but I mostly experienced it through the “story and songs” album, and that was one of my favorites. I loved Cinderella’s voice, and I liked singing along with her songs. It was easy to put together Cinderella costumes, both her work clothes and her ballgown, from things in my dress-up clothes box. I’d play the record, dress up, and act out the story. I even went as Cinderella for Halloween one year, in one of those terrible 1970s costumes that involved a plastic mask and a tunic with a picture of the character on it (today’s kids who get actual costumes that look like what the characters wore rather than just having a picture of the character on them are so lucky). I also went to see the movie when they re-released it while I was in high school or college.

But after this rewatch, I’ve got to say that they made some rather odd narrative choices. For one thing, Cinderella isn’t really the main character of her own story. The mice get more screentime than she does. In a way, this movie is several “Tom and Jerry” mice vs. cat cartoon shorts wrapped in a Cinderella framing story. Two of them are at least related to the plot, when the mice steal the supplies for making Cinderella’s dress and when they sneak the key to her, but there’s a 10-minute sequence of the mice trying to sneak past the cat to get the chicken feed and bring the corn back inside that has nothing to do with the plot. You could cut it out and make it its own mice vs. cat cartoon short and it would make total sense, and it wouldn’t change the Cinderella movie’s plot at all. I suppose you could look at it as setting up the mice vs. cat situation for when it does affect the plot, but do you really need to set up a “clever mice, evil cat” scenario?

The emphasis on the mice even takes away some of Cinderella’s agency. She sets the goal of going to the ball, gets out the old dress and plans to remake it, but then her stepfamily keeps her too busy to work on it, so she just gives up on her goal. It’s the mice who make the dress for her. It does pay off her kindness, previously established, but it takes away from her character that she just gives up and does nothing toward achieving her goal. At least she comes up with the idea to call the dog to deal with the cat to lead up toward the resolution, but otherwise they’ve managed to make one of the more active fairytale heroines more passive.

Then there’s the treatment of the prince, who is a total nonentity. They even take away some of the things that the prince usually does in the story and give them to a different character. Not that the prince gets much of a role in the fairy tale, but this version takes away even that. We never get to hear his perspective on why he’s reluctant to marry. We just get scenes of the king and the grand duke talking about that. When Cinderella leaves and drops her shoe, the prince doesn’t get to find it. It’s the grand duke who finds the shoe. I guess they were trying to give a reason the prince couldn’t catch up with the girl in a long dress who was running in glass slippers by having him get caught up in a gaggle of girls, but he could have eventually broken free to find the shoe himself. We don’t get to see the prince declaring his love for the girl at the ball and announcing that he’ll marry the girl the slipper fits. Instead, we see the grand duke telling the king this. The prince doesn’t even get to be present when they find Cinderella and she produces the spare shoe after the first one breaks. It’s the grand duke who kneels in front of her and puts the shoe on her foot in the story’s climactic resolution.

I’m not sure what they were thinking here. There’s been a lot of discussion among writers on Twitter this week about whether or not the “show, don’t tell” rule is valid, but I think that having a scene of the grand duke telling the king that the prince said he was in love instead of a scene of the prince saying he’s in love would be the bad kind of telling. I can’t imagine why they thought it was better to focus so much on the king and the grand duke rather than the prince himself. Pixar may make animated films that work as kids’ movies while also being told from the adult perspective, but this film has a really odd disconnect, with the Cinderella story being overshadowed by a kid-targeted mice vs. cats comedy and two old guys talking about how one of them wants to be a grandfather. It’s ironic that they eventually made the Disney Princess a brand and realized that this was the draw, given that they marginalized the princess in this movie.

I know it’s generally considered blasphemy to say that the live-action version of a Disney animated movie is better, but I do think the live-action Cinderella “fixes” the animated one. It’s not truly a remake, but rather a new telling of the same source material with a lot of references to the original, but it drastically reduces the role of the mice and beefs up the roles of Cinderella and the prince. Cinderella makes her own first attempt at a dress. We see that she’s choosing to stay where she is because she’s trying to protect her home, so she seems like less of a victim. We see the clash between the prince and his father instead of hearing about it, and the prince gets to be present when they find Cinderella.

Not that the animated version is bad. It just doesn’t hold up to a lot of analysis. I do like the music, and I still love Cinderella’s voice. The dress is less of a disappointment than most other Cinderella dresses. It does at least have some magical sparkle to it. The animation of the dog is surprisingly realistic. They get the facial expressions just right, as well as the doggie dreaming. All the ingredients are good enough to make me wish it could have been better.

I don’t know what I’m going to watch this weekend. The church newsletter doesn’t seem to have gone out, so I don’t know what the sermon focus is going to be, and I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. I don’t know whether to stick with the era and maybe hit Pinocchio or Dumbo or to go with princesses and do Sleeping Beauty.


Superheroes with Mid-Life Crises

It may not be officially part of my Disney animation project, but since I watched The Incredibles this weekend in conjunction with my pastor’s sermon series drawing on animated films, I thought I might as well talk about it.

I love this movie, from the twists on the superhero genre to the cool midcentury modern/space age aesthetic. One thing that occurred to me while watching is how often the Pixar films are told from the adult perspective. They may be kid-friendly, but to a large extent they’re grown-up movies told from the perspective of the adult or parent, and this is one of those.

It’s essentially a movie about a mid-life crisis, about feeling unfulfilled, reaching what should be the peak of adulthood and realizing that there’s something important missing, like you didn’t really reach your goals or achieve your dreams. Even a happy marriage and a family isn’t enough to make up for the drudgery of a job he doesn’t believe in and a life in which he can’t have a job doing the thing he’s good at. This is all cleverly woven into a whiz-bang superhero story full of cool gadgets and with kids who get to help save the day, so the kids in the audience don’t necessarily see it as a story about a midlife crisis. I don’t think this story would work on those two levels in live action. There’s something about animation that makes it larger than life in a way that doesn’t make the midlife crisis story feel like a drudge. It’s some sort of alchemy. Even more realistic animation wouldn’t have worked. Looking so cartoony in a space age world makes it work.

From a structure perspective, it’s interesting that Bob doesn’t really have a specific story goal until nearly the end of the movie. It’s more of a personal goal. He wants his superhero life back, so he takes on the secret mission, then gets himself in shape in preparation for more missions. Only after that, when he learns who he’s really working for, does he develop the goal of stopping that bad guy, and that comes more than halfway through the movie. This one isn’t a musical, but if it had an “I Want” song, it would probably have something to do with wanting to be a hero again or wanting not having to hide that he’s a hero. He’d be dancing around doing feats of strength while singing about how he’s not allowed to do that openly anymore.

Another interesting thing is that the hero doesn’t really save the day. He has to be rescued, and then it takes the teamwork of the whole family to win, which is one of the lessons of the movie, that he can’t just do it alone, and it takes all the various superpowers working together to succeed.

That was the gist of my pastor’s sermon. He used the passage about spiritual gifts and talked about how unfulfilled Bob and his family were when they weren’t using their gifts, and how it took all of them together to prevail. Super strength alone couldn’t get the job done, and each of the gifts ended up being necessary. Ironically, he delivered this sermon while wearing a superhero cape, defying the “No capes!” edict. It was a tie-in to Vacation Bible School, which has a superhero theme, and the capes are part of the VBS gear.

I don’t yet know what next week’s movie will be. As far as I’ve seen, they haven’t put out a schedule for the whole summer. But I also watched Cinderella this weekend, and that will be covered in my next post.


The Lion King: A Movie Without a Middle

Last weekend’s Disney movie was The Lion King (the animated version). I saw this one in the theater — I was in Washington, D.C. and a big storm hit while I was out sightseeing. I made it into Union Station, but even if I took the metro back to my hotel I’d have had to make it from the station to the hotel in the downpour. Since Union Station is also a mall, I figured I could wait out the storm by seeing a movie, and The Lion King was the next thing to start. The storm was bad enough I could hear the thunder even during the movie. I don’t recall having seen it again since then, though I have seen the Broadway version a number of times.

I’ve got to admit, this isn’t one of my favorites. The opening “Circle of Life” scene gives me goosebumps, but the rest of the movie doesn’t do much for me. Simba’s kind of a brat, and he’s as passive a character as any of the old-school princesses. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between this movie and Snow White. We’ve got a usurper who tries to get rid of the heir by sending him/her off to get killed, only the heir manages to escape and ends up getting lost and collapsing in a far-off place, where he/she is then taken in by wacky sidekicks. And then the villain falls off a cliff. Simba does play a role in the final confrontation with the villain instead of sleeping through it, but almost every action he takes through the entire movie is because of someone else telling him something. He gets in trouble with the hyenas because he listens to Scar, then is in the path of the stampede because he listens to Scar. He takes Scar’s word for it that he’s at fault for his father’s death, he takes on the “Hakuna Matata” philosophy because Timon and Pumbaa tell him he should. He decides to go back home because Nala and his father’s spirit tell him to, and he learns that Scar killed his father because Scar tells him. Simba doesn’t ever actually initiate any action.

The instructor of a writing workshop I once went to called this a “movie without a middle,” and now I can’t unsee it. Usually, the middle of a story is a training ground for the hero, where he tries doing things the old way, based on the way he was at the beginning of the story, only to fail because he hasn’t learned the lessons he needs to, or this may be when he gets the thing he needs to achieve his goal, but now he needs to get back home and fix things. It’s when he starts to learn the lesson he needs to learn, so that he’s a changed person at the end at the final confrontation. But Simba just goes away, takes on the no worries way of life and sheds his responsibility, then he gets told he needs to help his people, and he goes home. He doesn’t learn anything along the way that makes him capable of winning. They set up a change he needs to make — he starts out wanting to be king so he can do what he wants — then he goes off and lives a life of doing what he wants, then he goes back home. It’s not as though he learns something in the jungle that he can apply to facing Scar or that he has an experience that tells him “no worries” isn’t a good way of living his life. He’s just told that. And then he doesn’t do anything to figure out what Scar was up to. He doesn’t hear Scar’s lies and realize that he was being gaslit. He doesn’t figure it out based on Scar’s actions or his words not adding up. He only figures it out when Scar tells him. There feels like a big gap because Simba being a big slacker and him coming back to take back his kingdom. The writers don’t show their work.

I felt a bit better about the story after hearing my pastor’s sermon on it. He related it to the story of Peter, who denied Christ on the night Jesus was arrested. Then after the resurrection, he went off on a fishing trip (considering this was how they made their living, I’m not sure it equates to what we think of as “going fishing,” but I can see where my pastor was making a point). Jesus met with him on the shore and gave him the opportunity to affirm him, essentially giving the “remember who you are” speech, then sent him on a mission. And I can kind of see that, with Simba being given a do-over after what he saw as a failure and still being loved and accepted.

Still, I’d feel a lot better about The Lion King if there’d been any kind of process to Simba’s character arc, like if he truly learned that kings can’t just do what they want and learned about real leadership. Or if he figured out that Scar was probably behind it all and he’d been wrongly blaming himself. Or anything active. At all.

Looking at the story structure stuff, our “I Want” song is “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and what Simba wants is to be in a position where no one can tell him what he can or can’t do. There isn’t really a story goal. This is a story without a protagonist. Scar wants to be king and achieves that and stops trying to do much of anything at the midway point of the movie. Simba stops having any ambitions or goals at all at the midway point of the movie, though I guess at that point he’d achieved not having anyone to tell him what to do. He doesn’t develop the goal to take back his kingdom until the last 20 minutes or so. Nala is the “Disney prince” of this movie, and she gets part of a song and gets to take some initiative, actually being a more active character than Simba. She’s the one who finds him and starts pushing him to take action, and she rallies the lionesses to the fight. I’d forgotten Moira Kelly did the voice, and I kept expecting to hear a “toepick!” from Nala.

My personal connection to this one is James Earl Jones, who was the guest speaker for the grand opening of a new library in my city (he had some kind of tie to a corporation based here that sponsored the event, and apparently literacy is one of his big causes), so I’ve been in the same room with him, both in the auditorium where he spoke and in the library itself. I didn’t try to talk to him, but there was a moment of eye contact, smile, and nod in the library. His normal speaking voice is pretty “Mufasa,” but when he laughs he has a high-pitched giggle that’s quite a contrast.

My pastor’s sermon this week ties to The Incredibles, which I consider outside the bounds of this project, since I’m focusing more on Disney and was planning to do Pixar separately, so I may watch some other Disney, as well. We’ll see what I’m in the mood for. They just added a bunch of movies I want to watch to Amazon Prime. I don’t have that many streaming services, and I already have more content than I have time to watch between Prime and Disney, and now I have PBS Passport because the classical station is part of the public radio/TV group and I donate to it, and then I got three months of Apple TV+ because of the new computer. I may put off activating that until a little later.


Beginning Again: The Little Mermaid

My Disney animated rewatch movie last weekend was The Little Mermaid. I’d been planning to go more or less chronological, but my pastor planned a sermon involving The Little Mermaid last Sunday, so I jumped ahead.

In a way, it made for an interesting contrast, going straight from the start of full-length animated movies to the start of the Disney Renaissance. We definitely see some changes in the way the heroine is presented. Ariel is an actual protagonist who has a personal goal at the beginning of the story, develops a story goal, and takes action to achieve both her personal goal and story goal. Prince Eric gets a name and something of a personality (but no songs), and actually interacts with Ariel before they fall in love. On the other hand, Ariel is just 16 and still gets married at the end, something that didn’t get corrected explicitly in Disney films until Tangled, when they actually said at the end that they wouldn’t get married until much later. Maybe there’s a time gap we don’t see between Ariel returning to Eric with legs and a voice and the wedding. She could have spent a few years living on land and getting to know Eric before they got married.

I saw this one at the theater when it was released, and I know I’ve seen it at least a couple of times since then, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen more than clips, and I’d forgotten what a delightful movie this is. My face hurt at the end because I’d been grinning the whole time. I remember being frustrated by the fact that the movie was about a girl with a beautiful voice, and then she only got one song, with all the rest of the songs coming from the sidekicks, but the sidekick songs are a lot of fun, as well as being truly good music.

One interesting thing about story structure is that there’s a rolling/escalating inciting event. We start the story with Ariel fascinated with humans and longing to be part of the human world. Then she sees the ship, watches Eric, falls for him, then sees him risk his life to save his dog from the shipwreck and saves him. That’s part one — she falls in love with Eric, which ramps up her desire to be part of the human world. Then it escalates further when her father finds out about her obsession with humans and destroys her collection. That drives her further away from the world of the merpeople and makes her feel even more like she doesn’t belong there, and she doesn’t want to be part of them. And then Ursula takes advantage of this by offering the deal to become human, which is what creates the actual story goal: she has to make Eric fall in love with her and kiss her by sunset on the third day. All that other stuff has to happen to motivate her to take the deal and set the plot in motion. If Ursula had offered that deal at the beginning when it was just about collecting stuff, I’m not sure she’d have taken it. I’m not sure she’d have even taken it after meeting Eric. It took the final straw of being mad at her father for her to be willing to make that leap.

There’s a lot of mention in articles about this movie about how it was taking a new approach to the musical Disney movie by using the music the way a Broadway show does, to reveal character and move the plot forward, but I’m not sure I buy that. The older movies used music this way. The “I Want” song may have been codified formally into the formula with this movie, but it goes all the way back to Snow White. And not all the numbers in this film actually move the plot along. “Under the Sea” is a wonderful song, but the movie would still make total sense without it. The movie would lose a lot without “Kiss the Girl,” but, again, it’s not essential for the plot. Not to mention the chef’s song, which could go entirely. I don’t necessarily see any of these songs as being more essential to the story than most of the songs from the older musicals. It was a revival of the way they used to use music, not any kind of change. I actually felt like they were being cautious with the music, like they were afraid to make a full-fledged musical. Ariel’s and Ursula’s songs were true musical theater songs, but the rest of the songs are pretty much what I consider “performance” songs, in which the characters are performing music in the context of the story, not just bursting into song with the backing of an invisible orchestra.

I saw an article about the new live-action remake in which they say one difference from the animated version is that Ariel doesn’t just give up her voice for Eric because she’s already obsessed with the human world, and I have to wonder how recently they’ve seen the animated version because we see her collecting human stuff, visiting her treasure trove, and singing “Part of Your World” before she ever sets eyes on Eric. The whole “she gave up her voice to get a man, how anti-feminist!” argument has never actually fit this movie. She already wanted to be human. Eric mostly came into it because Ursula wrote him into the deal. Ariel didn’t just become human for Eric, but if she wanted to stay human she had to get Eric to fall for her. The analogy that comes to me would be if someone was obsessed with the idea of Paris, collected things from Paris, learned everything she could about Paris, and dreamed of going to Paris someday. Then she fell in love with a man from Paris, and that was what spurred her to sell her house and go to Paris, and then she needed to get him to marry her before her visa ran out so she could stay, knowing she wouldn’t be able to go back home if she failed because she’d already sold her house. The real relationship in this movie is between Ariel and her father. They have conflicting views of humanity, and Eric ends up proving that Ariel is right, that humans can be good, since he takes great risks to help both Ariel and her father, and the resolution of the movie is the reconciliation between Ariel and her father, with him finally understanding her. The romance isn’t the main plot.

I have some fun “six degrees” connections with this movie. I’ve seen Jodi Benson in a number of stage productions, one of which was in a pretty intimate theater in the round, where she was only a few feet away (that was in a touring production of Chess in the summer of 1991). I’ve also seen both the voice actor and the live action model for Eric in stage productions.

For those wondering how my pastor connected a sermon to The Little Mermaid, it was a sermon on Pentecost, getting into how that forced the disciples out of their comfort zones to follow the calling to preach the Gospel, with some of them going into far-off parts of the world, and he connected that to Ariel feeling called to leave her comfort zone of the ocean to go to the human world. But he also got into how this was the start of the Disney Renaissance, with the way the company was going downhill because they were being complacent and cheap, and they decided to make a leap of faith to return to old-school animation in making this film, which he then also tied to John Wesley beginning the Methodist movement, getting out of the comfort zone of the church and going out to where ordinary people were.

Next up for the sermon series is The Lion King. Depending on my mood, I may also do another animated movie this weekend.


Snow White

The first movie in my Disney Project was the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I actually watched it because it was the first thing short enough for the time I had available to come up in the list of movies recommended for me on Disney+, but I figured it was appropriate to start with the original.

I’m not entirely certain I’ve ever seen this one all the way through. Most of it was entirely unfamiliar, but then there were moments that were very familiar. I think I may have seen clips of some of the more famous scenes. If I saw it, I was young enough that I don’t remember the experience. I had the soundtrack album, and it wasn’t my favorite because I didn’t like Snow White’s high, warbly voice. I must not have listened to it a lot because a lot of the music was unfamiliar. I knew the famous songs, like “Whistle While You Work,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and the Hi-Ho song, and I remembered the echo effect in “I’m Wishing.” But everything else was oddly new to me, including the prince’s song at the beginning, which you’d think would have been my jam, as I love songs with men serenading their loves and I was at peak Disney fandom at the same age I was crazy about My Fair Lady and swooned over “On the Street Where You Live,” which is along the same lines as this song.

In fact, I didn’t even remember that Snow White had run into the prince at the beginning of the movie. I know he showed up in “I’m Wishing,” but I didn’t remember that this was the movie’s “I Want” song. I’d thought that was “Someday My Prince Will Come.” So it is entirely possible that I haven’t actually seen this movie and I just had what was in my head based on the soundtrack album and a few storybooks, not all of them Disney.

One scene I thought I remembered wasn’t in the movie at all. I could have sworn that the prologue included the scene of Snow White’s mother pricking her finger, seeing the blood on her embroidery, and wishing for the daughter with skin white as snow, etc. But they don’t include that in the prologue, and the prologue isn’t dramatized. I checked the book of Disney stories I still have to see if maybe that was included there, but it wasn’t. So I must have visualized it in Disney-style animation when reading another version of the story.

I was surprised to find out just how much of this movie was dwarf antics. There’s a full 10-minute sequence (in a movie that runs under 90 minutes) of the dwarfs getting their hands inspected before dinner, then going to wash their hands, Dopey struggling with the soap, and them having to force Grumpy to wash.

During the parts with Snow White, I got really distracted by realizing how closely Amy Adams seems to have based Giselle in Enchanted on Snow White. I’d thought she was doing a generic Disney princess, but she totally nailed Snow White, from the way she walked and held her hands to her voice inflections. I guess I didn’t pick up on that because I didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the original movie.

The challenge in making this fairy tale into a full-length movie is that the heroine is pretty passive and doesn’t do all that much. She doesn’t actually have a story goal. She has a dream/personal goal — the thing she already wants before the story begins — as we see in her “I Want” song. She wants someone to love her. In fact, this may be the very first “I Want” song. That’s become a staple of Disney films, and it shows up in a lot of musical theater. This is the first Disney film of this sort, and at that time musical theater tended to be revues with very thin plots, not the kind of dramas with music that came later. I’m not an opera fan, so I don’t know if the concept of the “I Want” song shows up there or in operettas. It’s a neat way to introduce a character and make the audience identify with them. When I’m developing a character, one exercise I like to go through is imagining what their “I Want” song would be if my story became a musical. What would they sing about wanting?

The story goal is what happens after something upsets the status quo and sends the protagonist off to do something. In this story, I guess that’s when the Huntsman sends Snow White away. That changes her status quo, and her goal then becomes to find a new home, but then she gets that halfway through the movie and doesn’t really do anything else. Structurally, the Evil Queen is the protagonist. Her personal goal is to be the fairest of them all. Then her status quo is upset when the mirror tells her Snow White is the fairest, so her new story goal is to eliminate Snow White. She first tries sending the Huntsman to kill her, then she transforms herself into a crone and tries to convince her to eat the poisoned apple. But she doesn’t get to enjoy being the fairest because she gets struck by lightning before she transforms back into her beautiful self. We never see a body, though, so there’s room for Snow White II: The Queen Strikes Back.

This movie establishes the early Disney model of the prince being basically a nonentity. He doesn’t get an onscreen name, and he doesn’t get to say or do much. He has no personality other than “into Snow White.” He has no goals. But he does get a whole song, which is better than a lot of Disney princes get. I remember that it always frustrated me when I was a kid that they’d cast a really good singer as the prince in these movies, and then he’d get maybe a couple of lines in one song.

Supposedly, Snow White is 14 in this movie, though there’s nothing onscreen to say so specifically. She’s kind of an idiot, very childlike, and we don’t actually see a wedding, so we can pretend the prince just took her back home. The prince also looks pretty ambiguous in age, so maybe he’s 16 and it’s not that creepy that he’s flirting with her at the beginning. If the queen is her stepmother and her father is dead, then Snow White is actually the rightful queen all along. Otherwise, it would be like Camilla just taking over after Charles dies instead of William becoming king. They show the passage of time while Snow White’s in the glass coffin, so I have to wonder who’s been running the kingdom all this time. Did the people figure out that they don’t need a king or queen, so that Snow comes home to some kind of worker’s collective?

And now I kind of want to write that story. I guess if I hear about a call for submissions on a fairy tale theme where they want you to write from another angle, I have my idea.

I do love the hand-drawn animation. I’m not a huge fan of their computer animation character design, especially the way the female characters have those huge baby doll heads with giant eyes on the sides of their heads, like prey animals. There’s such richness and depth in the artwork. You can tell it was done with great care.

I was going to watch Cinderella this weekend and stay in the Classic era, but in a weird bit of synchronicity, it turns out that my pastor’s summer sermon series is based on Disney animated films, and this weekend he’s doing The Little Mermaid. He’s tying it to the live-action version release, but he said watching the animated version will do. For summers, he does sermons related to movies, using them as ways to illustrate spiritual truths. Pre-pandemic, they’d have viewing parties at the church on Saturday nights. Now they encourage family movie nights.


The Disney Project

After doing my Marvel movies project a couple of years ago and my Star Wars project over the winter, I think my summer project will be the Disney animated movies. They tend to be short, so I can start watching them after it gets dark enough for a movie and still finish by a reasonable bedtime.

I don’t have a particular methodology for this. They aren’t in any kind of united universe, other than in fan theories, so the order doesn’t matter. I think I’ll try to stick within eras so I can better track the technical progress. There’s the Classic era, with hand-drawn animation done with a lot of care. There’s what some think of as the fading or cheap era, when it was still hand-drawn animation, but with shortcuts, like reusing sequences or photocopying. Then there’s the Revival Era of the late 80s and beyond, with hand-drawn animation and the beginnings of computer animation, and then the computer animation era. But I may skip around based on what I’m in the mood for. I may compare live-action versions to animated versions, where applicable, but the live-action versions are a lot longer, so they may have to wait until the days get a bit shorter again.

I’m not sure what I’ll consider for the purposes of this — just the “princess” films, just the musicals, just the fairytale or storybook movies, etc. I think it’s mostly going to be the movies I want to watch, which could vary. I think I’ve seen most of them, but my memories of the actual movies may be spotty.

I grew up before the days of home video, so the only way to see these movies was to go to the movie theater if they re-released them. Some they might have shown on TV during the Wonderful World of Disney show on Sunday nights, but I don’t recall seeing any of the big Disney movies on TV back then. They saved those for the occasional theatrical re-release (the Disney Vault has always been a thing).

Instead, the way I experienced most of these movies was through records. There were three kinds of records you might get. There were single-sized 45 rpm records that came with a storybook. These told a very condensed version of the story, essentially reading the storybook to you. You were instructed to turn the page when you heard Tinkerbell chime. I don’t think these included any of the music, since the record could have held two songs, at most.

At LP size (the big records) you could get the movie soundtrack, which was just the music, as it was performed in the movie, or the “story and the songs” record, which was essentially a full-cast audio play of the movie, narrated by one of the characters, with the album case being a book of pictures from the movie. I didn’t figure out until much later that these recordings may or may not have been actual recordings from the movies and may or may not have been the actual cast members from the movies. I think they were more likely to be the real cast for the later ones, where they made the albums at the same time as they made the movies. I’m sure that they actually had Phil Harris on the records for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood. But for the older movies that were made decades before they started making these records, the original casts wouldn’t have been available, so they re-recorded everything. I know the Alice in Wonderland and Lady and the Tramp records were different from the movies. In some cases, the picture book in the album wasn’t actually from the movie, either. For instance, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. This is a picture from that album, and that brunette woman is clearly not Angela Lansbury. I remember being very disappointed when I finally saw that movie and the woman I’d seen as that character wasn’t in the movie.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks story and songs album, with a brunette woman instead of Angela Lansbury as Eglantine.
The Bedknobs and Broomsticks “story and songs” album, with an Eglantine who is very much not Angela Lansbury.

So, instead of watching the movies over and over again, I listened to the records. I often put on costumes from my dress-up clothes box and acted them out. I did see some of the actual movies, but my memories are really sketchy. I remember going to see Pinocchio and being embarrassed because my best friend behaved badly in the theater (it was his first time seeing a movie in a theater, while I was an old pro, and I was familiar with the story so was able to brace myself for the scary parts). I know I saw some of the others, but I don’t have specific memories of the experience. I saw some of the classics at the theater as a teen or older when they re-relased them. But mostly my memories of these stories come from the records and from the mental movies that played in my head, based on the pictures in the album, when I listened to them, which means I was always a little shocked when I saw the actual movies and the sounds and images didn’t fit what I remembered.

A little girl dressed up as the version of Eglantine from the story and songs Bedknobs and Broomsticks album
Four or five-year old me dressed up as the Eglantine from the Bedknobs and Broomsticks album, acting out the story while I listened to it.

As I do this, I’ll be comparing what I thought I remembered with what’s really there, analyzing the story structure, and looking at trends I spot, as well as anything else that comes to mind. For the most part, I’m not going to worry about spoilers because most of these movies are based on very common stories. If you don’t know how Cinderella ends and I ruin it for you, I’m sorry.

First up and coming in the next post: The one that started it all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


Is Rey a Mary Sue?

In my previous post, I discussed the definition of a Mary Sue character — an author’s self-insert character who’s too good to be true and with whom the author identifies too closely to be able to write her objectively. Now, for the question about Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Is she a Mary Sue? I’m not so much addressing this out of any desire to defend Rey but to demonstrate how this term is misused and how the misuse often comes down to sexism.

My verdict is that she’s no more a Mary Sue than Luke was in the original trilogy and less than Anakin was in the prequels. I will explain.

To start with, Rey is to a large extent Luke in drag, since her first movie is largely a remake of Luke’s first movie. They’re both orphans with mysterious pasts and Force and piloting talents living on desert planets who get involved in a resistance/rebel movement when they come across a droid carrying critical information. They both end up having to come to terms with their shadowy heritage and save the day by turning the big bad’s key henchman. If Rey is a Mary Sue, then Luke has to be a Gary Stu. Or maybe they’re both just heroes.

One criticism I’ve seen is that Rey is good at everything. She’s an expert mechanic, expert pilot, a quick study in the Force, and instant lightsaber champion. I have to challenge this assertion because it doesn’t fit what we see. She is a good mechanic, but adequate explanation is given for this, since it’s essentially her job even before the story starts. She makes a living by scavenging equipment and fixing it up to sell. She knows the parts that make up a spaceship and what they do. She also lives near a shipyard, and she’s clearly familiar with the ships parked there. Not that she even does anything all that spectacular. She repairs BB-8’s antenna by removing it, straightening it, and putting it back. I could do that much. Then she fixes things on the Falcon, but she’s clearly familiar with the ship and the modifications done to it. It’s not as though she builds a sophisticated droid from spare parts as a child.

She’s also not presented as an expert pilot. She can fly to get to a destination, and she seems to have some familiarity with a variety of craft, but she really has only one big flying sequence in the whole trilogy, when she evades the TIE fighters in the Falcon, and she’s not that great a pilot there. She bumps into things and is wobbly. She nearly crashes immediately upon takeoff. She survives and escapes because she’s more familiar with the local terrain than the other pilots are, not because she’s such a brilliant pilot. It’s not as though she wins a space battle the first time she gets in an X-wing or wins a space battle the first time she gets in a spaceship and accidentally pushes buttons.

She does learn to do Force stuff quickly, though I have to question the assertion by one of the commenters that people are usually only able to use the Force after extensive training. There’s plenty of evidence throughout the saga of people with strong native Force abilities using it instinctively. That was the whole point of them discovering Anakin. He was using the Force without knowing that’s what he was doing. In Rey’s case, she got slammed by the Force when she picked up Luke’s lightsaber, which gave her other people’s memories using the Force, and she had voices of past Jedi in her head. Then Kylo Ren opened the channel to her, so to speak. All she really did was push into his head through the channel he’d opened. When she tried the Jedi mind trick on Stormtrooper 007 (it was an uncredited cameo by Daniel Craig), she failed entirely the first time, and it took multiple tries for her to get it to work. That and shoving Kylo Ren out of her head was the only big Force stuff she did. I don’t see that as any bigger than Luke using the Force to guide the torpedoes after one Force 101 lesson so that he made the impossible shot the more experienced pilots had failed at.

As for the fighting, they established early in the first movie that she knew how to fight with a staff. She’s been on her own since childhood in a rough place, and she’s learned how to take care of herself. When she fights with the lightsaber, she’s using more or less the same techniques she uses with the staff. She’s not doing any kind of elegant fencing. She’s staff fighting using different technology. She’s also fighting someone who’s been badly injured and is dripping blood on the ground who has been ordered to catch her alive, so he’s not fighting to kill, while she’s going all-in. Kylo Ren is much bigger and stronger than she is, but I wouldn’t say he’s a great lightsaber fighter, either. He’s all hacking and slashing, working with force rather than skill). I don’t think either of them would be able to hold up against someone like Obi-Wan or Anakin, for instance. So, someone who has skills in fighting transferring that to a different weapon and holding out long enough for the planet breaking up to allow her to escape doesn’t seem like a Mary Sue stretch to me.

Another criticism of the commenters who call her a Mary Sue is that she has no flaws and is therefore boring, but she’s got a bigger flaw than Luke right from the start. Luke at least wants to do bigger and better things. He has ambitions. Rey is in a rut and doesn’t want to leave. She knows she’s in a place where she’ll never fulfill her potential, but she’s holding out for her family to return and refuses to leave the terrible place where she’s stuck. Even when offered the opportunity at something better and getting a new family in the bargain when Han and Chewbacca offer her a job, she just wants to get back to the place where she was stuck. She actually runs away from the very idea of the Force, which is what gets her captured. If we compare to Luke in his first movie, I’m not sure what his flaw was supposed to be. Really, he was just lacking information. His flaw he had to overcome was not knowing how awesome he really was. Luke got the flaw of being impatient in his second movie, and he was shown as being in danger of being tempted by the Dark Side, but he never actually appeared to be tempted. He resisted Vader and then was willing to die rather than give in to the Emperor. Rey went straight to the Dark Side in her first Jedi lesson and sought out the Dark Side cave. She kept connecting with Kylo Ren even after being warned it was dangerous, and she was on the verge of giving in to the Emperor when Ben showed up at the end of the trilogy. Luke didn’t get any meaningful flaws until the sequel trilogy, and that really made a lot of fans angry. Anakin had plenty of flaws, but weirdly they weren’t treated like problems. Padme fell in love with him after she heard him talking about wanting to be a dictator and learned that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children. He was never treated like a hotheaded, arrogant borderline psychopath but rather was this great guy everyone loved.

But the biggest “not a Mary Sue” clue to me is that Rey isn’t really the hero until the third movie. Luke saved the day in his first movie by blowing up the Death Star. Anakin won the podrace that allowed the Jedi to get away from Tatooine and played a decisive role in the final battle. Rey didn’t really play a key role in her first movie. You could have removed her from the movie entirely after Kylo Ren captured her without changing events too much, aside from her being the reason Finn wanted to lead the mission to the base. The only thing she contributed to blowing up the base was hotwiring a door open so Han and Chewie could plant the explosives. In the second movie, her contribution was persuading Luke to get involved and providing the getaway vehicle. She doesn’t get to be the hero until the last movie. Even though Anakin’s trilogy was a tragic, downward arc, he still got to be the hero and save the day up until the point when he turned evil. I find it hard to take seriously a claim that a character who doesn’t get to be the hero is a Mary Sue.

Incidentally, people have argued with me about Anakin being a Gary Stu since he turned evil and didn’t get to be a Jedi master, but come on, the guy was immaculately conceived by the Force, built his own protocol droid at 10, built his own podracer and was not only the only human to be able to race but also won against more experienced racers, won a space battle accidentally the first time he got in a fighter, was the most powerful Jedi, the queen fell in love with him in spite of him having gone on a murder spree. The not being a master was pure Victim Sue. There was some serious “no one appreciates my genius” energy to that part of the story, which makes it even more obvious that Lucas was overidentifying with this character.

Where I think some fans were seeing Rey as a Mary Sue might have been going back to the original definition. When more Star Wars movies were finally made, these fans wanted to see more movies about Luke, Han, and Leia, not movies about this new character. A lot of people wanted to see movies based on the books that are now considered the “Legends” continuity. I would have loved to see the original Timothy Zahn trilogy made into films. Mara Jade is one of my favorite Star Wars universe characters. But that was never going to happen. The actors were already getting too old for the roles at the ages they were supposed to be in those stories at the time the books were published. By the time they were making the sequels, it just couldn’t have worked, and I don’t think the deepfake technology they use for young Luke in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett would hold up for him being a main character in an entire movie on the big screen. So, I suspect some fans would have been unhappy no matter who the new main character was because this wasn’t the person they wanted to see. Her being a woman only made it worse.

You don’t have to like the character, but at least be honest in your criticism. Crying “Mary Sue” is a copout. As far as I can see, she’s just a hero, no different from the other heroes in the other Star Wars films. If you didn’t have a problem with a farmboy who won a big space battle the first time he got in an X-Wing and the first time he really had to use the Force, you don’t have a lot of ground to complain about Rey. I happen to love the character, and I’m in good company. John Williams has said she’s his favorite, and when they asked him to score episode 9, he said his first question was whether Rey was in it. I wonder if this means they’ll lure him out of Star Wars retirement to do the Rey movie (though he’ll be about 95 by then, so I hope he’s still with us, even if only just to get to watch the movie).

writing, TV, movies

Redemption Arcs

In the book I’m currently working on, for the first time in my career I have scenes written from the perspective of one of the villains. He’s a henchman, not the big bad, and he’s the one sent out as the errand boy for the offstage villain. I haven’t decided yet if this guy is going to get a redemption arc, if maybe he’ll end up turning against the villain and joining the good guys, but pondering that has had me thinking about redemption arcs. I like them in theory. I belong to a religious tradition that’s all about redemption and believes that no one is beyond salvation, but I’m also picky about fictional redemption. I love the moment when a villain flips and joins the good guys, but I want to really feel the redemption, and I don’t want someone who’s done true evil to get off lightly.

A few years ago in a TV discussion forum, I jokingly came up with the redemption equation:

bad deeds=good deeds+remorse+suffering

The idea is that both sides of the equation have to balance for the redemption arc to be satisfying. If the good deeds, the remorse the character feels for the bad deeds, and the suffering don’t seem equal to the bad deeds the character has done, it doesn’t work. By suffering, I mean the consequences for the bad deeds, like prison time or other people not liking them; karmic payback; or mitigating circumstances (like a street kid taken in by the leader of a criminal gang). It doesn’t count if it’s suffering the characters bring on themselves. If you murder your parents, you don’t get suffering points for being an orphan, for instance. The worse the bad deeds are, the more the other things have to make up for it. It does get to the point where the bad deeds are so bad that you can’t imagine making up for it in a way that would allow an audience to accept a redemption. That doesn’t mean the character can’t ever be redeemed, but it may require the character to die for redemption to work. You can’t imagine that character just going on and hanging out with the other good guys.

Not that people haven’t written that. One of my biggest gripes with the TV series Once Upon a Time was the fact that the big bad from season one, someone who was shown to have casually murdered innocents because she was having a bad day and who cursed an entire civilization, was crowned Queen of the Universe by her former victims in the series finale, after she’d spent most of the series being friends with her former victims — and in spite of her never apologizing or acknowledging the harm she’d done. She just stopped being evil, with no explanation for why she stopped, and she never actually changed her attitude.

And I think that’s key to the redemption arc. There has to be a reason the villain stops villaining, and usually it’s the “are we the baddies?” moment, when the villain realizes that they’ve been wrong. If they don’t realize that killing and torturing people is bad or that they were on the wrong side and their reasons for doing evil weren’t valid, why would they change?

This is my problem with the “redemption” of Darth Vader (you knew this would get around to Star Wars, didn’t you?). I don’t know that we ever really got the moment of him realizing he was in the wrong. His redemption involved him choosing his son over the guy he was already planning to betray. That’s still a somewhat selfish move. He couldn’t stir himself to save entire planets, but when it was his son in danger, then he acted. Now, maybe I could be generous and say that hearing Luke refuse to kill him because he’s a Jedi like his father gave him his, “Whoa, I’ve been doing it wrong,” moment, but it’s still not super satisfying to me. It only really works because he immediately dies. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d lived and had become a good guy, hanging out with his kids. I’m not even that keen on the fact that he got to be a Force ghost. I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of Force heaven, but a last-minute change of heart doesn’t seem like it should allow him to hang around as a Force ghost, and I was especially irked when they re-edited it to be his younger self, when they didn’t also change Obi-Wan (and would Luke even have known who that random young guy who looked nothing like the man under the mask was?).

Image of dying, maskless Darth Vader.
Text: I chose you over the guy I was planning to betray. You were right, there is good in me!

In the Star Wars world, they did a bit better with the redemption of Kylo Ren. It happened before the very end. He had a chance to really think about what he’d done, and he made an active choice to go help Rey — that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. And, again, he died, giving up his life for someone else’s. He didn’t get to hang around with the good guys and live happily ever after.

As bad as Once Upon a Time was with that one character, they also managed to do it right. Their version of Captain Hook had some good reasons for being the way he was (explanations, not excuses). He had been wronged. He just went over the top in doing something about it. He had a big realization that he’d wasted his life in revenge and that people didn’t like him because he’d done horrible things. He even later counseled other villains about this and helped turn people away from becoming villains by sharing his advice. When he ran into former victims, he tried to atone and set things right with them. He got hit by a lot of karma on his way to redemption. It seemed like every time he did something bad, he’d get hit by a car, kidnapped, etc. And his suffering didn’t end when he turned good. He did some pretty big heroic acts as a good guy, so he had the good deeds to balance the bad. They did another good redemption arc on the Wonderland spinoff, with a character who was a villain for the first half of the series having a huge turnaround, realizing how badly she’d screwed up. She had to face some of her victims and learn how she affected them, and she had to work to earn the trust of the people she’d hurt, even after she turned good.

I do think it works better for the henchmen to be redeemed, the ones who were following orders or who’d been taught evil. It’s less believable when the big bad, the one who came up with and led the evil schemes, changes sides. Though it might make for a fun story if the big bad did change sides but all the henchmen were still on board with the previous goals and ended up fighting against the former big bad.

I think there’s room for my guy to be redeemed. He hasn’t done any large-scale evil. He’s the kind of weasel who stirs other people up to do his dirty work rather than doing it for himself. He’s suffered some, and he comes from a background that somewhat explains why he’s the way he is. He just made some poor choices in response to those circumstances. He’s enough of a jerk that I can’t imagine him joining the found family of team good guys, but he might realize the big bad has been using him and switch sides in the final showdown. We’ll see.