Posts Tagged ‘Disney’

movies

Focusing on Family

I don’t know if I’d say that I’m done with my Disney animation project, as there’s still a lot more to go, but I am branching out to other things, especially now that the sun is setting early enough that I can watch longer movies after dark.

Some patterns I noticed:

  • The movies definitely got longer over time. Early movies were in the 70-75 minute range, later ones closer to 2 hours.
  • The earlier “fairytale” movies stuck closer to the stories, though sometimes with added cute sidekicks, while they started really adapting and creating their own stories as they went along.
  • The heroines didn’t actually do much in the earlier movies. Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty has maybe ten lines in the whole movie. Their roles are much more fleshed out in later films.
  • The villains didn’t get songs until the Renaissance era.

The main pattern I’ve noticed about what I guess you could call the “next generation” films, the ones that came along in the computer animation era, is an emphasis on family over romance. I wonder how much of that is from the Pixar influence. We did still have the fairytale romance in Tangled (though with it made clear they weren’t getting married anytime soon), but after that, the stories have been more about family than about romance.

Frozen deconstructed the typical Disney romance by making it look just like those love-at-first-sight, let’s sing a duet and get engaged relationships, only to throw a huge monkey wrench in it. The important relationship in both of the Frozen movies was between the sisters. Then in Encanto we had a whole movie that was about family, with no romance for the main character. Moana was largely about the heroine trying to save her family and home. Raya and the Last Dragon was about trying to reunite a family and involved a “found family” coming together before they were all able to find their original families again. I haven’t yet watched Strange World, but it’s apparently about a family having adventures.

It’s not that I have anything against romance, but the romances as presented in a lot of the Disney films weren’t exactly healthy. Teenage girls were falling in love with and marrying guys they’d barely interacted with after falling in love at first sight. It’s nice seeing a bit more variety, with other relationships, especially when the characters are really too young to be getting engaged or married. In the Frozen films, the emphasis on the sisters allowed the romance to develop more organically in the background.

There was some precedent for this, since Lilo and Stitch was all about family. They also got into the found family theme in The Jungle Book. Mulan was fighting to save her father (though she also ended up with a romance). What’s new is putting that in the “princess” movies, as well as them having different kinds of princesses who do more than fall in love.

And now that I’ve mentioned Encanto, I have “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” running through my head again.

movies

Animated Adventures

My movie theme last weekend turned out to be Animated Adventures. I guess I was in a certain mood.

First up, Disney’s Treasure Planet. It’s basically the Treasure Island story, but in a steampunky space setting, with ships flying through the aether on solar sails, cyborgs, robots, and aliens, but still with a late Georgian/early Victorian aesthetic. This one was an interesting combination of hand-drawn characters in a lush computer-animated setting that allows us to fly along with the characters. Rebellious young Jim Hawkins is getting in trouble for riding his rocket hoverboard around the spaceport where his mother runs an inn, but then he gets a mysterious map from an old spacer and sets off with a scientist who hires a ship and crew to find the legendary Treasure Planet. The voice cast is excellent, with Emma Thompson as a prim ship’s captain as possibly my favorite (of course, she’s my favorite in just about everything). The relationship between Jim and a cyborg Long John Silver is quite touching. There’s a good mix of tense action and comic relief.

I’m not sure how I missed this one at the theater. I understand it was a bit of a flop and one of the nails in the coffin of the traditional style of animation at Disney. There were apparently sequels that didn’t get made. While they’re remaking everything in “live action,” this might be an interesting one for them to tackle. The effects would probably be expensive, but they could do a lot with the story and make it into a legit action film.

Then I watched The Road to El Dorado on Prime. It’s leaving this month, so I figured I’d watch it, and I needed something short. Also, I like the voice cast. The very idea of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh doing a buddy adventure movie fills me with glee. They made for a fun pair in this movie that takes the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” films and puts it in Mesoamerica, during the Spanish conquest. A couple of con men get a map to the mythical city of El Dorado, then through a chain of misadventures end up on a Spanish ship sailing to the New World and then eventually shipwrecked, where they spot some landmarks from the map. El Dorado isn’t quite what they expected, and they have to up their con game when the natives hail them as gods — and then they have to make some tough decisions.

Like the “Road” movies, any cultural accuracy pretty much flies out the window. The native people who’ve never seen white men can communicate perfectly with them (in modern English, but since our heroes are Spaniards, maybe we can assume it’s Spanish being translated into English for us). There are lots of comic anachronisms. It’s basically up there with The Emperor’s New Groove for accuracy, but that’s a lot of the point. It’s all about the wacky adventures of these two guys and how their different approaches to the situation threaten their friendship.

It’s a Dreamworks Animation movie, but they seem to be trying to do Disney. It’s not quite a musical, though there is one musical number the two leads perform. Otherwise, it’s more narration songs in the background, sung by Elton John. I found it to be a lot of fun and enjoyed the character arc, but the ending was rather unsatisfying. Yes, we resolved the big issue and the characters completed their growth arcs, but the final resolution struck me as more “now how do we get out of this?” than “whew, now everything’s okay.” They were very obviously setting up a sequel that ended up not getting made, and I’d probably feel different about the ending if we picked up on where the characters went next in a sequel. With no sequel, it felt a little unresolved to me.

Mostly, it’s worth it just to enjoy Branagh and Kline having fun. It seems they worked together in that Wild, Wild West remake, but I’d love to see them working together in something else in live action because it’s like a battle of the hams.

I like the animated adventure movies because there’s all the fun of an adventure story, but since kids are the primary audience, they’re a bit less intense. I’m not really up for super intense stuff right now, so it’s nice to have a little, but not too much, excitement without having to worry about truly bad things happening to the characters.

movies

Recent (ish) Disney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

movies

Disney Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

movies

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.

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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.

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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.