Posts Tagged ‘Disney’


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.