Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Now this is more like it, as far as princess movies go. 30 years came and went between Sleeping Beauty and this, and quite a bit changed: the Xerography process ruled the roost animation-wise, then Walt died, Disney World opened, and then, after over 25 years of seemingly increasing irrelevance, the animated films began to quietly crawl back with the new Eisner-Katzenberg-Wells leadership in the 80s. Successes like The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as an increased focus on TV animation, began to restore some of the lost luster to the Disney name. And so in 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and nothing was the same anymore. To me, this was never a favorite as a child beyond the songs getting lodged in my brain (I was a dumb kid who thought it was too “girly”), but I rediscovered it as a teenager and fell completely in love. It remains one of my absolute favorites.

First, there’s the artistry. Some of the kinks are still being worked-out CGI-wise, they haven’t gotten to the gorgeous digital ink-and-paint CAPS system yet (save one shot near the end of the film), some background characters look unfinished, and occasionally there are some weird movements. But the character animation and backgrounds are overall magnificent, continuing the leaps forward made by films like Detective, Oliver and Roger Rabbit. Ariel, Sebastian, Ursula, Eric, Triton and the rest are all wonderfully appealing designs, moving in ways both amusing (Duncan Marjoribanks’ restless Sebastian who can shift into a confident showman at the drop of a hat, Ariel gets a lot of physical comedy in the second half via Mark Henn) and achingly truthful (Glen Keane’s masterful, sincere work in “Part of Your World”). Ursula in particular is a fantastic design who moves with sinewy glee thanks to Ruben Aquino and his crew. The effects animators, led by future director Mark Dindal (Cats Don’t Dance, The Emperor’s New Groove), deserve a big shot out for the surely pain-in-the-ass, near-constant bubbles, as well as stellar work in the action sequences (particularly the storm and the  final fight with Ursula, which has one of my favorite dispatchings of a Disney villain ever).

And then there are the songs. Oh, man, these songs. Outside of maybe “Daughters of Triton” (which is super-short and doesn’t burrow into your brain), there’s not a single dud amongst them. Lyricist Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were fresh off the success of the film version of their delightful, blackly comic Little Shop of Horrors, yet they manage to perfectly switch styles here to a more “Disney” feel, while bringing their own spins to things. It is an absolute crime that because of AIDS, we only got two and a half Disney musicals out of the late Mr. Ashman (I say “half” because in Aladdin, 3 of the film’s songs are still his: “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”). His endlessly clever wordplay in songs like “Under the Sea”, “Kiss The Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” can shift on a dime to the power and yearning of “Part of Your World” (I’m also quite fond of the comic ditty “Les Poissons”, sung with delightful relish by Rene Auberjonois). Menken’s music seems to have been born to play alongside Howard’s lyrics, and he does a fine job with the score as well, his first for a feature film. The reggae and calypso flavors for “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly striking.

The voice actors all do their own singing, which would not always be the case in later films, and it lends a great authenticity to the performances. Jodi Benson’s immensely likable yet frustrated acting as Ariel gives way to her knocking “Part of Your World” and the triumphant reprise out of the damn stratosphere. While he doesn’t sing, Kenneth Mars lends weary dignity and anger, yet also a softness to King Triton, especially in his final conversation with Sebastian. Speaking of, Samuel E. Wright is absolutely hilarious in the role, high-strung yet able to shift into his composer persona easily, and he absolutely kills both his big numbers. Christopher Daniel Barnes, a future animated Spider-Man, does a great job bringing Prince Eric down to earth, making him a relatable “aw shucks” kind of guy instead of the stiffs we had previously (he has a priceless facial reaction to a statue that depicts him as one of said stiffs). Pat Carroll is an absolute scream as Ursula, spitting out her lines with glee, though I don’t know how she wrapped her mouth around some of those super-fast, twisty lyrics in “Souls”. And ringers like Auberjonois, Buddy Hackett as Scuttle the seagull, Jason Marin as Flounder, Ben Wright as Grimsby (amusingly, the directors had no idea he had previously done voices like Roger in 101 Dalmatians for Disney), Paddi Edwards as Ursula’s creepy-ass hench-eels Flotsam and Jetsam, and Edie McClurg as the maid Carlotta round out the numbers nicely.

The story is immensely well-crafted, moving from scene-to-scene with a minimum of fuss and getting what it needs to get done, done quickly yet with just enough time to let us breathe and watch the characters develop (Sebastian has a particularly good scene where he shifts into more of Ariel’s ally). Speaking of which: Ariel has come under fire from some critics for not being a good role model for young girls, and is accused of only wanting to land a man. This is a fair interpretation, but it’s one I rather disagree with. Ariel is shown early on to already be fascinated by humans (there’s a joke about certain types of Internet nerds somewhere in here), and in “Part of Your World”, she expresses feelings that she just doesn’t like being underwater that much (“Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far”). Yes, she’s a hormonal teenager, and Eric does serve as a love interest, but I found that relationship interesting nonetheless. Ariel’s interest in the human world does not suddenly stop when she meets Eric; there’s a delightful montage where she explores his kingdom, and her joy at everything she gets to do is infectious. And his reasons for falling for her in the first place, not just her voice but the fact that she saves his life, strike me as more legitimate than “hey, just met you in a forest/at a ball, let’s totally get married” (which, incidentally, recent Disney films like Frozen or Princess and the Frog have done an excellent job of skewering) But that’s just my spin on things.

So yes, I believe The Little Mermaid absolutely deserves its place in the Disney canon as a stone-cold classic. Its imperfections stick out today, but for me make it even more loveable than some of the more polished later films. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (this, Aladdin, Hercules, the vastly underrated Treasure Planet, and the aforementioned Frog) are hard at work on a new princess film, Moana, set for release late next year. I can’t wait to see how it stacks up to one of the all-time greats.


Sleeping Beauty (1959)

I’ve watched Disney’s 1959 animated feature film version of Sleeping Beauty several times, the most recent time being in its utterly pristine, gorgeous Blu-ray. And when I say gorgeous, I mean gorgeous. I’m no Blu-ray expert, but even I can tell they pulled out all the stops on this one. Every frame is like a great painting. And really, that speaks to the film’s strengths as a whole. It’s easily the most opulent film made under Walt’s regime, full of pomp, beauty, terrific character animation in a different, far more angular and abstract style than usual, and one of their best action climaxes ever (not just the short dragon fight, but the escape and build up). So saying all of that, what’s my opinion on the film as a whole? In a word: good. Or rather, the rest of the film BESIDES the visuals is good, but those are amazing. The rest is just not on the same level, whereas in some other cases, even if the animation isn’t up to par, I can recommend Disney films on writing or acting levels (Robin Hood, for instance).

This is not so much the case here, though there are a few things I do enjoy re: the writing and acting, and I suppose I should go ahead and mention them now. First things first, the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are clearly the film’s main characters, and the story is much better off for that realization. Like most films (hell, this film) during this era of Disney, they’re broadly drawn stereotypes, but are amusing in their flaws and foibles: Flora is the leader, Fauna is a bit of a scatterbrain, and Merryweather a smartass grouch. My favorite non-Maleficent line in the film is, when told she can’t turn Maleficent into a toad because their magic is supposed to make people happy, to respond “Well, it would make ME happy.” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston supervised the animation on them, and they’re full of life throughout as a result, while Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy do a great job as the voices. The other side characters like Kings Hubert and Stefan are also well done; the scene where they drunkenly celebrate and argue while a minstrel sneaks wine into his glass and then guitar is a film highlight.

And then we have our villain, Maleficent. Wooooooo boy is she AWESOME. While I enjoyed the revisionist Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent from last year to a certain degree (mostly because Jolie acted the shit out of it), I have to admit to preferring the unapologetically pure-evil version found in the animated film. Surprisingly, she’s not actually in the film all that much; the film is 75 minutes long and she’s onscreen in total for maybe about 10-15 of those. But between Marc Davis’ brilliant design and animation, her getting the best lines (in particular a marvelous little scene where she outlines a cruel future for Prince Philip, in rhyme no less), and Eleanor Audley’s terrific performance, she’s a Disney villain for the ages. Even her dragon form is onscreen for a very short amount of time, roughly a minute, but it kicks so much ass that it’s what a lot of people only remember about the movie. Even her goons are memorable, sharp edged and nasty like her, and her crumbling castle lair has some great backgrounds, though this is basically “Great Backgrounds For Your Desktop: The Movie”. Little wonder that Maleficent ends up as the architect or leader in a lot of Disney’s crossover material like Kingdom Hearts.

And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s a big gaping hole in the middle of the film that just does not really work for me at all: our ostensible leading lady and man. Now, I should note that they’re not awful characters. Aurora/Briar Rose and Philip are, like the rest of the film, brilliantly designed and animated (Davis pulling double duty on her, and Milt Kahl doing Philip), and as a result show more personality than, say, Snow White or Cinderella or their princes. There are some great bits where Aurora slyly figures out that the fairies are hiding something from her, but plays along anyway, and Philip gets some good facial reactions. Mary Costa and Bill Shirley do an admirable job with their vocal and sung parts. And “Once Upon A Dream” is a great song, one of the classic Disney love songs, even if perhaps the film doesn’t completely earn it. Really, the music as a whole is wonderful, with composer George Bruns rearranging Tchiakovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet into the score and songs (“Once Upon A Dream” is the ballet’s waltz for instance).

Honestly, after all that, there’s not really a whole lot I feel I can say about the film. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated fairy tale that benefits immensely from the artistry and not much else. As a technical exercise, it’s brilliant, and story-wise it’s far from unwatchable or boring; I might not buy “Once Upon A Dream”, but I can certainly appreciate how it looks and moves. It just doesn’t quite strike me as the best of the best, the cream of the crop. I like my Disney films to have a little more meat on them character-wise, and no matter how hard those fairies, good and evil, work, I just can’t buy into the film emotionally when its romantic leads are duller than dirt.

So in the end, I do quite LIKE Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic experience. I only wish it were a little better as a film.

Why I Still Love Frozen (spoilers)

Over a year and a half later, Disney’s Frozen seems unstoppable. It played a big role in the first half of Season 4 of Once Upon A Time, which is basically Live Action Disney Crossover RPG/Fanfiction at this point (not that I mind, it’s an immensely enjoyable nonsense show); a new short called Frozen Fever played in front of their live-action Cinderella remake; a sequel and a Broadway show are on the way; and the merchandise presumably still sells like its going out of style. And yet to me it seems like yesterday that people were rolling their eyes at it in the pre-release stage: too familiar in its design sensibilities, too liberal with its inspiration Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (imagine if The Little Mermaid came out today), etc. Some people still ended up not caring for the film (which is fine), but overall it became a downright phenomenon, the likes of which we haven’t seen from Disney in quite some time. Other recent films of theirs, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, have been successes, but none have quite caught on in the same way. But does the film itself still hold up? I would say quite so, with a few caveats.

Said caveats, so we can get them out of the way: yes, I suppose Anna and Elsa’s designs fall into a lot of the same design sensibilities as past Disney princesses, and it would be really nice to see some non-waist-thin princesses (though I feel the actual character animation for them is still quite excellent). Kristoff and Hans are fun, well-realized characters on their own, but strictly speaking they might not be totally necessary for this story (much of Kristoff’s role is a glorified taxi service). And speaking of Prince Hans, his heel turn is a wonderful shock (“Prince Charmless” is a familiar trope but not one that Disney often pulls, and not at all with such relish), but the build-up is perhaps a bit too subtle to catch on first viewing. Though it’s helped a bit by the Duke of Wesleton (Alan Tudyk in his second of three Disney roles in the past few years) being a giant, memorable red herring. And finally, some parts of the film feel a bit rushed, like Anna and Kristoff’s relationship (though I still think it’s a fun one) or the “Fixer Upper” song, which is fine on its own, and thematically relevant, but comes at a bizarre place in the film pacing-wise. These can be perhaps chalked up to the film’s release date getting bumped up a few months, and perhaps a bit more time would have ironed out these roadblocks.

And yet, in the grand scheme of things, these flaws don’t really matter to me. The film just works even through the bumpiness. I think the main reason for this is that our two heroines, Elsa and Anna, are such wonderfully written, animated and voiced characters, easily amongst the best of the Disney princess bunch (though technically Elsa is a queen). Yes, at first glance, Idina Menzel’s casting as Elsa seems like the world’s biggest musical in-joke; a young woman with magical powers who hides them out of fear for what the world sees her as? Where have I seen that before? Joking aside, Menzel makes Elsa into her own, distinct character, one that’s trapped inside her own head by fear and trauma (Elphaba for all her neuroses had a confidence and acidic sense of humor that Elsa mostly lacks), and she rocks the songs like nobody’s business, especially the now-iconic “Let It Go”.

Yet I feel like Anna is distinctly underappreciated. Yes she’s another “spunky princess”, but they don’t really make a big deal out of that. There are no “wow you’re strong/active for a girl” lines/moments, she just leaps into action without a second thought, like jumping off a mountain, bashing a wolf’s head in with a borrowed lute, or her climactic decision. Kristen Bell brings her wonderfully to life in terms of vocals, with a boundless yet nervous energy and generous spirit, and arguably kicks just as much ass on the singing end of things as Menzel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa is the heart of the film, and I remain deeply moved by the climax that turns the idea of “true love” on its head. (Sidenote: Lilo & Stitch serves as a fascinating contrast to this film in terms of sister relationships. As with Frozen, the arguments and the deep love side by side feel achingly real, but there it’s more of a subplot to the burgeoning friendship between the title characters, and Nani has to handle being a surrogate parent due to being so much older. I may do another essay on this topic at some point).

As noted the other characters are well-done, from Kristoff’s “jerk with a heart of gold” coming off well thanks to Jonathan Groff (though sadly he barely gets to sing outside of a brief, goofy ditty about reindeers), Santino Fontana makes Hans’ wonderfully two-faced nature come through in his line deliveries (and clearly had fun being almost purely villainous in the last part of the film), and Josh Gad is genuinely funny and endearing rather than annoying as Olaf the snowman, the most hated part of the pre-release marketing. The animation on Olaf and Sven, Kristoff’s lovable reindeer sidekick, is particularly well-done and amusing.

The music hearkens back to the Disney Renaissance (while I love The Princess and the Frog, that’s decidedly more jazz, gospel and blues-oriented as a soundtrack) in its ready-for-Broadway orchestrations and lyrics, though “Let It Go” has a distinctly pop edge as well. Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin did the songs, having between them previously worked on stage projects such as Avenue Q, a Finding Nemo stage musical for Disney World, the musical episode of “Scrubs”, The Book of Mormon, and the most recent animated Winnie the Pooh film (which I suspect landed them the Frozen gig). I can’t really think of any duds amongst the songs. There’s “Frozen Heart”, which sets up the film thematically and is reminiscent of older Disney “worker songs” like “Fathoms Below”. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” aches with longing and sweetness. “For the First Time in Forever” is super-energetic yet has a neurotic double edge (especially in the reprise). “Love Is An Open Door” is downright self-parody, “Let It Go” is a powerhouse, “In Summer” is a jaunty tune or Olaf, and the aforementioned “Fixer Upper” is a fun crowd song.

In the end, I perhaps have too much to say about this film; I may do separate essays later on some of the themes and character stuff. For now I paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert’s assertion that if you look at a movie a lot of people love, no matter what it is, you may find something profound. I wouldn’t go that far with Frozen, but I still find it a heartfelt, funny and exciting film that deserves to be held up alongside other Disney classics.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

With perhaps a couple of exceptions (I’m still reasonably fond of the live-action George of the Jungle, primarily due to its delightfully game cast, especially Brendan Fraser and Keith Scott’s kooky narrator), Jay Ward’s body of animation seems to stubbornly resist theatrical adaptation. This isn’t much of a surprise, as characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and the subjects of this review were designed to take advantage of short-burst segments of a larger whole. Still, Hollywood has tried and mostly failed. Mr. Peabody and Sherman is better than the likes of say, the live-action Dudley Do-Right or Rocky and Bullwinkle films (though as with Jungle, I found pleasure in some of the performances), but it’s frustratingly mediocre all the same.

The best part of the film is unfortunately also the beginning, as, in an homage to the first segment featuring the characters on Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) explains his own backstory and how he came to adopt the human child Sherman (Max Charles of The Neighbors). It’s a breezy, self-aware intro as Peabody addresses the audience and then ropes Sherman into their latest adventure in the WABAC machine. The ensuing segment in the French Revolution period is also a great deal of fun, poking at figures of the period like Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, although it’s a bit more frenetic and slap-sticky than the show. Still, the way Peabody thinks and fights his way out of situations is enjoyable to watch, and Burrell manages to make the character’s smugly likable personality work more than I thought he would based on the trailer. Originally Robert Downey, Jr. was going to voice Peabody, and while I think that would have been neat, he might have ended up playing himself more than the character since his vocal tics are so distinctive. Burrell is able to disappear into the role more, and Charles is a sprightly vocal presence as Sherman.

Then things shift into the main plot of the film and the goodwill quickly evaporates. One issue I have with some DreamWorks films is that they try and force “heart” into things when many of their films would be better off just being goofy. Megamind for instance is fantastic when it deals with poking fun at superhero and supervillain tropes, particularly with Megamind’s ennui and the toxic “nice guy” qualities of Hal. It is considerably less successful at the romance between Megamind and Roxy, which frankly stops the film dead at several points. I still like that film a great deal, but you get the idea. Peabody has this problem in a big way. Not content with spoofing various historical figures in entertaining ways, director Rob Minkoff of The Lion King and his story team have grafted on a thoroughly artificial conflict to drive the story. Did we really need a film where a nasty child services worker (Alison Janney, putting in immense effort for a perfunctory role that doesn’t deserve it) tries to break apart Peabody and Sherman? The climax where, in addition to a bunch of much more enjoyable time travel craziness, Sherman has to defend Peabody lands with a thud. I didn’t buy it for a second.

That was a common problem with the film, as characters shift allegiances and attitudes with almost no explanation. Penny (Ariel Winter, also from Modern Family) goes from a despicable bully to a more benign “bad influence” character within about 20 minutes, for instance. (That’s another issue: the women in the film are all either blank slates like Penny’s mom, buffoons like Marie Antoinette, or inexplicably rotten like early-Penny, Mona Lisa, or the child service worker) The historical goofiness still has some good jokes (like the Greek soldiers at Troy being a bunch of jocks led by the always welcome Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon), though I could have done without Peabody referring to Egyptian civilization as savage. Other goofy stuff in the margins is decent, like Stanley Tucci’s stereotypical but pleasantly daffy Leonardo Da Vinci or Stephen Colbert being smarmy as Penny’s dad.

Production values wise, the film is fine if a bit generic visually. The backgrounds are nice, the WABAC gets a cool TARDIS-esque makeover, and character animation is pleasantly goofy. The music by Danny Elfman is, well, Elfman so he does an OK if slightly uninspired job. Overall I feel like I have much less to talk about with this film than I do a lot of others. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It’s the kind of movie you drift across flipping channels, or watch on Netflix with the kids. It won’t murder your brain cells, but it won’t inspire them either. Stick with the TV show.