Disneyology 101: The Slump

Three installments ago I looked at Disney during the period between 1977 and 1988, which has dubbed the “Disney Dark Age” which set the studio up for its famous Renaissance during the 1990s.  In retrospect that was far from being Disney’s low point given the bad place they would find themselves in during the 2000s.  During this era Disney had seemingly no idea what they wanted to be after the Disney Renaissance, and unlike in the 80s when their only competitor in the world of theatrical animation was Don Bluth and the occasional movie based on a Saturday morning cartoon, there were major players in the 2000s that were more than willing to fill the void that Disney was leaving.  Pixar was obviously in ascendance in the late 90s and began out grossing their older cousins at Disney pretty much out of the gate and by the 2000s they were pretty indisputably the more relevant and profitable studio.  At least in the case of Pixar the broader Disney Corporation profited from that competitor’s success, but the rise of Dreamworks and other offshoots like Fox Animation and Sony Animation were much more existential threats.  In part, Disney was becoming a victim of their own success.  Movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast had proven that there was major money to be made from animated features and the pie had become big enough that other studios had realized that they could get a piece of it and made investments accordingly that were beginning to come to fruition.  Still, Disney being the cultural institution that it was made it a bit too big to fail and they continued to churn out movies at a pretty steady pace as they struggled to find a new identity.  In fact they were actually putting out more product than ever.  In nine years I have left to cover they put out no fewer than twelve different movies under the Disney Animation Studios umbrella and for this installment I’ll be looking at the first six, three of which actually came out during their jam packed year 2000.

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

In the year 2000 Disney put out three movies; one was meant as a continuation of what they were doing in the 90s, one was a wacky experiment, and one was a labor of love harkening back to the studio’s earliest days which probably wasn’t really meant to be an overly commercial project.  The first of these films to be released was that third one: a follow-up to Disney’s 1940 classic FantasiaFantasia 2000 is generally believed to be the pet project of Walt Disney nephew and Disney board member Roy Disney.  The idea was rooted in the fact that Walt Disney had always envisioned Fantasia as a sort of living document, one that would be re-released frequently with some segments dropped and new ones added and would be a sort of platform for an endless supply of classical music themed animated shorts.  When the original film underperformed in its original release that plan was scuttled and some of the follow-up shorts were re-purposed for other short-compilation films.  In the 80s Roy Disney got the idea to pick up on Walt’s original plan and make a follow-up Fantasia but as you may recall the Disney company was mired in turmoil during that decade and was in no position to throw millions at a project that would have major commercial hurdles and probably wouldn’t sell too many toys.  But by the 90s when the Disney Renaissance was in full swing they finally had some leeway to take some risk and Roy Disney’s dream of bringing Fantasia back to the big screen could finally be realized.

If I were to describe my feelings about Fantasia 2000 briefly it would probably be “It’s cool that they made this and the best parts make it worth it, but they definitely made some pretty big mistakes along the way.” Let’s start with the positive.  The best segment in the film is actually the one that least closely resembles the style of the original: a love letter to New York in the style of famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”  It doesn’t look like classic Disney at all but it was an inspired style to use to bring Gershwin’s jazz-classic fusion classic to life and the various narratives they string through the short were enjoyable to follow.  The other highlight is probably the final segment: a war between an earth spirit and a giant phoenix set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird suite.”  The narrative through line in that short seems a little random and go goes contrary to what phoenixes are generally supposed to represent but the general epicness of the visuals makes up for this and it serves decently enough as a companion to the “Night on Bald Mountain scene” from the original that this is almost certainly trying to evoke.  The Donald Duck/Noah’s Ark/”Pomp and Circumstance” segment also mostly works and it was cool that they got the idea to pull a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with another one of the characters from the Mickey Mouse universe, although Pomp and Circumstance seems like kind of an odd music choice given that it’s so heavily associated with graduation ceremonies.

Speaking of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”… it’s also in the movie, unaltered from its original form and in its entirety.  I guess if I were seeing this thing in a theater in 2000 this might have been a nice little added treat but given that this is a 75 minute movie it’s hard not to view it as just being a time filler they through in.  The “Carnival of Animals” sequence also kind of has the whiff of padding.  It’s well animated and cute but it’s really short and doesn’t really leave much of an impression and almost feels unfinished in some ways.  Another segment that doesn’t work so well, at least to my eyes today, is the “Pines of Rome” sequence in which a pack of whales starts flying out of the water and into space or something.  I can kind of see why it might have looked cool in the 2000s but it’s weird and the CGI used to animate it has not aged all that well.  Frankly it kind of looked like it could have been a companion to those coca cola commercials with the polar bears.  Questionable CGI also mars the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” segment in which a toy soldier faces off against an evil Jack-In-The-Box, although that one did have other elements that redeemed it pretty well, particularly a brief portion in the sewers with these cool looking rats.

Something kind of odd about the movie as a whole is that a lot of the classical music pieces they chose are a little less famous than the ones chosen for the first film.  That original movie feels almost like a greatest hits of legendary orchestral pieces.  There are some famous pieces here too like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Pomp and Circumstance” but a lot of them use deeper cuts from composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Ottorino Respighi which I (in my relative ignorance of classical music) was not terribly familiar with.  That might not have been as much of a problem with some good introductions to give context… which brings me to my biggest gripe: the live action intros in this thing are dogshit.  The original Fantasia had this really classy presentation where you were invited to imagine yourself as an attendee at a high class orchestral show with a world famous conductor and a well-known classical music expert giving you introductions.  Here they’ve replaced that with a series of hacky intros by various celebrities like Steve Martin and Penn & Teller that completely kill the mood.  I realize that seems like a goofy thing to dock points for, the shorts are the real meat of the project after all, but they have the effect of cheapening things and kind of put into perspective how important the framing was to the original movie.

So overall Fantasia 2000 is a bit of a mixed bag but for whatever faults it has I just can’t be too mad at it if only because it just feels like such neat thing for a major studio to be throwing money at and it just feels like a pretty noble attempt.  Michael Eisner is reported to have called it “Roy’s folly” and the company in general seems to have known going in that it was going to be more of a goodwill project than a potential blockbuster, the equivalent of  a normal studio funding some auteur’s pet project in hopes of winning an Oscar.  To their credit the marketers did come up with a fairly clever use for the film: rather than giving it a wide release they instead toured it to IMAX theaters, which at this time were still at that stage where they were almost entirely being used to show science and nature documentaries rather than “real movies.”  This was a good way to make the film look like an investment in future distribution models rather than an indulgent money pit and was also kind of in keeping with Walt Disney’s original vision of Fantasia as a film that would tour the country and show off new theatrical technology.  Between the IMAX release and an eventual wide release the film was able to eke out a $90 million gross worldwide, which would seem to cover its $80 million dollar budget, which is a low profit by Disney standards but was probably a better outcome than Eisner originally envisioned.  There hasn’t been another Fantasia since the release of Fantasia 2000 (unless you want to count that weird Xbox Kinect game) but I do think there’s room for one.  Disney is on another upswing and golden ages at that company do usually come packaged with Fantasia movies and it would be interesting to see what one would look like done entirely with the computer animation of today.

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Dinosaur (2000)

If you ask John Lasseter he’d tell you that using computer animation had very little to do with the success of Pixar and that the main reason for their success was simply that they told quality stories.  There’s some truth to that, Pixar certainly wouldn’t have had anywhere near the success it had without quality storytelling, but the fact that they were working in a different animation medium than Disney was essential to their success.  During the late 90s there was something of a gold rush to see what studios could get in on the fortune that Renaissance era Disney had proved that animated movies could earn.  Many of these studios did this by making traditionally animated movies and while a couple of good movies like The Iron Giant were made because of this most of them were lame me-too ripoffs of what Disney was doing like The Road to El Dorado, Anastasia, and Quest for Camelot.  The fact that Pixar was working in a completely different format from Disney made them stand out and compete in a more indirect manner.  Additionally it allowed Disney (a company that tends to throw money at their problems) to view Pixar as a partner and potential future acquisition rather than as a competitor.  Presumably Disney thought that traditional animation and computer animation were going to co-exist for the a long time and that the two companies would be the industry leaders in these two different mediums and could simply co-exist, but they did remain two separate companies and Disney could not afford to have all their eggs in the Pixar basket when it came to computer animation.

One of their backup plans was a company called Dream Quest Images which Disney bought and renamed The Secret Lab.  Dream Quest had actually been a visual effects company that had done some cutting edge CGI work for movies like Total Recall and The Abyss before they were bought by Disney in 1996 with the intention that they could essentially make a movie that consisted entirely of the CGI they were using for special effects.  The one feature film they made was an oddity called Dinosaur, which only bore the Disney logo when it was released and seems to have been accepted into the Disney canon despite not fitting in with the rest of their films very well at all.  The film was actually made using a unique technique, one which doesn’t really seem to have been used elsewhere, where they actually used live action nature footage and used that as their backgrounds and then added in all the talking dinosaurs over it.  This does give the film a distinct look from what Pixar was doing at the time as they were aiming for photorealism in a way that Pixar wasn’t which was probably a smart move in order to differentiate it from the competition but also gave the film quite a tough challenge.  I will say, the computer graphics here weren’t quite as unwatchably dated as I expected them to be.  Make no mistake, they look old and are by no means impressive anymore but they didn’t burn my eyes with their ugliness and compared to some of Pixar’s output from around this time they were at least competitive.

This movie’s problems really have less to do with the technology behind it so much as its general emptiness in every other regard.  The story here is a total cliché: chosen one raised away from his people goes on a reluctant journey and proves to be more resourceful than he appears and eventually stands up to the stubborn forces in the world and saves the day.  It’s the same old shit and it hardly deviates from the formula.  What’s more the characters that populate the movie are incredibly boring.  As I write this it’s been all of two days since I saw the movie and I can’t recall the name of a single one of the characters and outside of some very superficial descriptors like “compassionate hero dinosaur” or “comic relief monkey” or “stubborn older leader” or “girl dinosaur” I can’t really say there’s much to any of them.  The film’s dialogue also ranges from “boring as dishwater” to “super awkward” and any of the film’s occasional attempts at comedy or excitement fall completely flat.  It’s just a completely unremarkable movie outside of the tech that it was clearly intended to show off and now that this tech is more of a historical curio than a mind-blowing showcase there really isn’t a whole lot left to like about it.

What shocked me most about the movie was learning that it actually made money.  Given that it hardly seemed like a sensation back in 2000 and given that the movie is practically forgotten today I always just assumed that it had bombed when it released but that wasn’t the case.  Somehow the movie actually made $137 million dollars upon release, which is actually more than a lot of the traditionally animated movies that Disney put out in the late 90s did and it went on to earn another $200 million internationally.  Dinosaurs apparently do a whole lot to sell movie tickets because nothing else about this movie makes me think it would strike that much of a chord.  It seems that the people at Disney also managed to peg the film’s apparent success on a lucky break more than a sign that it was what audiences wanted from Disney as “The Secret Lab” was not asked to make another movie afterwards and Disney would not attempt to make another fully CGI movie again for another five years.  That’s probably for the best because I don’t know that this technology and style would translate to very many other subjects.  Today the film feels almost like an orphan of sorts.  It doesn’t really feel like a Disney movie at all, or like a Pixar movie, or like a Dreamworks movie.   It’s just this strange abandoned experiment that everyone involved moved on from quickly.

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The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

The third of the three movies that Disney put out in the year 2000 was the film that seemed to most closely adhere to what Disney has traditionally been.  That movie, The Emperor’s New Groove, was a traditionally animated film set in the one continent that Disney hadn’t already crossed off during the Disney Renaissance.  One would have thought it was the safest bet of the three but it had this weird title and premise and its trailers had this odd comedic tone.  What audiences didn’t know is that this title and that tone was in fact the result of a very troubled production and a wide range of compromises that were made between the film’s inception and the final product.  We know a number of unflattering details about this production because Disney foolishly allowed filmmaker Trudie Styler film an outside “making of” as part of a deal to sign her husband Sting to do the music for the film (you know, because he was next on their list of lame 90s adult contemporary stars to work with).  This documentary has been suppressed for years but recently leaked online and it’s become somewhat difficult to really separate the film that was actually made from what could have been.

The film was originally conceived by Roger Allers and Matthew Jacobs, the team behind The Lion King, and was originally meant to be an epic story called Kingdom of the Sun which would do something of a riff on “The Prince and the Pauper” but set in the Incan Empire.  This version of the film actually got pretty deep into production; 25% of it had been animated and Sting had written a number of songs for it that were tied into that original plot.  However, after the failure of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame Michael Eisner had grown weary of Disney animated films that were getting too ambitious and too serious and demanded that the project be reworked as something lighter and funnier.  Roger Allers left, leaving the film in the hands of another co-director that had been brought in named Mark Dindal and by all accounts Disney would have just shut down production had they not already spent $30 million and lined up promotional deals with McDonalds and Coca Cola.  After a two week brainstorming session the film was reworked, retitled, and re-imagined into what it would eventually become.

The final product is a strange little Disney movie, one that most closely resembles 1997’s Hercules but with a little less swagger and with a less clear vision of what it wants to be in general.    The film is set in the Incan empire, which should make for a very interesting backdrop but it ends up being completely incidental to the actual movie.  I’m no expert but I doubt the Incan government worked anything like this and I’m pretty sure the story isn’t derived in any way from actual Incan legend or folklore.  Rather it seems like they just picked a kingdom that Disney hadn’t worked with and tried to paint it on top of a generic random story they came up with.  You can tell that someone involved did do some research into Incan costume and architecture, but it still seems like quite a waste.  Beyond that we’re just left with an extremely silly movie.  It’s a movie that’s filled with comedic anachronisms and fourth wall breaks, which are certainly not the kind of comedy I like in my family movies but the comedy here seems uniquely unfunny and kind of immature.  It’s the kind of movie where the villain goes to their lair by getting on a 20th Century roller coaster complete with safety bar and then suddenly changes into a lab coat despite being set in 15th century Peru.  In many ways it doesn’t feel like a theatrically released Disney movie so much as some kind of late 90s Cartoon Network series.

There are a couple of saving graces here, particularly the voice cast, which does its best to work with the material they’re given.  David Spade, an actor who rarely does his best work in movies, is kind of perfect in the role of the arrogant and egotistical emperor and I like how the film managed to make this character stay douchey for as long as it does.  A 73 year old Eartha Kitt is also pretty amusing as the film’s villainess and manages to turn a pretty routine Jaffar-ripoff character into an enjoyable presence.  Her sidekick Kronk, voiced by Patrick Warburton, is apparently also a fan favorite as well but I can’t say he stood out too much for me outside of being a standard idiot henchman.  Outside of that and the occasional successful bits of cleverness there’s just not a lot here.  Contemplating the film’s troubled production and how they were able to cobble it together out of the wreckage of that is in many ways more interesting than the actual movie.  It’s not a movie that exudes terribleness necessarily but it’s a movie that feels uniquely un-Disney-like.  It’s not a fairy tale, there’s no music outside of a completely forgettable Sting song over the credits, the comedy torpedoes any of that epic adventure feel that you come to Disney for.  In many ways it feels more like what we would all start to expect out of Dreamworks when they ascended.  That’s not a compliment.

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Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

After the trilogy of weird experiments that they put out in the year 2000 Disney decided to get back on track in 2001 and in many ways pick up from where they left off with 1999’s Tarzan in moving the company into a less musical more boy targeted movies that used pulp literature as a basis rather than fairy tales.  It’s an approach a direction that I take a particular interest in because it is in many ways it’s exactly what I would have wanted from a Disney movie at a certain age.  As I’ve described in previous entries I was the kid who self-consciously decided he outgrew Disney and dismissed them as movies for babies at a pretty young age.  Many of the things that defined the Disney movie like the talking animals, the songs, the fairy tale trappings, and if I’m being honest the “girlyness” were all the things that made Disney completely uncool to the likes of me as I started to discover the joys of “adult” movies like Star Wars and the like.  In many ways Atlantis: The Lost Empire seems like it was meant to bring the kids like me back on board: it wasn’t a musical, it had action scenes in it (albeit of a very PG nature), there were no talking animals at all, and it was even rooted in science fiction.  It would have been the perfect movie to keep a ten year old me in the Disney sphere for a little longer… unfortunately it didn’t come out when I was ten, it came out when I was thirteen and by then I really was past the point of no return when it came to Disney at that age.

Regardless of who the target audience was Atlantis: The Lost Empire did mark a big leap in ambition for Disney and was bold in a number of ways.  It was the first time Disney was making a movie in the widescreen aspect ratio since The Black Cauldron and it was the first 2D animated Disney movie to be rated PG since… The Black Cauldron… I guess in many ways it is comparable to The Black Cauldron in the way it moves out of Disney’s usual comfort zone and tries to be a little cooler and skew a little older.  All told the movie is a lot more successful in its vision than that 1985 disaster.  While it does use quite a bit of CGI for certain effects it does very much remain an effort in 2D animation and manages to blend its CG effects with its rather stylized 2D material a lot better than a lot of Disney’s previous efforts did.  The film actually employs the signature art style of Mike Mignola, the comic book illustrator who created Hellboy, and all of the characters in it manage to just hit that sweet spot between realistic human forms and cartoony caricature and they generally do look pretty dynamic and interesting.  The ensemble in the film is perhaps a bit too large but in general the film does a pretty good job of making each of the characters a neat little characteristic to make them stand out as colorful mercenaries.

Where the film starts to lose out is in the story, which is never terrible but is also not anywhere near as original and interesting  as its makers maybe seem to think it is.  As a work of science fiction we’ve seen films like this before in a number of places but the film it very specifically resembles is the 1994 Roland Emmerich movie Stargate, which was also about a blonde bespectacled linguist who travels with a team of gun toting soldiers to an alien civilization that kind of resembles past human civilization and sparks a relationship with a woman from that civilization.  I don’t know that the makers of this were consciously biting that movie but the similarities are hard to ignore and also, if you’re going to rip something out why the hell would it be that movie?  On top of that the movie never quite works once it finally gets to Atlantis itself.  The movie expects you to constantly be in awe of this strange alien civilization but what you’re seeing is never really as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.  Atlantis just seems like this weird hodgepodge of Greek and tribal elements and their society doesn’t really seem to have an overly original set of traits and mores.  Still, the movie does pick up a bit towards the end and I actually was just a little bit surprised when it was revealed that Milo’s compatriots really were going to be the film’s main antagonists rather than some giant mystical monster or something and the battle scene towards the end was pretty neat all told.

This one is kind of hard to call.  On one hand it’s the Disney movie that does everything the 9-11 year old me thought he wanted out of Disney but it also kind of reveals exactly  why Disney hasn’t made more of a habit of making movies like that.  They don’t really appeal to the kids who are younger than that age range and the older kids that would appreciate it are right on the cusp of graduating to “real” action movies.  That’s probably even more true today than it was in 2001 what with all the Marvel movies and Star Wars movies that the kids of today have access to (and no, it’s not a coincidence that the Disney corporation now owns both of those franchises).  The potential audience is just so damn narrow and the fact that the Disney name is so heavily associated with movies for younger children you’re really fighting an uphill battle to get them on board as well.  If this had come out one year earlier and maybe had the Touchstone logo on it instead of the Disney logo I very well might have gone to see it, in fact I did just that with a fairly comparable animated science fiction movie called Titan A.E. the previous year.  But unlike twelve year old me, thirteen year old me wasn’t going to get over myself and see something like this, especially with the Disney logo on it.  I can’t really say that thirteen year old me was missing out on too much by being stubborn either frankly, this is a cool little movie but in final analysis it’s kind of style over substance.  There’s fun to be had with it but it’s no classic adventure film and people looking for a cool sci-fi action movie would be better served elsewhere.

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Lilo & Stitch (2002)

I’ve noticed throughout this little journey through Disney’s history that they have kind of a long tradition of trying to sort of get their bearings back by putting together a quick, unpretentious, and relatively cheap project as a sort of break from their other more expensive and risky projects.  The most obvious example of this was Dumbo but 101 Dalmatians and to some extent Hercules both also had kind of similar vibes in their productions.  It was also the model of production that Michael Eisner ordered directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois to adopt on the studio’s next project and they took these marching orders and ran with them.  The resulting film is… interesting.  Like a lot of the movies of this era it doesn’t seem terribly Disney-like.  There are no songs aside from some Elvis recordings that pop up occasionally for some reason, it’s set in a contemporary setting (or maybe the 50s, I’m not sure), and the movie is basically a comedy about an alien befriending a child ala E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

When the directors were instructed to make a film like Dumbo they clearly took it to heart as they actually adopted one of that film’s stylistic traits.  The film actually employs watercolors for its backgrounds, which was a technique used on Dumbo and Bambi but was phased out of the Disney process for being cost prohibitive.  I don’t know that there’s anything about this project in particular that would have called for this particular technique, but it does look kind of neat.  The animation in the foreground is much more traditional and I can’t say that I was all that enthused by it.  There’s nothing “bad” about the film’s look but it is exceedingly average.  I’m beginning to wonder if part of what killed traditional animation is that it became increasingly easy for animation to thrive on television and it became hard to differentiate between the animation in theaters and the animation on Saturday Morning Cartoons.

The movie is pretty clearly intended to be more overtly comedic than the average Disney movie but takes a slightly different approach to it than other “funny” Disney flicks like Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove in that it trades in absurdism more than irreverence.  A lot of the space/alien society elements have a touch of Douglas Adams to them and the film also sort of revels in having characters that you would not normally see in Disney films.  As talking animals go Stitch is not what you’d call “adorable” and Lilo is very decidedly not a princess.  The film is also interested in creating an interesting family dynamic for Lilo by contriving a situation where both of Lilo’s parents are dead and her 18-20 year old sister is forced to adopt her, which is probably kind of a G-rated work-around so that they can have a young single mother without being accused of teaching America’s youth about teen pregnancy.  That dysfunctional family setup is probably the strongest aspect of the film and I like that the film doesn’t sugarcoat how frustrating that is for the older sister.

Lilo & Stich is a hard movie to talk about in that it’s far from being particularly good but there isn’t really anything notably bad about it either, it’s just this sort of forgettable mediocrity.  The movie was actually pretty well received at the time.  It got an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and earned close to $150 million at the box office, probably making it the last 2D animated movie that Disney probably viewed as a success story, but time has not been terribly kind to it.  Finding Nemo came out the next year and pretty firmly established that Pixar was running things and that weird little traditionally animated movies with irreverent advertising campaigns were not going to be enough to overtake them.  Since then Lilo & Stich hasn’t exactly been forgotten but it certainly isn’t a movie that much of anybody cares about anymore.  The film’s promotional poster depicting classic Disney characters from the past looking at Stich in disgust and confusion, which was meant as a witty little joke, turned out to be pretty apropos because this movie certainly doesn’t fit too well into Disney’s usual legacy.

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Treasure Planet (2002)

During a fateful meeting in 1985 Jeffery Katzenberg met with a pair of animators named Ron Clements and John Musker who had two movies to pitch: one was an ambitious plan to take the famous Robert Louis Stevenson classic “Treasure Island” and turn it into a science fiction adventure and the other pitch was to make an adaptation of Hans Christien Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.”  Needless to say, Katzenberg was a bit more excited by one of these pitches than the other and Disney ended up launching the an entire era of their studio based on the second of those ideas.  Still Clements and Musker kept their “Treasure Island in Space” idea alive and during this series I’d keep reading about this being delayed as Disney steered the duo towards other projects like Aladdin and Hercules.  There was something sad and almost darkly comic about seeing these guys putting so much time and thought into what I knew in hindsight was an idea that was kind of doomed to failure.  Treasure Planet was in fact a major and undeniable bomb, the kind that Disney could not write off as an aberration and which simply could not be ignored.  If anyone at Disney was under the delusion that the Renaissance was still going on in any capacity  in 2002 the fact that Treasure Planet made less than $40 million dollars domestically on a $150 million dollar budget relieved them of this notion.  That said I always thought it was kind of a shame that this was the movie that ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back because I actually thought it looked kind of cool.  Not, like, cool enough to actually see when it came out in theaters (I would have been a high school freshman when this thing came out) but like Atlantis: The Lost Empire is seemed like the kind of thing I would have dug if it had come out when I was younger.

The film is indeed a variation on Treasure Island in space and it does sort of follow the basic story of the Robert Lewis Stevenson story in a lot of ways and there’s actually probably more “Treasure Island” than space than I would have expected.  The film has an aesthetic that’s not exactly steampunk but it’s doing science fiction stuff while keeping the trappings of 18th Century buccaneering.  The spaceships look like flying galleons complete with masts and sails and it’s never mentioned how people manage to breathe and live in zero gravity or why everyone is dressed in period garb.  That’s a little strange but if you can just roll with it it’s kind of a fun idea.  Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire before it this is Disney trying to use science fiction to make a cooler and more boy focused movie but unlike that movie, which tried to make a pretty clean break from the Disney aesthetic, this movie keeps some of the more traditional elements of a Disney movie like comedic sidekicks.  Those sidekicks are one of the movie’s weaker elements, the morphing glob seems like an attempt to sell stuffed animals and the Martin Short robot is just lame as hell, but they don’t overpower things too much.  The movie doesn’t have any songs outside of a pair of non-diegetic pop songs on the soundtrack by Goo-Goo Dolls front man John Rzeznik which have aged every bit as poorly as you’d expect.

All through this era Disney had been wrestling with how much to incorporate CGI with their animation and Treasure Planet may well have been the movie that convinced them to quit sitting on the fence and just give up on traditional animation because the combo of the two was just getting awkward.  That’s not to say the animation here doesn’t work at times.  When the movie is just trying to be a regular 2D animated movie it actually looks pretty decent.  Clements and Musker know what they’re doing in that realm and the decade they spent planning for this thing did lead to some dynamic designs and the characters look pretty cool (except that Jim Hawkins has kind of a weird looking face at times).  The incorporation of the CGI is less successful.  Occasionally the computer parts do integrate in ways that aren’t distracting but all too often it’s clear that these are formats at war with each other.  Granted, this thing pre-dated The Incredibles by two years, so it’s entirely likely that the technology just wasn’t there to put fully CGI humans convincingly onto these CGI spaceships so I get why they were still trying to have it both ways at this stage, but it is a distraction.

All things considered I don’t think Treasure Planet is half bad.  It’s certainly no lost classic but it’s better than its reputation and initial reception would have you believe.  The adventure elements generally work and it’s got some interesting ideas in it.  The “tall ships in space” thing isn’t going to work for everyone and some of the attempts at coolness feel a bit “try hard” but whatever, there’s fun to be had with this thing just the same.  As action oriented early 2000s Disney movies go I probably do ultimately prefer Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but it’s close, and if they had hit me at the right age (about 7-9) I think I would have loved both of those movies.

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Collecting Some Thoughts

So, is this era of Disney as bad as its reputation would suggest?  Nah, probably not, at least not to my tastes.  There were two movies which, to my mind, were pretty clear failures in Dinosaur and The Emperor’s New Groove but there were also two movies that I quite enjoyed in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.  To Disney though I can definitely tell that this would have been a pretty frustrating period in that they were trying desperately to find a new direction to go in and they weren’t finding one.  Their first attempt to become makers of CGI animation was a clear artistic failure, their attempt to keep the Disney Renaissance going turned into debacles, and their attempts go in a more action driven direction for boys were pretty roundly rejected by the public.  The only movie they made here that was probably seen as a success was Lilo & Stitch, which was not particularly replicable and was only a moderate success anyway.  They weren’t exactly at rock-bottom yet, that particular indignity is yet to come, but they were clearly on a downward spiral and hadn’t found a way out of it.  In my next and final installment of Disneyology I’ll take a look their last traditionally animated films as well as their first forays into joining their CGI animation competitors.

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Wonder Woman(6/3/2017)

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For someone who doesn’t read a whole lot of comic books I know a whole lot about Batman.  I know the origin stories of just about everyone in his rogues gallery, I can name a lot of the most famous storylines from his comic book run, and I know more about his adopted family than anyone should.  I also know a decent number of things about Superman, but after that my knowledge of DC’s roster of superheroes becomes pretty thin.  I can’t tell you much about The Flash other than that he’s fast, or about Aquaman other than that everyone thinks he’s a joke, and I couldn’t tell you much of anything about The Green Lantern aside from what was in that crappy Ryan Reynolds movie.  The character that I feel particularly ill-informed about is Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman is certainly a very famous creation, but in many ways she seems to be more famous as an iconic symbol than as an actual character.  Most people could identify her on sight but how many of them would know that she’s an Amazon who’s directly related to Zeus and that she’s spent much of her life in an unending fight with Ares?  Probably a lot fewer than the number of people who know that Superman came from Krypton or that Batman’s parents were shot.  Of course part of that information gap is caused by the fact that the character had not been brought to the big screen before now, fortunately that’s being corrected by the new big screen adaptation of the character’s adventures in this year’s Wonder Woman.

The film begins by establishing Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince’s origin story, in which she was raised on Themyscira, an island in the Aegean that’s been hidden from the outside world and seemingly displaced in time through magic.  It’s explained that this island is the domain of the Amazons, a group of female warriors that were created by Zeus to temper the humans or something.  Anyway, Diana (Gal Gadot) is seemingly the only one of these warriors who began as a child and was raised on the island by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and  her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright).  There are some argument over whether Diane will be trained as a warrior but for the most part it’s an idyllic life, until suddenly bi-plane comes flying past the invisibility barrier of the island revealing that these events are actually occurring circa 1918 and crashes into the water.  This plane is piloted by an American spy working with the SAS named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is being chased by a fleet of German boats.  After a brief skirmish Trevor tells the island ladies that World War I has been going on around them.  Diana determines that this is the doing of the Amazons’ nemesis Ares and resolves to venture out with Trevor to find and kill Ares, believing that this will end the war and bring peace to Earth.

It’s no secret that Wonder Woman is coming hot off the heels of a number of DC movies that made a lot of money but which were reviled by fans and critics.  Personally I liked some of them better than most.  I liked and continue to like Man of Steel a lot more than most people and I thought Suicide Squad had its moments (Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, is every bit as terrible as everyone says), but either way it’s clear that there is a lot of pressure for DC to change direction in a number of ways and to do that they seem to have taken some cues from Marvel in certain places.  The film’s “superhero in World War I” set up is certainly reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger and while in human society Diana has some fish-out-of-water misunderstandings that reminded me a bit of the first Thor movie.  However it would be a mistake to say that the film is completely biting the Marvel style, in fact a lot of the film’s comedy is confined to the second act and much of the rest of the film actually has a lot more in common with the other DC films than critics have suggested.  In fact I think the film has quite a bit in common with Man of Steel in that both movies are about these incredibly strong and in certain ways alien beings trying to come to terms with what their potential place in human society is.  Additionally a lot of the film’s action scenes are definitely pulling from the Zack Snyder playbook with 300 style speed ramping and a grittier aesthetic over all.  In many ways Suicide Squad was probably the bigger departure from the other DC films.

As origin stories go Wonder Woman works out pretty well.  The comic book origin story for Wonder Woman is kind of “out there” and lacks the cleanness of something like “was bitten by a radioactive spider” and the movie does a pretty good job of conveying the whole “Amazons on an island” story without making it seem unnecessarily complicated.  There are of course certain plotholes that this opens up.  I do not for the life of me understand how time works on this island or how they managed to learn all sorts of modern foreign languages while still being so oblivious of modern world that they don’t know the First World War is going on around them.  The cloak of invisibility around the island also doesn’t exactly make sense as the reason they’ve been isolated for so long.  These are of course pretty minor quibbles in the long run.  The movie also does a pretty good job of indulging some of its more comedic elements without feeling like a cavalcade of one-liners and pop culture references or feeling too much like a departure from the feel of the other movies of the “Justice League” continuity and while the actions scenes certainly aren’t “top of the line” they are mostly pretty entertaining.

All told Wonder Woman is a movie that does a pretty good job of living up to the basic expectations of a modern superhero movie and here or there it adds some nice flairs of its own on top of that but it’s hardly a major genre re-invention.  For the most part this is a movie that follows the usual rules of superhero filmmaking pretty closely, and there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, I generally like superhero movies after all.  However, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the movie plays things as safe as it does.  I generally go to DC’s movies expecting a little more experimentation than this.  We certainly got that with Suicide Squad even if the results were kind of a mess and Man of Steel also sought to show us a different kind of superhero movie from what we usually get.  This movie on the other hand just kind of feels like a safer and more diluted version of what DC has done before and I suspect that a lot of the people who were less open-minded about what they were doing before will find that to be a good thing but I personally found that a little disappointing.

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Home Video Round-Up: 6/21/2017

Beware the Slenderman (1/23/2017)

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I’ve been fairly interested in the Slenderman character ever since he emerged on the internet and think he’s a pretty cool monster.  Consequently I’ve been pretty interested in the “Slenderman stabbing case” ever since it happened as well.  It seems like such a strange case, like something out of Heavenly Creatures and the internet aspect of the case certainly gives it an extra dimension of interest.  The new documentary on the subject of the case and the internet ghost stories that allegedly led to it does a pretty good job of looking at Slenderman the fictional character but it feels rather incomplete in its analysis of the actual attempted murder case.  This may simply be a textbook case of a documentary trying to weigh in on something that isn’t over yet and which we don’t have enough perspective on yet.  As of now the Slenderman case is still in the courts and as such the lawyers and parents involved are all being rather guarded in their statements.  The film might have been better served in taking a deeper dive into the murky morality of laws that force prosecutors to try children as adults in certain cases. Otherwise I feel like it maybe should have just held off a little longer.

*** out of Five

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (4/2/2017)

I Don’t Feel At Home in This World is the directorial debut of a guy named Macon Blair, who was previously best known as the star of the movie Blue Ruin.  This film has become notable for the fact that it went straight to Netflix streaming mere weeks after it debuted to some decent buzz at Sundance this year.  As someone who’s generally seen “straight to video/VOD/Streaming” as a pretty big red flag I’m a little surprised that they were willing to take that approach with a movie that’s gotten some solid notices as no movie wants that kind of stigma.  Still in the case of this movie I think the approach kind of makes sense as this is one of those movies that screams “good enough to get a positive reception at Sundance but not really good enough to draw people out to real theaters in large numbers.”  The movie follows a lady whose home gets robbed and tries to track down the thieves on her own, largely just on the principle of the thing.  From there it becomes something like a Coen Brothers movie of the Blood Simple or Fargo variety with ordinary people awkwardly navigating a crime narrative where they’re in over their heads.  The movie has a certain amount of flavor but never feels particularly profound or engrossing and ultimately just feels a bit disposable.  I’d say “wait for it to show up on streaming” but…

*** out of Five

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Five Came Back (4/8/2017)

4-8-2017FiveCameBack In its unending quest to become every channel under the sun Netflix commissioned this documentary series to be their answer to what Ken Burns has done for PBS.  The film is an adaptation of a book by journalist/film historian Mark Harris’ book of the same name, which I read a couple years ago.  It’s a quality book, one of the better film books in a while.  It looks at five golden age Hollywood film directors and their involvement in World War II as makers of propaganda films and battlefield documentaries.  It’s been split into three episodes, which would normally make it something I wouldn’t review as a film, but I can pretty easily imagine it as a three hour feature (and they’re four walling it as such in hopes of Oscar qualification) so I’m going to allow it.  I was a little skeptical going into it as it started out mostly feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of the book but it proved to be a pretty easy sit over time and it won me over.  Unlike the book this has the obvious advantage of being able to include footage from the various movies being talked about and it also includes interviews with a pretty impressive roster of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Guillermo del Toro to talk about the influence and legacies of the various films being discussed.  Del Toro in particular proves to be surprisingly insightful, but there are strange gaps as well like the fact that Spielberg never comments on John Ford’s D-Day footage given his own work in re-introducing that battle to the public imagination.  If you’ve never read the book and have no intention to, definitely watch this, and if you have read the book this is a pretty decent supplement.  That said, if they were going to pass this off as episodic rather than as a feature it does seem a little odd that they couldn’t have added an extra episode in there to flesh things out a bit as it does feel a little rushed.

***1/2 out of Five

Split (6/21/2017)

M. Night Shyamalan had one of the more dramatic and bizarre falls from grace of any director in recent memory. He started out as they director of oddly restrained and intelligent thrillers and seemed to just sort of lose his mind as he made some astonishingly silly movies like Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. His latest film Split was viewed as something of a comeback and certainly turned out to be a surprise hit at the box office but what really makes it different from Shyamalan’s other recent failures?  I’m not sure a whole lot does differentiate it as there are some truly odd moments in this thing and there are definitely elements of that Shyamalan stiltedness to be found.  Much has been made of the movie’s final stinger and its implications, and they are indeed curious, but that has perhaps clouded the fact that the film’s actual climax is fairly unsatisfying.  The one saving grace here is almost certainly James McAvoy’s showy performance as the villain, which is fun to watch and the whole movie is generally more watchable than some of this guy’s true bombs but that isn’t saying much.  I can only chalk up the movie’s blockbuster status to its release during a pretty barren place in the calendar and while I am curious about what sequels this thing will generate I certainly don’t think it’s the return to form that some people are making it out to be.

** out of Five

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Mommy Dead and Dearest (6/5/2017)

6-5-2017MommyDeadandDearest If there’s one thing in modern American life that I’ve come to find a bit distasteful it’s this idea of the lurid spectacle trial that gets covered extensively on Court TV and the like long before all the information has come out.  I’m not talking about cases that have actual social import like the Trayvon Martin shooting or something, I’m talking about court cases that people watch out of sheer salaciousness like the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias that become objects of voyeurism unlike other trials for often unclear reasons.  I do however feel there is value in looking back at some cases like these after the fact to see where things went wrong and see what can be learned from them.  I don’t know how much media attention the Gypsy Rose Blancharde trial got but the new HBO documentary certainly suggests that it had all the makings of the “televised trial.”  The film concerns a teenage girl who experiences Munchausen syndrome by proxy in which she is manipulated into believing that she is the sufferer of numerous ailments by an abusive mother who liked the attention that having a “disabled” child would give her.  Upon realizing her ailment was psychosomatic she escapes this mother via murder.  The film itself doesn’t do anything terribly special but it does have access to Gypsy, who was allowed to give interviews from behind bars and her story and personality is quite disturbing.

*** out of Five

Alien: Covenant(5/21/2017)

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Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes.  That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies.  Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets.  There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place.  One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas.  It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus.  Personally, I rather liked it.  I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.

Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion.  We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society.  At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain.  The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship.  With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to.  Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson).  When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.

Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie.  It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it.  Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life.  While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie.  Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive.  In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title.  For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie.  It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie.  However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.

Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station.  This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be.  This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie.  I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes.  Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now.  That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well.  These genre elements are… alright.  There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.

The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens.  In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3.  Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study.  Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies.  Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard.  In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.

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