Disneyology 201: Live Action Greatest Hits (1980-1993)

What follows will be my fourth and final installment of my Disney Live Action Greatest Hits series and by extension the finale of the Disneyology 201 project.  In previous installments I looked at how Disney first started making live action films in the 50s, how they became a pretty substantial force in live action during the early 60s, and also how they struggled to stay relevant during the 70s.  This installment will look at an even stranger period in their history during the 1980s, a decade when they were slowly struggling to get their animation division back in order and when their live action division was starting to branch out from their usual brand and became a little harder to distinguish from some of the younger skewing content from their counterparts at Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox.  Having seen the success of Star Wars and the rise of other such blockbusters from Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers like him Disney increasingly saw value in making movies that could be simultaneously marketed to children, families, teens, and adults and increasingly tried to expand into content that, while still being in the PG range, was not entirely synonymous with young children, and even when they were making movies mostly for kids they tended to have at least a little more of an edge.  This was also the decade where “Touchstone Pictures” was invented as a distribution arm to put out movies that were even more mature, but for the purposes of this series I will be focusing on movies that still do have that Disney branding on them… even when they seem oddly dark for such a brand.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

If Disney was trying to show increased maturity in their family films going into the 80s you can’t blame them for being too subtle about it as they actually found themselves making a number of films early in that decade that bordered on being works of outright horror.  There was their 1980 film Watcher in the Woods, which I looked at in another series, which I’ve heard many a gen Xer say they were freaked out by as kids and then there was this 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, which really doesn’t feel a thing like their old “house style.”  Of course part of this was that the film was never really meant to be a Disney movie when it was first conceived.  Famed sci-fi/fantasy author Ray Bradbury originally wrote it as a screenplay in the late 50s and when that didn’t work out he converted it into a successful and highly regarded novel.  Later in the 70s the idea of bringing it to the screen was revived by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah.  Eventually the British filmmaker Jack Clayton came on board and it went into production at a company owned by Kirk Douglas’ less famous son Peter and Paramount was going to be on board to distribute.  At some point Paramount was replaced by Disney however and, as interested as they were to break their “kiddie” image there was only so far they were going to take it and they had the script watered down a bit, leading to a fallout with Bradbury.  It seems to have been a fairly troubled production beyond that too with Clayton eventually being sidelined as well and heavy changes being made in post-production, which you can sort of see in the final product but it’s not completely egregious.

Watching the movie the first thing that came to mind was “wow, I bet Stephen King LOVES the book this thing was based on.”  The themes of ordinary people and children fighting a cosmic evil that comes to town that you can see in King’s works like It or Needful Things are all over this movie and presumably its source material.  Is it a “kids” movie?  Kind of, I would say it fits well in the context of something like Poltergeist, which came out the year before and it kind of fits within that “Stranger Things” aesthetic of kids on bicycles taking on supernatural evil.  Speaking of that supernatural evil, the rather dapper avatar of evil here is played by a then relatively unknown Jonathan Pryce and he definitely proves to be a nicely imposing presence in the film and his carnival of evil is pretty cool as well.  Where the film is a lot less strong is with the forces of good.  The kids in this movie just aren’t very interesting either in their writing or in the performances of the young actors and the Jason Robards character’s presence in all this isn’t overly compelling either.  You can also see the hand of the Disney execs in making the evil here from being too evil for their tastes, a little bit more satan in all of this would have gone a long way.  It’s ultimately just a movie that works less well than it’s better images and bits of iconography, but as Disney products go there’s definitely stuff to like here.
*** out of Five

Return to Oz (1985)

Walter Murch is a very important figure in 20th century film.  Murch was a double threat as both an editor and a sound designer; a three time Oscar winner who worked on some absolute classic films including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and American Grafitti and continued to be credited on more modern films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jarhead and still occasionally works today.  What’s more he’s credited with a number of technical innovations in his field and holds a number of “firsts” for editing and sound design and his 1995 book “In the Blink of an Eye” is considered a canonical work on the craft of editing.  The man is a legend… which is why it’s so damn weird that he put his editing and sound careers on hold for most of the 1980s to focus on his one and only directorial credit on a weird oddity of a movie that’s mostly remembered for scaring the crap out of Gen X children: the Wizard of Oz pseudo-sequel Return to Oz which is possibly one of the strangest movies ever released by Disney. How?  Why?

Well, in some ways this was a long time coming.  Disney had nothing to do with the making of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz but at a certain point they sort of adopted it.  Seemingly out of a jealous need to own all things family entertainment Walt Disney bought the rights to all of L. Frank Baum’s remaining Oz books and had intended to make a live action movie in the 50s called “Rainbow Road to Oz,” which reportedly got really far into production before being shelved for unclear reasons and being replaced by their Babes in Toyland production.  And of course later on in the early 2010s Disney would once again leverage this old acquisition to produce Sam Raimi’s mostly forgettable Oz: The Great and Powerful.  But the first time they took the plunge into making a was at the convincing of Murch, who proposed the project to Disney and wrote the screenplay, so this is not a situation where an important figure stumbled into some studio head’s misguided project, this was all him.  It should be noted that despite the film’s title this is legally considered not to be a sequel to MGM’s film (though a deal would be struck to let them use the Ruby slippers) but a “separate” adaptation of the literary works of Baum. And it seems that in Murch’s mind this wasn’t just a legal loophole, he seems to have been rather serious about bringing in the new characters and darker themes of Baum’s sequels and that is probably where he went wrong.

By 1985 those L. Frank Baum books were weird relics of the early twentieth century, everyone associated these stories with the 1939 movie and I don’t think there was some rabid L. Frank Baum fanbase asking for anything like this.  So you had all sorts of families showing up to this expecting another fun colorful romp through the land of Oz and instead they got an adventure through a dilapidated world that had been overthrown by a rock monster and repopulated with roving roller people and headless witches and the Tin Man and Cowardly lion replaced by a fat robot and a dude with a jack o’ lantern for a head… it wasn’t the most crowd pleasing approach.  But I must say, as someone watching it for the first time as an adult and with the awareness that this was a cult movie with a reputation I found a lot to enjoy about this.  Murch makes some very creative use of stop motion effects throughout and the film has some very interesting set design to bring his post-apocalyptic Oz to life.  The weird horror elements are present almost from the beginning with one of the first things Dorothy encounters being this deranged gang of people with wheels attached to their hands and feet (very Mad Max) and there is a disturbing potency to some of the characters they pick up along the way.

This isn’t a situation where things seemed to scare kids unintentionally; Murch must have known what he was doing in making things this dark and I’m really not sure how his Disney superiors let this happen.  It’s a real case of someone doing some odd maverick shit on the company dime.  So I was consistently intrigued by this movie’s imagery but I was not so intrigued by its story.  The Dorothy here is really not a terribly compelling lead and the girl they got to play her was no Judy Garland.  I would also say that the cast of supporting characters she picked up intrigued me more visually than they did as personalities (they’re quite bland really).  Also while a lot of the practical effects hold up I’m not sure that it’s kind of drab cinematography does.  So as neat as I find the gonzo vision of all this there are limits to how much I can really call this a “good” movie, it’s just too messy.  Still this is certainly something I’m glad I gave a look and am just kind of fascinated by the fact that it exists at all.
*** out of Five

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

When I was a kid I remember going to see this mostly forgotten movie called Star Kid when it came out in 1997.  Even as a nine year old I remember not thinking it was that great but I at least have some good memories of the outing if not the movie.  Anyway, turns out that in addition to that movie’s general forgettableness it was also kind of a ripoff of the 1986 Disney sci-fi film Flight of the Navigator which was itself not exactly a home run of a movie.  Flight of the Navigator is a movie that’s been pretty well off my radar for a while, in fact I think I was getting it mixed up with The Flight of the Phoenix for a while.  As it turns out the film is only sort of a Disney movie at all, it seems to have been produced somewhat independently as some kind of co-production with Norway though funded by a pre-existing distribution deal with Disney and did not have the Disney branding in several international markets, and I must say the fact that this isn’t a for real Disney production kind of shows as it sure seems like a behind the times copycat moreso than something from an industry leader.

The films looks at a kid who had a close encounter with an alien ship in 1978, blacked out, and then woke up eight years later in 1986 without having seemingly aged a day.  This leads to a lot of in retrospect odd scenes in which this 70s kid is not hip to the new “modern” developments of  the mid-eighties like Twisted Sister and New Coke… things that obviously feel just as antiquated to modern viewers as anything in 1978.  That part of the movie feels a bit inspired by the time traveling antics of Back to the Future but the movie this really wants to be is almost certainly E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial except that the kid befriends a space ship instead of an alien.  There are also shades of The Last Starfighter.  The film used quite a bit of early CGI though I feel like the bulk of the effects here are simpler model work; they look dated, but not horrible.  The whole thing was a pretty passable adventure movie as these things go, but then somewhere in the second half the spaceship’s A.I. (voiced by Paul Reubens) does a brainscan of the kid to adopt to his ways and suddenly starts talking in this weird 80s kid patter with a wacky “attitude” (including that horrid laugh that Reubens does) and the movie got increasingly annoying from there.  I think this movie could have used a more conventional antagonist for the “navigator” to have to deal with, maybe an enemy alien or something?  That might have been a more conventional choice to go with but… this was never exactly going to be The Day the Earth Stood Still so they might have benefited from aiming a touch lower.
** out of Five

The Rocketeer (1991)

So, what ever happened to Joe Johnson?  He made Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, which you would have thought would be his ticket to the A-List in the coming decade but in the years since all he’s made is a direct to VOD movie called Not Safe For Work and extensive reshoots on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms after they fired its original director.  That’s a pretty lame output for a guy who seems to have been a legitimate but rather unheralded hitmaker between Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, that phase one MCU movie.  He goes pretty far back with Disney as well; his directorial debut was the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which is certainly considered something of an 80s blockbuster classic even if it’s not quite on the level of something like Back to the Future.  I’ve seen that one before as a youth but did consider re-watching it for this series but ultimately decided to instead focus on the Joe Johnson/Disney collaboration I hadn’t seen, the 1991 film The Rocketeer.

If The Flight of the Navigator was part of a wave of films Hollywood made to get on the E.T. bandwagon, the 1991 film The Rocketeer was part of a wave of pulp tributes they made as a response to the Indiana Jones trilogy and to some extent the 1989 Batman.  It was the same wave that brought us movies like Dick Tracy (also technically a Disney movie), The Shadow, and The Phantom which feel like of like the works of aging studio heads who didn’t get that those characters weren’t really comparable to Batman and Superman, but the resulting movies weren’t necessarily complete whiffs either.  As a youngster I actually quite liked that 1994 version of The Shadow though I have my doubts that it would hold up if I watched it today.  Unlike a lot of those movies The Rocketeer is not based on an actual comic book or pulp product of the early 20th Century, instead it’s based on an indie comic book from the early 1980s that was always a pastiche of those older cultural artifacts.  I don’t think those comic books were ever particularly popular but nonetheless the film rights to them sold pretty quickly and the adaptation was in some level of development for the better part of ten years until it was fast tracked after the success of Batman and Disney specifically got behind it because it “had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising.”  The original plan was to make it a PG-13 film released by Touchstone but eventually it was a bit more kiddie-fied and released by straight up Disney, which might have been a mistake given that actual children did not give a damn about 1940s pastiche and I know that the Disney label was a big part of the reason I never saw it despite seeing similar movies from other studios.

That being said, I was probably missing out, because while this isn’t some lost gem it is certainly a solid movie that accomplishes most of what it set out to do.  The film’s alternate history 1940s is fun and the Rocketeer himself is a neat looking hero.  The film’s special effects certainly seem a bit basic by modern standards but they are mostly within their means and they don’t distract or stand out as bad.  It was also cool to see Timothy Dalton here as a villain, always nice to see former James Bonds getting work, and the film manages to incorporate Indiana Jones Nazis and Dick Tracy gangsters into its world as the villains pretty seamlessly.  If there’s a problem here it’s probably the protagonist, at least in the scenes where he’s not in costume.  As a character Cliff Secord strikes me as a pretty bland secret identity and he’s not done many favors by the actor playing him, a guy named Billy Campbell (no relation to Bruce Campbell).  Campbell has quietly established himself as a reasonably successful actor, mainly in television, in the years since this movie came out but this was clearly a test to see if he had the “it” factor to become a star and I don’t think he pulled it off.  He’s fine, but he doesn’t leave a big impression.  Other than that there’s not a ton to complain about here; it’s a solid comic book action movie for its time period and it inhabits a fun retro world with real life figures.  You can totally see why they went to Joe Johnson when the time came to bring Captain America to the screen… shame he hasn’t been a voice in the years since.
***1/2 out of Five 

Newsies (1992)

I had at least heard of most of the Disney movies of this era even if I hadn’t seen a lot of them.  I heard about movies like Return to Oz and Flight of the Navigator from the nostalgic Gen Xer  who geek out about them while also talking about movies like The Goonies and I heard a decent amount about The Rocketeer for its status of kind of being an early superhero movie and I remember a lot of these other early 90s Disney flicks from the way they were marketed in my youth, but Newsies was a movie I learned about in adulthood.  In fact I didn’t hear about it until a handful of years ago when I started interacting with a very different kind of geek: former theater kids.  Back in ’92 Newsies was a huge bomb, one of the least successful movies the studio ever released having failed to even gross three million dollars on a fifteen million dollar budget, which probably explains why so few people ever talked about it.  However, it seems that the tiny fraction of youngsters who did show up to see it grew up to join drama club and enjoy singing showtunes and shit.  In that sense this movie has a lot to answer for, but I must say the future theater kids of America circa 1992 might have been on to something because while this movie is far from perfect it’s way better than its real life fate seems to suggest.

This movie was more than likely greenlit almost as an experiment; The Little Mermaid was a big hit, it was a musical, maybe the time was right to try to revive the live action musical as well.  It was not.  We wouldn’t really see the neo-musical hit with any real success until Moulin Rouge almost ten years later and even then it would be a while before they were being made with any regularity and the world clearly wasn’t interested in 1992.  I’m guessing the mandate behind this from the studio was just “see if you can make a musical, any musical, with Alan Menken” because I’m not sure how commercial the subject matter of Newsies would be otherwise.  The film is about the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike, which was a real life bit of makeshift union organizing by a bunch of kids and teens in response to an increase in the price newspapers were being sold to distributors (I.E. the kids going “Extra! Extra! Read all about it” on the street) in New York by Pulitzer and Hearst.  So… it’s a movie about the importance of unions and organized labor… certainly something that infamous strike buster Walt Disney would love having his name on.

There is something nicely subversive about the fact that the people behind this movie managed to get one of the biggest capitalist enterprises on Earth to fund a musical ode to the power of organized labor and the movie is not terribly interested in “both sidesing” this conflict either.  The film also sports some decent production values bringing to life an era of history we don’t see on film all that often, and most of the music is… decent.  Alan Menken was in the middle of a big winning streak when he composed the music here and I wouldn’t say this broke that streak exactly but this is no Beauty and the Beast.  Part of the problem may simply be that this was his first project without his longtime lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS before he could work on this project, but I think the bigger problem here might just be the performers.  The film stars a very young Christian Bale about five years after Empire of the Sun and I must say I’m not sure he was entirely there as an actor yet and he certainly showed his future probably wouldn’t be in singing.  He’s not terrible but he’s not great either and I can’t say I was super impressed by any of the singing or dancing here.  The more basic acting is also a little questionable.  The filmmakers decided to go all-in on giving these kids thick New York accents and I’m not sure that was the greatest idea.  But that aside I still think this is a pretty fun movie and I have no idea why the critics were so hostile to it at the time and get why it has a cult following.
*** out of Five

Hocus Pocus (1993)

You wouldn’t know it today, but like Newsies, Hocus Pocus was not terribly successful upon its original release.  It didn’t flop as hard as Newsies (which was an absolute disaster) but it only made about $30 million and likely didn’t recoup its marketing costs.  By comparison, Disney made much more from Cool Runnings and The Three Musketeers that year and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is also known to be more of a cult film than an instant success) outgrossed it.  Part of the problem may have come down to a bad choice of release date: the movie came out on July 16, 1993 when all logic in the world suggests that the one and only month it should have come out in is October.  In fact the main reason the film is well known today is because it’s become something of a go-to film to bring out whenever a they need a “horror” movie to bring out for Halloween when in a kid friendly environment which will fit with the season but won’t actually freak out the kids.  That box office fate mostly conforms to my own memories from back in 1993, which was pretty much the first year I remember really having film marketing reach me.  It certainly wasn’t as big of a deal as Aladdin but I certainly remember hearing about the movie and seeing its VHS all over the place in Hollywood Video.  I didn’t see the movie, because it looked like it was for girls, but I knew of its existence, then it disappeared for about a decade or two before I started to learn that people in my age bracket actually remembered and cared about it.

The film is set in Salem Massachusetts and is part of an exceptionally long line of movies about witches to imply that there actually were real witches in Salem worth being afraid of, which kind of misunderstands that the thing that’s interesting about the Salem Witch Trials is that witches aren’t real.  I’d long assumed from the marketing and whatnot that the three witches on the film’s poster were the film’s protagonists, but they’re not, they’re villains chasing around these two very bland white teenagers who accidently bring them back to life around town for a while.  Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy are certainly interesting actors to put at the center of a movie for kids like this but I must say, they look kind of ridiculous.  They don’t have even the slightest bit of menace or threat to them and they’re not terribly credible villains even though they are theoretically trying to do some legitimately evil stuff.  To some extent I think that’s part of the goal; they seem to be working really hard to make sure this won’t actually scare kids too much and make their parents not want to take them to it… though they were oddly willing to let sexual innuendo fly in it.  Ultimately I think it’s the general generic-ness of the non-witch characters here that really makes the film feel unexceptional more than anything.  It’s really not a movie that’s meant to be “fun for the whole family,” this is a movie for kids and I don’t think there’s much there to look back on.
**1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

So, that ends my look at Disney’s live action output in the 80s and 90s and by extension this whole series.  This was kind of a bad time for Disney all around; Spielberg and his imitators were clearly eating their lunch when it comes to appealing to young people in the 80s and they clearly seemed to be rushing to catch up.  As for the early 90s, they were making some moves but it’s obvious the bulk of their attention was on their animation division.  Ultimately it was probably the least rewarding of these installments just because it exposed me to fewer things that felt unique to me and felt like less of a glance into history.  And this is where I’m going to leave my “live action greatest hits” series, it doesn’t really seem to make sense to me to look much more deeply into the movies that came out during my own lifetime, which aren’t going to give me the same kind of perspective into film history.  And this will also be the end of my whole “Disneyology 201” grab bags of topics.  I’ve looked at a lot of the major blindspots I had about this studio and if I were to ever do a Disneyology 301 I’d really have to dig into some deep cuts to do it.


Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Remakes (2018-2019)

Last summer I took a dive into Disney’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics into these effects laden live action blockbusters and the mixed to negative results that’s provided.  Honestly I found the movies we were given to be a bit (and I mean a small bit) more eclectic than I expected as the studio experimented a bit to see what audiences wanted out of these movies.  But it ended on an ominous note as we got 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which is the movie that really exhausted whatever patience critics had with this trend and really marked them as something of a plague.  But that’s also when Disney decided to put the petal to the metal: in the last two years of the decade they put out as many live action remakes as they did in the entire rest of the decade combined including remakes of some pretty sacred cows.  2019 in particular was a year that was just rotten with them, like they knew audiences were going to get sick of the fad so they just wrung it dry.  So, without further ado let’s finish this up.

Christopher Robin (2018)

Though they are generally thought of as being money machines there have definitely been Disney remakes that have more or less landed with thuds.  One of them, seemingly, was the 2018 Winnie the Pooh riff Christopher Robin which sure seemed to just “come and go” in theaters.  Looking at the actual numbers you see that the movie actually made a respectable $99 million domestically and about as much internationally so it certainly wasn’t the flop it felt like but there certainly wasn’t enthusiasm for it.  That’s partly because the film just feels like something of a misbegotten concept in general.  On one hand it feels like one of the few Disney remakes with some legitimate creativity behind it rather than a straightforward remake: rather than simply presenting familiar animal antics in the Hundred Acre Woods but in CGI this time the team here (including screenwriters Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy) sought to tell some sort of story about innocence lost by having an adult Christopher Robin rediscover these characters… seems promising, but what they forgot was that this is Winnie the fucking Pooh we are talking about.  Pooh is a Disney IP that isn’t just for kids, it’s for babies, and the exceptionally young audiences that this movie would attract are likely to be bored by all this angst about an adult Christopher Robin while any adults who might find some interest in that are not going to go to something in this franchise unless dragged by very young children.

Of course this plot about a kid from a famous children’s story growing up to forget his former adventures while neglecting his children to dedicate too much time to work might sound familiar and that’s because it’s basically the setup to Hook in many ways.  I thought it was pretty tired when that movie indulged in the this “shaming fathers for working too hard” trope way back in 1991 but it’s absolutely ridiculous to build an entire movie around it in the 2010s.  I hate this trope both because it’s overused but also because it absolutely reeks of privilege.  I’m sure it resonates to studio heads working long hours despite already being millionaires but most people being forced to neglect their family isn’t some voluntary decision that they can opt out of after being visited by three ghosts or something and I’m sure those people aren’t very happy about Hollywood constantly telling their kids “if your father really loved you he’d walk out on his boss.”   The movie even seems like it should have some self-awareness about this given it’s weird ending in which Robin somehow convinces his boss that giving his employees more vacation time will solve their financial woes (good luck selling that one in real life).  Beyond that the film is just kind of boring and forgettable.  The film actually got a surprise Academy Award nomination for its visual effects, which I can maybe see an argument for as the animals (which are depicted as living stuffed animals here) do seem to interact with reality pretty seamlessly, but it’s not otherwise a terribly interesting movie visually and I just didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Not the worst of these Disney remakes but probably the most forgettable and the one the world was least interested in.

** out of Five

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Unlike a lot of the remakes that Disney suddenly jumped on when they became trendy, the company had actually been trying to make “sequel to Mary Poppins” happen for a while.  In fact they wanted to do a sequel right away after the box office success of the first movie but author P. L. Travers would not let them given her objections to the first film (which you can see chronicled in the Tom Hanks/ Emma Thompson film Saving Mr. Banks).  They tried again in the late 80s but again Travers proved to be stubborn and irascible well into her old age.  The old bat finally croaked in 1996 so by the time Disney began exploiting every last piece of IP in the 2010s the door was open and after Disney approached director Rob Marshall in 2015 things came together pretty quickly.  The film they envisioned would be something more akin to a “Legacyquel” (meaning something that’s technically a sequel to a previous franchise but which feels like a reboot) than a true remake and picks up 25 years after the first film with one of the kids having grown up to be kind of fiscally irresponsible and is about to get his house foreclosed on if they can’t find the bank shares that have been misplaced.  I would suggest that these people need an estate lawyer more than they need a nanny, but like in the first movie Mary Poppins manifests and starts to get up in everyone’s business.

Now, if you’ve been following this Disneyology series you’ll know that I’m no fan of the original Mary Poppins and in that capacity I actually think this sequel is a slight improvement.  The episodic adventures that Poppins takes the kids on generally feel a bit stronger here, there generally seem to be higher stakes to the story, and the film’s music is a bit more to my taste than the songs in the original.  Having said all that, this is still a movie that’s very much meant to invoke that original film and please its fans and that is a problem because there are things about this franchise I just can’t stand.  The whole franchise just seems to rest on these annoyingly wholesome stories about precious little moppets you want to kill and that’s the case here.  I would also say that all this drama around the home foreclosure is kind of silly given that Mary Poppins herself seems to have borderline omnipotent power and could theoretically solve all these problems with a snap of her fingers but doesn’t, presumably because she’s trying to teach this family some kind of lesson but I’m not sure what because they basically just get saved by a deus ex machina anyway.   Setting personal taste aside I would say that this probably is made with a little more class and care than your average Disney remake, but even the most successful remake of this movie was not going to be my cup of tea.

**1/2 out of Five

Dumbo (2019)

Out of the many remakes that Disney had lined up for 2019 Dumbo actually seemed like the one that had the most potential to me.  The original Dumbo was the oldest film that Disney had attempted to remake in this wave and in some ways did feel like a movie that could maybe benefit from some re-thinking and expanding.  What’s more they managed to bring in director Tim Burton to helm the film, and while his previous excursion into Disney remakes (Alice in Wonderland) had been less than ideal there was still some promise to that.  This was probably a miscalculation as I had forgotten that Tim Burton kind of sucks now, or at least it’s been over a decade since he’s made a live action film anyone gives a damn about and Disney seems to bring his most sellout instincts to the table.  The public ultimately didn’t seem to be terribly excited about the film either, the film managed to make over a hundred million at the domestic box office but considering it cost a hundred and seventy million to make it’s likely that even when you bring in the two hundred million the film made internationally it probably didn’t break even when marketing costs are accounted for.

So, what went wrong?  Well, kind of everything.  There was a lot of talk when  the film came out about the fact that they choose not to use any real animal performers in the film since it would be hypocritical to do that in a movie about the cruelty of animal captivity.  I can see the logic there but that doesn’t change the fact that these CGI animals just look fake as hell.  I don’t know if there were just so many shots with animals that there was no way to make them all look pristine or what, but the film’s $170 million dollar budget was not enough to make the elephants look real.  The human characters here also kind of suck despite the film having a fairly impressive cast.  Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito are both kind of fun as the villain and semi-villain (and the fact that this is something of a Batman Returns reunion is amusing) but I didn’t care one bit about Colin Ferrell and his family and the movie didn’t really make Dumbo himself as interesting as it thinks it did.  Burton does give the film some visual touches here and there, particularly in terms of set decoration (still his biggest talent after all these years) but there’s nothing here striking enough to save the film and you likely wouldn’t be able to identify it as a Burton film at all if you weren’t told it was.  I would also note that this is the third straight Disney remake I’ve watched that has some kind of weird contrived anachronistic ending where the corporate villains just kind of become enlightened apropos of nothing and solve everyone’s problems.  I guess in its own way that’s in keeping with the “happily ever after” tradition of fairy tales but at least in the old fairy tales you had to, like, kill the dragon or whatever in order to earn that happy ending.

** out of Five

Aladdin (2019)

By the time the 2019 Aladdin came around critics were firmly opposed to this whole trend of live action Disney remakes on principle and I remember this one having the added infamy of becoming a bit of a laughingstock after a poorly executed trailer came out that made the genie in it look pretty bad.  So I must say that when I turned it on my expectations were pretty low but funnily enough I actually kind of liked the actual film (at least a little) and am in the awkward position of having to defend the indefensible.  I think part of that reaction comes down to the fact that in my eyes the original Aladdin is one of the less successful of Disney’s 90s “renaissance” movies.  It’s the one I should have the most nostalgia for given the age I was at when it came out but it stands out to me as the one that’s aged the least gracefully, in part because the Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie just strikes me as a bit awkward and a bit rooted in dated pop culture references.  That is something that could have used some updating and beyond that the whole Arabian Nights milieu in general doesn’t strike me as one that’s been overdone by Hollywood and which could benefit by being scaled up into a live action epic.  And that is more or less what director Guy Richie (of all people) did with this movie.  It’s more or less a plot point by plot point remake (with a few additions) and fairly openly reuses a lot of the art assets of original film but it’s not what you’d call a shot for shot remake.

Richie’s version of Agrabah is pretty well rendered, certainly heavily following the lead of the animated film’s aesthetic but expanding on it and there was a bit more of a thrill in seeing the Sultan’s palace and the Cave of Wonders made “real” than there was in seeing the Beast’s castle brought to life in that remake.  The script hues very closely to the original and I can probably take or leave most of the changes that were made.  A love interest is added for the Genie for once he’s freed at the end, which ties into a slightly clever framing story.  No big deal, but its fine.  Less successful is an attempt to make Jasmine more palpably embrace her inner girlboss through a song called “Speechless” (the reprise of which hilariously ends with her being hypnotized and literally rendered speechless).  Beyond that the film’s finale is a bit expanded and made more of an action set-piece.  Finally I think I’m going to defend the Will Smith take on the Genie, which is less of an imitation of the Robin Williams version and instead kind of takes on Smith’s natural charisma and creates something of a Fresh Prince Genie and as a purely subjective preference I think I have more affection for that than I do for Robin Williams doing anachronistic celebrity impressions.  The visual effects are also a major step up from what we got from Dumbo despite the two films having fairly comparable budgets though they’re hardly mindblowing.

Having said all that my defense of this movie is modest and tepid as there are some serious drawbacks, none bigger than the guy at the center of it all: Mena Massoud.  This actor was a relative unknown before he was cast in this movie and frankly I think he’s in a bit over his head here.  He seems like a perfectly functional actor who’s trying his best but this is a pretty iconic character he’s trying to inhabit and I just don’t think the pure star power and charisma is there.  I didn’t care too much for the guys they got to play Jafar or the Sultan either, but everyone is largely competent.  At the end of the day, this is certainly every bit the product of soulless number crunching it looks like; whatever mild defense I make of it is in relation to the other Disney remakes and my low expectations for the whole endeavor, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t think Richie did about as much as he could to make this seem like a real movie and one that mostly flows about as well as it could.

*** out of Five

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Going by straight continuity I should probably be following up my viewing of Aladdin (released 5/24/2019) with The Lion King (released 7/19/2019), but I’ve decided to save that one for last in this viewing series for dramatic effect and will instead jump straight to the October release Maleficent: Mistress of Evil instead.  Out of all the movies in this series this is almost certainly the one I was the least curious about going in both for better or worse.  It wasn’t a movie I was looking forward to but also wasn’t exactly one I was dreading having to sit though… it was just kind of there.  I feel like audiences and critics were similarly disinterested back in 2019.  I don’t remember hearing a single thing one way or the other from critics at the time and while the film (like basically everything Disney releases) was a financial success to some extent but it made about a million dollars less than Dumbo domestically (they were numbers 22 and 23 at the domestic box office) but did noticeably better internationally (out grossing Dumbo by a hundred million worldwide) which is probably enough that it sounds like a Maleficent 3 will be happening.  Still, it’s a movie that made minimal impact on pop culture and might have been a bit better served if it hadn’t come out during the remake-a-palooza that was 2019.

Of course a bit part of why I was so disinterested was that the original Maleficent has proven to be an exceptionally unmemorable movie… to the point where I barely remembered what happened in it even though I’d only seen it something like four month ago.  That having been said I did end up getting caught back up and did end up kind of enjoying certain aspects of the film to some extent.  Particularly, the movie has a final battle scene at the end between an army of humans fortified in a castle and the various fairy people and winged beings that are attacking them.  I’m not saying that this is some great battle scene for the ages but it was able to pretty nicely differentiate itself from the cookie cutter battles between CGI armies we normally get in these post-LOTR fantasy movies.  Outside of that though I don’t think there’s a lot of inspiration to be found here.  The film basically undoes a lot of the developments in the previous film in order to find a way to rekindle the fight between humanity and fairy people and our title character kind of gets sidelined for a while toward the end and kind of becomes the least interesting character in her own movie.  All told I do still think this is one of the more dignified franchises in the Disney remake trend and becomes even more its own thing here given that it no longer has any need to retell the original Sleeping Beauty story but it still never quite comes together as a truly needed thing.

**1/2 out of Five

Lady and the Tramp (2019)

For however much I complained about all these other Disney remakes, one thing is undeniable: they were pretty big deals.  Even the less successful among them made a good hundred million dollars and caught the interest of the masses, and they did this because whatever their faults they were at the very least films constructed to be big modern spectacles.  The same cannot be said of Disney’s remake of Lady and the Tramp, which was not even made to be released in theaters.  Instead the film, from the moment it was announced, was set up to be a launch title for Disney’s then new streaming service Disney+.  This certainly gives me a number of feelings.  On one hand I’m not inclined to dignify these remakes in the first place but if they must make a remake of something like Lady and the Tramp I kind of want them to at least make said bastardization a big deal rather than a cheap throw away freebie, which is sure what this movie feels like.  I must say, I kind of find that inherently offensive because in my opinion Lady and the Tramp is one of the best of Disney’s classic back catalog.  It’s got this really thoughtful animation style and it takes the relationship at its center a lot more seriously than a lot of the company’s films and is also oddly class conscious, so seeing it turned into mere “content” is kind of infuriating.

The visual style of the original Lady and the Tramp was carefully calibrated; it was made in the new ultra-wide CinemaScope ratio with the idea of making it a film told from the low to the ground point of view of its canine protagonists.  This remake throws that whole idea out and uses the 2.00:1 ratio that is otherwise mostly used for streaming television shows.  There were some real dogs used in the film but obviously whenever they talk to each other it’s CGI city and the animals frankly look kind of uncanny and bad during the close-ups.  The basic story is more or less identical to the original film but it feels a lot less meaningful with this presentation.  Where that first movie felt like a capital F film this almost feels more like a Hallmark movie for pet lovers.  Also, while I’ve generally been fine with Disney’s tendency to engage in race blind casting in their Disney remakes I think it bristles a bit more here given that this is set in a very specific time in U.S. history (turn of the century Missouri) rather than some fantasy realm and the notion that everyone in this area would be nonchalant about the mixed race couple at the center of the film in this time and place feels less like wishful thinking and more like a sort of delusional whitewashing of social mores.  But that would have been less of a distraction if this movie made any other case for its existence.  It’s not a wretchedly unwatchable piece of work but its sheer blandness makes it even worse than its over-produced counterparts.

** out of Five

The Lion King (2019)

So, I’ve finally gotten to “the big one.”  The second highest grossing movie of 2019 behind Avengers: Endgame and the movie that made many a film critic completely blow a gasket with the sheer insanity of its existence… the live action remake of The Lion King.  Actually calling this a “live action” remake is a bit dubious considering that the film has no human actors and is by all accounts almost entirely computer generated outside of a single shot of a rising sun at the beginning.  Directed by Jon Favreau this can likely be seen as a follow-up to his 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which is one of the better received Disney remakes in part because it was a remake of a movie that was a touch stale and in part because it made changes and also had some pretty interesting technical achievements.  Most of that does not apply to The Lion King: the original film is still one of the studio’s most beloved films, one that even I can’t really hate on, and the movie pretty slavishly follows the original film’s script.  Some would say that the decision to cast black actors as all of the lions, which I don’t think was responding to a complaint much of anyone actually had with the original and mostly just serves as a flailing attempt to find a reason why this needed to happen at all.  As for its technical merits… I don’t know, I mean, the animals certainly look real which is impressive on some level but it’s also true that they’re less expressive than their animated counterparts and generally have less artistry to them.

So, most of what you’ve heard about this is true, however, The Lion King remains a very durable piece of storytelling and at a certain point there’s only so much you can do to screw it up.  As creatively bankrupt as the film’s borderline shot-for-shot similarities are, the approach does mean that quite a bit of what did work about that original film does seep through into the new version.  I would be curious to see how someone who’s been living under the rock for the last twenty five years (or, you know, a kid) would react to this absent any baggage for the original movie because in a vacuum I think this would be less offensive than it seems to the rest of us.  But the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in a reality where there was already a perfectly good animated version of this movie and the utter absence of any changes here is basically an admission that there was nothing broken about the original version.  Who was asking for this?  Well, a lot of people I guess, if the film’s outlandish box office is any indication.  I don’t know, I guess “normies” just look at this stuff differently and view classic films less as these totems to stand the test of time and more as disposable products to be replaced by the new model even if the new model turns out to have defects.  To me though this feels kind of like an insult to the legacy of 2D animation that Disney was built on.  But again, that’s the meta-view of it, as a product unto itself all I can really do is shrug, I didn’t actively hate sitting through it or anything.

**1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, this experience both confirmed and confounded most of my expectations about these movies.  The movies they made between 2010-2018 weren’t all “good” exactly but there was some interesting variation to be found between them as they tested out new ideas for how these movies could be but over time they worked out the “kinks” and by 2018 the conveyer belt was really churning these things out in the blandest way and the movies in this half of my survey mostly lived down to their reputation, many of them not even having the decency to be bad in a way that I find interesting and I kind of struggled to find anything to say about a lot of them.  Since their overstuffed 2019 Disney has slowed down their output of these remakes a lot.  I’m not sure how much the pandemic played into that but they only released one live action remake in 2020, the live action Mulan, which sucked in a lot of the same ways a lot of these have sucked despite having more potential than most.  Then in 2021 they released Cruella which I actually liked quite a bit though it does have some glaring problems and looking back I think my three and a half star review might have been a bit too generous, still that’s one of the best things to come out of this trend and points to things may be getting a little better as we move forward.

There are two of these remakes on tap for 2022.  The first is a Peter Pan adaptation Peter Pan & Wendy, which is being directed by David Lowery (promising!) but it’s apparently being released directly to Disney+ (not promising).  The other movie is also set for Disney+, an adaptation of Pinocchio to be directed by Robert Zemeckis… lot of ways that can go wrong.  Then we’ll get another theatrical release in the form of The Little Mermaid, which is being directed by Rob Marshall and is set for release in 2023.  After that we’re getting a wave of sequels to the remakes including The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Cruella and while it’s not clear how deep they’re in production on any of them there is some preliminary work being done on remakes of Snow White, Bambi, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules.  So this trend isn’t going anywhere.

Disneyology 201: Live Action Greatest Hits (1967-1979)

Our last look at the world of live action Disney movies looked at the early 60s, which was kind of an ideal time to be making corny family films.  It was that era that all those movies you thought were set in the 50s like American Graffiti took place in.  But for this next installment will look at a period in which Disney struggled a bit more to find relevance: the late 60s and early 70s.  In this era Disney’s usual M.O. would start to look incredibly square, but even if they tried it’s not like Disney was ever going to be the go-to for this big generation of newly adult baby boomers.  This was an issue for Disney’s animation branch as well: in the 70s there simply weren’t as many children to advertise to as there were in the 50s and 60s, the boomers just hadn’t reproduced enough yet.  I will be starting in the late sixties while the company was trying and failing to make the old magic work and then start working my way through the Gen X favorites of the 70s right up to when they began taking more of a corporate turn as they went into the 80s.

The Happiest Millionaire (1967)

The Happiest Millionaire is possibly the most consequential movie to Disney history which most people haven’t heard of.  It, in its current form, is notable for being by some measures the longest movie that Disney ever put out.  It’s shorter than Pearl Harbor (which was put out by their Touchstone imprint) and Avengers: Endgame (which also doesn’t officially bear the Disney logo) but at 172 minutes this director’s cut of The Happiest Millionaire does run longer than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which would be the second longest movie to open with that castle logo.  Of course counting that 172 minute cut (the one currently streaming on Disney+) is a bit dubious as this thing actually went out at a number of different running times: it was 164 minutes long when it premiered in Los Angeles, 144 minutes when it was brought to New York.  It’s not entirely clear whether it ever got its intended roadshow release but by the time it was put into general release it had been cut down to 118 minutes and that wasn’t because anyone had any confidence in it.  The film came out during something of a turning point for American cinema and the big flashy musicals that had earned so much money in the early 60s (including Disney’s Mary Poppins) had really outstayed their welcome and were starting to bomb.  This movie doesn’t get talked about as much as Doctor Doolittle or Hello, Dolly when discussing the death of the roadshow musical, but it was definitely part of the trend.  In fact one could in some ways view this as more of a failure than those movies, which at least managed to impress out of touch Academy members, whereas this movie seemed to impress no one.

The film doesn’t really have much of a strong high concept to rest on like most Disney movies.  It’s set in the 1910s (an era that Walt Disney was kind of infatuated with) and looks at a mildly eccentric rich guy (who only strikes me as being moderately happy as millionaires go) played by Fred MacMurray and his family.  I say “mildly eccentric” because the only particularly notable things about this guy are that he runs a bible study/boxing class, has some kind of obsession with the marine corps leading into the first world war, and also that he owns a bunch of pet alligators he apparently captured in the everglades.  All of this could have been used as a satirical portrait of a bourgeois chickenhawk in a more interesting movie but here these are just seen as endearing quirks in an otherwise goodhearted man and his patriotic support of the bloodbath that was World War I likely seemed rather insensitive in a time when Vietnam was becoming increasingly controversial.  Then in the film’s second half it increasingly becomes about a very bland romance and engagement between his daughter and another bland as fuck rich white guy and some father-of-the-bride antics from the MacMurray character.

It’s a very bland and indistinct story set in a not overly interesting setting and with characters who are not overly fascinating.  It also isn’t really that much of a spectacle as these things go.  The aforementioned Doctor Doolittle and Hello Dolly at least had elaborate sets and the like to make them noteworthy and this really doesn’t outside of that odd sub-plot with the alligators.  Those other moves cost seventeen and twenty-five million to make while this thing only had five million pumped into it, which was probably good for Disney’s bottom line but it really left this thing feeling particularly anemic as a result; it has the runningtime and presentation of an epic but it isn’t one.  Clearly the people involved seemed to think that all you needed to sell a musical was good music because they didn’t have much to rely on… and they didn’t even really have that.  The film actually isn’t based on a Broadway musical, it’s based on a straight play and The Sherman Brothers were brought in to do the music and I wouldn’t say it’s their best work.  The English actor Tom Steele, who plays an Irish butler that is kind of on the margins of the film’s actual plot has most of the mildly memorable numbers.  I’m told his opening number “Fortuosity” was popular but I didn’t care for it nor did I like supposed standout “Let’s Have a Drink on It.”  Basically the only song that stood out to me as even slightly memorable is the song “I’ll Always Be Irish,” which captures the dual identity of being an immigrant in interesting ways.  Aside from that it’s rough sailing and so is the rest of this dull-ass goofy-ass waste of time movie.
* out of Five

The Love Bug (1968)

On October 17th 1968 one of the all time most iconic car movies came out: the Steve McQueen starring vehicle Bullitt, a gritty cop thriller set in San Francisco famous for a its standout car chase sequence.  A little over two months later Walt Disney pictures gave us another San Francisco-set car movie of a much different kind: The Love Bug, which was sometimes marketed as Herbie the Love Bug, a movie about a Volkswagen Beetle that can drive itself.  I’d like to say that Steve McQueen’s film was the more popular of two, and it did come close, but Disney’s movie edged it out by about two million dollars.  In fact The Love Bug was a pretty big hit, it was the second highest grossing movie of 1969 (it was released very late in December in 1968), and that made it something of an exception among a lot of the other Disney movies I’m going to be looking at in this era.  The general narrative was going to be that Disney was a bit too buttoned down and square to compete during the New Hollywood era (and the fact that Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were numbers three and four that year is telling) but this seems to have been a bit of an exception and it ended up spawning a slew of sequels through the coming decade.  Why was that?  Well, part of it is just that people seemed to be absolutely obsessed with automobiles and movies about them in the post-war years and especially the late sixties and there seemed to even be something in the zeitgeist about small cars doing big things if The Italian Job is any indication.  But man this thing is dopey.

The film’s poster and opening credits font suggest that this would be something of an attempt at outreach to the hippie audience of the time, but there’s not much of it in the actual movie.  It is about a Volkswagen Beetle (a favorite auto of the counter-culture) and is set in San Francesco so hippies do show up as periphery extras in a couple of jokes, and there is one joke where a police officer tells another officer about some outlandish thing he saw only to be rebuked with “you’ve been working too many shifts in the haight ashbury,” which I’m just going to assume was the first (albeit highly oblique) marijuana reference in a Disney movie (I haven’t fact checked that), but otherwise this is a very establishment friendly movie about a discount Steve McQueen type racing cars like a real man should.  I’ve long known that this was about a semi-sentient car but Herbie turns out to have a much less distinct personality than I expected.  “He” can’t talk like KITT and there’s nothing about it that resembles human motor functions or facial features.  It’s basically just a car that can drive itself when it so chooses and can also lock its doors and whatnot and at random points seems to be super durable when off-roading and has super speed.  I don’t think there’s ever any explanation for why this automobile is alive, it’s basically just magic and little of what “he” does is as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.

The movie is not without its charms.  Buddy Hackett has a prominent supporting role, who I feel like I should dislike given my usual tastes but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him.  David Tomlinson is also quite fun as the film’s villain, an aristocratic Brit who personally drives the antagonistic automobile against Herbie despite being decidedly middle aged.  In fact I would say that the film’s finale, a long distance race overseen by uniquely incompetent referees which is filled with slapstick hijinx, is pretty fun in general as a comic set piece.  So the movie ends on a strong note but it can be a slog getting there.  The leading man and leading lady just are not very strong characters and they kind of take forever to figure out what’s going on with the car and the ruminating about whether a car or driver matters more in a race ultimately amounts to very little.  Beyond that I simply didn’t find much in the film to be funny or interesting, but clearly audiences of the time saw things differently and the film was something of a last hurrah for a certain style of Disney comedy like The Absent Minded Professor.
** out of Five

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

The early 70s were a pretty dark time for Disney for all the reasons I’ve gone into both in terms of animation and live action.  They were making movies the whole time but the highlights were few and far between; Robin Hood was alright, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was something of a minor hit, and if you look at a list of pure live action films they made between 1969 and 1975 you see a whole lot of shit you’ve never heard of.  Roger Ebert himself called this “a period of overwhelming banality in the studio’s history” so I don’t I’m getting too much of an incorrect impression of this.  But in 1975 things started to look up for them a bit.  The Gen Xers were finally growing into film watching age in great enough numbers to support Disney movies and we start to get into movies that were nostalgic favorites of that generational cohort (who were disproportionally influential on my personal cinematic upbringing and I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about some of the movies they hold in high regard).  It was early in 1975 that they made one of their first films in a while that people have pretty positive memories of: the science fiction adaptation Escape to Witch Mountain, which was a bit too early for the post-Star Wars sci-fi gold rush but which was nonetheless fairly successful and well-remembered.

The film is based on a book of the same title by Alexander H. Key and focuses in on a pair of orphaned siblings who have now been doubly orphaned as their foster parents have died before the start of the film, but no one really knows who their parents are as they were found as toddlers, but unbeknownst to the adults these kids have telekinetic powers that allow them to move objects with their minds and speak to each other through thoughts and get premonitions about the future.   Eventually they blab about their powers to someone played by Donald Pleasence (usually a mistake) who is aparantly employed by some sort of evil society of evil, and the next thing you know they’re forging documents to adopt the kids so they can study them and use their powers for evil… which will eventually inspire the kids to escape… in the direction of Witch Mountain, eventually accompanied by a random old man played by Eddie Albert.  So, if you’re a modern watcher that whole plot synopsis will sound awfully familiar as it’s a setup that’s been done time and again.  Stephen King’s “Firestarter” comes to mind as a similar “bad guys chase kid with special powers across the country” story, the movie D.A.R.Y.L. is a similarly family friendly take on it, more recently there’s Midnight Special, the video game “Beyond: Two Souls,” and of course there’s “Stranger Things.”  But this does predate all of that.  I don’t know if this originated this setup itself but I can’t really think of a clear predecessor off the top of my head so I do think this gets clear points for originality and influence but I’m not sure this is the definitive take on the idea in terms of execution.

Watching the movie I noticed a pretty radical shift in the overall “feel” of the movie from what the other live action Disney movies felt like.  Those other movies had their differences to be sure but (with a couple of exceptions) there was a clearly identifiable “house style” to them that I wasn’t really picking up on here.  This may be a sign of Walt Disney no longer being around to drive things or it may simply be the natural result in changes to the overall Hollywood film aesthetic over time but the world of this film felt more grounded and less “cute.”  There’s also a clearer sense of danger here, it’s not a comedy and you do get a sense that the villains here are willing to kill to get their way (even though they mostly don’t).  That’s not to say that this is some kind of work of gritty realism because it’s not, it’s still very much a G-rated movie that was made by this studio because it has two cute kids at its center, but if you had told me some other studio had made it I wouldn’t have had too much reason to doubt it.  Ultimately I think the movie could have used a little more pathos, the kids in it feel a bit too durable through the whole thing and the film is a bit too scared to really make this experience feel a bit more damaging to them and the characters feel a bit too broadly drawn (that Eddie Alpert character might as well be straight up saying “I’m a grumpy old man who whose heart must be warmed” when he’s first introduced).  Those other movies that this seemingly inspired would probably serve as more thoughtful science fiction and more thrilling thrillers, but this was a pretty good start and a pretty good sign for Disney going into the era of the blockbuster.
*** out of Five

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

As I’ve gone through this installment about Disney’s I’ve been building a somewhat simplistic narrative that Disney was hopelessly uncool in the 70s and that this would eventually force them to change, and I argued that the last movie I watched (Escape to Witch Mountain) was an example of them evolving with the times.  But their other big movie of 1975, The Apple Dumpling Gang, is a pretty good argument that that argument is kind of bullshit and that Disney could also succeed in the 70s without changing much at all.  The box office was indeed cooler and more adult in 1975, the four highest grossing movies were Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo, and Dog Day Afternoon, but sitting at number ten (higher than Escape to Witch Mountain) was this dopey Disney movie that seems to have been directly targeted at the people who were mad as hell that “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” had been cancelled four years earlier.  And yet it’s not exactly a forgotten film, people of a certain age do still reference it, not always lovingly, but they certainly remember it.

The film is something of a comedy western.  It’s not really a spoof or parody of the genre given that its conventions aren’t really questioned, rather it’s more like a traditional B-western but with a much heavier emphasis on comedy and family values.  It’s primarily remembered for the antics of Don Knotts and Tim Conway as a pair of extremely dim and mostly harmless outlaws, but they’re only really half of the movie.  The other half is this very dopey story about Bill Bixby (yes, the “The Incredible Hulk” guy) being forced to act as a guardian to three precocious children through some plot contrivances.  That story is boilerplate family movie cutesy nonsense and the less said about it the better.  As for the Knotts and Conway material… it’s not the worst stuff I’ve ever seen.  The two are kind of like precursors to The Sticky Bandits from Home Alone but even more incompetent and even less villainous and there are some cute bits with them and their extraordinary stupidity.  The two would end up becoming something of a comedy duo in the late 70s and Knotts would show up in several other Disney movies through the remainder of the decade (including a sequel to this one), so the success of this one would have some long lasting implications.  As these things go there are worse movies out there, I can see why this would appeal to people in the 70s looking for some really, really, really unchallenging fare to pass their time but I think it’s time this thing was moved past.
** out of Five

Freaky Friday (1976)

Though it was hardly their largest or most ambitious project of the era, Disney’s most enduring live action project of the 1970s was likely their modestly budgeted 1976  effort Freaky Friday, in which a thirteen year old Jodie Foster switches bodies with her mother played by Barbara Harris.  I’m not sure how well remembered that original film is but it’s certainly left a trail of imitators both in the form of official remakes like Disney’s 2003 version with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan and less official riffs like the recent horror film Freaky but it’s even bigger legacy comes from various sitcoms and cartoons which will frequently have their own “Freaky Friday” episodes in order to give their actors something fun to do.  Freaky Friday was by no means the first piece of fiction to do the “body swap” thing but it certainly popularized it and if you look at a list of media that use the trope there ware way more after this film than before it.

Early on in the film you notice that this does feel notably more modern in sensibility than a lot of the Disney movies that came before.  The movies that Disney made in the 50s and 60s were very into the valorization of the nuclear family and traditional gender norms and were generally populated with families that felt like they were straight out of “Leave it to Beaver.”  This isn’t a radical departure from that exactly, it’s still ultimately about an upper middle class family in the suburbs, but Jodie Foster’s character is notably tomboyish and has a bit of an attitude and her parents have definite foibles that made her less than respectful to her elders as a result.  Of course some of that is just inherent to the nature of film (in which mother and daughter come to realize the other doesn’t have it so easy after all) but she never really comes around on her dad, who she (correctly) calls a “male chauvinist pig” multiple times which is not exactly something Pollyanna would have done.  I don’t want to oversell how progressive this is because it only really seems like progress compared to midcentury Disney movies and would be much less apparent to people who haven’t been marathoning those, but I certainly noticed it.

Obviously what the film ultimately rests on are the body swapping gags in which the two actors don’t act like themselves and while few of them are revelatory they do mostly work.  The mother character seems to be particularly high strung, which gives Jodie Foster a lot to work with when imitating her while that character “possesses” her body.  I actually may have enjoyed Barbara Harris more though as she really actively seems like a younger person while the daughter character is in her head through sheer mannerisms.  There is a bit of a missed opportunity here in that a lot of the problems the two characters encounter have less to do with either really not being able to “last” in the other’s shoes and are more specific to the peculiarities of this high concept, like the mother not knowing which locker is her daughter’s or where she keeps her bus fare.  I also thought the film lost its way in its third act a bit as it seems to feel obligated to give the audience a climax filled with broad physical comedy involving water skiing and car chases.   Still I was mostly impressed by the ways Disney was able to loosen up and delivery on this movie and can see why it left such an impression on audiences.  Fun little movie.
***1/2 out of Five

The Black Hole (1979)

Among all the Disney movies I’ve been planning to watch for this retrospective 1979’s The Black Hole was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.  This was an example of Disney trying to break out of their usual patterns and make a big blockbuster that would be directed more at general audiences than their usual families and kids audience.  It would have a bigger budget than usual and would also be the first PG rated movie that the company produced and would be released in 70mm prints complete with an overture (one of the last Hollywood movies to feature one).  It’s also not clear how much it can even be called a Disney movie at all, the opening logo is just “Buena Vista Pictures” and you would need to look pretty closely at the film’s poster to find the words “Walt Disney,” though it is there.  In fact the film is a big part of why they would shortly create the Touchstone Pictures label in order to distinguish their more adult skewing material from their family friendly brand.

So what is this Disney space epic?  Well it’s a science fiction film released in 1979, the year of Alien, Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so it’s not too hard to see it as one in a string of movies Hollywood quickly greenlit in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars two years earlier.  And in some ways it is, but this was actually originally envisioned to be less of a Star Wars ripoff and more of a ripoff of 70s disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno: an Irwin Allen film in space if you will.  But the movie was heavily re-written since then and by the time the film came to the screen it actually more closely resembled another Disney live action film: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Both films involve protagonists being taken in by malevolent eccentrics, hanging out with them kind of peacefully before coming to learn their evil plans, and then eventually breaking out and Maximilian Schell is definitely giving off clear Captain Nemo vibes.  But whatever the script’s origins it certainly was greenlit after Star Wars had come out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a post-Star Wars sci-fi movie.  The sets and crew composition look a lot more like “Star Trek” or perhaps even a 50s or 60s space movie like Forbidden Planet or Planet of the Vampires.  The film does have some really large and impressive looking sets, but they seem to be partially accomplished through some sort of not fully formed green screen technology and you can see clear outlines around actors’ faces as a result of it.

So what makes this film more “adult” than their previous movies?  Well, on a basic concept level it mostly seems to have earned its PG rating for one death scene where a robot seems to kind of drill into a guy, which wouldn’t have been terribly noteworthy had it happened in a movie from another studio.  Beyond that there aren’t any child characters in the movie and it basically looks like a regular studio science fiction movie from 1968 but there is one conspicuous bit added to the movie to appeal to kids and that is the robot V.I.N.CENT. (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”) which is a floating rice cooker looking thing with googly eyes… not really much more to say about it, it just kind of looks stupid and makes the movie kind of a tonal mess that doesn’t know what audience it’s going for.  Otherwise the movie is just kind of a misfire.  None of the protagonists are all that interesting and the film doesn’t really explore the implications of the titular hole very compellingly.  I really wanted to like this thing but I don’t think anyone making it was terribly passionate about what they were doing.  It’s certainly more ambitious and progressive than your average Disney movie but that still means it’s about a decade behind what everyone else was doing but if vintage sci-fi is your thing that might not necessarily be a bad thing.  I admired some of the film’s production elements and with a better script it might have had potential but the film we actually have is kind of dull.
**1/2 out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that concluded a decade that Disney was probably happy to see put behind them.    The studio was clearly out of their element in an era where they had to compete with “The New Hollywood” but there were plenty of signs for them to make a comeback.  The 70s also gave us the start of the era of the summer blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, and while Disney wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of this with The Black Hole it’s obviously something that would signal a renewed demand for movies for kids and families which they would be the natural beneficiaries of and we all know they dominate that form today, though there would still be a long road to that point and in our next and final installment we’ll look at how they grew into that over the course of the 80s and early 90s.

Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Remakes (2010-2017)

One of the bigger box office phenomenons of the 2010s that I’d mostly avoided was Disney’s wave of live action remakes of their classic animated films.  They had tried to do this back in the 90s as well with stuff like the Glen Close 101 Dalmatians but this time they really brought their full resources to the endeavor and for whatever reasons audiences flocked to them.  But unlike Disney’s other main cash cows (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney Animation) critics are not even a little on board with this enterprise.  The films are largely seen as shameless cash grabs that are (with a few exceptions) devoid of artistic merit.  And I’ve largely just tried to avoid the damn things and I was really hoping this trend would just blow over.  It still might actually, but for the time being it seems to be going strong and it’s starting to seem like the time has come to explore what makes these things tick, which ones are better than others, and figure out why audiences are so into them.  I have already seen the remake of The Jungle Book, which looked like an interesting breakthrough in special effects (it was alright), and I saw the Mulan movie while desperate for content during the pandemic (it sucked), and I saw Cruella earlier this year because that seemed interestingly crazy (that was alright).  I guess I’ve also seen Tron: Legacy if you want to count that.  So for this series I will be watching the other fourteen live action remakes Disney made during the 2010s across two installments, and I hope it doesn’t kill me.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The movie that kicked off Disney’s remake rush, the 2010 Alice In Wonderland, opens up with a wealthy Victorian looking at a map and plotting out his trade empire and it ends with him conspiring with his daughter to open up China as a market for his wares… you can’t make this stuff up sometimes.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this as being symbolic of Disney executives viewing their movie as a cash cow as part of a multi-year strategy to expand their own entertainment empire, but truth be told I think that’s a coincidence as I actually think Disney somewhat stumbled into success with this movie.  At the very least when this came out it didn’t feel like a pilot for future remakes and for that matter it didn’t even feel that much like a Disney movie at all.  Rather, this kind of felt more like a pretty natural next step for director Tim Burton, who had been on something of a tear bringing his sensibilities to various existing properties like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and in many ways it was almost surprising that it took him as long as it did to tackle Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which had already been fodder for various gothy reinterpretations in the past.  The Disney name might have been on the poster, but this seemed less like a remake of their 1951 animated film and more like just one of many adaptations of that book and one from a director who was almost as much of a brand as that studio.  Of course Burton’s brand had its own problems, especially at that point, and so once the negative reviews poured in for this (and the reviews were pretty bad) I decided to skip it.

The film opens in the “real world” of Victorian England with a teenage Alice questioning all the edicts of what’s “proper” being thrust upon her by adults, including various pressures to marry.  By all accounts slightly ham-fisted feminist pushback on the sexist tropes of fairy tale source material will be something of a running theme in these live action remakes but it feels rather curious here given that none of this sexist societal stuff was actually there in the original source material, which begins with a young Alice pretty much immediately chasing the rabbit into Wonderland… they basically just invented a frame story so they could subvert it.  Of course this technically  isn’t even a remake.  Instead it’s supposed to be a sequel, not necessarily to the 1951 film but to the book or whatever your preferred adaptation of it is, set about ten years later when Alice is a teen rather than a child but has forgotten all about the adventures in wonderland she experienced before.  That she has forgotten everything in many ways kind of makes the fact that this is a “sequel” a bit of a distinction without a difference.  She’ll meet all the usual Wonderland characters like The Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat and they’ll say the recognizer her but at the end of the day she’s still basically just meeting them for the first time all over again and little of what she did there before seems to have had any lasting legacy.  From there the film rather awkwardly tries to turn this into less of a surreal living dream and more of an actual fantasy story of the Lord of the Rings variety complete with a final battle scene and a chase to slay a jabberwocky (basically just a dragon).

Ultimately this movie wasn’t really sold on its script, it was sold on its visuals.  It was widely interpreted that its success came in large part because it was in 3D and it came out about three months after James Cameron’s Avatar and audiences were so desperate for their fix of that 3D goodness that they flocked to this one as well.  It probably also didn’t hurt that Johnny Depp had not yet worn out his welcome with audiences at this point and was still in his Pirates of the Caribbean imperial phase.  In fact he seemed to be front and center in the film’s advertising rather than ostensible star Mia Wasikowska (btw, what ever happened to her?) though he’s only in parts of the film and is clearly starting to take on a lot of the traits that would quickly make him a rather tedious presence even without all the bad publicity.  But the real problem with the movie beyond any dullness in the screenplay and any shortcomings of its actors is that is visuals, the very thing this is supposed to live and die by, are just not very good.  Despite the project seemingly being one that Burton could run wild with few of the designs here really break the mold we’re used to with Alice in Wonderland adaptations and Burton gives the whole film a fairly drab atmosphere.  But even more devastatingly the CGI here doesn’t hold up at all and I have my doubts that it ever looked too great in the first place.  A lot of the characters here are rendered largely by computers and a lot of them look either dated (Cheshire Cat), uncanny (The Red Queen), plain bad (The Jabberwocky), or absolutely hideous (the Tweedle twins).  I don’t want to overstate the film’s visual shortcomings too much, there are a couple of decent moments here and there and it isn’t painful to watch so much as it’s just kind of dull.  For whatever reason though audiences seemed to disagree as the damn thing made over a billion dollars worldwide and was at one point the fifth highest grossing movie of all time (it has since fallen all the way to 43rd, so inflation is a thing) and Disney definitely decided that making more big fantasy films with ties to their past would make them a lot of money.

** out of Five

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is kind of the forgotten live action remake Disney made during this era and appears to have been made for different reasons than a lot of the other ones, but I do think it counts.  The film is meant to be a modern day riff on the famous sequence of the same name from Fantasia and while it ultimately goes off in very different directions it isn’t shy about its source material and does feature a standout (and somewhat plot irrelevant) sequence based around that same “apprentice causes chaos by bringing brooms and mops to life” theme complete with Paul Dukas’ music.  Of course why they wanted to brand this otherwise unrelated movie about modern wizardry as a remake that no one was asking for of a segment of a seventy year old movie I’m not sure, in fact I’m also not entirely sure if they set out from the beginning to make that segment into a feature of if they applied the branding on after the fact, but either way they did and it counts.  Unlike a lot of the other remakes we’re going to be looking at in this series this movie, which came out the same year as Alice in Wonderland, was made less to be a recycled family movie and was instead one of several collaborations Disney made with action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer in an attempt to re-capture that Pirates of the Caribbean magic  by mixing semi-forgotten Disney properties with the sensibilities of more modern teen targeted action cinema.  In particular this was a reunion between Bruckheimer, Nicholas Cage, and Jon Turteltaub who had collectively made the National Treasure movies into hits for Disney.  I’m also sure that the Harry Potter franchise had more than a little bit to do with this thing getting greenlit.  So, you can see the Hollywood logic that went into this thing coming to be but it’s still pretty odd that this exists and audiences seem to have agreed because it pretty much bombed at the box office (especially domestically) and was greeted by general indifference by critics and audiences.

The thing is, while I do think the movie is a failure it’s not really as bad as its “forgotbuster” status would leave you to believe.  In many ways it’s just kind of aggressively average.  The film concerns a college aged dude played by Jay Baruchel who as a child had a (seemingly) chance encounter with an antique shop run by a wizard played by Nicholas Cage where he accidentally knocks over a magic nesting doll that was imprisoning an evil wizard played by Alfred Molina and the two of them end up trapped in another magic tchotchke for ten years and then come back in the present and start fighting over that aforementioned nesting doll where other evil wizards are trapped.  So it’s a McGuffin chase… also the Baruchel character turns out to be a chosen one that the Cage character starts to train.  It’s all rather familiar and while there are a couple passable ideas prettying this up none of them really stand out nearly enough to really make this even a little bit memorable.  The film also has a bit of an inherent structural issue in that it needs to slow down after it’s first half so that the Baruchel character actually has time to take some lessons and, you know, be an apprentice to the sorcerer but this requires that escaped evil wizard to suddenly seem like a much less pressing threat for no particular reason.  It also has this romantic sub-plot between the Baruchel character and a fellow student played by Teresa Palmer which focuses entirely on this geeky guy awkwardly mustering the courage to talk to the girl and you’re just embarrassed on this dude’s behalf through the whole thing and not really in a good way.

So, the movie has problems but Disney has sold the public on mediocrities in the past, so why did this fail so hard?  The answer is probably Nicholas Cage.  It’s not too hard to see why they thought it was a good idea to put Cage in the middle of their live action Disney movie considering that he and Turteltaub had delivered strong box office with the National Treasure movies not too much earlier but kind of a lot had happened to Cage since 2004 and he was already kind of diluting his brand by doing terrible action movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, and Ghost Rider as well as idiosyncratic “wild man” performances in stuff like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and The Wicker Man.  In short he was already starting to become a joke and was certainly not someone anyone was going to take seriously as a mentor to an apprentice.  I’d say Jay Baruchel was kind of a bad casting choice as well.  He clearly has the nerdy demeanor they were looking for but was too old for his part.  The dude was 28 when they made this and didn’t really look much younger which makes his awkwardness around women feel more pathetic than sympathetic and made the already questionable decision to make this apprentice to the sorcerer be a college student rather than a kid seem like a big mistake.  Beyond that the action here mostly isn’t much to write home about beyond one kind of interesting car chase and the special effects and fantasy elements are average at best.  Between all that, a franchise attachment no one wanted, some very dumb soundtrack choices, and the fact that this thing opened the same day as Inception this thing basically flopped.  Didn’t flop in a memorable way either, it just came and went.  It made a bit more internationally but not enough to continue the franchise.  It solidified Jon Turteltaub as a hack, pushed Nicholas Cage even further from the mainstream, and after the debacle that was The Lone Ranger Disney would soon part ways with Jerry Bruckheimer outside of Pirates sequels.

**1/2 out of Five

Maleficent (2014)

In retrospect it’s not too hard to view 2010 as a year when Disney took a perhaps unintentional test run to see what they could do with their live action remakes of old properties and tried to make one fairly straightforward retelling of an old property targeted at a new generation (Alice in Wonderland), one movie that more of a sequel than a remake which is primarily targeted at fans of the original (Tron: Legacy), and one action movie that kind of tries to become its own thing with only tangential ties to an original (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).  With this data collected they made a game plan, worked up some projects, and then three years later the onslaught began.  The first movie out the gate was Maleficent, which back in 2014 and was of course based on the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and unlike Alice in Wonderland (which could just be interpreted as a new adaptation of that book) this was clearly and unequivocally evoking the Disney movie.  That 1959 movie is interesting in that it’s one of Disney’s three OG “princess movies” but it’s the one with by far the least interesting (and least marketable) princess.  Princess Aurora is officially a part of their merchandising line but it’s a character who’s asleep during the whole movie and is generally overshadowed by the prince, the fairy god mothers, and of course the film’s villain, who is obviously front and center in this remake.  In many ways it was a safe choice for Disney: if it was a hit Aurora might be revitalized as a marketable character and many a Maleficent Halloween costume could be sold, but if this whole live action remake thing ended up flopping out the gate the sacrificial lamb would be a property that wasn’t too important to them in the first place.

Maleficent has long been held, perhaps not as a good movie but at least as an example of what Disney should be doing with these remakes: doing something different with the property in question rather than just regurgitating the original story.  In fact I’d long assumed this was even more removed form Sleeping Beauty than it actually was, believing it to be a full-on prequel explaining how Maleficent came to be who she was before the events of that movie.  That’s sort of true in that this has a prologue along those lines, but then the movie does in fact become a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty more or less in its entirety albeit from a different perspective and with largish changes.  Of course that perspective change is pretty radical given that the Maleficent in the animated film is probably one of Disney’s most one-note eeeevillll villains ever, so making her a sympathetic protagonist is not easy.  In short they reframe her not as a secluded sorceress but as a defender of a separate realm populated by magical creatures that the human kingdom kept trying to invade more or less unprovoked and that she ended up with a pretty legitimate beef with the king by the time she did the whole sleeping curse thing which she came to regret.  It’s all a bit of stretch but it’s kind of a tough writing assignment and they handle it about as well as they were likely to.  This whole idea of reframing the fairy tale villain as the hero is of course not exactly an original idea, it was almost certainly inspired by the success of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” but as a film concept it still felt relatively fresh.

Of course the film’s ultimate raison d’etre is to be a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and as that it’s fairly successful.  Jolie is considered one of the last true movie stars but she didn’t really do a whole lot of high profile acting at all during the 2010s aside from her work in this movie and its sequel, which she seemingly made to keep her profile and box office bone fides intact while she pursued directing with varying degrees of success.  Still this is clearly a smart role for her given that it allows her to be this authoritative figure while also being kind of gothy and theatrical.  It’s not exactly a performance that stretches her emotionally, but she works as a screen presence, and the film was also a nice career boost for her co-star Elle Fanning but the rest of the cast is a bit shaky.  In particular I didn’t care for Sharlto Copley as the film’s villain.  That guy is just a ham and a half and it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood sort of gave up on him.  The movie was directed by a guy named Robert Stromberg, who had never directed before (or since) but who had an extensive background both in visual effects and art direction (for which he’d won two Academy Awards including one for the 2010 Alice in Wonderland).  If I had to point to a central weakness for this movie it’s probably that guy, who does seem to have a good grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and brings decent technical effects to the film but lacks a truly compelling vision to really bring it to life.  The movie is never a particularly interesting fantasy movie in and both its story and its visual style would seem rather odd to people unfamiliar with that 1959 film.  Overall the movie is watchable over its brisk 97 minute runtime but isn’t nearly the radical revision some people make it out to be, but could be a lot worse.

*** out of Five

Cinderella (2015)

Aside from being Disney remakes what do Alice in Wonderland, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Maleficent have in common?  They all have CGI dragons in them.  Well technically Alice in Wonderland’s dragon is a jabberwocky, but it looks like a dragon to me.  And this is kind of where Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 adaptation of Cinderella kind of stands out from a lot of the other Disney remakes: it may have magic and a couple of CGI rodents but at its heart it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be an effects extravaganza and is generally pretty low key as modern Disney adaptations go.  Where those other movies are Disney movies as blockbuster tentpoles this is more like Disney movies as costume drama, and as such Branagh was a pretty logical choice to direct given that he’s mostly made a career out of adapting older material for new audiences but isn’t beyond engaging in modern film techniques and knows his way around special effects.  The mice here no longer talk and are deemphasized and this also isn’t a musical but the main story is largely unchanged from the 1950 animated version even as certain details here are expanded.  We get more details of how Cinderella came to be in her situation and about some of the political situations with the prince and they switch things around a bit by having Cinderella and the prince meet up once before the ball to get that relationship rolling a little.

Beyond those little changes this is notable for being a very traditional take on Cinderella that doesn’t rock the boat too much.  One could say that makes it one of the more redundant of Disney’s live action remakes, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.  For one thing, of all of Disney’s “classics” the 1950 Cinderella was among the ones most in need of a facelift.  The animation in that movie wasn’t bad exactly but it was clearly a step down from their pre-war work and the movie generally isn’t that impressive as a visual work and its low key nature makes it so getting real live actors in on it was an upgrade.  Lily James does a very good job of selling the character’s inherent good nature without making her seem like a completely inhuman saint and Richard Madden is pretty good at making the prince seem similarly young and idealistic while still feeling sensible.  That said, I’m not sure Helena Bonham Carter brings anything terribly unique to the character of the fairy godmother and try as she might there’s only so much even a talent on Cate Blanchett’s level can do to not make the evil stepmother seem to be anything other than cartoonishly evil.  At times I do think the movie could have done more to sand down some of the fairy tale contrivances here; the midnight deadline the night of the ball still feels totally arbitrary and the comedy with the step-sisters is a bit much.  Still there is something almost refreshing rather than lazy about how confident this movie is in just letting this material work without a lot of sprucing up.  It would not have shocked me in the slightest if some Disney exec had tried to talk Branagh into adding a third act sword fight or something but they don’t really do that and instead seem almost naively willing to let the actors carry this Disney tentpole that ended up grossing more than half a billion worldwide.

*** out of Five

Alice: Through the Looking Glass (2016)

It’s hard to think of another $170 million dollar movie that the world wanted less than Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that was somewhat saved by international markets (where it made 75% of its money) but was roundly rejected by domestic audiences.  It only made $77 million dollars in the United States, which is catastrophic by Disney standards.  To put that in perspective, The Purge: Election Year (a movie made for $10 million ) outgrossed this thing.  That creepy movie Passengers that everyone hated made $25 million more than this.  That fourth Jason Bourne movie that no one likes to talk about made almost $100 million more than this. A total disaster.  And the critics came to it with knives out too.  They hadn’t like the original Alice in Wonderland to begin with and they could smell that people weren’t interested in this sequel and they wanted to revel in the sweet vindication that the masses had finally caught up to them.  Honestly it’s kind of remarkable how quickly people turned on the franchise, that first movie made over a billion dollars, someone must have liked it and their taste can’t have improved that much over the course of six years.  Well, six years may have been part of the problem.  It would make sense to take your time to get things right when making a sequel to an actual good movie, but if you’re just trying to cash in on a fluke hit you’re generally supposed to rush it out before people forget about the forgettable predecessor.  And despite the wait this thing still had the reek of cash-in retread.  Most of the cast was contractually obliged to return but Tim Burton declined to return and it was passed on to a guy named James Bobin, who emerged from work on new co-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV work and also made those recent Muppet movies.  But the bigger issue here is just that Alice In Wonderland, disreputable as it was, just doesn’t feel like the kind of movie you make sequels to (even if the original book did, in fact, have a sequel) and everyone involved did in fact need to sweat in order to make this thing make sense as a series.

Funnily enough, I was kind of rooting for this thing.  No one had any faith in it when it came out and didn’t seem to give it a chance, on some level I hoped I’d come out of it thinking it was a secret success.  It’s not; let it be known that this is officially a “thumbs down” from me but… I do think an argument can be made that it’s more enjoyable than that first movie.  For one thing, the special effects have improved quite a bit in the six years since that first movie which had some clear uncanny valley issues.  I would also say that the film’s story, loopy and ludicrous as it is, did at least keep my attention and that there were a couple of interesting visuals along the way… but man is this thing a mess.  It starts with Alice acting as a sea captain (because, girl power!) in her now dead father’s mercantile empire but comes home to find a comically evil rich white man trying to force her to sign over her ship lest her mother’s home be taken from her and the mother is down with all this because she thinks shipping is no job for a lady… real subtle messaging.  Anyway she escapes all this stress by going through a mirror (while wearing an oriental dress she appropr… acquired from her journeys to China) into Wonderland where she finds that the Mad Hatter has gone mad… well, madder than usual because he’s (just now) haunted by the death of his family, who were apparently killed by the Jabberwocky before the events of the first movie.  Alice determines that the logical thing to do is to steal a magical artifact and risk temporal catastrophe to save this one person’s family.

So with this plot device this sequel to a remake which was itself a sequel now also becomes a prequel to a remake that was also a sequel and we get a backstory for the red queen and her failed ascension to the throne as well as insights into The Mad Hatter’s troubled childhood… and that sentence should give you an idea on where they went wrong with this fucking thing.  This franchise is ostensibly an adaptation of a pair of books by Lewis Caroll that were known for simplicity and surreal dream logic, turning it into a damn time travel story where we learn people’s backstory is about as far from that as you can get, the first movie was already pretty fundamentally missing the point of the books but this is almost intentionally going out of its way to subvert both the letter and the spirit of the source material.  Still, the extent that they go out of their way to complicate this writing assignment and take this go off in weird directions with it is almost fascinating in its own way.  This thing is certainly a cash-grab but it’s not a lazy one, at least not on the part of the people actually making it… in fact they might have been a bit more successful with the public if they had done something a bit more conventional here and made something as boring as the first movie.  That is kind of the heart of the difference between the two, that first movie was pretty much exactly what you might have expected from a Tim Burton adaptation of this property done in a Hollywood blockbuster way and completely went through the motions.  This movie on the other hand is less dull than it is nutty and kind of dumb and desperate.  Neither of them are any good, but I would say the sequel had more “wtf?” energy to it that made it more fun to watch.

** out of Five

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Today the phrase “Live Action Disney Remake” is almost entirely associated with CGI-laden cash grabs that regurgitate nostalgia, but if we’re being fair there are some slightly more ambitious examples of the form out there and perhaps the one film from this cycle of remakes that has earned the strongest reputation for coming out of the process with some dignity is their 2016 remake of the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid musical Pete’s Dragon.  Truth be told I’m not entirely sure why Disney wanted to remake this particular property at all; I don’t think the original movie was ever a huge hit for them and it never had that much of a life after the fact, in part because it’s an extremely earnest (some would say corny) musical that’s directed specifically at very young audiences and its live action elements place it much more specifically in the 70s than some of their more “timeless” animated movies.  So, on that level one could argue that it’s more rife for remaking than a lot of the classics they had been remaking, it a property with room for improvement.  But Disney remakes aren’t about making tasteful decisions about what really needs improvement, they’re about exploiting IP that people have nostalgia for and I don’t think there were than many people with nostalgia for Pete’s Dragon in the grand scheme of things.  So why does this exist?  Well, if I had to guess they probably had something of an open call to filmmakers to pitch them on ideas for remakes and up and coming filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off the indie success of his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) came to them with a vision and just impressed them in the meeting enough to get a relatively modest budget to take a swing at a different kind of more low key Disney remake.

The 2016 Pete’s Dragon does not claim to be some kind of prequel or sideways sequel to the 1977 film; it’s a straight up remake, but one that does pretty radically rework its predecessor.  Both films are about an orphan kid named Pete who befriends a green dragon that can turn invisible and who go on an adventure with him which ultimately ends with the dragon escaping people trying to kidnap him and Pete finding a new family.  Put in those vague terms this actually seems fairly faithful, but the details are completely different.  It’s not set at the turn of the century, Pete isn’t being chased by a family of rednecks, and while the dragon is pursued by some people late they certainly aren’t moustache twirling snake oil salesmen.  But really what’s changed here most radically is the tone.  That original film was a full-on musical with really over the top characters and just a totally cornball wholesome tone whereas this new movie is a lot more quiet and restrained and almost operating in the language of indie cinema rather than what you’d expect from Disney.  In this film when Pete is five his parents are killed in a car crash in the first scene and he leaves the wreck and walks into a wooded area of the Pacific Northwest where he’s raised for the next five years by Elliot before being found by loggers, who pull him away from the dragon and finds himself caught between two worlds.  The dragon is obviously a CGI creation but the film otherwise doesn’t feel overly filled with special effects and the characters all feel a bit more real than what you usually get from these movies.  The female forest ranger that starts to take Pete in behaves like an actual adult and when villains come into things in the third act to try to capture Eliot they don’t feel like over the top cartoons but like real people reacting in plausible way when they discover a damn dragon in the real world.

Obviously, unlike the original film this is not a musical.  Instead it has a soundtrack with a bunch of acoustic indie music by the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, St. Vincent, The Lumineers, and even features a prominent needle drop of a Leonard Cohen song… in a Disney movie.  That’s how different this is from your average live-action Disney remake.  It’s tempting to imagine a world where Disney had no idea what they were in for when they invited the future director of A Ghost Story and The Green Knight to make their magical dragon movie, but considering that they’re bringing back Lowery to direct their upcoming Peter Pan remake I think they are more or less happy with what they got and what they expected.  But why?  Why would a company as ruthlessly profit driven as Disney be happy with a low key movie that “only” grossed $143 million worldwide.  Well, I think it was something of a soft power move.  Disney does seem to throw the snobs a bone every once in a while to build up some good will (Chloé Zhao’s upcoming MCU film The Eternals perhaps being another example of this) and they would need a lot of good will given some of the bullshit they were hoping to get away with in the next couple of years.  The thing is, I’m not sure the soft power move worked quite as wells as they hoped.  They made a movie that critics would like, and sure enough the critics liked it… but they didn’t love it.  And truth be told all this talk about the movie having “indie cred” it’s only in comparison to shit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, not when compared to actual indie movies and I don’t want to over-sell it just because it exceeds the low expectations its studio had set for it.

***1/2 out of Five 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

So, six movies into this trip through Disney’s live action remakes and I must say so far it hasn’t been as bad as I’ve thought.  The Alice in Wonderland stuff was junk but aside from that these movies have mostly found ways to be at least a little creative within the confines of some questionable assignments and most of the films they’ve tried to remake have been movies that had room for improvement.  But now I find myself needing to watch one of the big ones, the ones that really pissed people off and made this trend inextricably linked to soulless studio capitalism.  Up to this point Disney had opted not to try remaking anything that had been made after 1977, and if you discount Pete’s Dragon they hadn’t even  gone past the 60s.  This seemed acceptable enough but then they decided to quit waiting and cross the Rubicon into remaking one of their beloved 1990s Disney Renaissance movies and pissing off a whole bunch of millennials in the process.  Honestly I do think there’s a certain centered narcissism to all of this, the 90s kids weren’t some sacred generation whose favorite movies are inherently more off limits than others.  On the other hand, I do think (maybe like to think) that a movie like the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is still modern enough that a kid wouldn’t find it alienating or weird and why exactly is Disney, a studio built on animation, so dead set on undoing the very thing that made their film’s distinctive to begin with?

In addition to being the first of these movies to be a remake of a movie from the 90s it’s also the first one to avoid any major change in structure or style from its predecessor: it’s not pretending to be a sequel like Alice in Wonderland, it’s not from a different perspective like Maleficent, it’s not being moved to a contemporary like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Pete’s Dragon… it’s the same basic story as the first film from beginning to end.  Also unlike Cinderella this isn’t trying to eliminate the songs or deemphasize an element like talking mice.  The same old musical sequences are re-created here in more or less the same style they were from the previous movie, in fact more of them have been added and even more magical supernatural stuff has been added than before.  Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has a somewhat influential video (which I had watched in spite of spoilers because I thought I was never going to see this thing) which outlines some of the minor changes that were present here and why she hates them (despite her gratitude) that asserts that a lot of them seemed to only exist to please certain pedants and nitpickers, which they might have been but I’m not sure they’re as detrimental as she claims.  A lot of them are minor bits of dialogue that I (someone who’s maybe seen the original film two and a half times) barely even noticed as changes and I would even consider some of them like the magical jaunt to Paris to be decent enough ways to flesh out the beast’s relationship with Belle.

So, I don’t really have many problems with the changes made on a script level, but the changes made on an aesthetic level here are killer.  Why would anyone want to give up the beautiful animation of that original film for… this.  What’s more the basic way the film is shot is not very inspiring.  The cinematography is bland and kind of dark, the castle looks stock, a lot of the costumes seem to have been selected to resemble the animated film that supposedly needs replacing rather than because they would actually look good in a live action film.  And yeah, in the grand scheme of thing it is really the redundancy of it all that’s the biggest problem in all of this.  Critics understood that the was something profoundly bizarre about remaking an Oscar nominated classic that was less than thirty years old while not even bothering to fundamentally change anything about it, but audiences didn’t seem to have the same qualms about allowing classic films to stand without being deemed obsolete.  This would be the first of these movies since Alice in Wonderland to gross over a billion dollars worldwide… in fact it made one and a quarter billion.  Had Disney not released a Star Wars movie the same year it would have been the highest grossing movie of 2017 and domestically it was only $13 million short of actually outgrossing The Last Jedi to take that top spot.  The message was clear, nothing was sacred to the public and Disney should feel free to remake anything and everything and that they can do it in the laziest way possible but… truth be told they were already planning on doing this anyway given how quickly this was followed up.

** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that is where we will be leaving things for now.  Thoughts so far?  Well, these certainly aren’t movies I would choose to watch if I wasn’t doing some heavy handed project but they’re hardly torturous watches.  Of the seven movies I watched there was certainly some variety to be found and some good ideas here and there but I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the worst this trend has to offer.  Critics were never particularly on board with these remakes but I’ve only just reached the point where they were truly offended by them.  You’ll notice that these seven movies came out over the course of seven years but when I get around to doing part two I will still be looking at seven movies but they’ll have come out across just two years: 2018 and 2019 with five of the damn things having come out in 2019 alone.  That’s crazy.

Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Greatest Hits (1960-1965)

When I last looked at the Disney’s live action output I focused in on the films they made in the 1950s like Treasure Island and Old Yeller and while the movies I looked at were something of a mixed bag I was intrigued enough to keep going with the series, at the very least so that I can keep getting my money’s worth while I’m getting Disney+ in order to watch these Superhero TV shows.  Here I’m moving into the 1960s, which was a very prolific decade for the Mouse House, so prolific in fact that I can pull five fairly famous movies out of its first half alone.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

Fun fact, the title of Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel “The Swiss Family Robinson” was not meant to imply that the family in question was named “Robinson” and was instead meant to signal that the book was part of the “Robinson” genre which was introduced by the book “Robinson Caruso.”  Nonetheless, it does live up to the “Swiss Family” part of the title and that framing of the family as central to the narrative had made the book a pretty big part of the canon of “family friendly” literature for children well into the 20th Century and thus a prime target for Disney adaptation.    That adaptation would be directed by Ken Annakin and would be shot on the island of Tobago (of “Trinidad and” fame) on a pretty big budget and was almost certainly one of the more ambitious projects by the studio.  The film is often remembered as a story of a family’s struggle to survive in the wilderness but that isn’t exactly accurate.  Once the shipwrecked family washes up on the island survival against the elements quickly proves not to be very difficult; they build an outlandishly extravagant shelter almost immediately and manage to keep most of the wildlife (the assortment of which makes no geographical sense) at bay without much trouble.  Instead the main conflict here is against a crew of wildly inept Asian pirates, some of whom appear to be played by white people in yellowface (Disney+ give this movie a “negative cultural depictions” disclaimer) who are threatening to kill them for… some reason.

Setting aside the racial stereotyping I don’t think the pirates themselves are a huge problem here, they work well enough as stock heavies and the battle scene at the end was mostly enjoyable.  But it was harder for me to jive with the fact that the film needed outside villains in large part because of its complete dismissal of the idea that being stranded on an island might be something other than a fun camping trip.  William Golding wrote “Lord of the Flies” as a challenge to these books of the time where Caucasian ingenuity immediately conquers nature and this movie decidedly does not engage with that challenge.  It instead dives head first into this notion that there’s an unbreakable bond between the American (well, on paper Swiss, but these people look and act incredibly American) nuclear family and that things will go just swimmingly for wholesome families like this when not interfered with by “bad guys.”  That all strikes me as being a bunch of bullshit, but it’s also probably the cornball outlook you should expect from a 1960 Disney produced movie, a subversive take on “Swiss Family Robinson” probably wasn’t in the cards, and as corny Disney movies go this is pretty well made.  The cast mostly achieves what they’re asked to do and the production values are definitely solid.  I totally get why families of the time lapped this thing up.
*** out of Five

The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

Like I said in my review of The Shaggy Dog, Disney is so completely associated with color photography that it feels odd when they make a movie in black and white.  In fact that movie, this one, and its sequel are pretty much the only ones of note outside of some of their really old shorts and what all three of those shorts have in common is that they star Fred MacMurray and sort of feel like sitcom episodes.  The Shaggy Dog had felt more like a “Leave it to Beaver” type sitcom while this one feels a bit more like a proto-“Bewitched” both in terms of its light science fiction gags and also because the hero is (at the beginning of the film anyway) a bachelor and kind of stands out among Disney’s non-adventure movies in not really having any child characters at all unless you want to count various college aged students.  The film would of course inspire a remake some thirty five years later in the Robin Williams vehicle Flubber which I haven’t seen in its entirety but my understanding is that the titular substance is a sort of sentient blob in that movie whereas here “flubber” is just a sort of rubber-like material that the professor invents which has an exaggerated ability to bounce really high.  In the film the professor uses flubber in two ways; he attaches it to peoples shoes to make them jump really high, which comes in handy during a central set-piece where he uses this to help the university cheat at basketball, and then he also manages to use flubber to make his car fly, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense given that it would seemingly make his vehicle bounce rather than fly and it’s also not super clear how flubber would allow him to steer said vehicle or land at will.

The film this can probably most easily be compared to is another early 60s film that would be remade in the late 90s: Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, which came along two years later.  Both movies are about bumbling and socially inept science professors who come across some sort of fantastical invention that plays out in their courtship of a love interest.  Where Jerry Lewis’ professor character is closer to what would become the “nerd” stereotype, the professor here is a bit older and fits more with the bumbling tweed jacketed professor archetype.  The professor here seems generally less self-absorbed than Julius Kelp and really just kind of bumbles his way through this whole adventure.  It’s a very silly movie in general, but charmingly silly.  The central basketball scene seems uses some cool looking wirework and as nonsensical as the flying car scenes are I was pretty amused by how far the movie took the idea during the film’s finale where the professor lackadaisically flies the damn thing to Washington D.C. and ends up freaking out the military.  Is the movie a great artistic achievement or for that matter a terribly noteworthy production, not really, but it does pass the time well and seems to have been pretty well received at the time.  It received both a sequel and also a trilogy of semi-official spin-offs set at the same Medfield College of Technology, though I’m not sure this particular brand of more overtly comedic entertainment would necessarily have the longest legacy at Disney.
*** out of Five

The Parent Trap (1961)

The Parent Trap is one of several of these Disney live action films that frankly jump out at me primarily because it was remade in the 90s.  Not that I actually saw the 1998 Lindsay Lohan adaptation, but I knew it existed and that made catching the 1961 version seem like a worthwhile title to take a look at.  The film was in many ways a follow-up to Pollyanna: both films were directed by David Swift and both were meant to be vehicles for Hayley Mills (daughter of Swiss Family Robinson star John Mills).  It is actually based on a German novel called “Lottie and Lisa” by Erich Kästner which had already been adapted three times in Germany, Japan, and the UK before Disney got its paws on it.  In it Mills plays both halves of a set of twins by using body doubles and camera tricks and tells the stories about how these estranged twins who don’t know about each other happen to meet at a summer camp and then conspire to reunite their parents.

When watching the movie it’s important to remember that this is still relatively early in the history of American divorce.  Like, I think they were still requiring people to establish residency in Nevada in order to split when this was made.  So there was still a certain level of stigma around the concept and people didn’t have a lot of experience with it… and that’s probably why the whole film is something of a guide for what not to do to children in divorce situations.  This whole scheme where one parent takes one twin while the other takes the other without either even knowing about the existence of the other is plainly a horrible idea, Solomon wouldn’t even do it, but the film presents it as an unusual but at least somewhat logical concept.  What’s more I’ve heard from certain people who were children of divorce who found the idea of the twins plan to reunite their parents to be rather harmful and offensive; that it plays off of a certain wish fulfilment that these children had that on some level it was their responsibility to deal with their parents’ differences and that if they had as much spunk as the kids here they could somehow “fix” these parents’ differences.

Set that aside and just look at it as a lighthearted fantasy and there are charms to it.  I quite liked both Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara as the twins estranged parents and the film has some nice sets for all of this to be happening against.  I’m not sure I was quite as fond of Hayley Mills in the central roles however, in part because the film doesn’t really do as much as it probably should have to make these two separated twins into more distinct personalities.  On some level there’s a realism to this, even when raised on opposite coasts there no particular reason to assume that two middle class girls to be all that different from one another, but something like this presumably exists to allow an actress to show off her chops by portraying wildly different dual roles and it kind of seems like a waste not to just do that.  I’d also say that the movie could have probably been served by some trimming around the edges.  The movie runs about 128 minutes, which isn’t a wildly unreasonable running time for your average movie but it does seem a touch long winded for a fluffy Disney movie with a goofy concept like this and it does start to feel a bit tired by the third act when they’re trying to sabotage the would be evil stepmother trying to woo the father.
*** out of Five

Babes in Toyland (1961)

It’s usually pretty obvious why Disney uses animation for certain movies and uses live action techniques for others, but there are some where it’s less obvious and their 1961 film Babes in Toyland is one of the rare cases where it’s less clear.  The film is based on a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert and it had already been given a somewhat high profile adaptation in 1934 which acted as a vehicle for, of all people, Laurel and Hardy.  Disney eventually picked the property up with the original intention of turning it into an animated film but eventually they instead opted to make it into a live action movie that sort of looks and feels like a cartoon given how wildly artificial every set and costume is as well as how inherently over the top it is.  The film is set in a sort of fantasy village where nursery rhyme characters are all real and mainly follows Tom Piper and Mary Contrary, who are engaged, but then this villainous dude named Barnaby hatches scheme to instead have his goons kidnap and kill Tom so that Barnaby can try to marry Contrary himself for the fortune she doesn’t know she’ll inherit.  But then his goons instead sell Tom to “gypsies” (who are depicted even less sensitively than you expect) and he’s given a new shot to save the day… and then everyone ends up in a place called toyland where a Toymaker is making lots of toys.

It’s just the weirdest movie, while watching it I kept saying “what the hell am I looking at?”  Everyone’s wearing an extreme costume and there are these elaborate sets everywhere.  It feels like one of those plays that children’s theater companies put on, but given a significantly larger budget to do what they do.  That’s not exactly a bad thing, it’s certainly kind of unique in it’s caffeinated vision anyway.  The 1934 version was similarly oddly artificial but that version wasn’t really able to go all the way with the idea, it’s one of the few movies that was at a pretty big disadvantage for being in black and white, this technicolor execution fits the gimmick more.  The most notable aspect of the movie, for better or worse, is almost certainly its villain played by Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) who is just the most obviously villainous villains.  I often use Snidely Whiplash as a reference when I think a villain in a movie villain seems to be a bit over the top but this dude straight up dresses like Snidely Whiplash complete with the black cape and twirled moustache and he straight up sings songs about how evil he is.  It’s a dumb character but Bolger seems to be having an absurd amount of fun playing him.  Where the movie really falls short is in the music.  The tunes here just aren’t very good, or at the very least they aren’t very memorable, which is a pretty big problem in a musical.  Beyond that, man, I think they basically achieved what they were going for with the rest of it but I was just aesthetically allergic to a lot of it.  This isn’t a family movie so much as it’s a movie for very young and very earnest children and while I think there are parts of it that are done with some clear gusto I just can’t get behind it.
**1/2 out of Five

The Incredible Journey (1963)

During the 1950s Disney branched out into making nature documentaries of dubious educational quality, a side hustle that they would pick up again in recent years but in the early 60s they were kind of getting out of that business.  Before they did, however, they would use some of the techniques they picked up trying to chronicle wild animals and used it to make a fictional film about a set of pets going on a trip through the wilderness.  That film, The Incredible Journey, was based on a book written by Sheila Burnford which told a very simple story about a Bull Terrier, a Labrador Retriever, and a Siamese cat all get left out through a series of miscommunications and rather improbably take it upon themselves to go West through the wilderness of Ontario to try to re-find their owners.  Now, that whole premise has a ring of bullshit to it: animals do not really miss their owners that much and they are not going to be able to “sense” what direction they’re supposed to be in.  You generally have to accept a lot of anthropomorphism to get much of anything out of this movie because much of its runtime sure just looks like a bunch of confused looking animals running around in the woods with a narrator attributing a bunch of thoughts to them.  I also have my suspicions about how safe the animal actors were while making it because they sure seem to have put them into a whole bunch of danger here.  The film doesn’t have the animal cruelty rumors swirling around it that other similar movies like The Adventures of Milo and Otis does but given the questionable ethics this company showed in the documentary work (complete with lemming mass murder) I wouldn’t put it past them.  Beyond that there really isn’t much to say about this, if you’re an animal lover you might get more out of it but I just found the thing painfully boring and it overstayed its welcome even at a short 80 minute runtime.
*1/2 out of Five

That Darn Cat! (1965)

I very rarely hear much of anything about the actual movie That Darn Cat! but I will say that it’s always had one of the more attention grabbing titles of any movie made by Disney or by much of anyone else.  Something about it just has a certain ring to it: the minced oath, the explanation point, the sheer annoyance at a feline it expresses… just really eye catching.  The actual movie… eh, it’s alright.  This is a teen movie, albeit one made when society was only just adjusting to the basic concept of what a “teenager” even was and before Hollywood had really solidified what a “teen movie” would be and before they could really depict the tales of sexual awakening that the genre would be associated with in the future.  They were however starting to see something of a market to be exploited and two years before this the B-movie studio AIP had had a hit with the 1963 movie Beach Party, which kicked off a whole genre of cheaply made films exploiting the emerging California surf culture which sort of doubled as movies that would give off the atmosphere of teen partying while also showing females in swimsuits.  Disney couldn’t really do that.  Those “beach blanket” movies might seem squeaky clean today but back then they were considered, not “edgy” exactly, but not exactly family friendly and I think That Darn Cat! was kind of an experiment to see what Disney could do with a now nineteen year old Haley Mills to edge into that audience without doing anything as naughty as showing a female belly-button on screen.

The cat actually isn’t as big a part of the movie as you might think given the title; he’s a plot point and a consistent background presence but not really a character.  Instead the film concerns a pair of petty criminals (one played by Frank Gorshin, the Riddler from the 1966 Batman show), who kidnap a bank employee in order to do a robbery and when a cat happens to roam over to this banker’s window she ties a watch with a message engraved on it to the cat and when the cat returns to its owner (Haley Mills) she needs to interpret it and try to call the authorities and convince them of its meaning all while also juggling usual teenage stuff.  So, not the easiest concept to quickly summarize.  Like some of the other Disney comedies of this era the film is very much about and of the suburbs but doesn’t feel quite as much like a sitcom as some of these other movies, in part because parents oddly seem to be out of the picture here.  Would I care about the movie were it not for its title?  Probably not, and I suspect this would be rather forgotten if it didn’t have a studio like Disney behind it.  It’s not really all that funny but it is rather charming movie and that charm does go a long way.  Not a movie anyone really needs to seek out, but it’s a decent enough watch as these things go.
*** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that brings us to the end of that phase.  The early 60s were a pretty good era for Disney’s world view: things were prosperous, people were optimistic, and Vietnam hadn’t escalated.  It’s that period that was essentially an extension of the 50s but with less unpleasantness like McCarthyism and the boomers were of peak childhood consumerism age.  Things would change soon though: the Kennedy assassination happened all of two days after the release of The Incredible Journey and American culture would soon be heading in a decidedly less G-rated direction.  I’ll look at how Disney responded to some of that in my next installment, but that could be a while from now as I’m kind of Disneyed-out at the moment.

Disneyology 201: The Package Films

When I did my “Disneyology 101” marathon I had one simple goal: see every one of Disney’s feature length animated films.  That was pretty ambitious, especially in the days before Disney+ when I had to track down all those movies (including some in “the vault”) mostly on physical media.  Though I did watch 42 movies for that I did make some concessions to keep things going, namely that I did not watch any of the “features” Disney made between 1942 and 1950, which were a collection of rather compromised works that are often dubbed “the package films.”  These movies were made at a difficult time for Disney when they were financially decimated by not being able to release their expensive post-Snow White features in Europe because of the war and also lost a lot of employees to the draft and on top of all that were just coming off rather demoralizing strike that left a lot of bitter feelings for all involved.  With all this going on they wouldn’t be able to make any more huge productions like Pinocchio, or Bambi, or even Dumbo.  Instead they focused on making short films which they could then “package” together into features which would at least keep the division alive.   When doing “Disneyology 101” I opted to skip these movies because they didn’t sound like true features and frankly watching them seemed like it would be a bit of a speed bump to getting to the more famous works that I really wanted to learn about.  However, most canonical lists of Disney’s features does include them so if I was going to say “I’ve seen every animated Disney feature” with true credibility I was going to have to watch them… and that’s what I intend to do with this installment of Disneyology 201

Saludos Amigos (1942)/ The Three Caballeros (1944)

During World War II Disney was widely involved in the making educational films for the armed forces as well as propaganda films for the general public.  Wartime propaganda efforts were also the genesis for the first two of Disney’s “package” films: 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros, two movies that have similar origins and can probably be talked about together.  These movies were the result of an attempt by the State Department to get Walt Disney involved in their “Good Neighbor” initiative, which was an attempt to increase soft power in Latin America (after years of being very bad neighbors, both before and after) so as to keep them on the side of the allies during a time when Nazi Germany was doing a lot of outreach themselves.  As part of this effort they had Walt Disney himself along with a cadre of other animators and Disney employees go on a good will tour of South America where he’d visit the sights, speak at schools, and generally act as a positive example of American culture.  This tour is said to have gone very well for most involved and while there they shot some documentary footage and took a lot of notes that would then be used for a film when they got back to Los Angeles which would also be aimed at encouraging Western hemisphere unity.

The first film they made when they got home was Saludos Amigos, which only runs about 43 minutes, which only barely qualifies it as a feature under Academy definitions and is the shortest “feature” the studio ever made.  The film uses Disney’s real life tour of Latin America as a sort of framing story and uses footage of their trip interspersed between the animated segments.  The whole film has kind of a faux documentary motif with a fairly deadpan narrator talking over most of the film and explaining the various cultural aspects that the film is riffing on.  There are four main sequences: The first features Donald Duck messing around with a lama near Lake Titicaca in Peru.  The next segment looks at the Chilean air mail service (which film fans may recognize from the 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings), which is depicted by these sentient airplanes (which are oddly similar to the cars from Cars) and in particular a junior plane named Pedro who goes on his first flight when his parents are “sick.”  Next we go to Argentina for a short where Goofy is playing a cowboy who is transported to South America and becomes a Gaucho.  Finally we end on a sequence in Brazil which introduces José Carioca, an anthropomorphized parrot  who dances through Rio de Janeiro with Donald Duck.

That last segment is almost certainly the most notable and incorporates some really nice looking watercolors and generally makes 1940s Rio look really cool.  The other segments have their charms as well; Pedro is a cute little story and the gaucho story does a good job of incorporating more traditional cartoon gags into this cultural milieu.  Having said that, this is a movie which is by its nature a bunch of white Americans depicting foreign countries and it’s not hard to see how that could go spectacularly wrong.  The film is certainly a tourist-eye view of these countries, something the film makes no bones about, and it generally looks for the aspects of these countries that are exotic and arguably stereotypical.  What’s more there is kind of something kind of condescending about the hole framing story of this thing in that the film essentially has American animators “mansplaining” these country’s cultures to them by a narrator.  On the other hand, they do seem to have done a decent amount of research while on their trip and get a lot of visual detail right and are careful to frame everything as positively as possible, this is after all a film that was commissioned by the state department to be as flattering to the Latin American world as possible and it reportedly proved to be fairly educational to American audiences who previously weren’t aware of how urban and developed parts of South America could be.

Personally I found Saludos Amigos to be an interesting, albeit rather inessential, curio.  It’s so short that it hardly really feels like you could call it a real feature film, but it also means that the film never really wears out its welcome.  The same cannot be said by the studio’s follow-up The Three Caballeros, which runs about 71 minutes and which I frankly lost patience with pretty quickly.  The film drops the faux-documentary framing and instead starts with a framing narrative about Donald Duck getting things sent to him that transition into shorts but then it kind of drops this and instead takes more of a stream of conscious approach with Donald, José, and a new avian ambassador: a Mexican rooster named Panchito Pistoles.  There are a number of sequences here which juxtapose these animated characters against live action, a technique that would eventually be used again in the infamous Song of the South, and the animators really go nuts with this to the point where a whole lot of the film is just these birds fucking around in front of b-roll of Brazilians on the beach; it’s an oddly horny film at times with Donald frequently ogling human women all over the place.  None of these characters are really conversationalists and there’s no narrator so it’s a pretty visual experience, but not really in much of an elegant way.  Frankly I found it all kind of tiresome after not too long, but on some level this film might work a bit better for the original “good neighbor” aims of the whole project.  Instead of condescendingly explaining these cultures like Saludos Amigos did it simply lets its multicultural cartoon characters act wackily in harmony without too much of a language barrier to overcome… but that doesn’t mean I actually enjoyed it and for someone trying to look back on these for scholarly purposes in 2021 The Three Caballeros was definitely the less enjoyable viewing experience.
Saludos Amigos: **1/2 out of Five
The Three Caballeros: *1/2 out of Five

Make Mine Music (1946)

By 1946 the war was over, but Disney was not yet in the clear.  The European market that has sustained them before the war was not yet fully back on its feet and the studios animators were only just coming back from the military.  What’s more even if they had been fully operational it was going to take a while before things finally made it through the pipeline.  Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros had both been about as successful as they could have hoped so starting with 1946’s Make Mine Music the studio started putting out more similarly constructed “package films” that weren’t part of State Department diplomatic efforts.  In fact there’s not much of a unifying theme to Make Mine Music at all outside of the fact that most of the shorts are sort of based around various forms of music.  There’s no framing story here whatsoever, not even something like the Orchestra leader in Fantasia, it’s just one short after another in sequence.

Today Make Mine Music is notable for something else: it’s the only fully animated Disney feature that is not currently available on Disney+.  The reasons for this are a bit unclear: certain websites say this has to do with “mature contents in two segments” but I don’t know that Disney has actually released an official comment on this (likely because this is a movie that only a few completist nerds like me care about) and it’s not entirely clear what the two segments are although there are some definite suspects.  The most likely culprit is a short called “The Martins and the Coys,” which originally opened the film and was a parody of the “Hatfields and McCoys” feud which involves a whole bunch of rednecks shooting at each other for half the short, at one point killing most of them and forcing them to watch two remaining family members from each side become a sort of Romeo and Juliet from heaven.  At some point someone at Disney must have decided that all this comedic violence was not very family friendly, so the segment has actually been cut out of every home video release including the used DVD I got off of Ebay to see the damn film (the short can be found online).  Why this short is still “too hot” for Disney+ I don’t know, most of the Marvel films on the service are way more violent so it seems pretty silly.  Further if it’s really such a big deal I’m not sure why they don’t just upload the bowdlerized version that they were apparently willing to put out on DVD.

Another likely reason Disney has sort of buried this is a short called “All the Cats Join In,” which featured music by Benny Goodman and mostly consists of teenagers jitterbugging around the suburbs and has a device where you they animate in pencils on screen finishing the drawings “live” for most of the short.  It’s certainly one of the whitest odes to jazz music, but that’s doesn’t seem to be the reason Disney has a problem with it.  No, it seems like the issue here is a sequence where a teenage girl comes out of a shower, dries off, and then changes into her clothes.  It’s not an explicit shot (she’s facing the other direction and has a towel over her butt) and isn’t pointedly sexualized, but it is a touch saucy for what you’d expect from Disney and the version on home video has apparently been digitally altered to make her boobs smaller and less visible in the shots.  Beyond that, it’s a pretty energetic and creative short, probably one of the film’s highlights.

Among the film’s more famous segments is an animated dramatization of Ernest Thayer’s popular baseball poem “Casey at the Bat,” which is done humorously but perhaps does a bit too much to adapt the poem, which perhaps could have stood to be recited more straightforwardly.  The film’s centerpiece is probably a dramatization of “Peter and the Wolf” done with Sergei Prokofiev’s leitmotif heavy orchestrations and narrated by future Winne the Pooh voice actor Sterling Holloway.  That short is pretty straightforward to how you would expect it to be, but it delivers well and has shown up in other Disney shorts compilations for a reason.  Less straightforward is the film’s final segment, a demented little piece about an opera singing whale who dreams of singing at the Met… I’m pretty sure they were drunk when they came up with that one but there’s something amusingly zany about the thing.  That is another segment that may have played a role in this thing not being on streaming, firstly because the whale sings the probably racist minstrel-associated song “Shortnin’ Bread” (the one that goes “Mammy’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread”), but also because the damn whale gets harpooned at the end… which is a rather morbid way to close out the film.

Other shorts here are less notable and some of them kind of just seem like filler inbetween the more substantial shorts.  The film opens (in the censored home video version anyway) with a sequence in the everglades set to music, which was apparently a leftover from the making of Fantasia.  Other segments like “Without You,” “Two Silhouettes,” and “After You’ve Gone” are all very short pieces that are largely abstract representations of the music in question with one or two little tricks here and there.  Then I guess there’s also the “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” piece, which is a silly little short about a pair of sentient hats in a store display who love each other but are separated and then later re-united.  That one is sung/narrated by The Andrews Singers, a vocal group that’s probably best known for that song “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” but it never really overcomes its dopey concept.  So, the overall movie is pretty uneven and there isn’t much of a unifying vision between everything either.  When assessing it I’m kind of in the place I expect I’ll be with a lot of these “package” films: there are certainly shorts in it that have indeed endured but as a whole I’m not sure I would call it a “good” movie that someone would be well served seeking out as a film.
**1/2 out of Five 

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Fun and Fancy Free is one of two Disney “Package” films of the late 40s to consist of two longer stories as opposed to multiple brief shorts.  The film is about evenly divided between a short called “Bongo” and a piece called “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”  Both of these were apparently in development to be turned into features before the war through everything into chaos and they were eventually transformed into shorts for this package film.  The two are very loosely framed via introductions by Jiminy Cricket and both have a certain number of easter eggs for other Disney movies but are otherwise completely independent.

The first and much less famous of the two is “Bongo,” which is actually based on a short story by Sinclair Lewis, of all people and is about a circus bear that breaks free from his cage and integrate himself into the wild. If the Wikipedia summery is to be believed, this is not a terribly faithful adaptation of that story, in which the bear spends a year trying to ingratiate himself with the wild bears before eventually giving up and rejoining another circus.  It’s probably some sort of political metaphor about how difficult it really is to transition from a status quo, but I’m not sure.  Unsurprisingly, Disney’s version has a more unambiguously happy ending in which Bongo does eventually prove himself to the wild bears and ingratiates himself to a lady bear.  The short was originally envisioned to be a sort of semi-sequel to Dumbo what with the circus animal theme but the outdoor environment also has shades of Bambi (even if the animation isn’t nearly up to those standards).  The popular singer Dinah Shore was brought in to narrate the whole thing, but music really isn’t the short’s strong suit, it has this whole bizarre song and dance number with the bears about how bears express their attraction to one another by slapping their partners… which is just a bad idea for a whole number of reasons.  Beyond that the short is cute enough and has a pretty well done finale where Bongo fights a larger and more aggressive bear that gets genuinely exciting, but beyond that there isn’t a ton there and it’s probably for the best they didn’t try to expand it into a feature.

The second short, “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is probably highest profile short the company ever made to star their signature Mickey, Goofy, Donald triumvirate and marks the last time that Walt Disney himself would voice their star rodent.  The project was actually started because Mickey was beginning to lose popularity in the wake of the company’s ventures into feature film and they wanted to give him more of a showcase.  The story the settled on was a re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk that doesn’t diverge too much from the original fairy tale’s basic story but which stars the Disney cadre engaging in cartoon hijinks through the whole thing.  The film is probably best remembered for its version of the giant, who is this sort of dimwitted comical giant here that sort of steals the show, in fact he’s so likable here that it kind of feels messed up when he actually has to take the role of the villain at a certain point and ends up getting offed.  Still the animated stuff here is certainly some of the best work Disney did during this period, but there is something of a key flaw to the segment and that’s the framing device.

In the presentation of Fun and Fancy Free we return to Jiminy Cricket after the Bongo story ends and he then gets an invitation to a birthday party and from there the film transitions to a live action set where the performer Edgar Bergen proceeds to tell the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” story to a kid.  Bergen was a wildly popular entertainer during the 40s, which is weird because the dude was a ventriloquist.  He and his dummies, the monocled Charlie McCarthy and the dim Mortimer Snerd, were just beloved by the masses for some reason and their celebrity was probably considered a big “get” for the movie at the time but seventy five years later their presence in the film seems pretty odd.  Frankly I don’t see the appeal of this guy, he doesn’t even seem to be a terribly talented puppeteer as you can pretty clearly see his lips moving when the dummies are “talking.”   I’m guessing they show up in the film via live action in large part because the voices of the dummies would seem really weird if they weren’t established first in the live action segments, but all three are generally odd narrators for whimsical fairy tale stories and the film keeps on cutting back to their house in a way that really brings a lot of the momentum to a halt each time.   So, that’s a fairly big flaw but one that the short’s legacy would transcend.  As for the movie as a whole, it’s alright, doing two featurettes instead of multiple shorts was probably the stronger approach and makes the whole thing feel closer to being a “real” movie than something quickly packaged together to keep a flailing studio alive.

*** out of Five

Melody Time (1948)

By 1948 a lot of Disney’s wartime setbacks were starting to be put in the past but they weren’t quite out of the woods yet.  Most of their staff were back from the army, international markets were opening up, and they would have been in production on their comeback features Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland but those still wouldn’t be ready for a couple of years so the time had come to clear out the warehouse of old shorts through a couple last “package films.”  Melody Time was the second of these package films to mostly consist of short musically oriented sketches and for all intents and purposes could be looked at as Make Mine Music part 2.  The fact that this is kind of clearing out leftovers is actually pretty apparent when you watch the film as some of these segments, whatever their merits, are pretty clearly leftovers from previous projects or derivative works thereof.  For instance there’s a segment called “Blame it on the Samba” which sure looks like it’s a deleted scene from The Three Caballeros thrown in in case the world needed more shots of those avian ambassadors dancing around and goofing off.  A segment called “Little Toot” is basically just the “Little Pedro” segment from Saludos Amigos but about a sentient tugboat instead of a sentient plane and with music by The Andrews Sisters in the background.  Then other segments like “Trees” and “Once Upon a Wintertime” feel like really half thought-out Fantasia extensions.  “Bumble Boogie,” a rather surreal piece about a bee set to a jazz rendition of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” was also probably meant as a Fantasia segment at one point but actually reminded me more of “Pink Elephants on Parade” with its general trippiness.

The film’s centerpieces are almost certainly the segments based on Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, both American tall tale figures and I almost wonder why they didn’t just make some additional segments focused on similar figures like Paul Bunyan and John Henry in order to make a movie that’s exclusively focused on American folklore but instead they just burned them off here.  The Johnny Appleseed one probably aged a bit better, though it is a bit odd to me that they really heavily emphasized his Christianity, which was not exactly the aspect of the guy that was focused on when I heard about him.  The one that’s held up a bit more… interestingly… is the Pecos Bill segment.  Previous home video versions of this one were known to be heavily censored in order to cut out Bill’s smoking, though the segment actually is fully uncut on Disney+.  More surprising to me was that there’s one section of this segment in which Bill shoots at and “runs off” the Native Americans, who are straight-up called “redskins” by the narrator Roy Rogers.  I’m honestly a little surprised that modern Disney let that through with or with or without their usual “cultural depictions” disclaimer, it’s way more offensive than anything in Make Mine Music.  I’m not complaining necessarily, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to track down a used DVD for this one as well, just surprised.  Anyway, that aside the Pecos Bill short is probably the strongest work in the film.  The animators render the desert really well and it’s fun watching all the hijinx this guy gets up to.  However that one short isn’t really enough to overcome the fact that Melody Time as a whole doesn’t really hold together even by Disney Package Film standards.

** out of Five

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

If Melody Time was an echo of Make Mine Music, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is basically an echo of Fun and Facy Free in that both are films consisting of two stories stuck together which were originally meant to be a pair of features that were eventually truncated.  In this case the Mr. Toad segment based on “The Wind and the Willows” had a particularly long and troubled with the company with them having had some interest in making a movie based on the book for a while and had planned for it to be one of the immediate follow-ups to Snow White but there were split opinions in the company as to how good it would be and it got dropped and picked back up again a couple of times before finally being burned off with this movie.  Meanwhile the Ichabod Crane/Headless Horsemen segment started production sometime shortly after the war and pretty quickly evolved into a featurette for one of these package films and was finally paired with “The Wind and the Willows” with their literary origins being used as their ostensible link.

In my childhood I definitely saw the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” segment of this a handful of times owing to it being something of a go to movie for schools to show to elementary school kids around Halloween as a short age-appropriate horror type thing.  I had thought I had also separately watched the “Wind in the Willows” segment in elementary school when we read the book, but as I watched it this time around a lot of the stuff I had remembered from before wasn’t there and after some research I think what I had actually been shown back then was a TV movie version of the book made by Rankin/Bass in the 80s.  I don’t remember that version (or the book) well enough to really compare them, but I can’t say I found this Disney version to be much more than mildly amusing.  The character of Mr. Toad here is more of a straightforward protagonist than I had remembered him being and I think things have pretty clearly been cut down.  That Rankin/Bass version is almost three times as long as this twenty five minute segment and that probably shows.  There are some fun moments here however and Basil Rathbone is a fun narrator and the animators do seem to have a decent grasp of the English gentry by way of animals and have some fun with that.

By contrast the Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment holds up a lot better.  I’m not sure I really processed it as such as a kid, but the whole short is basically a showcase for the vocal stylings of Bing Crosby back when he was at the height of his fame.  Crosby voices both Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones and sort of sings a narration for much of the story.  Unlike “The Wind and the Willows,” which sort of felt cut down, this segment is adapting a novella of appropriate length and takes its time with it.  I imagine the twenty minutes of build-up in which Ichabod Crane macks on some local villagers might have tested some kids patience but most of that would have likely been set aside once the headless horseman finally shows up.   That climax for the short is masterfully animated and manages to strike a very fine balance between becoming a cartoony slapstick chase scene while still making the horseman himself unwaveringly menacing and years later this remains one of the strongest straightforward adaptations of the story.  So, that story definitely ended the post-war package film era on a high note, but I can’t say I’m overly enthusiastic about The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as a feature package.  These stories really don’t have that much in common with one another and differ in style and quality and that makes this a rather uneven viewing experience for this one hour and eight minute movie.  The next year Disney would finally make their real comeback with Cinderella and would stop making these short film compilations with one exception in the 1970s.

*** out of Five

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

Over the years I’ve changed a lot in terms of my willingness to watch movies for kids but even after endeavoring to watch a whole lot of Disney movies, the “Winnie the Pooh” franchise still kind of seems like a bridge past what I was willing to sit through.  Where other Disney movies felt like movies made for kids, these Pooh movies feel more like products made for straight-up babies and toddlers.  That was part of why, even though it was not really part in parcel with their wartime package films I still omitted it from my first Disney retrospective as something decidedly separate from their normal features.  To be fair, it is in fact a very different project from other Disney projects of the era like Robin Hood and The Rescuers and is in some ways even closer to being a true “package” film than some of those other projects in that it is essentially a compilation of three existing shorts that had already been released to the public over the course of ten years.  The first of these shorts, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was actually made and released during Walt Disney’s lifetime and was attached to a mostly forgotten live action Disney movie called The Ugly Dachshund in 1966.  The second short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” had been attached to something called The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1968 and had won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short that year, and the third short “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too,” was made six years after that and attached to a movie called The Island at the Top of the World.  The three were then compiled together along with some interstitials and an epilogue to create the hour and fifteen minute long feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 1977.  Notably there’s also a fourth short called “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore” was made in the 80s and was also edited into the feature for some home video releases, but that’s not considered canon and isn’t in the Disney+ version I reviewed.

So how do you review something like this?  Well, maybe I should start by saying that I do think they do a pretty decent job of putting these formerly separate shorts together in a way that feels relatively cohesive.  They use a children’s book motif to tie them all together and don’t just incorporate this into the spaces between the shorts but also use it inside of the shorts here or there so it all works together.  If I didn’t know better I would have assumed it was all a single anthology film rather than an assemblage ten years in the making.  As for the content itself, well, I’ll say that if you step back and look at it the animation itself is pretty charming.  It looks different from Disney’s other movies of the era, but not radically so, and it’s also interesting that Sterling Holloway’s work here is one of the more memorable and identifiable voice performances in Disney’s catalog.  So I’ll concede all of that but man oh man is this stuff not for me.  I’ve always found the stuffed bear motif kind of confusing, if this is all supposed to be Christopher Robin’s imagination wouldn’t he envision this as an actual bear rather than as a walking talking toy?  And I must say, Christopher Robin must be the most chill and sensitive little boy I’ve ever heard of because all the kids I know would have begun and ended most of these scenarios with Pooh and Tigger mauling and killing all these other animals or at least causing some kind of chaos.  Even Andy from Toy Story at least had his toy cowboy and toy spaceman get into train heists and fight aliens and shit. But of course that’s just me being difficult, obviously this thing isn’t meant to operate on something more akin to a kind of gentle logic that very small children can sort of relax to… it’s not the movie’s fault I find that alternately boring and annoying.

**1/2 out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

Well, cross that one off the list.  I kind of climbed this little mountain just to say I did and, well, I did.  Was it a rewarding experience?  Eh, I guess it wasn’t unrewarding.  Few of these movies were particularly bad experiences and their short running times made most of them pretty breezy viewing experiences.  That said these were every bit as “for completists only” as I expected them to be and are mainly only all that useful to people who are particularly interested in Disney’s history and without that context of what led them to make these movies they would seem to be rather peculiar movies to exist.