Disneyology 101: The Rebuilding Phase

It’s reasonable to believe the people at Disney were in something of a state of denial during the early 2000s.  They knew that the formula that worked so well for them in the early 90s was losing its appeal and that they’d have to find a new way of making movies but I don’t think they realized immediately just how much trouble they were in.  Over the course of the last phase I looked at you could see Disney trying to find new ways to thrive through slight adjustments before realizing that they were in such a deep hole that they’d essentially have to burn everything down and start over, this time as a CGI animation studio.  In this Eighth and final installment of Disneyology we’ll look at an era that was almost certainly Disney’s lowest point, lower even than the so called “Disney Dark Age” that would eventually bring on the “Disney Renaissance.”  In this era Disney would exhaust the last of its traditionally animated films before making some unsure baby steps into the world of CGI animation and slowly start to make more respectable films in that format while also taking one last look at what came before.

Brother Bear (2003)

When Treasure Planet failed spectacularly the writing was on the wall: Disney’s animation division needed to change and once again Roy Disney emerged to and started another “save Disney” campaign.  That is a long story that would eventually result in the ousting of Michael Eisner from his position as CEO of Disney, but what’s most relevant is that it made it clear to all involved that the animated film division was not going to be able to keep doing traditionally animated movies for much longer.  Of course major conglomerates don’t change overnight, especially not when they were working at a pace fast enough to put out multiple movies a year previously, so there were a couple of traditionally animated movies that were deep enough in production that they would still be finished and put out while the company charted out its new course.  One of those movies was their 2003 release Brother Bear, which was first conceived after the success of The Lion King and was meant to be a sort of North American version of that blockbuster.  Eventually it was retooled into a story not dissimilar from The Emperor’s New Groove where someone is turned into an animal in order to learn… something.  This one is less comedic than that movie and is meant to be more of an earnest look at a handful of Inuit characters and their connection to the spirits and nature or whatever.

Certain elements of Brother Bear work pretty well.  The animators clearly did their homework and put together some decent landscapes and made some animals that look pretty good.  They also employed a trick where they had the film play out in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first half hour or so and then expand out to a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio once our hero turns into a bear and the film also takes on a brighter more storybook like color scheme when this happens.  That’s an idea that displays some visual creativity, but I’m not sure this was the greatest idea given that the first half isn’t exactly a claustrophobic experience and replicating this on a TV, even in the era of big widescreen televisions is kind of tough.  There’s some of the usual annoying comic relief here including a bizarre reunion of the Strange Brew guys to voice a pair of moose who talk with stereotypical Canadian accents and a little bear cub voiced by one of the kids from The Bernie Mac show who I’m pretty sure is supposed to be annoying in a funny kind of way but who is mostly just annoying.  The film has also musically resorted back to getting Phil Collins songs in order to recapture the “magic” of Tarzan but it works even less here and the decision just kind of screams of laziness.

Where the movie starts to lose me is probably in its wishy washy message in which the main character is judged for having gone after the bear that sort of caused the death of his father and by becoming a bear himself he sees the animals’ side of what hunting feels like.  This sort of works if you take it as a very general fable about the ways that people misunderstand each other and the problems with acting out of anger and out of the desire for revenge, but taken at face value it’s kind of silly.  This is a post-ice age Inuit community, in that society sometimes you’re going to have to kill some bears and sitting back and thinking about how the bear would feel about in some fantasy environment where bears have human-like intelligence and personality is childish silliness.   In general though, this movie isn’t really half bad.  I get why it had a hard time competing with the likes of Finding Nemo that year but if it had come out in a time when Disney was better positioned to market it and people were more interested in movies like this it might be better remembered.  As it was the thing just kind of came and went.  I don’t think it lost any money and given that Disney seemed about ready to just write the thing off as a loss they probably thought they gotten away with something.

Home on the Range (2004)

I remember back in 2004 looking at an article on the internet which was laying out all the potential nominees for the then still new Best Animated Feature Category.  It listed each movie like The Incredibles and Shrek 2 and included a blurb outline the pros and cons of each film earning a nomination and then way down at the bottom of the list was an entry for the movie Home on the Range with a caption that simply read something like “Disney needs to rethink its animation division.”  That’s how much of a non-entity this thing was in 2004, it barely even registered and when it did it was little more than an emblem of Disney’s irrelevance.    Today it has, bar none, the worst reputation of any movie that Disney ever made and in some ways it almost feels like an act of self-sabotage; an attempt to force their 2D animation division to hit rock bottom just so no one would miss it when it was gone.  I’d like to think that, it certainly fits the narrative, but there’s one bit of evidence that suggests that isn’t the case: this damn thing cost $100 million dollars to make.  That’s over twice the cost of Brother Bear and even a little more than the cost of The Incredibles.  I don’t know how this can possibly be true, it may have been partially due to a reworking not dissimilar to what happened to The Emperor’s New Groove, but still, there’s no way a major corporation sinks that kind of cash into a movie unless they do believe in it on some level.

Going into the movie I had nearly subterranean expectations and that probably did effect the experience a little because as I was watching it I came to realize that the movie wasn’t really “bad” so much as it was wildly misbegotten.  It’s really unambitious, it doesn’t feel like Disney at all really, and it also doesn’t feel like a big budget movie made in the 21st Century, but it isn’t necessarily a failure at what it set out to do.  The film is trying to be a send-off of westerns but told from the perspective of the animals, specifically a trio of cows voiced by Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly… because the only thing modern kids like more than westerns is Rosanne.  The plot is this insane thing where cows, actual quadrupedal cows, try to hunt down an infamous bandit to collect a bounty that will save their homestead.  Again, this is a movie about motherfucking cows saving the day.  The film’s animation is also… I don’t want to say dated because in part I think it was intentionally retro, but it certainly didn’t have that Disney look that people are looking for from this studio.  In fact, if you had told me that this was a Disney Channel special from 1995 rather than a theatrical release I probably would have believed it give or take a few celebrity voice actors and a CG show or two.  But still, there are aspects of the movie that are a little… cute, I guess.  It’s not a movie that overwhelms you with badness, it’s just a thing that should not be coming from who it’s coming from and when it came from.  I’m sure if you showed it to a very small child they’ll enjoy it but I also don’t really know why anyone who’s not doing a Disney retrospective will have watched the damn thing in the last ten years.

Chicken Little (2005)

By 2005 Disney Animation was clearly in deep shit.  They’d made three straight movies which were more or less considered embarrassments and hadn’t made a single movie that really captured the public’s interest in any kind of big ways in the 21st Century.  So finally they decided their only recourse was to ditch traditional animation and begin trying to compete with the Pixars and Dreamworkses in the CGI arena and began assembling a team dedicated to that format.  I’m pretty sure they knew that there would be some awkward growing pains along the way and that they didn’t want to waste their best ideas and concepts on this novice team so their first few forays into the medium were a bit… odd.  It would, however, be a mistake to assume that Disney was ready and willing to just take a loss on the project.  On the contrary there was actually a lot of pressure on the movie to perform at the box office because, at this point, Disney was in the middle of some rather heated negotiations with Pixar.  Pixar’s distribution deal with Disney was about to run out in 2006 and it was an open question as to what the future of that relationship would be.  Both Disney and Pixar wanted the two to merge but they would have to settle on terms and the success or failure of Disney’s first CGI movie would say a lot about how much they needed Pixar and give one side or the other leverage.

The first thing that jumps out about Chicken Little is how awful its animation is.  Now granted, it can be a little tough in 2017 to gauge the extent to which the awfulness of this CGI is just a fuction of the era it comes from, but comparing this to the trailer for The Incredibles (a movie which reportedly cost $50 million less to make) the difference is stark.  The character designs here are all really ugly and the world of the movie doesn’t cohere very well at all.  Obviously this is a modernized take on the Chicken Little story but it also seems to completely misunderstand that fable as well.  In the film Chicken Little gets in trouble because he thinks the sky is falling and no one believes him.  Then it turns out that, while the sky isn’t actually falling, reflective pieces of alien spaceships are falling and no one is believing his warnings because his initial claims seemed to be false.  That is the opposite of what happens in the original story, the whole point of the Chicken Little story is supposed to be that the title character’s warnings are ridiculous and they lead the fools who follow him to ruin: the moral is supposed to be that not everything you hear is true and that you need to exert some critical thinking lest you get caught up in a panicking mob.  This initially seemed like it was replacing that with a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, but that doesn’t really fit either given that Chicken Little turned out to be right from the very beginning.

Instead the moral of this movie is some bullshit about the kid reuniting with his father, who has not been terribly supportive.  I can’t say I cared all that much and the movie uses some of the most contrived silliness in order to force these people to deal with one another.  The movie is constantly begging Chicken Little to talk to this shitty father to solve these problems but never seems to accept the possibility that he could maybe go to some other adult authority figure with his problems or maybe have one of his friends go to one of their parents.  One could say this is just a movie for kids, but what kind of message does this thing send to that audience?  That if they make one mistake the whole world including their parents will be incredibly cruel to them for the rest of their lives and that the only way out of this hell is to redeem yourself in a major way?  That would just create some neurotic kids.  Oh and did I mention that the comedy in this is truly awful?  Basically nothing in this movie works.  It might not have the awful reputation of Home on the Range simply because no one remembers it but it’s noticeably worse.  In fact it’s the worst thing Disney has ever made and by a wide margin.  But here’s the real kicker: despite this being a truly inept and horrid movie it still made bank.  In fact it gave Disney its best opening weekend since The Lion King before making over a hundred million and becoming the fourteenth highest grossing movie of its year.  I don’t know how to explain that except that sometimes family movies can make a lot more than they deserve simply by virtue of opening on the right date sometimes, especially in 2005, a year that didn’t have  a Pixar movie but did see a whole lot of garbage like Robots and Hoodwinked make respectable box office.

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Disney Animation Studios didn’t release a single movie in 2006, making it the first year since 1993 to be entirely without a Disney movie but things were hardly uneventful for them.  In 2005 Michael Eisner stepped down from his position and named Bob Iger as his successor and finished negotiations with Steve Jobs to acquire Pixar.  As part of this merger John Lasseter was named as Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation and with Disney Animation being the squeaky wheel he immediately set out to fix it and bring it back to its former glory.  While all this was going on Disney did have a film in production while Lasseter wasn’t there for its inception he did have some input on it apparently and gave notes to a rough cut of the movie which resulted in 60% of the movie being scrapped and re-tooled.   That movie is called Meet the Robinsons and it is decidedly not Disney’s most famous movie.  Seriously thing just came and went real fast and hardly generated any kind of buzz.  I sort of remember there being some talk about the fact that it was released in impressiveish 3D (despite Avatar getting a lot of the credit for the 3D craze Hollywood was definitely working towards 3D before) but that was about it, prior to this viewing I didn’t even know what the movie was about outside of its blurb on the Netflix mailer I got and its characters and imagery are hardly iconic.

For all its flaws, Meet the Robinsons is definitely a huge leap forward from Chicken Little.  The animation here is competent, it’s not mind blowingly great or anything but it does seem to be up to the same standards as their competitors and it has a better grasp of basic film grammar that that earlier effort lacked.  I still think there are design elements here that don’t really work.  They seem to have taken a lot of visual inspiration from old television cartoons like “The Jetsons” and especially “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” specifically the “Peabody and Sherman” shorts from the later and the film’s villain bears a bit of a resemblance to Snidely Whiplash.  I didn’t particularly care for the look of the main character and the actual “Robinsons” also just seem like a strange assortment of weirdness without much of a rhyme or reason.  Still, it’s mostly progress on the visual front.  Narratively, not so much.  The movie’s key flaw is that its protagonist is really annoying.  This kid is completely out of control and just does the stupidest things to make things harder for all involved and a lot of the movie’s time travel logic does not hold up to scrutiny.

The movie’s other big problem is its preachiness.  The message here is that you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure and should instead keep trying until you succeed at what you want to do.  I know this is the film’s message because characters say exactly that out loud early in the film and repeat it often.  The movie is not very subtle about this message and isn’t really confident enough to just let its story impart the message on its own and feels the need to really lay it out.  That said, there could be a bit of a meta level to all this; a suggestion that Disney has failed a lot recently but that it’s going to pay off eventually.  In fact I know this interpretation was intended because the movie straight up puts a title card at the end which more or less confirms this.  Again, not a subtle movie.  I don’t really think this movie is good enough to be the rebirth of Disney but it is a clear improvement, in fact it feels like this should have been Disney’s first CGI movie instead of the abomination that was Chicken Little (a movie that truly shouldn’t exist).  Here’s the real kicker though: as much as this feels like a comeback of sorts for Disney it actually made less money than Chicken Little, which may be a function of how much that awful movie hurt their brand or may just be a quirk or when it was released and how it was marketed (that title probably didn’t help).  John Lasseter still had a lot of work to do.

Bolt (2008)

They say that reputations are hard won but easily lost and by 2008 Disney was getting a hard lesson in this. In the time that they were floundering Pixar had unquestionably taken their crown as the king of feature length animation while Dreamworks and arguably a couple of other studios had also lapped them. They had been making some steps to get themselves back in the game but these had widely gone ignored by the film community, who were consumed with love for Pixar, who were at the peak of their talents in the late 2000s. I certainly remember Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons being almost entirely ignored by everyone except for parents of small children, but by the time their 2008 film Bolt came out I did at least hear some rumblings that Disney were making something of a comeback. These rumblings were faint and were almost entirely overshadowed by the overwhelming critical support for Pixar’s Wall-E, but they were there. Much of this credit was applied to John Lasseter, who had just come on board after the merger and who had more extensive influence over this than he did with Meet the Robinsons. This apparent respectability certainly came as a bit of a surprise to any outside observers who wasn’t familiar with the personnel changes at Disney.

The thing certainly looked pretty lame from its concept and advertising as it looked like it was about some kind of dog superhero or something. As it turns out the movie is actually about a dog (voiced by John Travolta) that merely thinks he’s a superhero because he stars on a stange looking TV show along with his child actress owner (voiced by Miley Cyrus back when she was still a Disney employee and not someone who made a point of swinging naked on wrecking balls) and goes on a cross country adventure with a gangster cat and a wacky hamster to return to her. This is probably where the John Lasseter influence becomes a little more clear as this plot bears more than a striking resemblance to Lasseter’s breakthrough film Toy Story what with the plot revolving around an underclass of people who exist to please human children, one of whom isn’t in on this and thinks he’s an action hero like Buzz Lightyear did. There are enough difference here to keep the movie from looking like a total rip-off, but the similarities are noticeable. The plot is also a little formulaic in general, and anyone over six is probably going to be able to guess pretty early on how this is going to play out and what lessons are going to be learned by the end, but moment to moment it does play out with confidence and avoids some of those cringey moments as much as it can.

The animation in the film is quite good, a clear step up from Meet the Robinsons and a giant leap over Chicken Little. The movie is almost a decade old now and does show its age a little and it doesn’t have quite the “wow” factor of something like Wall-E but in general it’s definitely up to the standards of the competition of the time. What the movie didn’t have so much was much of a real Disney Animation feel, though one wonders what exactly that even meant in 2008. Back in the day a movie like Lady and the Tramp or The Jungle Book could be said to have a “Disney feel” because of their animation style (and the fact that they were the only ones in the game making animated features on this scale), but that style doesn’t really carry over to the CGI era and as such they kind of just felt like one more studio making movies about talking CGI animals. Without Princesses and the like there really wasn’t a lot there to make movies like this jump out and scream “Disney’s back bitches!” and get people excited again and start looking at these movies as events.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By 2008 Disney was pretty much back in action, they’d brought in new management vis-à-vis the acquisition of Pixar and they’d built up a CGI animation department that could compete with the big boys. For all intents and purposes they were once again a modern and formidable animation studio but there’s one thing they still hadn’t gotten back: class. Meet The Robinsons and Bolt didn’t feel like Disney movies, they just felt like movies that were competing with the pack. To really officially be worthy of that “when you wish upon a star” fanfare over the Disney logo they’d need to recapture that “magic” and prove that they could once again adapt fairy tales and create a new “princess.” They did have a CGI version of this in the works, but before they could pull the trigger on that they’d have to experiment and the way they decided to do that was by going old-school and make another 2D hand drawn animated movie that would try to do everything it possibly could to replicate that Disney Renaissance feel and see if 2D really died because audiences weren’t interested anymore or if those movies from the early 2000s actually would have succeeded if they had someone like John Lasseter guiding them. The movie they decided to do this with was an adaptation of “The Frog Prince” relocated to 1920s New Orleans and with Disney’s first African-American Princess.

The Princess and the Frog is partially a “princess/fairy tale” movie but also something of a talking animal movie as much of the plot has our heroine and her prince transformed into frogs and trying to escape the bayou alongside a Cajun firefly and an alligator who resembles Louis Armstrong (in case you haven’t guessed, the movie is unapologetic in featuring a litany of Nola stereotypes which checks off everything from voodoo to Mardi Gras). On a basic storytelling level it isn’t exactly the most original movie that Disney ever made, but it isn’t really trying to be. Instead it’s like the animation equivalent of something like The Artist or The Good German which intentionally tries to reverse-engineer an earlier filmmaking style right down to the formulaic plot, but the difference is that this isn’t trying to replicate something from decades past but something that was relatively recent though perhaps not so recent to the film’s target market. The movie is not half bad in its ability to check off some of the hallmarks of Disney old. That aforementioned jazz-man/alligator is not nearly as annoying as he could have been and the movie’s cackling villain, a voodoo man called Dr. Facilier, is a lot of fun in no small part because some genius decided to cast Keith David as his voice actor. The movie is also the first true “bursting into song” musical since Mulan, and while Alan Menken was busy working on their next movie Tangled they brought in frequent Pixar composer Randy Newman to do the music here, which makes sense given his knowledge of American roots music and of composing for family movies. I don’t know that any of the songs here are stone cold classics but they work well and the movie finds some creative ways to present them.

If there’s anything wrong with The Princess and the Frog it’s that it feels a bit calculated and inorganic, which can be said about a lot of Disney and Pixar films but especially this one given how hard it’s trying to be a very particular kind of Disney movie of yore. The film also feels a bit sanitized. This is, after all, a movie about an African American woman living in the 1920s and yet there isn’t even the slightest hint of racism in the air and everyone seems to be living in perfect harmony. Granted, New Orleans has a slightly more complex relation to the rest of the South when it comes to racial mixing but the portrait the movie paints is inauthentic. I suppose I can see why the movie wouldn’t want to force the realities of segregation on children but they maybe could have solved this by cutting the white characters out altogether rather than making them in to happy people devoid of prejudice. That’s not a huge problem though, and for the most part the film is actually quite successful at recapturing what made some of those earlier movies work while adding some unique touches of their own and made a movie that fits pretty well into their overall cannon.

So why didn’t they follow this up with more new 2D animated movies? Well, it’s not that the movie bombed exactly, it made $250 million on a $100 million budget which wasn’t too far off from the profit margins of movies like Bolt, but it didn’t really generate the attention and buzz that would have dissuaded the corporate suits who were probably skeptical about John Lasseter’s little experiment in the first place. Of course the movie had certain disadvantages holding it back, for one thing it’s been speculated that having “princess” in the title scared away a lot of the boy market, which is the reason their next princess movies would be called Tangledand Frozen rather than “Rapunzel” and “The Ice Princess” respectively. The bigger problem though was probably that the damn thing came out five days before the release of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Avatar which proceeded to dominate the market and the conversation. Critics weren’t much help either. Most gave it respectful notes but it was largely viewed as a curio rather than the triumphant comeback Disney might have hoped for. 2009 was the year of UpCoralineThe Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Where the Wild Things Are, which were all very critic friendly family movies and in that environment something like The Princess and the Frog didn’t feel like the refreshing breath of fresh air worth championing that it might have in other years. In general I think the movie might just have ironically been just a bit ahead of its time; the peak of 90s nostalgia and by extension Disney Renaissance nostalgia was still a couple of years away. That’s too bad because I do think Disney 2D animation is a tradition worth keeping alive and that they might have given up on a little too easily. That said, Lasseter did manage to use his clout to make it so Home on the Range would no longer be Disney’s final traditionally animated film, and that alone probably makes the whole endeavor worth it.

To the Present

And that brings us up to the present and to the Disney movies that I’ve already seen and analyzed either in my usual film criticism routines or in previous family movie retrospectives. However, given that Disneyology is as much a history of the Disney company as it is a look at the movies themselves I do think I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on what Disney has done since the 2010s began. Times have been good for Disney and they’re in the middle of what they’ve been calling the “Disney Revival” but which might perhaps be better dubbed the “Disney Enlightenment” given both that the historical Enlightenment came after the Renaissance and that general “wokeness” is something of a running theme in what they’ve been doing lately. Disney’s recent output can be divided into two camps: movies that continue their tradition of adapting fairy tales and more experimental movies that are trying to compete with the wider world of animated movies and which generally tend to target the interests of the young boy demographic.

In the latter camp they started with a movie called Wreck-It-Ralph (2012) which was meant to be about the inner working of a universe of videogames. That movie fell well into “nice try” territory and had some cute moments, but was neither a particularly authentic look at the world of video games (it’s slander of Zangief will not be forgotten) not a terribly original adventure unto itself and the moral at its center was rather muddled. Their next attempt at a standalone title looked at another interest of modern little boys: Superheroes. That movie, Big Hero 6 (2014), took an obscure title from the now Disney owned Marvel catalog and turned it into a big CGI extravaganza. It was a fun movie and it looked really good, but it had some weak side characters and ultimately didn’t prove to be the most memorable of movies once you got some distance from it. The most recent movie down this lineage was Zootopia (2016), which was less obviously pandering towards little boys than the aforementioned movies but it is ultimately telling a cop story. That was possibly the movie overtly political movie that Disney has ever made and more or less exists to provide an imperfect but age appropriate allegory to teach kids modern ideas about how intolerance works and how diverse people can co-exist.

Of course where Disney really makes their money is off the princesses and they’ve certainly served that crowed in abundance as of late. They first brought the princess thing into the third dimension with Tangled (2010), which adapted the Rapunzel story into almost an action story. It had the usual combo of scheming villains, musical sequences, and the like but it leaned into some rather lame comedy a bit too much and ultimately just didn’t prove to really be much of a meaningful twist on the genre otherwise. In retrospect that movie proved to be something of a warm-up (no pun intended) for what is by far their most popular movie since their Renaissance heyday: Frozen (2013). That is in many ways a movie that probably doesn’t need an introduction but in its adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ice Princess” it added some interesting twists like having two bickering sibling princesses instead of one and is particularly notable for having some particularly strong music. I thought that Frozen was only about half of the step forward it portrayed itself as and that its first half was a lot stronger than its second half, but it nonetheless was a clear win for them and left little remaining doubt that Disney was back to being the dominant animation studio, especially given that Pixar was having kind of a rough time at this point. Disney’s most recent princess was brought to us in the film Moana (2016), which followed the usual formula pretty closely but did it with gusto and differentiated itself by being set in the world of Polynesian folklore and followed its predecessor’s lead and upped its musical credentials.

So, Disney Animation seems to be in quite a place of strength right now, but if the history I’ve gone through for the last two years has taught me anything it’s that “happily ever after” has always proved to be something of an illusion for this studio and that no matter how strong they get the pendulum always swings the other way eventually. I don’t know when that will happen for this current incarnation of Disney Animation but they need only look towards their sister studio Pixar’s recent slide into relative mediocrity to see how things can go wrong. Pixar in many ways actually seems to be something of a victim of Disney’s success, it rested on its laurels while Disney was the squeaky wheel getting all the grease and they suffered because of it. Apparently there’s only so much John Lasseter to go around. What’s more, there are some disconcerting signs on the horizon. The studio’s next two films are both sequels: Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-it-Ralph 2 and Frozen 2. These will be the first theatrical sequels that Disney will have made since The Rescuers Down Under which was until now their only attempt at doing one. It’s really kind of extraordinary that this bastion of cinematic capitalism has avoided Hollywood’s obsession with sequels as long as it did, but it’s happening, and as such they won’t have another original film until their Jack and the Beanstalk adaptation Giganticcomes out. Lasseter has proven that he’s capable of guiding respectable sequels over the years, but if they’re not careful they’re going to end up making the same mistake that Pixar did.

In Conclusion

So I’ve now more or less seen every single fully animated Disney movie since the studio’s inception in 1937. Was it worth it? Well, I’d say my thoughts are largely mixed. I saw some good movies, I saw some bad movies, I saw some ugly movies. I saw a studio go from hand drawn animation to xerography, to various forms of computer animation, to mounting fully CGI productions. I’ve seen them rise and fall, rise again, fall again, and rise yet again. In many ways I think the overall narrative of the studio’s history kind of took over the whole column in a way that I didn’t expect it to and this overshadowed a lot of the actual movies, but that may simply be a reflection of what ended up interesting me the most about the movies. I certainly appreciated their older movies simply for their animation quality, but I’ve got to say, looking back at how simple some of the narratives have historically been in these Disney movies may have had the net effect of giving me a much greater appreciation for how much Pixar did to raise the bar on storytelling in animation. I can pine for the golden age of hand drawn animation all I want but if I’m given a binary choice I’m kind of glad they don’t make them like they used to.

Beyond that the various “eras” of Disney largely played out the way most people said they did. There were certainly individual movies that I break with consensus on (like Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians) but for the most part the movies that are considered “classics” have stood the test of time for a reason. Disney really was at its best during the “golden age” and during the “Renaissance” and is on a bit of a roll right now, and when they were bad it was usually pretty apparent. I’d be lying if I said doing the last couple of eras wasn’t a bit of a chore. It’s not so much that the movies they made between 2000 and 2009 were awful movies per se, in fact I liked some of them more than most, it’s just that they put out a lot of uninspired movies that no one cares about and which I didn’t have much to say about. On the upside I feel like there are going to be a lot of pop culture references that will make more sense to me and I’ll be a lot more prepared to look at the studio going forward, especially as they make pointless live action remakes of all these movies. Could all this time have been better used? Probably, but I made my choice and I’m glad I saw it through.

Advertisements

Disneyology 101: The Slump

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

Fantasia 2000 (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Dinosaur (2000)

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

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

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

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

1-5_zpsk0vyk2bx

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

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

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

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

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

2_zpsouqiyr54

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

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

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

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

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

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

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

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

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

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

3_zpsyxg7shxf1

Treasure Planet (2002)

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

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

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

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

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Collecting Some Thoughts

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

Disneyology 101: The Late Renaissance

Disneyology201

I noted in my last installment the strange confluence of events that resulted in my having been the perfect age to have been there for what was arguably the commercial and artistic peak of Disney’s prowess, at least outside of the original Golden Age.  Between 1989 and 1994 Disney had completely transformed itself into an absolute behemoth which put out four straight blockbusters (and some Rescuers thing that they wanted everyone to forget) and seemed like there were set up to be a permanent fixture in Hollywood that would continue to dominate animation forevermore.  Then the rest of the 90s happened and everything went to shit.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, these movies are all still considered part of “The Disney Renaissance” and the true low-point is yet to come, but by all accounts Disney quickly squandered a lot of the goodwill they built up in the early 90s with the next five films leaving the door open for competitors like Pixar and Dreamworks to step in and eat their lunch in the 2000s.  Of course I speak entirely from reputation, for all I know these movies are actually hidden gems.  Unlike the movies in the last installment, I didn’t see any of these movies as a kid.  I aged out of that demo during these years, perhaps quicker than some of my peers as my long time aversion to family movies was building during these years.  So, no better way to find out the truth of this narrative than to jump in.

Pocahontas (1995)

1995 PocahontasWhen Beauty and the Beast became an Oscar-nominated critical hit it definitely gave Disney a boost of confidence but the two films they had in production, Aladdin and The Lion King, were for whatever reason deemed to be more commercially oriented and wouldn’t have much of a shot of repeating that film’s award success.  As such they decided that their next film would be the one where they went for broke aiming towards prestige, and that project was an adaptation of the famous Pocahontas legend.  Of course this would be something very different from what Disney has done before as it would be the first Disney movie (outside of certain elements of Robin Hood) to be based on actual history rather than a fairytale or children’s’ book and not just that it was also a movie about a rather prickly moment in history that would require a lot of sensitivity.  As such they did a lot of research to make sure that they knew how the Powhatan Indians dressed and what social customs they had and to make sure it was clear that they were not villains… except that for all the time and effort they put into accurately depicting certain details the people making the movie seemed to be blind to the fact that making a Disneyfied version of the Jamestown story was just an immensely terrible idea to begin with and that the story they were trying to tell was wildly misguided.

If The Lion King was Disney’s attempt at making a cute version of Hamlet, Pocahontas was their attempt to make a kid’s version of Romeo and Juliet.  The historical John Smith and Pocahontas have been turned from the story of a by all accounts rather hardened 30 year old British captain who once maybe got saved by a twelve year old girl into a story about two star-crossed teenage lovers who start a whirlwind romance despite the fact that they come from different cultures who are feuding over silly misunderstandings.  Of course the problem with this idea is that it requires both the Capulet and Montague stand-ins to be equally irrational in their animosity which very much was not the case means setting up the Powhattans and English as both being equally irrational in their distrust of one another, something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history will recognize as a ridiculous dichotomy to be setting up.  The film certainly namechecks the notion that the Jamestown settlers were a potentially murderous threat to the Powhattans but rather than suggest that animosity towards the natives was widespread among the British they instead pin all the blame on their goofy villain and then have the gall to suggest that as soon as this villain was defeated that everyone lived happily ever after.  Bull. Shit.  They might as well have just made “Disney’s The Diary of Anne Frank” and then made Anne older and hotter so that she can have a romance with Goebbels and then suggest that the Holocaust was one big misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up once their love inspired the SS to turn against Hitler and avoid disaster.

Now, before it starts to seem like my aversion to this movie is entirely rooted in liberal bellyaching let me make it clear: this movie also sucks for any number of entirely apolitical reasons.  First and foremost the entire movie rests on a pair of astonishingly boring protagonists.  Pocahontas herself is an entirely wooden and ill-defined character.  We’re told that she’s seen as “different” from the other villagers, presumably because she spends so much time doing dramatic poses on top of mountains, but really she’s just completely devoid of personality and Irene Bedard’s incredibly boring voice over does not help.  As for John Smith?  He’s… certainly very blond and, uh, daring I guess.  He decides to stop calling the natives “savages” after Pocahontas puts him through a musical montage but that’s about it.  They clearly spent a lot more time worrying about how these characters were going to look than what they’d actually do and the film suffers because of it.  The film’s villain is also really terrible.  John Ratcliffe was a real leader in Jamestown and he did have some conflicts with the natives (which would eventually result in his being ambushed and skinned alive) but by all accounts he wasn’t any worse than the rest of the English at Jamestown and even if you don’t know that you can still clearly tell he’s just ridiculous here.  I mean, this is a guy who straight up sings the line “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” at one point, which is about as nuanced as this movie’s view of intolerance is.  He’s not just evil he’s downright stupid and incompetent in his evil and he’s not even a very fun or well rendered in his over the top villainy.  Then there’s the movie’s rather bizarre prologue before the title card depicting John Smith setting sail and saving a guy in a storm, which feels incredibly stiff as an opening and feels oddly tacked on, if they’d completely cut it out the film would hardly change.

The movie also has this weird interest in “respecting” native people not by making them three-dimensional characters but by portraying their religion as being literally true and essentially making them all into magical shamans who talk to trees and conjure vague ill-defined swirling leaf magic at will.  There are of course ways to depict Native American connections to the environment without literally making them magical as Terrence Malick would go on to prove with his infinitely better Jamestown/ Powhattan movie The New World.  It’s also kind of clear that they were sort of making up these aspects of native culture as they went.  Like, do you know what “blue corn moon” means?  It means nothing.  Songwriter Stephen Schwartz straight up made it up because it sounded right in the song and I have a pretty strong hunch that this also goes for other touches like the talking tree grandmother and the rest of the new age bullshit they’re trying to sell as authentic culture.  This culminates in the film’s ultimate “what the fuck” moment in which Pocahontas suddenly learns to speak English in two minutes through her swirling leaf magic.  I mean, the language barrier is something the film was going to have to pave over in some way, but why in the world would you even bother to bring attention to it if they were just going to cheat like that.  There was a much easier way out of this too: the Chesapeake area had already been explored by whites for upwards of a hundred years before John Smith landed, it’s a stretch but it’s plausible that some of the Natives would have already learned English.

Now, I’ve been very careful not to use the “R” word when discussing the film’s portrayal of history, in part because I think everyone involved had mostly good intentions when making the film.  The problem is that none of them were thinking through the implications of what they were trying to do.  They didn’t seem to realize that America’s painful history isn’t some fairy tale that they can just smooth out the edges on and give a happy ending.  It isn’t just that though; this failure to see the bigger picture is what plagues this entire film.  They were so focused on little details like what the characters were going to look like and how the animal sidekicks were going to behave and where the songs would be placed that they didn’t seem to notice that the film didn’t really have much of an arc, that its characters were dull as dishwater, and that they’ve accidentally denied a national tragedy.  The result is a mess of a movie and to some extent audiences seemed to pick up on that.  The movie did make some really good money, which is mostly a reflection of how hot the Disney brand was at the time, but the movie did make less than half of what The Lion King made and about two thirds of what Aladdin made.  It also got rather mixed reviews, which to me was a big overly generous.  If the movie had been made today in the climate of the hot take and the think piece it almost certainly would have been raked over the coals, and to me that would have been deserved.  I’ve been about as sick as anyone at how demanding and political the online critical climate has been lately, but watching this movie was a good reminder of just how wrong things can go when filmmakers try to deal with material like this without having to think about what they’re doing and take their responsibilities seriously.

1

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

1996 The Hunchback of Notre DameDisney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the second straight Disney movie that I didn’t see in the theaters “back in the day.”  In the case of the first of these, Pocahontas that was largely my parents’ doing.  My mother had heard (correctly) that that movie was offensive to Native Americans and wasn’t too jazzed to take me to that one.  I’m sure that if I had begged a bit more forcefully to see it she would have relented, but it looked like a movie for girls anyway which was enough for seven year old me to be cool with skipping it.  My reasons  for not seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big closer to what would become my usual attitude towards children’s movies.  At the time I was very into reading these abridged and essentially re-written editions of “classic literature” and among the ones I’d read was Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which I was pretty fond of.  When I heard that Disney had made this classic literature into a cartoon which gave it a happy ending I was downright offended and every time I heard any of my friends talking about it I was happy to give them a lecture about it (I wish I was making that up).  This is a level of pretentiousness that… well I can’t say I disagree with it but I don’t think eight year old me had really earned that yet: I was getting angry about a movie I hadn’t seen failing to live up to a book the real version of which I hadn’t read yet.

That said, as much as I want to slap my younger self, he kind of did have a point, this was a really weird source text to turn into family entertainment at least on the surface.  Hugo’s 600+ page novel was actually called “Notre-Dame de Paris” in France and only took on the title which emphasized the hunchback in its English translation.  The book is actually more of an ensemble piece than most of its adaptations would have you think.  It also dealt with all sorts of historical, religious, and intellectual themes that would not be of a whole lot of interest to children and some of it was decidedly not G-rated.  The financial motivations behind the movie make a lot more sense when you consider that Disney was branching out to Broadway around this time with “Beauty and the Beast: The Musical” having opened in 1994 and “The Lion King: The Musical” on the way .  With that in mind you remember that the two most successful musicals in Broadway history were “Les Misérables” (which was based on a Victor Hugo novel) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (which was about a deformed quasi-horror figure who hides out in a Parisian landmark who pines after a woman who may or may not be into him) and when you consider that you begin to wonder why it took someone as long as it did to try to turn this thing into a musical.

To Disney’s credit, they did maintain more of the book’s themes than I thought they would.  In particular they seem to have been awfully faithful to the fact that the villain Frollo is in many ways driven by the fact that his sexual lust for Esmerelda conflicts with his religious celibacy.  They soften this a little by making him a judge here rather than an Archdeacon and also try to distract from it by also making him a bigot who despises the Romani people (a sub-plot absent from the novel which sort of injects it with modern concerns) but at its heart it’s still a pretty dark idea for a Disney movie.  In fact the whole movie seems to have a pretty healthy suspicion of authority and religion and is even at its heart a story about someone lashing out a rebelling against a father figure, which I have to assume isn’t necessarily something parents are super thrilled to teach their kids about.  Frollo is actually in many ways more of a prick here than his is in the book (where he does have his redeeming qualities) and to some extent that does put him at risk of becoming one of these cartoonishly evil Disney villains, but unlike Ratcliffe in Pocahontas the film actually explores him and tried to find motivations and roots to why he is the way he is.

It also doesn’t hurt that Disney was able to make Esmerelda into a total dime.  I don’t just mean that she’s hot (which she is) but she’s also tantalizing.  She’s feisty, she’s rebellious, she’s virtuous, but also has a way of moving and carrying herself that is about as sexual as a lady is going to be in a Disney movie.  This all matters because the movie needs to convince the audience that Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Frollo would all fall head over heels for her despite many reasons not to for all involved, and I think they pull this off pretty believably.  Phoebus is also pretty well expanded and changed from his book counterpart, who is an asshole horndog who seduces Esmerelda, gets stabbed by a jealous Frollo, then does nothing when she is accused of the attack and eventually executed.  Here is made into more of a heroic character actually deserving of her affections, which would seem to be the more conventional approach but they make it work.  He’s made into someone who ostensibly works for the government/church but eventually follows his conscious and rebels making his arc an interesting parallel to Quasimodo’s and it’s also a sign of maturity that the film doesn’t take it’s whole ugly duckling “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” theme and simplistically makes all the pretty people into Gaston-like villains to drive the point home.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve gotten pretty deep into this without really talking about the film’s title character and ostensibly protagonist Quasimodo, and that’s because his transition to film is a little more clunky.  As I said before, Quasimodo was never really supposed to be the central character of this story so much as he’s this colorful figure on its periphery.  In the novel Quasimodo is deaf and I believe mute and is treated as being sort of “simple.”  He does love Esmerelda and helps her at times, and while she does have some sympathy for him she’s repulsed just the same and there’s kind of a King Kong thing going on with the way he tries to give her one-sided affection.  He does eventually kill Frollo at the end, but this is more of a murder than a heroic act of saving the day and in many ways they the arc they present in the movie is invented and not entirely successfully.  I don’t know, when you’ve got a power made judge trying to wipe out the Romani population and Esmerelda fighting off said oppression the self-esteem issues of Quasimodo seems a bit off-topic, the movie doesn’t feel like it should be his because it shouldn’t be.

Then of course we have to get to his gargoyle friends who are your standard trademark Disney comedy relief.  Don’t get me wrong I don’t like any of these characters but generally they haven’t been as big of deal breakers for me as I’ve been watching these.  I could take or leave the servant antics in Beauty and the Beast but they generally didn’t do obnoxious fourth wall breaks and kept themselves in check, Pumbaa and Timon had their annoying moments but also had kind of a neat Abbot and Costello thing going on, and the silly animal antics in Pocahontas mostly just seemed like a waste of time and were hardly the worst thing about that movie.  These gargoyles on the other hand did bug me, partly because the writers were clearly taking notes from Aladdin and made them more prone to fourth wall breaks, but really it has less to do with the fact that they were any more annoying than what came before and more because they feel more out of place here than some of the previous comical characters did.  When you try to be more adult and weightier than what you did previously it’s all the more jarring when you have legless stone figures voiced by Jason Alexander anachronistically breaking the fourth wall.  The film does introduce the tantalizing, and kind of dark, possibility that these talking gargoyles don’t really exist and are just voices in Quasimodo’s head but it doesn’t really commit to this and by the time they’re comically participating in the battle at the end they seem to have given up on it.

There’s a lot about The Hunchback of Notre Dame I appreciate, but for all it does right I still can’t help but think that Disney bit off a bit more than they could chew here.  Of course (to belabor the metaphor) they did more to chew it than the people who made Pocahontas and just swallowed and immediately started choking, but there’s still a sense that adapting this book was a mistake.  It was too weighty for the people who just wanted an adorable fairy tale movie and it was too silly for anyone who was that interested in seeing a Victor Hugo adaptation and consequently it didn’t really find an audience.  Some critics appreciated it, but it wasn’t really championed and audiences sort of shrugged at it.  It made about a hundred million dollars at the box office, which is not much of a success by Disney’s standards at that point.  Part of that might be that audiences felt burned by Pocahontas, part of it might be that kids were just baffled by all the medival politics, part of it might have been that parents didn’t think it was appropriate (I’m honestly not sure how they managed to snag the G-rating), but one way or another it failed.  I do think the movie deserved better than that and that it’s one of the studio’s best efforts of the era, but I also sort of understand.  That Disney magic just wasn’t there despite a lot of good effort.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Hercules (1997)

1997 HerculesWhile politics and snobbery conspired to make sure I didn’t see Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when they first came out, I didn’t really need a reason to skip Hercules, I had quite simply grown out of the demo.  By 1997 was had pretty firmly graduated from PG movies to PG-13 movies and was having all kinds of fun seeing the likes of Men in Black and Austin Powers during the summer of 1997 and never even gave a thought to seeing the latest Disney flick.  What little I did remember of the film’s marketing campaign (which was massive and extensive) made it look even stupider and more immature than usual.  The movie was actually coming at a pretty strange time for Disney.   Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were both clear disappointments for the company, they weren’t total disasters and they actually made decent bank overseas, but it was clear that they were losing a lot of momentum and by the time Hercules came along it was clear they needed a hit.  It’s almost analogues to where the studio was back in the 40s when they spent too much on Pinocchio and went too highbrow with Fantasia and proceeded to make Dumbo to be a pared down audience pleaser that would earn a profit.

Hercules was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the movie clearly takes after the latter more than the former.  More specifically it takes after the parts of Aladdin with the genie.  Out of all the movies Disney made in the 90s this (and I guess The Rescuers Down Under) is the only one that more or less ignores everything about the Disney Renaissance style and kind of just does its own thing.   This is pretty much a full on mad-cap comedy and rather than just having a couple of comic relief side characters pretty much everyone in this movie with the possible exception of Hercules himself is a fourth wall breaking jokers.  The Greek gods are goofballs, the villain is a comical figure who talks like an agent rather than a menacing force, the hero has a sidekick who is basically an extended parody of a character from the Rocky movies, and the love interest spends the entire movie doing a Rosalind Russell impression.  The movie opts for irreverence and mirth at pretty much every turn right down to the decision to have the film be narrated by a gospel group for no particularly clear reason.  They also change up the art style and the movie doesn’t really have the look or feel of the other Disney movies from this period.

The resulting film kind of feels like a strange hodgepodge at times.  The film seems to view Hercules as a super hero of sorts and borrows liberally from the Superman story (and specifically the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film) to build up Hercules’ origin story, which is very different from the mythological version.  Then the film also has this odd idea of making successful heroes into Ancient Greek celebrities akin to Michael Jordan with endorsement deals and whatnot and the film occasionally frames itself as a sports movie with a coach much talk about “going the distance,” which is odd given that Hercules was born with superhuman powers and doesn’t really need to work that hard to become a success.  Then the movie throws in a gospel choir for some random reason.  All of these ideas have some merit but there’s no coherence to the vision and I’m not sure they even wanted there to be.  It’s in some ways a movie defined by chaos and irreverence, something at almost feels more like a descendant of the old Warner Brothers cartoons rather than classic Disney.

Given how much distaste I had for the Genie in Aladdin you’d think every moment of this would grate on me, did it?  Well, sort of but not exactly.  What made the Genie so annoying is that he felt out of place in that movie, which was otherwise a pretty straightforward adventure movie and that was also the problem with the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Here the tone is pretty consistently comedic if nothing else and that makes it less of a flaw and more a matter of taste.  Do I like the humor here?  Not really, but it wasn’t painful to watch exactly.  Some of the gags were kind of clever but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny to me or anything ultimately the whole thing just feels completely disposable.  It’s certainly not a movie made for me or even for ten year old me but I would have thought all the pandering would have made it work for its target audience, but it actually didn’t.  The movie made a hundred million domestic, which isn’t any more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame made and certainly didn’t make it the comeback the studio was hoping for.  I think in some ways it may have been ahead of its time and in some ways it almost seems like a dry run for what Jeffrey Katzenberg would do when he moved to Dreamworks and started making snarky movies like Shrek.  That worked for Dreamworks because they were positioning themselves as the anti-Disney but from Disney itself people wanted something a little grander, at least in this era.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Mulan (1998)

1998 MulanBy 1998 Disney had just tried getting very serious and literate with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and super goofy and farcical with Hercules and neither approach really did much for them.  Their next movie, Mulan, was an attempt (perhaps one last attempt) to get back to the Goldilocks zone between the two extremes and get back the mojo of their success earlier in the decade.  The movie had that sort of epic sweep that had characterized those earlier films and like a lot of the Disney movies of the 90s it was interested in transplanting the tropes of a Disney movie into a different culture’s mythology.  Having already done movies in France (twice), the Middle East, Africa (sort of), North America, and Greece it only seemed natural that Disney would go to Asia next and specifically they set their sights on China.  In 1998 China was not the vital market that it is today but I’m pretty sure the Disney executives wanted to build bridges there just the same and they had had some success selling The Lion King there.  To do that they came upon the legend of a female warrior named Hua Mulan, a sort of Joan of Arc figure who passed herself off as a man in order fight in a war in her aging father’s place.  It’s a story that would both move the Disney aesthetic into Asia while also subverting the traditional Diseny princess figure in the most radical way yet by making a female protagonist into a full on fighter.

Mulan is in many ways an attempt to do a Disney take on two genres that would be fairly familiar to adult audiences: the gender bending comedy and the “ragtag platoon bonds before going to war” movie.  So it’s like Tootsie meets Stripes but on an epic scale and for kids.  Kind of an odd direction to go but I’d say they actually pull it off fairly well.  Comedies about men and women pretending to be one another for contrived reasons obviously go back to Shakespeare’s time probably has precedent a lot earlier than that too.  It is interesting however that in cinema we tend to get a whole lot of men pretending to be women and not a whole lot of women pretending to be men.  I’m sure that college dissertations have been written about why this is but it’s probably just a simple matter of men in dresses being a much stranger sight to most audiences than women in pants.  The gags here about Mulan trying to fit in with “the guys” aren’t terribly novel but they are mostly cute.  The basic concept is kind of ludicrous of course and Mulan does not make a terribly convincing man during these scenes (in part I think because Disney still wants to make sure she’s “hot” despite the disguise) but the fact that this is animation helps.  The film also does a pretty decent job of establishing the comradery between the soldier during the training sequences and by the time they’re actually marching on the enemy you do believe their cohesion.

Of course what’s notable about these scenes is that the humor in them seems awfully grounded and human jokes rather than the goofy pop culture referencing slapstick that took over Hercules and infested other Disney movies like Aladdin.  To provide the stupider comedy that kids apparently demand Mulan was of course given a talking sidekick in the form of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu the dragon, a character I certainly expected to hate but who frankly could have been a lot worse.  He’s a little out of place and the movie would have been better off without him, but he doesn’t totally break the fourth wall as much as the Genie from Aladdin or the Gargoyles in Hunchback and he actually does serve something of a purpose to the plot as Mulan’s masculinity advisor of sorts.  On the musical front this movie presented some changes from the norm as Alan Menken finally stepped away to do other things and their go-to lyricist in this period Stephen Schwartz had defected to the newly formed Dreamworks to make songs for The Prince of Egypt.  As such they brought Jerry Goldsmith in to do the score and the songs were done by a dude named Matthew Wilder (best known for the pop hit “Break My Stride”) and David Zippel.  The new blood seems to have worked for the movie because musically it’s almost certainly Disney’s best work since The Lion King and that “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song is really something special.

So the movie has a lot of good things going for it, so why isn’t it better remembered?  Third act problems.  Much of the movie’s running time has everyone getting ready to go to war but once they finally go on their adventure it seemingly ends something like fifteen minutes later in a fairly cheap fashion.  At this point Mulan’s secret is revealed, everyone over-reacts, then they get over it something like five minutes later when the (rather boring) villain comes back shortly and launches an urban attack that is not terribly epic compared to what came before.  Then there’s this strange coda where Mulan comes home, then Li comes chasing after her but at that point the movie just kind of ends.  That isn’t handled very elegantly and there are a few other shaky moments here or there, but overall there’s not really too much to complain about here really, it’s a serviceable little movie though not an extraordinary one.  The improvements here did not however turn the movie into the comeback film Disney had likely hoped for.  It made $120 million domestic, which was $20 million more than Hercules but still not really anything to write home about.  It also didn’t end up making the killing in China that they had likely hoped, in part because Disney was on the Chinese Communist Party’s shit list because Touchstone pictures had put out the movie Kundun the year before and the Chinese government was not thrilled about it.  You could tell at this point that Disney was not “planning for success” at this point and they reported gave the film half the marketing budget that Hercules had.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Tarzan (1999)

1999 TarzanIf I asked the average person what the two highest grossing Disney Renaissance movies were they’d probably say The Lion King and Aladdin and they’d be right.  What may be more surprising is that the third highest grossing Disney Renaissance movie wasn’t Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, it was their 1999 film Tarzan.  Ticket inflation likely had a little bit to do with this but it is still noting that the movie made $170 million while all their other late 90s films had only managed to make between $100 million and $140 million.  Granted that still isn’t anywhere near the heights of The Lion King but it does certainly feel like a bit of a comeback after a lot of decline.  I was certainly shocked when I discovered this firstly because the movie does not seem to be terribly well remembered and also because even back in 1999 the movie didn’t actually seem to make all that much noise.  It just kind of seemed like the annual Disney movie that would come and go and I don’t really remember the advertising campaign nearly as well as I do the campaigns of some of the other Disney movies of the era.  Of course it’s also worth questioning if this movie should even be called part of the Disney Renaissance.  “Disney Renaissance,” much like the real Renaissance, is kind of a vague term that was invented after the fact.  It has a pretty clear beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 but it’s less clear when it ended.  Mulan certainly seems to fit but this next film seems to be actively moving away from some of the conventions we associate with that era of Disney.

For one thing this is not a movie based on a fairy tale or legend or myth or even a famous work of literature; it’s an adaptation of a copyrighted 20th century pulp character and one with something of a long history of cinematic adaptation.  The film also has a new animation style born of a technological innovation called Deep Canvas, which allows the filmmakers to use CGI to make backgrounds that look painted rather than digital.  It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what it is about this look that seems distinct from the earlier films but the aesthetic change is noticeable.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this stylistic change a definitive change for the better as it does kind of rob the movie of that signature Disney style and in some ways makes it look more like a generic animated production, but it does look pretty cool.  Disney had been increasingly incorporating CGI into their films with varying degrees of success since The Great Mouse Detective.  Sometimes it looks good like certain shots in The Lion King, sometimes it looks god awful like the hydra fight in Hercules.  Of course the irony is that this was a half-measure of sorts and that the wave of the future was going to be fully CGI animated films of the variety that Pixar was pioneering at this time, but Disney was heavily associated with 2D animation and were clearly trying to find a compromise style to run with.  The jungle that Tarzan resides in certainly looks pretty good and the action scenes here have a lot more speed and heft than a lot of what we’ve seen before from the studio.

Another thing that differentiates this from the Disney movies of old is that it isn’t a musical.  In an interview director Kevin Lima explained that he “just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song… it would be ridiculous.”  I agree, this adventure story did not need conventional musical numbers, however the alternative they came up with was probably worse.  Instead of having characters burst into song they hired Phil Collins to record vaguely on theme songs that would play non-diegeticly at various points in the film.  I’m not a fan of Phil Collins but that’s not really the point, I’m sure these songs would sound fine within the context of one of his albums but they seem pretty out of place here.  Nothing about the music of Phil Collins screams “jungles of Africa” to me and I’m not sure what made them think it was a good idea to hire him outside of the fact that they’d had some luck working with Billy Joel and Elton John in the past and Phil Collins was next on their list of adult contemporary stars who are sort of past their prime but are still kind of famous and will appeal to the parent demographic.  Then again he managed to steal and Oscar from Aimee Mann for his trouble, so what do I know?

Ultimately I think the bigger problem here is just that this Tarzan character is a bit too bland to carry a movie like this.  Tony Goldwyn doesn’t really bring this character to life and his confusion with the other humans just isn’t as touching as the writers seem to think it is.  Jane is a little better and walks a pretty good line between being a realistically Victorian woman without seeming like a regressive doormat, but the villain is really lame.  Clayton is basically just a combination of Percival McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and the fact that Jane and her father seemed to trust him as long as they did makes them both look like morons.  Overall I think this proves to be a very thoroughly average movie more than anything.  Disney was clearly trying to use this movie to make a slightly cooler and more boy friendly kind of Disney movie, a direction that would probably turn out to be disastrous in the long run but I can see why the producers would have seen the movie to be fairly promising even if it clearly wasn’t a homerun out the gate.

3_zpsyxg7shxf1

Collecting Some Thoughts

Throughout this installment I’ve referred to a lot of these movies as being “disappointments” but let’s be clear: Disney didn’t lose money on any of them.  Yes, a lot of them underwhelmed at the domestic box office but a lot of them actually did quite well overseas and even beyond that I’m sure Disney made plenty of money where it mattered: merchandising.  All of these movies had toy lines, likely sold a million VHSs and DVDs, and they all had marketing tie-ins with companies like McDonalds.  In fact the lowest grossing of all these movies, Hercules, is reported to have had marketing tie-ins with no fewer than 85 different licenses.  Still, Disney is a mega-corporation and after the massive success they had earlier in the decade you have to assume that someone in a suit somewhere must have been furious about how things had gone.  So what went wrong?  Well the movies got worse obviously, but they weren’t terrible and there are certainly worse kids’ movies out there, why weren’t they able to spin the likes of Mulan into gold?  Part of it must have just been fatigue.  When Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King came out they seemed like events but these later movies didn’t; releasing a movie every single year for a decade tends to have that effect.  Still, I’m pretty sure that if things had been reversed and Pocahontas and Tarzan had come out first and the earlier renaissance classics had come out later it wouldn’t have necessarily meant that the former would have been received better.  I feel like the bigger problem was just hubris.  By the time they made The Lion King they simply felt that they could do this in their sleep and that the public would be endlessly willing to follow them wherever they went and the proved not to be the case.  Meanwhile competition was coming into place.  Pixar emerged during this era and instantly began out-grossing their older sibling with pretty much every movie right up until Frozen and it wouldn’t be long before they also had to contend with Dreamworks and as we will soon see this combination of creative stagnation and increased competition will come to bring Disney to its true low point.

Disneyology 101: The Early Renaissance

Disneyology201

It’s been a little while, but now that award season 2016 is over I’m finally ready to get back in the groove of this series.  In the first part of the series I looked at the first forty-nine years of the Disney Animation Studio, which consisted of about twenty movies.  For this second half I’ll only need to look at about twenty years of the studio’s history between 1989 and 2009 and yet I’ll actually be watching twenty-two movies, which is a function of Disney’s increased production and general strength during this era.  The last installment, which spanned 1977 to 1988 showed Disney at its alleged lowest point, but you could see signs of what was to come in those movies.  They were clearly upping their game on a technical level and were also growing more confident about commissioning popular music and hiring celebrity voice actors in that period and by the end you could see the infrastructure in place.  What we had not yet seen was Disney applying their improved craftsmanship towards stories that harkened back to the studio’s golden age.  Enter the Disney Renaissance.   This period, which lasted more or less throughout the 90s was Disney’s big comeback and it set the standard by which most of the studio’s films are judged today.  It’s also notable moment in the studio for me personally as this era (and specifically the five movies in this installment) was occurring during the time when I was actually the target audience for these movies.  However much I shunned them when I got older these movies were a part of my childhood if perhaps not as big a part of it as it was for some people of my generation.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

1989 The Little MermaidOliver & Company had been Disney’s attempt to return to relevance by being cool and hip and reaching out to the MTV generation and for the most part they kind of fell on their face doing so.  For their next project they decided to go in the other direction and making a movie that was a bit more dignified and that brought more modern techniques to the “Disney Fairy Tale” format that had built the company.  That seems like an obvious direction for them to have gone with 20/20 hindsight but it certainly wasn’t that obvious at the time.  It’s easy to forget now but there had really only been about three or four true “fairy tale” movies in their first fifty years and the last one they made, Sleeping Beauty, was kind of a financial boondoggle.  Fortunately someone at Disney decided that this more traditional approach was worth giving a shot and the team Ron Clements and John Musker, both hot off their work on The Great Mouse Detective, were chosen to direct and the film was given more resources than most of their recent movies to make it the comeback project they had been hoping for.

As the movie began I was immediately struck by the fact that the film does still show its age in the animation.  The colors aren’t quite as sharp as what I associate with the Disney Renaissance look but that isn’t to say that there aren’t a whole lot of tricks here that were very impressive; for instance I’m sure that a megaton of painstaking work was put into making Ariel’s hair look right while underwater.  This was, incidentally, the last Disney movie to still be primarily animated through traditional animation cels so it maybe isn’t surprising that the look is a bit transitional.  The film’s other most notable feat is almost certainly the music.  The decision was clearly made at some point that this should be a musical, which wasn’t exactly new for Disney but the way they did it was new.  The earlier Disney movies had songs but they always felt a bit like afterthoughts and didn’t advance the story as much.  This one by contrast seems structured more like a Broadway musical, which may be a function of the fact that Broadway was kind of booming during the 80s with super-productions like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” raking in billions.  To do this they brought in Alan Menken, who had written “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier that decade to both write the score and compose some original songs.  His score is clearly more substantial than what we’ve heard in previous Disney movies and sounds very classical.  At times it’s actually a little over-done like in an early scene with a shark where the music just does not seem to stop, but in general it gives the film a lot more class and weight than it otherwise might have.  As for the songs, well I thought the big “I Wish” song “Part of Their World” was less impactful than I expected it to be but those Sebastian Calypso songs hold up remarkably well both as songs and as musical sequences in the movie.

Outside of the music and visuals the move starts to show some weaknesses.  I think the biggest problem in the movie is probably the Ariel character who ultimately seems kind of one-dimensional.  She really wants to see the surface and marry that Prince, it’s her single minded obsession and seemingly the only thing that really drives her and it drives her to do some really stupid things.  The traditional feminist rejoinder to the movie was that the heroine “gives up her voice for a man,” which didn’t bother me as much as just how generally reckless she is.  King Trident likely has very good reasons for forbidding contact with the human world what with humanity’s tendency to murder anything they don’t understand so Ariel isn’t just putting herself in danger by chasing her every whim and that contract with Ursula is the kind of horrible deal that only a complete moron would sign on to.  There’s a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” quality to Ariel’s romantic insistence on chasing her desires beyond all rationality, but unlike that play (and the original Hans Christian Anderson story upon which this is based for that matter) this doesn’t end with the star-crossed lover dead in a tomb, instead the mess that Ariel creates is just kind of luckily cleaned up by the Prince minutes after everything goes wrong. Of course a lot of this kind of stuff is a lot worse in some of the older Disney movies so I guess this deserves kudos as a sort of step in the right direction just the same.

The Little Mermaid, came out late in 1989 when I wouldn’t have even been two years old yet so I’m pretty sure I missed the movie during its theatrical run but I’m pretty sure I did watch it on VHS more than a couple of times.  In fact I actually have clearer memories of my family owning the movie’s soundtrack on cassette than I do of actually watching the movie but I am pretty sure it was a childhood favorite just the same.  Disney itself was certainly happy with the product and it was pretty immediately recognized as a turning point by the press and by general consensus.  It won two Oscars for its music and the film made about $85 million during its theatrical run placing it at number 13 for the year in-between The War of the Roses and Steel Magnolias  (good lord have box office trends changed) so it wasn’t quite in world-conquering blockbuster mode quite yet but that was more than any Disney movie had ever made in raw box office numbers and was clearly their first unambiguous success in a very long time.  It was readily apparent to all involved that Disney had struck upon a new mold upon which they would be able to go forward and the big question now was just how they were going to be able to do it.

4

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

1990The Rescuers Down UnderThe Little Mermaid was a very big deal for Disney and their subsequent output makes it incredibly clear that they recognized it right away and immediately started to capitalize one it, they did not however have this revelation until that movie’s release late in 1989 when their backup plan was already in production: a belated sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers.  The film sticks out like a sore thumb right smack in the middle of all these other Disney Renaissance movies  but truth be told it probably would have been an odd direction for them to have gone at any time.  Disney just does not make fully produced theatrical sequels, even in today’s crazy franchise obsessed film landscape they have yet to make another real sequel (though a Wreck-It-Ralph 2 is currently in production) and yet they did this time and to what would seem like one of their less popular and less well remembered films to boot.  It’s something that only makes sense when you remember just how desperate Disney was for a hit all through the 80s and how they didn’t know at the time that The Little Mermaid would be that hit.

In many ways The Rescuers Down Under feels less like a true sequel so much as a glorified remake of the original movie that’s been relocated to Australia (a country that America was oddly obsessed with in the 80s) and it maintains a lot of that original film’s weaknesses.  Like the first film it has the titular rescuers out to save a wildly bland and annoying kid from a ridiculously evil bad guy with a reptilian henchman who’s kidnapped them.  I also still don’t see the appeal of this weird organization of mice interested in saving kids (who are inexplicably able to talk to animals) despite mice being seemingly the last species of animal to be capable of such rescues.  There is however one thing the movie has which the original film didn’t have: computer generated animation.  This was the first Disney movie made using something called the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) system rather than any kind of hand drawn cels and it’s abundantly clear that they were very excited to play with their new toy.  The movie is filled with sweeping camera moves and chase/flight scenes that show off what this new system is capable of.  Sometimes this does look very cool even if some of that 2D animation charm gets lost, other times it can kind of just look bad like an early shot of the New York City skyline which looks like something out of a particularly cheap PS1 game.

The Rescuers Down Under does not really feel all that much like a Disney movie for better or worse.  There are no songs, it’s not based on some age old fairy tale, and it’s oddly action driven.  As an adventure story it works pretty well and I’m willing to bet that if I was a seven year old and I was watching it in 1990 I would have loved it, but I’m not and it’s not.  The film has maintained some stature among nostalgic Disney fans, but it tends to be ignored otherwise.  For that matter it was kind of ignored at the time too.  It got middling reviews and only made $27 million at the box office, which I’m pretty sure makes it a bomb.  This might have to do with the fact that it’s a sequel to a movie that was thirteen years old at the time (meaning someone who was five when the first movie came out would have been old enough to vote by the time the sequel came along), and by 1990 the three major voice actors in it were all geriatrics.  Of course part of the extent of its box office failure was the result of Jeffrey Katzenberg pulling advertising for the film after it opened fourth at the box office behind the likes of Home Alone and Problem Child 2 so as not to throw good money after bad.  Part of me feels that wasn’t simply a cold business calculation so much as a tacit admission that the film simply didn’t fit in with the brand that Disney would soon be building.  It was a holdover from a different era of Disney that the studio was happy to forget that just so happened to be made with techniques from the era to come.

3_zpsyxg7shxf1

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

1991Beauty and the BeastIf The Little Mermaid was Disney’s big comeback Beauty and the Beast was where they perfected the formula and cashed in.  I would have been about four when it came out so it was still just a little bit before my time.  I might maybe have seen it in theaters but I don’t really remember it, I also don’t remember it being a fixture of home viewing either but I do think I eventually saw a lot of it on VHS at some point, maybe at school or something.  Honestly, of the four big Disney movies of this era this is probably the one I least remember the kids of my generation being crazy about but it seems to have been the one adults liked the best and finally watching it now (possibly for the first time seeing it from beginning to end) I can see why it’s the one that got all the Oscars and acclaim.  The movie is just made with a whole lot of confidence and seems to be where a lot of strong decisions were made.  You can tell right from the opening with the stain glass windows and the ominous music that the people making it were serious about taking the Disney fairy tale to the next level in terms of both animation and tone.  Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise do not shy away from some of the more dark and ominous imagery that this castle and this beast would seem to invite and the animation itself is clearly on some next level shit.

I’m almost inclined to be suspicious of the look of the movie on this blu-ray I watched it on, the movie has clearly been restored to the nines and I have trouble believing the movie always looked this damn clean.  However clean it originally looked it’s plainly obvious that the animation technology used for the film is another huge leap forward; it definitely looks better than The Little Mermaid and also uses the newfound technology with a lot more discipline than The Rescuers Down Under did.  The ballroom scene looks a little wonky today but otherwise I have few complaints about the film’s look.  The design elements are also pretty neat.  The beast himself looks like a really cool bear/wolf/lion thing that swings from being wild to being human rather seamlessly when needed and I also dig that effect that they put on Robby Benson’s voice.  As for the “Beauty” side; according to the Buzzfeed quiz I took when researching this series Belle is “the Disney princess that I am,” I think because I said I enjoy reading.  I think the people making this thought they  were making something really subversive by making Belle a lady who is smart enough to read and doesn’t swoon for the handsome guy, I don’t know that I was that impressed by this, but it’s not too far off from the “groundbreaking feminist” women who populate  the newest Disney movies.  Of course if you’re going to subvert fairy tale conventions this probably is the best one to do it with, after all there is already a bit of a subversion baked into the story given that it’s a fairy tale where it’s the man who needs to be saved from a magical affliction by the love of a woman rather than the reverse.

The usual talking point that arises when discussing this movie is the fact that, looked at objectively, it’s essentially a movie about a woman falling in love with her captor with her Stockholm Syndrome being quickly established though a montage/inner monologue song.  The problem is there and it doesn’t make a ton of objective sense, but that’s really kind of just something that’s inherent to the original fairy tale and I’m not sure if there was really a way they could have dealt with it too much better.  Where the movie does start to lose me is with the Gaston character, who is just really over the top with his doucheiness.  I get that he’s meant to be something of a send-up of the traditional Prince Charming but this is handled without even the slightest bit of subtlety and he has a whole lot of screen time too.  I also really found Gaston’s voice to be kind of old-fashioned and grating, especially when he was singing.  Speaking of singing, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are back making this into a musical and they certainly wrote their share of good tunes for it.  I’m not sure anything here is quite as catchy as the calypso numbers from The Little Mermaid but the Oscar winning title track is of course a classic of film music and there are some other songs here that are certainly well executed, maybe a few too many.  I haven’t counted them out but it feels like there are twice as many songs here as there were in The Little Mermaid and it feels a bit excessive.  If they’d cut out a few of the weaker numbers the showstoppers would have probably worked a bit better.

So there’s some stuff to like here but did it deserve to be the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture?  Actually, it just might have been.  Don’t get me wrong, I doubt I would have personally put it in my top five for that year but with the Disney animated film being the fifty-plus year old institution that they are it kind of seemed to make sense that they be acknowledged at some point and if they were going to do that it probably was right to do it for a movie that actually raised the envelope in the genre like this movie did.  At the end of the day the movie did end up leaving the 64th Annual Academy Awards with the exact same two music Oscars that The Little Mermaid won but this was definitely an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” moment as this reflected the movie’s prominence in the wider culture.  The movie made $145 million in theaters domestically, which doesn’t sound like a ton today but considering that no other Disney animated movie had ever broken the $100 million barrier and that it was the third highest grossing movie of the year behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  That is a huge victory especially given that the movie allegedly actually cost less to make than The Little Mermaid (no floating hair to animate).

4

Aladdin (1992)

1992 AladdinThe circumstances of how I first saw The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are hazy in my memories, but the same cannot be said about Aladdin.  In fact Aladdin is very likely the first movie I saw in theaters, it’s certainly the first one I distinctly remember seeing.  I don’t want to over-romanticize the experience but it did seem pretty damn special at the time.  I remember the screen seeming huge to me and the packed theater felt almost like an extension of the cave of wonders from the film and I also distinctly remember leaving the theater and it being kind of later at night than I’d usually be out of the house.  Needless to say it was an experience that stuck with me.  I think I saw the movie in theaters at least one more time during that initial run and probably watched it a couple more times on video but it has probably been well over twenty years since I last saw it.  I was not alone in having seen it that year as it was the highest grossing movie of 1992 by a decent margin.  If Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney movie to make over a hundred million Aladdin was the first to make over two hundred million.  It didn’t have quite the critical support of the last two films and it didn’t have quite the same Oscar success (though Alan Menken did three-peat for song and score), but the world was still very much on Disney’s side at this point.  But does the movie hold up?

After the incredible success of Beauty and the Beast it would have been a mistake to do another straight-up European fairy tale right after it.  So from here Disney would begin looking to less obvious sources for their movies and would specifically begin looking to the traditional stories of other cultures and given this going to one of the stories from the Arabian Nights certainly made sense.  Aladdin draws from the storybook version of classic Arabia as well as the Hollywood adventure serial version of it seen in films like The Thief of Bagdad and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  This is probably what the film does best.  The film’s fictional country of Agrabah is really well wrought despite some strange geographical features like the inclusion of Tigers and Parrots and the whole film has a lot of strong design elements from the guards’ costumes to the Sultan’s palace to the cave of wonders’ interior.  The adventure elements also work quite well with some really strong set-pieces like Aladdin’s final fight with Jafar and the animation is also sharp looking and a little more stylized than what we saw in their last two films.

Where the film starts to falter a bit is in the characters.  In particular, I found Aladdin himself to be kind of a bore.  It is kind of interesting to begin with that Disney was attempting to make what is essentially one of their fairy tale movies but from the perspective of a male protagonist and you can tell that the people involved were not quite sure how to handle that.  Unlike Belle and Ariel, who were both unfulfilled at the beginning of their movies, Aladdin seems pretty comfortable in his own skin from the beginning of the film and while he’s theoretically not happy about the fact that he lives in abject poverty he seems to manage his street life just fine.  Eventually he sets his sights on wooing Princess Jasmine as his motivation in the film, but you never really feel that deep desire in him, he just says he wants her to fall in love with him and you roll with it.  That I don’t care much for Scott Weinger’s voice performance is part of the problem.  He makes the character sound like this privileged surfer dude and that just makes you not that excited to get on board with him.

Of course the most notable voice actor here isn’t the voice of Aladdin, it’s Robin Williams as the genie.  Regardless of what he did, Williams’ presence here would have been noteworthy.  Semi-recognizable actors had been periodically doing voices in Disney movies for decades at this point, usually either aging character actors or cult figures but this was probably the first time that they gave a prominent role to a major celebrity at the height of his fame and invited him to very much be himself in the voice booth.  The results are fucking annoying.  I should preface this by pointing out that I’ve always found Robin Williams’ rather caffeinated stand-up/talk show persona to be a bit annoying in long chunks and it’s doubly annoying here when he seems interested in taking the viewer out of the movie at every opportunity with his fourth wall breaks and his impressions that were probably already dated when he was doing them in 1991.  The animators do do interesting things with the genie from a visual perspective and there is certainly some raw skill in the way they try to react to all of Williams’ digressions but pretty much every time that character was on the screen I just wanted him to go away so I could get back to the classical Arabian serial adventure.

I dislike that genie character both for how he is in this movie and for what he did to childrens’ movies in general.  I feel like the roots of everything I hate in the Dreamworks style probably stem from him and that is unfortunate.  This is not an easy part of the movie to overlook, for me it’s kind of a glaring flaw, but the overall package here does have a lot to offer.  Alan Menken’s new roster of songs (half with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and half with lyrics by frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice) are once again strong, if not quite as strong as Beauty and the Beast’s and they’re used a bit more judiciously than they were in that movie.  Rework Blue Deadpool 1.0, punch up the main character a bit, and maybe add an extra layer or two to the story and you’ve got a pretty solid Disney flick here.  I have a feeling that when I get deeper into this series and I find myself looking at the likes of Treasure Planet and Home on the Range I’m probably going to regret being so hard on this one, but when surrounded by other better movies this starts to seem a bit weaker by comparison.

3_zpsyxg7shxf1

The Lion King (1994)

1994 The Lion KingThroughout its history there have been two major brands of Disney movies: the fairy tale movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and the talking animal movies (Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, etc) and it was decidedly the fairy tale movie that defined the Disney Renaissance.  There was however one exception to this, and it was a big fucking exception: the ultimate Disney 90s hit The Lion King.  The amount of money that The Lion King made is frankly astronomical.  It hit the record that Aladdin set two years earlier and then made an additional hundred million dollars on top of it.  It was the highest grossing animated movie ever made at the time by a wide margin and held that record until Finding Nemo came along almost a decade later and worldwide it was the second highest grossing movie of all time behind Jurassic Park (though oddly it wasn’t that year’s highest grossing movie domestically, because holy shit, Forrest Gump made so much more money than you think it did).  It was frankly world conquering.  I was part of that wave as well.  I didn’t have some wildly memorable milestone first time viewing experience with it like I did with Aladdin, my mother just brought me to it on a random weekend afternoon and I presumably enjoyed it.  Since then though I’ve had a lot more exposure to it than I did to most of the Disney movies of this generation.  It was a go-to VHS in schools and summer programs and oddly I also ended up watching it in both Spanish and German while trying to learn those languages in middle school and high school respectively.  So this isn’t as uncharted a territory as some of the other movies I’m looking at here, but there is something to seeing it within the context of its place in Disney history for this series.

The most notable thing about The Lion King is actually something you might not immediately think about: it’s the first wholly original Disney movie.  This is perhaps original in the legal sense rather than colloquial sense.  It clearly borrows liberally from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi but there’s no one text that the film claims to be based on.  Every other Disney movie up to this point has either been explicitly based on a famous story, novel, or children’s book, even the ones like 101 Dalmations or The Rescuers whose source material has largely been forgotten.  The idea apparently had its genesis out of a desire to follow up their Arabian movie with a movie set in Africa but without all the baggage of making a movie about actual African humans, so they went with a movie about African wildlife living out in a version of the Serengeti that’s never been intruded by humans and where animals have created their own monarchical government.  From there it essentially plays out like a feline version of Hamlet with a young prince left to slay an uncle who usurped the throne through regicide.  It differs a bit from Shakespeare’s story in that Simba is led to believe that he’s personally responsible for the death of his father for much of the film and Pumbaa and Timon probably resemble a pair of Falstaffs more than they resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but either way there is some legitimately ambitious and heavy stuff here that sets the film apart from most Disney movies.

Animation-wise The Lion King is yet another big step forward.  You can see right from that amazing “Circle of Life” opening that this is being made by people who are incredibly confident in their talents and a lot of what they started earlier in the renaissance has kind of been perfected here.  There aren’t really any of those moments of dated CGI like the stairs in The Little Mermaid, or the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, or the opening of the cave of wonders like in Aladdin, everything here just looks great and they render the animals beautifully.  They also really embrace celebrity voice actors here throughout the cast, which is often a red flag but here it’s done the right way rather than out of a calculated effort to put names on the poster.  James Earl Jones adds a lot of gravitas to the film, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick both bring the right tone to Simba, Jeremy Irons makes for a very fun villain, and even Rowan freakin’ Atkinson somehow seems like an inspired casting choice here as Zazu the king’s aid.  Alan Menken finally took a break with this one, which you’d think would have been a blow but Elton John somehow stepped in and somehow, with the help of Tim Rice, managed to write songs that were right up there with what came before and Hans Zimmer managed to step in and do a pretty good job with the rest of the score.

I tried to resist this movie’s charms and do the grumpy person pickiness  I normally employ with these movies, but try as I might I really just couldn’t hate on it.  I expected Pumbaa and Timon to come in and wreck it but even they didn’t seem too bad, especially not after the genie horseshit from the last movie.  I could have done without Pumbaa’s fart story butting in on “Hakuna Matata” and Timon doing a luau to distract the guards, but Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane do have good chemistry and the two characters have kind of a Laurel and Hardy thing going on.   I also thought the movie’s final resolution could have been handled better.  Scar just sort of admits to all his wrongdoing way to easily and some of the animation looks kind of weird when it goes into slow motion during the fight scenes, but as a sort of metaphorical fated duel to restore the throne it still works and it looks pretty cool with the fire and the dark sky.  Really though this movie is hard to complain about, it’s clearly a pretty big win all around and I think I appreciate it all the more having seen all the proceeding Disney movies and having a clearer idea of how many of the pitfalls this doesn’t fall into and how many improvements it makes on what proceeded it.  What can I say, they hit it out of the part this time.

4.5

Collecting Some Thoughts

The Lion King was clearly a major triumph for Disney and was the culmination of five nearly perfect years of growth and unprecedented success for Disney and it felt like they were going to go as the clear standard-bearers for animation for decades to come.  Little did they know that their hubris would quickly get the best of them and that things would start to slip very quickly afterwards.  Seeing them all now I can confirm that this era does indeed more or less live up to its reputation.  Granted some kind of latent nostalgia may be having some effect on my opinions but given that I had clear issues with the one movie I should have the most nostalgia for I don’t think that’s the case.  The Lion King was actually the last Disney movie I would end up seeing in theaters for a variety of reasons and I aged out of their demographic shortly thereafter.  It is perhaps a strange quirk of fate during the five year period that Disney had its peak of critical and commercial popularity right when I happened to be of the exact right age to have been its intended audience while it was still going on.  You’d think that something like that would have made me perfectly situated to become a lifelong fan but perhaps it had the opposite effect and led me to take Disney for granted, to demand something even better than peak-Disney before I’d be impressed by any kind of family movie again.

Disneyology 101: The Disney Dark Age

This is the installment of this series that I’ve been weary of but also morbidly curious about.  The period of Disney’s history between 1974 and 1988 are infamous.  They were considered a clear low point for the venerable studio (at least until they hit a new low in the 2000s) and are now largely seen as a dark age that the studio needed in order to bounce back with their famous “Disney Renaissance” in the 90s.  This was caused by a number of factors: a general decline in standards that began after Sleeping Beauty under-performed, a lack of direction from a strong figure like Walt Disney, a whole lot of artistic and business infighting, a generally less hospitable environment for family movies, the list goes on and the result was a number of very bad years for the studio which nearly killed off their feature animation studio (for neither the first nor the last time) and for a brief moment saw them playing second fiddle to a rival.  But were these movies really as bad as they’re made out to be?  I do have some reason to suspect that they have at least a little more going for them than their reputations would suggest, or at the very least I have reason to be curious about some of them.

The Rescuers (1977)

1977TheRescuersThe Rescuers is notable for being the one and only Disney movie to ever get a theatrical sequel, which is really kind of amazing for a number of reasons.  Today we live in a world where sequelization is the norm rather than an exception but it’s still something Disney has avoided this trend almost entirely, at least outside of their direct to video business (which is lame but which has had the unintended benefit of preventing real sequels).  That sequel actually took a full 13 years to come to fruition, to the point where it actually came out in my lifetime while the original feels like ancient history by comparison.  This isn’t to say I was actually all that familiar with The Rescuers Down Under but I do vaguely remember seeing parts of it when I was a kid (there’s an eagle in it, right?).  By contrast I knew almost nothing about original aside from the fact that it was about mice that presumably rescue things and was actually rather surprised to see just how much older the film was than the sequel.  So of all their movies, why was this the one that got the sequel treatment?  Well, to my amazement, my research tells me that this was actually a huge hit in 1977… like, to the point of being one of their biggest hits ever up to that point.  It was also an especially big hit overseas for some reason and actually managed to outgross Star Wars in France.  Who knew?

This amazing financial success feels strange to me mainly because it just seems like a wildly mediocre movie to me.  Its basic concept just seems really lame.  Mice who are in some sort of club that… rescues people for some reason?  That seems less like the premise for a movie and more like a premise for a Saturday morning cartoon… in fact Disney more or less went and did that with Chip and Dale.  So who are these mice rescuing?  An orphan girl with seemingly no personality or character traits beyond being cute and helpless who has been kidnapped for reasons that are loopy even by the standards of Disney villain schemes.   We have a villainess named Ms. Medusa who is plainly a rip-off of Cruella De Ville (and actually was Cruella De Ville in early drafts of the script) who has kidnapped this orphan and moved her across the country to what appears to be the Louisiana Bayou so she can be lowered into a cave to retrieve a large diamond that has somehow been placed into this inaccessible cave by pirates.  I would think it would have been a lot easier to just pay a midget to go into the cave, but what do I know?  Anyway, the mice arrive on the scene, defeat the villains with relatively little trouble and everyone lives happily ever after… and that’s it.  Our heroes don’t really develop much and there’s no real allegory or moral, it’s pretty much a pure adventure story but without particularly memorable set-pieces.

So what does work here?  Well, our two mice heroes are pretty likable.  Eva Gabor’s is a nicely spunky heroine who exudes confidence and Bob Newhart’s Bernard makes for a nice foil to her with his general nervousness.  Also, the movie is pretty decent in setting its atmosphere and creating interesting locations out of New York and the Bayou even if the animation is as muted and dull as most Disney movies from this era.  I suppose the songs by Shelby Flint (which are played in the background rather than sung by characters on screen) are decent if not overly memorable.   Beyond all that though, I don’t know, it certainly isn’t gratingly annoying but it doesn’t have much going for it either.  As for its box office success and critical reception, I’m going to have to chalk that up to a general lack of competition.  There just weren’t that many movies being made for children in the late 70s, animated or otherwise, and people looking for that sort of thing kind of had to take what they could get.  In retrospect it feels like a pretty transitional film.  Wolfgang Reitherman is on board as a co-director but clearly had less influence over it and there would be some turnover before their next project.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

1981TheFoxAndTheHoundThe Rescuers had turned out to be a pretty decent hit for Disney and at the time they’d gotten plaudits for their work, but it seems clear that there were quite a few people internally at Disney who weren’t as forgiving and it would greatly affect their follow-up The Fox and the Hound.  There had been a sort of civil war brewing between Disney’s old guard (who were really close to retiring) and the younger animators (who thought Disney needed to update).  These tensions reached their peak during the making of The Fox and the Hound and resulted in the most vocal of the younger (and “younger” is a relative term here, many of them were in their 40s) animators, Don Bluth resigning and taking eleven other animators with him to start a rival studio.  This set back production on their current movie and put a bit of a pal over the whole production as they were forced to hire on some new animators , but I suppose Disney had the last laugh because (like a lot of the so-called duds in this era) the movie ended up being another box office success for them.

The film is, at its heart, a kid friendly take on the old story of two childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of a conflict.  That’s the heart of it anyway, but the movie gets distracted by a bunch of weak sub-plots and side characters that dilute a lot of its impact.  It feels like a bit like some of the bad patterns that Disney would fall into later where they’d mar some of their better movies by feeling obligated to throw lame comic relief characters into otherwise relatively serious movies.  The whole movie seems to have this tension where the makers weren’t sure whether they wanted to just make a cute movie about talking animal or make a movie that was serious about exploring the tension its characters were going through and this is most clearly apparent in the way they wuss out and have the character of Chief injured rather than killed (as he was in the source novel) midway through the movie.  This was apparently one of the main points of contention between the two generations at Disney and it’s plainly obvious that the younger writers (who were on Team Dead Dog) were right.  It makes zero sense to have the hound and his owner out for revenge over an accident that merely injured that character and they just seem even more pointlessly obsessed.  That’s a beat the film so clearly wants to have and it’s patently obvious that they blinked and changed things.

However, the film does recover a little at the end.  The Fox’s courtship of a lady fox is pretty well handled as far as these things go and the chase scene at the end is also pretty effective, especially once that bear gets in on the action.  Disney also seems to have had more resources to put into this one than some of the other movies they made around this time and the animation does look better because of it.  It was actually the most expensive movie Disney had made up to that point, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case if they adjusted for inflation and other variables because it still doesn’t look great per se, just not distractingly cheap.  Overall I kind of see why this movie became the frustrated middle child of the Disney cannon.  It’s far from being their best but certainly not their worst and it just doesn’t have that many standout elements that really make it stand out in the crowd.  It was something of a last hurrah for Disney’s old guard and the last movie Disney would make for a little while which wasn’t seen as some sort of embarrassment for the company.

3_zpsyxg7shxf1

The Black Cauldron (1985)

1985TheBlackCauldronOut of all the Disney movies I planned to watch this year, The Black Cauldron is definitely one of the ones I’ve been most curious to see.  This is in partly because it was an attempt to make a darker Disney movie that skewed older but also because, more than most of these movies, it is a total unknown quantity.  The movie had very little impact on pop culture and I’d hardly even seen a clip of it much less the whole movie.  If the movie is remembered for anything it’s for its incredible critical and commercial failure and, rightly or wrongly, is seen as the moment where the studio hit rock bottom.  It’s a shame because the people behind the movie clearly had high hopes for the project as they dumped a lot of money into it.  This was made for $44 million dollars, which is almost four times the cost of The Fox and the Hound, which was itself the most expensive animated movie ever made (without inflation adjustment).  That would have been money well spent if this had indeed gotten a wider audience interested in what they were doing and given themselves a cooler image, but things didn’t really work out for them.

While I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that Disney can just spend their way into making a good movie, the extra resources certainly don’t hurt.  This is easily the best looking Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty and it isn’t even close.  You can tell that that 1959 film was their model as this was the first time they experimented with wide screen, 70mm, and special animation effects since that movie’s relative box office failure and it makes it so that if nothing else The Black Cauldron is a very pleasant movie to look at.  The movie’s darker than usual tone is also a pretty interesting move.  This was Disney’s first PG rated movie, and this is before that rating had been completely devalued.  The film’s villain, while kind of generic and lacking in personality, has real menace and there’s a lot more of a sense of threat to the whole thing.  It’s a pretty fascinating direction to go in from a studio that, in its last movie, was too pussy to kill off a damn dog.  The problem is that while the movie seems really unique amongst Disney’s cannon it feels pretty generic by the standards of 80s fantasy movies in general.

The film’s protagonist is really boring.  He’s a 14 year old kid who… has brown hair and, uh, seems fairly noble I guess.  There’s also a princess here who’s more feisty than usual but otherwise doesn’t have much of an effect on the story.  There’s also a furry little comic relief thing that is absurdly annoying and the film has a really weird MacGuffin in the form of some kind of magical pig.  The story is also just a really basic Lord of the Rings ripoff and beyond that there really isn’t that much to say.  The film starts off well enough but really loses steam fast in its second act.  It picks up a little toward the end but by then it’s too little too late.  It’s a frustrating movie because it feels like the ingredients are there for something cool and they just blow it at every turn and the result is a movie that never lives up to its potential.  The general public rejected the movie so emphatically that the goddamn Care Bears movie ended up outgrossing it, many people at Disney were fired, and the decision was made to leave “edgy” animated movies to Ralph Bakshi going forward.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

1986 The Great Mouse DetectiveHeads rolled over The Black Cauldron and it coincided with a lot of changes to the greater Disney Corporation and the animated film division.  Michael Eisner had been brought it from Paramount to be Disney’s CEO and he appointed future Dreamworks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the motion picture division and by all accounts he hated what he saw of The Black Cauldron and personally cut 12 minutes out of it.  Clearly he felt the whole studio needed a big shakeup and different creatives started to take charge of their feature animations.  The Great Mouse Detective was the first post-Katzenberg production by the studio and he apparently made demands to it on a script level while also cutting the budget to avoid another overpriced bomb.  Whatever he did it seemed to work because The Great Mouse Detective was a very pleasant surprise for me and easily the studio’s best movie since The Jungle Book even if that’s not saying much.

Looking back, it’s clear that this movie was something of a trial run for some of the principals that would have been instrumental in the famous Disney Renaissance.  Most notably, two of the film’s four directors were a couple of guys named John Musker and Ron Clements who would together direct such movies as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and they’re even directing Moana later this year. The thing is, they were kind of stuck with a stupid concept to work with the first time around.  Rather than working on an epic fairy tale they were stuck making a movie that answered the question no one was asking: what if Sherlock Holmes was a mouse?  Honestly I’m not sure why this studio is so obsessed with mice, animals which most people hate these rodents but Disney saw it fit to make one its logo and fund two major motion pictures about them within a ten year period and this one really does not do a whole lot with the whole animal angle.  Come to think about it, they don’t do a lot with the Sherlock Holmes angle either.  We know from moment one that Professor Rattigan is the villain, so this isn’t really a whodunit so much as it’s about figuring out where the villain is and what his evil scheme is.  That’s less a Sherlock Holmes formula and more the format of a James Bond movie complete with a scene where the villain leaves the hero tied up to an elaborate machine he can escape from.

The movie is also pretty sharp visually.  It lacks the show-offy scope of The Black Cauldron but it’s clearly cleaner and more confidently staged than most of the other movies they made in the previous twenty years.  They do a good job of animating the London fog and they also use some computer animation and use it pretty well during the film’s rather exciting finale in the gears of Big Ben.  In general, the execution here is pretty strong; it’s just that this whole premise is… silly and not very Disney-like.  The public sort of seemed to agree because the reception of the movie was strong but nothing great.  The movie made about $25 million on a $14 million budget, which would have been considered to be a moderate success except that for the second movie in a row Disney found themselves coming in second to a rival animation studio, in this case Don Bluth’s most successful movie An American Tail (again, what the hell is it with animators and mice), which made $47 million dollars.  Disney is not a studio that was used to coming in second on its own turf so I think this thing was ultimately seen as a commercial failure, but clearly they felt like they were going in the right creative direction and they were probably right.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Oliver & Company (1988)

1988 Oliver & CompanyBy 1988 it was pretty clear to everyone that Disney was in a bad place and that they may or may not be able to dig their way out and they were becoming very open to experimentation.  Oliver & Company was in many ways an experiment to see if the thing that had ailed Disney the whole time had simply been that they were behind the times and needed to start getting hip with the MTV generation and the results were… kind of hilarious in retrospect.  This is actually one of the few Disney movies to be placed in a contemporary setting and one of even fewer Disney movies to fully embrace its modernity, and because of that it has become dated a lot faster than most of their output because this movie is what you’d call “totally 80s.”  You can tell this right from the first moments of the movies where we immediately start seeing 80s New York as the setting and start hearing Huey Lewis and the News on the soundtrack.  In fact there’s a lot of pop music in the soundtrack here and it feels less like the Broadway-ish fare that Disney usually traffics in and more like fully produced MTV ready songs by artists like of Billy Joel (who also voices a major character during a very brief moment in time where he was considered cool and youthful) and while these songs are catchy enough for what they are they feel out of place and it’s more jarring than usual when characters suddenly break out into this kind of song than normal in part because they particularly sound like studio recordings rather than an approximation of someone singing on the street.

As a story the best way I can describe this movie is… rushed.  The movie is an attempt to re-tell Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” as the story of a stray kitten in New York, which I’m willing to bet seemed like a good idea at one point and they do find some semi-clever ways to adapt the story, but in the long run I’m not so sure that turning a 600 page novel set over a long period of time into a 74 minute movie set over three days was such a smart move.  “Oliver Twist” is a story that’s primarily about how its young protagonist moves between class stratas and the way he falls in and out of certain social circles be it the chaotic world of Fagin’s gang or the comforting world of the Brownlows, but in this version there’s very little time for him to really integrate with any of these worlds and he seems to build these lifelong loyalties after hanging out with people for all of a single day.  But let’s not ignore the obvious; even the most rock-solid of storytelling here would have almost certainly been lost amid this movie’s overwhelming “‘tude.”  Hell, they might as well have renamed Dodger to Poochie, because that Simpsons episode more than exemplifies what seemed to be going on with this movie and its general datedness is probably a big part of why it was never really embraced by future generations of kids.

From an execution perspective the movie is… mostly fine.  Disney had really started embracing celebrity voice actors at this point, a practice that they would sort of cool on shortly afterwards.  The animation is pretty decent for the most part, you can tell their craft has kept improving and they do an admirable job of filling the New York streets with activity although their use of computer animation is a little less impactful and a bit more distracting than it was in the last movie.  Critics were not fond of the movie but it did make decent money although once again the studio’s success was kind of overshadowed by Don Bluth.  This movie opened the very same weekend as Bluth’s The Land Before Time and lost the weekend $7.5 million to $4 million.  Oliver & Company surpass Bluth’s film and gross $53 million to LBT’s $46 million, which is pretty much a draw.  Disney would have the last laugh though as this would be the last time that Bluth would be viewed as any sort of threat.  The film’s bigger legacy though is probably one of failure as I kind of suspect that Disney was a little embarrassed by their sellout attempts here as evidenced by the fact that they ran as fast as possible in the other direction shortly thereafter.

2_zpsouqiyr54

Collecting Some Thoughts

So, I’ve waded through the Disney Dark Age and obviously the big question is “was it as bad as its reputation suggests?”  Objectively, I’m inclined to say “not really but I understand why people think so.”  Simply looking at my star ratings I definitely gave higher scores to the movies during this installment of the series than I did to most of the movies in my last series on the “Reitherman Years” and I think that era has been given something of an unfair pass in part because The Jungle Book came out in the middle of it and that movie is seen as a sort of classic.  What I think has directed so much ire towards this era, aside from sour grapes over what was going on behind the scenes, is that this was the first time that Disney didn’t really seem like Disney.  Even when they had put out bad movies in the past there had still been little doubt that they were the undisputed kings of mainstream animation and that wasn’t necessarily true of their 70s and 80s output.  They had some real competition now and you could sort of see them flailing.  On top of that they had abandoned a lot of what had worked for them in the past.  Instead of alternating between fairy tale movies and talking animal movies they had doubled and tripled down on the talking animal movies in this era and the one fairy tale like movie they did attempt was a far cry from their earlier formula that people were so nostalgic for.

Despite Disney’s problems during this era you can definitely see them rebuilding towards something better as they went.  The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were basically extensions of the Reitherman era and had all the problems associated with it and while The Black Cauldron had plenty of problems itself I feel like it marked a point where the animators were learning and they used tricks from it to make The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company work better than they otherwise would have.  Those last two movies are the real transitional efforts.  You can see the techniques that would finally bring The Disney Renaissance to life but they were being used towards story ideas that weren’t worthy of them.  As everyone knows, Disney was about to break out of its doldrums in a big way and that will be the subject of my next installment, but that is going to have to wait because I’m going to be putting Disneyology on hiatus for a few months and resuming it after Award season ends.  Fortunately I’ll be able to hit the ground running with the movies that most exemplified what Disney was all about to my generation.

Disneyology 101: The Reitherman Years

Director credits are always a little weird when it comes to mainstream animated movies.  There are certainly names like Brad Bird and Henry Selick that actually mean something when you see them but usually the “directors” on animated movies are just the people doing the most busy work and the true auteur is either a team of people or a producer overseeing a whole division.  During the 30s/40s “golden age” there would often be something like six or seven credited directors, and during their 50s comeback they would routinely have three often interchangeable directors credited to each film… in part because we all knew who was really in charge: Walter Elias Disney himself.  However, things changed in the 1960s.  Disney’s health was waning and whatever attention he had to give was directed towards other endeavors like building theme parks and hosting TV shows, something was going to change in their process and it was in this decade that a man named Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman stepped in as the head of the animation division at Disney and would start to have a director or co-director credit on all the movies that the studio made for a period.  I’m not exactly sure yet if his had is actually noticeable on these movies, but it’s clear that his tenure does mark a distinct era in the studio’s history and that he was somehow able to guide them through a rather tenuous period.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

1961One Hundredand One DalmatiansAs I look at the history of Disney I begin to see a bit of a pattern: the studio continually respond to success by increasing their budgets and pushing their art forward… only to end up having a big budget dud at one point that sets them back and forces them to go back to square one and make something on the cheap.  After Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed they were forced to dumb down their style and make Dumbo.  After they were derailed by World War II they again pared down their style and made Cinderella on the cheap.  And it would appear that the same thing happened after Sleeping Beauty went wildly over-budget and they were once again punished for their ambition/hubris.  Their next film was probably their biggest budget slash yet with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a movie with none of the Cinemascope grandeur or wildly detailed animation of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact the movie is largely defined by the introduction of another technology behind the scenes courtesy of a little company called Xerox.  This new technology would transfer drawings directly to animation cells rather than having them inked onto them by hand, and you definitely see them struggling with this new method here.  The detail is greatly diminished, there are noticeable outlines around characters, and color saturation is greatly affected.  To my eyes it’s their ugliest movie yet, but I remember finding their style change in the early 50s being jarring at first as well and I eventually got over it.

Generally Disney movies fall into two categories: fairy tale/children’s lit adaptations and talking animal movies.  This obviously falls into the latter category and is also notable for being a second dog movie in close proximity with Lady and the Tramp.  In fact this could almost be seen as a spiritual sequel to Lady and the Tramp as that movie ended with dogs forming a family unit while this one more or less begins there.  That’s about where the comparisons between the two end as that earlier film was a well thought out romance with an interesting class consciousness to flesh it out while One Hundred and ONe Dalmatians is primarily just a movie about rescuing puppies who have fallen victim to one of the most ridiculous kidnapping schemes in film history.  The early parts of the movie are pretty good but as soon as Cruella de Vil enters the picture everything gets stupid fast.  For one thing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the owners of these Dalmatians are hanging out with this bitch in the first place.  She’s introduced as an “old schoolmate” of the wife, but she appears to be twice her age and she’s also really obviously evil, like, to the point where her name is a play of the words “cruel devil” and the husband has written an entire song about how awful she is.  Why the hell was she allowed near these dogs in the first place.  What’s more, her scheme makes very little sense.  There’s clearly no market for dog fur, so she must be wanting to murder and skin man’s best friend just so she can walk around in a polk-a-dotted fur coat herself.  Even if one was this fur-crazed it’s unclear why she thinks kidnapping these dogs is the best way to do this.  They do appear to live in a world where “dognapping” incidence ends up on the front page of the paper and triggers investigations by Scotland Yard and it did appear to be possible to simply buy other 84 dogs necessary to make this coat.

There are other plot holes I could point out (like the fact that the adult Dalmatians suddenly appear at de Vil’s hideout despite not having transportation or having been told where to go), but the bigger problem is that this movie is just kind of dull and pointless.  It feels like they realized that Dalmatians in large numbers would be an ideal subject to test their new Xerox technology on and they threw together a half-assed story in order to justify it.  Fortunately for Disney cute dogs do sell movie tickets and the movie ended up being a pretty big success and the studio was once again saved from a financial bind.  Like most Disney movies from this era it is seen as yet another classic but I think that reputation is not really earned.  It’s not an offensively bad movie exactly but it certainly seems kind of half-asses compared to what came before both narratively and stylistically.

2_zpsouqiyr54

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

1963 Sword in the StoneOut of all the Disney movies from the studio’s “classic era” (which more or less comprises the movies released during Walt Disney’s lifetime) The Sword in the Stone is easily the one I know the least about.  I definitely never saw it when I was younger and of all these movies it’s probably the one that had the least impact on pop culture.  There have been other movies in this retrospective like Alice in Wonderland  that I don’t have much of a memory of, but at least that’s based on a story that’s been adapted a million other times.  I suppose you could say the same about The Sword in the Stone given that it’s based on Arthurian legend, but it’s based on a very narrow portion of the King Arthur story, a part that I’m not too familiar with.  Specifically it’s based on a 1938 novel by T. H. White, which was the first part of his tetralogy called “The Once and Future King,” and focused entirely on King Arthur’s childhood leading up to his drawing of the titular sword from the stone.  The movie actually made a lot of money when it first came out but it’s fallen out of favor for a reason: the movie is terrible.  It’s not just bad by the standards of other Disney movies, it’s piss poor even when compared to your average animated movies from other studios.

The film opens with the “live action storybook” opening that was seen previously in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, seemingly to align it with those other fairy tale movies but it doesn’t really play out like any of them.  There’s no princess for one thing, no romance, only barely a villain, and the structure is generally different.  In fact this film’s structure really seems odd to me as its extremely episodic and largely plays out like an extended prologue (probably because it’s based on the first in a series of four novels).  At the film’s center are three “lessons” that Merlin gives to Arthur in which the two of them turn into fish, squirrels, and finally birds and it isn’t really clear what he’s learning from any of them.  Merlin constantly tells him to value brains over brawn but it’s harldy clear what being a fish has to do with that and the squirll bit is even more perplexing as the whole skit seems to mostly revolve around Arthur nearly getting raped by a lady squrill who has a Pepe Le Piu thing going on.  In fact they never actually seem to get to the lesson in any of these sequences, Arthur just keeps almost getting killed in them before Merlin saves him.  In fact Arthur does almost nothing for himself throughout the movie and none of his lessons actually comes to anything.  It’s as if the movie The Karate Kid consisted almost entirely of Daniel waxing cars, never being told what that has to do with martial arts, and then having Mr. Miyagi fighting off the Cobra Kai for him at the end, and then maybe having a title card at the end saying that Daniel would one day become the next Bruce Lee or something.  It’s the worst “heroes journey” story imaginable.  I suppose you’re supposed to surmise given you existing knowledge of the King Arthur character that these lessons about becoming animals are really formative, but Merlin’s preachy credo of academic learning doesn’t exactly jive with what we know about Arthur, who is probably more associated with smiting people with Excalibur than he is with scholarly study.

From a production end this movie is also a pretty big fail.  The animation in the movie is… it might be going to far to say it’s horrible because I’m sure there were other studios doing worse at this time, but it’s a far cry from the great looking stuff they did earlier.  One Hundred and One Dalmatians sort of got away with this new Xerox look because it had a different setting than most of their previous movies and had kind of a unique style to it, but this movie invites comparisons to better looking movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and woefully unimpressive when compared to both.   This also marks the first movie with songs written by the Sherman Brothers, which I’m told is a big deal because they would write some pretty famous songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but very little of their talent is apparent here because the music in this thing sucks.  The most famous song is a bit of lyrical gibberish called “Higitus Figitus” which is a complete ripoff of the already lame “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”  Finally I despised the movie’s sense of humor.  Part of Merlin’s magic is that he knows about the future and about things that haven’t yet been discovered and brings this up in some of the most eye rolling fourth wall breaks you can imagine.  I suppose in many ways he’s a precursor to the genie from Aladdin in this way but the dude doing the voice is no Robin Williams.  This reaches its nadir in the last scene where Merlin shows up to Arthur’s coronation in Bermuda shorts and references that this all may one day become a movie.  Eyeroll.  There’s almost nothing about this movie I liked.   It’s a failure creatively, narratively, artistically, and cinematically and Disney is right to want to downplay this in their history as much as possible.

1

The Jungle Book (1967)

1967 Jungle BookOn December 15th, 1966 Walt Disney died of lung cancer after forty six years of working in film and creating an animation empire.   This news was greeted with worldwide mourning and in a bigger way it seemed like the end of an era.  Louis Mayer had already died at this point, Darryl F. Zanuck was close to being booted from 20th Century Fox, and Jack Warner was three years from retiring at Warner Brothers.  It seemed like the end of an era and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the company he built.  In his last years Walt had one final mission: to make his swan song.  It would be an exaggeration to view The Jungle Book as being the product of his singular vision and the film’s credits certainly wouldn’t indicate him as having had more creative input on it than with any of the studio’s other films, but all evidence points to him having had a more hands on role in the film than he did on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, and his influence definitely shows as this is a clear improvement over both of those movies.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Mowgli sucks.  He’s this really punchable little shit who does dumb stuff constantly and seems to be on the verge of getting himself killed throughout the movie.  This would be a bigger problem if I thought he was the film’s true protagonist, but he isn’t really.  That distinction would fall on Bagheera and Baloo, who are sort of the Henry IV and Falstaff to Mowgli’s Prince Hal.  In fact the side characters in this movie across the board are quite strong, in part because this is one of the first Disney movies to cast somewhat recognizable names for the voice cast… well, recognizable at the time anyway.  The villainous Shere Khan, voiced by veteran character actor George Sanders , is a really cleverly drawn foe given his generally understated mannerism and interesting motives.  King Louis is also a really fun (if somewhat incidental) presence both because his mannerisms are very well animated and also because jazz bandleader Louis Prima really kills it on the “I Wanna Be Like You” number.  The only voice performance I didn’t care for was Sterling Holloway as Kaa the python, which is a character with some cool animation behind him but who probably shouldn’t have had the same voice as Winnie the Pooh.

In general this just seems like the first Disney movie that’s really interested in engaging with the slang and music of its time… or at least the slang and music of the ten or so years preceding it.  I can definitely see that instinct backfiring in a big way, but here it mostly works.  The film’s animation also seemed like an improvement over what they were doing in the last two movies.  They’re still animating with Xerox machines but they seem to be getting better at it and they used more hand painting for the backgrounds this time around.  Make not mistake, the animation here still doesn’t hold a candle to what the studio was doing in the 30s, 40s, or even 50s but it didn’t bug me as much as the last two movies did.  Ultimately this movie did work for me although at times it felt more like a series of sketches than a full narrative.  There’s an interesting theme somewhere in there about whether Mowgli really “belongs” in the jungle which is never really fully explored and the ending where Mowgli does a complete 180 turn on his insistence on remaining in the jungle the second he gets a glimpse of some poontang is kind of a cop-out.  The rest of the world seemed to like it as was a big hit at the box office, well-liked by critics, and to this day is probably one of Disney’s five most famous movies of all time.  By pretty much any measure it was a pretty good movie for Walt to go out on.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

The Aristocats (1970)

1970 AristocatsDisney’s 1970 film The Arisocats was moderate box office hit in 1970.  I repeat, the movie was a moderate box office hit.  It made about $20 million at the box office (I think, it can be kind of hard to tell with movies made before 1980) which is around what other Disney movies of the era made.  It got decent reviews too.  You wouldn’t know that today however because the movie hasn’t had anywhere close to the cultural impact of other Disney movies.  If it’s remembered at all its for its place in film history as the moment a lot of people identify as Disney’s shark jump moment which not too coincidentally  comes right after the death of company patriarch Walt Disney.  Walt was not entirely divorced from this production.  The film started out as a proposed live action episode of Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series (not sure how that would have worked) and shortly before his death Disney approved the story as an animated feature to follow The Jungle Book.  It would probably be inaccurate to say that it’s Disney’s most obscure film as that distinction probably goes to one of their various misfires in the 80s and early 2000s but it’s definitely the least well known of the Disney movies I’ve watched so far for this series.  Hell I didn’t even know what this thing was about before turning it on except that it presumably involved aristocratic cats.

So is this deserving of its crappy reputation?  Well it is and it isn’t.  If the movie has a bad reputation it isn’t because it’s the most awful thing the studio ever made, I can see why critics at the time gave it a pass anyway, but it doesn’t surprise me that the movie was swiftly forgotten as “forgettable” is probably the best word to describe it.  The movie is basically the “pampered female pet falls for a roguish street animal” plot of Lady and the Tramp combined with the “animals get kidnapped by a crazy person” plot of One Hundred and One Dalmatians but is less effective than both of them.  The romance feels secondary forced in a way that the Lady and the Tramp courtship didn’t and the kidnapping plot makes even less sense than Cruella De Vil’s scheme.  This lame butler is in a position where his boss is going to leave money to her cats which will then go to him after the kitties die… to me that doesn’t sound like a half bad deal.  He’s still going to get the money eventually (cats don’t live that long) and even if he did need those cats out of the way it makes zero sense for him to try to bump them off while their owner is still alive.  The second the cats are gone this old lady will have no incentive to leave the money to the butler anymore.  It’s moronic, and it doesn’t help that this butler isn’t moustache twirlingly fun as a villain the way Cruella is.  The plot isn’t really the problem though, the characters are.  We don’t really get to know that much about Dutchess the cat except for her role as a mother to the kittens, who are all quite annoying in part because the real kids who voice them don’t really give them distinct personalities.  Thomas O’Malley has a little more personality… but that personality is a lot like Baloo (also voiced by Phil Harris) to the point where it just seems like another lazy lift from a previous success.  The side characters are also kind of lame and none of the characters in the movie really sell us on the emotional stakes or even give us the sense that they’re in much danger.

There are some saving graces here.  For one thing, Disney has continued to improve on their use of Xerography to the point where the animation here finally looks like it’s at least on par with some of the stuff they made in the 50s.  The animation isn’t good enough to make the film a visual marvel or anything but it wasn’t a distraction like it was for the first two movies in this installment.  The songs in the movie aren’t half bad.  The Sherman brothers returned to write songs after their success with The Jungle Book and it would be the last Disney movie they’d work on.  The song “Thomas O’Malley Cat” works pretty well for Phil Harris and has some fairly complex lyrics that fit well in the melody.  The song that gets most widely cited is “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” which is a decent song but the scene it shows up in seems really superfluous and jazz music does not really make sense showing up in 1910 Paris.  In fact I’m not really sure why this thing was set in Paris anyway, the film doesn’t do a lot with the setting and given the music involved it would have made a lot more sense to set it in New Orleans.  So this movie wasn’t painful to watch exactly but it feels less more like the work of a competitor doing a Disney impression than like an actual Disney movie, so ultimately I feel like its status as the “forgotten” Disney movie is mostly deserved.

2_zpsouqiyr54

Robin Hood (1973)

1973 Robin HoodI’ve mentioned before that Disney movies can generally be split into two categories: storybook movies (including fairy tale movies) and talking animal movies.  Robin Hood is the one place where these two strands of Disney movies combined into a sort of Super-Disney movie.  Like most of the fairy tale movies the film opens with a live action book being opened on a table and the story more or less plays out exactly as it would if it were a straightforward adaptation of the old late-medival folk tale, but all the characters are bipedal anthropomorphic animals.  I think they went the talking animal route with this one because, unlike earlier fairy tale adaptations they did, Disney had to contend with a number of previous Robin Hood adaptations starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks which were already classics in their own rights and they needed something to make this stand out given that it is more or less a standard re-telling of the most common Robin Hood story.  The selection of animals to characters is interesting in that most of the “commoners” are European woodland creatures while most of the villains are African jungle animals, possibly to reflect that they were stand-ins for Noman rulers rather than the native brits that the “common” characters represent.  Deciding to make Robin Hood a fox was certainly a smart choice and there is a certain logic in making Prince John a rather weak looking lion (especially giving his brother’s nickname).

Disney does not really have the easiest job in trying to get this story into a short 83 minute timespan.  The movie starts really abruptly more or less right in the middle of the story and has to establish the historical context through dialog later in the film.  The film also ends rather abruptly, with King Richard swooping in and Deus Ex Machinaing Prince John into jail.  This happy ending is totally historically inaccurate BTW, Richard spent about six months of his life in England and shortly after his return from the Crusades was killed violently during a siege (as depicted in the opening scene of the 2010 Ridley Scott Robin hood) and Prince John would be his successor, but I digress.  In many ways the film suffers from the same problem as Peter Pan in that it makes its villain such a source of comedy and its hero such a hyper-competent swashbuckler that there really isn’t that much suspense about how things will end up and whenever Robin Hood does make a mistake (like, provoking Prince John into punitively taxing his subjects in retaliation for Robin Hood’s blustery stunts) the film never really explores it.  There is a little bit of progress though in that they seem to be giving the film a hint of an edge by making the protagonist an outlaw.  The whole “rob from the rich, give to the poor” thing is a degree of moral relativism that I don’t know would have been present under Walt Disney’s squeaky clean standards.  The movie also has some very slightly bawdy (by family movie standards) jokes here and there involving boobs.

In general the visual design and animation in the movie is pretty decent.  It’s kind of the opposite of the last couple of movies in that the characters and objects look pretty decent but the backgrounds look really weak and washed out.  The film’s voice cast is also kind of odd.  Half the voice actors a British but half of them seem to be very noticeably American, including Phil Harris, who has been brought back for the third straight movie and has lazily been cast once again as an easygoing bear.  The whole film has a kind of strange sense of culture, emblemized by the decision to score the movie with bluegrass music performed by an omniscient minstrel voiced by country singer Roger Miller which seems really bizarre in this context.  There are a lot of strange choices here really and some of just don’t work at all and others they kind of get away with.  In general this movie seems to have a rather mixed reputation today, some people view it as one more step towards an era of irrelevance at Disney, but others seem to have fond memories of it and view it as one last gasp of greatness from the old Disney.  I sit somewhere in the middle on this, I think the movie has a lot of weaknesses but it is a little better to me than some of the studios worst efforts.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Collecting some thoughts

The usual narrative around Disney is that they totally dropped the ball shortly after Walt died and slowly ran the studio into the ground during the 70s and 80s before they were saved by the “Disney Renaissance” but it seems to me that they were already clearly slipping before then.  In fact, if it wasn’t for The Jungle Book this whole era would be entirely lackluster.  I started this out by asking if Wolfgang Reitherman’s hand would be noticeable and the answer is… not really.  It’s obvious that something shifted during this era but that seemed to have more to do with technological and budgetary change mixed with a sort of dearth of creativity from the team, I don’t think old Woolie is really the one to blame and despite what the credits say I don’t think he had more of a singular influence over any of these movies than the parade of co-directors we saw on the earlier movies.  To be fair to all involved, I don’t know that the 70s were ever going to be kind to Disney.  In the film world the 70s were a very “adult” decade and one of the often unexplored reasons for this was a demographic reason.  Everyone knows that the late 40s saw a “baby boom” in America and around the world and it probably isn’t a coincidence that the height of Disney’s profitability occurred during the 50s right when all those baby boomers were right in their demo, but by the late 60s and 70s those kids were grown and more interested in things like acid using motorcyclists, morose gangsters, and demonic possession.  With less of a possible audience base comes less resources and lesser ambitions and the sudden dip in Disney’s output at this stage starts to make at least a little sense.