Week 33: Pocahontas

Disney’s Attempt at History

Riverbend

Originally Released: 1995

Pocahontas was going to be a home run. It was a guaranteed smash success. People wouldn’t be able to resist the story based on real people in American history. This was the feeling going around the studios when the movie was being pitched. Disney also had many beautiful pieces of art at the meeting which was set up for the filmmakers to choose between working on Pocahontas and The Lion King. Most of the top personnel was sold on this idea and chose to work on Pocahontas.

Disney's Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story. How could this possibly go wrong?

Disney’s Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story. How could this possibly go wrong?

It is interesting to see in hindsight the difference between The Lion King and Pocahontas. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to like about Pocahontas, but in a way it has a bit of a forced feel to it, as if the filmmakers were trying too hard to make this the next Beauty and the Beast. In contrast, nobody expected The Lion King to end up as good as it did (that’s a story with a good moral in it all by itself).

"Colors of the Wind" is beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding. It's definitely a high point of the movie.

“Colors of the Wind” is beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding. It’s definitely a high point of the movie.

On the positive side, Pocahontas boasts a beautiful art style and great animation. I enjoyed the color palette with its greens, blues and purples. It felt different and was an interesting choice. Animator Glen Keane (who animated Ariel, the golden eagle, and Beast) did another superb job in this film with his animation of lead character Pocahontas. Others did a great job as well.

Disney once again collaborated with Alan Menken for the music, and once again he created an excellent score. His work here would win him another two academy awards for best musical score (which was his 4th win for musical score in as many films while at Disney) and for best song in “Colors of the Wind”. For the songs, Menken teamed up with lyricist/composer Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked fame). They were an effective duo. The good songs in Pocahontas are REALLY good. In fact, I think “Colors of the Wind” is so beautifully sung and orchestrated in the movie that I question why it was even necessary to get a pop version for the ending credits. I prefer the Julie Kuhn version much more than Vanessa Williams’ rendition. But although most songs are amazing, there is also a stinker or two in the lot. As a whole, though, I really enjoy the sounds of Pocahontas.

The meeting scene. I thought it was extremely well done.

The meeting scene. I thought it was extremely well done.

There are also some things I don’t like too much about the movie. Despite being based on history, in true Disney fashion the filmmakers strayed far from the source material in order to tell the story they wanted. If it is a history lesson they wanted to combine into the entertainment, they failed miserably at doing so (though this is not a big deal if this is understood upfront by the viewer). Pocahontas also suffers from a bad case of political correctness. That’s about all I’ll say on that front, though.

Everybody knows that the pale man is a scourge to humanity, only interested in killing innocent women and children and destroying the earth itself...

Everybody knows that the pale man is a scourge to humanity, only interested in killing innocent women and children and destroying the earth itself…

"You there! I want you to organize a team to slaughter men, women, and children and to desecrate the land! No, wait. First we have to sing "dig and dig and diggity dig" whilst we prance about with spades. Then we will continue with our devilish ways."

“You there! I want you to organize a team to slaughter men, women, and children and to desecrate the land! No, wait. First we have to sing “dig and dig and diggity dig” whilst we prance about with spades. Then we will continue with our devilish ways.”

Pocahontas is also the first film in the Disney renaissance that starts to feel a little formulaic with its structure and characters. For example, in Aladdin, Abu felt like he was actually a contributing character. But in Pocahontas, the animal characters Meeko, Flit, and Percy feel like nothing more than obligatory cuddly comic relief whose sole existence is to keep the children entertained. It seems that Disney’s search to find the secrets to its earlier successes led them to some conclusions. However, some of the elements in Pocahontas would suggest that perhaps they were barking up the wrong (willow?) tree in this search.

Before he was fighting criminals in Gotham City, Christian Bale was fighting Indians in Jamestown. This incident is likely what caused him to establish his no-killing rule as the Caped Crusader. The guilt must have been too much for him to handle.

Before he was fighting criminals in Gotham City, Christian Bale was fighting Indians in Jamestown. This incident is likely what caused him to establish his no-killing rule as the Caped Crusader. The guilt must have been too much for him to handle.

In the end, Disney may not have been able to make history with this film about true history, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives, and I can sit and enjoy Pocahontas despite its flaws. That being said, I’m not against parody and teasing Disney’s films. To finish this post, have a look at three great Youtube videos that all use stuff from the film (I discovered these on the Facebook page of my friends from “Rediscovering the Magic with Rick and Friends.” I’d recommend anyone who wants a Disney-themed laugh to check it out). The videos can be found here, here and here.

Climax

John Smith

Blue River

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Week 32: The Lion King

A King of a Film

Simba looks to heaven

Originally Released: 1994

Looking back, I think the three most-watched movies for me growing up were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These are three movies that I basically had memorized back then, and today, they are three films that I can go back to at any time and still really enjoy.

Thinking about it, I was really lucky to be a child during the time of this Disney renaissance, and with this trio of films in particular. Each of the three is a masterpiece and can claim to be the best Disney has to offer in some way. While Beauty and the Beast is the most spellbinding, heart-warming and inspiring film, and Aladdin is the funniest escape to a far away place, I find The Lion King to be the most powerful and moving animated film in the entire Disney canon.

I still get goosebumps when this appears on the screen and Lebo M. starts his African chant. It is just an incredible film opening.

I still get goosebumps when this appears on the screen and Lebo M. starts his African chant. It is just an incredible film opening.

I said in my post for Beauty and the Beast that it was my favorite of all the Disney films. I stand by that statement, but to me, The Lion King comes in a close second. A VERY close second. From the very first seconds of the film with the rising sun and the African chant, it becomes clear that The Lion King is something special. As incredible as the opening scene and song are, the film amazingly doesn’t let up after that. We meet a superb cast of characters who tell a deeply moving and emotional tale, all the while being accompanied by a marvelous score, beautiful and bold art, and brilliant animation.

The Lion King is loaded with fun, smart, and memorable characters. This collection of characters is every bit as memorable and strong as the cast I praised in AladdinThe Lion King is a great example of how to make each character important to the story and to the film, regardless of whether they are the protagonist, evil henchman, or comic relief sidekick. It helps that the characters are voiced by what was the most star-studded cast of any Disney feature up to that point. Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, and all the others do a fantastic job. Particular mention needs to be given to Jeremy Irons, though. After the string of villains in Ursula, Gaston, and Jafar, Irons had a lot to live up to in his voicing of Scar. But he really delivered and continued the streak of making the villain stand out.

Jeremy Irons (and Andreas Deja and his animation team) knocked this one out of the park. This is another great villain.

Jeremy Irons (and Andreas Deja and his animation team) knocked this one out of the park. This is another great villain.

Speaking of standing out, where do I begin with the music? At the time, the score for The Lion King was unlike anything ever heard in a Disney film. The now-legendary Hans Zimmer, who composed the score, turned in what I believe to be the very best work of his career with his blending of African instruments and choruses with a sweeping cinema style. It is no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Score in 1995 (that had to be the easiest decision ever for the academy). To me this is easily the best score of any Disney film. It is one of my favorite movie scores of all time, and if Disney ever released the complete score, I would snatch it up in a second. Beyond the score, the songs are also great. The combination of Zimmer, Lebo M., Tim Rice, and Elton John proved to be a winning combination.

Color swap

Another great aspect of the film is the art and color used throughout. The Lion King is beautiful to look at. It has lush green in the plants, brilliant blues in the day and nighttime skies, and many other bright and bold colors (just look at the collection of screenshots to see what I mean). It has some incredible backdrops of fields, cliffs, trees, and other landscapes that are artistically enhanced in a wonderful way. Pride Rock and the jungle home of Timon and Pumbaa are full of life and color, while the Elephant graveyard and Post-Scar Pride Rock serve as effective contrasts and capture the bleakness and dire situation the characters are in at those times and places.

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

In addition to the art, the animation is also a high mark of the film. Interestingly, when Aladdin was completed, the Animation department broke into two groups: one team would work on Pocahontas and the other would do The Lion KingPocahontas was pitched as the superior film, as an automatic home run. And so everybody wanted to work on it and most of the top talent ended up moving to that project (Andreas Deja was the exception because his dream was to work on an animal picture like The Jungle Book). This left The Lion King to the “B-team,” and it was considered more of the  “B-movie” project, with no one really having high expectations for it. The directors practically had to beg to get people to come work on the project. But this so-called “B-team” rose up to the challenge, and in the process really advanced the craft of animating animals to a whole new level. The movements of the characters on the screen had the most believable mixture of human and real animal ever seen in animation at the time of its release in 1994. And in addition to character animation, the team continued the trend of giving scenes an extra “wow factor” with the help of 3d computer animation.

Mufasa appears

But perhaps the strongest part of The Lion King to me is its emotional story of family and its powerful message of personal responsibility. Somehow, The Lion King manages to go beyond most films that merely entertain, and it penetrates deep down to the soul, both emotionally and spiritually. Despite being about wild animals, this movie addresses some of the most basic and important human issues. Things like loving and honoring family (from both a child and parent perspective), respecting all other life, the importance of embracing responsibilities and doing the right thing, and the possibility of redemption all ring true and loud and clear in this film.

There are some definite "burning bush" inspirations here. And I am really glad this is the case.

There are some definite “burning bush” inspirations here. And I am really glad this is the case.

My favorite scene is when Mufasa’s spirit comes back to remind Simba of himself. It was said that during production, the filmmakers looked to stories like Joseph in Egypt and Moses at the burning bush for inspiration in the movie. No doubt this part of the movie benefits from the stories. The result of this is a scene that is not only key to the film, but a scene with spiritual parallels that really resonate with me. Mufasa tells Simba, “You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become.” In real life, perhaps we can feel at times that we forget who we are and we lose sight of who we can become. We just need to but remember who we are as a son or daughter of our Father. And like Simba, we may be tempted to say “How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.” We all make mistakes, but we can walk that path back and make things right – no matter how difficult the path may be – if we remember who we really are and who we come from. It is a strong, strong message, and a brilliantly done scene.

So with all these things, it is no wonder that The Lion King took the world by storm. To date, it is the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and if you include 3D animation, the 2nd highest, right behind Toy Story 3. The Lion King firmly cemented animation as a legitimate mainstream form of entertainment, art, and money-making power. Most importantly, though, it completed the triple play of Disney’s amazing renaissance which took kids to an enchanted castle, an Arabian cave of wonders, and a lush African safari. Long live The Lion King.

Circle of Life

Scar and Simba

Hakuna Matata

Week 31: Aladdin

Still One of Disney’s Funniest Films

Dangerfield

Originally Released: 1992

With Aladdin, the team at Disney took a risk. Rather than stick with the rule that said they should strive for timelessness, as they had done with the majority of their films (Oliver & Company being a notable exception), they decided that for Aladdin, they would disregard that rule and throw in all sorts of contemporary gags and references in telling the story. Most of these gags would revolve around the genie, voiced by Robin Williams, who at the time was becoming a very popular comedian and actor. Williams had a gift for referencing and imitating famous people and characters. He also excelled at improvising. The Disney producers decided to let him play to his strengths and do these things in his voice work for the film.

The strategy worked and Aladdin was a huge success when it was released in late 1992. However, the risk of going contemporary is that it may not age so well after a time. And now that over 20 years have passed since it was originally released, I was interested to see how well Aladdin has held up. Would it still be as funny now as it was back then? Or has time taken its toll on this once-acclaimed classic?

"Wait, you think I may be out of style?. Let's think about that for a minute."

“Wait, you think I may be out of style?. Let’s think about that for a minute.”

As I watched the film again, I was reminded that though Genie is a large factor to making Aladdin a success, the movie boasts much more than just jokes and imitations of old celebrities. I’ll get to that in a moment, but as these jokes do play a significant role in Aladdin, the topic merits some thought here.

It is true that in today’s world younger viewers are less and less likely to understand references to Rodney Dangerfield, Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. They may not understand things like “You’ve just won the heart of the princess (the Superbowl), what are you going to do next?!” Is this a problem, though? It may be that knowing the references will enhance the comedic effect, but even without this understanding, because of the way Genie is animated, the gags still manage to be funny. The many shapes, sizes and caricatures create a zany feel to Genie, regardless of whether or not we know exactly who or what is being imitated in any particular scene. Besides, if you think about it, how many of us knew when we were younger that Genie was imitating William F. Buckley Jr. in his “Uh, master, there are a few provisos” bit? How many of us know who Buckley is even today? But it was still pretty funny even if we had no clue who the heck he was supposed to be imitating. Animator Eric Goldberg did an excellent job of matching Williams’ clever voice work with visuals that were just as funny and which remain humorous today.

Does anybody under the age of 30 or so understand this reference? I know I didn't. But I still find it funny.

Does anybody under the age of 30 or so understand this reference? I know I didn’t. But I still find it funny.

But moving on. As mentioned earlier, Aladdin has more than just the genie that makes it a good movie. One thing that stuck out to me was how much I liked ALL of the characters in this movie. Aladdin benefits from what may be, taken collectively, the strongest cast of characters of any film in the Disney canon. From Aladdin and Abu to Jafar and Iago, each character is strong and contributes to the film in a positive way. In fact, though they are great themselves, Aladdin and Jasmine sometimes get overshadowed by the supporting characters. With this great collection of characters there is plenty of personality and humor to go around. This is probably what impressed me the most as I watched Aladdin again.

Jafar Iago

In addition to the characters, the songs are still as fun and memorable as ever. Disney decided that Aladdin would continue the successful Broadway-meets-Disney style used in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and assembled many of the same players that were involved in The Little Mermaid to make this film. It was a smart move. Aladdin showed that this style was a winning formula that was even compatible with Robin Williams. And Alan Menken supplied another Oscar-winning score for the film, to go along with his wins for his two previous efforts at Disney. He managed to do this despite losing lyricist Howard Ashman in the middle of the production of Aladdin, which no doubt would have been difficult to deal with.

Best part of the "Prince Ali" song, right here.

Best part of the “Prince Ali” song, right here.

Finally, in addition to the characters and the music, the main messages of the film still resonate with me and ring true. Be honest and be yourself. Freedom is a blessing. Have integrity, and keep your promises and commitments. These are good messages that anybody would be wise to adopt.

So in conclusion, 20 years after Aladdin’s initial release, I say the risk that Disney took by ditching the “timeless” mantra didn’t kill Aladdin‘s future. All things considered, Aladdin has actually aged quite well in my opinion. It will be interesting to see if, in another 10-20 years, this is still the case. But for now, at least, I believe Aladdin still soars.

happy family

Abu and rug

"Seek thee out the diamond in the riamond in the rough..."

“Seek thee out the diamond in the riamond in the rough…”

Whole new World

Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

What Every Animated Film Wishes To Be Like

Belle

Originally Released: 1991

When I was young, my family didn’t buy many movies on VHS. Much less the expensive Disney ones. So imagine my surprise when one winter night I find a copy of Beauty and the Beast in our living room. If I remember right, it was meant to be a Christmas present to the family. But whatever the reason for the purchase, I do know that this particular gift made at least one member of my family very, very happy. Beauty and the Beast put me under its spell that winter and has never let go.

Rose

Much has been said about Beauty and the Beast. Its praises were many upon its release in 1991, and the following awards season was very kind to the film as well (which, no doubt, had some influence on our family to obtain a copy). Personally, I think every bit of praise is absolutely deserved. Beauty and the Beast is a marvel. The splendid animation, the show-stopping music, and the touching theme and message combine to make this a spectacular film (side note – it always saddens me when I think that society, or at least the part of society that runs the Oscars, preferred a film about a cannibalistic serial killer over a film with such an uplifting message as Beauty and the Beast – alas, but that is a story for another day). Not only is it my favorite Disney animated film, but it is one of my favorite films, period. Though there have been some great animated films released before and after Beauty and the Beast, to me, this is still the film that is the standard-bearer for animation.

And the winner for "Best Kiss in an Animated Film" goes to...Beauty and the Beast! They literally created fireworks with this kiss.

And the winner for “Best Kiss in an Animated Film” goes to…Beauty and the Beast! They literally created fireworks with this kiss.

I could go on and on about how much I like this movie, but I decided to go in a different direction for this post. Disney was kind enough to include in their Blu-ray package an unfinished version of the film, and this presented a unique opportunity for my blog. I decided to watch the unfinished version and then post some side-by-side shots of both the work-in-progress version and the finished product. The work-in-progress screens include storyboards, original sketches, and various stages of animation. So this blog post is now not only my Beauty and the Beast appreciation post, it is my “All-the-Hard Work-that-Goes-into-a-Disney-Feature” appreciation post. Hopefully you find it as interesting as I do to see some of the different stages in creating an animated masterpiece.

Opening storyboard

Opening scene with Belle leaving her home. It stayed very close to the original storyboard.

Opening scene with Belle leaving her home. It stayed very close to the original storyboard.

 

Belle Castle sketch

You can see that the very early version of Belle looks a little different, but this scene stayed remarkably true to the original vision shown in the sketch.

You can see that the very early version of Belle looks a little different, but this scene stayed remarkably true to the original vision shown in the sketch.

 

Beast Castle Sketch

The same scene, but with the beast. You can see that the beast's look changed, and for the better.

The same scene, but with the beast. You can see that the beast’s look changed, and for the better.

 

Lumiere rough

Thankfully, the character animators didn't need to animate the flames on Lumiere. This was done later.

Thankfully, the character animators didn’t need to animate the flames on Lumiere. This was done later.

 

Dance rough

I thought this was really cool to see. The mixture of 3D and 2D animation, in negative form. The finished scene was incredibly beautiful and a highlight of the film.

I thought this was really cool to see. The mixture of 3D and 2D animation, in negative form. The finished scene was incredibly beautiful and a highlight of the film.

 

Beast Gaston rough

I can't make a post of this movie with out at least one reference to Gaston. Great villain with biceps to spare.

I can’t make a post of this movie with out at least one reference to Gaston. Great villain with biceps to spare.

 

Belle-Beast 1

Belle-Beast cleaner

Here we can see three different stages of animation. The first is still pretty rough, the next is getting cleaned up, and finally there is the finished product.

Here we can see three different stages of animation. The first is still pretty rough, the next is getting cleaned up, and finally there is the finished product

Transform rough

The effects animators did an awesome job with this transformation, as did the Beast's animator Glen Keane. Others have parodied this moment, but only because it is so iconic. I love it.

The effects animators did an awesome job with this transformation, as did the Beast’s animator Glen Keane. Others have parodied this moment, but only because it is so iconic. I love it.