Week 39: Dinosaur

Welcome to the Time of Dinosaurs and…Lemurs?

Dinos in paradise

Originally Released: 2000

Ok, it’s time for an uncomfortable confession. This was the first time I have ever seen Dinosaur. Yes, I, the Disney enthusiast and author of this Disney-centric blog, have not seen every last film in the Disney Canon. But after watching this movie for the first time, I really can’t blame myself for missing out on it. I mean, there is only so much you can do plot-wise with herbivore dinosaurs. You know, without doing something crazy like adding modern lemurs into the mix and having them adopt a newly-hatched Dino baby. Now, I’m no expert on lemur evolutionary history, but I would venture to guess that lemurs did not coexist with these dinosaurs back in the day (if a reader happens to know the facts, please feel free to set the record straight). However, even with the inclusion of the lemur family, Dinosaur still manages to retread the typical dinosaur plights and feel like more of the same.

On the positive side, I will say that the visuals are very impressive. In the opening scene, I found myself thinking “wow, that looks so real and lifelike.” It turns out I was right. That is exactly the case. While the characters were all computer animated, the locales were filmed at various locations like New Zealand, the Utah/Arizona/Nevada desert, and more. Then the two were blended to come up with a hyper-realistic looking digital/real-life hybrid. It looks real good. In fact, I like the look of most everything in Dinosaur, especially on Blu-ray.

Dinos and Lemurs unite

Is it Lemur’s best friend, or Iguanodon’s best friend? I’m confused…

To sum up the plot, it goes a little like this. Dinosaurs live in a beautiful green paradise. Lemurs do, too, but theirs is an isolated island paradise. But then this big comet comes (rather spectacularly) and destroys the paradise. All that is left is for the dinosaurs (and lemurs) to flee the paradise-turned-wasteland in search of their summer home, in hopes that it has not also been decimated by the comet. A long, hard trek through the desert ensues. Then, in a shocking turn of events, just as the dinosaur herd is about to reach its lush green sanctuary, the herd is ambushed by a vicious meat-eating Tyrannosaurus Rex! Luckily, our hero, the lemur-adopted Iguanodon, saves the day, and the herd reaches safety, until the Comet’s aftermath eventually ends dinosaur life as we know it. Ok, I made that last part up, but it is the most likely conclusion if a sequel were ever made.

Impact

This has to be the most brutal villain in the entire Disney Canon

Perhaps even more effectively, though, this tale can also be summarized in the six images that accompany this post. Beginning at the top of this post, just work your way down to capture the highlights of this film.

There, now you no longer need to worry about watching Dinosaur. Unless, of course, you are a Disney enthusiast like me. Then you have to watch it at least once. Just focus on the visual splendor and you’ll be just fine.

walking and walking

“Dinosaur children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked, and walked…” (if you get it, you get it)

T-rex...is a villain

Hmm, did anyone else not see this coming?

Paradise found

“We made it! Now we can enjoy our last remaining days before the Comet’s residual effects reach us.”

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Week 38: Fantasia 2000

Keeping a Good Thing Going

Nature girl 1

Originally Released: 2000

In some ways, Fantasia 2000 nicely follows up what was started in 1940 with the original Fantasia. However, in some ways it feels like it missed its mark and failed to capture the essence of what made the original so grand. The finished product deserves accolades for continuing the tradition of melding great music with interesting visuals, and for following through with Walt’s dream of updating Fantasia with new material. But even so, somewhere in the 60 years between releases, it feels like something was lost in the process and thus missing from Fantasia 2000.

Nutcracker-ish

On paper, Fantasia 2000 certainly includes all of the right ingredients. It contains eight excellent pieces of classical music, including Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (da-da-da-duuuuumm), “Pines of Rome,””Pomp and Circumstance,” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and it mixes this music with some innovative (for the time) animation. It even has brief introductions to each piece, just like the original.

rhapsody

But even with the inclusion of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from the original Fantasia, I couldn’t help but wonder what went wrong. My theory is that the creative team never really let loose with their creativity. It was almost as if they were restrained to try and keep things simple and to limit abstractness. In every single segment, eventually there is some sort of concrete story and conflict to resolve. Even in the opening Beethoven sequence, we are treated to “good” triangles being chased by the black, bat-like “evil” triangles. In contrast, the creators of the original Fantasia were content to let mushrooms and flowers dance for the sake of dancing, and in its “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” opening, the original film wears abstractness like a badge of honor. It seems like Fantasia tried to convey emotion and enhance the music through visuals, whereas Fantasia 2000 seems more focused on the screen and wants the animation to be the star, not the enhancer. It doesn’t quite achieve that harmony and impact that the first film managed to strike.

Donald Duck

But it doesn’t mean that Fantasia 2000 is a bad effort or a total failure. On the contrary, it boasts some beautiful artwork and great music. It contains a few really great segments where a concrete story works in its favor, such as Donald’s segment about Noah’s Ark to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or the “Firebird” finale based on Mt. St. Helen’s eruption and rebirth. In the end, though, I just can’t help but think of what it might have been.

That about sums up my feelings on Fantasia 2000. To close on a totally unrelated note, the documentary on the Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray disc that details the Walt Disney and Salvador Dali collaboration called Destino was fantastic, and well worth any Disney enthusiast’s time. I think I may have enjoyed watching it more than I enjoyed watching Fantasia 2000 this time around.

flamingo

whales

Firebird

Week 37: Tarzan

It’ll Be in My Heart (Always)

Tarzan meets Jane

Originally Released: 1999

I have heard varying opinions about Tarzan. Some like it, some love it, and others can’t stand it. But to me, Tarzan will always be special. It is filled with fast-moving and exhilarating sequences, which were a technical marvel at the time of release and still hold up extremely well today. It has a great soundtrack and score. The film is gorgeous to look at with its lush jungle greens. The animation is top-notch. There are equal measures of action, comedy, and romance in the movie. But beyond all that, there is just something about it that reaches deep into the heart. Tarzan has real substance to it, and it manages to connect on an emotional level (with me, at least).

Kala

Take, for instance, the scene where a young Tarzan runs off and covers himself in mud to try to cover up his differences. What follows is a tender moment where Kala, his adopted mother, comes to the rescue and helps Tarzan realize that he is loved, even despite his differences. But even more importantly, she shows him that deep inside, they’re not that different at all. It is a great showcase of the great influence a caring mother can have. Somehow, they always figure out a way to make their children feel better about themselves and about life. Like many real-life mothers, Kala helps Tarzan discover the direction to go in order to reach his true potential.

Sabor vs. Tarzan

Which is exactly what he does. Tarzan learns to use his uniqueness and his mental capabilities to his advantage, and thus more fully adapt to the jungle. He swings on vines and surfs through the trees. He becomes friends with many different types of creatures. Eventually, he uses his intellect and prowess to save Kerchak, the leader of the family, and prove his worth among the gorillas. In this and other action-packed scenes, Tarzan took animation to a whole new level with its “Deep Canvas” technology. It was amazing to see in 1999 and was something that earlier animated films could only dream of accomplishing. It is still impressive today.

Romance in the vines

While on the topic of animated feats, no commentary would be complete without mentioning yet another incredible job by animator Glen Keane, who was responsible for bringing the adult Tarzan to life. I have already mentioned Keane in past posts (he did Ariel, Beast, and the golden eagle Marahute, among others), but he deserves mention yet again. Pretty much everything from Tarzan’s ape-walk and his skateboarding/surfing on the vines and trees, to the more subtle facial expressions, such as his piercing gaze into Jane’s eyes or the look of awe and curiosity when he learns about the whole new world of humans, is, in my opinion, worthy of admiration. If Keane hadn’t already established his legacy in the animator’s hall of fame by this point, his role in Tarzan would further cement his place among the profession’s greatest.

Kerchak

But Tarzan isn’t the only character in the film. Truth is, I like almost all of the characters in this film. Kerchak is a hulking beast who only wants what’s best for his family. Kala is a strong mother figure, as already mentioned. Minnie Driver gives a very funny performance as the quirky-but-lovable Jane. The only character I didn’t care too much for was Rosie O’Donnell’s Terk (…yes, this was back when Rosie was very popular and good friends with Elmo…no, I didn’t care for Terk even back then).

Tarzan Tantor Terk

Musically, the team at Disney ventured intentionally in a new direction. It decided that for Tarzan, it would move away from the Broadway-style musical that had got them through the 1990’s, and instead they opted for a bit of a hybrid style where the songs were still relevant to the plot and pushed the story forward, but were not sung by the characters on-screen. In the case of Tarzan, this strategy worked quite well. To accomplish this, Disney enlisted the talents of pop great Phil Collins. His musical contributions the film netted both Oscar and Golden Globe awards for the original song “You’ll be in My Heart.” He also won a Grammy for best soundtrack album (I purchased the soundtrack back in this time and really enjoyed it – and to this day, if I happen across “You’ll be in My Heart” on the radio, it totally makes my day; I’m a big fan of that song).

I know that some people didn’t appreciate Disney breaking from formula with the music, but I applaud their decision in this particular case. Because, frankly, it just wouldn’t capture the right spirit of the film to have Tarzan burst into song at any given moment. If that were done, it would have been a completely different film, and I think the creators realized that. So ultimately, I’d say they chose wisely.

Jane

You know how people ask “who is your favorite Disney princess?” I can only lament that Jane can’t be part of that discussion.

In the end, Tarzan was a film that captured my imagination, fed my appetite for awesome animation, and worked its way into my heart with its themes. It was a feast to my eyes and also to my ears. Finally, it also had a picture-perfect ending with Tarzan, Jane and all his friends swinging through the jungle happily ever after. In short, Tarzan is my kind of movie.

Tarzan Parents

Clayton

perfect ending

I haven’t put a ton of thought into this, but I would totally put this film on the short list of “Best Final 30 Seconds of a Film Ever.”

Week 36: Mulan

Reflection, Honor, and Great Entertainment

Mulan landscape

Originally Released: 1998

I missed Mulan when it was first released in 1998. It wasn’t until a couple years later when it ran on The Disney Channel that I had the chance to see it for the first time. When I finally watched the film, I came away impressed. The story was quite fun and was a breath of fresh air to me. I liked the main characters. I even thought Eddie Murphy did a awesome job as Mushu. Perhaps most importantly, Mulan had heart and taught good messages about family, honor, and courage.

Upon watching Mulan again, My opinions remain mostly intact. Mulan still entertains, has characters worth investing in (or should I say worth fighting for?), and I will even go so far as to say that Eddie Murphy’s take on Mushu is one of my favorite sidekick/comic-relief performances in the modern Disney era (which is quite shocking knowing Murphy’s more recent output; but then again, we need to remember that this movie came out during Eddie’s good years). It is not completely free of flaws, but to me, these flaws are minor enough that I don’t need to dwell on them.

Mushu lizard

Mulan was the first full-length film that was produced at Disney’s Florida animation studios. I wasn’t really aware that Disney did much animation in Florida, so I tried to research the story of this studio. Thanks to the internet, I was able to find some interesting information about its short life. The studio originally started doing Roger Rabbit shorts in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Once The Renaissance was in full swing, Disney opened a new animation studio in California (The Hunchback of Notre Dame being the first work produced there) and relocated the team from “The Warehouse.” In addition, Disney expanded the studio in Florida and gave more responsibilities to those working at this location. One major contribution from the Florida team included The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” segment.

Fireworks

The Renaissance years were pretty joyous for Disney and its fans

After this, the Florida animation studio was given the green light to produce a complete full-length feature. Thus, in 1994, production began for Mulan. Eventually, the studio produced two more films: Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. However, by this time Disney’s animation studios were in full decline. Because of financial issues, Disney decided to close the doors of the Florida location. This closure in early 2004 helped usher in the first death of the 2D animated feature at Disney.

So now I know some interesting trivia about where Mulan was made. Here are a few more Mulan-related facts that I find interesting:

  •  Mulan sent Christina Aguilera into stardom with her rendition of “Reflection”
  • On a similar note, this was the Disney film that marked the transition from featuring adult contemporary pop artists like Celine Dion and Michael Bolton in the ending credits to more teenage, “Radio Disney”-esque acts like N’sync, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Mya
  • The Portuguese version of “Reflection” was sung by my Brazilian musical crush Sandy, of Sandy & Junior fame (the translation is admittedly not very good, but I love listening to her voice)

Be a man

  • “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is sung by not one, but two people who fit in the category of “how can you not like these guys?” (Jackie Chan and Donny Osmond). Jury’s still out on who did the best job with the song…
  • Also in the category of “how can you not like these guys,” Mulan features voice work from everyone’s favorite karate handyman, Mr. Miyagi
  • Roger Ebert believed that villain Shan-Yu looks a lot like former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone

The Mailman Malone

  • Speaking of villains, Shan-Yu continued the streak of Disney villains meeting a unique and most unfortunate demise (this one involving a multitude of fireworks)
  • Disney made a couple more advances in animation technology with 3D models and a 2D/3D hybrid technique used to stretch 2D paintings onto a new plane

So there you have it. I am sure there are many other fascinating things that could be mentioned about Mulan, its production, and pop culture of the time. Perhaps the reader will remember some more. For now, though, I will leave it at that, and close this entry with a link of Jackie Chan singing his heart out.

Mulan Sword

tomato bow

rocket

Mushu toothbrush

Mulan family

All I can say about this is...gross

All I can say about this is…gross. But hey, I’m sure they were being true to their hearts at the time. Right?

Week 35: Hercules

Herc Hits Hard, Except When he Misses

Heroic Herc

Originally Released: 1997

What is there to say about Hercules? Here is an entry that is as uneven as they come. The production team at Disney decided to bring the ages-old tale to a more modern place by turning Hercules into a 1990’s sports icon, complete with his own endorsements and shoe contracts. With the success of Aladdin, it was natural for Disney to want to dive in headfirst in the contemporary animated comedy, and Hercules took this concept to a new level. Whereas most of the modern jokes in Aladdin were limited to the Genie, in Hercules, the entire ancient greek population was aware of modern conventions. I believe this is where many of the gags break down. There is an inconsistency in tone and setting that is hard to reconcile.

Herculade

Hercules knows how to down his soft drinks like the best 1990’s icons on T.V.

Despite the inconsistencies, some things I thought were done particularly well. For example, I did laugh at the Herculade commercial and gag. While the soft drink reference in the picture above would be more consistent with the Mountain Dew commercials in the 90’s than Gatorade (watch this example to see what I mean – clearly all true heroes keep their mouth at least 3 inches away from the drink container), it did capture the essence of the soda and sports drink marketing of the time. 

Herc and Scar

It amazes me how much brilliance is packed into this one image.

Another moment is when Hercules is posing for the pottery artist. Not only is this a nod to the real mythology where Hercules is often depicted wearing a lion skin, It also is also notable that Andreas Dejas was the animator for both Hercules and Scar in The Lion King. Additionally, we see that Zazu’s comments about throw rugs were quite accurate!

Hades

Yes, two thumbs way up for Wood’s performance as Hades.

I enjoyed some of the casting choices as well. To me, the real stars of the film are James Woods as Hades and Susan Egan as Megara. James Woods brought a new dimension to the disney villain by being a fast-talking, sleazy salesman type with a real sense of humor. Susan Egan was the first Belle on Disney’s Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, so getting her to transition over to the real deal must have been a very simple and natural choice (it’s too bad she did not get more musical numbers, though! That voice!) I also liked the inclusion of Danny DeVito as Phil.

Meg and Muse

Another nice little touch was the use of Charlton Heston for the initial narration. I didn’t realize it was him at first, but when I saw his name on the credits, I thought it was a great nod to a great actor (it was almost as good as this tribute to Heston’s greatness), even if the muses didn’t appreciate his approach to narration.

Which brings me to some things I didn’t appreciate as much. I mentioned inconsistencies before, and to me, the idea of Gospel singers (which is Christian through and through) singing about false pagan gods and calling it “the Gospel Truth” is just too much to reconcile. Even though the songs can be quite catchy and fun, they feel like they don’t belong in the film. So this leaves Hercules trying to somehow mesh 1990’s America, 1000 B.C. Ancient Greece, ancient polytheistic beliefs, and southern Christian gospel music into a harmonious, tidy package. That is a hard thing to do, and I don’t think they pulled it off.

In addition to this, some of the story ideas and more blatant jokes fell kind of flat to me. I don’t buy into Hercules being a nobody or outsider as a kid. Plus, I doubt that anybody would have the guts to call someone with the ability to knock down giant pillars “Jerkules,” even if they were thinking it on the inside. Beyond story miss steps, some of the modern references like Marilyn Monroe and the American Express card also make little sense to me.

The look on Meg's face is priceless. Unfortunately, it matches my expression for some parts of this movie.

The look on Meg’s face is priceless. Unfortunately, it matches my expression for some parts of this movie.

Lastly, the scene that Hercules argues with Phil and makes him mad was so similar to the scene where Aladdin argues with Genie and makes him mad that I thought I was having a deja vu moment. Sadly, the dreaded “formula” can be found popping up in moments of Hercules.

So overall, does Hercules succeed? Interestingly, it is in the quieter and subtler moments and references that Herc and his gang reaches the highest heights, while some bigger, louder moments cause the film to fall back down to earth.

Happy Ending

Week 34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Perhaps an Outcast, but Not a Monster

Notre Dame

Originally Released: 1996

(A quick note from the keeper of this blog: for those of you who have have been following the blog, you may notice that we are not really in week 34 of 2013. As much as it pained me to do so, life was so busy during the past 2-3 months that it was necessary to put this blog on a haitus for a time.

The good news is that I will have time to complete my journey now. So what began as “John’s Disney Movie Year” has become John’s quest to finish 19 Disney movies in the 20 days that are still remaining in 2013. I think I will call this portion “John’s Disney December to Remember.” Or maybe “The 19 days of Disney Christmas.” Whatever the title, I plan on completing this project on time. Hopefully you haven’t abandoned me for good! It is sure to be an interesting ride. Now on to the topic at hand…)

In some ways, it seems to me like the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame has the same reputation as the deformed protagonist it depicts – an outsider forever doomed to live in the shadows of its grander brethren. Over the past 17 years, the story has emerged that this is a movie with few fans and little love.

Esmeralda and Quasi

Yet for those who are willing to look past the popular idea that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing but a lower-tier Disney monstrosity (ok, that may be exaggerating a bit much) and give it a clean look, they will find a beautiful, thoughtful, and entertaining film with a lot of heart and great lessons to teach.

It actually baffles me that Hunchback has this reputation. Because when I think about it, I don’t know a single person who I have talked to about the movie that does not like it. This may mean that I either haven’t talked to enough people about the film, or that I just have some awesome friends and family who can recognize a good thing. I like to believe it is the latter.

Festival

“Celebrate! He likes us!”

At any rate, I am a big fan of the movie. However, I do admit that this wasn’t always the case. When it was first released back in the thick of my growing up years, The Hunchback of Notre Dame just didn’t excite me the way that earlier Disney renaissance films did. Maybe it was because I had reached the “teenage-boy-who-can’t-admit-to-like-Disney” phase of life (it didn’t hit me as hard as most, but there was a little of it inside me). It might have been that Quasimodo didn’t seem like a protagonist I really wanted to follow and learn about. Instead, he was more likely to be dismissed and ridiculed as a Disney character.

Perhaps part of the reason The Hunchback of Notre Dame suffers its reputation is that its main intended audience comprised millions of kids just like me. After viewing the film again, I wonder just how much it can resonate with little ones. For example, consider the idea of embracing Quasimodo along with the theme of accepting those who are different. How many of us can remember that instead of inspiring children and teens in the mid/late 90’s, in many cases, the term “Quasimodo” became a popular derogatory nickname aimed at the handicapped, unpopular, or “weirdo” kids?

gargoyles

These guys are perhaps the biggest appeal to the kids. For adults, they are more tolerable that appealing.

So while it is true that the film has the color, the music, and the splendor that kids should love, things like the Quasimodo-Esmeralda-Phoebus “love triangle”, the inner complexities of the villain Frollo, and the subtle and deeper themes of the film are more readily comprehended and appreciated by the adult viewer. In fact, this may just be Disney’s most adult movie in the entire canon. Some topics touched on include genocide, religious hypocrisy (and on the flip side, living pure religion), and giving in to lustful desires.

Frollo

Here’s another standout villain in the Disney Canon. The voice work by Tony Jay was very fitting for the role.

That being said, the themes and lessons taught in The Hunchback of Notre Dame are lessons that should be taught to the youngest of ages. The prominent themes include giving precedence to inner virtues over outer differences, remembering that we are all children of God,knowing that decisions are yours to make and yours alone, learning to have the courage to take a stand for what is right – regardless of the outcome. And this is just a sampling. 

I am a fan of this scene and song.

I am a fan of this scene and song.

Over the past couple years, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has found itself steadily rising on my list of favorite Disney films. The more times I watch it, the more I appreciate the decisions made by the filmmakers in bringing this story to Disney animated life. Like the big-hearted Quasimodo in the film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame really does have a lot to offer.

Paris

Phoebus

Why isn’t Phoebus more popular? I think he’s an awesome character.

Bells

outcast