Week 28: The Little Mermaid

Disney Was Sick of Swimming and Ready to Stand

Ariel reprise

Originally Released: 1989

The Little Mermaid is the first real movie theater experience I can remember as a child. I can still visualize being at the theater with my older sister and watching the musical story unfold on the screen. I think it is safe to say that as most kids grow up, that first movie theater experience earns a special place in in his or her heart. That was definitely the case for me. Because of this significant event, The Little Mermaid automatically qualifies as a cherished film in my book.

I’m fairly certain, though, that it is cherished by more people than just me. Even setting personal nostalgia aside, The Little Mermaid is a bona-fide classic and stands tall in the Disney hall of fame. The story is great, the characters are beyond memorable, and the music is simply spectacular. After watching in rapid succession the films released during Disney’s so-called “dark ages” and then following that up with The Little Mermaid, it is more clear than ever to me that this one is special.

dinner

The way The Little Mermaid came to be was something of a perfect storm, with the right people coming together at the right time. After getting kicked off the studio lot, the animators realized that they needed to really perform or they would likely lose their jobs. Peter Schneider was brought on to head the animation department, and he emphasized collaboration and open communication. Disney also brought on the talents of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to work on the songs and score for The Little Mermaid. Ashman was a Broadway guy and was instrumental in restoring musical storytelling to Disney films. He eventually became involved in the story development of The Little Mermaid as well. Many other people also had positive contributions that added to the wave of creativity.

Under the Sea

The result of this storm of creativity is a product that meshes story, animation, and music in a wonderful manner. Each separate aspect adds to The Little Mermaid in its own way, but they combine together to form something truly great.

Consider the song “Part of Your World.” It is a lovely melody sung by the beautiful voice of Jodi Benson. But these pieces only get so far alone. Similarly, the lyrics alone are not going to inspire anybody. They talk about a girl who wants more gizmos, gadgets, and thingamabobs. The lyrics require the context of the story to make any real sense. But by putting all these elements together, the story moves forward very effectively and we also connect much better with Ariel. Before this piece, we may think of Ariel as just a rebellious teen, but after the song, we can understand her a little better and see her in a different way.

Ariel

Knowing the story and hearing the music helps a lot, but now add to the scene some truly inspired and gorgeous animation by Glen Keane that portrays Ariel earnestly hungering for her desires. The end result is incredible. Again, each storytelling piece on its own is good. But as a completed whole, it is an amazing thing to see and hear (imagine my surprise when I learned that one man almost cut the whole piece from the film!). In my opinion, “Part of Your World” is a perfect showcase of the animation medium. If you want to see what animation is capable of, there aren’t many better examples than that.

Ursula

Really, though, The Little Mermaid has many great moments. Ursula is a top Disney villain, Sebastian is an excellent sidekick, and the other characters are fun, too (somehow when I was young my favorite character was Flounder. I wouldn’t pick him today, but for some reason I did back then). As far as music goes, “Under the Sea” is deserving of its academy award and is another example of all elements combining to create an even stronger whole. Also, I love the score. It perfectly matches the tone of the film. And there is great animation and special animation effects littered throughout.

Moonlight Fireworks

In short, I am a pretty big fan of The Little Mermaid. I don’t have much negative to say about it. Of course, I may be a little biased considering it was my first childhood movie experience, but surely nostalgia is not the only thing that will get someone to appreciate this film. It has enough going for it that many people would happily let it be part of their world.

Triton

Kiss the girl

Voice

Castle

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Week 27: Oliver & Company

The Concept of “Timeless?” Not Here, Man.

tito

Originally Released: 1988

Oliver & Company is an interesting entry in the Disney canon. It is one where producers chose to break the mold of most of the previous films by having a completely contemporary feel, loaded with contemporary actors and singers, including very contemporary pop songs, and set in a contemporary New York City. The main problem with this idea is that they decided to go contemporary right smack in the middle of the 1980’s. Oliver & Company is about as “80’s” as it gets (well, besides this. And this…yeah, I just did that).

I like the 1980’s and the 80’s feel. It brings back a lot of great memories. However, many people see the decade as an eyesore and don’t find much to appreciate in the pop culture that came out of that time period. So while the dose of the 80’s didn’t bother me much, Oliver & Company will likely weed out quite a few of today’s viewers on that basis alone. Which is kind of ironic considering the source material is by Charles Dickens, whose work has definitely stood the test of time.

Oliver

The story, which in the Disney tradition is only loosely based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, can be summarized as follows:  we meet orphan kitty Oliver (voiced by a young Joey “Whoa!” Lawrence) as he tries to find a place to be accepted and loved. He is helped out by street dog Dodger (Billy Joel) and becomes part of Dodger’s gang. Shortly thereafter, Oliver finds a loving little girl who adopts him. But then he gets kidnapped. The kitty is freed but the girl is kidnapped. She is finally rescued and the bad guys each come to an unfortunate demise. The film closes with much rejoicing.

Dodger and Oliver

I realize my summary has a hint of a mocking tone to it, but for the most part, I enjoyed Oliver & Company. The songs were good in a 1980’s sort of way. Dodger and Tito, by far the two best characters in the movie, are both great. Tito (voiced by Cheech Marin) is actually quite funny, and Dodger is a totally cool dude. They really help the film. I also had some fun finding hidden tributes to past Disney films scattered throughout the movie.

Fagin

My only serious complaint is the climax. Beginning at the point Jenny is nabbed and continuing all the way to the fiery end of the villain Sykes, I just couldn’t help but shake my head at what we were supposed to accept as reasonable or credible. That’s saying something, since in general you can get away with crazier stuff in animation than in live action. But as it all happened, I kept asking myself things like, “Wait, is Sykes really dumb enough to steal a girl? I thought he was calmer and smarter than that. Doesn’t he realize that Fagin knows where his hideout is? Why the heck didn’t Fagin just call the police and report a kidnapping, telling them exactly where to go find her?”

And more questions: “Wait, did they really just drive onto the subway tracks? Did those car tires really just blow up? And now the wheels perfectly match the train tracks? Did that scooter really somehow jump eight feet in the air and drive up the suspension cable? How did they pull that one off? Is Sykes really that crazed to do all of this nonsense? How on earth has he survived up to now in his profession? How much money did the poor bum Fagin borrow, anyway?” I could go on, but I think you get the point. It goes past the point of absurdity.

Yes, I said it. The climax of your movie is nonsense. Surely they could have come up with something better.

Yes, I said it. The climax of your movie is nonsense. Surely they could have come up with something better.

Criticism aside, the last thing I think is worth mentioning about this film is that it opened the same day as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. By 1988, Bluth and Disney had built a bit of a rivalry. In fact, in 1986, Bluth’s An American Tale managed to earn more money than The Great Mouse Detective. This time around, The Land Before Time won the opening weekend battle, but Oliver & Company narrowly won the total U.S. Box office with a score of $53 million to Bluth’s $48 million (which at the time were both very respectable numbers). However, Bluth’s film won both internationally and in my neighborhood. I remember The Land Before Time as a child. My friends and I talked about it and quoted it a lot. I have no such memories of Oliver & Company, though. 

Jenny and Oliver

Of course, things would change dramatically the following year with Disney’s next release, which would basically leave Bluth in the dust. But Oliver & Company does deserve credit, because its success helped pave the way for this next release from Disney.

So today, if you want a nice dose of 80’s pop culture, great Cheech quotes, and a good, laughable ending, then Oliver & Company is just the thing for you. And with that, I’ll wrap up this post with some shots I found in the film that pay tribute to other films and characters of Disney’s past.

Georgett Ratigan Scooby

lady and the tramp

Cinderella tribute

"Coca-Cola. Now in a Disney movie near you!"

“Coca-Cola. Now in a Disney movie near you!”

Week 26: The Great Mouse Detective

When Times Are Tough, a Mouse is Always There to Help

smile everyone

Originally Released: 1986

Just one year before the release of The Great Mouse Detective, Walt Disney Animation almost did itself in with the overly ambitious, poorly executed The Black Cauldron. There didn’t seem to be much hope for the studios. The executives kicked the animation department out of Burbank and moved them to what they considered “the warehouse.” When this happened, the folks at the animation department thought they would soon lose their jobs. But they were given another chance when they got the green light to continue production of Basil of Baker Street, based on the book series of the same name.

However, the new project certainly wasn’t going to have the ambition and bloated excess of Disney’s prior two releases. No, they were going back to the basics, putting the focus on creating a simple-but-good, well-paced story with fun characters. Historically characters and great storytelling were two of Disney’s greatest strengths.

I know, Dawson old chap, it is shocking that Disney Animation could be shut down. But don't you worry! It won't happen. We have our secret weapon! What is it, you say? Well for a clue, look no further than the metal piece near the fireplace!

I know, Dawson old chap, it is shocking that Disney Animation could be shut down. But don’t you worry! It won’t happen. We have our secret weapon! What is it, you say? Well for a clue, look no further than the metal piece near the fireplace!

Of course, there was one other thing they could do that was as good a guarantee as you can get when you are Disney: make the story involve a mouse.

It may seem like a joke (OK, maybe it is a little bit), and I don’t know if the storytellers at Disney were consciously thinking this when they made this film, but if we take a look at some Disney history then we can see that a mouse has almost always pulled them out of ruin. First, think of Dumbo. Disney was on the brink, but thanks to Dumbo and Timothy, they made enough money to continue on. Fast forward to Cinderella. If it failed, the studio would have shut down. And what was a major part of Cinderalla’s story? Jaq, Gus and the cohort of mice. A few more years later, mice Bernard and Bianca proved to the world that Disney could survive without Walt watching over things.

Dog

So whenever Disney needed to reset and work its magic, it is only natural to go back to what gave the company its start. And it worked again this time. The Great Mouse Detective (management decided they liked this title better) turned out well and was a financial success, albeit a moderate one. Still, it was just what the studio needed to carry on.

The story itself is indeed simple and to-the-point, but it moves along at a snappy pace and is an effective little mystery movie. Basil and Dawson are the mice versions of Sherlock and Watson, while villain professor Ratigan takes a nod from Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Professor Moriarty. Basil tries to discover why the evil professor has abducted little Olivia’s toy-maker father (voiced by Scrooge McDuck) and learns that Ratigan is up to his most nefarious scheme of all. With the help of his new friends, Basil saves the day, but only after a few close calls.

Poor old Bill. Somehow he always finds himself with the wrong crowd. At least this time he didn't get shot out of a chimney.

Poor old Bill. Somehow he always finds himself with the wrong crowd. At least this time he didn’t get shot out of a chimney.

I tend to enjoy Sherlock-style mysteries when I watch them, and The Great Mouse Detective is no exception. It is a fun movie. It has good voice work as well, including Vincent Price as the villain. (As a neat little side, check this out. I looked up Vincent Price on Youtube where I found the following chain of funny videos that amazingly led back to a Sherlock-themed clip. Click here first, then do this one, and lastly have a look at this one. Sometimes Youtube really impresses me. But back to the film). The Great Mouse Detective isn’t as complex as some adult mysteries can be, but it still manages to tell a good story, work at a good pace, and give us more great Disney mice friends.

clock

Let's face it - any movie which includes a tomato/lettuce throwing scene is going to win points in my book. If I ever made a movie, I would definitely work this into it.

Let’s face it – any movie which includes a tomato/lettuce throwing scene is going to win points in my book. If I ever made a movie, I would definitely work this into it.

Week 25: The Black Cauldron

Not As Bad As Its Reputation

fairfolk

Originally Released: 1985

The Black Cauldron has what must be one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes production stories of any Disney film. It had an extremely troubled production history which lasted from 1971, when Disney acquired the rights to the books, all the way to 1985, when the film was finally released. At the time of release The Black Cauldron was such a financial disaster that it almost caused Disney’s animation studios to be shut down for good.

To give a brief summary, the story goes something as follows. When Disney got the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain book series in 1971, members of the team subsequently took multiple stabs at developing story concepts, only to shelve them and focus on other projects. However, throughout the 70’s the story was a source of excitement and Disney used it as a key recruiting tool on young animators coming out of college. They promised that it would be a revolutionary film, like a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the new generation. Clearly the expectations were very high for The Black Cauldron.

cauldron

The team at Disney finally went into full production around 1980 and would spend five years working the story, reworking the story, tinkering with new techniques, failing with some of these techniques, and in general just hitting bumps along the way, causing the production time to be extended and adding to costs. Then to add icing on the cake, The Walt Disney Company had a big shakeup at the executive level in 1984, and incoming leaders Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were not too pleased with The Black Cauldron. Katzenberg didn’t like the tone of the nearly-completed film, so he took it upon himself to edit entire minutes from it.

The Horned King and his army are quite scary compared to other Disney-fare.

The Horned King and his army are quite scary compared to other Disney-fare.

There are more fascinating details about the unfortunate events during production of The Black Cauldron that can be found on other websites. There is also a fantastic documentary film called Waking Sleeping Beauty which chronicles this entire period in the history of Walt Disney Animation. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the “dark ages” and subsequent “renaissance” of Disney animation.

But now over 25 years have passed since the days when those events occurred. It was interesting to watch this film in a time when we’ve seen The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies become so popular, and where animated films like Princess Mononoke have been met with such high critical acclaim. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Disney had waited another 20 years or so to go off in this bold new direction. Perhaps The Black Cauldron could have been that revolutionary film envisioned so long ago if it were produced in today’s setting.

Taran and Princess Eilonwy get help from a magic sword. The film has some cool sequences.

Taran and Princess Eilonwy get help from a magic sword. The film has some cool sequences.

As I watched the film, I certainly saw that there was potential for something truly special. Some scenes have terrific animation and visual effects. Some of the darker, scarier moments are quite interesting and definitely add to the film. It makes me wonder what the finished product would have been like if it was left as originally intended.

Yet while there are great elements to The Black Cauldron, it is not without its flaws. Some questions go unanswered, such as where the oracle pig came from in the first place, how the black cauldron works,  and how the witches aren’t powerful enough to destroy or neutralize the cauldron but they can bring someone back who died in it. I didn’t appreciate some of the more mature elements (i.e. the frog down down a shirt). But on the other side of the maturity scale, the cuteness of some sidekick characters didn’t mesh particularly well with the darker tone of the movie.

Taran best friend

To me, The Black Cauldron really isn’t that bad. It isn’t for everybody, and the dark tone and scary skeleton scenes mean that the film absolutely merits its PG rating (which was a first for Disney animation). But I found enough of the movie to be entertaining and enjoyable that I can overlook its flaws. And to me, knowing the story behind the story makes it even more enjoyable.

cauldron mist

Eilonwy

adventurers

Week 24: The Fox and the Hound

A Film Full of Complex Relationships

Tod and Copper

Originally Released: 1981

To begin with, I’ll just get this out of the way: The Fox and the Hound isn’t my favorite Disney film. I find the overall plot to be somewhat lacking. I believe the songs are so bad that it would have been better if the film were a non-musical and the songs were completely scrapped. Finally, I can’t stand the birds-chasing-the-worm sideshow. Those three characters annoy me and add nothing to the experience. But that being said, The Fox and the Hound does have a major redeeming quality, which is the thought put into the five major characters and the relationships they have with each other.

The five main characters in this film include the fox Tod, and Copper the hound dog, along with Copper’s canine mentor Chief, his human master Amos Slade, and the widow Tweed, Slade’s neighbor who adopts the orphan Tod. In a bit of a departure from the Disney norm, none of these characters can be judged as being either good or evil. They all have strengths and weaknesses which are put to the test during the events of the film.

"Wait, Widow Tweed isn't all good? How can you say that!" Well, I would be pretty frustrated if someone shot up my car and accused me of being a liar. And look at that smile on her face just after doing the evil deed...there's definitely some amount of vileness in the woman.

“Wait, Widow Tweed isn’t all good? How can you say that!” Well, I would be pretty frustrated if someone shot up my car and accused me of being a liar. And look at that smile on her face just after doing the evil deed…there’s definitely some amount of vileness in the woman.

The first relationship of note is that of Tod and Copper. Tod, thrust from his natural fox lifestyle through no fault of his own, is completely ignorant of the “societal norm” which says that foxes and hunting dogs don’t get along. He is able to befriend Copper, who at the time is equally ignorant about the way things are “supposed to be.” However, their friendship is tested when Copper is trained to hunt. Like most good friendships, they have their rocky moments, but they do prove to be loyal to each other. The human parallels and the message of this relationship are obvious.

Chief (voiced by Disney veteran Pat Buttram in what has to be his most tolerable performance for the studio) initially isn't too thrilled by the new recruit, but soon warms up to him.

Chief (voiced by Disney veteran Pat Buttram in what has to be his most tolerable performance for the studio) initially isn’t too thrilled by the new recruit, but soon warms up to him.

Another interesting relationship is between Chief and Copper. Chief likes Copper and is a great mentor to him, but at the same time he has to deal with the frustrations of being replaced by Copper as the more capable performer during the hunts. Nevertheless, despite some inner turmoil, Chief continues to teach Copper the ways of the hunting dog. Because of this, Copper respects Chief so much that when Chief is injured when dodging a (conveniently-timed) train while pursuing Tod, Copper makes an irrational revenge vow against his old fox friend.

Additionally, there is the relationship shown between Amos and Tweed. At times they have disdain towards each other, caused both by Tod’s presence and simple misunderstandings, but these neighbors are on friendly enough terms that Tweed is willing to give aid to Amos when his leg is injured.

Just like in real life, these relationships have some complexity to them and it is not so simple to say “That’s a good guy, while this other one is definitely bad.” Amos has an outrageous temper and goes overboard in his actions, but at the same time he loves his dogs and is just trying to live his life without getting his chickens eaten or his animals killed. Copper is trying to reconcile friendship and loyalty to many different parties and has difficulty prioritizing these loyalties. Poor Tod causes all kinds of trouble in this story, but it really isn’t his fault. He never learned to properly behave either as a domesticated or wild animal and thus isn’t sure how to act in either setting.

Here is the only true villain in this film - the evil bear with the blood-red eyes. Copper and Chief using their hunting-dog instincts is complicated and we can maybe understand them. But Mr. Bear following his instincts and attacking when threatened is just cold-blooded villainy.

Here is the only true villain in this film – the evil bear with the blood-red eyes. Copper and Chief using their hunting-dog instincts is complicated and we can maybe understand them. But Mr. Bear following his instincts and attacking when threatened is just cold-blooded villainy.

The interplay between the five characters is quite thought-provoking, causing some reflection about real-life friendships and judgements we make about people. So while The Fox and the Hound may not be the strongest film in the Disney canon, I do applaud Disney’s attempt to be thoughtful and going beyond what was usually tackled thematically in its films.

When I praised thoughtful inclusions in the The Fox and the Hound, I didn't mean these clowns.

When I praised thoughtful inclusions in the The Fox and the Hound, I didn’t mean these clowns.