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).


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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!


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.


“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?


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.


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.



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



Week 33: Pocahontas

Disney’s Attempt at History


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.


John Smith

Blue River

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


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


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.


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.

Week 29: The Rescuers Down Under

The Forgotten Piece of the Disney Renaissance


Originally Released: 1990

As the story goes, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled the plug on opening weekend. Disney’s 29th animated feature film debuted at #4, earning less than $4 million at the U.S. box office. So the decision was made to immediately stop all marketing and advertising activities for The Rescuers Down Under, and Disney would start over and focus its energy on the next release.

When I first learned about this, it explained somewhat how The Rescuers Down Under could have possibly fallen so far into obscurity, especially considering that it is book-ended chronologically by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Not having any marketing will definitely decrease the amount of people watching it. But I wondered why Katzenberg was so quick to give up on the film. Surely it could still be profitable with a little more work, right? This and other incidents (removing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid is a prime example) caused me to begin to question his decision-making skills.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film's failure at the box office.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film’s failure at the box office.

However, I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue. I looked at the data to see which films bested The Rescuers Down Under that fateful weekend in November 1990. The Rescuers did manage beat out Ghost, which had been in the top five for 19 consecutive weeks by this time in 1990. However, Disney’s film was out-grossed by Child’s Play 2, which in its second weekend claimed the #3 spot; and at #2 was Rocky V, making its theatrical debut.

Already, this was quite a bit of competition to deal with (ok, maybe not in hindsight. But at the time both were popular franchises). But what was the #1 movie that defeated all these popular contenders? The champion, in its debut weekend, was none other than…Home Alone Home Alone was a big deal, folks. Not only was it the biggest smash hit of 1990, the movie was so big that it became a pop-culture phenomenon (most of us should remember putting our hands on our cheeks and screaming “AAAHHHH!”). It was so popular, it stayed at #1 in the box office for 12 weeks in a row, from November all the way into February of 1991. By the time Home Alone finally ran out of steam, it had raked in over $285 million domestically and $470 million worldwide! That could explain Disney’s decision. Maybe Katzenberg knew what he was doing, after all. Quite simply, there was no challenging the juggernaut that was Home Alone.


It is somewhat unfortunate, though, because in reality The Rescuers Down Under is a significant film for Disney. It was Disney’s first sequel (although this may be a bad thing, considering the stream of crappy sequels Disney produced after this). More significantly, though, it was the first of Disney’s animated films to fully utilize computers to produce the film. No longer did Disney have to rely on hand inking and painting of cells. Rather, the artists would scan the animation drawing into a computer and digitally fill in the colors and shading. In fact, it would be the first 100% digital film ever to be released.

The technology was called the CAPS process, or Computer Animation Production System. This technology represents the early stages of Disney’s partnership with PIXAR, who helped developed much of the system. The results are actually quite astounding, and it was a great leap in animation. The shading, color, and environments enabled by CAPS is far above what was previously imaginable by the old processes.

The only problem was that the artists at Disney didn’t know how to use the darn system. This led to many long hours and much fretting about whether the film could be finished on time. But even though this was the source of much stress to the filmmakers, we don’t really notice because the end result is still very impressive. The Rescuers Down Under is beautiful, even to this day.


Along with the leap in looks, another part I am extremely impressed with is the animation of the golden eagle, Marahute. Animator Glen Keane really did his research on birds, and it shows. The jerky movements of her head and body, her soaring through the air, and the flapping of her wings are all rather remarkable to see in motion throughout this film.

Down Under

These things help make up for the less noteworthy story. While it is the first true sequel Disney would release to theaters, to me it seemed like the main characters Bernard and Bianca are relegated to supporting character roles. Neither Bernard nor Bianca have much of an impact in this story, except at the very end of the film.

Apparently Disney really wanted to make a sequel to The Rescuers. Oliver & Company was originally intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers, but they ended up scrapping the idea because the connection wasn’t really there after some progress into that film. After that happened, I suppose the team must have thought that they could capitalize on America’s infatuation with the Land Down Under during the late 80’s and work The Rescuers into a Crocodile Dundee-type setting. But it seems to me like the connection to the first Rescuers film doesn’t work as well as it could have. Its true that it involves the same characters and a rescue of sorts, but to me it feels like something is still missing to cement that connection to the first film.

That’s not to say that The Rescuers Down Under isn’t worth watching. I liked it, despite its issues. It has some amazing flying scenes involving the eagle, Wilbur the Albatross, and even fireflies. Also, the film is just plain good-looking. For the most part, I do like the Australian setting and characters. Oh, and the lizard Joanna is a pretty funny evil sidekick. Even if it can’t match up to the greatness of its Disney Renaissance brethren or couldn’t beat this at the time of its release, The Rescuers Down Under remains a worthwhile entry in the Disney Canon.