John’s Disney Movie Countdown: Part 2

In Part 1 of John’s Disney Movie Countdown, I counted down the flat-out bad, the not-bad-at-all, and the rather enjoyable Disney Canon films. These three groups of films (in my opinion, anyway) got us from #54 down to #31.

In Part 2, we have, in essence, a Top 30 countdown. No longer do we need to make mention of bad films, hit-n-miss jokes, and uneven storytelling. Each of these films likely will have a loyal following, and even #30 on the list can be considered a legitimate classic in many circles. And it only gets better and better from there. So let’s get started, shall we?

Group #4: “On a scale of one to ten, YOU are an eleven!”

Or maybe the title should be, “Two thumbs WAY, way up!” Regardless of which title is better, the point is that with each film in this group, I found myself thoroughly entertained, and I would eagerly recommend any of them to a friend to check out. If I have any criticisms at all, they are very, very minor. 

30. The Rescuers (1977)

The one Disney film to really have Don Bluth’s fingerprints all over it stands out for me as a special and unique film. It stood as the transition film from the old generation of artists and animators to the new, and raked in tons of money over the years. I ignored it for years, but I’m not about to let that happen again anytime soon.

Orville flights

29. 101 Dalmatians (1961)

I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to the Blu-ray release of 101 Dalmations. Here’s to over 6 million pristine, high-definition spots!

28. Mulan (1998)

27. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Disney’s Silver Age will do no worse than #27 on my list. Such was the strength of the 1950’s decade for Disney. Alice in Wonderland is a curious creation, for sure, but its wacky characters, memorable dialogue, and Mary Blair artwork is more than enough to win me over.

photo(72)

26. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Disney recovered quite nicely from the financial distress caused by The Black Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective is a simpler tale, but it is very effective storytelling and zips along quite nicely. And yes, it has a “throw lettuce and tomatoes at the stage performer” scene, so there are some bonus points right there.

25. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

When I watched this one during my project, I wondered just how high its ceiling would go if I made a ranking. Well, #25 is my official answer. By far the best of the Disney package films, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad just gets things right with its zany Mr. Toad segment and the spooky Halloween classic rendition of Sleepy Hollow.

photo(52)

24. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

It’s Disney animation with classic video games weaved into it. What’s not to like about that? Nothing, that’s what.

23. Winnie the Pooh (2011)

22. The Jungle Book (1967)

Here’s another classic that stuck to the basics and was all the better for it. The Jungle Book doesn’t do anything too fancy, but it still manages to be a showcase of fun music, excellent characters, and great animation.

Louie

21. Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Meet the Robinsons to me must be the most pleasantly surprising films of the Disney Canon when I first watched it. After the mid-2000’s fiasco, my expectations of Disney movies were very low. Meet the Robinsons greatly exceeded those expectations. Plus, the movie is full of the quirky humor I love.

20. Peter Pan (1953)

19. Robin Hood (1973)

Ah, Robin Hood. The once-and-always favorite of my family continues to entertain even after many, many repeat viewing over the years. To me, Robin Hood will always be a red fox, and Little John will be a brown version of Baloo.

oo-de-lally

18. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

If you’d asked me a few years ago to make a Disney rankings, I can assure you that The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be nowhere near this high on the list. It probably would have been found somewhere in group two. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has to win the award for largest jump in my rankings as a result of my project. It is colorful, dramatic, energetic, and has important life’s lessons to teach, as well. This is a great film in my book, gargoyles and all.

outcast

17. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

If I was impressed by Disney’s Silver Age being fully contained in my top 30, then count me doubly impressed with Disney’s Golden Age of animated films. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is almost eighty years old now, but somehow still manages to stay relevant, and not only for being the one that started it all. Walt Disney knew what he was doing when he strove for timeless storytelling. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is timeless entertainment.

16. Frozen (2013)

Another movie I was curious where I’d actually put it if I were to create an official rankings is Frozen. My rough estimates had it “probably in the top 20.” Turns out my gut was right, as Frozen lands confidently in that range to #16. Of course, Disney probably doesn’t care as much about where its fans place Frozen in the Canon ranks as they do with where it ended up financially. It is now over a year later and Disney is still capitalizing on the Frozen fever.

teenage angst

15. Aladdin (1992)

At first glance, you might call me crazy for Aladdin getting ranked above Frozen. Maybe it is a crazy thing to do. Perhaps it is the fact that Aladdin dominated my childhood. Or maybe its the better overall collection of characters and slightly superior sense of humor. I don’t know why I like it more. I just do. A little, at least.

Whole new World

The young kids these days have “Let It Go” to sing all day. We had “A Whole New World.”

14. Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lilo & Stitch is another film that benefitted from my project and leaped several spots in my rankings. It is also another film with quirky humor and lots of heart.

13. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

This was perhaps the most difficult decision I faced in these rankings. Does Lady and the Tramp belong in group #4 or group #5? It is an incredibly well-made film, and I absolutely love it. But I didn’t really want my final category to have 13 films (arbitrary, I know), so Lady and the Tramp just misses the cut by a nose. However, as a consolation, I will hereby dub Lady and the Tramp “Best romantic comedy ever made about non-humans.”

Of course I'm going to include the spaghetti scene. It is an icon of Hollywood.

Of course I’m going to include the spaghetti scene. It is an icon of Hollywood.

And with that, Part 2 of John’s Disney Movie Countdown is complete. My Group 4 is jam-packed with 18 excellent Disney Canon films. As I alluded to in Part 1, I am amazed at the consistent high quality of all these Disney films through the decades. It is a tremendous track record to have when you can say “sure, there’s a top 30, but in reality every one of them comes highly recommended.” We haven’t even got to the final group!

Speaking of which, this leaves us now with only 12 more films to rank. And that will be happening very soon in Part 3 of my countdown. I hope to see you there!

 

 

 

Week 50: Tangled (With Frozen Comments, Too)

Disney’s Greatest Triumph of This Millennium?

Tangled meaningful music

Originally Released: 2010

I know, I know, my little title above is a bit of an exaggeration. There are still 986 years to go in this millennium, which means there are that many more chances for Disney to one-up Tangled. Some of you might even argue that it has already been eclipsed by a certain top-grossing animated film of all time. But I wanted to try my hand at current trends in news headlines. Feel free to supply more catchy headliners about Tangled in the comments section, by the way.

Actually, there is a reason I bring up Disney’s reigning financial juggernaut. See, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma: when I embarked on my Disney project in January 2013, there were only 52 films, which made my project make sense at the time. Now here we are, less than a month away from the debut of Disney’s 54th animated feature, and I have some decisions to make. Should I ruin my “52 weeks, 52 animated classics” theme even more by making it “100 or so weeks, 54-ish animated classics?” Or should I just stick to my original plan and close it off at 52?

I’ve decided to compromise  (i.e. cheat) a little bit by making my Tangled post double up as my Frozen assessment as well (though that still doesn’t solve how I will tackle Big Hero 6 when it comes out. Bonus Week, perhaps? Oh, and here, have a gander of the Japanese trailer to Big Hero 6 – because why not?). I actually have been wanting to say something on the matter of Frozen vs. Tangled ever since Frozen came out late last year. Unfortunately, many moons have passed, and many an internet article has already been dedicated to direct comparisons of Tangled and Frozen. But I thought of it first. And I’m going to do it anyway.

gloves are off

The gloves are off! Here comes the real fight!

I’ve thought of various categories, and I’m going to pit one film against the other in each one. It is all scientific and (mostly) unbiased, of course (I am an engineer, after all), so there will be no disputing the winner at the end of my little head-to-head matchup.

Category 1: The Title

Tangled vs. Frozen: this one is difficult: each consists of a single word, each is not even a noun, and each would not be pleasant if it happened to me. I have to say this is a tie. Except wait, the word tie, when used as a verb, would infer a future state of being tangled. So I guess Tangled wins this one.

Category 2: The Leading Lady

Leading Lady Tangled

Rapunzel, VS…

 

Anna

Anna!

This is a difficult category. On the one hand, Rapunzel has amazing, flowing magic golden hair. On the other hand, Anna’s hair displays the cruel remnants of magic gone awry. On the one hand, Rapunzel sure knows how to use a frying pan in a jam. On the other hand, Anna needs nothing but her hand to knock someone cold. I could go on, but I’ll just call this one a tie and give each film a half a point.

Category 3: The Leading Man

Flynn Rider VS...

Flynn Rider VS…

Kristoff!

Kristoff!

This one is not quite so difficult. Flynn’s got the smolder. Kristoff spits in into the wind and his girlfriend. ‘Nuff said. Tangled wins this round.

Category 4: Music

Here is another tough one. I’m not a four-year old girl, so I’m not going to default to “Let it Go” and call it a match. When considering the music and songs in these two films, there are a lot of things I’ve given consideration. Which songs are catchier? Which has more memorable songs? Which songs actually serve a good purpose in the film? When are the songs sung in the film’s running time? Are there pacing issues? Are the lyrics clever? What about the score throughout the film? What about the soundtrack when played on its own?

When it comes to catchiness alone, Frozen wins this by a long shot. The songs in Frozen also have more of a tendency to get stuck in your head, for better or worse. And yes, “Let it Go” wins bonus points just for being so darn good in the film. It is just a magnificent scene overall.

When it comes to lyrics, however, the brilliance of Alan Menken begins to shine through and catch up.

Consider, for example, the lyrics of “Mother Knows Best” and compare them to “First time in Forever.”  One sounds like it was written by a brilliant wordsmith with unlimited vocabulary, that say exactly what would help the story move forward and establish characters. “First Time in Forever” does also help the story move forward, but has lyrics like “actual real live people…it’ll be totally strange” while later on in the same song comes this gem: “which is totally bizarre.” Every time I hear that second “totally,” I can’t help but wonder if the songwriters just ran out of gas the night they were writing the song. Surely they could have come up with some other word that means the same thing, right? People may try to argue that they were trying to use words a ditzy teenage girl would use, but I’m not buying that argument.

Next, what about how the music flows in the movie? In this category, I believe Tangled takes it. Not only does it have music throughout that does a great job of pushing the story forward, it also makes excellent use of reprises, both for Rapunzel and the villain. Also, in Tangled, it doesn’t feel like all the songs were crammed into the first third of the movie.

love song

Subcategory: The Love Song. What about the love song? Do you opt for a beautiful, quiet melody, or a bombastic “High School Musical” song? Even though I like Love is an open door,” I prefer “I see the Light.” I saw Tangled in 3D when it was in theaters, and what “Let it Go” did for so many who watched Frozen, “I see the Light” did for me. I was awestruck by the scene: The 3D lanterns flowing into and out of the screen, the melody, and everything else combined to create a sweet scene in the movie.

love song Tangled

A real love song. I love it.

At this point, I’d probably give music a tie between the two films. Each has great music, a nice score, and each has its own strengths. However, I have to pull out my wild card in this scientific matchup: I have a serious music crush on Mandy Moore. Ever since “I Wanna be with You,” Mandy Moore’s voice has just melted me. Everyone has a guilty pleasure, and Mandy Moore’s music is definitely mine. Imagine my reaction when I found out that Mandy Moore would be lending her vocal talents to Disney and become the latest princess! It’s not every day your musical crush joins forces with your animation obsession. So yeah, due to the Mandy Moore factor, Tangled wins the music category.

Category 5: Horse-Like Sidekick

Maximus, the horse, VS...

Maximus, the horse, VS…

Sven, the Reindeer

Sven, the Reindeer!

Do we really need to make this comparison? Maximus wins. Tangled wins.

Category 6: Villain

villain Tangled

Manipulative, sinister, vile Mother Gothel, VS…

Villain?

Villain?

Villain?

Villain?

Give credit to Frozen for keeping us guessing. I was honestly thinking that maybe Disney would go the Studio Ghibli route and do a real villain-less movie, like Kiki’s Delivery Service or something like that. Well, in the end we got a true villain, but I wasn’t satisfied.

Mother Gothel, however, is a villain in the truest sense, hearkening back to the great Disney villains in the past. I think something can be said for having someone in your film who you can immediately root against and who makes it no secret he or she is evil. It makes the inevitable triumph of good a little more satisfying in the end. Mother Gothel has many tricks up her sleeve, and she is a master manipulator. She easily outdoes the Duke…er, Elsa…er, the Prince. Chalk another one up for Tangled.

Category 7: Non-Horse Sidekick

Pascal, VS...

Pascal, VS…

olaf sidekick

Olaf!

As charming as little Pascal is, I have to repeat my answer to my horse comparison. That is, there’s really no comparison. Olaf wins. Frozen wins.

Category 8: Supporting Cast of Merry Folk

Band of thieves with a dream (and the best jumping photo ever), VS...

Band of thieves with a dream (and the best jumping photo ever), VS…

Trolls!

Trolls!

The trolls fight valiantly and play a crucial role in Frozen, in that they are pretty much the catalyst to all the major events in the film. But the Band of thieves are so funny, and their musical number is a lot more fun than the trolls. Tangled wins this one.

Category 9: Villainous Sidekicks

These guys, VS...

These guys, VS…

These guys!

These guys!

Really, now, Disney, I feel like Frozen is just starting to copy and paste elements from Tangled. One villainous sidekick with awesome facial hair, and the other clean shaven. The goons in Tangled are more memorable, are more of a factor in the film, and are going to win this category.

Category 10: Teenage Angst

Gothel teenage angst

Scary mom with horrible advice, locked up in your house for all your life, a musical number about finally getting out, VS…

Parents with horrible advice who later die, locked in your house for all your life, a musical number about finally getting out - but a double dose of each!!

Parents with horrible advice who later die, locked up in your house for all your life, a musical number about finally getting out – but a double dose of it all!!

Frozen wins this one. Two is better than one!

So there you have it, after my scientific, engineer-like comparison of the two films in ten different categories, I conclude that Tangled is basically Frozen, just slightly different and slightly better, with a final tally of 7.5 to 2.5.

mental synchronization

Don’t be sad, Frozen. You are actually quite synchronized with your older sibling film.

maximus horse sidekick

Maximus FTW!

 

Week 46: Chicken Little

Or, ‘The Film With a Serious Identity Crisis’

Weird group

Originally Released: 2005

Chicken Little is a real head-scratcher. Disney’s first true foray into 3D animation doesn’t feel at all like a real Disney animated film. Rather, if all labels were removed, I would have said it was made by some other studio like Dreamworks or 20th Century Fox Animation. It is almost as if the Disney team saw the success of Shrek and Ice Age and decided that irreverence and weirdness was the only way they were going to make money. Of course, they could have instead looked towards the stuff Pixar was churning out during the same time period (Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles), but after viewing Chicken Little, it is clear that the film is devoid of Pixar-style inspiration.

Now, I wasn’t there at the time, so I obviously don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking during the production of Chicken Little. However, it is very apparent that there was no clear direction in what was intended for the final product. Chicken Little, as a film, suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Indeed, watching some of the special features that delve into the making of the film confirm this notion.

Point#1. There are about 3-4 wildly different film opening scenes. The opener they went with in the final product is, incredibly, a flat-out mockery of Disney’s past (a past which was much, much better than this movie, ironically). I guess it is supposed to be funny. I guess. The other openers weren’t much better. But anyway, good or bad, the point I’m trying to make is that the multitude of opening scenes shows that the filmmakers had no clue as to what kind of tone they wanted the film to have. Was this a comedy? Was it a fairy tale? Was it sentimental and serious? It depends on which beginning scene they would have chosen.

chicken girl

Point #2. Chicken Little was a girl for some time in production. If switching genders of the protagonist doesn’t scream ‘I don’t know what I want this movie to be,” what would?

Point#3. Chicken Little, at one point in production, had a mother. If she remained in the film to the end, this probably would have been a much different film. Apparently the filmmakers wanted an insensitive sports jock father with no counterbalance as one of the main antagonists for Chicken Little. But it goes to show that even fairly deep into production, the filmmakers still had no idea what they wanted to do with the plot, the personalities of the characters, and the theme.

chicken mother

There are more points to make, surely, but I think that should be sufficient. What we end up with is a film that seems to be missing its heart and soul. I’m not a professionally trained filmmaker, but I would suspect that when you make a movie or write a story, it would be beneficial to know some of these types of things from the get-go, or at least very early on.

Now, there are a few things I do enjoy about the movie. Some of the jokes are pretty funny (of course, most of them were in the trailer. Yes, it’s one of those movies). The “Hollywood-style” movie at the end of the Chicken Little is great (Why didn’t they just make the whole film like that? I would have been all over something that completely makes fun of Hollywood for the entirety of the film).

But that’s about it. On the flip side, beside having no heart, soul, or identity, there are a few other things worth pointing out that mar Chicken Little. The first is the animation. It’s just not that great. I know some slack should be given due to it being Disney’s first true attempt at the medium, but the characters are very stiff at times, and overly bouncy at others. It feels like it belongs on the slate of One Saturday Morning instead of Disney’s flagship animation studio output.

Chicken 1

Another negative thing that I just have to point out is this: Chicken Little uses not one, not two, but THREE songs in my “Songs-that-should-forever-be-banned-from-all-future-films-because-they-are-so-overused-that-they-are-beyond-cliche” list. So in addition to having a lack of direction, you can throw in a lack of creativity and innovation. The music does nothing for this film.

Lastly, why is everybody so mean in this movie? Where are the likable characters? Runt is probably my favorite character in the movie, and that’s not saying much at all. I know we’re supposed to sympathize with Chicken Little because his life stinks, but in order for that to work, Chicken Little needs to be a little more interesting and likable. Maybe he is for some, but I didn’t feel anything with his plight. And I was even in the “unpopular” crowd growing up. That’s saying something about this main character.

Sadly, when it comes to Chicken Little, I have to place this film into my (amazingly small) group of legitimately bad Disney animated films. Save for a few good gags, there’s not much good going on with Disney’s 46th studio release.

Chicken Pow

“Pow! Bang! Scathing review coming your way, little chicken!”

chaos

This picture is a chaotic mess. Much like the movie.

Week 32: The Lion King

A King of a Film

Simba looks to heaven

Originally Released: 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color swap

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

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

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

Mufasa appears

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

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

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

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

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

Circle of Life

Scar and Simba

Hakuna Matata

Week 31: Aladdin

Still One of Disney’s Funniest Films

Dangerfield

Originally Released: 1992

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jafar Iago

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

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

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

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

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

happy family

Abu and rug

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

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

Whole new World

Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

What Every Animated Film Wishes To Be Like

Belle

Originally Released: 1991

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

Rose

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

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

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

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

Opening storyboard

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

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

 

Belle Castle sketch

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

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

 

Beast Castle Sketch

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

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

 

Lumiere rough

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

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

 

Dance rough

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

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

 

Beast Gaston rough

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

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

 

Belle-Beast 1

Belle-Beast cleaner

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

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

Transform rough

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

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

Week 20: The Aristocats

“It Worked with Dogs, so Now Let’s Try Cats”

cats

Originally Released: 1970

If someone were to briefly summarize the plot of The Aristocats, if you think at all like me, then you’d probably immediately see the similarities to Disney’s famous dog movies. It seems like they took a little bit of Lady and the Trampsprinkled in some elements of 101 Dalmations, replaced the dogs with a cat family, and Voilà! – a new Disney animated classic. For example, the Tramp is very similar to Thomas O’Malley, a stray, carefree independent type; Lady is like Duchess, a high-class neighborhood pet who falls in love with the stray; and there is a musical number involving Tramp/O’Malley’s stray friends (He’s a Tramp/ Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat). Similarly, both The Aristocats and 101 Dalmations involve villains trying to kidnap and eliminate the family of main characters, taking them away from the city to a rural farm setting. Both involve said family on a trek from the rural setting back to their home.

OMalley and Duchess

In reality, The Aristocats does just enough to separate itself and not be merely a copy of these other two classics. Duchess, appropriately voiced by the lovely Eva Gabor (of Green Acres fame), and her kittens are easy enough root for, and Thomas O’Malley (featuring voiceover work by Phil Harris for the second consecutive film) is quite a respectable alley cat. However, just because it manages to be its own story, that doesn’t mean it reaches the great heights of both of the aforementioned films. Perhaps it is because this was the first film have the bulk of its production occur after Walt Disney’s death, therefore lacking Walt’s keen eye for storytelling and knowing how to best make the plot move along in a satisfying way. Certainly, after watching in succession 19 films that had this personal touch, and then seeing The Aristocats, it is apparent that there is a difference. I still believe it is a pretty good film, but I wonder if it could have been so much more.

Edgar Napoleon

That being said, there are things that makes this movie worthwhile to me. The first is the rough animation style. Normally I prefer the clean look of the earlier Disney films, but the sketch lines that appear throughout this film are interesting in that they give a bit of insight into the animators’ work. As I watched the film, it actually grew on me more and more. These lines appear and disappear all the time, but if you take the time to pick out a scene and freeze the frames, you can find some of the lines used for creating symmetry and direction, and it can be quite an interesting thing for animation students/lovers to observe.

Also, I really enjoy the personality of the three kittens in this movie. They are just plain adorable. I love the way they interact with each other and act like a real family would act. They are playful and mischievous, but at the same time are obedient and loving. Each is fun in his or her own way. Toulouse wants to be a macho alley cat, Marie is a hopeless romantic and totally loves O’Malley’s smooth talk with her mother, and Berlioz just knows he’s a cool cat.

piano

Sadly, I can’t say the same for most of the minor characters. The geese felt thrown in and unnecessary, and even though the motorbike chase scene is fun, the dogs Napoleon and Lafayette really felt out of place in the Paris setting with their southern American accents. The mouse, which was voiced by Disney veteran Sterling Holloway, tries his best to be relevant, but just doesn’t manage to make much of an impact throughout most of the film.

Perhaps the biggest offender is the main villain, the greedy butler Edgar. After watching 20 Disney films and praising the creativity and personality of the likes of Cruella, Maleficent, etc., Edgar is such a disappointment. He is by far the lamest Disney villain up to this point. I honestly can’t think of a worse villain right now in the whole Disney canon. He is a bumbling fool and is not remotely scary or threatening.

dogs haystack

Going back to the positive side of things, the music in this film was once again primarily created by the Sherman Brothers, and they did an effective job. Strangely and sadly, the only worthwhile bonus features on the disc concerned the music from the Sherman Brothers, including the songs that were cut from the film. As I listened to a couple of the deleted songs, I wondered why they were cut. Usually it is understandable, because the song would detract from the story and prevent things from moving along. But in this film, particularly in the case of “She Never Felt Alone,” I believe it would have added to story and given it some much-needed emotion, helping the viewer care that the cats return to their owner. Again, it makes me wonder what might have been if Walt had been around to give more of his expert input. But in any case, most of the songs which made it to the final cut are fun and work well in the film.

Give Disney animators credit - they are amazingly good at making their characters dance.

Give Disney animators credit – they are amazingly good at making their characters dance.

I can’t wrap up this post without briefly talking about “Ev’rybody Wants to Be A Cat.” Why? Because I want everyone who reads this to get that song stuck in their head for the next few days, like it has been in mine. Now, repeat in your mind: “Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…

Meow!

Meow!