Alice in Wonderland Review

In the 1950s, Disney finally managed to rebound after World War II forced the company into its first dark age. With the sustainability the package films brought to the company, Walt Disney Animation Studios was finally able to resume production on larger animated features. Cinderella kickstarted the “Silver Age” of Walt Disney animation in 1950, and the very next year, Disney followed suite with Alice in Wonderland. This surrealist, nonsensical adventure is based on the Lewis Carroll novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and is appropriately the strangest animated feature from Disney not titled The Three Caballeros. Though this strangeness can be entertaining in its own right, Alice in Wonderland lacks the heart that Disney’s best animated features are known for.

Alice is a young girl with her head in the clouds. As her elder sister Dinah is giving her a history lesson, Alice grows bored and wishes for her own world “where everything is nonsense.” Soon enough, Alice sees a waistcoat-wearing white rabbit claiming to be ‘running late for a very important date.’ Curious, Alice follows the rabbit, and ends up falling down a rabbit hole that takes her to Wonderland, a bizarre place where, sure enough, everything is nonsense.

From there, the movie is more or less a series of strange things happening, as opposed to a coherent plot. I’ve actually never read the original Alice novels (it’s on my to do list), but from what I understand, the Disney film embraces the absurdity of the books, but deviates away from the tone and subtler details (the books have some kind of commentary on mathematics…it’s a whole thing).

Disney’s interpretation is enjoyable enough, with the nonsensical nature of the material leading to some fantastic animated sequences, and plenty of “what the hell” moments to provide some laughs. But Alice never feels much like a character, more like a vehicle to get from one bizarre situation to the next. We probably only get a minute or two to learn anything about Alice before she ends up in Wonderland, and the film doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to establish her character (her brief longing for her own ‘nonsense world’ is literally all we get).

Don’t get me wrong, Alice in Wonderland is a fun film, with its complete removal of logic being a blank canvas for the animators to go nuts with. On the downside of things, the film’s re-releases during the 1960s (the ‘psychedelic era’) has forever given the Alice in Wonderland story an association with drugs, a stigma that extends to the greater fantasy genre even today, much to my chagrin.

Alice in Wonderland has numerous fun moments: a Dodo telling Alice to run in circles with fish and birds in order to stay dry, all while they’re being pelted with tidal waves (the Dodo is standing on a small hill out of the waves’ reach, a detail he seems completely ignorant to). The same dodo trying to help the White Rabbit get a giant Alice out of his house. Alice encountering the wicked Queen of Hearts, who blatantly cheats in a game of croquet (involving flamingos as clubs and hedgehogs as balls, naturally). And of course, Alice stumbling upon an “unbirthday” tea party celebration held by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (Ed Wyn’s vocals as the Mad Hatter remain among the studio’s most bluntly hilarious, with many voice actors imitating the performance for similar characters even today).

“The film does have a walrus in it. That’s always a bonus.”

The problem with Alice in Wonderland is that those “moments” are all it is. There’s no real storyline tying it all together, and as stated, Alice isn’t much of a character at all. The film is a series of fun and colorful sequences, but it lacks any heart or substance to make it anything more. Alice doesn’t grow as a person or gain anything as a result of her adventure. She’s just the mechanism that leads the audience from one weird thing to the next.

To further sully the experience, Alice in Wonderland features an abrupt “it was all a dream” ending, which has always been a pet peeve of mine, particularly for fantasy films. What’s the point? To try and justify the strangeness of its fantasy world by writing it off as a dream? If you think fantasy is so strange you have to write it off as a dream, why even bother making a fantasy film?

Maybe I’m overthinking that a bit. My point is the ending feels like a cop-out. Imagine if Pinocchio ended with its titular puppet waking up from a dream, and realizing he was actually a real boy all along, and his adventure to become one was just a dream. You’d feel kind of ripped off.

As a kid, I absolutely loved Alice in Wonderland. But nostalgia can only take something so far. While I still think Disney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s stories has enough entertainment value to keep it afloat, thanks to its sheer strangeness and the visuals that come with it, but Disney films – even the most simple ones – usually have something to them. Sadly, that doesn’t really apply to Alice in Wonderland. It makes for an entertaining enough viewing, but it is a bit of a step down from Cinderella, and not quite the Disney classic it’s often made out to be.

A very merry “Unclassic” you could say.

 

6

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad Review

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the sixth and final film of Disney’s Package Film Era, and the eleventh feature in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon overall (yes, there was a moment when Disney had more package films than proper features). As the title implies, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a showcase of two short films, one based on The Wind and the Willows (Mr. Toad) and one based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod). Together, these two shorts closed out Disney’s first dark age, and did so on a surprisingly high note.

It seems Disney really learned their lesson when it came to the filler segments of these package films by this point. That is to say, they realized they were unnecessary and dropped them entirely. Both Ichabod and Mr. Toad have brief introductions (using the Disney tradition of live-action storybooks leading into the animated films), but that’s it. No cutaways during the films, no banter between different narrators, none of that. This makes this particular package film feel closer to Disney’s more traditional feature films.

Both shorts are given a celebrity narrator (Basil Rathbone for Mr. Toad, and Bing Crosby for Ichabod), but they’re only acknowledged via the opening credits, and actually feel like their casting added something to the shorts, as opposed to having the film blatantly point them out in live-action segments like they’re guest stars on a sitcom.

As for the shorts themselves, they’re pretty good! Both get about a half hour of running time, which is enough for them to feel like complete stories instead of just random segments chained together like some of the previous package films.

Mr. Toad comes first, and tells how the titular amphibian comes from a line of wealthy toads (his family estate, Toad Hall, is a local landmark, and the pride of the community). J. Thaddeus Toad is less responsible than the previous Toads of Toad Hall, however, and often splurges entire fortunes on whatever “mania” he’s currently obsessing over. Mr. Toad’s close friend, Agnus MacBadger, takes it upon himself to be Mr. Toad’s bookkeeper to prevent Toad from going into complete bankruptcy.

Not that this does much good. As Mr. Toad is off on the latest fad (horse-drawn carriages), he happens upon someone driving an automobile. Having never seen anything like it, the automobile immediately becomes the newest ‘mania’ for the poor Toad. Despite an attempted intervention from his friends Ratty and Moley, Toad is hellbent on obtaining an automobile. But with his access to his fortune being cut off by MacBadger, Mr. Toad can’t simply purchase the vehicle, and is willing to try other means to claim a car of his own.

The next morning, Mr. Toad is arrested for stealing an automobile! Toad insists it’s a mistake, and that he made a trade for the car by signing away the deed to Toad Hall, only to discover after the fact that the car was stolen. But witnesses at the trial prove otherwise, and Mr. Toad is sent to jail. Thus it’s up to MacBadger, Ratty and Moley to bust Mr. Toad out of prison, clear his good name, and retrieve the deed to Toad Hall.

The Mr. Toad short is simple and straightforward, and it’s undeniably charming. Keeping in mind Disney’s early habit of making the main characters the most boring ones in their features (being too perfect if they’re given any personality at all), it’s refreshing to see a flawed main character like Mr. Toad – who is kindhearted but irresponsible -come from the studio’s earlier years. I also like the supporting cast of MacBadger, Ratty and Moley. And it’s pretty fun to see a Disney movie where the main focus of the plot is to reclaim the deed to a mansion.

The second short, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, isn’t as immediately captivating as Mr. Toad, but it gets there eventually. The plot here is focused on Ichabod Crane – a lanky, gangling character with a funny face and “feet like shovels” – who is to be the new schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod is also something of a miser, finding any and every way to spend as little money as possible (from attending parties for the free food to even riding a “borrowed” horse).

Despite his peculiar looks and skinflint behavior, Ichabod is inexplicably a ladies man, often putting up with the misbehaviors of the school children, provided their mothers are “good cooks” (whether the film is aiming for a euphemism here, or simply making Ichabod’s womanizing more Disney-friendly by literally centering it around food, I’m not quite sure). This eventually sees Ichabod fall head over heels for Katrina Van Tassel, the most beautiful woman in Sleepy Hollow… who also happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in the town.

This leads Ichabod to run afoul of Brom Bones, the town’s local prankster who also has eyes for Katrina. Brom Bones does his best to bully and embarrass Ichabod, but the odd Mr. Crane is more clever than he lets on, and continuously outwits Brom at his own game.

It’s hard to tell who we’re supposed to root for here. Mr. Toad is certainly flawed, but he’s also a decent enough fellow that we have sympathy for his plights. Neither Ichabod nor Brom are particularly upstanding figures, but Ichabod seems to be far more focused on Katrina’s family wealth than Katrina herself, whereas Brom – despite being a prankster – is described as “meaning no harm to anyone.” So I guess Brom is the lesser of two evils.

While it may at first appear that the short is presenting Ichabod as a wily Bugs Bunny type (outsmarting his rival at every turn) the film ultimately gives Ichabod the greater comeuppance.

At the Van Tassel family’s annual Halloween party (where Ichabod has seemingly once again gained the upper hand in his rivalry for Katrina’s affections), Brom Bones discovers Ichabod’s great weakness: It turns out the schoolmaster is dreadfully superstitious. So Brom uses this to his advantage by telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, a soldier that lost his head to a cannonball blast that now haunts Sleepy Hollow to claim a new head every Halloween night.

Broms’s plan works, as his ghost story has Ichabod spooked silly. And sure enough, on his way home from the party, Ichabod Crane is tormented by the Headless Horseman, with the frightful dullahan chasing Ichabod through the night.

Much like how Mr. Toad featured a more flawed main character than most Disney films of the time (and most of them for the decades to come), Ichabod also breaks away somewhat from Disney traditions by featuring a more interpretive ending. In the original Sleepy Hollow story, it is left ambiguous as to whether or not the Headless Horseman is real, or if it was Brom in disguise playing off of Ichabod’s fears, though it heavily implies the latter. In the Disney film the answer is even more up in the air. It gives some small hints that it could be Brom scaring Ichabod out of town, but also makes it seem more likely that Ichabod is spirited away by the apparition.

Personally, I like to think the Horseman is real, because it’s just more badass to have Ichabod pay for his selfish ways by means of an evil specter. But that’s just me.

Both short films included in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad are enjoyable and well animated. They both feel distinct (Mr. Toad being charming and cute, and Ichabod becoming genuinely frightening before all is said and done), but they both still compliment each other, and they come without any of the fluff to distract from the main attractions like some of the previous package films.

I first watched these Disney package films around ten years ago to complete my viewing of the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. At that time, I didn’t feel won over by The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. But when watching it again for this review, I find it to be the best Disney film of this dark age by some margin. The Three Caballeros is worth a look for its utter insanity, but if there’s one feature from Disney’s oft forgotten Package Film Era that has held up, it’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

 

7

Melody Time Review

The fifth film in Disney’s oft forgotten “Package Film Era,” Melody Time is another series of short films tied together and released as a feature film. This time, however, the shorts were themed around popular and folk music, similar to what Fantasia did with classical music. But comparing Melody Time to Fantasia is giving it way too much credit. While some of the shorts are decent enough, Melody Time lacks Fantasia’s scope and sense of artistry, nor does it feel like the segments are all collective parts of a singular vision like Fantasia did. Melody Time is simply another package film from Disney’s first dark age in the late 1940s.

One thing I definitely give Melody Time credit for is that it features no filler segues in between the animated shorts. So the film just goes from one short to the next, which is a nice change of pace after Fun and Fancy Free had way too much filler.

Melody Time features seven short segments of varying quality: The first is Once Upon a Wintertime. It’s a simple romance story between a boy and girl who spend time ice skating before tragedy almost strikes and the boy has to save the girl. It’s okay.

The second short, Bumble Boogie, livens things up a bit. Taking inspiration from Rinsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee (a song that was considered for Fantasia), Bumble Boogie sees a lone bee trying to survive amidst the surrealistic sights and sounds of the short. It’s fun.

The third film included is also the longest, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed. It really is the simple story of John Chapman planting apple trees in the days of the pioneers. The short also has a bit of a Christian overtone, which is interesting given that Walt Disney was against featuring overt religious references in his films. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed has its charms, but again, it’s unspectacular.

For round four, we have Little Toot, the story of a mischievous young tugboat. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I generally don’t care for anthropomorphic vehicle characters (they’re just so limited), but I found myself kind of bored with this one. It’s not horrible, just mediocre and forgettable.

Trees, the fifth short of Melody Time, is a short poem that provides some colorful visuals, but not a whole lot else. Honestly, there’s not much else to say.

The sixth short is Blame it on the Samba, which reunites Donald Duck with José Carioca the parrot (Panchito Pistoles is regrettably absent). Here, the duck and parrot duo encounter the Aracuan Bird (the gibberish-speaking bird from The Three Caballeros), who introduces them to the samba. This short is good fun, and features the surrealism that usually accompanies Donald Duck and José Carioca, including another mixture of animation and live-action. Blame it on the Samba picks the film up a little, but it does also kind of make you wish you were watching The Three Caballeros instead.

Finally, the film ends with Pecos Bill, the only short in Melody Time to get an introduction for some reason. The short is introduced by actor Roy Rogers, who is telling the story of Pecos Bill to child actress Luana Patten (the same actress from Fun and Fancy Free. Geez, Disney couldn’t even get new actors during this time).

The short itself is…poorly aged, to put it lightly. Pecos Bill is a wild man raised by coyotes who becomes a cowboy, helps shape Texas, smokes a lot (his cigarettes are uncensored for the first time in decades on Disney+), and rides a horse named Widowmaker.

Pecos Bill would be a bland short as it is (it’s also the second longest in Melody Time), but it gets bumped down several pegs for how dated it is. Pecos Bill is supposed to come across like some kind of wild rogue hero, but instead comes across like an ignorant jackass. He shoots at a tribe of Native Americans to scare them away because they exist, and when he woos and kisses the first woman he sees, his pistols remove themselves from their holsters and fire into the air in what is the most overt sexual innuendo in the history of Disney animation (all the weirder considering the more conservative time period the film was released in). It’s just kind of…uncomfortable.

In the end, Melody Time is an inconsistent series of short films. Another mediocre hodgepodge of a compilation that, for some reason, is accepted and embraced as part of the official canon of Walt Disney Animation Studios films. I like the Samba short (which proves once again that Donald and José are the saving grace of these package films), and the bumblebee short is fun.  Three of the shorts are watchable but nothing noteworthy, Little Toot is kind of a bore, and Pecos Bill can be outright offensive.

I understand that Disney was in a tight spot in the 1940s, so these package films were a means to make something cost effective that could bring in money to keep things afloat. But the fact that Disney continues to acknowledge these package films as official entries in their animated canon is baffling. The package films just feel like they’re filling out the numbers in Disney’s animated history, without actually contributing anything meaningful to it.

Melody Time has some good segments, but more of them fail to leave any kind of lasting impression. And closing out the ‘film’ with the Pecos Bill short was definitely a bad choice, one that has only been magnified with age.

 

3

Fun and Fancy Free Review

Fun and Fancy Free is the fourth film in Walt Disney Animation’s first dark age, better known as the “Package film era.” In the wake of World War II, with resources and staff dwindling (some even drafted), the Walt Disney Company was forced to cut corners with their animated features. Unable to create something of the same scale, scope and detail as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Pinocchio, Disney instead opted to emphasize short films,  package them together, and release them as a ‘feature film.’ Though the circumstances couldn’t be helped, suffice to say this era of Disney is often forgotten for a reason.

Following Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros and Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free continued the package film trend, and didn’t exactly improve on it. Fun and Fancy Free cuts down the number of featured shorts to two, and while that does make for a more focused film than its predecessors, it also means it has less chances to win the audience over to this format. Not to mention the segments in between the two shorts are the most padded yet.

The two featured shorts are Bongo, the tale of a circus bear who escapes into the forest and falls in love with a girl bear, invoking the wrath of a brutish villain bear, and Mickey and the Beanstalk, the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, but with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in the lead roles.

The film begins with Jiminy Cricket – yes, Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio – wandering around a random house, singing a happy song while encountering a goldfish and a black cat (who are not Cleo and Figaro from Pinocchio, by the way), before stumbling on a porcelain doll and a teddy bear next to a record player. Among these records is Bongo, the aforementioned bear romance story, which happens to be narrated by actress Dinah Shore (this movie was released in 1947, so you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with who that is). Inspired by the perceived love of the (quite inanimate) doll and teddy bear, Jiminy Cricket decides to play the Bongo record, which is where the first short begins.

After Bongo finishes, Jiminy Cricket happens upon a birthday invitation, with said party just so happening to be going on at that time. So Jiminy makes his way to the party to get some free cake, and this is where the filler segments get weird. It turns out the birthday party is for child actress Luana Patten, and takes place in the very much live-action world. Patten is being entertained at her party by famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, as well as his two then very famous (now just plain creepy) ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Bergen then tells the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk, with Charlie and Mortimer giving their own commentary with annoying frequency.

This just blows my mind on so many levels. First of all, the fact that Jiminy Cricket is in this movie just feels so strange. I know he’s one of Disney’s most iconic characters, but unlike Mickey, Donald or Goofy, who were “cartoon stars” who would be cast in different roles while retaining their core personalities, Jiminy Cricket was a character in an animated feature film. He was a key character in a defined narrative. So while the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe make sense to be used in package films like this, it just seems so weird to have a character like Jiminy Cricket show up in something that has no actual connection to Pinocchio.

“Ummm… No.”

Second, if you’re going to have Jiminy Cricket serve as the segue between the shorts, why not have Jiminy Cricket narrate the shorts himself? At least then his presence would make more sense. Instead, we have actors and entertainers from the late 1940s narrate the stories while Jiminy just kind of listens. It’s pretty transparent that Disney was in some desperate times that they had to utilize star power and resurrect a character from a previous and infinitely better movie in order to sell this movie. Sure, celebrities are a big part of animated features today, but they actually voice characters in the movies, they don’t just show up as themselves in live-action segments like some kind of guest star.

With all due respect to Edgar Bergen and Dinah Shore, watching this movie in 2020 feels like unearthing some kind of time capsule by their presence. I mean, part of the allure of animation is its timeless appeal. So it just seems so weird to have a Disney movie so overtly (if unintentionally) date itself. Had Bergen and Shore voiced some of the actual characters in the shorts, that’d be fine, but the fact that the movie feels the need to tell (and show) the audience which stars from decades ago are narrating the shorts is just so strange.

Enough with the filler segments. What about the shorts themselves? Well, like the previous package films, there’s really nothing too special about them. I suppose Mickey and the Beanstalk has the appeal of being one of the rare instances of Mickey, Donald and Goofy sharing the screen together, and it also has the little bit of trivia as being the last time Walt Disney himself voiced Mickey Mouse. Mickey and the Beanstalk is decently entertaining enough, and introduced audiences to Willie the Giant (the dude  what played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, in case you always wondered who the hell that was), but it’s nothing spectacular. And whenever Mickey and the Beanstalk starts to pick up some steam, it’s either interrupted by the constant nagging of those ventriloquist dummies, or flat-out cuts away back to said live-action segments.

It’s just kind of weird how the characters of the Mickey Mouse universe – Disney’s supposed ‘signature characters’ – were only put into Disney’s animated features when they needed to sell one of these package films. Is asking for a proper Disney movie starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy really asking for too much?

As for Bongo, well, it’s probably best that Fun and Fancy Free gets this one out of the way first. Because it honestly feels like it could be any Disney short from the time, but stretched unnecessarily long. This short in itself is around a half hour, but it feels longer than that. It’s the definition of a mediocre short, which may have been more charming if it were all the shorter.

There are moments of enjoyment in Fun and Fancy Free (namely those that involve Mickey, Donald and Goofy with as little interruptions as possible), but like the package films before it, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the official Disney canon of animated films. Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas (one of the most beloved animated films from the 1990s) aren’t part of the primary Disney canon, so why are these shoddily made time-savers from the Package Film Era? Granted, I don’t think any of these package films holds the distinction of being the worst Disney movie ever, but none of them are particularly good, and they aren’t even much in the way of movies themselves.

The Mickey short is decent enough, but Bongo is kind of a slog, and the filler segments feel more padded and pointless than ever.

Three Caballeros was probably the highlight of this era, if for no other reason than its utter insanity and surrealism. But Fun and Fancy Free has none of that. But it does have ventriloquist dummies!

Jiminy Crickets…

 

3

The Three Caballeros Review

I don’t think you could name a weirder Disney movie than The Three Caballeros. That itself isn’t a bad thing (it has always baffled me that so many people consider “weird” to be a negative connotation). If anything, the weirdness is the saving grace of The Three Caballeros. As the second film in Disney’s oft-forgotten “Package Film Era,” The Three Caballeros is another example of shorter segments haphazardly strewn together and labeled as a ‘feature film’ within the Disney canon.

The Three Caballeros is also akin to being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first sequel, as it is something of a follow-up to Disney’s previous package film, Saludos Amigos. Not so much in storyline (Disney Animation has only seen three canonical narrative continuations in their entire history, the first of which didn’t happen until 1990), but in that it features Donald Duck in a Latin American setting, and brings back the character of José Carioca the Brazilian parrot.

Like Saludos Amigos before it, The Three Caballeros was a product of a “goodwill tour” of Latin America for the Walt Disney Company commissioned by the United States Department of States in the wake of World War II. While Saludos Amigos was comprised of four short animated segments interspersed with clips of said tour by the Disney animators, The Three Caballeros has a bit more of a connected story linking most of its segments together. And when live-action does show up in Caballeros, it’s weaved in with the animated characters, instead of simply showing the audience who’s making the movie you’re watching.

The “story” here is that it’s Donald Duck’s birthday (which the film identifies as simply being “Friday the thirteenth”), and Donald Duck gets some presents from his friends. Presents that have increasingly surreal properties.

The first two gifts are short films of their own, given to Donald by José Carioca: The first is titled The Cold-Blooded Penguin and tells the story of Pablo, a penguin from the South Pole who wishes to live in a warmer climate, and ends up visiting many places in Latin America to find his new home. The second short is The Flying Gauchito, and involves a little boy in Uruguay who befriends a flying donkey.

These two opening shorts are okay, but much like the segments of Saludos Amigos, they are really nothing special. What’s all the weirder here is that the remaining segments go back to revolving around Donald and his friends (tied together by the loose narrative of Donald’s birthday). This makes the first two shorts feel completely disconnected from the rest of the film, and may leave you scratching your head as to why they were even included in the first place.

Again, the remainder of the film centers on Donald, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles, a pistol-packing rooster introduced here who represents Mexico. One additional segment kind of segues away from the beaked trio in telling the story of a group of Mexican children who celebrate Christmas by re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a room at the inn, but this segment is narrated by Panchito, who is telling the story to Donald and José, so it’s also still kind of part of the main story.

The remaining segments are where the film gets really weird, with Donald, José and Panchito experiencing different Latin American cultures, interacting with live-action humans (mainly women whom Donald can’t stop lusting after), or being thrown into surrealist situations not dissimilar to the Pink Elephants number from Dumbo.

I mean, I don’t know how to describe some of these. The easiest one to explain sees the avian trifecta traveling the beaches of Mexico City, with Donald once again pining for every woman in sight, while José and Panchito try to keep him focused on their travels. The other segments though, are more about spectacle than anything, and can’t be so easily summed up.

“No comment.”

One scene involves an extended samba sequence with Donald, José and more real humans. Another sees Donald multiply himself to dance with another live-action woman, who then becomes an animated flower but still retaining the woman’s face. My personal favorite part sees Donald and José inexplicably shrunk so small that Donald can’t open his next present, so José teaches Donald a magic trick to return to their normal size. But I don’t mean the usual kind of Disney fairy tale magic by means of Fairy Godmother or evil witch. What José (and subsequently Donald) does is a bizarre series of movements that results in them blowing into their glowing index fingers to grow back to normal size. The movie’s finale involves Panchito setting a firecracker-packing toy bull loose to attack Donald, with the irritable duck charging headfirst into the bull to ignite the fireworks. Oh yeah, there’s also a hyperactive, gibberish-speaking bird who interrupts the film by breaking the fourth wall on an occasion or two.

Did you get all that?

The point is, the movie is a trip. But it’s that sense of surrealism and outright “what the hell am I watching?” moments that make The Three Caballeros much more enjoyable to watch than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the film’s fragmented structure takes something away from the proceedings, which is only magnified by the first two shorts which feel like they were stapled onto the picture for the sake of padding.

Like Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros doesn’t really play out like a movie because of this. Which is a shame, because had Disney used Donald, José and Panchito’s bizarre antics as the basis for a more fully-realized adventure, The Three Caballeros might be an all-time great in the Disney canon (Seriously, why have none of the characters of the “Mickey Mouse universe” ever been trusted to carry an entire movie?).

“Perfectly normal.”

As it is, The Three Caballeros can be a lot of fun when it has you scratching your head at what you’re seeing onscreen. But the whole package film structure plays against it, making you long for what the film could have been under different circumstances. Disney’s more “cartoony” animal characters on an epic adventure that’s as wacky and insane as this? Why has that never happened?

On the plus side, José Carioca and Panchito Pistoles have reemerged from obscurity in recent years, so maybe there’s still hope…

 

5

Saludos Amigos Review

The history of Walt Disney Animation Studios has seen many highs and lows. Though things started off well for America’s premiere animation studio, with their first five features still being regarded as classics to this day, it soon found its first extended slump after the release of Bambi. In many ways it couldn’t be helped, with World War II affecting the Walt Disney Company as it did everyone. A lack of resources and dwindling staff resulted in what could be called the “Package Film Era” of Disney. Being unable to create films of the same scale and spectacle as their initial five features, Disney resorted to making more cost effective short films, and packaging them together (hence “package film”).

The 1940s saw no less than six such package films by Disney. Though these package films aren’t total busts, they definitely represent one of the lower points in the studio’s creativity. The first movie of Disney’s Package Film Era was Saludos Amigos which, with a runtime of only 42 minutes, is the shortest “film” in the Disney Animation canon.

Though Saludos Amigos predates America’s involvement in WWII, the war still played a large role in its production. With fears of Nazi Germany’s possible influence on Latin American governments, the United States Department of States commissioned a goodwill tour for the Walt Disney Company in Latin America. The Walt Disney Company would get to make a feature while traveling abroad, in hopes of strengthening friendship between the U.S. and Latin America.

As if the background of its production weren’t odd enough, Saludos Amigos is one of the stranger Disney movies. Not that its story is particularly bizarre (though its quasi-sequel, The Three Caballeros, might just take the crown in that regard), but because its four animated shorts are interspersed with documentary footage of the Disney animators’ tour of Latin America. It’s just so weird to see a Disney movie open up showing the animators and having a narrator explain how they’re heading to Latin America for research on the movie you’re currently watching…

As for the shorts themselves, they can be fun, but are unspectacular. The first and last shorts feature Donald Duck, the second revolves around an anthropomorphic airplane named Pedro, and the third focuses on Goofy.

The first short sees Donald Duck as an American tourist visiting Lake Titicaca. Though Disney’s early depictions of other cultures are, let’s just say “poorly aged” for the time being, the fun of this short is that the joke is on American tourists as opposed to the cultures Donald is visiting. There’s even a good piece of physical comedy with Donald trying to guide a llama over a bridge (a scene which I can’t help but feel Disney revisited with The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000).

The second short, aptly named Pedro after its aerodynamic protagonist, is unfortunately the low point of the film. It’s just a basic story of a small plane braving tall mountains and rough weather to deliver the mail. The short is supposed to take place in Chile, but it doesn’t exactly make much of an effort to showcase the culture. On the plus side, Chilean cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger was so disappointed with the representation of his country in the short, that he created the character Condorito to be a better cartoon representation of his country, with that character going on to become one of the most iconic cartoon characters in Latin America. So that’s something.

El Gaucho Goofy sees the best character of the Mickey Mouse universe cast (Goofy, obviously) first presented as an American cowboy, before being transported to the Argentinian pampas and becomes a Gaucho. It’s certainly not the best Goofy short, but the character’s usual bumbling antics are a nice refresher after the boring Pedro.

The final short is Aquarela do Brasil, and brings Donald Duck back into the film while also introducing the character José Carioca the parrot, who would have a bigger role in Three Caballeros. This short is more about fun visuals than it is gags like the first Donald short or the Goofy one, being presented with the meta-reference of a paintbrush painting the characters and backgrounds as the short goes on, making for crazy transformations and such. It’s fun, but again, it’s nothing special.

Sadly, that feeling of “fun but nothing special” kind of sums up the entirety of Saludos Amigos. Three of the four shorts are decently entertaining enough, but are far from the best Disney shorts. And the remaining one is just bland. The fact that these four shorts and the live-action documentary segments combined only amount to forty-two minutes is kind of telling of the place Disney Animation was in at the time (funnily enough, the short runtime wouldn’t even qualify as a feature-length film under the modern definition, meaning that this compilation of short films is in itself a short film).

Saludos Amigos isn’t a terrible movie per se, it’s just not much of a movie at all. It’s a collection of shorts that are alright at best, with very brief glimpses at the animators in between. It’s just kind of weird that such a movie is actually considered an official part of Disney’s official animated canon (notably being the sixth film in the Disney Animation lineup, so it’s not even buried somewhere obscure in the middle of the studio’s history).

I admit it’s not the worst film in the Disney canon, but because it isn’t much of a movie, it’s just weird to even call Saludos Amigos a Disney movie…

 

4

The Origami Sting (Paper Mario: The Origami King Impressions)

“Somehow… Palpatine returned.”

And somehow… Nintendo made something as wonderful as Paper Mario not fun anymore.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but Paper Mario: The Origami King is little more than validation for my (and everyone else’s) skepticisms. Just like Sticker Star, just like Color Splash, Origami King is a gimmicky endeavor that continues the series’ awkward mixture of being utterly shallow and overly thought out at the same time.

Yes, there are good moments, but those are found solely in the exploratory elements (finding lost Toads, combing for all the secret items in an area, etc.). But once you begin the battle system, it all goes to hell.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems once again decided the original Paper Mario formula – a simplified RPG system that retained depth and strategy based on individual enemies and Mario’s moves – is too complex. So instead of an RPG battle system with action commands, they went the much “simpler” route of starting battles off with a bizarre ring system, where you have to solve the puzzle that is the enemy layout in order to align them in such a way as to make your moves more effective, all within a short time limit.

Thankfully, your moves are no longer completely consumable like in Sticker Star or Color Splash, but aside from Mario’s standard boots and hammer, you do have to keep buying weapons repeatedly since they break after a while (because weapons breaking is all the rage in games these days for some reason). The fights themselves are already tedious, made all the more so because you don’t even gain experience points or anything of the sort after a battle, so there’s no leveling up. All you get for completing battles are coins (with more rewarded for how well you line up enemies, taking no damage, and so on). And what do you need coins for? To buy more weapons!

Good lord, what incentive is the player supposed to have in regards to these battles? Fight battles to get coins to buy weapons to use in battles to get coins to buy weapons… Geez! What’s the point?!

As purposeless as the regular battles are, they pale, pale in comparison to the boss fights. Good heavens, the boss battles of Origami King are bad. Just straight-up bad. How bad? Bad enough that – every time the game starts to win me over with it’s exploration and adventure elements – the boss fights make me not even want bother with that, because I know it will all culminate with a tedious, obnoxious, boring as all hell boss fight. They make me not care.

“Bosses will repeatedly change up the formula of battles, without letting the player know how that change effects things until they make a mistake. Yay, that’s always fun, right?”

What makes the boss fights so bad? Well, on top of following the general format of the already pointless battles, the bosses will add additional puzzle elements to the fights that are more cumbersome than clever. More often than not, figuring out how to solve these puzzles requires blatant trial-and-error, as opposed to problem solving skills. The game leaves the boss strategies unexplained until you try the obvious and fail while doing it. And if you don’t follow these fights exactly as the game wants you, the bosses will just heal and the whole thing starts over.

I hate this. I flat-out hate this. It’s not fun. Not at all. I thought Color Splash’s boss fights were annoying with how they were literally unbeatable unless you used specific items at specific times, but I’ll take Color Splash’s boss fights over Origami King’s any day.

Of course, another downward spiral that Origami King obnoxiously indulges in is its lack of character (both figuratively and literally). Though the game has its charms, it follows the bizarre trait the series has been cursed with from Sticker Star onwards of not having any original characters. Every Toad is simply named “X-Toad” (that is, when they even have “names.”).  And the first “partner” character who joins Mario is a Bob-omb named (wait for it)… Bob-omb!

Does this Bob-omb have any defining character traits or features? No, it’s a Bob-omb, plain and simple. And he jokes about once having a friend who was also named Bob-omb (Haha! Get it? They’re all named Bob-omb!). Well, at least you actually get partners in this one, which is more than you can say for Sticker Star and Color Splash, right?

But wait, do you even get partners here? The Bob-omb joins you in battle very infrequently (he conveniently chooses to stay outside dungeons to take naps), and when he can be bothered to help Mario out, he automatically attacks with a single move (which is simply bumping into an enemy), and half the time he trips while doing it, making it a complete waste.

“Get it? His name is Bob-omb, and he IS a Bob-omb! It’s totally a clever gag and not a side effect of creative limitation or anything.”

I actually found this to be kind of passive-aggressive on Nintendo/Intelligent System’s part. It’s like they’re saying “Oh, fans liked the old Paper Marios and want partners back? Okay, we’ll give them partners, but there’ll be nothing that stands out about them, they’ll automatically attack with the most basic move, which won’t even work half the time, and they’ll only join Mario in battle on occasion! Lol!” It’s like the game is literally making fun of the classic Paper Marios.

I have to ask: who is this game made for? It presents itself as being more approachable to kids than past entries, but its battle system is more convoluted than ever. I can’t imagine kids would have very much patience for it. It wants to be a puzzle adventure game, but felt the need to incorporate a turn-based battle system that slows the puzzle/adventure down considerably. It includes said RPG-style battle system, despite its utter disdain for anything resembling an RPG. And it certainly isn’t made for Paper Mario fans, as it continues to gut everything that once made the series so great.

I know I probably sound like an entitled fan. And I’m sorry for that. But Paper Mario is a bizarre, unique case where it seems like its developers actively refuse to listen to criticisms, and blatantly ignore fans’ wishes. They continue to work on a series by making games that feel like they want nothing to do with that series. It is a baffling disconnect if ever there were one in gaming.

I’m about halfway through Paper Mario: The Origami King, and I would love to review it. Normally, I like to beat a game before reviewing it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to push myself through the whole game. Would it be wrong to review a game without defeating its final boss? That might be the only way I can review it, because honestly getting through the game’s story is feeling more like a chore as I go on.

I know some people would balk at me to have an open mind. But I did go into Origami King with an open mind, the same way I did Sticker Star and Color Splash. In the case of Color Splash, I actually ended up having some fun and being charmed by it, despite its many flaws. But Origami King is feeling more Sticker Star than Color Splash to me. It’s tedious, monotonous, gimmicky, the battle system is pointless, the characters lack personality and charm, and those boss fights are just… NOPE!

I want to review Origami King properly, I really do. But do I have to beat it? Do I really have to? I feel like I’m deep enough in the game already to give a more detailed analysis of it (not that it would require delving very deep in this case). I feel like beating the final boss would just be a formality at this point.

You know what the worst part of all this is? I am not only a fan of Super Mario, but I have a particular fondness for Mario RPGs. That’s why – no matter how far previous Paper Marios may have fallen – I still gave subsequent entries their fair shot, simply because Paper Mario is part of that Mario RPG lineage. I felt obligated to give any game with Paper Mario in the title a go. Not even Sticker Star derailed that hope in me for the next entry. But Origami King has been such a disheartening experience, that I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the next Paper Mario will even be good, let alone go back to what made the series so special to begin with. Origami King has crushed my enthusiasm for the series, and that’s not something that happens to me lightly.

At least we have Bug Fables now…

Sonic and the Black Knight Review

Sonic and the Black Knight is the 2009, Wii-exclusive semi-sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings, which together comprise the “Sonic Storybook series.” Whereas Secret Rings took the famous blue hedgehog to the world of Arabian Nights, Black Knight transports Sonic to the world of King Arthur. Though Sonic and the Black Knight is a considerable improvement over Secret Rings (not that that’s saying much), the fact that this ‘storybook’ sub-series was ended after two installments is probably an indication that it didn’t exactly turn the series into a winning formula.

The scenario is basically the same here as it was in Secret Rings: Sonic is transported to another world, in this case the aforementioned King Arthur stories (which are more legend than storybook, but who’s keeping track?). Sonic is summoned by a wizard named Merlina (Merlin’s a girl here because why not?). An evil sword has possessed King Arthur himself, who has now become the infamous Black Knight, and is turning the kingdom to chaos. With the hero of her world now its big villain, Merlina summons a hero from another world to save the day, and that hero just so happens to be Sonic.

So the story is basically the same, but I like the added detail that Sonic just happened to be the hero who was summoned, and that it could have potentially been someone else, as opposed to Secret Rings which had the oddly-specific prophesy of a blue hedgehog being required to save the storybook world. And I like that Sonic is just saving the storybook world here, no “the bad guy will eventually try to escape into Sonic’s world” nonsense.

In regards to gameplay, Sonic and the Black Knight utilizes a similar setup to its predecessor, but with some much-appreciated improvements. For starters, Sonic no longer runs forward automatically. Though the levels are still comprised of long, linear tracks that seem to allow an inconsistent freedom of movement (it’s almost like Sonic is better suited to 2D or something), the fact that the player actually has to move Sonic this time around is already a plus. In addition, jumping works by simply hitting the corresponding button (the ‘A’ button this time around, as Black Knight uses the Wii remote and nunchuck combo). No more holding the button to get Sonic to stop, and releasing it for him to take to the air. You push the button, and Sonic jumps. Beautiful.

The big difference here is that Sonic now wields a sword! Hey, it could be worse, they could have given a Sonic character a gun and had them say minor swears like “damn” in an attempt to be edgy. But I digress.

The sword is used by swinging the Wii remote, though the motion of the player’s movement isn’t matched by Sonic, making it closer to Twilight Princess’s swordplay than Skyward Sword’s admittedly underrated motion controls (though comparing Sonic and the Black Knight to Twilight Princess at all is being exceptionally generous on my part). The sword doesn’t add a whole lot of newness to the traditional 3D Sonic gameplay, but it’s decent. Certainly better than whatever Secret Rings was doing with the start-stop homing attacks.

Most stages see Sonic simply going from point A to point B, but some levels feature more unique objectives, like defeating a certain number of enemies or rescuing a certain amount of captured civilians before you reach the goal. These add a marginal amount of variety, but nothing really substantial. The one objective I really did not like, however, involves Sonic having to give some of his rings to the aforementioned civilians. You have to get Sonic so close just to talk to them, and then you have to press one, two or three buttons that appear on-screen, all in a split second. It’s not too bad, but usually these missions have only just barely enough opportunities to give away your rings that, if you fail even one, you’re probably going to fail the mission. It also doesn’t help that the game fails to tell you about how this “mini-game” works (the description I gave above is more than the game feels the need to explain). So when the first time I gave someone rings I needed to press the A button, I assumed that’s all there was to it. So when I instinctively pressed the A button several other times and failed to give the civilian my rings, I was baffled why it didn’t work. Again, it’s not overly difficult or cryptic, but if you’re going to make a mini-game out of something so simple, maybe you should communicate that with the player? Just a thought.

The game also features a kind of item system, where certain items will grant different bonuses when equipped. Like in Secret Rings, you can gain experience points after a stage, though here they are called “Identification Points” and are used to identify items you find within the stages (different items will cost different amounts of IP to “identify”). Once identified, you can equip the items by visiting the blacksmith (Tails) in between stages. It’s admittedly another improvement over Secret Rings, but like that game’s leveling system, it still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more.

Most of the bosses here are Sonic characters reworked into different knights of King Arthur (specifically Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze. I take it Robotnik didn’t want to be a part of another storybook entry). It’s here where the game really slips up. These boss fights are easy in a really bizarre way. Now, there’s nothing wrong with easy boss fights, but what we have here is a special case. You basically commence in a duel with the other Sonic characters, but it seems like there’s no real strategy to them. Knuckles and Shadow both kicked my ass, but I still managed to beat them both on my first try without any real timing or strategy with my swings. Blaze was a slightly more fleshed out fight, but nothing to write home about.

The “final” boss is King Arthur himself (and I put final in quotation marks because this is one of those games that pretends to have post-game content by simply putting the staff credits after a boss partway through the main story, as opposed to actually feeling like there’s more to do once the story is done). This fight is different, and is the one point of the game that’s frustratingly difficult. You chase King Arthur, who is mounted on a horse (in fact he’s on horseback even in cutscenes. Sega couldn’t afford to make a second character model for him I guess).

You have to catch up with King Arthur, despite the fact that Sonic is supposed to be able to run at the speed of sound (at least give me a reason why this horse is faster than Sonic. Even something like “it’s not Sonic’s world so he can’t use his powers to their fullest” would suffice). Once you slash one of the king’s projectiles back at him, you’ll get the energy needed to catch up to him. Once you do, you’re supposed to counter his slashes with slashes of your own, but that’s way easier said than done, because the timing is so quick and precise it makes the aforementioned ring-giving mini-game feel like a Metal Gear Solid cinematic. I kid you not, I had to redo this fight so many times that the next day my arm was sore from swinging it like a madman.

On the plus sides, Sonic and the Black Knight, like its predecessor, is a great looking Wii game that still looks great. It has that cheesy but somehow infectious music that 3D Sonic games are known for. And this game is mercifully shorter than Sonic and the Secret Rings. I completed Black Knight within two play sessions on the same day (or at least completed up to King Arthur, I saw those end credits and figured that was good enough for me to duck out).

Sonic and the Black Knight suffers from many of the same issues as Secret Rings, but just not as badly. Thankfully, the fact that the player actually controls Sonic this time around, and the fact that jumping works so simply make it a far more playable experience. It’s nothing special, and the years since have made it even less so. Perhaps there was some potential in this “Sonic Storybook” idea if it were allowed to continue, but it seems like Sega has long-since abandoned the concept. Though perhaps that’s for the best. After all, when the simple act of pressing A to jump can be considered a vast improvement, it doesn’t exactly say a whole lot for the series.

 

4

Hamilton Review

*Review based on the “film version” of Hamilton released on Disney+.”

One of the more popular contributions to popular culture during the 2010s, Hamilton is the story of America Founding Father Alexander Hamilton told through an ‘unorthodox’ musical created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Broadway production became an instant hit, garnering massive critical acclaim and commercial appeal. Audiences seemingly couldn’t get enough of Hamilton’s unique mix of American history and contemporary musical styles such as Rap and Hip Hop. The show quickly became equally infamous for its overpriced expensive tickets, which became difficult for people to procure.

After over five years on Broadway, Hamilton finally became accessible to a wider audience when it was given a streaming release exclusive to Disney+ in early July 2020. Considering the streaming “film version” of Hamilton is also a 2016 recording of the original Broadway cast, its Disney+ release was all the more hyped. But now that Hamilton is available to everyone (well, everyone with a Disney+ subscription), does the ludicrously-praised Broadway production live up to its lofty reputation?

“Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. *Insert 90s Got Milk commercial reference here*

Hamilton is presented in two acts (separated by a minute-long intermission on Disney+): The first act follows Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, humbly casting himself in the lead role) as he arrives in New York in 1776 and becomes a personal aide to General George Washington (Christopher Jackson) during the American Revolution, and how he met his eventual wife Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo). The second act, meanwhile, depicts Hamilton’s life post-war, when he served as the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, and chronicles the unraveling of his personal life through his affair with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) – an affair that cost him his own opportunity as US President – and the loss of his son Philip (Anthony Ramos). Both acts also showcase the escalating tension between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Leslie Olson Jr.), which is destined to culminate in the fateful duel that cost Hamilton his life.

The production also includes historical figures like America’s third and fourth Presidents Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), whom also frequently butt heads with Hamilton. Periodically, the play will shift its focus to King George III (Jonathan Groff), who recaps what’s transpired so far (and brings up certain details that are otherwise skipped over) in a fit of passive-aggressive megalomania.

For the most part, I rather enjoy the cast, with each member giving their respective characters a distinct personality. Jonathan Groff as King George is a particular highlight, playing the part like a Saturday Morning cartoon villain hopped-up on sugar and caffeine. Similarly, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan transform Thomas Jefferson and James Madison into something akin to a duo of comical Disney villains, with Jefferson being eccentric and Madison his stoic straight man.

I’ll probably be hated for this, but I feel it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda himself as Alexander Hamilton who feels the most misplaced. He lacks the charisma and presence of many of his costars, and feels small in their shadows.

Hamilton is one of those Broadway musicals that tells the entirety of its story through song. There are no pauses from the singing before a character breaks into their signature number, instead having one song lead into another throughout its entire running time. As mentioned, Hamilton utilizes contemporary American music to tell a story within American history, and while hearing Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson having a rap-battle may have its appeal, I have to admit that, after a while, it feels a tad exhausting.

I can’t help but feel that many of the songs sound too similar to one another, and I’m not talking about the reprises and callbacks. But after you’ve heard Alexander Hamilton rhythmically rhyming to a catchy beat one time, you’ve basically heard it every time.

Extinguish your torches and put down your pitchforks for a second: I’m not saying that any of the songs of Hamilton are bad per se, but they lack variety. Compare that to something like Les Miserable, which also tells its story through song, but the songs (mostly) sound distinct from one another. Some might say I just don’t get rap, and while I admit I’m no expert on the subject, I don’t think I’m hearing things as all rap sounds the same, so much as rap written by Lin-Manuel Miranda sounds the same. One of the reason King George’s trio of solos stand out so much (along with Jonathan Groff’s manic performance) is that it sounds different than the rest of the music.

Look, I hate to be Mr. Contrarian, I really do. I admit that the songs of Hamilton can be quite catchy, but after a while it really does start to feel repetitious. Things pick up a bit during the later half of the second act, with songs that are more willing to break away from the production’s formula. But the first act can kind of blurs together amidst its overly similar songs.

The production as a whole can come across as a bit self-righteous, probably due in no small part to the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda not only made himself the star of the show, but lionizes the man he portrays (though historical accuracies are perhaps a discussion for another day). Hamilton can come across as a work that buys into its own hype, lacking in any semblance of self-awareness. There’s an underlying arrogance to the show that’s hard to ignore.

Again, I hate to sound like I’m merely raining on everyone’s parade by having a less-than glowing opinion of something acclaimed and popular, but if I’m being completely honest, at its best of times, Hamilton is really just okay. There are some great performances here, and towards the end of things, Hamilton does start to hit the right emotional notes. But the lack of variety in the songs and music really makes the appeal of the show short-lived. After a while, hearing these key figures of American history dropping a beat loses its luster. And for all the hype and acclaim, it seems like no one is a bigger fan of Hamilton than Hamilton itself, as it seems to exude a profuse amount of self-worship throughout.

At two and a half hours in length, Hamilton is on the shorter side for a Broadway musical, but the longer side for a film. The show looks great from a visual standpoint, with the costume and production design standing out, and the whole thing is shot in such a way that Hamilton feels right at home on a streaming service like Disney+. You may even forget what you’re watching is the Broadway production and may feel no different than you would when watching one of Disney’s own theatrical films on the service (only a handful of audience reactions are made audible in this “film version”).

As someone who detests the seemingly lustful desire for contrarianism of today, I kind of hate to admit when I happen to not be a fan of something popular. And though I certainly won’t say Hamilton is an outright bad production, I can’t help but admit I find it to be an overrated one. With a few exceptional moments that stand out from the rest of the show (such as King George’s solos, and the final musical piece), you pretty much get the gist of the show after the first couple of songs, with little effort being shown in the ways of variety or surprise.

“Just in case you forgot who the star of the show was.”

I’ve heard some proclaim Hamilton as a revolution of Broadway. I have even heard some – and I kid you not – refer to Hamilton as “the single greatest work of art in history.” But when all is said and done, the best way to sum Hamilton up would be “eh, it’s okay.”

Maybe if I could tell more of the songs apart from one another, maybe if Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t miscast himself in the lead role, maybe if the whole show didn’t feel so narcissistic, maybe if it didn’t tweak history so conveniently to fit its own narrative (“Everything Hamilton did was just! And anyone who disagreed with him on anything was either a buffoon or a villain!”) then maybe perhaps I could understand what all the fuss is about. As it is, Hamilton is worth a watch for those curious. But don’t be too surprised if you’re left feeling like it isn’t half the show it’s been made out to be, or even a fraction of what it thinks itself to be.

 

6

Sonic and the Secret Rings Review

The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.

The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.

As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.

It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.

Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?

Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.

The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.

One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.

Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.

The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.

Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.

Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?

Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.

If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.

In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.

 

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