Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s Missed Opportunity

*Caution: This article contains spoilers for both the novel and film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle*

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch, and in fact, I would argue that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few film directors who doesn’t have a single bad movie under his belt (and probably the only one who’s directed a considerable number of films, having helmed eleven himself, with a twelfth on the way some time in the future). The only movie to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that I would say is an outright bad movie is Tales from Earthsea, which was directed by Hayao’s son, Goro.

Point being, before it sounds like the contrary, I like Howl’s Moving Castle (my review of it stands at a 7/10 on my current grading system), but it is undoubtedly the most flawed of Miyazaki’s eleven features. A point that’s magnified by the fact that it was Miyazaki’s directorial follow-up to Spirited Away, which is a flawless masterpiece in animated storytelling. If you want to delve even deeper, Howl’s Moving Castle was really the only notable dip in quality in Miyazaki’s films. Again, that’s not to say it was a bad movie by any means, but when a movie follows up an unparalleled string of animated classics featuring The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and, of course, Spirited Away, the shortcomings it does have are going to appear all the more prominent.

This is even more unfortunate because, having recently read the original novel of Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) again, the book almost seems like it was tailor-made to be adapted into a Miyazaki film. It has the same strong character personalities, magical goings-on, whimsy and humor you find in a Studio Ghibli feature, albeit with a notably more British tone (which makes absolute sense, given that Jones was English). But even the British-ness of the novel could have been seen in a Miyazaki movie, considering that Studio Ghibli is one of the few anime studios that is willing to represent people and cultures outside of Japan itself.

While most of Miyazaki’s films are his own creations, Howl’s Moving Castle is in a minority of the director’s films which was based on an existing work (The Castle of Cagliostro was part of the existing Lupin III franchise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on the novel by Eiko Kadono). Some anime fans (namely hipster podcasters) try to claim that Studio Ghibli doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to adapting other people’s work, though as evidenced by the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the studio’s most beloved features, and films like The Secret World of Arrietty and other Ghibli adaptations were among the most acclaimed films of their respective years, Ghibli certainly hasn’t had any persistent issues when adapting other people’s works. Even Howl’s Moving Castle has a large fanbase, and Diana Wynne Jones herself loved the movie (we once again go to Tales from Earthsea for the one instance where the original author wasn’t happy with Ghibli’s adaptation).

But Howl’s Moving Castle slipped-up more so than Miyazaki’s other adaptations. While he still very much made Lupin III and Kiki his own with his takes on the material, Howl’s Moving Castle seemed like it needed very few changes to become a Miyazaki feature: It’s main character is a strong young woman named Sophie, who is transformed into an old crone by an evil witch (with the spell also preventing her from telling people about the situation, so she can’t simply ask a wizard like Howl to remove the curse). Howl himself seemed impossibly easy to translate to Japanese audiences, his description in the book fits the anime pretty boy archetype so clearly you’d think the novel were adapted from the movie. He’s a vain, perfume-wearing, effeminate wizard who obsesses over his looks to impress the ladies. The tritagonist is Calcifer, a fire demon who created and powers Howl’s castle, but he and Howl are in a similar situation to Sophie, suffering from a magical plight and being unable to tell anyone about it.

In terms of looks, Howl is the most accurately depicted in the movie, while Calcifer has seen the most change. In the book, Calcifer’s physical description is a little more detailed, being a face made out of blue fire, with green fire for hair and eyebrows, purple fire for a mouth, and small orange flames for eyes. In contrast, the film’s version of Calcifer is simply a traditional orange and red fireball with big eyes and a mouth. I don’t mind this change at all though. The multi-colored flaming appearance described in the book is interesting (and we get something of a glimpse of it in the film in one scene where Calcifer is performing magic), the simpler design of the movie makes for a more iconic character. And it’s always fun when a fantasy story’s most powerful character has such a simple appearance.

Sophie’s appearance (as a young woman) is changed slightly, with her hair being brown in the film, as opposed to red from the book. Again, this change is fine and doesn’t affect anything story-wise. What isn’t so fine, however, is the changes made to Sophie’s character. Miyazaki has always excelled at making strong heroines, which is what makes it so baffling that his depiction of Sophie is Miyazaki’s most uninteresting main character, when her description in the book seemed as though Jones was aware of Miyazaki’s work at the time, and purposefully wrote the character for Miyazaki to adapt.

While Miyazaki’s interpretations of Howl and Calcifer are accurate (Howl being a whiny coward, and Calcifer always grumbling about how a powerful fire demon like himself deserves better), Sophie’s character seems barely touched upon. Granted, in the book she’s transformed into a 90-year old woman in the second chapter, but in the film, we know even less about her before she gets cursed.

In the book, we learn that in the story’s fantasy country of Ingary (which goes unnamed in the movie), Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, but in Ingary the eldest child is “doomed” to a simple life of inheritance, while the younger members of a family are told to seek their own fortune in life. Thus Sophie feels doomed to work at her late father’s hat shop her whole life, without being allowed to break away on her own.

While that’s a major factor of Sophie’s character in the book, the film shortens Sophie’s plight as the eldest child to a passing reference (“It’s what father would have wanted. I’m the eldest, I don’t mind.”). But this ends up affecting Sophie’s story arc. By downplaying Sophie’s position in life, and the fate her culture has seemingly decided for her, it also downplays her growth as a character when she seeks out her own destiny while under her spell (a spell which literally brings to life her fears of growing old in the same place she’s always been).

Also in the film, Sophie only has one younger sister, but the concept of the eldest child being doomed to a life of mediocrity could still work, so that’s alright. A movie has to omit some characters to account for running time, and the sister who was left out of the movie is also the one who didn’t return for the book’s sequel, Castle in the Air (which funnily enough has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), so it’s not a major character omission.

The issue is that the film fails to properly show Sophie’s disappointment with her position in life. She looks sullen, but we never get the full extent of how trapped she feels in the film. So when she does become an old crone and shows some signs of change (“I seem to have become quite cunning in my old age!“), they don’t have the same effect as they do in the book.

With Howl and Calcifer being so beautifully realized, it magnifies how Sophie fails to connect as the driving force in the story. In fact, she rarely ever feels like its driving force in the movie, more like someone who happens to be witnessing its events (a concept which could make for a unique movie of its own, if that were the idea going in).

Compare this to Chihiro, the protagonist from Spirited Away. Within the film’s opening moments – which depicts her family’s drive to their new house – we learn who Chihiro is. We see that she’s a bit spoiled, more than a little apathetic, lazy, clumsy, and looking for reasons to complain. Within the span of a short family drive, we learn who this character is at the start of their journey, which makes the growth Chihiro sees throughout the film feel so profound. Sophie, sadly, doesn’t have that same effect. Whatever growth she has feels considerably less substantial.

Again, I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s not like Miyazaki’s Sophie is unlikable, but for a filmmaker who’s known for making memorable heroines, Sophie is decidedly bland.

Miyazaki made some additional changes from the book, and while that may not sit well with purists, a movie making changes from its source material in some ways isn’t an inherently bad thing (in fact, Jones herself acknowledged ahead of time that she expected the movie to be different, because books and movies are different mediums).

These changes are mostly for the best in bringing Howl’s Moving Castle to the silver screen, as they trim down some sub-plots that may have worked in the book, but would have probably felt like detours in a two-hour movie. For example, in the book, Howl’s apprentice Michael is a little younger than Sophie (her actual age, not her transformed self), and there’s a sub-plot about him dating one of Sophie’s sisters (of course, with Sophie unable to reveal details that would expose her actual age, Michael is blissfully unaware of the relation). First of all, in the movie, the character has been renamed “Markl.” This was done out of necessity, given how the name Michael would be pronounced in Japanese. But they wisely kept the change for the film’s English version as well, which I very much appreciate, as Markl just sounds more like a wizard’s apprentice than a name as common as Michael.

Anyway, in the movie, Markl is just a young boy, which means the storyline with him and Sophie’s sister is dropped. And frankly, I just think it suits this story better to have a kid accompanying Howl and Calcifer as the third member of the moving castle crew.

A noteworthy-yet-inconsequential change from the book comes in regards to Howl himself. Despite the brunt of the story taking place in a fantasy world in the country of Ingary, the Howl from the book actually comes from the planet Earth. More specifically, he comes from Wales, with one of the four destinations of the magic portal of a door within the moving castle leading to his home in Wales.

In the book, we get to meet Howl’s sister, niece and nephew, and it gives us more insight into Howl’s history. It may seem like a major change for the movie to leave out this detail, but in all honesty, aside from adding a little something to Howl’s character, the concept of Howl hailing from Wales doesn’t really play into the main plot. It’s an interesting bit in the book, but it’s understandable why Miyazaki would leave it out.

Despite these changes, the earlier portions of the movie are actually pretty faithful to the book. The elderly Sophie becoming Howl’s cleaning lady. Calcifer’s meeting with Sophie leading to the two striking a deal to break each other’s curses (Calcifer, being a fire demon, is powerful enough to see through Sophie’s curse without needing explanation). Even the scene where Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color by summoning dark spirits and emitting green slime from his skin, all more or less play out as they did in the book.

Things play faithfully to the book at first, but then, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle adds an element that ends up changing the second half almost entirely.

In the book, the land of Ingary is on the brink of war with a neighboring kingdom (Strangia, which also goes unnamed in the film), and Ingary’s prince – the king’s younger brother, Justin – has gone missing, which is a double problem because not only is he a missing prince, but he’s also the country’s best general. Additionally in the book, there is another wizard of comparable reputation to Howl named Suliman, though he too, has gone missing.

By the end of the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste (the full title of the witch who cursed Sophie) is responsible for both missing persons, having magically rearranged their bodies – one’s head on the other’s body – and subsequently transformed both chimeras into other forms (one into a scarecrow, and the other into a dog who can briefly return to human form before turning into a different type of dog. Yeah, the book can get wonderfully weird). There’s also a character who appears briefly in a chapter or two named Mrs. Penstemmon, a royal wizard who trained Howl in magic, who ends up murdered by the Witch of the Waste.

These elements are changed from the book, and ultimately cumulate as the film’s most misguided element.

The war doesn’t take place during the events of the book, instead happening between the book and its sequel. It’s a looming threat, but it only gets a few passing references. In the movie, however, the war becomes the focal point of the whole thing.

In the movie, the war is happening because the prince of a neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that kingdom blames the unnamed Ingary for the disappearance. In the film, the prince is still revealed as the true identity of the scarecrow (though in the movie, the prince wasn’t transformed by the Witch, and instead simply claims he stumbled upon the curse while traveling).

The change in the prince and his disappearance being the cause of the war aren’t too drastic of changes, but things get more complicated. In the film, the characters of wizard Suliman and Mrs. Penstemmon are merged into one character. This character uses the name of the Suliman, but is an elderly woman, Howl’s former teacher, and wizard to the king, like Mrs. Penstemmon.

Miyazaki’s Suliman becomes the main antagonist of the film. As we find out, she has influenced the king into going into war, as a roundabout way of recruiting Howl back into her services as a soldier under the king. I actually like the film’s Suliman as a character, but her sudden ascension to the role of primary antagonist creates problems of its own.

The Witch of the Waste is the book’s villain. Simple as that. Well, the Witch and her own fire demon (who, unlike Calcifer, has the appearance of a human woman). In the film, Suliman briefly mentions that the Witch had a demon at some point, but that’s the only reference of it. In the film, the Witch falls for a trap laid by Suliman, and is robbed of her magical powers. She becomes an afterthought. And that’s an important change because it reflects the differences between the book and film as a whole.

From that point on, the film seldom resembles the book. Again, that in itself isn’t a bad thing (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite films, is vastly different than the book it’s based on, and is all the better for it). But the change ends up robbing the film of its magic and wonder.

As soon as the film’s version of Suliman is introduced and the Witch’s role in the story is demoted, the film becomes all about the war at hand. Howl reluctantly fights battles at night (despite never officially joining the king’s army), we see towns going up in flames from bombings, and we are repeatedly told over and over again about the horrors of war, and how unnecessary the war in the film is.

Now, any Miyazaki fan knows what the acclaimed director was going for with this change. Miyazaki is a noted pacifist, it was really only a matter a time before he made a movie whose main theme was an anti-war one, and he made no secret of his disdain for the Iraq War (he famously skipped the Oscar ceremony where Spirited Away won for Best Animated Feature out of protest). I certainly can’t blame Miyazaki for incorporating something he feels so strongly about into one of his movies. But there’s a time and place for things, and while the film’s 2004 release may have seemed like the time, Howl’s Moving Castle just wasn’t the place for such an anti-war theme.

It just makes the film feel disjointed. This is a fairy tale that’s supposed to be about a girl being transformed into an old hag, and how she ends up changing a self-centered wizard for the better. But then it pulls a 180 and becomes all about the travesties of war. Again, I don’t fault Miyazaki for making an anti-war movie (in fact I’m inclined to agree with him), but everything that makes Howl’s Moving Castle feel special is dashed by its sudden tonal shift. The film even seems to forget about its original premise, with Sophie inexplicably becoming young again by the end, before she even frees Howl and Calcifer from their contract. The story becomes so engrossed in the war aspect that the main plot fades into the background, before it’s abruptly resolved out of seemingly nowhere.

One of Miyazaki’s previous films, Porco Rosso, was set between both World Wars, and has a much subtler yet far more affective anti-war stance. And Miyazaki’s later film, The Wind Rises, a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an actual, real-life designer of warplanes during WWII – isn’t as focused on war as Howl’s Moving Castle, and that film had a much more appropriate opportunity to be. Yet it’s Howl’s Moving Castle, a wondrous fairy tale set in a fantasy world filled with eccentric character likes Calcifer and Howl himself, that Miyazaki saw fit to turn into his most overt ant-war picture. And it just doesn’t mesh.

Now, the book isn’t perfect, either. It’s a wonderful read, filled with unforgettable characters and humor (in fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of comical fantasy in literature outside of parody). But the book does keep too many loose plot threads up until the very last chapter, which resolves so much in such quick succession I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had reached the eleventh hour of a deadline (it’s not that the events of the final chapter are bad, just that they should have been more spread out, but instead feel rushed. Basically it’s like the final episode of Samurai Jack). And the Witch’s aforementioned plot of making chimeras of people has a motivation that kind of comes out of nowhere, as she wants to use the different pieces of Suliman and the Prince Justin (and plans on topping off her golem with Howl’s head) in order to create what she perceives as a “perfect being” and to appoint him the new king of Ingary, with herself as the queen. Up until the final chapter, the Witch of the Waste seems like a powerful and feared sorceress who doesn’t have any greater agenda, she just uses her power for petty vengeance on people she thinks have wronged her one way or another. So the reveal of the motivation for her plot feels kind of random.

Still, while it may have its flaws, the book at least feels like a concise vision. And Jones excels at explaining the elements of her fantasy world with little exposition, something which Miyazaki usually has down pat as well. But when adapting the book into a film, Miyazaki seemed heavily distracted by the outside world, and it ended up hampering his vision for the film.

Okay, I know I’m sounding incredibly negative here. I repeat that I think Howl’s Moving Castle is an enjoyable movie: it’s fun and imaginative, filled with stunning visuals and a fantastic musical score (courtesy, of course, by Joe Hisaishi, whose work alongside Miyazaki probably makes them the only director/composer duo more wonderful than Spielberg and John Williams). For those who love imaginative worlds, stories and characters, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a unique experience. The problem is that its imagination may be wondrous, but its execution is only adequate, whereas most of Miyazaki’s films tell stories that are as excellent as their ideations. Howl’s Moving Castle could have lived up to Miyazaki’s unrivaled resume of animated classics, had Miyazaki set his thoughts on war to the side and saved them for another day, and instead focused on Sophie and her story.

Now, it’s also no secret that Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was originally going to be director Mamoru Hosada’s debut outing for the studio, before he dropped out and Miyazaki stepped out of retirement (again) to take the reigns. Some might argue about the “what if?” scenario had Hosoda directed the film instead. While Hosoda is one of the better anime directors of today, I don’t think he would have done a better job with Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve enjoyed Hosada’s films, but his movies have a more – for lack of a better word – “anime feel” about them, which I don’t think would have meshed with Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas Miyazaki’s films have a more ethereal fantasy aspect about them, which feels more in tune with literary fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (or even the works of Tolkien, of which Miyazaki is a big fan), and less like an “anime movie.”

But that’s why the shortcomings of Howl’s Moving Castle speak so loudly. Reading the novel again, the story of Howl’s Moving Castle may as well have been gift wrapped, topped with a bow, and hand delivered to Miyazaki. It just made so much sense. So for it to be Miyazaki’s weakest film by a wide margin is kind of disheartening.

I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. But it’s the one Miyazaki feature that, when reflected upon, I can’t help but imagine what could have been had he approached it with the same imaginative purity that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke such treasures. Oh, what if?

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Review

The 1970s were not one of the high points for Walt Disney Animation Studios. This “Bronze Age” came about after the death of Walt Disney, and during a dark age for animation as a whole. That’s not to say that every Disney film released during this time was a total dud, but it might be saying something that the studio’s best film in this timeframe was a compilation of previously released shorts.

Yes, Disney was in such a state that they dipped back into the package film well in 1977, though they went even further with the concept this time around by stringing together short films that had already seen prior releases (the package films of the 1940s were at least all new shorts at the time).

On the plus side, these short films were those featuring the characters of the Winnie the Pooh universe, and is there a cast of Disney characters more charming than the studio’s adaptations of A.A. Milne’s creations? As a bonus, Disney did provide new animation in between the shorts in order to more properly mesh them together. Thus The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the 22nd Walt Disney Animation Studios film, was born. Although its Frankenstein’s monster approach of merging previously-released material may not exactly make it the most original Disney flick, I’d have to have a heart of stone to say anything too harsh about Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, even if its production may have been tying together tried-and-true past successes and calling them new, there’s a charm, innocence and whimsy of the Winnie the Pooh universe that makes it all too likable, and impossible to resist.

Like many of the classic Disney films, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh begins by opening up a storybook (this time, however, the characters are well aware that they exist in a book, even interacting with the written-down words on the pages). The book tells different stories by Christopher Robin, the young boy who brought Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life with his imagination.

We’re introduced to characters like Owl and Rabbit and Piglet and Kanga and Roo, as well as Gopher (the only character not from A.A. Milne’s original books, which the film points out on a few occasions), Eeyore, Tigger and, of course, Winnie the Pooh, the bear of very little brain himself.

These characters are just so likable and endearing. Because within the context of the story, they’re all part of a kid’s imagination, they all have a childlike simplicity about them (even Owl, the oldest and wisest of the lot, isn’t as knowledgable as everyone – including himself – thinks he is). Pooh’s primary concern is when and where he’ll get his next “smackeral” of honey, while Tigger just wants to bounce everywhere he goes, and Rabbit, being something of a less jaded and cynical precursor to Squidward, just wants a neat and tidy house, and to prevent Pooh from eating all of his honey.

As you may have guessed from the title The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, or from the fact that the film is comprised of previously released shorts, there’s not really an overarching plot here. The film plays out like a series of episodes that each contain their own little plot or two. This episodic nature may not be ideal for a movie with a more traditional plot, but for something like this – in which these characters exist in a world void of any real conflict – it plays to the film’s benefit.

We have storylines like Pooh trying to get to a beehive high in a tree to get to its honey, Pooh eating all of Rabbit’s honey and getting stuck in the rabbit hole of his house, Tigger bouncing so high he gets stuck in a tree, and Eeyore trying to find a new house for Owl, after the latter’s treehouse is blown away on a windy day.

Not every movie needs to be a grand epic, and not even every Disney movie needs to be an adventurous fairy tale. Sometimes a little slice of lighthearted entertainment is all you need. And The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh provides just that. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing, charming series of (relative) adventures by an endearing cast of characters.

Winnie the Pooh would become of of Disney’s bigger franchises, with a television series in the 1990s, a series of straight-to-video movies, and even some that made their way to the big screen (one of which, 2011’s oddly titled Winnie the Pooh, being something of the “official sequel,” as it is counted as one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s proper films, as opposed to a subsidiary). While that may seem like overexposure for some franchises, the simple charms of Winnie the Pooh make it easy to want to revisit its world again and again. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh epitomizes this infectious charm.

 

7

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians Review

The 1960s were an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios, namely because during the entire decade, the studio only released three new feature films (the slowest decade on record for Disney, though re-releases of past films helped keep things stable). Though many consider the “silver age” of Disney animation to have ended with Sleeping Beauty in 1959, the fact that Disney’s output in the 1960s were so few – as well as being the last batch to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime – often sees them lumped into Disney’s silver age as well. I’m inclined to agree with notion. Although there is a rougher quality to the animation in Disney’s trilogy of features in the 1960s (which began with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 and continued with The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book), the films themselves are on par with Silver Age Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and certainly better than the “Bronze Age” that was to follow in the 1970s. Though maybe not one of the great Disney features, One-Hundred and One Dalmations is an endearing addition to the Disney canon in its own right.

It also may just be the most straightforward Disney film in terms of plot: it’s about a group of Dalmatian puppies who are kidnapped, and their family’s (both canine and human) quest to rescue them. It really is a simple plot, but it makes for an entertaining film, not to mention it inspired one of the all-time great Simpsons parodies.

If you need a little more detail, the film begins with Pongo, an adult Dalmatian who lives with his “pet” human, Roger. Pongo feels Roger deserves better than the life of a bachelor, and plans to find him a significant other (though the fact that Pongo only scouts women with female dogs makes me question who the search is really for). Pongo chooses an attractive woman walking her own Dalmatian (naturally), and sees her enter the park. So Pongo goads Roger into a walk in the park, and arranges an “accidental” meeting between Roger and the woman, whose name is Anita. Sure enough, the two humans fall in love and get married, and Pongo falls for Anita’s Dalmatian, Perdita, and they get…dog-married, I guess.

Some time later, Perdita is pregnant with a litter of puppies. Roger and Anita are approached by the wealthy, fur-coat loving former schoolmate of Anita, Cruella De Vil (how she was Anita’s schoolmate despite the glaringly obvious age difference, I’m not sure). Cruella is interested in buying the entire litter of puppies when the day comes, but Roger mistrusts Cruella (even writing a song about how despicable she is, as Disney character wont to do), and denies Cruella the future puppies. This leads to a falling out with Cruella, who storms off in a rage.

Perdita eventually gives birth to fifteen puppies (awww!). Yes, despite the jokes people often make about the movie featuring a dog giving birth to ninety-nine puppies (even the aforementioned Simpsons episode cracks a joke on the subject), Perdita only gives birth to fifteen of them.

The family doesn’t have long to celebrate, however. One night, while Roger and Anita are out with Pongo and Perdita, a duo of hired goons make their way into the house, and kidnap all fifteen puppies!

Roger naturally suspects Cruella, but Scotland Yard has already investigated her and found nothing. With no leads, Roger and Anita are at a loss. So Pongo and Perdita are left to investigate things themselves, and use the “Twilight Bark” to spread news about their missing puppies to their fellow dogs (think the beacons between Gondor and Rohan from Lord of the Rings, but with dogs barking). This chain of barks spreads far and wide, eventually reaching the farmhouse of an Old English Sheepdog named Colonel and his friends, a horse named Captain, and a tabby cat named Sergeant Tibbs. The militantly-named farm animals soon discover a dark secret. The two dog-nappers, Jasper and Horace, are staying at the seemingly abandoned De Vil family estate, Hell Hall (geez, at least try to hide your malevolence, Cruella!). Not only are Pongo and Perdita’s litter being held captive by Jasper and Horace, but an additional eighty-four Dalmatian puppies as well! It turns out, Cruella has hired the bumbling jailbirds to hide out with the puppies in the once-abandoned house, and as soon as the dogs are big enough, Cruella plans on having the dogs skinned to make a Dalmatian fur coat! Most Disney villains are pretty evil, but you usually love to hate them, because they’re cool sorcerers like Jafar or charismatic pirates like Captain Hook, but Cruella just wants to straight-up skin dogs for a fur coat! That’s pretty messed up!

Anyway, the Twilight Bark makes its way back to Pongo and Perdita, who set off to save the puppies with the help of Colonel and his cohorts, and even a few other dogs as well.

Again, it’s arguably the most straightforward plot in any Disney movie. It doesn’t feature any real moral lessons, plot twists, magical happenings, sub-plots, or much of anything outside of the main quest of “puppies kidnapped. Rescue them.”

I don’t mean that in a negative way though. It’s incredibly simple, but One-Hundred and One Dalmatians is an undeniably fun and entertaining film. The animation is certainly rougher than it was in Disney’s previous film, Sleeping Beauty (this was the era where you could see more of the sketch lines in the characters during the final animation), but the characters’ movements are still fluid and detailed. Less forgivable however, are a few frames of animation that are recycled (Cruella can apparently only glare out her car window one very specific way). The lack of songs is also notable, with Roger’s little number about Cruella – while fun – being the only song in the film, unless you count the Kanine Krunchies jingle (which I don’t). Even just another song or two may have spruced things up.

Though One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may suffer from the negative trend of old Disney films not having interesting main characters, it’s a little more forgivable here considering most of the characters are dogs. And, well, dogs are innately more likable than humans. The villains are kind of fun though, even if a dog lover like myself can only see them as the evilest Disney villains. Jasper and Horace are like the proto-Wet Bandits, being bumbling criminals who exist solely for the audience to laugh at their misfortune, while Cruella herself – while maybe not quite stacking up to the most memorable Disney villains – leaves an impression with her gaudy wardrobe and in-your-face personality.

One-Hundred and One Dalmatians may not boast the depth to make it one of Disney’s best animated films, but it has a deserved confidence and charm about it that makes it hard to resist. Plus, it has so many dogs!

 

7

Sleeping Beauty Review

While princesses have become synonymous with Walt Disney Animation over the decades, it may come as a surprises to learn that for the first twenty-two years from the studio’s first full-length feature, there were only three Disney Princesses, with a fourth not arriving until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989! Snow White was in the very first Disney feature in 1937, with Cinderella arriving in her titular film in 1950. The lone princess to arrive in between Cinderella and The Little Mermaid was Aurora, who was the central character of Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959.

Well, maybe referring to Aurora as the film’s central character isn’t quite accurate, as she – along with her love interest, Prince Phillip – aren’t much of characters at all. In fact, Princess Aurora infamously only gets around eighteen minutes of screen time in the entire feature! That’s a shame, because otherwise Sleeping Beauty has a strong cast of characters: It features a trio of comical fairies, a duo of bombastic kings, and arguably Disney’s most iconic villain in Maleficent.

Sleeping Beauty plays out very similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Aurora takes the role of a beautiful princess under a sleeping curse from Snow White herself, the three good fairies play a similar role to the Dwarves, Maleficent is an evil sorceress/queen like Snow White’s villain, and Prince Phillip is…well, he’s a Disney prince. They’re all basically the same, really.

The story here is that Aurora is born to King Stefan and Queen Leah, and at her christening, she is betrothed to Prince Phillip, the son of King Hubert of a neighboring kingdom, to unite their people. Also at the christening are the three good fairies, each of whom are to give Aurora a gift.

Flora, the red fairy, gives Aurora the gift of beauty. Fauna, the green fairy, grants the gift of song. But before Merryweather, the blue fairy can bestow her gift, the christening is interrupted by the evil fairy, Maleficent. You have to give it to Disney, they really know how to introduce a villain, with Maleficent’s arrival being met with fear by the humans in attendance, and contempt from her fellow fairies, instantly telling the audience she’s bad news.

Maleficent, holding a grudge for not being invited to the christening, takes out her frustrations by cursing the child. Maleficent’s strangely specific curse states that, on her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Maleficent then vanishes, and Merryweather steps in to counter the curse as best she can. Though Maleficent’s dark powers are too great for Merryweather to undo the curse outright, she is able to alter it, making it so Aurora won’t die by the spinning wheel, but fall into a cursed sleep that can be broken by “true love’s kiss.”

King Stefan then orders that every spinning wheel in the kingdom be burned, and as an added precaution, Aurora is sent to live in the woods with the three fairies until the day after her sixteenth birthday, at which time she will return to her family and kingdom and resume her life as a princess. The fairies disguise themselves as human peasants to raise Aurora, fearing usage of their magic would alert Maleficent to their whereabouts.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and the fairies are preparing for Aurora – who  they have named “Briar Rose” to hide her identity – to return home. They decide to do something special for the occasion, and plan on making a new dress and a birthday cake for Briar Rose. So the fairies send Briar Rose to pick some berries while they prepare for her surprise party. While out, Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip, though because they haven’t seen each other since one was a kid and the other an infant, they don’t recognize one another, especially with Aurora going by “Briar Rose” now. The two instantly fall in love anyway, and this creates a fun sub-plot where King Hubert believes his son Phillip is set to marry a peasant girl, and can’t find the words to explain the situation to Stefan.

While Briar Rose meets up with Prince Phillip in the forest, the fairies’ plans for the surprise party go awry. Still not having mastered human ways in sixteen years, their attempts at baking and sewing lead to disastrous results. The fairies cave in to their impatience, and decide to break out the old magic wands, figuring using magic for a cake and dress wouldn’t be enough for Maleficent to detect.

Aurora has successfully eluded Maleficent for sixteen years largely due to the fact that the evil fairy’s henchmen – an assortment of pig and bird-like goblins – have still been searching for a baby for all these years, not understanding the aging process of humans. With time running out for her curse, Maleficent sends her pet crow to track down the lost princess, which he does by witnessing the fairies using their magic for Aurora’s would-be surprise party.

After Briar Rose is informed of her true identity and secretly brought into her castle by the fairies, Maleficent more or less cheats her way to having her curse fulfilled by conjuring a spinning wheel out of magic, and hypnotizing Aurora to touch it (the movie is titled Sleeping Beauty, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing Maleficent’s curse comes to fruition). Devastated that they failed within the eleventh hour, the fairies put the people of Aurora’s kingdom into a deep sleep to spare them their grief, and they will only awaken when Aurora herself does (I hope for their sake there aren’t any hostile kingdoms nearby, as the fairies’ spell – while well intentioned – seems to not take into account the grizzly possibilities of a defenseless kingdom). Luckily, the fairies manage to eavesdrop on King Hubert at the last moment, and piece together that the mystery man Aurora met in the woods and Prince Phillip are one and the same. So the fairies rush to aide the prince in a daring quest to save Aurora.

Despite its strong similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty still manages to stand on its own two feet. Though the fairies are lesser in number than the Dwarves of Snow White, they have similarly strong personalities, charm and comedic appeal. Maleficent is a memorably scary villain who earned her place as one of Disney’s most memorable foes (even if the more recent duo of live-action remakes centered on the dark fairy have kind of altered her reputation for modern audiences). And both Kings Stefan and Hubert are given some extensive time to win audiences over with their antics.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip are probably most people’s go-to examples when it comes to the frequent criticism of Disney movies having cardboard main characters who are completely outshined by the supporting cast. And although not a flaw per se, it does seem kind of funny to modern audiences to see a movie like this try to pass off an arranged betrothal as “true love,” especially considering how little Aurora and Phillip know of each other. Sure, Sleeping Beauty is a very direct fairy tale in that regard, which can have an appeal of its own. But I find it weirder that some audiences criticize contemporary Disney movies for ‘modernizing fairy tales,’ when a movie like Sleeping Beauty is kind of proof that fairy tales needed some modernization.

Although Sleeping Beauty can’t quite recapture the same quality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it comes close enough to be considered something of a Disney classic in its own right. It’s vibrantly animated and full of visual detail (Flora and Merryweather’s disputes to magically change things pink and blue are a particular visual highlight). But if we’re being honest, we watch Sleeping Beauty for Maleficent, the fairies and the kings. No one is watching it because Aurora and her prince have anything interesting about them.

 

7

Peter Pan Review

Disney has a way of turning their adaptations of classic stories and fairy tales into the definitive versions of those stories. Though Peter Pan is based on the 1904 play and subsequent 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie – a story which has seen countless interpretations over the past century-plus – when most people hear the name ‘Peter Pan,’ they think of the 1953 Disney film. It isn’t too hard to see why: its combination of whimsical fantasy, colorful characters and joyous imagination in many ways make it the most “Disney” of all Disney movies. Though some glaringly outdated elements prevent Peter Pan from remaining one of Disney’s best.

Telling a story that “has happened before, and will happen again, but this time happened in London,” the film begins at the home of the Darling family. Wendy is the eldest child, and often tells fanciful stories of Peter Pan – a boy who never grew up – to her two younger brothers, John and Michael. Their mother Mary is supportive of their imaginary adventures, while their father George – being described as a “practical man” – is less patient with their games. But the children believe the stories of Peter Pan and his world of Neverland are true.

One day, when George and Mary are preparing for a party, a series of mishaps leads George to lose his temper, and he becomes fed up with Wendy’s stories. He proclaims it’s time for Wendy to grow up, and starting the next day, she is to get her own room, away from the nursery with her younger brothers (what a different time this was. These days, a kid would jump for joy for getting their own room). George and Mary then leave for the party, but not before Wendy tells her mother to leave the window open, as Peter Pan will be coming to reclaim his shadow, which Wendy has locked away after the family dog got a hold of it.

Sure enough, when George and Mary leave the house, Peter Pan flies through the window in the middle of the night, accompanied by the pantomiming pixie, Tinker Bell. Wendy sews Pan’s shadow back onto him (via his shoes, which makes me wonder how his shadow situation works when he takes his shoes off), and Wendy makes a reference that she is to grow up the next day. Peter Pan, who loves Wendy’s stories (because they’re all about him), invites Wendy to come to Neverland, where she will never grow up. Wendy agrees, but only if John and Michael can come along as well. And with a little help from Tinker Bell’s pixie dust, the Darling children find themselves able to fly just like Peter Pan, and they all fly off to Neverland.

From there, the film can feel a little episodic, but it’s nothing too detrimental. We get introduced to the different peoples and locations of Neverland, including mermaids (who are as jealous of Wendy’s relationship with Pan as Tinker Bell is), the Lost Boys (a group of lost children taken under Pan’s wing) and Native Americans who are referred to as “Indians” (more on that in a moment). Most importantly, we are introduced to the villainous Captain Hook and his pirate crew, which includes Hook’s bumbling but gentle assistant, Mr. Smee.

Hook is obsessed with gaining revenge on Peter Pan, after the flying youth cut off Hook’s left hand and fed it to a crocodile (I can’t say I blame him. If some punk cut off my hand and fed it to a wild animal I’d be pretty P.O’d as well). Said crocodile has followed Hook ever since, hoping for the full meal. Thankfully for Hook, the crocodile swallowed an alarm clock, so the sound of tick tocks warn the pirate whenever the beast is near.

Tinker Bell may be the most marketed character from the film (even getting her own spinoff franchise in the late 2000s/early 2010s), but it’s Captain Hook who stands out as one of the best characters in any Disney movie. He’s  one of those great villains who can play both the cartoonish oaf and also be genuinely evil at times (he shoots one of his own men dead for singing a few sour notes). Hook has the perfect combination of comedy, charisma and villainy to make him one of the all-time great Disney villains (Walt Disney even had the ending altered from Barrie’s original story so that Captain Hook survives, as he rightfully guessed audiences would like this Hook too much to see him become crocodile chow). And his interactions with Mr. Smee provide that great domineering villain/unappreciated loyal lackey dynamic, which is always fun.

The film is beautifully animated and filled with color and whimsy. Its flying sequences were arguably the most uplifting in animation until Hayao Miyazaki came along and made it one of his staples. And its filled with some terrific visual comedy (mostly provided by Hook and Smee).

It isn’t difficult to see why the Peter Pan story has resonated so well with children, and even adults: no kid wants to grow up, and most adults long to see the world as they did as children. It’s got magic, pixies, mermaids, flying, animals, adventure and pirates (pirates being one of those things children seem to have an inherent fascination with, like trains or dinosaurs). Neverland is one of those children’s fantasy worlds where it doesn’t focus on one set motif, but is a collection of colorful things to spark the imagination.

By all accounts, a world this imaginative should be timeless. And Peter Pan mostly is. But there’s no way around the elephant in the room: the film’s depiction of Native Americans is stereotypical even in its less offensive moments. The more defensive side of Disney’s fanbase would point out J.M. Barrie’s original story is to blame for the caricatured depiction of Native Americans, but does it really matter who started it when it comes to something like this? The fact of the matter is it’s aged terribly. And well, making a song titled What Makes the Red Man Red, that’s all on Disney.

Yes, unfortunately Peter Pan is one of those old Disney movies that is blemished by the ignorant tropes of the time in which it was released. It’s facepalming, collar-tugging levels of uncomfortable in the moments with the Native Americans.

Another outdated element to the film is the depictions of its female characters: Wendy doesn’t exactly showcase much independence at all (in fact, even when she has a falling-out with Peter Pan and is kidnapped by Hook, she is still confident Peter Pan will come to save her and her brothers, as opposed to attempting anything herself). Pretty much every other female character who shows up is defined by jealousy over their relationship with Peter Pan, whether it’s Tinker Bell or the mermaids (heck, even Wendy gets jealous of the Native American princess, Tiger Lily, when she makes Pan blush). Again, you could blame the timeframe the movie was released over the movie itself, but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie was a victim of that time, and that it blockades the film’s potential timeless appeal.

It’s aged stereotypes that prevent Peter Pan from being one of the all time great Disney films, and its often episodic nature also prevents it from being as great as it could have been from a structural standpoint. And that’s a crying shame, because what is good here in Peter Pan, is really good.

Peter Pan is a fun, imaginative adventure, and a good movie. But getting past some of its more outdated elements is, well, you can’t get past them. At least Captain Hook remains a highpoint for Disney Animation.

 

6

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

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…

 

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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.

 

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