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…

 

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

Movie Awards 2020: Best Streaming Series

Ah, here we are in the tail-end of June 2020, and I’m only just getting back to my awards for 2019 movies… Look, it’s been a rough year for all of us, okay!

Anyway, with the advent of streaming services, the line between movies and television series has become thinner and thinner, with the streaming format allowing shows the gateway to tell stories much closer to their big screen kin than they could on the weekly schedule of television (admittedly, shows such as Twin Peaks and Arrested Development used a more cinematic  structure, but they were ahead of their time). Because of this – and also because I haven’t started talking about TV/streaming series in the same capacity as I do movies and video games just yet – I decided to lump an award for “Best Streaming Series” in with my movie awards this time around. I may even make this a Wizard Dojo tradition. Who knows?

At any rate, I’m not sure if there’ll be any other individual movie awards from me this year after this, and I may just do my top 10 favorite films of 2019 countdown, seeing as it’s taking me an eternity already. So I hope you enjoy this.

 

Winner: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

It seems the streaming series that caught everyone’s attention in 2019 was Disney+’s The Mandalorian. While that show is great (and probably the only piece of Star Wars media that’s genuinely liked these days), it wasn’t the best streaming series of the year. That honor goes to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance which, for my money, is the best cinematic fantasy epic since Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings for the big screen (I know some people would bring up Game of Thrones, but…no.).

Serving as a prequel to Jim Henson’s imaginative (if maybe unfocused) 1982 film The Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance far surpasses the original work, and gives Jim Henson’s world of Thra a story that’s worthy of its imaginative world.

Age of Resistance sets the gears in motion for the events of the movie, but not in such a way that would make it a chain of fan service events making callbacks to the original feature. This series tells a compelling story of its own, with its own cast of characters, as well as a few returning faces from the 1982 film. That these characters all happen to be puppets and costumes quickly becomes an afterthought as you get swept away in Age of Resistance’s unique fantasy world and rich storytelling.

Rumblings of a second season continue, though nothing official has been confirmed yet. Then again, it took the creators of the series years to complete the first season, so hopefully a potential second season is just a matter of time. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if the series eventually remade the events of the 1982 film as one of its seasons. This series is what Jim Henson’s passion project was always meant to be.

If a possible second season is as good as the first, it will be more than worth whatever the wait may be.

 

Runner-up: Stranger Things 3

Runner-up: The Mandalorian

Artemis Fowl Review

There’s a word for movies like Artemis Fowl, and that word is… “bad.”

Based on the series of books from the 2000s – a time chock full of novels about kids thrust into otherworldly adventures in the wake of Harry Potter – Artemis Fowl was released on Disney+ in June 2020, and became just the latest in a long line of live-action fantasy/sci-fi movies from Disney that ends up failing in execution.

I never read any of the Artemis Fowl books, so I can’t make any direct comparison to the source material. But general consensus seems to be that the film strays far from the books, which I think it’s safe to assume means the books are much better than this mess of a movie.

The story here is that Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), son of filthy rich antique collector Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), is a super genius. He even cloned a goat at age ten (why the film feels the need to point this out, I don’t know. Especially since the film fails at making the obvious gag of having the cloned goat be Artemis’s family pet). One day, Artemis’s father goes missing, and news breaks out that reveals the elder Fowl to be a world-class criminal mastermind, with many of his collected antiques and fortune being the product of several high profile heists.

“The faces I made when watching this movie.”

Oh, and also there’s an underground fairy world where Elves, Dwarves and Goblins live in secret. But Artemis’s father knew of this fairy world and stole several magic artifacts from their world so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands or something. And it turns out his kidnapper is a wanted fugitive in the fairy world, though this villain’s motives are some of the most vaguely defined I can recall in a movie.

I suppose that’s par for the course here, considering Artemis Fowl is barely defined himself. Despite being the film’s hero, his only real defining trait is his obnoxious arrogance (is it asking too much to see a humble genius in a movie for once?). Also his butler Dom (Nonso Anozie) doubles as a bodyguard. Also also, said butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) is Artemis’s best friend, but the film forgets about her for such long stretches of time that, on the rare occasion she does show up, the audience would be forgiven for not remembering she was ever a part of the proceedings. Then there’s an Elf girl named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), whom Artemis ends up taking hostage in exchange for the Elves to procure some magic artifact that the bad guy wants so he can trade it for his father’s freedom.

What’s weird is that the majority of the film takes place in and around the Fowls’ mansion. Some early scenes deviate away to show us the underground fairy world, but once the important magic characters come to the surface, the movie is almost entirely centered around a single location. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing, but doesn’t this seem like the wrong kind of movie to do that with? Here’s a movie telling us that there’s a whole other world beneath the Earth, but almost all the action takes place at one building. Artemis Fowl kind of reminds me of Glass in that regard, a movie begging to stretch its legs but feels shackled to one confined space.

Among the film’s few highlights are the presence of Dame Judi Dench as the Elf commander Julius Root, and Josh Gad as an oversized Dwarf named Mulch Diggums. But both actors are wasted in this movie, and for some reason both of their characters tend to speak in gravely whispers (something which Gad’s character even makes a joke about). I did enjoy the joke about David Bowie being from the fairy world, though.

One of the biggest issues with Artemis Fowl is its overall structure and pacing. The best way I can describe Artemis Fowl is that it’s a movie that plays out like a clip show episode of a sitcom (where a half baked plot would segue into various clips of past episodes), but there’s not even a half baked story holding the clips together here, and the clips in question just exist in a vacuum so they just kind of happen. So we have a series of things being thrown at the screen that are only connected by the characters… characters that we never get to know anything about because the movie is already throwing something else at us before anything about them can be established.

Sadly, you can’t even say the film is salvaged on a visual level. Because, despite being visual effects heavy picture, Artemis Fowl is an ugly movie.

“Okay…what am I looking at, here?”

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it seems whenever Disney attempts to make live-action fantasy or sci-fi epics, the results always blow up in Disney’s face. The only movie in this sub-category of Disney that I enjoyed in recent memory was Tomorrow Land, and even that had the same unappealing aesthetic as the rest of them (and was a notorious box office bomb). I don’t know how to explain it, but whenever Disney tries their hand at live-action fantasy or sci-fi, it just looks wrong.

The CG in Artemis Fowl looks well behind the times, with a rampaging troll looking especially 2001-esque. And the aesthetics as a whole just never look convincing. Artemis Fowl is aiming for something like Harry Potter, but looks more akin to The Santa Clause 2. The Elves look like they wear Party City versions of the Green Goblin’s costume from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, Josh Gad’s character looks like he’s cosplaying in a homemade Hagrid costume, and the villain has their face shrouded in a hood, but brings to mind a Power Rangers villain of the week more so than Emperor Palpatine. At its best times, Artemis Fowl looks garish. At its worst, it’s just unpleasant to look at.

With the way the movie wraps up, you know Disney had hopes this would lead to a series of sequels and they’d have another money-making franchise on their hands. But Artemis Fowl ends up being a cinematic cacophony: it’s nonsensically structured, the characters are paper thin, all of its events just kind of stumble over each other, its a visual effects heavy movie that fails to deliver any memorable visual effects, and the crossover between criminal mastermind espionage and traditional fantasy never once meshes, instead feeling like two unrelated entities just collided headfirst into each other. So in the end, Artemis Fowl is an origin story that is destined to lead nowhere, making the film as a whole one of its own random clips pulled from a nonexistent show.

They may have spelled it differently, but “foul” is right.

 

2

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only The Empire Strikes Back., but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Of all the Star Wars films, none is more acclaimed or beloved than The Empire Strikes Back. While the original Star Wars (retroactively christened “A New Hope”) may have had the biggest cultural impact, it’s the immediate follow-up that many consider to be the heart and soul of the series.

At the time of its 1980 release, Empire was to be the sequel to the biggest film in history. Expectations were understandably high, and many wondered whether Star Wars could deliver the same magic in a second go around. It probably didn’t help ease concerns that series creator George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair for this sequel, handing the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, who initially turned down the offer, believing a sequel could only be a rehash of the original.

Thankfully, Kershner was ultimately persuaded and, along with the creative direction of George Lucas and a more confident cast, The Empire Strikes Back exceeded all expectations. Not only was Empire widely deemed one of the few sequels at that point to match or surpass the original (something that’s a bit more commonplace today), but it’s still largely embraced as the best Star Wars film. And with good reason. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.

Fittingly set three years after A New Hope, Empire sees the heroic Rebellion finding a new base on the ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – obsessed with finding the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has commanded the evil Galactic Empire to dispatch a series of probe droids to find the Rebels’ new base.

Luke is investigating one of these droids in the barren wastelands of Hoth, when he is attacked by a yeti-like creature called a Wampa ice beast. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to leave the Rebellion behind to pay off his debts to gangster Jabba the Hutt, but postpones those plans when he gets word that Luke hasn’t returned, and leaves on the back of a creature called a Tauntaun in search of his friend, risking death in the freezing cold.

Luke manages to escape the clutches of the Wampa, and before succumbing to hypothermia, sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who instructs Luke to go to the swamp planet of Degobah to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master who “taught Obi-Wan” the ways of the Force (let’s forget that the prequels forgot this little detail), and with whom Luke can finish his training and become the last hope of the Jedi Knights.

Han finds Luke in the nick of time, and the two are rescued by a search party the next morning. Unfortunately, a probe droid has found the Rebel base, and the Empire unleashes a large-scale attack on the base. Though the Rebels put up a valiant effort (in one of the most famous sci-fi battle scenes in film history), the Empire gets the upper hand, and the Rebels are forced to evacuate the planet.

Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, but when the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, the ragtag group are forced to make some detours to evade the Empire, which will eventually take them to the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is under the command of Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker – with R2-D2 in tow – heads to Degobah in search of the mysterious Yoda.

It’s a simple story, but Empire greatly benefits from that simplicity in plot, because it allows the characters to take center stage. While the original Star Wars will always be delightful, it was (quite intentionally) a really simple hero’s journey. The characters were more archetypes than they were three-dimensional figures. The real joy of A New Hope was how the imagination of its created world presented that journey. By focusing its narrative on who the characters in this intergalactic fairy tale are, Empire gave this imaginative universe a newfound depth.

Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy he was in A New Hope, and has matured into a renowned hero in the Rebellion. Princess Leia has similarly become more battle hardened. And most notably, Han Solo – while still the same roguish scoundrel in many ways – has become more selfless and heroic (take, for example, the aforementioned moment when Han could have wiped away his debt with Jabba the Hutt for good, but changes course to search for Luke without hesitation).

The returning heroes have grown more complex, and Empire does what any great sequel should by also changing up the character relationships. Luke is far removed from his companions (save R2-D2) for most of the film, which immediately changes the character interactions from those of the first film.

“After watching Empire again for this review, I realized that the series really could have used more interactions between Han and C-3P0. It’s the funniest character relationship in the series.”

A romance begins to blossom between Han and Leia (which avoids falling into the cheesy realms of later Star Wars romances). Without his counterpart R2-D2 by his side, C-3P0 is left to annoy Han with his uptight paranoia, which leads to the funniest dynamic between characters in the entire Star Wars series (it’s a wonder why Han and C-3P0’s relationship doesn’t get more recognition). Even Chewbacca, who can only speak in roars, gets a bit more character to show, revealing more of his gentle giant nature as he cares for a damaged C-3P0.

“That’s good. Like that. Like that.”

Some new characters also add to the proceedings. Most notable of all is Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz), the diminutive Jedi Master is probably the series’ most charming character, and most likely the best puppet character in movie history. Yoda’s wisdom gives the film much of its soul, and unlike subsequent appearances by the character, Yoda also provides some great comedy here.

Lando is another new character who adds more dimension to the world of Star Wars. Though many fans (unfairly) remember Lando for his eventual betrayal of Han Solo, they fail to remember his reasons for it. Lando is loyal to his friends, but given that his Cloud City has come under the occupation of the Empire, he isn’t left with much choice but to turn his friends in for fear of what would become of his people should he cross the Empire. In a series where good and evil are quite clearly defined, Lando provided a sense of gray morality to the proceedings.

“Awkwaaaaard.”

Unfortunately, not every new character introduced in Empire adds depth to the Star Wars universe. This is probably one of my most unpopular opinions, but the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett feels like an entirely throwaway addition. I don’t necessarily dislike Boba Fett, but I feel he’s a character who never begins to reach his potential, something that would become a kind of trend with Star Wars villains. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character, Boba Fett really doesn’t live up to his inspiration. Sure, he looks the part of a badass – with battle-weary armor and a mask that creates even more mystery than Vader’s – but he’s never really given the chance to do anything of note. Sure, he may be the bounty hunter cunning enough to track down Han, but that’s as far as the character goes. When push comes to shove, Boba Fett is never allowed to do anything to justify the character’s bafflingly immense popularity. On the flip-side of the coin is Imperial Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), a more understated villain who – despite his limited screen time – feels more like an integral foe.

“No flips. Just wisdom.”

Perhaps the most interesting “character” of all, however, is the Force itself. The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film to delve deeply into the philosophy of the Force and the Jedi (thanks in no small part to Yoda and Luke’s interactions). Because of this, there’s something more contemplative to the Star Wars universe presented in Empire. The Star Wars prequel and sequel trilogies would eventually turn the Force into little more than super powers, but in the original trilogy – and most especially Empire – the Force was something more meaningful. If A New Hope was the simple hero’s journey, and Return of the Jedi was the closure to the story, then The Empire Strikes Back is the entry that truly lets us know how the Star Wars universe works, what it’s all about, and what’s at stake.

This emphasis on the philosophy of the Force, as well as its added dimensions to the series’ key characters, is what makes The Empire Strikes Back the heart and soul of the Star Wars saga. What’s almost as impressive is how the film also distinguishes itself from its predecessor aesthetically.

I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of George Lucas and company, but setting the film’s first act in a frozen wasteland serves as an immediate contrast to the deserts of Tatooine from A New Hope. Then later we have the heavenly scenery of Cloud City and the murky swamps of Degobah, giving Empire the most varied locations of any Star Wars feature. Combine that with the amazing visual effects that still hold up forty years on, and the revolutionary puppetry of Yoda, and The Empire Strikes Back remains one of the most visually captivating films of all time.

Despite the original Star Wars picture having perhaps the most recognizable soundtrack in film history, this is another area in which Empire outshines its predecessor. John Williams outdid himself with his compositions here, with new tracks like Yoda’s Theme bringing new levels of emotion to the series. Perhaps most notably, it can be surprising to remember that The Imperial March was first heard here and not in the original film. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without The Imperial March, because it’s become so strongly associated with not only Star Wars, the Empire and Darth Vader, but villainy in popular culture as a whole (remember when the classic episodes of The Simpsons used to segue into a Mr. Burns scene with the tune?). It might just be the most iconic musical addition a sequel has ever made.

The action scenes are as memorable as ever. The battle on Hoth – with those wonderfully impractical AT-ATs, is as iconic as the Death Star battle of the first film. And Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader – which crescendos with that most famous of plot twists (so famous, in fact, that it’s hard to consider it a twist by this point) – sets an epic high for the swashbuckling of the series (even if I may be in the minority who thinks the rematch in Return of the Jedi is even better).

Miraculously, The Empire Strikes Back is also the Star Wars feature that has been the least affected by retroactive special effects. Whether this was due to George Lucas understanding the high regard Empire is held in, or by sheer happy coincidence, I can’t say, but The Empire Strikes Back has only seen minimal added effects throughout the years. There may be a few shots here and there that feature a tweak or two, but very few that stick out like a sore thumb.

The two notable changes didn’t even occur in the 1997 Special Editions (which began Lucas’s obsession with re-editing Han’s shootout with Greedo in A New Hope, and added that obnoxious musical number to Jedi), but in the 2004 DVD release.

The first of these alterations is somewhat understandable. When Empire was first released, Lucas was still unsure of who or what the Emperor was. So when Vader contacts his master in the film, the original version saw the Emperor’s holographic appearance as somewhat experimental and indecisive. So as time passed and Return of the Jedi had firmly established Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the character, the re-edits added McDiarmid to the scene. That’s fair and understandable, though I wish the newer version’s hologram of the Emperor weren’t so visually prominent (it’s pointlessly giant), as it kind of takes away the mystery surrounding the Emperor, which takes a little something away from his introduction in Return of the Jedi (similar to what happened to Jabba the Hutt with A New Hope’s re-edit, though this isn’t as bad, considering Vader’s interactions with the Emperor still give the character a sense of presence and mystique). I think keeping the Emperor’s hologram at a distance and slightly obscured (as it was in the original cut) would keep some of that mystery alive for new viewers.

The second such edit is less forgivable. Having Jango Fett’s actor from Attack of the Clones re-dub Boba Fett’s dialogue to keep continuity with how the prequels retconned Boba Fett to be a clone of his “father” just comes across as silly, and feels forced.

Still, none of the changes in Empire have the same kind of negative effect as those made to A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was the best Star Wars upon its original 1980 release, and it’s been the least tweaked and tainted since, essentially securing its sacrosanct status.

From its epic battles to its character-driven narrative, The Empire Strikes Back took Star Wars to all new heights. Heights which, sadly, the series never achieved again (Return of the Jedi is still an exceptional threequel, but has perhaps more content than it could juggle). Empire is Star Wars matured, while not losing its childlike sense of wonder. It’s darker without feeling edgy. And it’s deeper without losing the fun. As impactful and influential as A New Hope was (and is), it was but the learner. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is the master.

Impressive.

Most impressive.

 

9

Happy Star Wars Day 2020!

 

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! Hope you’re enjoying binging Star Wars content on Disney+ as we’re all stuck inside our abodes.

I am currently trying to finish my review of The Empire Strikes Back as I write this now. So, to further celebrate Star Wars Day, why not read my past Star Wars movie reviews? I mean, you’re stuck inside, so why not?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars: Episode IV – A new Hope

 

May the Fourth be with you, always!

Movie Awards 2020: The Inaugural “Dora” Award

Now that I’ve (finally) finished my annual video game awards, I figured it’s time to get to celebrating the movies of 2019. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll do a full list of categories like I did for video games this time around, but I definitely will do a top 10 list of my favorite films of 2019. There was, however, at least one other award I wanted to dish out this year (I may still do others, but it’s already April so we’re really grasping here).

This “Dora” award will go to a movie released in a given year that, by all rights, should have sucked, but didn’t. All marketing and expectations point towards a particular movie being, well, terrible. But against all odds, it didn’t.

Given that I’m calling this award “The Dora Award” it should be obvious what the inaugural recipient is…

 

Winner: Dora and the Lost City of Gold

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold should have sucked. It’s a live-action movie based on an educational cartoon aimed at small children! It’s Dora the Explorer!

But, lo’ and behold, it was a good movie. I mean, it’s not great or anything, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is better than a live-action Dora the Explorer movie has any right to be.

It’s a fun movie for young audiences, and features just the right amount of self-awareness and smarminess that it should prove to be an entertaining time for some older crowds as well.

Normally, I hate to hear the words “I liked X-thing because it didn’t take itself seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s telling). But Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the exception where the very nature of the movie couldn’t be taken seriously. So when the initial trailer showed up and seemed as though this movie wanted to be seen as a legitimate Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider Lite, it didn’t exactly win anyone over to the concept of live-action Dora the Explorer (myself included).

I only ended up seeing the movie because I got to see it for free, but I was pleasantly surprised. Again, it may not be anything special, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a good movie. It’s silly, lighthearted fun. And while it acknowledges the innate ridiculousness of itself, Dora and the Lost City of Gold never feels so tongue-in-cheek as though it’s talking down to its source material or its young fanbase.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – against all expectations and reason – was a fun movie. Who knew?