Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Turns 30!

Goodness gracious, what’s with November and making us feel old?! Xbox and GameCube turned twenty, the Wii turned 15, the Super Nintendo turned 31 just yesterday, and now, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turns the big 3-0! Beauty and the Beast was released thirty years ago today, on November 22nd 1991.

Beauty and the Beast was the second proper film of the “Disney Renaissance” era, after The Little Mermaid (The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t count). The Little Mermaid may have kickstarted the Broadway musical-style of Disney film, but Beauty and the Beast took it to new heights, and ensured it was here to stay (well, there was that period in the 2000s when Disney left the musical behind, and perhaps not coincidentally it was considered another dark age for the studio).

Although the earliest Disney films were (and are) praised by film buffs and historians, Beauty and the Beast was really the first “prestige” animated film in that it broke a number of barriers for the medium’s recognition. Notably, it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in addition to four other nominations. Though there are a few caveats to these in that three of those nominations were for Best Song (a credit to the film’s stellar song work, but it shows that the Academy refuses to nominate animated films in other categories). The fact that only two additional animated features have been nominated for Best Picture since, and the creation of the Best Animated Feature Oscar ten years later is more damning evidence that the Academy was never going to give animation a fair chance. And suffice to say, Beauty and the Beast didn’t actually win Best Picture. But at the time, this was a huge deal, and those caveats apply to the Academy Awards, not the film itself. Because Beauty and the Beast really is a great movie.

Beauty and the Beast appropriately became the first Disney film to have a Broadway musical adaptation, which ran until 2007. The film also saw a tenth anniversary release in select theaters in 2001, which even incorporated a previously deleted scene/song. It was then given a modestly successful 3D re-release in 2012 during Disney’s brief “re-release our classics in 3D” phase of the early 2010s. Perhaps we should look back at that time more fondly, since a few years later, Disney would begin full-on remaking all their animated classics into live-action movies, with Beauty and the Beast receiving this treatment in 2017. To be fair, it was one of Disney’s better live-action remakes, only really suffering by having the wildly miscast Emma Watson (who was autotuned to high heaven) in the leading role of Belle. The rest of it wasn’t so bad though.

“It just doesn’t have the same charm, does it?”

While some of Beauty and the Beast’s standing as one of the best animated films has been muted somewhat with the rise of Pixar and more awareness to Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t take away from what a delightful film Beauty and the Beast still is. The story and characters are still among Disney’s best, and the same can be said of the film’s animation and those ever-so catchy songs. Simply put, Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney Animation’s greatest achievements (I personally would consider it Disney’s best animated feature up until Frozen’s release in 2013). It’s a true Disney classic!

Happy 30th anniversary, Beauty and the Beast!

Now I’m off to listen to that soundtrack again…

Home Sweet Home Alone Review

Home Sweet Home Alone is a new Disney+ exclusive movie, and the sixth – yes, sixth – entry in the Home Alone franchise. The first two Home Alone films, released theatrically in the early 90s, have become holiday classics that people watch annually during Christmastime. They made Macauley Culkin a household name, as he starred as Kevin McCallister, a young boy who was accidentally left, well, home alone around Christmas. A duo of bungling burglars, Harry and Marv, tried to rob the McCallister home (and other nearby households) while the family was away for the holidays, only for Kevin to foil their efforts with a series of cartoonish booby traps that left Harry and Marv beaten and battered.

The original Home Alone was a massive hit. The immediate sequel was more of the same, but set things in the big city of New York. The sequel was less liked by critics, but audiences still embrace it as another annual viewing to this day.

After Macauley Culkin aged out of the role, you’d think the series would be good and done with. It wasn’t exactly a big fantasy franchise with a world of characters and deep mythology to explore. Kid beats up criminals at Christmas. That’s it. Audiences liked the first two, there didn’t need to be more.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, more Home Alones were made. They were various forms of standalone sequels and reboots, none of which featured anyone from the original cast. The third film was theatrically released, though after that it was straight to TV for the series. In this day and age of streaming services, it’s much less of a sting that Home Sweet Home Alone was released straight to Disney+, and in all fairness, it probably is the best installment since the first two films (but that’s a low hurdle to jump). Despite a solid effort, Home Sweet Home Alone still can’t escape the shadow of the first two beloved entries.

The story here is (what else?) a kid winds up being left home alone during Christmas, and has to fend off some burglars with some cartoonishly violent hijinks. Okay, I guess I should specify a little more, since the film at least tries to alter some elements of the formula.

In this entry, the kid is Max Mercer (Archie Yates), an English boy whose family has recently moved to the United States. Max and his mom (Aisling Bea) stop by an open house so Max can use the bathroom. The open house belongs to the McKenzie family, notably husband Jeff (Rob Delaney) and wife Pam (Ellie Kemper). The McKenzies are reluctantly selling their house (they haven’t even told the kids yet) as Jeff has recently lost his job, and Pam’s salary alone isn’t enough for them to keep their home. While Max is in the McKenzie house, he notices a box of old dolls, which Jeff inherited from his mother. Max and his mom note that the dolls are probably worth some money, particularly one malformed doll with an upside down head.

Jeff wishes his family could keep their home, and after doing some research on the dolls, realizes they are indeed worth good money, with the upside down-faced doll in particular being a rare misprint worth a small fortune. With that doll, the McKenzies can keep their home. The only problem is the doll has gone missing! Jeff suspects Max took the doll during his visit, and so tracks down the boy’s home. But by that point, everyone in the Mercer family has left on their vacation to Tokyo. Everyone, that is, except for Max, who fell asleep in a car in the garage to avoid all the noise of visiting relatives.

Through a typical Home Alone series of events, the Mercers are already on their way to Japan before they realize they’ve left Max behind. Meanwhile, Jeff and Pam, desperate to save their home, plan on breaking into the Mercer house in order to retrieve the missing doll, not knowing that Max is still inside. Max manages to overhear the McKenzies outside plotting their eventual break-in, and after misunderstanding a joke (Jeff mentions selling “an ugly little boy,” referring to the misprint doll), Max believes the McKenzies are planning to kidnap him. He wants to call the police, but fears his mother may get arrested for leaving him home alone, and so instead sets an elaborate series of booby traps in his house to beat the crap out of the McKenzies.

That’s kind of a bit of explanation for a Home Alone movie, don’t you think?

I suppose, to be fair, the movie is aiming for something more lighthearted, giving the “antagonists” a bit of sympathy so there can be a little heartwarming get-together once the misunderstandings are inevitably cleared up. It’s well intentioned, but the problem is making the “burglars” of a Home Alone movie into sympathetic characters works against the appeal of the franchise.

One of the reasons Home Alone appealed to young audiences is because the third act features a clever kid outsmarting some bad grownups. Though Kevin McCallister’s traps were often (cartoonishly) violent, you didn’t feel bad for laughing because Harry and Marv deserved it. They were jerks who broke into family homes and stole stuff during the Christmas season (with Marv going a step further and flooding the homes they stole from by clogging the sinks and turning them on full blast). They were simply bad guys. The audience delighted in seeing Harry and Marv get their comeuppance at the hands of Kevin McCallister. By contrast, Jeff and Pam McKenzie are a husband and wife simply trying to retrieve a family heirloom they think was stolen from them so they can save their family home. It’s a lot harder to laugh whenever Jeff and Pam get smacked in the face with a bag of flour. Or fall down a staircase. Or get their feet set on fire.

So, in a roundabout way, by trying to make Home Alone more family friendly (the kid isn’t in any real danger) they’ve actually made it less appropriate because now we’re laughing at the misfortunes of good people. Admittedly, I may be overthinking this a bit, but I do think Home Sweet Home Alone’s good intentions in this area are ultimately misguided for the material.

Something to note about Home Sweet Home Alone is that it actually does take place in the same continuity as the original two films. Kevin’s older brother Buzz McCallister is now a cop in Max’s neighborhood (with Devin Ratray reprising the role), and the Mercer family uses the “McCallister Home Security System.” The obvious implication being that Kevin grew up and started the home security company, which I found hilarious. The film isn’t overburdened with references to the original Home Alone movies, but what’s here is appreciated. Though it is a bit disappointing that Macauley Culkin didn’t have a cameo after rumors (and false confirmations) suggested otherwise ever since Home Sweet Home Alone was announced.

“Buzz McCallister is now like the Nick Fury of the Home Alone Cinematic Universe.”

If I’m being honest, I expected much worse from Home Sweet Home Alone. Perhaps the overreactions of people in the age of social media simply made me fear the worst. But Home Sweet Home Alone is more bland and forgettable than it is outright horrible. Making the burglar “antagonists” sympathetic characters while still expecting us to laugh at the pain inflicted on them is the movie’s only egregious misstep. The rest is simply stuff we’ve seen done better in the first two movies. I admit I found some of the jokes to be funny, and Archie Yates is a cute kid who can carry the material (he was arguably the best part of Jojo Rabbit). Young audiences might get a kick out of the movie. It’s just that, of course, they’d be better off watching the original. Or even Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

5

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the twenty-fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By now these Marvel films are so frequent, that it may be easy to take for granted the fact that they’ve been mostly good. Shang-Chi is the second of four MCU movies being released in 2021 alone, and it comes after we’ve already had four different Disney+ series set in the MCU in recent months. Amidst so much Marvel-ness, a movie like Shang-Chi (which harkens back to the superhero origin stories of the MCU’s early days) could have been drowned out as the rest of the MCU seems to be aiming for grand scale epics. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only stands on its own two feet, but stands tall among its MCU contemporaries. It may not exactly reinvent the Marvel formula, but Shang-Chi manages to improve on it in a few key areas.

Although the film’s hero is the titular Shang-Chi or “Shaun” (Simu Liu), the film’s backstory centers around his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung).

Over a thousand years ago, Wenwu discovered the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts that granted him superhuman strength and abilities, as well as immortality. With them, he became a warlord and established his army, which he dubbed “The Ten Rings” after the source of his power. As centuries passed, the Ten Rings organization adapted with time, eventually becoming more of a terrorist organization than an army. But their goal was still the same: bringing down nations and give Wenwu more power.

In 1996, Wenwu had begun searching for a legendary village called Ta Lo – which serves as a kind of gateway to a dimension of mythical creatures – in hopes to conquer this new world. Wenwu finds the entrance to Ta Lo, but is confronted by its guardian, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen). Ying Li has powers of her own, granted to the people of Ta Lo by its dragon protector. Despite the power of the rings, Wenwu is defeated by Ying Li. But the two quickly fall in love, with Wenwu making return visits to the site just to see Ying Li again. Her love changes him to the point that he removes the rings and abandons his organization so he can start a family. But the people of Ta Lo frown on the relationship, and won’t allow Wenwu access to their village due to his dark past. So Ying Li leaves her people (and her powers) behind in order to be with him. Shang-Chi is born to the couple a few years later, followed by a daughter named Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

When Shang-Chi and Xialing were kids, a tragedy struck that cost them the life of their mother. With Ying Li gone, Wenwu fell back into his old ways, reclaimed his organization and put the rings back on. Shang-Chi became just another assassin in training to his father. Xialing became ignored by Wenwu, who claimed his daughter reminded him too much of his late wife to even look at her (she would learn to teach herself the same techniques Shang-Chi was learning in order to survive the world her father created). Eventually, Shang-Chi couldn’t handle life under his father any more, and so he left, leaving his sister behind.

Fast forward to the present day (which I believe is currently 2023 in the MCU), and Shang-Chi, as Shaun, has been living a mostly normal life in America. He’s become a chauffer at a fancy hotel alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), with whom he often spends long nights goofing off. That is until one day, when assassins sent by Wenwu confront Shang-Chi during a bus ride, leaving him no choice but to reveal his past (and fighting abilities) to Katy (as well as providing one of the MCU’s best set pieces in quite some time). Wenwu is after both siblings, so Shang-Chi – with Katy in tow – sets out to find his sister and uncover his father’s plot.

For anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I think it’s safe to assume is pretty much everyone at this point) the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t feel like anything new. It follows the established Marvel formula pretty closely. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out in at least two key areas.

The first are the action scenes. As enjoyable as these Marvel movies are, I have to admit their familiarity can extend beyond their narrative structure, and even bleed into the action sequences. They’re almost never boring, but many of the MCU’s action scenes can feel a bit deja vu, as if Marvel has found its safe spot with its action, and doesn’t wish to tread new waters with it. But Shang-Chi is one of the exceptions, with beautifully choreographed fighting sequences, and big set pieces that dare to do something visually distinct from the rest of the pack (pointing again to the bus sequence, where one moment has the audience peaking in on the action from the windows).

The other area in which Shang-Chi stands out is in its villain. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a pretty persistent villain issue, with the baddies not being nearly as memorable as the good guys (kind of a reverse of the superhero movies from before the MCU, in which the villains often outshined the hero). If an MCU villain isn’t some rich guy with the same powers as the hero, it’s another underdeveloped bad guy from the deep reaches of space (see Ronan the Accuser or Malekith). Very few of the MCU’s bad guys could be called “interesting,” with perhaps the only examples so far being Thanos, Erik Killmonger, and Adrian Toomes/Vulture (okay, and I suppose Loki… at least until his own series turned him into the most passive and boring hero in the MCU). But I think Wenwu is arguably the best of the lot.

Wenwu is the MCU’s proper adaptation of the Mandarin character (mercifully retconning the ridiculous twist on the character from Iron Man 3. And don’t worry, Shang-Chi addresses that whole situation brilliantly). But Wenwu certainly transcends his (outdated) comic counterpart. Wenwu is a villain who’s ruthless but sympathetic, powerful but pitiable. While audiences were expected to understand where Thanos was coming from, with Wenwu you actually kind of feel for him.

Without spoiling too much, Wenwu’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with his late wife. He’s a man who’s lived for over a thousand years, but only the small handful of years he spent with Ying Li meant something. Despite living centuries with power as his only ambition, he willingly gave up that power when he found someone he could love. The problem is he could only love that one person. And the fact that that love didn’t extend to his children after his wife’s passing is part of what makes him a villain.

Though the movie is well cast all-around, I do feel that Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu deserves special mention as one of the best in the MCU dating all the way back to the first Iron Man.

There are other, smaller things I like about the movie: the titular Ten Rings are one of the more fun super powers the Marvel movies have provided. Wenwu wears five rings on each arm (they’re more bracelets than rings, really), and can shoot them off and bring them back with his mind, they can link together to make a whip or shield, or just hover around him like some kind of magic satellites. Conversely, Shang-Chi himself doesn’t seem to have any actual super powers. He’s a really good fighter, but doesn’t have any powers in the traditional sense. I thought that was a fun little twist on Marvel norms.

I also kind of like that Shang-Chi is a (mostly) self-contained origin story. I feel like that’s what Marvel should have focused on for a while after Avengers: Endgame, though Shang-Chi is only an exception here, as Marvel seems hellbent on fast-tracking the next Endgame-level scenario (*Cough! Loki! Cough!*). So enjoy these more standalone MCU features while you can.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be familiar Marvel territory in a lot of ways (which isn’t too bad of a thing, given Marvel’s track record), but for both hardcore fans and the more casual Marvel audience, the action scenes and villain may make it stand out in the Marvel canon, no matter how many movies and TV shows they churn out.

7

Free Guy Review

Free Guy is a comedy with a fun premise: a video game NPC (Non-Player Character) slowly realizing he is, in fact, a video game character, and wanting something better out of life than what his programming entails. All of which is influenced by his unrequited love for the avatar of a player.

The NPC in question is simply named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller in a video game called Free City, which is basically Grand Theft Auto crossed with Fortnite (the destructive open-world of the former, and the garish, unharmonious elements of the latter). Guy lives a simple life: he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, puts on the same suit, gets the same cup of coffee, and walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – a security guard at the same bank – before spending the rest of his day on the ground as the bank is continuously robbed day and night.

Naturally, in a game like Free City, the bank in which Guy works exists solely as a mission for players to rob in order to get in-game currency and experience points. The players are known to the NPCs simply as “Sunglasses Guys,” with their eyewear being the movie’s physical representation of the players’ Heads-Up Display. The NPCs understand that there’s something different about the Sunglasses Guys, as they can’t fully communicate with them or do the things they’re able to do, but since it’s always been a part of their lives, they just accept it. The robberies at the bank are so frequent, that poor Buddy has never once done any real security work, as he hits the ground by default as soon as a player kicks in the door. To Guy, Buddy, and everyone else at the bank, getting robbed is part of their daily routine.

Things begin to change when, during one of his daily walks to work, Guy becomes smitten with a Sunglasses Woman named Molotov Girl, who is the avatar of Millie Rusk (both portrayed by Jodie Comer). Guy still goes to work, but can’t get the girl of his dreams out of his head, and wishes to meet her. So when the bank is inevitably robbed again, Guy doesn’t have the patience for it. Guy stands up to the bank robber, accidentally killing him in the process (he can respawn later), then takes his sunglasses, to the absolute confusion of everyone else at the bank.

Once outside, Guy tries on the sunglasses and sees his world in a whole new light: He can see the locations of missions in his immediate area, the NPCs and Sunglasses Guys have their levels displayed overhead, and health and power-ups are scattered all over the place. These are all only visible when he has the sunglasses on, so it’s like a cute video game version of They Live.

With his (literal) new outlook on life, Guy hopes to reunite with Molotov Girl and make a connection with her. But it won’t be easy. Free City is already a dangerous place as it is, but the developers of the game – particularly their boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) – believe Guy is the result of a player hacking the game to control an NPC, and make it their mission to make life in the game as difficult as possible for him, seeing as they can’t trace him to any actual hacker to punish him otherwise.

That’s the base premise of the story, and in that regard, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. There are, however, some added details to the plot that I have more mixed feelings about.

It turns out Millie is a former Indie developer who helped design a game called Life Itself alongside Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan’s company. Life Itself was to be a game about watching its characters grow and learn organically without player influence (sounds pretentious enough to be a real Indie game), but Keys’ and Millie’s studio was bought out by Antwan, killing Life Itself in the process. Keys just kind of gave up on his dreams and now works on Free City for a paycheck, but Millie believes Antwan stole the code for Life Itself and used it in Free City. So she plays the game as Molotov Girl to try and find proof of Antwan’s theft. It probably won’t take very long to connect the dots that Guy is actual proof of Life Itself’s code hidden being hidden within Free City, and that he not only grew and learned as Life Itself intended, but managed to gain sentience.

I don’t know, I’m a little disappointed that the film felt the need to give an explanation as to why Guy is able to defy what he’s supposed to do in the game. Movies these days seem to have a compulsive need to feed audiences every detail (God forbid we have to use our imaginations), and it kind of takes some of the fun away from a concept like this. Imagine if Wreck-It Ralph had to develop an entire side story just to explain why Ralph could go against his programming. It’d be totally unnecessary. Sometimes “because it’s a movie” should really be all the explanation you need.

The more serious elements of the “real world” side story is where Free Guy starts to fumble a bit (including a kind of cheesy budding romance between Millie and Keys). I could also live without the cameos from real life Twitch Streamers and YouTubers, which I think were meant to make things feel more authentic, but only end up reminding me of how annoying and obnoxious those areas of gaming are. There are a few references and cameos from real video games, such as Mega Man’s Mega Buster and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, but they are surprisingly few. I would have rather seen more of the cameos from actual games, instead of the internet personalities who play them. Additionally, because Free Guy was produced by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) around the same time of the Disney buyout, the film also gets in a big fanservice-heavy moment featuring a few other Disney-owned properties. While this certainly works better and is far more crowd-pleasing than the Twitch cameos, it does make me wish all the more that the references to actual video games got the same kind of love and attention.

Still, Free Guy is funny and charming enough that it ultimately wins out. I especially like Ryan Reynolds in the role of Guy, who makes the bumbling NPC an innocent and naive hero who’s all too easy to root for. At the expense of being hated by a lot of people, I feel Ryan Reynolds’ schtick as Deadpool can get a little grating after a while, but here the act never wears thin. Jodie Comer makes for a great foil, and seeing as her character is the one who bridges the film’s two worlds, she gets a nice double act to play.

I also like the film on a visual level. Free City certainly looks like it could be a modern video game (for better or worse), and the video game setting allows for some fun visual effects. The film additionally features a solid musical score courtesy of Christophe Beck (who manages to sneak in a piece from one of his previous film scores that I won’t spoil here). Free Guy even has a surprisingly life-affirming message through Guy’s story, which is probably the more serious element of the plot the film should have focused more on, instead of all the real world hullabaloo.

The plotlines with the human characters may detract a little from the silly innocence of the “video game NPC falls in love with a player character and ditches his programming” premise that the film sold itself on. But whenever the film gets back to that premise, and we see the lengths Guy will go to in order to win Molotov Girl’s affections, and the turmoil he goes through the more he learns about the world he inhabits, Free Guy is a winner. It’s fun, funny and heartfelt, and even has a bit of originality going for it. It’s not too often those things come together these days.

6

Jungle Cruise Review

Disney adapting its iconic theme park attractions into movies is not a new concept. It was an idea spawned in (when else?) the 1990s, when a TV movie based on Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror aired as part of the revived “World of Disney” program in 1997 (though the TV movie omitted references to the Twilight Zone, making it a movie based on a ride based on a TV show that ignored the TV show). After a few unsuccessful tries to make this unique sub-genre work, Disney finally hit the mark when they adapted Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 with one of the surprise hits of its decade. Pirates grew into such a large movie franchise (one that really helped Disney out in the days before they bought Marvel and Star Wars), that you would be forgiven if the movies are what you first think about when you hear the words “Pirates of the Caribbean” as opposed to the original ride. The Pirates movies became so big, that Disney would even adapt elements from them into the ride (bizarrely replacing the section of the ride that inspired the plot of the 2003 film in the process, though it’s thankfully been brought back in recent times)!

So Disney continued the Pirates franchise, while the “Disney park attractions turned into movies” concept as a whole kind of fell by the wayside. However, a planned movie based on the beloved Jungle Cruise attraction has been gestating for quite a while. At one point the movie adaptation of Jungle Cruise was set to star Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, effectively bringing their Toy Story chemistry to the realms of live-action. While that version of Jungle Cruise never came to light (unfortunately), the film found its footing once Dwayne Johnson came onboard, which eventually brought in Emily Blunt as well. And after a few delays of its own (we all know why), the Jungle Cruise movie finally arrived in late July of 2021.

The good news? The Jungle Cruise movie is actually a lot of fun! The bad news? After a point, it begins to feel derivative of the Pirates movies, which takes away some of its earlier charms.

The story here takes place in the midst of World War 1, and focuses on a legend of a tree – dubbed the “Tears of the Moon” – whose petals can heal all injuries and ailments, hiding somewhere in the Amazon. An English botanist, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) has firmly believed the stories of the Tears of the Moon since childhood, and has made it her life’s mission to recover its petals to revolutionize modern medicine and aide the British soldiers during the war. She is joined in her ventures by her uptight younger brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitewall), and has frequently butted heads with the chauvinistic Royal Society, who refuse to accept her into their ranks. After the Society denies Lily access to an arrowhead artifact that she believes is key to finding the tree, she simply steals the arrowhead instead (it’s for a greater good). This makes her cross paths with Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who also seeks the tree.

Lily and MacGregor then set out on their adventure, with the only thing missing being a skipper who can guide them through the Amazon. They find such a skipper in Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson), who hosts “Jungle Cruises” and manufactures dangers during said cruises to charge his passengers extra money. And true to the ride, Frank makes countless bad puns throughout (one of the film’s highlights).

With the Houghtons aboard Frank’s boat, the trio set sail on an adventure to find the legendary tree, all while Joachim remains in pursuit.

Sounds good, right? It’s a simple setup: A period piece (much like the original ride itself) that serves as a throwback to Holywood’s early adventure movies, with the added extravagance of contemporary set pieces we’re more accustomed to in a post-Indiana Jones world. It’s good old fashioned popcorn entertainment, and it’s a lot of fun.

So where does it go wrong? By adding so many supernatural elements into the plot that it loses some of its own identity and its initial appeal.

The magical tree that can cure anything is well and fine. That’s the central plot device of the movie, and gives the goal of the adventure a sense of mystique. But when a group of cursed conquistadors come into the picture (and largely overshadow better villain Prince Joachim in the process), the film begins to feel like an unofficial entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The undead conquistadors bring with them a great deal of backstory which needs explaining. So not only do these villains feel out of place, the added plot that accompanies them slows down the adventure from time to time. One particularly exposition-heavy sequence which explains the history of the conquistadors slows down the proceedings so much, it brought to mind similar moments from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (albeit it isn’t that bad).

“Dude, we already had a German Jesse Plemons following our heroes in a submarine as the bad guy! Did we really need undead conquistadors as well?”

Now, I’m conflicted here. I love fantasy stories, and in this day and age when we have superhero movies always feeling the need to explain away something like magic as being “not really magic, but a really advanced science,” and in which movies have a compulsion to make things “more grounded,” I crave fantasy and magic in movies like never before. But I don’t think the Jungle Cruise movie was the place for it. It worked for Pirates of the Caribbean, since the ride itself mentions “cursed treasures” and features talking skeletons. But Jungle Cruise is a ride about, y’know, the jungle! There’s plenty of adventure to be had in the jungle itself. Did we really need a group of undead conquistadors thrown into the mix?

I give the film some credit for making each of the conquistador villains distinct from one another (one is made out of snakes, there’s one made of mud, another one twigs, and my favorite is made out of honey and bees, which is a fun idea for a bad guy). But these guys clearly feel like they belong in another movie. And once they become more prominent in the proceedings, it takes something away from the throwback charms Jungle Cruise otherwise has.

When Jungle Cruise embraces those throwback charms, it’s a whole lot of fun. We get exciting action set pieces, a sense of adventure (which is kind of rare in movies today), and a fun villain in Plemons’ Prince Joachim. Go ahead and call me a sucker, but I was also delighted by the references to the Disneyland ride, though it probably gets to the Backside of Water bit too early in the film. That’s the kind of thing you really have to build up to in a movie!

Sadly, as fun as Jungle Cruise is, the fact that Disney apparently didn’t have enough faith in it to stand on its own two feet, and had to dip back into the Pirates of the Caribbean well with it, does make it feel like a missed opportunity. Had Jungle Cruise leaned completely into its Jungle Cruise-ness, it could have been something special. We already have Pirates of the Caribbean. Let Jungle Cruise become its own thing.

6

Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Raya and the Last Dragon is the fifty-ninth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In recent years, Disney has seemingly reclaimed their crown from sister studio Pixar as the leading force in animated blockbusters, reaching new critical and commercial heights with the likes of Zootopia, Moana and, of course, Frozen. Disney Animation has never been as creatively robust and varied as they are now, and that remains true of Raya and the Last Dragon, which sees Disney try their hand at an action-adventure film with greatly entertaining success.

Disney has admittedly attempted some action-oriented animated features in the past, most notably in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Though it’s safe to say neither of those films are remembered as Disney classics. But with Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney seems to have found the right balance of making a satisfying action film with all the making of a Disney classic.

Perhaps I should say “most” of the makings of a Disney classic, as Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, like most of Disney’s best works. But as far as Disney’s animated non-musicals go, Raya and the Last Dragon is among the best, maybe even the best of the lot.

Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begins five-hundred years before Raya herself enters the picture: Kumandra was once a unified continent in which humans lived in harmony with magical dragons. This all changed when evil spirits called “Druun” appeared, and turned every living thing they touched to stone. The Druun spread like wildfire, engulfing human and dragon alike. Eventually, only one dragon remained, Sisu (Akwafina), who concentrated all her magic into a gem that cleansed the world of the Druun and revived all the humans, though the dragons remained stone, and Sisu herself disappeared. The people of Kumandra then had a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” and split into five tribes, each named after part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Heart, being the epicenter of Sisu’s last stand, is where the gem remains.

Fast-forward five-hundred years, and the other tribes still envy Heart over its possession of the Dragon Gem. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart and protector of the gem, still believes in a unified Kumandra, and hopes to make peace with the other tribes. Benja invites the leaders of the other tribes to Heart for a feast as a sign of goodwill. All seems to be going well, with Benja’s daughter, a young Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) becoming fast friends with the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). But after Namaari wins Raya’s trust, Raya – who is training to be the Dragon Gem’s next guardian – shows Namaari the location of the gem. Namaari alerts the other members of Fang, and when Benja goes to defend the gem, the other tribe leaders follow him. A struggle ensues between the tribes for the gem, which results in Benja being injured, and the gem being broken into five pieces. Each tribe takes a piece, but the damage has been done, and the gem’s fracturing has reawakened the Druun, who once again begin turning humans to stone, including chief Benja himself.

The remaining members of each tribe use their gem pieces to repel the Druun, and find refuge around water (which the Druun also hate), but the majority of people have already been turned to stone. Fast forward six years, and Raya, now a young woman, has been on a quest to track down Sisu, who is rumored to still be alive, in hopes that the dragon can fuse the gem back together and heal the world.

Given that the name of the movie is Raya and the Last Dragon, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Raya does manage to find the resting spot of Sisu, and summons the dragon. After filling Sisu in on the situation (the dragon still thinks it’s the same day from five-hundred years prior upon awakening), Raya and Sisu set out to claim the other pieces of the Dragon Gem so they can set the world right. All the while, Namaari, hearing of Raya’s quest, hopes to stop Raya and claim the Dragon Gem for Fang.

That may seem like a lot of backstory for a Disney movie, but I kind of like that about Raya and the Last Dragon. Between Raya and Frozen II, Disney seems to be giving their films legitimate worldbuilding and lore (while not letting such things get in the way of the story at hand, which is crucial). We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when everything in a Disney movie was built around the moment when two hot people would make-out.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon from this point has a simple adventure structure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when things are executed this well. And in typical Disney fashion, the film introduces us to a number of memorable characters, and has a nice message about trust to boot (having been betrayed by Namaari, resulting in the world’s ruin, Raya has a hard time believing in her father’s more positive outlook on the world, which clashes with Sisu’s childlike optimism).

Along their adventure, Raya and Sisu are joined by different colorful characters from the different tribes: Boun (Izaac Wang) is a ten-year old boy from Tail who captains the group’s boat, which also doubles as a restaurant. Noi (Thalia Tran) is a baby from Talon who, along with her three monkey-like companions, is a con artist. And Tong (Benedict Wong) is a warrior with a heart of gold from Spine with a peculiar manner of speech. And of course Raya has her own animal sidekick in the form of Tuk Tuk, a kind of giant armadillo/chipmunk hybrid whose sounds are provided by Alan Tudyk (because who else would it be in a modern Disney movie?).

This may seem like a lot of characters to juggle, and while some of them could do with a little more screen time, Raya and the Last Dragon actually does a nice job at giving this diverse group of ragtag heroes their own distinct personalities.

The characters are a lot of fun, and so is the adventure they find themselves on. Disney has long-since showcased that animation is the ideal medium for the film musical, but Raya and the Last Dragon is among the rare animated films – like Castle in the Sky or even the Kung Fu Panda movies – that shows that action sequences may also be best suited for animation. The real world has its limitations, and special effects can get distracting, but animation creates a reality of its own, allowing for the action to only be limited by the filmmakers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s one-on-one fight scenes or chase sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon provides some exhilarating set pieces. And it’s all perfectly suitable action for younger audiences too. More cynical people might balk that such things would dumb the action down, but that isn’t the case. Children deserve a variety of movies as much as anyone, so it’s great that something like Raya and the Last Dragon can produce these elaborate, creative set pieces and still present them in an accessible way for its target audience. Atlantis and Treasure Planet could feel like they were “trying to be cool” through their action, which might explain why they don’t exactly feel timeless. But Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it has the heart of a Disney classic, but presented in an action-adventure film, as opposed to the musical we’re accustomed to. Raya should prove to be an exciting movie for audiences of all ages.

The animation is similarly captivating. The visuals of a lot of big budget animation studios can kind of blur together these days, but Disney has found a way to still make its character designs stand out. And with the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, the world of Raya has a distinct beauty from other Disney fare. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, especially when Sisu is performing one of her feats of magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s current hot streak of modern animated classics, and does so in a way that makes it stand out from the pack. It may not be the best film Disney has put out in recent times, but Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare, satisfying action film that still manages to have a beating heart. That in itself is worth celebrating.

8

Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.

Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.

Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.

Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.

I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.

Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.

Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.

I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.

I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.

Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.

Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.

8

Mulan (2020) Review

One of Disney’s more polarized recent trends has been their stream of live-action remakes to their catalogue of animated classics. At first it wasn’t so bad (even if the movies themselves were), with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent being spaced by four calendar years, and both adaptations attempting to put their own spin on the material. But after a while, the sheer amount of these live-action remakes became excessive, and one has to wonder what exactly the point is of remaking movies that are largely considered timeless as is (other than capitalizing on today’s obsession with nostalgia, that is). Is remaking an animated film as a live-action one supposed to make it more legitimate? If that’s the mindset, that not only furthers the unwarranted and ignorant stigma that animated films are somehow not as good as their live-action counterparts, but also would seem self-defeatist on Disney’s part, given that their entire empire is built on their legacy of animated features. When 2019 saw no less than four such live-action remakes (well, the Lion King remake wasn’t actually live-action, but don’t tell that to Disney), suffice to say the live-action Disney remake well seemed drained.

Now, to be fair, not all of these remakes have been bad (I quite enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin), and I’ll take them over those horrible, straight-to-video sequels that tainted the legacies of Disney’s 90’s and early 2000’s output. Still, it can be hard to get too excited for these live-action remakes, no matter how hard Disney might try. And they’ve probably never tried harder with this strange sub-genre than with their 2020 adaptation of Mulan, based on Disney’s 1998 animated film (which, in tern, is based on “The Ballad of Mulan” from Chinese folklore).

From the get-go, Disney seemed to be going the extra mile and putting the extra effort into this particular adaptation, which was a pretty transparent means of trying to win over the Chinese box office, as China has become a major player in worldwide box office numbers over the last decade. Not only did the film encounter its share of controversies ahead of release, but due to the global pandemic of 2020, the film’s theatrical release – originally planned as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of the year – kept getting delayed, with it eventually skipping US theaters outright and heading straight to Disney+ (infamously costing an additional thirty dollars to watch during its first few months on the service). And when Mulan was finally released in China, it not only failed to be the international hit Disney was hoping for, but outright failed in the market Disney was banking on it to succeed in.

But is 2020’s Mulan really as bad as its lackluster performance suggests? Eh, not really. But it’s also not nearly as good as I’m sure Disney was hoping it’d be, either, given how much effort they put into its marketing. 2020’s Mulan is a resoundingly okay-ish film. That of course makes it inferior to the animated film it’s adapting, as that remains one of Disney’s best, but that’s probably expected by this point (I’d argue that only the Jungle Book remake is as good as the original full-stop, though my favorite song from Aladdin admittedly comes from the 2019 remake). But it also isn’t the worst live-action remake Disney has released in recent times.

The film, of course, tells the story of Mulan (Liu Yifei), a young woman in ancient China, who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the Chinese army in order to spare her ailing father (Tzi Ma), who was initially recruited after the Emperor decrees that one male of proper age from every available family must enlist. Mulan, now going under the name “Jun” in her guise as a man, is risking her life both on and off the battlefield. If her true identity is revealed, she will be killed by her own army.

Though the premise remains the same as its 1998 animated predecessor, Mulan makes more notable changes from the original than many of the other Disney remakes. On the plus side, I suppose differentiating itself from the animated film justifies its existence a bit more. On the downside, I think few fans of the original film will appreciate these changes.

Notably, there has been a major change to Mulan herself. Not in her personality or ambitions, but in her abilities, as this Mulan is capable of channeling her “Qi” to perform feats of superhuman agility! Basically, she’s been turned into a Jedi (and not even original trilogy Jedi, which at least would have made sense with its Eastern influence). This change is, well, it’s something…I guess. I don’t exactly understand the reason for the whole Qi aspect to Mulan, except for that it allows her to run up walls, momentarily float, and be able to kick a spear as if it were a bullet firing from a gun, which I guess is the kind of thing you might see in a Chinese action movie. It’s more pandering to the Chinese market, is what I’m getting at.

It just comes off as a bit cheesy, really. The supernatural elements of 2020’s Mulan just feels kind of shoehorned in, and it’s kind of weird how the animated Mulan was more bound by the laws of physics than her live-action counterpart. Also, Mulan has a younger sister in this adaptation named Xiu (Xana Tang), though she doesn’t really play a role in the story, so I’m not sure what the point of the addition is.

Fans of the ’98 film may also be disappointed to learn that Li Shang, Mulan’s commanding officer who became her love interest by the end of the original film, is not present. His role is taken over by two new characters: the stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and Chen (Yoson An), an ambitious soldier who fills the romantic interest role. The filmmakers claim the change was made because the idea of a commanding officer falling for one of his soldiers seemed “inappropriate,” but I have to wonder if they remembered the animated film very well, seeing as it was Mulan who was always crushing on Li Shang, and the latter didn’t fall for Mulan until the end of the movie and the war was over. Maybe I’m being too technical. Or maybe the filmmakers of the 2020 film are. Or maybe everyone is.

At least this remake still includes Ling, Yao and Chien-Po (Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang and Doua Moua), so there is some direct adaptation from the animated film here. It’s perhaps appropriate that this loudmouth trio also provide the most overt references to the 1998 film (“It doesn’t matter what she wears or what she looks like. It only matters what she cooks like!”). Though for reasons I don’t understand, the cute little cricket from the original movie has been changed into a human character named Cricket (Jun yu). So that’s a thing.

Even the villains have received an overhaul. Instead of an army of Huns, we have the Rouran. In place of the hulking Shan Yu from the animated film, we have a duo of primary villains: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran army, and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch whose powerful Qi enables her to shapeshift. As much as I love the animated film, I don’t think anything is really lost with this change in villains. Shan Yu looked intimidating, but as a character he was pretty interchangeable with any of his high-ranking henchmen.

Now for the question most fans of the animated film had during the lead-up to the 2020 film: Is Mushu in the live-action Mulan?

The answer to that is, quite simply, no.

I understand this is a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, though I’m going to break a few hearts and say I can live with or without Mushu. I don’t dislike the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from the original, but he was another transparent attempt at Disney trying to replicate the magic they concocted with Aladdin’s Genie. I think Mushu was a better attempt than some of his predecessors – such as Timon and Pumbaa or the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame – but after a while it kind of got tiring how the sidekick characters in Disney movies were purposefully designed to be more popular than the main characters.

Still, I suppose I can see where people are coming from with their longing for comic relief. While I detest the internet generation’s dismissal of anything that “takes themselves too seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s trying to tell), I also understand that taking one’s self seriously doesn’t mean you can’t also be funny and joyous. The Disney animated films understand this. But this live-action Mulan seems so hellbent on being taken seriously (again, being a means to try and win over the Chinese market by removing an “American element” like Mushu), that it seems to shun the concepts of humor and joy. Even the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Po get limited screen time.

So Mushu isn’t in the movie, but he has something of a quasi-replacement in the form of a phoenix, Mulan’s family’s guardian. But the phoenix doesn’t talk or anything, so it’s not really a worthy character replacement and more like a visual element that vaguely plays the same role. Also, on a side note, this is the second time one of these live-action Disney remakes has replaced a dragon with a phoenix, with the first being 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Maleficent no longer turns into a dragon, she turns into a phoenix. Mushu isn’t allowed in the new Mulan, but a phoenix is. I don’t know what that’s about. Is a flaming bird that resurrects itself somehow more realistic than a fire-breathing lizard or serpentine spirit? But I digress.

Another issue with this Mulan is that, much like The Lion King remake, the film is a whole half-hour longer than the animated feature that inspired it, yet somehow its story feels more rushed. It’s perhaps a credit to the storytelling abilities of Disney’s animators that they can create 90 minute movies that still feel like they take their time to establish story and character. These live-action remakes feel like so many key elements just zoom on by, that by the end of things I’m left wondering how they made it to the two hour mark.

I’m sounding largely dismissive. But 2020’s Mulan isn’t a total bust: the acting is strong, and helps give the film the proper emotional weight. Visually speaking, 2020’s Mulan is also very pleasant to look at, with great costumes and sets (though I could do without some of the obvious green screen bits). This Mulan remake retains just enough Disney charm to keep it afloat. But “just enough” might be the key words here, and for these live-action remakes on the whole.

I fully admit I had some good fun watching this version of Mulan. But you know what’s considerably more fun? Watching the animated original. But hey, it still beats the straight-to-video Mulan II. Let us speak no more of that.

5

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 narrative structure, 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 one 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.

6

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!

 

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