Scrooge 1: Christmas Carol: A Musical 2004

a_christmas_carol_the_musical_advertisementI mentioned in my last post I would like to organize these Scrooge reviews but the truth is they will end up being jumbled up because I get access to them at different times depending on when they air, are available from the library and other opportunities to watch come up.

So I had the 2004 musical version called A Christmas Carol: A Musical on my DVR and gave it a watch last night.  It was my first time viewing this version. I’ve decided to not give grades for these movies but to just make note of the differences, strengths and weaknesses in each adaptation.  So, let’s talk about what makes this version special!

2004 A Christmas Carol: The Musical

The trailer:

In this version we get a musical in the style of Oliver! Music is by Alan Menken with lyrics by  Lynn Ahrens and it is very solid songs.

Kelsey Grammer as Ebenezer Scrooge
Jane Krakowski as Ghost of Christmas Past/Lamplighter
Jesse L. Martin as Ghost of Christmas Present/Sandwich Board Man
Geraldine Chaplin as Ghost of Christmas Future/Blind Old Hag
Jason Alexander as Jacob Marley’s Ghost
Edward Gower as Bob Cratchit
Linzi Hateley as Mrs. Cratchit
Jacob Collier as Tiny Tim

 

Scrooge- Kelsey Grammar, he’s pretty good although the hunched over, old impression feels like something that would work better on the stage. His singing voice is very good.

Differences-

Opening sequence which is usually at the counting house is at the stock exchange.

Singing throughout not just the occasional song

marley

The Jacob Marley scene is unique.  Instead of just Jacob you have an array of ghosts that do a number similar to Tevye’s Dream in Fiddler on the Roof.

They also integrate the story of Dickens father going to the debtor prison as part of Scrooge’s story.  There is a scene in a courtroom where Scrooge’s father tells his son after being convicted ‘save your pennies.  Make your fortune and keep it’.

We see Scrooge working in a shoe factory as a child which no other version had done which I’ve seen and that actually makes sense.

They use the Cratchit’s less than other versions and have Scrooge’s mother say the ‘God Bless Us Everyone’ line.

Other differences are you see Marley die which I don’t recall in other versions.  Scrooge actually seems upset by this.

future

This is the only version I know of where Ghost of Future is a woman and not a grim reaper type.

All of the ghosts are seen in earlier scenes interacting with Scrooge.  Ghost of Present is very well played by Rent’s Jesse L Martin who has such a great bass voice. He is a showman who puts on a play (which he had invited Scrooge too earlier) as part of his demonstration to Scrooge

present
You can see in this shot how sunken in everyone’s eyes look. The makeup made everyone look very gaunt and sickly

Christmas Past is played by Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock fame and she shows Scrooge a book with the memories that they dive into, which is a unique take

past2Another difference is Scrooge refuses to give Fezziwig a loan just before his girl Emily (Jennifer Love Hewitt) breaks up with him.  That was a very effective scene with Scrooge’s mentor realizing how cold his pupil has sunk.

Strengths- The music is a strength.  I didn’t like every song but for the most part they are solid musical numbers that have the Menken flair (lyrics aren’t always great but it’s tough to be original with Christmas music).

All of the singing is excellent. Grammar has a lovely voice as well as Martin, Krakowski, and Gower.  There is also a good chemistry amongst the cast.  They all felt like a community, supporting one another (or not in the case of Scrooge).  I surprisingly thought Jennifer Love Hewitt was effective in her brief scene as Emily.

emily

The special effects with the ghosts, and various changes to the story with Scrooge’s father and refusing Fezziwig’s loan were interesting and effective.  Also I thought the unique Ghost of Future was good. Nice to see some dialogue and personality in that character.

Weaknesses- Jason Alexander is miscast as Marley.  I don’t know if it is just weird for me seeing George Costanza as Marley or if his performance is that off.  It just didn’t quite gel.

Another issue is the makeup is very badly done and the lighting makes characters look kind of gaunt and pale, even Martin who is supposed to be alive and boisterous had sunken eyes and an emaciated look about him. It lessened the effects of Ignorance and Want because everyone already looked like them.

The finale is moving and it is nice to see Fran again but I missed the desperation and real intensity the scene normally has.  It felt more like an inspirational group number than a pleading call for mercy.

Overall, I enjoyed the version.  It has it’s technical issues with the makeup and lighting, but I thought the songs were good, performances pretty good and the changes in the story for the most part worked and were interesting.  So, if it is on your dvr give it a watch.

Movie 50: Tangled

Tangled_rapunzel_poster_20

“I am excited that with Tangled a whole new generation will have a Disney princess experience. I hope Disney keeps up the good work and doesn’t rely only on the brilliance of Pixar.”

That was my thoughts back in 2010 when I saw Tangled.  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Even though it won’t be my #1 movie, I have to admit if I made a movie, Tangled is the type of film I would like to make.

As Disney’s first attempt to make a romantic comedy (which I love. see my defense here),  I love everything about it.  It gets the opposites attract, romantic banter, witty dialogue, action, and terrific characters of a Princess Bride but then it adds beautiful music, tons of humor, gorgeous animation, and one of the great Disney villains.  I watched it again tonight but I really didn’t need to because I pull it out every couple of months and give it a watch.  It’s the best!

The Production-

There are a lot of reasons Tangled works so well and a lot of that has to go down to choices they made in production.  Remember how I said every choice they made in Brother Bear drove me crazy?  This is the exact opposite.

For starters, they went traditional fairytale, updated it a little but not as much as Princess and the Frog.  Most of the updates they chose had to do with making the film appeal more to boys instead of traditional Princess movies, and each of these choices makes it a stronger romantic comedy.

For example, Flynn narrates the film which means we get to see a lot of his character, making the romantic comedy tension all the more palpable and satisfying.  I can totally see Flynn being played by romantic comedy greats like a Cary Grant,  Matthew Mcconaughey, Harrison Ford or even Chris Pratt in Guardians- all suave and debonair but really good at heart. Classic and tough to pull off (Mcconaughey failed many times!)Flynn_Rider

We also get ruffians and thugs which appeal to both girls and boys and they are fabulous.

ruffians and thugs

They were so smart in the script also because Rapunzel is so likable.  She does her best to be optimistic and hopeful while basically being a terrified prisoner.  That is very likable person.  In some ways she is like Cinderella in that way.  She is also the ultimate homeschooler- self educated in every way 😉

rapunzel happy

And the villain, Mother Gothel, is one of Disney’s best.  Here Disney had the guts to make a mother evil, and not only that but she uses the very ‘maternal’ nature of mothering to manipulate her daughter.  If you really think about it it’s kind of twisted- brilliantly twisted!!

gothel and rapenuzelI don’t have any proof this but I wonder if they used Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods as inspiration particularly for Mother Gothel.

Into-The-WoodsIn the play Gothel (or the Witch) is even more manipulative and sings a song called Stay with Me to make sure Rapunzel knows how devastated she will be if she is left alone.  Another song is called The Witches Lament and I think you will see similarities between it and Mother Knows Best:

In the Sondheim version she is even kind of bitter with Rapunzel for not appreciating all she did for her.  A true sociopath. You get pieces of that in Mother Gothel with wicked humor I love!

The other thing about Mother Knows Best which makes it amazing is it is just 2 characters on a black background for most of the song and yet I am totally engrossed. That’s impressive!

The music was written by the great Alan Menken so no reason to assume he couldn’t have used Sondheim as an inspiration.  Lyrics are by Glenn Slater who also has a broadway background.

The rest of the songs feel more like The Lion King or Tarzan with a pop vibe but I really love them.

The fact Tangled wasn’t even nominated for Best Animated Film shows what a joke the Oscars really are.  I get why Toy Story 3 would win, and I love How to Train Your Dragon but they only nominated 3 films that year and they didn’t have room for Tangled?  The previous year they nominated 5!

The voice cast is all great with Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Brad Garrett, Ron Perlman, and Jeffrey Tambor.

The Story-

I thought I would try something different for this review.  I found this video- the story of Tangled in 60 seconds and it basically does just that!

Let’s go over a few of the songs.

After our introduction to the story by Flynn, we meet Rapunzel with When Will My Life Begin and it does what Menken and Ashman used to do- like the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast it introduces a ton of narrative within the song, while creating an incredibly appealing lead character.  As an audience we feel connected to Rapunzel quickly.

Next is Mother’s Knows Best which I talked about before.  Flynn arrives and needs to make a deal with Rapunzel to get his satchel of a stolen crown back (classic romantic comedy plot device a bargain, deal, bet, swap gimmick to get story going and force leads to be together).

We also get introduced to Maximus, the rigid Kings guard horse, who is hilarious in his dogged behaviors and determination.

Maximus

Romantic comedies always have engaging side characters and for a story about a thief and a girl in a tower I think they came up with a lot of them and unlike Princess and the Frog they don’t make the movie feel cluttered but are included just enough.

Some of those side characters are the roughians and thugs which brings us our next great song I Had a Dream.  Perfection!

Eventually they break free and end up almost drowning, Flynn finds out about her hair and they finally make it to the lights.

lanterns

This scene with the lanterns is one of the best in all of Disney and in 3D it was breathtaking (I saw it twice in 3D and I have a lazy eye so I usually hate 3D!)

We then get a terrific final act with Mother Gothel continuing to manipulate Rapunzel. This Mother Knows Best Reprise is so chilling and well sung by Donna Murphy.

The ending is so well done and just like a good romantic comedy should we want things to work out so badly for Flynn and Rapunzel but it seems hopeless until the bitter end.  Flynn and Rapunzel understand each other better than any other Disney couple and I have more confidence in their marriage being a success.  It’s one of the great Disney couples.

ending rapunzel
The perfect way to end a romantic comedy with a couple laughing and kissing!

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I really have little criticism for this film.  As I’ve made abundantly clear in this review I love all the choices they made.  I love the romantic comedy storytelling.  I love Flynn and Rapunzel. I love the side characters and I LOVE the villain.

The music is great, animation stunning especially the lanterns, the humor all works.  I guess if I was going to nitpick I’d say the eyes could have been a little smaller.  That’s it.

For me it is a quick top 10 favorite and probably the Disney I could and do rewatch the most frequently.  I love it!

Overall Grade- A+

Oh and Disney is coming out with Into the Woods at Christmas I believe . Yippee!!

Disney Renaissance Best and Worse

DisneyRenaissance

So I recently finished reviewing the Disney Renaissance and I know how everyone loves lists, so I will do my best at ranking these films (and I will try to not have everything be Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid.

Best Villain-

Gold- Ursula

Silver- Scar

Bronze- Gaston

Best Artistry-

Gold- Tarzan

Silver- Beauty and the Beast

Bronze- Hunchback of Notre Dame

Favorite Lead Character/Hero-

Gold-  Belle

Silver- Mulan

Bronze- Ariel

Favorite Side Character-

Gold- Genie

Silver- Sebastian

Bronze- Lumiere

Even More Minor Characters-

Gold- Wilbur, Rescuers Down Under

Silver- Mushu

Bronze- Zazu

Best Vocal Performance-

Gold- Robin Williams, Aladdin

Silver- Samuel Wright, Little Mermaid

Bronze- Pat Carroll, Little Mermaid

Honorable Mention- John Candy, Rescuers Down Under

Best Original Score-

Gold- Lion King, Hans Zimmer

Silver- Rescuers Down Under, Bruce Broughton

Bronze- Little Mermaid, Alan Menken

Best Song- (this is tough)

Gold-Part of Your World- Menken and Ashman

Silver- Be Our Guest- Menken and Ashman

Bronze-Friend Like Me- Menken and Ashman

Honorable Mentions- Out There (Menken and Schwartz),  Under the Sea (Menken and Ashman), A Star is Born (Menken and Zippel), You’ll Be in My Heart (Phil Collins), Reflection (Wilder and Zippel)

Best Villain Song-

Gold- Poor Unfortunate Souls, Menken and Ashman

Silver- Be Prepared, Elton John and Tim Rice

Bronze- Savages, Menken and Schwartz

Honorable Mentions- Gaston (Menken and Ashman),

Worst Villain-

Gold- Radcliffe

Silver- Clayton

Bronze- Shan-yu

Saddest Moment-

Gold- Mufasa’s death

Silver- Quasimodo getting mocked and tied up by gypsies

Bronze- Beast dies

Best Comedy-

Gold- Aladdin

Silver- Hercules

Bronze- Rescuers Down Under (not a comedy but the funny moments were so funny)

Scariest Moment-

Gold- Mcleach and the knife throwing, Rescuers Down Under

Silver- Mob Song, Beauty and the Beast

Couldn’t think of anything else scary in Renaissance.  That’s strange.

Cringe-worthy Moment

Gold- Burning down house with family in it, Hunchback

Silver- Hellfire, rape and murder song, Hunchback

Bronze- Pocahontas teaching John Smith about how gold is stupid, Pocahontas

Honorable Mention- Basically all of Pocahontas except Savages number

Underrated

Gold-  Rescuers Down Under

Silver- Mulan

Bronze- Hercules

Most Romantic Moment-

Gold- Belle and Beast dancing

Silver- Kiss the Girl

Bronze- Jasmine and Aladdin kiss

Grand Champions-

Worst- Pocahontas

Best- Beauty and the Beast

Co-Best- Little Mermaid (I love both so much!)

 

I just finished reviewing Dinosaur (oh my…) and here’s how we currently stand rating-wise

A+  we have 6 B+   we have 4 C+   we have 2 D       we have 3
A     we have 9 B      we have 1 C      we have 3 D-      we have 3
A-    we have 2 B-     we have 1 C-     we have 3 F        we have 1

 

What are your favorites from the Renaissance?  Please share.

Thank you to everyone for your comments.  We might not always agree but I enjoying conversing with all of you!

 

Movie 35: Hercules

Hercules_(1997_film)_posterI guess if there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure Disney movie, Hercules is mine.  I know it’s got lots of problems and is probably drawn for Saturday morning airing more than a feature film but I love the music and it makes me laugh.  What’s it to you?’ 😉

Production-

It should be obvious to any Disney fan that Hercules was trying to copy off of Aladdin- male lead, pop culture references,  lack of regard for traditional story or setting, and bright colors.  They even have the same directors with Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm.

Interestingly enough they made a deal with Jeffrey Katzenberg to make Hercules so they could get their dream project Treasure  Planet greenlit (didn’t know that!).

Their goal was to put Disney’s stamp on a superhero movie- kind of a Disney comic book movie.  That’s why everything is so bright and vivid like the comic books and comic book movies of the 90s (for better or worse! Batman and Robin- yikes!.

They also brought in Gerald Scarfe who had done Pink Floyd’s The Wall to help them get a new take on the characters, and I think they are unlike any in Disney history.  Very angular and comic book-like.

autographs

Scarfe’s influence also helped them see outside the box and give a Greece by way of Las Vegas vibe with a little bit of gospel thrown in and I just find it fun and original.  I can see why it might turn others off, but it worked for me.

muses

The music is where I am completely sold.  Who knew Alan Menken had gospel inside him?  If you look at the differences between his music it is pretty remarkable.  He can do reggae in  Under the Sea, Broadway in Beauty and the Beast, pop in Aladdin, choral in Hunchback and now gospel.  The man is amazing!

The singers are also excellent with the muses played perfectly by gospel singers Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vaneese Y.  Thomas.

I also love Susan Egan as Megura who Disney debuted as Belle in the broadway version of Beauty and the Beast in 1994.  She’s a richer, fuller sounding woman than Disney had ever used and I love it.

Everyone sounds like they are from Brooklyn but again it’s part of the humor.  For me Hercules did what the Shrek films couldn’t.  It is funny without getting obscene or crass.

The Story-

The story is where the film is admittedly weak, so I won’t dwell on this.  If you don’t love the music and think the writing is funny nothing in the story will convince you to stick around I can guarantee you that.

It starts with Charlton Heston narrating our Greek tragedy:

We quickly are introduced to our cast of characters.  We’ve got Haedes, God of the Underworld who is voiced by James Woods in a hilarious homage to all the villains he’s played before.  Everyone in this movie is very sarcastic so you have to like that kind of humor:

hercules hades 2 thumbs up
In one funny scene Hades gives his plan 2 thumbs up and Siskel and Ebert only gave it 1

Hades has 2 goons and they are Pain and Panic personified.  Literally that’s their names and what they are.

pain and panicI thought they were very funny.  They find ways of switching into sweet cuddly Disney creatures throughout, which I loved.  (Disney takes a lot of cracks at its own image in this movie)

Hercules crittersThere are also 3 fates who work with Hades and they have a string and when it is cut a person dies.

MSDHERC EC016

Hades stumbles in on Zeus and Hera’s party welcoming their baby Hercules into immortality. I like that Zeus is friendly with Hades.  He wants him to lighten up!

haedes and zeussInstead Hades sends  Pain and Panic to abduct Hercules and turn him into a mortal but he doesn’t drink the last drop of the hero potion so he stays strong like an immortal.

parents

Just like with Superman a nice couple find Hercules and try to raise him but he can’t control his strength and literally topples the entire town columns and all.

Hercules goes to meet his real father Zeus and he talks to him as a statue. He finds out he must be a true hero to be a God like his father

meeting zeusZeus tells Hercules to find Philoctetes or ‘Phil’ and he will teach him to be a ‘true hero’.  We get our  ‘Oscar-bait’ song Go the Distance which is ok. I wish it was the muses singing it instead!

The two meet but he is retired and not interested.  He is too heartbroken by Achilles and his darn heel!  Ha.

I can see if you don’t find Danny Devito’s performance funny than you will have issues.  I liked it.

Hercules-hercules-1854238-720-536

When he is about to finish his training Hercules meets Megura, who, again, I just love.  She is sassy, smart, funny and pretty. Something new and unusual in a Disney female lead.  Love it!

I also love that Hercules has the instant love but Megura totally doesn’t.  She thinks he’s the ‘wonder boy’ for a long time and it takes a while to wear her down.  Love that!

We find out why because she is working begrudgingly with Hades because she sold her soul to him to save her ex-boyfriend who left her afterwards!  (Again, kind of a clever take on the Disney woman)

Hades-and-Megara

Finally his training finished, Hercules arrives in Thebes which is basically Greek Las Vegas with traffic and even guys trying to sell you cheap sundials.

sun dial

At first the people reject Hercules as an amateur hero, and then he gets a chance to save 2 boys who are really Pain and Panic in disguise.  This gives Hades the opportunity to corner Hercules with his Hydra monster.  This scene does not hold up graphic-wise (whenever they relied on CGI in the 90s it doesn’t look great now. Makes me wonder how things like Avatar will look in 20 years)

Hercules becomes a hero, Disney style.  There is even a theme park and merchandise.   Pain and Panic are even shown sporting his gear.

merchandisemerchandise2For a stoic company like Disney to make so many jokes it is refreshing.  There are quick moments you might not even notice like a scene where Hercules is wearing Scar from Lion King

hercules scar

Figuring being so well known, Hercules asks his Dad if he is a true hero and he is told no “being famous is not a true hero”.

Meanwhile Hades forces Meg to flirt with Hercules to try and discover his weak-spot.  Trouble is she is falling for him.  He’s so innocent and sweet that it is making her nuts.  We get one of the best girl songs in all of Disney

Hades discovers watching the flirting that Meg is Hercules weakness and he says she must obey him as part of their deal.  Phil overhears this conversation and he tries to warn Hercules Meg is up to no good.  He becomes angry with Phil and the two part ways.

Hercules confronts Hades and agrees to give up his immortality for 24 hours as long as Meg isn’t hurt.  Meg tries to stop him but does it anyway and then he finds out Meg and Hades have been working together.

With Hercules nullified Hades unleashes the Titans which are admittedly weak and their destruction goes on too long.   He also imprisons all the Gods and takes over ruling the heavens.

titans

The cyclops tries to kill Hercules and at first he is letting himself get beaten.  Meg see’s this and gets Phil in hopes he can inspire Hercules to fight back.   It works and Hercules fights and defeats the cyclops as a normal man but Meg is crushed by a pillar.

Hercules hold pillar over his headThis breaks Hades promise of not hurting Meg so Hercules can defeat the Titans and release the Gods.

Unfortunately Meg dies before Hercules can get back to her so he goes to the Underworld to confront Hades. Hercules makes Hades an offer to swap places with Meg.  I love the design of the Underworld . My guess is Scarfe had a big influence in this scene:

Hercules can’t be killed because he has proven himself a true hero who loves more than himself.

Hercules and meg underworld

He puts the spirit back into Meg and reunites with his parents.

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Of course, he realizes he wouldn’t be happy in immortal world without his love Meg and he agrees to live with her on earth instead.

And we get a very good Disney kiss!

hercules kiss

And we get a closing out with a great song from the muses!  It may be my favorite of the movie

Movie Review/Conclusion-

As I was typing up that analysis it made me realize there is a lot more going on in Hercules than I initially gave it credit for.  Maybe the story isn’t so bad after all?

But I don’t think many people are going to like Hercules because of the story.  It’s kind of like Robin Hood.  If you find the one liners funny you will like this movie.  If you don’t it will be rough going.

Same goes for gospel music.  If you aren’t a fan than the movie won’t do much for you.  It is kind of like Fantasia is to classical music.  If it isn’t your favorite you probably won’t like the movie which relies so much on it.

I guess it’s something different from Disney which felt refreshing and it made me laugh. I know it isn’t the prettiest to look at and the story is Superman all over again but what can I say we all have our guilty pleasures and on that level it has a lot going for it.

So if it sounds like your cup of tea give it another watching.  You might be surprised!

Overall Grade- B

ps, I can do without Go the Distance especially the Michael Bolton version…The 90’s and ballads were rough!

Movie 34: Hunchback of Notre Dame

The_Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame-_1996If you had asked me going into this project what my least favorite Disney movie is I would have said Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Indeed when I asked my friends on facebook and instagram what their least favorite was Hunchback and Pocahontas were at the top of the list:

friendsTo my knowledge I don’t know anyone personally who likes Hunchback (I’m sure they will come out of the woodwork since I said that but I did ask and nobody defended it).   And yet online it has lots of fans.  I have seen it on numerous top 10 lists and people claiming it is the best Disney ever made.  On Amazon it has 230 5 star reviews and only 36 bad reviews.

amazon reviewsSo what is this separation between the people I know and the online community of Disney fans?  I am not sure.  It probably has something to do with my being very religious, conservative and family focused.  Hunchback is not a great fit for any of those adjectives. It’s tough on religion, morally relativistic and definitely not family friendly, so I suppose it makes sense for it to be at the bottom of most of our lists.

When I first saw it I was 18 and just starting college.  I was visiting a friend and we were watching her nephews.  In an attempt to placate them we decided to put on a Disney film and Hunchback was there.  Boy was I stunned!  The kids were completely uninterested in the story and we probably should have turned it off but it was on and I watched in shock as we had a girl dance erotically, characters singing about rape, a deformed man mocked and tied down, and a family nearly burned in their house for no reason.  I was stunned! This wasn’t the empowering Disney I had grown to love in Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

After that unpleasant experience I had no desire to watch it again but this project came and I turned it on last night with an open mind hoping to be dazzled.  Unfortunately, while it does have its strengths, and I can see why people love it, it has serious problems and contradictions which make it hard for me to recommend.

You can’t serve 2 masters is the takeaway from this movie.

Production-

The strange idea to do an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Hunchback of Notre Dame came from an executive reading the Classics Illustrated comic book version.

illustrated classicsThese comic books were published from 1941-1971 and were a fun way to introduce children to classical literature in a format they could absorb easily.  I wish they had picked Jane Eyre.  That would have been so cool to see with this same type of treatment. They had to know going into it Hunchback was going to be a tough sell at the box office.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise from Beauty and the Beast were approached with the idea and they ‘jumped at the chance’ to do something new.

I couldn’t find a ton of other production notes out there on the movie (the behind the scenes video is laughable and not in a good way).  But my overall consensus from what I’ve read is the creative minds who had been successful were able to steamroll over the practical considerations of the studio, with a few exceptions.

It seems clear  the production team wanted to make a film for adults where the studio wanted Burger King toys, sing along videos and even a ‘my first read along’ for toddlers…yes, Victor Hugo for toddlers!

my first read alongI really wish Disney had just allowed its team to make a movie for adults because the end result of creativity and commerce mixed together is extremely uneven and frustrating.

Back in the early days of Disney they had darker themes mixed with commercial appeal (think Pleasure Island mixed with Jimminy Cricket) but such a mixture is tough to swallow when your kids are wanting to act out the scenes from a movie where Quasimodo is beaten and tied up with their Burger King hand puppets:

The music is gorgeous with songs and score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.  And the voicecast featuring Demi Moore, Tom Hulce,, Tony Jay and Kevin Kline, is all fine.

The Story-

I must admit up front to having never read the original novel by Victor Hugo.  However, I do understand it enough to know this is a very loose adaptation.  The biggest change they make is the villain Frollo is a judge not a priest, which doesn’t make any sense.

In the original story  Claude Frollo, as Archdeacon of Notre Dame, had an all consuming power and righteous indignation to condemn anyone he didn’t agree with, and the authority to do something about it.. In the Disney version Frollo chases a gypsy woman to the cathedral and when she dies he almost throws the baby down a well because it is ugly (you know for kids!).

frollo and babyThe Archdeacon stops Frollo and as penance for killing the woman and almost killing the baby he insists Frollo raise the child who will live in the cathedral of Notre Dame.  Yes, that makes so much sense.  An Archdeacon wants a baby to be raised by a madman who wanted him thrown down a well?

If Frollo was the Archdeacon instead of a blah judge it all makes so much more sense for him to take the child in out of guilt over the mother.  In a way by ‘trying to not offend Catholics,  they do more harm than if they were outright villains.  The whole church in the film is an apathetic institution to the suffering of those  living within its walls. At least in the novel Frollo is consumed by Satan, which is an interesting conflict for a holy man to have.  The Disney version just left me dumbfounded at the Archdeacon’s choices.

archdeacon

Next we see Quasimodo as an adult who is basically a prisoner to the cathedral.  Again, why would the Archdeacon allow such a thing?  The film does not explain it well enough.

His only friends are 3 gargoyles who come to life making terrible puns. We never really know if they are imaginary or can only talk to Quasimodo or magic or what they are because nobody else can see them but they can shoot people?  Even reviewers who love this movie usually agree the gargoyles are the weak spot.  It so screams ‘we are trying to make this is for kids’ which is off-putting when the rest of it is so not for kids.  Got to pick one or the other Disney not both. Worst of all, they just aren’t funny.

Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame_gargoyles

The story gets going when we learn there is a Festival of Fools which Quasimodo has long dreamed of attending but Frollo won’t allow it.  Why?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to abandon Quasi now that he is an adult?  He is 20 years old so why does Frollo bother with his charge?  I guess just to get a feeling of power but that is never really explained adequately.  And again would the Archdeacon allow such treatment of someone in his church?  It’s very strange.

Nevertheless, the gargoyles encourage him to go and Quasimodo sings a gorgeous song called Out There

.

I love that Quasimodo’s voice is normal, unprofessional sounding.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like it in a musical but it is beautiful.

For the first time Quasimodo ignores Frollo’s counsel and goes down for the festival (and why they gave Quasimodo spiderman like abilities to climb up and down the cathedral is beyond me.) Nevertheless, he makes it and is immediately picked by the gypsy Esmeralda as having “the ugliest face in all of Paris” because they think it is a mask. I think we are supposed to like the gypsies but it is hard when they are so cruel to our lead character.

Esmeralda eventually saves Quasimodo after he is tied up, beaten, mocked and thrown food at (you know, for kids!)

quasi tied up

Esmeralda then dances for Frollo and the other men in a strange scene.  The movie can’t seem to decide if Esmeralda being a sexual object to men is a good thing or bad?  Frollo is clearly in the wrong for his lustful reaction but Phoebus can say ‘what a woman’ with no sense of condemnation at all?

esmerelda and frollo

phoebus

Frollo chases Esmerelda but Phoebus refuses to arrest her and she appeals to the Archdeacon for sanctuary in the cathedral.  (Again, why does the Archdeacon not do anything more than give sanctuary? In that day and age they had tremendous power!).

God_Help_the_Outcasts

Stuck in the church Esmeralda sings the best song in the movie- God Help the Outcast (singing voice Heidi Mollenhauer).

Quasimodo is able to help her escape using his spiderman skills and she gives him a necklace with a map to the gypsies hideout “The Court of Miracles”.

We then get the oddest but well done song of the film where Frollo sings to Mother Mary about his lust for Esmeralda.  Tony Jay is very good and it is filled with creepy animation.  Perhaps I would like it again if this movie was not marketed to children, but even for adults a song about rape is a tough sell.

The song is called Hellfire and he says

It’s not my fault…  I’m not to blame.

It’s the gypsy girl.  The witch who sent this flame….

Protect me, Maria
Don’t let this siren cast her spell
Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone
Destroy Esmeralda
And let her taste the fires of hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone
Hellfire
Dark fire
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or
Your pyre
Be mine or you will burn

Hmmm…So he wants to have sex with her but she doesn’t, but he’s going to kill her if she doesn’t.  Great we’ve got rape and murder in my Disney movie marketed to kids…(for the record I don’t enjoy adult movies about rape and murder but one even marginally marketed to kids is even worse)

Frollo's_Evil_Smile

When Frollo finds out about Esmeralda’s escape he does a massive search burning down homes, setting Paris ablaze.  (What kind of judge is this?  I’m not expert on medieval France but I don’t think this was how it went down? Not even Napoleon could have burned down France looking for a woman)

burning2

As captain, Phoebus (a thoroughly undeveloped character) must help Frollo, but we get to a scene where Frollo literally wants to burn a family in their home for being gypsy and nothing else. (you know for kids…)

The fact this movie got a G rating with that kind of violence should convince anyone the rating system is a total joke.  Do not pay attention to it!

http://smilingldsgirl.com/2014/01/20/508-swears-hollywood-ratings-are-ridiculous/

So Phoebus gets shot with an arrow for not burning down the house and Esmeralda brings him to the cathedral for refuge.

Before they arrive we get a little comic relief that sadly is not comical.  The gargoyles are trying to convince Quasimodo that Esmeralda will fall in love with him. It actually comes across as kind of cruel and at best patronizing.

Esmeralda arrives with Phoebus and Quasimodo helps them but also see’s them kiss and his heart is broken.  (you know for kids…).

Esmeralda leaves and Frollo comes causing Quasimodo to hide Phoebus under a table while Frollo lies about attacking the Court of Miracles.  Again where is the Archdeacon in all this?  You would think he would have a lot to say but not until the very end do we see him again.

Quasimodo goes with Phoebus to find the Court of Miracles where the gypsies capture and almost hang them (Aren’t the gypsies supposed to be the moral good in the story or is just everything corrupt except for Quasimodo?)

Frollo follows Quasimodo and arrests all in the Court of Miracles (again do I feel that sorry for them when they were minutes away from hanging our heroes?).

esmeralda-pyre-full

But Frollo wants to burn Esmeralda at the stake and even starts the fire.  Quasimodo breaks the chains which Frollo has bound him with in the tower and he and the gargoyles start attacking the crowd watching the burning (I guess they aren’t imaginary then.  They are like the toys in toy story who only move in certain conditions?).

The whole final battle is really slapsticky and so off the established adult tone. It’s almost like Home Alone with bricks falling on people’s heads and teeth coming out.  It feels so discordant from the rest of the picture. brick

And then out of nowhere Quasimodo has turned Notre Dame into a molten ore refinery with lava spewing from giant vats out all sides of the tower.  It’s bizarre.

lavaThe death of Frollo is pretty well done but again not appropriate for children. It’s too scary.  It’s too religiously confusing and too tense.

At least the movie has the guts to have Phoebus and Esmeralda together and not Quasimodo. That would have been so lame and I do like the optimistic tone we are left with.

Esmeralda_y_Febo_finalMovie Review/Conclusion-

This movie is very hard to grade because it is a failure at what it is trying to do but it has some wonderful moments.  I just wish they had made an animated movie for adults and forgotten all the softened edges for kids.  As it is, I feel frustrated.  The violent moments are too much for kids, they will be bored by a lot of the story and the commentary on religion, madness of crowds and power gets diluted out of a fear of offending people and institutions. But then the comedic moments are all wrong for adults so it is a miss for them too.

The messages in the movie are very muddled.  Power is bad, except for when it is used to save others.  Discrimination is bad except when it is done by the minority.  A hero can oogle a woman dancing but a villain cannot.  An Archdeacon can jump in when needed and then be absent  when literal crimes are being committed under his roof.  How am I supposed to explain even one of these things to a child?

People say ‘well, it’s not for kids’.  Well, then don’t market the movie for kids or have kid-friendly elements.  Don’t put it on kids meals and make plush toys.  Don’t have wise cracking gargoyles and slapstick home alone violence thrown in.

And I’m sorry when you have a song where the lead character is singing about wanting to rape another character that is where I draw the line.  I do not want to have to explain such a thing to my child, and especially have to tell her that bad people think rape isn’t their fault but the fault of the vixen who tempted them.  Are you kidding me Disney!

Hunchback actually makes me kind of mad because it has so much potential.  I wish it was a grand movie just for adults.  The animation is certainly stunning.  It is layered and beautiful.  The stained glass alone is awesome.

the-hunchback-of-notre-dame-75The music is also wonderful.   If I heard it in a Broadway show meant for adults I would probably love it.  But sadly the picture is both too grown up for kids and too childish for grown ups leaving me frustrated.  The rape undertones and burning the people in the house were just too much for me to support given the silliness of other elements.  Got to pick an audience Disney!

In the end, I admire what they were trying to do but I think it was a failure.

Overall Grade- D

Movie 33: Pocahontas

pocahontas posterA few days ago I did an informal poll amongst my friends asking ‘which Disney Renaissance movie is your least favorite?’.  While it had a few fans, the overwhelming choices were Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame and I’d  probably be right there with them. We will see what I think of Hunchback next but Pocahontas is not a strong film.  In fact, if I was going to give an F this might be it.  I’ll think about it while I’m writing this review.

Production-

It’s kind of a mystery why Pocahontas doesn’t work with all the resources that were thrown into it.  As I mentioned in my last review after Aladdin the Disney team split into two projects with some going to Lion King and a larger share going to Pocahontas.  Most of the big names like Alan Menken, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, Glen Keane, Joe Grant and Chris Buck all went with Pocahontas because they thought it was  a more promising project.

While nobody is going to a Disney film for a history lesson it is at least worth noting the long list of things they got wrong in their first attempt to tell the story of a real person.

pocahontas inaccuraciesMost of these inaccuracies I don’t care about but the one I find most confusing is why did they age Pocahontas?  It’s a Disney movie.  Wouldn’t it be better to have it be about a little girl who jumps on the fire and fights for peace over war?  That sounds very interesting. Instead they took the Titanic route and made a by the numbers romance inspired by Romeo and Juliet more than what actually happened.

The reason I believe they went the way they did is the project was started in 1990 and what was a big hit in 1990?  Dances with Wolves.  A film that has not aged particularly well with the stoic natives teaching the white man the true way to live…

But it was a huge hit back then both critically and financially so it makes sense Disney would want to create Dances with Wolves Jr and that Pocahontas being a well known folk-lore it is a natural choice.

The story went through a lot of rewrites, which is why it took so long to make.  At one point it was to be a comedy with the animals talking and John Candy playing a turkey.  I loved him in Rescuers Down Under so I would have been curious to see what he could have done with it.  Unfortunately he died in 1994 so a new direction was taken on the film.

The voice cast is interesting.  I like that they got a number of Native American actors to do the tribe-members but I wish they had coaxed better performances out of them.  Russell Means is a wonderful Native American actor but his line readings to me felt very stale, like he was reading off of cards not having a real conversations.

I felt the same way about Irene Bedard as Pocahontas but Judy Kuhn is stunning as her singing voice.  One of the best in all of Disney.  Mel Gibson is fine although why they didn’t have him do a British accent I will never know (we know he can do accents from Braveheart).  It makes no sense to have an American with the Jamestown settlers…

I tried to look into why they made the animation choices they did but didn’t find anything good.  Everything feels very geometric with hard lines and shapes.  This can work in a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland, but for a movie which is supposed to be a real world setting I found it very distracting.

Even the design of the characters is very geometric.  Governor Radcliffe is a giant rectangle:

radcliffe2

 

Pocahontas looks like 2 triangles and her face is very rectangular.  I found all the characters to be unpleasant to look at.  Some have also said all the indians have too almond shaped eyes and look more like Southeast Asian than Native American. I can see their point. She does have a Laotian, Cambodian,  Malaysian look about her more than Native American.

pocasidebarThe music was done by Alan Menken and new to Disney lyricist Stephen Schwartz who would go on to write the mammoth hit Wicked. My favorite of the songs is Savages about the prejudices of both the white and Indian groups but the rest are fine but kind of forgettable.

Native Americans, in general, were not happy with the film.  Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan tribe wrote a piece called ‘The Pocahontas Myth’ which is worth reading.

http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html

He says:

“In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.”

We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.”

If you watch the Behind the Scenes Disney makes it seem like they are doing a noble thing by sharing this great story and culture when in reality those of that culture, for the most part, felt it was a denigration to their history.  I understand films need artistic license but when a true good story exists and they choose to veer so far away from it than I have an issue.

At the very least it is disheartening to hear the tribe’s offer to help  was rejected.

The Story-

The movie begins with our introductions of the ship and crew leaving the new world.  I like the immersion into the painting and the aerial pan and zoom to the boat.

I wish more was made of the crewmembers families we see in these opening shots.  It would have given so much more heart to the scenes that come.

Next we see a storm which evidently reused some of the shipwreck scenes from Little Mermaid but it is very effectively done so I don’t mind.  John saves Thomas’ life creating a bond between the two.

Thomas-from-Pocahontas-Saved

We also get our first taste of Radcliffe and our first mention of ‘gold’.  I read they were starting with Gaston as their mold for Radcliffe and I wish they had kept on that vein.  Gaston works because he isn’t bad at first, just conceited.  As his vanity is wounded he grows more and more mad until he is a monster and murderer.  Radcliffe starting from the first sentence about savages and gold is like wearing a ‘hey look at me villain hat’.

He literally has a line where he says “This new world is going to be great.  I’m going to get a pile of gold. Build a big house and if any Indian tries to stop me I’ll blast him”  It took 5 years of rewrites to come up with that bit of subtle writing? Sigh…

Next we get our first introduction to the tribesmen and women.  The men have returned from battle and guess who is off scampering around the forest?  Why Pocahontas of course. We get a preposterous dive off of a waterfall for no reason but to prove she’s headstrong.

pocahontas diveIt’s Pocahontas the super woman!

Now I can hear a few of you saying “wait, Rachel. You love Little Mermaid and she’s super headstrong”.  Here’s the difference.  Ariel is 16, a mermaid and is legitimately not at home in her own body. Pocahontas is a grown woman and she hurts a lot of people in her quest to stay the same as she is at the beginning.  Ariel wants change.  Pocahontas doesn’t.

Anyway, Powhatan wants her to marry the great warrior Kocoum. Pocahontas doesn’t want to because ‘he’s too serious’.  He just got back from war.  Shouldn’t we do a little more to establish such a trait before he is discounted as an ineligible mate?  He has like 2 lines of dialogue in the whole movie.

kocooum

So Pocahontas sings about what could be coming for her but again she really doesn’t want change.  She wants to remain as free and prancing as she is forever. It’s a pretty song though.

Next the settlers land and I’m not kidding you right off the boat start digging for gold and sing a song called ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’.  Again, way to be subtle why don’t you!  Why not establish some of the actual reasons for conflict and hunger the settlers faced.  Why not make them a tiny bit sympathetic and give the story some wonder and mystery?  As it is, it is so predictable.

We also get introduced to Grandmother Willow- a tree that gives Pocahontas advice.   It is strange that only this tree talks and yet none of the animals or other trees?

willow tree

She is supposed to be the conduit for our modern audience like the Genie in Aladdin but it comes off as trite and silly.

The thing that is strange is they have a Shaman in the story who isn’t used.  Wouldn’t it be natural for Pocahontas to seek guidance from him?  Why not make him the spiritual core of the movie?  Strange choice

shaman

There is also Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who I liked but is underused.  She has to make harder choices than Pocahontas and is a more interesting conflicted unpredictable character.  I wish the movie was about her.

friend

Next John Smith and Pocahontas meet in a very cheesy scene with Pocahontas appearing out of the mist like a ghost.

mist

For literally 2 lines of dialogue they can’t talk to each other but then that’s done with and she’s busy teaching him why his ways are wrong and loving nature is good…Groan.

gold

There is also a major ridiculous moment where John teaches Pocahontas about gold. These are characters which now speak the same language.  Certainly a woman like Pocahontas would be familiar with valuable items used for commerce such as beads, stones, and other forms of currency  used by most tribes.  It’s just another moment where the whites love gold (gold is the 4 letter word of this movie) and the pure natives don’t need such superficial things….Double groan.

Like I said, subtlety is not this movies strong point.

Our next scene is back at the fort (which appears overnight) and Radcliffe shoots Manatuk causing Powahatan to prepare for war.

powhatan

There is also a moment where Radcliffe tells Thomas ‘Learn to use a gun properly”.  Hmmm wonder if that is going to prove prophetic…

We get a little comic relief here with Meeko the racoon, Percy Radcliffe’s dog and Flit the hummingbird.

pocahontas-and-john-smith

John and Pocahontas have one of Disney’s best kisses

kiss

Unfortunately both Thomas and Kocoum see their kiss and Thomas shoots Kocoum.  This is a pretty good scene with great sound effects.  If feels like two people fighting

Then we get the best number in the movie called Savages.  Some take offense to it but it isn’t approving of the views of the characters but merely saying that’s what some people think of others. I actually think it is a good thing for children to understand and be watchful for as racism and hatred will always exist.

The geometric graphic style in the picture also works well for Savages.  Great scene!

Then we get to the climatic moment we all know is coming but it is gone and over so fast it is a little deflating.

sacrifice scene

Pocahontas tells the people “this is the path that hatred has brought us”.  I don’t think that is true.  Thomas didn’t hate anyone.  Neither did Kocoum.  They were just trying to defend their friends.  You could make the argument ignorance or a lack of understanding created this scene but hatred I don’t know if that’s been established except for Radcliffe.

Radcliffe ends up shooting John by mistake and his men turn on him and in the end decide to take John Smith back to England to recover.  Pocahontas has the chance to go with him but she chooses to stay where she belongs.

I like that ending.  Not the happy ending we might expect.

backdrop

Movie Review/Conclusion-

So clearly this is not my favorite Disney movie; although I don’t think I can give it an F because Savages is a good number and I do love Judy Kuhn’s voice.

It’s just frustrating because they had an opportunity to take actual events and make them into a great movie.  Instead we got more of the same in a predictable story told by boxy characters with wooden vocal performances.

beautiful scenerySome of the backgrounds and scenery is nice.  I will give it that.

Most tribes have pretty thick skin and for the Powhatan chief to say:

“It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation”.

Need I say more?

You also have a heroine who is infallible and doesn’t want to grow up or change her behavior unlike Belle and Ariel who will do anything for a change.  A lot of people are hurt by Pocahontas’ selfishness but I don’t see real growth or change in her.

Radcliffe and the ‘gold’ is such a lame villain. There’s no nuance or depth to him.  Nothing that makes him different or unique.  He just wants gold…

Kocoum, Nakoma and Thomas are all more interesting than John Smith or Pocahontas but I barely remembered their names they are so briefly used.

The dialogue is not well written in almost every scene and every action is completely predictable.

The music is fine but the animation is boxy and unappealing.  They create characters like Grandmother Willow that doesn’t need to be there when a character like the Shaman already exists within Pocahontas’ culture.  Imagine how insulting that must be for a tribesman to see their true spiritual guidance tossed aside for a tree…

I know the movie has fans but I’ve watched it 3 times and don’t get its appeal.  To me at best it is bland and at worse it paints caricatures of a whole race of people, which is not okay in my book.

If you like it that is awesome just not my cup of tea, and got to keep it real on this blog or no point in my reviewing them at all.

Overall Grade- D-

Movie 28: The Little Mermaid

Movie_poster_the_little_mermaidHere we go. How to talk about a favorite film?  It’s tough.  I’ll have you all know I watched it 3 times for this review . Once to enjoy, once with commentary and once to take notes.  There are a lot of ways I could go with the review and even now as I am writing I’m not sure what way the words will take me but that wouldn’t be the first time in my blogging career and it won’t be the last.

Aside from being a massive hit, The Little Mermaid was important for Walt Disney for a number of reasons:

1. It marked the beginning of a yearly animation offering from Disney which to 2015 has only missed a few years.  Previously a film would take 4-7, even 10 years to finish

2. It was the return of the ‘girl movie’.  After Sleeping Beauty failed Disney was convinced movies for girls weren’t successful, which is why we went from 1959 to 1989 without a solo female leading character, and most of the time it was just a male lead and the female would be thrown in for the last minute as a love interest only (you all know how I hate that!).  At one point Jeffrey Katzenberg was so concerned about it being a ‘girl movie’ he warned the directors Ron Clements and John Musker to not spend very much money because it was unlikely to do well at the box office. (Amazing in retrospect right?)

3. It marked the return of the broadway style Disney musical which hadn’t been seen since Cinderella.  You certainly had pictures with songs, many by the Sherman Brothers but there weren’t any ballads or traditional scores like a musical.

4. Computer animation was used in a new way.  Scenes like the ship scene at the beginning and the climatic battle were done using CGI, which had just been invented by Pixar.  It is the last movie to use hand painted cells.  But even so bubbles and other special effects were revolutionized to create the lush look of the picture.

DisneyRenaissance

5. It would inspire Disney to keep on progressing in their animation quality and storytelling ability.  The next decade is what is known as the Disney Renaissance where we see such classics as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King and others.  Really Disney would face no competition until Dreamworks had it’s first megahit with Shrek in 2001.  Pretty impressive.

So that’s some of the 411 behind The Little Mermaid.  Even if you are one of those poor unfortunate souls who doesn’t like this movie you can’t deny it was very important.

Getting Started-

As we discussed in the Oliver and Company review, Disney executives had gathered animators for a brainstorming session and green-lit the ‘oliver twist dog movie’ and the ‘little mermaid’.  As I said, executives were skeptical could appeal to boys limiting your audience.  However, they had decided to embrace the musical and Splash had recently been a big hit in live action for the studio.

Walt Disney had actually thought about doing Little Mermaid as a package film of Hans Christen Andersen shorts.  They had even commissioned some storyboards which 1989 directors Ron Clements and John Musker found and the changes they had made to the original story were largely the same as the 30s version (cool right?).  In both cases the story had been softened from the book to have a happy ending.

Hayao Miyazaki
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker

Once they had decided on a Broadway style musical they had worked with Howard Ashman previously on Oliver and Company and he had worked with Alan Menken on Little Shop of Horrors.  If you ever get a chance listen to the audio commentary on the diamond edition dvd because I was amazed at how much influence particularly Ashman had over the film.  He is even credited as writing ‘additional dialogue’.  I figured he was just the lyricist but evidently he would preform each of the songs in costume and insist the animators and their body doubles (Little Mermaid used human forms for the first time in many years too) mimic his acting.

howard-ashman=oscars
Howard Ashman and Allan Menken

Little Mermaid is also a movie that is ‘underscored’ meaning the music was written to dictate the animation, not the other way around.  This also hadn’t been done in many years at Disney.

For the first time in many pictures there weren’t any celebrity voices except for Buddy Hackett who played Scuttle.  Jodi Benson who voiced and sang for Ariel was a broadway performer who had worked with Ashman before.  Her and Samuel Wright who plays Sebastian did not audition before the main team but sent in tapes from New York and they were so impressed they go the jobs.  Kenneth Mars who plays Triton had been a working actor but not well-known and Pat Carroll was a replacement for Ursula.  They originally wanted Bea Arthur from the Golden Girls.

I’ve mentioned on the blog how much I admire Walt Disney Studios risk taking.  Despite initial nervousness Little Mermaid was the most expensive animated movie ever made and with the flop of the previous expensive film, the Black Cauldron, you have to admire them for taking a risk again.

The animation is so detailed.  After decades of xerox films to have a million bubbles surrounding the characters under water, and the iridescent look of the light on the rocks is amazing.

light
The light and shadows are stunning in the film.
If you've never paid attention to the bubbles watch next time.  Every inch is animated and bubbly!
If you’ve never paid attention to the bubbles watch next time. Every inch is animated and bubbly!

Even just the movement in Ariel’s hair is incredible.  There isn’t a moment under sea where it is static. It always moves and flows.  No small task even today.

ariel hairIf you listen to the audio commentaries it becomes clear Little Mermaid was a labor of love especially for Clements, Musker, Ashman and Menken, and I for one am grateful because it meant a lot to me growing up.

The Little Mermaid was also the first movie to be released on VHS only 6 months after it’s release.  At the time Disney was very nervous about doing this because it would prevent profitable re-releases which they had done of their other classics; however, it was a huge hit selling 7 million in the first month!

It also started a track record of Disney winning Oscars again (first nomination since 1977 Rescuers) with wins for best score and song (Under the Sea).  They would win again in 91, 92, 94, 95, and 99. Not bad!

The Story-

Ok.  Enough of the delicious backstory.  Let’s talk about the actual story.  This is probably less interesting for some of you as most everyone knows the story of the Little Mermaid (I mean even if you don’t care for it could you get through the 90s and not see Little Mermaid?)

Let’s talk about the story by going over the songs.

We start out with Prince Eric’s boat and a sea shanty which introduces us to the myth of Triton and his ‘fathoms below’.  Immediately we are immersed in the feel of the water and the melodies we will be hearing throughout the film.

Then the melody takes us to Triton’s castle and the concert.  We learn Ariel is headstrong and doesn’t come to practices.  We meet Sebastian and Triton and get a brief glimpse at Ariel’s sisters.

This scene is not only humorous but it tells us a lot of Triton’s relationship with Ariel.  She is clearly the favorite of his girls and she isn’t there.  This doesn’t just disappoint Triton but it angers him.  That is a lot to learn about characters in what is essentially a comedic scene.

Then we get to see Ariel.  She is searching for human treasure and is willing to face a shark for it.  She goes up to the shore to find out what the items are from Skuttle.  Again this is a humorous scene but it also tells us a lot about her . She is brave (perhaps carelessly so), rebellious, inquisitive and naive.  These are all huge traits that makes her vulnerable later on to the manipulations of Ursula.

Scuttle-PipeTriton is upset with her of course so he assigns Sebastian to take care of her. He a musician is insulted to watch over a ‘teenager’.  Evidently Menken and Ashman decided on a Jamaican voice because reggae was very popular and they felt it would give a swaying feeling of the sea to Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl sung by Sebastian and I think they were right.  Plus, it makes Sebastian an interesting character.  Most characters with that accent are relaxed and chill but he’s high strung.  It’s funny.

sebastian clamsSebastian follows Ariel to her secret grotto where she sings of her desire to be human, to be part of that world.  Originally this song didn’t test well in focus groups but Ashman, Menken, Clements and Musker told execs neither did Over the Rainbow, so the song stayed.  In the audiocommentary one of them says having Sebastian there during the song adds a level of tension and even suspense which helps tone down the cloyingness that might otherwise be there if she was unheard.  I had never thought about it before but it makes sense.

I’ve heard some people object to Ariel because she is selfish and whiny.  She can be selfish but where do you draw the line between knowing who you are and what you want out of life, and being selfish?  She certainly does selfish things but it is from a good place.  She doesn’t feel at home in her own skin literally.  How many of us have felt the same?  I certainly have and that’s why I related to the movie so much. I remember looking through my Mothers wallet and wishing I could be taken seriously by someone.  I hated being a kid and being told what to do all the time.  I wanted to try things my way and maybe that is selfish but it is also what produces great human beings.

To me her yearnings come from a deeper place than just whining and complaining and I think it is why girls related so well to Elsa in Frozen too.  It’s the same kind of yearning to be who you are supposed to be but the world won’t allow it.

Getting off track…

She hears some fireworks, leaves Sebastian, and heads up to see what the noise is about.  This is her first time looking at Prince Eric and she is immediately taken with him.

Eric is one of the most present Disney Princes.  Evidently for some reason men are hard for the animators to draw and that is why they were avoided in films like Cinderella.  (It’s strange but I’ve read that more than once).  I know technically it is only a few days but for a Disney movie we get a lot of time spent between Eric and Ariel.

eric2

He actually has a fair amount of dialogue for Disney Prince. We know he is waiting for the right girl despite his adviser Grimsby’s yearnings for him to settle down. They establish quickly Ariel and Eric are a match in spirit not just appearance (which is something the instant love trope usually misses. I have no problem with instant attraction but that should just be the beginning and with Ariel and Eric it is).

An unexpected storm comes and Ariel jumps to Eric’s rescue saving him from drowning.  We get a reprise of Part of Your World which is stirring and had every earnest little girl singing along!

Again, I related to this song because I felt like Ariel- a kid who wanted to break out of the kid body and be taken seriously by the world.

Her session with Eric makes her twitterpated and she flirts around the castle to the notice of her father and sisters.  This stresses out Sebastian as he knows the King will be enraged if he finds out Ariel’s secret love.

So Sebastian tries to convince Ariel that she should stop wishing to be on the ground.  He then sings to her the Oscar winning song Under the Sea. The animation in this song is amazing.  Every fish plays a different musical instrument and they all combine together for one sound.  How they recorded it I will never know but everything from tubas to steel drums make for a great song.

On the audio commentary they mentioned how the backdrops in under the sea are many colors.  I guess Katzenberg was concerned they weren’t all blue but it totally works. In fact, the more creatures involved the more colors the sea is until we have seen purple, gold, green, pink and of course blue.  And seriously watch the bubbles in Under the Sea.  It is amazing!

orange sea
In this shot the sea is orange

Of course she doesn’t listen and leaves with Flounder before the song is even over but Triton requests Sebastians presence because he wants to know who Ariel is in love with.  By a slip of the tongue Sebastian tells him Ariel is in love with a human.  Of course, he is angry and worried.

Fearing for his daughter and completely incapable of communicating with her Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto and leaves her devastated.

ariel crying

Again think of this from her perspective- everything she knows in her heart she is to be has been destroyed and told is wrong. To me it makes perfect sense she would be vulnerable at such a moment to Ursula, the sea witch who sends her thugs Flotsam and Jetsam out to tempt her.

Little-Mermaid-Flotsam-and-Jetsam-ScreenshotThe eels are basically like the snake in the Eden story and Ursula is the devil.  Ariel is willing to sell her soul, her voice, to the devil for a chance to be who she is supposed to be, and love who she is supposed to love.  That is compelling stuff in my book!

From the moment we meet Ursula she is one of the great Disney villains.  She is bitter, out for revenge, overweight octopus who covers the sea with her blackness.  Pat Carroll as the voice gets the perfect balance of a truck driver with a drag queen and even the way she puts on lipstick is suspect.  She is like a used car saleswoman but in Ariel’s case it is her soul and revenge on Triton Ursula must convince her to give up.  Poor Unfortunate Souls is my favorite villain song ever (and only the second solo by a villain ever).  Much copied but never duplicated, it has the perfect combo of gravitas, manipulation and salesmanship.

Once she is turned into a human Flounder, Sebastian and Skuttle must help her find some clothes (in a very well choreographed scene by Disney considering their heroine is without clothing!  The score in this section is also brilliant highlighting every moment.

I’ve heard some people say Little Mermaid teaches a bad lesson because Ariel gets what she wants in the end despite making very poor choices. She does make mistakes and she realizes it when her father is taken down by them, but when she gets her legs Sebastian looks at Ariel and he says ‘or you could be miserable for the rest of your life’.  Her father was never going to give her what she knew she needed and Ursula at least provided a chance.

miserableEric meets Ariel and thinks she is the one but since she can’t speak he discounts the resemblance to his rescuer. Nevertheless, she is invited to the castle and given a warm bed and place to stay. An unlikely contrivance I suppose but it works!

She is invited to dinner with Prince and Grimsby but first we get a little comic relief when Sebastian accidentally stumbles into Chef Louis kitchen, a kitchen hard at work cooking “les poissons’ or little fish.  My brother took a french immersive class and a teacher used the word ‘les poissons’ and immediately a chorus of girls started singing the cooks song.  It is hilarious slapstick and doesn’t have much to do with the story but I love it!  It gives a break from some of the schmaltzy romance and very funny vocal performance by Rene Auberjonois.

At dinner Eric invites Ariel to get a tour of the village so the next day is spent driving around, dancing and getting to know Eric despite Ariel’s lack of a voice.  Knowing their time is brief Sebastian tries to encourage the romance with the wonderful song Kiss the Girl.  I thought this song was hilarious as a kid.  We’ve got to create the mood after all… (The vocal by Wright is actually quite lovely)

Ursula realizes things aren’t going her way so she uses Ariel’s voice and becomes human to trick Eric into marrying her.  She actually has hypnotized him with yellow eyes.

eric and vanessaAriel, Sebastian, Flounder and Skuttle all gather together to help stop the wedding and it is a funny yet tense scene.

The battle between Triton and Ursula isn’t a wizard’s duel for sport.  It is a battle of good vs evil, of bitterness and revenge with the fate of the sea at stake. The tension builds so well and it feels pretty desperate and that Ariel has lost her love and her father all at the same time.  What can be done if even Triton is under Ursula’s control?

triton crownThen Eric comes through and we get our amazingly drawn final battle.

Another person I read said Ariel doesn’t learn anything by the end. I disagree.  She does learn that chasing your dreams requires sacrifices and that love and family are precious.  She learns she is where she is supposed to be.  That is huge. But her father also learns.  He learns HE WAS WRONG That’s why he changes her in the end. He was thwarting his daughters destiny and he made it right.  So, lessons are learned and it is not a lesson that whining gets your way.  At least that’s not what I have ever taken from it.  It’s that we need to fight for what we are supposed to be in life and that is more important than anything else for both Eric and Ariel.

We get our happy ending!

Movie Review/Conclusion

It probably goes without saying this movie gets the highest grade from me.  It has everything you want in a Disney movie.  The animation is stunning in it’s detail, artistry and light.  The songs run the gambit from heartfelt to hilarious.  The characters are complex and relatable, even the Prince.  The story teaches important lessons to girls (and boys I suppose) about finding out who you are and where you belong in life and fighting for it.  It has the classic father/daughter dynamic that goes back to King Lear (and further I’m sure).

The villain is unlike any we had seen before with a villain song that has yet to be topped.  The score clips along and speaks for a character who for a majority of the film cannot.  The songs are all instant classics. Every choice worked and it was magic to me as an 8 year old in 1989 and it totally holds up.  I saw it 3 times this weekend and could have watched it 3 more times.

Just like Frozen is doing for modern girls, Little Mermaid inspired many from my generation to be yourself and to sing your heart out.  Just like girls are singing Let it go, we were singing Part of Your World.  My sister and I would have competitions at night both of us claiming that we sounded the most like Ariel.  (It was me all the way).

I get that it strays from the classic story,  but I think if Hans Christian Andersen saw the treatment of his work he’d be thrilled (and with Frozen too!).  It certainly keeps the spirit of the story without punishing Ariel for dreaming big.

I have nothing bad to say about it.  I love it and can’t wait till the day I can gather my daughters (if I ever marry) and watch The Little Mermaid together and hear about all their desires, frustrations and dreams, and to sing with them!

Overall Grade A+

PS The sequels that are usually terrible by Disney aren’t half bad for Little Mermaid.  There is actually a prequel and a sequel.