Movie 37: Tarzan

posterSo do you like Phil Collins?

I ask because in the end enjoyment of Tarzan will radically lie whether you like Phil Collins or not.  Also, if you aren’t a big fan of The Lion King style of movie,  I don’t know if you will like Tarzan.

I, however, am a fan of both, so I do like it.  It isn’t perfect but there is a lot to like in Tarzan.

Production-

Released in 1999 it marked the end of the Disney Renaissance and the last film to make a lot of money before the slump of the 2000s (it’s going to be interesting reviewing the next decade).

Directed by Disney  regular Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, Tarzan is adapted from the movie adaptations and novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and the Apes.

It’s actually the only Tarzan movie I’ve ever seen so I can’t tell you how close it is to any other version.

TARZANFirst of all, the whole movie looks gorgeous.   Tarzan kind of surfs on the trees and the backgrounds zoom in and out and are so lush .  The water scenes look stunning.  If I was just going on visuals it would get an A++++.  I could turn off the sound and just watch it and be entertained.

To create some of the look they actually created a new technology called Deep Canvas which allows 3D painting and you can tell.  It looks great!

The reason why I said it reminded me of the Lion King is they are both very pop influenced films.  We even get the hook structure of pop music from the dramatic beginning with a bold title card just like Lion King.  All of the 5 songs Phil Collins wrote have a pop feel where Lion King did have Be Prepared, which was a little different.

Tarzan also has the comedic song/side characters, Terk and Tanto, which may as well be carbon copies of Timon and Pumba.

Incidentally, Tarzan was made into a Broadway musical and it was considered a big flop, but I actually prefer the music they added and the way the songs are sung by the characters not background.

The Story-

The story is pretty predictable but it is engagingly told.  We start out with our dramatic beginning showing us how Tarzan is adopted by the apes.  This might be a little scary for young kids under 5.

You either get hooked in with this intro or you don’t.  You either like Phil Collins singing or you don’t.  I’m always hooked.  I think it is pretty engrossing.

So Tarzan gets adopted by Kala voiced by Glen Close (another similarity to The Lion King lots of celebrity voices who don’t have to sing much).

mom

Kala rescues Tarzan but her mate Kerchak does not like the idea of having the ‘man cub’ (to use the Jungle Book) in the herd. So, he is hostile towards Tarzan from the beginning.

As Tarzan begins to cry Kala  sings the best song of the movie and my favorite lullaby- You’ll Be in my Heart.  If I am rocking one of my nieces it is the perfect song.  I LOVE it!

I actually prefer the Broadway version with the mother singing it the whole way so here it is:

We then get a bunch of  middling scenes with Tarzan feeling excluded and having a hard time making friends.  Eventually he makes 2 friends (the Timon and Pumba stand ins)

tarzan-tantor-terk

He grows up and there is a song called Son of Man. My Mother hated the song because son of man is a title of Christ, and she felt it was sacrilege for a pop song to have the same name as the Lord. (We got into the biggest fight one time over it.  Sigh…)

Terk, his guerrilla friend was voiced by then talk queen Rosie O’Donnell and it is not my favorite vocal.  She kind of grates on me.

Eventually Tarzan hears a sound and follows it to find a woman running in distress, being chased by monkeys.

damsel in distress

Some people will no doubt groan at the Jame, damsel in distress, trope but I don’t mind it here.  She’s strong in other ways and I don’t think every female character has to be strong.  They just have to have a personality of some kind (that’s what drives me crazy in Bella.  She’s damsel in distress and no personality).

Plus, I am a mess in the outdoors and an animalphobe so if I was being chased by monkeys I would be screaming louder than Jane so I guess I relate.

I had a really hard time finding clips for this movie for some reason but I do like the encounter of Jane and Tarzan first meeting.  It is very well done.

This is the first movie I can recall where Disney uses the big eyes common in Japanese animation such as Studio Ghibli.  Some people don’t like the large eyes but it doesn’t bother me.

Jane is in the Jungle with her father and their guide Clayton to try and study the guerrillas.  Clayton is a snooze of a villain who like Radcliffe in Pocahontas is only there for the GOLD! Greed is only on his mind in the form of guerrillas to sell for money!

tarzan-jane-green-skirt

Unlike Pocahontas who teaches John Smith her ways, Jane teaches Tarzan her ways which was very well done and then Tarzan shows Jane his world.  I really like the chemistry between Jane and Tarzan.   I liked that neither was stupid or patronizing.  They seemed sincerely interested in each other and their views. Minnie Driver is very good as Jane’s voice .

i-can-see-there-s-so-much-to-learn birdsWe also get a song sung by Terk called Trashing the Camp which is basically the Hakuna Matata of the movie and it’s ok.  I’m sure little kids love it.

Eventually the time for Jane to leave comes and Tarzan realizes he doesn’t want her to go.  Clayton convinces him if he shows them the guerrillas Jane might stay.  Kerchak has forbidden this for the safety of the herd.

Tarzan decides to anyway and at first it goes well.   It’s just beautiful!

meeting apes

But Kerchak comes and is enraged at Tarzan for betraying their home.  They fight and Tarzan leaves.  It is then that Kala takes Tarzan to the tree-house where she found him.  He learns who he is and decides to wear his father’s clothes and go with Jane and since Kerchak has forced him out what choice does he have?

The day of departure comes and they get on the ship only to find Clayton and all his men roping  everyone up and going to get the guerrillas to sell.

Terk and  Tantor help free Tarzan and the gang and they get back to help the herd and there is a great final battle with one of the gnarliest villain deaths in Disney history.  It is maybe too intense for little children to see a man hang himself? I don’t know.

Our ending with Jane and Tarzan ending up together in the jungle is predictable but I think done very well.  I liked it.

Movie Review-

I own this movie on blu-ray because it is so beautiful to watch, and I don’t mind the music, so I really enjoy it.  The vocal performances are good and I think Tarzan and Jane have nice chemistry and are a believable couple.

The comedic characters don’t work as well for me, but they aren’t terrible, and the villain is super one-note, but I still think it is a very satisfying picture.

I love You’ll Be in My Heart and like I said I just love watching him fly through those trees.  It’s stunning.

Overall Grade- B

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Movie 36: Mulan

Movie_poster_mulanIf you are reading all of my reviews you will remember my recent thoughts about Pocahontas.  I was not a big fan.  I felt the characters were more caricatures and everything was very predictable.  It also bothered me a little bit that the Powhatan tribe had tried to help Disney tell the true story and they had been denied that opportunity and hated the end picture.

So, now we have Mulan= also telling a non-Caucasian ethnic group’s female legend story.  Am I going to dislike it too?

Nope! I really enjoy Mulan.

mulan and li shang

The reason Mulan works better than Pocahontas is it has a layered and more complex lead character and aside from Mushu, it doesn’t try to teach Westerners or talk down to them.  This is a story about a Chinese girl and all that she meets and interacts with are Chinese.  Some of them are meant for humor but it is never cold and degrading.  At least not to me.

I did look online for about an hour to see if I could find any blogs of Chinese or Chinese Americans who hated the film but for the most part it was all positive.  (There were some hard-core feminists who still found fault with it. Geesh!).

Most of the movie is about Mulan fitting in and finding her place in the army.  And that it does very well.

The Production-

Mulan was released in 1998 and it was conceived as a way to appeal to the Chinese market.  Lion King had been a huge success there and Disney was on thin ice with the government because of their funding of a live action movie about the Dali Lama in Tibet.

They took a poem called The Song of Fa Mu Lan and a book called China Doll and combined them together to get the story.  Many scenes like the emperor’s palace were studied by the artists to be authentic.

They also used new technology made by Pixar to create thousands of soldiers in the battle scenes and they hold up very well- better than most CGI at that time.

huns

They also do a good job teaching kids about the costs of war without showing death, wounds, blood etc.

war

Such scenes give the film real heart and gravity without becoming overbearing or too much for children.

It has some problems but overall I really like it.

The score was written by Jerry Goldsmith with songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel.  It only has 4 songs and 1 reprise but they are a lot of fun.

The Story-

The Huns have attacked the Great Wall and word has gone out to the Emperor who decides to gather together an army to defeat the invaders.

Meanwhile Mulan is getting ready to appear before the matchmaker and be approved as a bride.  We get our first of 4 songs which sets a nice tone and helps us understand Mulan’s predicament (kind of like Belle in Beauty and the Beast).

The matchmaking ceremony does not go well and Mulan seems devastated.  It reminds me of Ariel in Little Mermaid- a girl not at home in her world, her body.   If you haven’t gathered I love when that storyline is in a movie . I relate to it so much.   I think a lot of girls do.

Desperate for a sense of belonging Mulan sings one of the better 90s Disney ballads sung beautifully by Lea Salonga (who was also Jasmine’s singing voice)

My favorite part of the character Mulan is how well- rounded and  interesting she is.  She doesn’t always behave the way you expect her too.  She isn’t just willful and disobedient (like an Ariel wouldn’t have even shown up to the matchmakers).  She’s trying to do what she is told but it isn’t working.  Same is true in the army.  She never has to be rescued at any point in the movie (actually her lowest is after the matchmaker, not after battle.  Love that!).

The main catalyst for the movie starts with Mulan’s father Fa Zhou being asked to fight in the war against the Huns.  Mulan tries to speak in his behalf but in doing so she shames him.  With her father unwilling to dishonor himself or listen to her she takes matters into her own hands (also like Ariel) and sneaks off in his armor to join the army, as a man

The music and staging of this scene almost reminds me of an 80s action movie.  (Pat Morita of Kirate Kid fame is the emperor in this movie btw).

Mulan’s ancestors hear of her leaving and accidentally send a dragon lizard to support her instead of a stone dragon.  These ancestors are a little bit cringe-worthy but they are in the movie so briefly that I don’t think anyone will be offended by them.ancestors

The lizards name is Mushu, and he is the Genie of the movie, the fast talking comic relief voiced by Eddie Murphy.  To be honest, I much prefer his voice work here to the Shrek movies.  It is less shouty and the writing is less crude.

mushu and ping

Arriving at the training camp Mulan muddles her way along, pretending to be a man, and learning to be a soldier.  The fellow soldiers are a lot of fun and her trainer Li Shang (singing voice by Donny Osmond believe it or not) is tough without being too mean for kids.

army friends

I really like everything about this musical number:

There is also a very funny scene where all the soldiers surprise Mulan as she is bathing! This is good physical comedy

They end up going off to battle to try and help Li Shang’s father and we get our last song- A Girl Worth Fighting For.

but they have been caught and destroyed.  Just then they are ambushed by the huns and we get our battle.

This is probably a good point to bring up Mulan’s greatest weakness as a movie- the villain.  I watched it twice today and I still had no idea what his name is or anything else about him except he is a Hun.  Even Edgar in the Aristocats had more personality than this guy.  I’m going to say it- worst Disney villain ever. Honestly his hawk is less bland.

shan yu

But in the battle with nameless villain army Mulan saves the day by creating an avalanche with a rocket but in celebrating she is wounded.   Her secret is of course out as she is bandaged up.  We get the classic ‘liar reveal’ story trope but it isn’t played to hard and Li Shang is angry but does not kill Mulan because she just saved his life.

The storytelling clips along so well in the movie.  Hardly anything drags and I think that’s what makes it work so well even with a predictable moment like the liar reveal.

Mulan is left in disgrace and the army pushes forward to the Emperor.  But as she mounts her horse Mulan see’s some of the Huns survived the avalanche and are heading towards the city. Racing Mulan warns Li Shang but he still feels betrayed by her and won’t listen, and the Huns take over the palace.

Through some creative thinking Mulan rallies the troops and they are able to defeat the Huns.  I can’t imagine a kid in the world not enjoying this scene.  It’s exciting, funny, and even with a lame villain it still works:

In a great moment Mulan is honored by the Emperor for her bravery and quick thinking.

Finally at the end we see Li Shang has forgiven Mulan and come to visit.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

The movie is actually really rich and deep in its characters.  I didn’t even go into the soldiers who are all funny, Mulan’s Grandma, a cute cricket, and a crotchety assistant to the emperor.  We meet a lot of people yet the movie doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded.  It is about a girl in the army so it is appropriate to have a large cast.  Perhaps this makes up for having the lamest Disney villain?

Mulan is kind of like Tangled in a way.  Both movies were made to please both boys and girls instead of the girl movie/boy movie philosophy so often employed by Disney.  I think it completely succeeds in that appeal.  Boys will like the action and humor from the soldiers and Mushu.

mulan

Girls will like Mulan because she can be their first warrior princess (ok.  She’s not a princess but you know what I mean).  Mulan is layered and interesting.  She is unselfish but not without flaws.  In fact, I think Mulan is one of Disney’s most dynamic characters.

Like I said, really my only flaw is the villain.  I think one or two scenes giving him some personality would help the movie.  As it is, the film certainly isn’t ruined by its villain.

The songs are more of the Aladdin/Lion King pop vibe, but I like them and the ancestors scenes are really the only cringe-worthy segments, which is saying a lot for Disney in an ethnic movie (usually not their strong suit).

They also do a good job blending in the traditional Chinese watercolors with the animation (see Girl Worth Fighting For…).  The backdrops are also beautifully drawn with a watercolor flair.  There are a lot of little touches like that which help it feel rich and textured.

But mainly I just like the character of Mulan a lot.  She is definitely one of my favorites.

Overall Grade- A 

Movie 32: The Lion King

The_Lion_King_poster

Some Pop Music…

Do you find yourself deciding whether to watch the Lion King?  Ask yourself this- how much do you like pop music?

In pop music there is a device called ‘the hook’.  This is a line, melody, riff or performance, usually in the chorus that hooks the audience in to the rest of the song.  Sometimes there are more than one hook like the huge hit Blurred Lines there are hooks in melody and even the hey, hey, hey’s at the beginning.  How many of the fans even know what the words are to that song?  There are a million examples of hooks.

The reason I mention hooks is it can certainly be used in movies as a way to draw people into the characters or story.  Pixar loves hooks in all of their movies.  They almost all start with a bold intro that draws you in and hooks you emotionally into the story.  Think beginning of Up, Wall-e, Incredibles, Cars etc.

The Lion King is the best Disney use of hooks I can think of (although Tarzan and Tangled both use them very effectively and have a pop music feel).  I don’t know if it is pop singer (yes, he’s pop not rock star) Elton John’s melodies but nearly every song, every scene in fact, has a strong hook.  You have the one idea you are supposed to be getting from the scene or song and the rest is kind of non-essential.

circle of life

Think of the difference between our intro to Lion King, Circle of Life, and the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast.  In Belle there really isn’t a chorus.  It’s just her singing about the poor provincial town and through the song we learn a ton about several characters and get the beginnings of the story laid out  for us.   In contrast,  I couldn’t even tell you the rest of the words to Circle of Life besides ‘it’s the circle of life’. All we need to take away from the song is there are animals and a baby has been christened.

Does that mean it isn’t a good movie?  No, I was actually quite blown away by it but I can also see how, just like some don’t like pop music for being contrived, people could feel manipulated and annoyed with The Lion King. And just like pop music can get a little grating after the 30th listen through The Lion King may not be a good choice for repeated viewings.

But I loved it! But I love pop music so go figure.

The Production-

What’s interesting is after Aladdin the studio split into projects.  Instead of all the top talent working on the next film together as had been done for a few years people could choose between Pocahontas or The Lion King, and surprisingly most picked Pocahontas feeling it was ‘more important’ of the two films.

Even Alan Menken moved over to Pocahontas, leaving The Lion King with kind of the Bad News Bears of Disney animation.  Tim Rice had taken over for Howard Ashman on Aladdin and won the Oscar for Whole New World.  Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were first time directors, Thomas Disch had written the strange The Brave Little Toaster,  Hans Zimmer had never done a score for animated film etc.

Elton John was recruited by Tim Rice and he had this pop music mentality from the start:

“Let’s do it for kids, because it’s just a great story” but most of Disney animated movies have a kind of Broadway score, and I said “Let’s not go for that, let’s go for a completely different feel and just write ultra-pop songs kids would like; then adults can go and see those movies and get just as much pleasure out of them” I mean, adults buy a lot of pop records”  (Billboard, Oct 4, 1997)

You see!  That’s why there are all those hooks!

lion king collage

They certainly spared no expense in their voice cast which also feels like  pop celebrity type thing to do.    We’ve got James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, teen king Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly (ala Cutting Edge fame), Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Cheech Marin and of course Whoopi Goldberg.  It is definitely the most ‘famous’ Disney cast ever assembled and they do a terrific job with the material.

The Lion King was also the first original story (takes inspiration from the Bible and Hamlet but not straight adaptation) and first movie to use no humans (Bambi had the hunters).

Unlike Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast which took 2 years to execute, The Lion King took 6 years from initial concept to release date.  It went through scores of animators and writers and from what I’ve read nobody was expecting it to be a big hit.

However, Disney marketing was brilliant, releasing the first 4 minutes instead of a trailer in November 1993 when only 1/3rd of the movie had been completed.  The intro is such a great hook it did it’s job and producer Don Hahn was actually “afraid of not living up to the expectations raised by the preview”.  They weren’t!   Lion King is the highest grossing hand drawn film in history so it did pretty well for itself!

The Story-

As I already mentioned we start off with a bang.  A huge hook of The Circle of Life.  It is a background song with African chanting and huge pan shots of baby Simba being presented (it’s basically a lion christening).

I can totally see why people saw this in 1993 and were counting down the days to see it in 1994 (1993 was a rare year with no annual Disney offering).

We then right away get another hook with the introduction to our villain, Scar.

mufasa and scar

The conversation between Mufasa and Scar kind of reminds me of the beginning of Sleeping Beauty.  First of all both Scar and Maleficent have obvious villain names and they are dripping with disdain for all around them.  It is very effective in drawing you into both characters and the story.

If anything the scene could have been longer.   We also get the first Moses/Ramseys biblical reference.  It probably goes without saying the voice work by James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in the movie is perfect.

Then we lighten things up in our next section introduces us to the baby lions Simba and Nala and the hornbill bird Zazu.  Zazu is voiced by Rowan Atkinson and it is a very funny performance and character.  He’s a big nag but most of the time he is right to nag so it is funny.

zazu

Zazu’s nagging makes a nice comedic foil for ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ a song right out of a boy band pop album but I like it.  I think it is fun.

Simba and Nala sneak away to see an elephant graveyard Scar had told Simba about earlier (practically every scene in the movie is prophetic of future scenes to come).  The hyenas almost take out the cubs but Mufasa comes to the rescue and defeats them.

Afterwards he has some very biblical sounding advice for his son:

The whole stars thing is kind of corny but those kinds of father son moments are usually like that and they do a good job establishing plot and a bond with little time spent together on screen.

Next we are back to our villain in the strongest song of the movie (and the only one actually sung by the voice talent).  With the Nazi hyenas (who would have thought of that!) and the green boiler room atmosphere Be Prepared is one of the best villain songs.  It is also nice to have another movie with a male villain because usually in Disney it is female.

The Hans Zimmer score is perfect.  It brings emotional intensity into even rather trite scenes.  I have it on my ipod and it is one of my favorites to listen to when I’m working.  I love the choral and tribal elements.  It reminds me a little of On Bald Mountain in Fantasia.  Beautiful.

So Scar puts his dastardly plan into action tricking Simba into being in the path of a stampede.  I remember seeing this scene and being blown away and it totally holds up.  The computer graphics, music and sound effects are stunning.

Mufasa has died and Scar becomes the master manipulator.  Some people don’t like that Simba runs away but if you listen Scar doesn’t actually say anything which isn’t true.  Mufasa would be alive if Simba wasn’t in that gorge.  The King is gone and it wasn’t supposed to happen.  And remember Simba is little, the lion equivalent of a toddler who would be easy to manipulate.  So it is no wonder he is scared and runs away.

I like the heart in these segments.  Yes is it pulling at our heart strings pretty heavily but it’s all been so epic it works.  Plus, his Dad has just died.  If there was ever time for an over the top cry that is it.

simba criesSo Simba runs away and that’s where we get to the charming but admittedly weaker section of the movie.  In a lush jungle Simba meets Timon and Pumba who agree to teach him a new way to live.  (It’s actually an interesting thought study for kids.  It’s a softer version of what is presented with Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.  Timon and Pumba believe in being happy and only living for yourself, for what pleases you, just like the boys at the island were only concerned with having fun and sinning.

And it is here we get probably the most famous song from the movie (so the kid pop thing totally worked out).  I am not a big fan of potty humor so it was never my favorite but it is catchy no doubt about it.

Simba grows up in the song and we can assume has completely bought into the lifestyle of Timon and Pumba, basically forgetting his other life.

hakuna matata

Then he meets Nala, his cub girlfriend, and she tells him how much they need him.  He refuses and to me it makes sense.  Most of his life has been spent living a hakuna matata lifestyle so why would he want to go back to all that hurt?

We then get a forgettable musical number Can You Feel the Love  (won the Oscar.  They loved those syrupy romance ballads in the 90s).  It’s also a background vocal and the scene could be cut out no problem.  Some people hate the comedic intro they decided to use but as I’m not a big fan of the song I don’t really care about that.

Then he meets Rafiki, the wise but silly monkey, and this scene is just masterful storytelling.  It is epic and subtle and anyone who has grieved can relate to all of the emotions involved.

The past hurts but we can learn from it.  That is a great lesson for all of us.  How tempting is it to take the path of least resistance but sometimes in so doing we are denying who we are what makes us special.

So Simba arrives at Pride Rock to find it like the elephant graveyard of earlier.  No food, everything gray and wasted away.  Simba confronts Scar and again he is very good at saying the truth but not being truthful.  He tells all of the lions that Simba is the reason why Mufasa is gone which Simba cannot deny.

The other lions do not support Simba at first but can you blame them?  He’s been gone all this time, abandoning them.  They are under the rule of a dictator who will use any such assertions against them and Simba has just said he is responsible for Mufasa’s death.  Why should they think otherwise?  In fact, they have every right to be upset and unforgiving of him.

It is only when Scar admits he was the one who is responsible for Mufasa’s murder that they come to Simba’s defense.  Again, to me this makes total sense and is probably the way I would behave if confronted with similar betrayals, accusations and knowledge.  Yes, you learn from the past and move on but people need a decent enough time to absorb new information.  Even Simba wasn’t ready to accept the change in one conversation with Nala.

new king of pride rockAs we close we get a new king of pride rock and the kingdom is restored.  (I wonder if Simba keeps being a vegetarian lion?)

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I was 13 when The Lion King came out so I was just starting to get into the ‘cartoons are for kids’ phase and so I liked Lion King but it wasn’t the transcendent experience Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were.  But, I can totally see how if you were 8-10 when it came out it would be huge.

Unlike Aladdin which really made the entire film for adults and kids, The Lion King has segments like Hakuna Matata and Just Can’t Wait which are geared to literally hook kids into them.  I find them cheerful and fun but what moves me is the dramatic sections that probably bore kids (but I don’t think so much so they won’t enjoy the movie).

The score makes the movie.  It is perfect.  The songs are mostly good pop songs and I like them.

The animation is beautiful with segments reverting from the lush 2D animation  to geographic tribal motifs. justcantwait1The stampede is still impressive from all angles and Scar is a great villain with a great villain song.  All in all it is a very satisfying movie to watch.  I really found myself moved and excited by it.  (I probably hadn’t seen it in 15 years before yesterday despite owning the score.  That’s how much I love the score!).

timon and pumba

If I was going to be a little critical it would be the middle section lags a little bit and when push comes to shove I do like Broadway music better than pop music.  It’s kind of amazing it was made into such a great Broadway musical given it was trying to not be Broadway but that wouldn’t have happened without the  creative vision of Julie Taymor.  When I saw Lion King in New York I said it was like watching a living painting.  The music wasn’t the standout although it was fine.

broadway

So maybe The Lion King isn’t perfect but it has tons to like and a message I’m still pondering after all these years.  Plus, some catchy songs and visuals that draw you in.  I loved it!

Overall Score- A