Road to El Dorado

road to eldoradoIt is no secret I am not the biggest Dreamworks fan.  For me they’ve had two wonderful franchises, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda and one masterpiece Prince of Egypt but the rest I could do without (although I admit I haven’t seen the Madagascar movies except for Penguins which I liked).  Anyway, I was working on a project and put on a movie as I worked and figured why not give Road to El Dorado a shot as it is on Netflix.  I’d heard some good things and I love action adventure treasure hunting movies, so maybe it would be a forgotten gem?

I’ll just say it- Boy what a stinker…

It does look nice. I will grant it that but that’s really the only praise I have for it.It’s insulting, stupid, inappropriate for children, tonally off and full of unpleasant or underdeveloped characters. In other words, a mess.

But wait…I can hear you saying ‘didn’t you like Atlantis and isn’t that very similar?’.

No it’s not.  Atlantis creates a whole new world with its own culture, people, even language, so nobody is insulted because the culture doesn’t exist (plus it’s inherently more creative and interesting to see something imagined than a cheap reproduction of a people and society).  There is also a whole cast of characters in Atlantis I found  extremely likable and engaging.  Atlantis actually embraces diversity.  This says white people are smarter and better then those silly natives.  The action is well paced in Atlantis and aside from a skimpy swimsuit it is appropriate for kids. So no the two are not alike at all.

road to el doradoThe Road to El Dorado is about 2 con artists  named Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) who in 1519 stow away on Cortes’ boat and sneak to the ‘new world’ to find the City of Gold or El Dorado.  Cortes is a semi-villain and a total snoozefest and from the beginning Tulio and Miguel are very smug and unlikable.

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What a disgusting depiction of native women. Such cliches.

The boys find the lost city surprisingly quickly and of course they are immediately treated like Gods in an offensive caricature of native traditions and people. It’s worse, much worse, than Pocahontas. It’s one thing for Redman in Peter Pan to exist in 1953 but in 2000 to have the kind of at best culturally insensitive characters, story and behavior is really quite shocking.  At least Atlantis had a certain reverence and awe at its imaginary culture.  This was so bad.

We even get a quasi form of soccer that is embarrassing. I don’t know what they were thinking. road to el dorado3The villain is completely underdeveloped and feels like it was copied off of the obnoxious priests in Prince of Egypt. He is overtaken by some kind of evil spirit and creates a rock monster out of the Gods. I guess it is some kind of heathen magic but it is not explained and doesn’t make much sense or add any kind of fear or suspense a good villain should.  At least in Pocahontas I can remember Radcliffe’s name.

road to el dorado7Just like in Pocahontas the movie acts like the natives are completely oblivious to the value of gold, which is absurd.  They literally have scenes with tribeswomen dumping bowls and bowls of gold into the ocean.  As if all Native and Central American tribes did not have commerce, trade and even their own currency. Kids are smart enough to know they weren’t dumping tons of gold into the ocean.  They have made an occasional offering but this is totally over the top and the natives act like they are clueless of it having any value at all. Give me a break.  Seriously the natives are probably more badly portrayed than in Peter Pan because at least that is an imaginary land and it is a 3 minute song and we move on.  This is 75% of the movie one cliche and cringe inducing stereotype after another.

road to el dorado2It is also extremely inappropriate for kids.  I had issues with the skimpy suit in Atlantis but at least she was smart and kind of mythical.  In this the boys gamble, lie, cheat, steal, and are generally bad examples.

But to make it worse it’s surprisingly vulgar for a childrens movie and the princess Chel wears practically nothing and there is a scene where it is strongly implied her and Tulio have sex. I was shocked.

road to el dorado5The music by usually reliable Tim Rice and Elton John is largely forgettable and most of it is sung by Elton John kind of like Phil Collins in the Tarzan movies.  Hans Zimmer takes a huge step down from Lion King with the mundane score.

Like I said it looks nice but I thought this was a real bomb. No wonder it did so poorly at the box office.  I mean who was it made for?  It’s too grown up for most little kids and too stupid and predictable for adults/teens.  Someone was telling me on twitter the studio got involved kind of like Disney and Hunchback and made them change things around so they are in El Dorado longer.  It feels that way. I smell a rat!

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This is the era when Jeffrey Katzenberg was heavily involved with stories and the Dreamworks animation films and I don’t know what he was thinking? He usually has good taste but this is tawdry insulting junk.

I normally don’t review the stinkers but I think it being on Netflix a lot of people will turn it on and I hope this review can sway at least my friends away from it.  I was really offended by it and I don’t get offended that easily.  There is so much good animation on Netflix.  Move on to the next option.

This is a reminder of why I don’t want to review the Dreamworks Canon.  Yuck.

Content Grade- C  Overall Grade- F

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In Defense of Mary Sue and Gary Stu

As I’ve been doing reviews I keep hearing the same criticism about characters ‘he’s a Gary Stu” or for a girl “she’s a Mary Sue”.  I have to admit I always thought this was a way of describing a boring, uninteresting character in a story.  Turns out the official description is:

(fandom slang) A fictional character, usually female, whose implausible talents and likeableness weaken the story”

So this is basically what we call in Mormon circles a “Molly Mormon”.  Someone who is so perfect it doesn’t seem realistic.  Well, as someone who has been accused of being a Molly Mormon on occasion I suppose I have a unique perspective on this topic.  In fact, I have a little bit of a defense of this much maligned character in stories.

First of all, implausibility is completely in the eye of the beholder especially when we are talking about morality.  For example, being a virgin to some may be seen as impossible or as an ‘unrealistic’ character trait in a story but amongst me and my unmarried Mormon and Christian friends it is very common.

What personally annoys me much more than a character that is ‘too perfect’ is the tendency in especially modern novels to tag on negative traits because the authors are afraid of being accused of Mary Sue’s and Gary Stu’s.  I can think of less examples of this in movies than in books but you will frequently have a novel where a character has an affair tagged on to their story because ‘no marriage is perfect’.

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For example, a book called the Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith drove me crazy because it was about a sweet girl named Ivy who grew up, learned and had a happy family.  At the end of the book she is standing in a field and a man comes up to her and she sleeps with him in the field.  The message in the book is ‘now she is fulfilled’ . Groan.  It ruined it.  Another book with that message which ticked me off is The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  A lot of feminists love it but I hated it.  She is living a perfectly happy life but it’s not ‘enough’ and she has to leave her family and have meaningless flings and suddenly her soul has all of this purpose and meaning.

Give me a Molly or Mary Sue any day over this kind of ‘modern’ character.  Even the ultimate Gary Stu, Superman (who is basically supposed to be a Jesus type) was all ‘modernized’ and made a wounded conflicted character in Man of Steel and I hated it.  Where was the fun? It was so bleak and violent and in the end so off putting. It was not a more complex character just a boring, obvious, everyday character without any of the cheeky fun of the comics.  He even rings the neck of Zod which was so out of place given the Messianic imagery throughout the film. Give me the original cheesy Christopher Reeve version any day over that modern dreck.

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So I hate the opposite of a Mary Sue but let’s talk about the trope itself.  It is often said the Mary Sue is ‘annoying’ in the story.  Again, that is totally relative.  Like beauty, annoyingness is in the eye of the beholder too!

First of all, it entirely depends on the kind of story that is being told.  For example, if I am watching a B summer action movie I don’t want my hero to be all conflicted and complex.  I want him to save the day!  Let’s think about Indiana Jones.  He is handsome, charming and he always figures out the clues that others have spent generations toiling over in a manner of minutes.  Do we care? No, because he’s Indiana Jones and we want to see him fight Nazis, jump over cars, and find the Holy Grail.  That’s what made the 4th Indiana Jones movie so obnoxious (one of the many things) is they kept bringing up all of Indiana Jones frailties, how old he was, and that he wasn’t the same guy as before.  Also, they pushed the trope too far.  In the originals Indy always got beat up bad but would save the day . In the 4th he survives a nuclear explosion in a fridge…Too far!

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Other examples of this type of character are Ethan Hunt, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, and McGyver.  They are our heroes and we want to see them prevail and not be ‘realistic’.  Sure their talents are implausible and they are charming in the way no man is in real life, but it’s perfect for the type of movie we’ve signed up for.  That’s why  I didn’t mind Milo in Atlantis because it was this type of action, treasure hunting B summer movie that such a character works well in.  The same is true in Goonies.  Do we care that the kids find a ridiculous treasure easily under the city?  No because it’s a fun adventure with a charming troop of hunters.  I thought the troop surrounding Milo was a lot of fun and so I enjoyed the adventure.  The mythos, language and lore they created also compensated for a less interesting lead character.  I didn’t miss or need Milo to be anything more than what he was.

atlantis crew

The same is true with Hercules.  I enjoyed the stuff around Hercules enough that I didn’t need him to be all dynamic and crazy.  Megura, Zeus, Hadeus, Pain and Panic, the music was all fun enough for me to enjoy the picture.  I recognize that isn’t the case for a lot of you but again what annoys one doesn’t annoy another.  What charms one drives another nuts. I was okay with Hercules being an unrealistic guy because he’s a demi-God.  He’s supposed to be that way.  Like Superman, Hercules just have to have a modicum of flair and personality so that  all around him can shine.

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There are also dramatic characters that could be described as ‘unrealistically perfect’ that I are considered classics.  For example, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make a wrong move the entire movie or book.  He is always loving, kind, honorable and virtuous but I have never heard anyone say that he was a bad character.  He is typically thought of as one of the greatest characters in English literature.  Sometimes we need a character to stand up for right and truth consistently in a story.  I feel like now writers would make Atticus an alcoholic or tag on some other vice to make him more “relatable”.  What a shame that would be.

BOB CRATCHIT

Another example of a Gary Stu that I love is in Christmas Carol.  Bob Cratchit is an implausible character in many ways.  Few men would put up with such treatment and certainly Tiny TIm is a rare angel on earth but they are needed in order for Scrooge to see the error in his ways.  Sometimes an ultimate contrast is what a story requires for the plot to move forward.  If Tim was just kinda sweet and kinda nice than Scrooge would have written him off but his goodness has an effect.   From the moment he see’s Tiny Tim, Scrooge begins to change.

Both Atticus and Tiny Tim are trying to teach us something within the story and they do it very effectively.  So maybe next time you see a ‘Mary Sue’ trope you can stop and say ‘what is the author trying to teach us here?’.  Maybe it will work, maybe not?

The truth is all characters are ‘implausible’ because if we wrote about real life it would be very boring.  Most of us do the same routine every day interrupted by moments of clarity.  A good screenwriter must make craft a tale that is not simply moments but a story and sometimes Gary Stus and Mary Sues are needed for the particular story to progress.

At the very least saying a character is a ‘Gary Stu’ is kind of like saying he is boring or food is gross.  It doesn’t really give me any information.  Why is he implausible?  Why are his traits unlikely and why do they weaken that particular kind of story? I will probably still disagree with you but at least we will understand each other’s perspectives better.

On the Wikipidia article on Mary Sue’s they have an interesting passage about how the fear of the ‘Mary Sue’ label is making some authors hesitant of including female characters at all.  “Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. She quoted one as saying “Every time I’ve tried to put a woman in any story I’ve ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue.” Smith also pointed out that “Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue.”

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For example, I did not respond to the character of Pocahontas.  I didn’t find her interesting because she doesn’t really grow and for the type of story they are trying to tell I found her selfish, a poor listener and stubborn in an uncharming way.  She also preaches to people when she talks instead of having conversations. This makes her less relatable and her actions predictable.  You see how that is a more fleshed out description than just attaching some label?

I think that fear is what causes writers like Smith to tag on the adultery or other flaws so they have a defense against the Mary Sue label.  That is not good! The fact is most people I know are probably Mary Sue’s so they exist and are real.  Let’s have stories about these people too!

So, I say think about the story you are watching.  What genre is it and are the character tropes and types appropriate to the story being told? You can still dislike the movie if it doesn’t do those things well but at least it won’t be an automatic Gary Stu or Mary Sue?

Then if a character rubs you the wrong way, if you find them annoying, think for a second about why.  Is it their voice, actions, mannerisms?  What? Let’s dig a little deeper than Mary Sue or Gary Stu.

I mean after all Jesus was the ultimate Gary Stu and he changed the world so let’s be a little more open minded when it comes to these things and not just stick a highfalutin label on things.

Sincerely your friendly neighborhood Mary Sue or Molly Mormon or whatever you want to call me… 🙂

The Worst of Disney

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So people love a worst of list including myself.  There’s something fun about dogging on the hard work of hundreds of people and a giant studio like Disney.  Every year I love watching all the worst films lists on my favorite youtubers (and loved it back in the Siskel and Ebert days).  In Disney’s defense they have very few true stinkers.  There are only 3 that I would really call stinkers and even them I would rather watch than stinkers from other studios like this years Legend’s of Oz, The Lorax or The Smurf movies.  So this is all relative.

But you guys asked for it so here goes…

 

Worst Movies (you know this from my rankings).

Gold- Dinosaur

Silver- Chicken Little

Bronze- Brother Bear

 

Worst Villain-

Gold- Radcliffe- Pocahontas

Silver-Sykes- Oliver and Company

Bronze- Kron- Dinosaur

 

Character I Personally Dislike the Most-

Gold- Medusa, Rescuers

Silver- Buck Cluck, Chicken Little

Bronze- Kenai, Brother Bear

 

Worst Songs-

Gold- Say it with a Slap, Bongo from Fun and Fancy Free

Silver- Mine, Mine, Mine, Pochahontas

Bronze- A Guy Like You, Hunchback of Notre Dame

 

Worst Protagonist-

Gold- Kenai, Brother Bear

Silver- Taran, Black Cauldron

Bronze- Pocahontas, Pocahontas

 

Worst Sidekick-

Gold- Gargoyles, Hunchback of Notre Dame

Silver- Koda, Brother Bear

Bronze- All the Cows, Home on the Range

 

Most Offensive Disney Moment-

Gold- Redman, Peter Pan

Silver- Judge Frollo burning family alive, Hunchback

Bronze-  Ending, Jungle Book

 

Most Boring Disney Movies-

Gold- Dinosaur

Silver- Three Caballeros

Bronze- Brother Bear

 

Worst Script-

Gold- Home on the Range

Silver- Chicken Little

Bronze- Oliver and Company and Brother Bear tied

 

Movies that Others Like that I Don’t (don’t hate them but not crazy about them either)-

Gold- Sword in the Stone

Silver- Hunchback of Notre Dame

Bronze- Wreck it Ralph

Aristocats a lot of people give a pass too.

 

Corniest Movie-

Gold- Fox and the Hound

Silver- Home on the Range

Bronze- Brother Bear

 

There you go!  Remember just an opinion.  Everyone has different tastes and these are just mine.

Best Disney Villain Songs

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I already did Best Villains  so in honor of Halloween it seemed appropriate to talk about some villain music.  Particularly my favorite villain songs.  Actually there aren’t as many as you’d think.  Classic villains like Lady Tremaine and Maleficent don’t have a villain songs.

Special Notice- Hellfire-  I could not put this on my list but I know everyone will ask about it.  I just can’t support a song that is openly supporting the rape and murder of a woman.  I’ve talked about it so much on the blog.  It crosses a line I am not comfortable with.  That said, it is very well sung and the animation is haunting, so for that reason I am honoring it as separate from my list.

So that said- my list.

10. Trust in Me- One of the first villain songs in any Disney film and it is close to an Adam and Eve type villain as Disney gives us.  Like the serpent in the Biblical story, Kaaa oils and slithers his way around the jungle, hypnotizing his victims with his beguiling song.  It is made all the more creepy by the fact it is Sterling Holloway, the voice of Winnie the Pooh claiming to be Mowgli’s best of friends.

9. Gaston- Perhaps the funniest villain song.  It’s a big pep talk for our town hero.  The fact that we know he wants to make our heroine unhappy at whatever cost gives it an eery undertone.

8. Heffalumps and Woozles- One of the spookiest moments of Disney.  We’ve got a true nightmare with all the minor chords and inflections of a haunted house song.  There is also always something creepy about toys like jack in the boxes.  Plus, they want to steal Pooh’s honey!   This song is especially effective when you think it is aimed at toddlers. It’s in every shape and size, size, SIZE!

7. Prince Ali Reprise- While a reprise and not a complete song it is very effective.  A joyous number from earlier in the film is now used to control and manipulate.  At this point in the story Jafar has total control of the Genie and everything else.  It all looks very bad for our heroes.

6. Mob Song- An extremely chilling song because it’s an entire town taking on our heroes that are basically household items.  How is this going to work?  As the music escalates the tension gets tighter and stronger until we feel real panic, like a mob would feel.  The animation is striking and captures the darkness and increasing madness of Gaston and the crowd.

5. Savages- Perhaps the most thoughtful Disney villain song and it is the redemption of Pocahontas which made my bottom 10 Disney movies.  It is a cliche ridden historical travesty but in this song they reach some emotional truth.  Some criticize it for the way it stereotypes people but that’s the whole point of the song.  Both sides have rationalized why the other is the villain and needs to be done away with.  It’s very profound and beautifully drawn and sung.

4. World’s Greatest Criminal Mind- Brought in a series of villain songs in movies that would go nearly uninterrupted for the next decade of Disney movies.  Ratigan is a hilarious villain with Vincent Price as one of the best voices ever. The fact he kills a mouse for calling him a rat when his name is Ratigan is so funny.  Kind of like Gaston it is a funny villain song but very effective.  Ratigan is the closest Disney has ever gotten to an over-the-top Bond villain and I love it!

3. Mother Knows Best- As far as straight singing this is probably my favorite Disney villain song and one of my favorite songs.  Donna Murphey is amazing as Mother Gothel.  It is Sondheim level quality.  It takes the nurturing of motherhood and uses it to control and manipulate a child.  Is there anything colder than that?  It’s so effective.  I just love it!

2. Poor Unfortunate Souls- One of the most brilliant voice casting in Disney history.  Pat Carroll gives Ursula a mix of a truck driver and a drag queen.  She is on full saleswoman mode and uses every sweet and conniving method she can muster to tempt Ariel into her web. She would have said she’d cured cancer if it would have gotten her the ending she wants.  That’s my kind of villain.  The animation is brilliant and funny and I love that ursula is the only octopus we see aside from a brief glimpse of one in Under the Sea.  There is nobody who looks like her.  She is blackness, overweight, with red lipstick.  Got to like that!

1. Be Prepared-  In a movie where almost nobody did their own singing (even Broadway star Matthew Broderick didn’t),  it is especially compelling Jeremy Irons sang Be Prepared.  It is as close as Disney gets to a Hitler villain.  He even has Nazi hyenas.  He oils and defines his plan dripping with disdain for everyone including his brother.  He is a sociopath who has no guilt throughout the movie for any of his choices.  All he cares about is himself to the detriment of the entire kingdom.

Ranking Official Disney Princesses

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So we have 2 weeks till Big Hero 6 premiere and I will post my Frozen review this weekend (I intend to watch it 5 or 6 times to do a very good job)

In the next 2 weeks I will also be posting lots of top 10 lists culminating in my complete rankings once I see Big Hero 6.  This should be a lot of fun and I would love it if you would share your lists in the comments each time.

Of course, it goes without saying it is just my opinion and most of these are nitpicking.  Out of 53 movies I will give 20 movies an A category grade, 30 with a B or higher  (which is pretty remarkable when you think about it) so I like them all but minute differences lead to my rankings.

I thought I would start with ranking the official Disney Princesses because I love the princess movies. These are not all the women, or even princesses in Disney Canon, that will be another list.   However, I am including Anna and Elsa in Frozen because they are considered princesses in waiting (they have a coronation ceremony and everything).

Some people gripe about Mulan being included but that doesn’t bother me because there are no princesses in China.  If there were she would have been made one in the movie for sure.  She certainly shows all the qualities of a princess so it’s fine with me.

This list also includes Merida from Brave, which I have not reviewed, because she is an official Disney Princess. Also, this is a ranking of the princesses themselves not the movies they are in.

RANKING DISNEY PRINCESSES

1. Belle- smart, thoughtful, compassionate and brave

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2. Ariel- free spirit, not afraid to take risks, loyal, impetuous

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3. Cinderella- hard worker, good friend, kind, optimistic

cinderella24. Tiana- hard worker, dedicated, loyal, goal setter, soft spoken but bold

tiana5. Rapunzel- optimistic, naive but smart in own way, inquisitive, fun-loving and hopeful

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6. Mulan- Loyal, brave, strong, determined, a fighter

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7. Elsa- Free, empowered, conflicted, learns self acceptance and control, beautiful, strong

elsa8. Merida- bold, impetuous, free spirit, brave, confident,  curly hair

Merida_web_small9. Jasmine- independent, loving., spunky, compassionate

jasmine10. Anna- innocent, sweet, kind, believes in others, impetuous, willing to take risks

anna11.. Snow White- optimistic, kind, positive, happy

snow white12. Aurora- asleep most movie but beautiful, a singer, a dreamer, optimistic, loving and  like her better in blue!

Auroraonmodel13. Pocahontas- loves nature, kind and brave.  Last because she doesn’t change or grow much and her choices actually cause death

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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.

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

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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 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-