Release Date: June 16, 1999
Director: Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Tarzan is a story that has been adapted to film many times and although I can’t recall watching the other versions, the story is very familiar. The Disney takes makes the idea of family the focus with Tarzan’s desire for acceptance among the gorilla community a driving force of the narrative. There are also ideas of colonialism and environmental exploitation with the arrival of Jane Porter and her father to appreciate the gorillas, while their guide is a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain in Clayton (played by a poorly used BRIAN BLESSED), who seeks to capture the gorillas. This movie is reminiscent of earlier Disney animated features like The Jungle Book, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.
I particularly like the characterization of Jane in this movie, who has many of the mannerisms of her voice actress Minnie Driver, and is demure in period-appropriate manner, but also adventuress and bold without falling into “strong woman” stereotypes. Casting Rosie O’Donnell as Tarzan’s best friend Terk seems like an extremely 90s thing to do, but it works and adds a good comic relief element to the film. Phil Collins is easy to make a punching bag, but his music doesn’t seem to fit this film, especially in a scene when Tarzan’s adoptive mother sings to baby Tarzan, and then switches to Collins singing the same song, draining the heart from the scene. The best musical number is the one where a group of gorillas make up a tune while trashing the Porter’s camp.
Tarzan is a beautifully animated film of a familiar story. There are no surprises here, but no big disappointments either.
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Director: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
When Pocahontas was released in 1995, I lived in James City County, Virginia, basically the same land where the real Pocahontas and the Powhatan people lived nearly 400 years earlier. I worked at Colonial Williamsburg and remember a visitor telling me “Disney is giving you a great tourism boost!” Well, it was the museums down the road at Jamestown that would have to deal with any Pocahontas-driven tourism. But, having seen the trailers for Pocahontas, it became a running gag among my co-workers that visitors to the flat, marshy Tidewater region would be asking “Where are the waterfalls?”
I won’t go into the many other historical inaccuracies this film creates from the life of Matoaka (later Amonute and Rebecca Rolfe). Disney almost always makes massive changes from the source material, but I find it unsettling that they would take a story about a real person – an indigenous person, at that – and take nothing from her many remarkable adventures in real life. Disney’s Pocahontas is a mystical, new age character and the film is a clichéd retelling of the Romeo and Juliet plot. With so many options available to tell a new and refreshing story with a historical figure, it’s disappointing that Disney chose to tell an obvious retread.
With all that being noted, I have three nice things to say about Pocahontas:
- It is a beautiful film to look at with the pristine American forests richly animated with great attention to water, leaves, and animals.
- Speaking of animals, I love the animal sidekicks, Percy the pampered pug, Flit the hummingbird with anger issues, and especially the mischievous and always hungry raccoon Meeko. Unlike other Disney films, the animals don’t speak, but they mime in hilarious ways. I’d watch a movie just about these three characters and their adventures.
- Disney doesn’t flinch about depicting the English colonists’ prejudices and avarice. Yes, the villain Ratcliffe is an over-the-top buffoon, but even the “good guy” colonists aren’t exactly “woke” at the end of the film. If would’ve been bad if Disney had brushed over the exploitative nature of colonialism, but that hasn’t stopped them from avoiding uncomfortable issues in other movies, so I’ll give them credit for doing it here.
Title: The Rescuers
Release Date: June 22, 1977
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, & Art Stevens
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
I’ve never seen The Rescuers before – even though it was released when I was just the right age for it – and oh, do I regret that because it is a perfectly charming and gently humorous film. This is the first film where Don Bluth worked as directing animator and his style is all over it. Thus even though I never saw The Rescuers it makes me nostalgic because it’s similar to Bluth’s films The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail, which I did see as a kid.
The movie is about the Rescue Aid Society, an international group of mice who work out of the United Nations to help people in need. When they find a message in a bottle from a little girl who was abducted, Penny, the Hungarian agent Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers for the mission. The paternalistic Chairman refuses to allow a woman to go on the mission alone so she chooses the awkward and superstitious Rescue Aid Society janitor, Bernard (Bob Newhart), as her co-agent. These characters are perfectly voiced and I love everything about them.
The mission takes them from the streets of New York City, on a harrowing flight aboard a clumsy albatross, Orville (Jim Jordan), and into a mysterious Southern bayou. There are some dark undertones to this story as Penny is kidnapped from an orphanage by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) and Snoops (Joe Flynn) because they needed someone small enough to fit in a cave and find the Devil’s Eye diamond. There’s a level of malice in these villains, a banality of evil, that is more unsettling than in a typical Disney film. On the other hand, there’s a scene where two alligators play a pipe organ, which is delightfully weird.
One thing about this movie that makes me bristle is that while Miss Bianca is the most capable character, it also includes gags built on stereotypes of women. The 1970s take on “women can do anything” gets undercut when Miss Bianca takes a long time packing her bags or attracts alligators with her perfume. Those reservations aside, this is a perfectly delightful film, an adventure with a gentle pace and a lot of heart.
There’s a rich crop of podcasts this week! I wont be posting any podcasts next Saturday, so if you hear any good ones I shouldn’t miss, let me know in the comments.
Throughline :: How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days
The overlooked history of one of the worst crimes ever committed by the United States government.
Hub History :: Apocalypse on Boston Bay
The indigenous population of New England suffered significant casualties from epidemics of infectious disease that swept their communities in the 1620. The colonizing English saw these plagues as the grace of God to their settlement.
Tomorrow Society :: Peggie Farris on 50 Years at Disney and Producing Spaceship Earth
An interview with a remarkable woman who rose from being a ride operator at Disneyland to an influential Imagineer at Disney Parks across the world.
99% Invisible :: National Sword
China has enacted a program to no longer import recycled materials, which means that recycling collected from many US communities no longer is actually being recycled. This podcasts prods consumers to “reduce and reuse” more than they recycle, but also questions placing the burden on the consumer and suggest industry needs to reduce the material created in the first place.
Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cheech Marin Gets Antsy
Cheech Marin, famed for starring in stoner comedies, now works to bring attention to Chicano art in galleries and museums.
Planet Money: The Indicator :: The Strike That Changed U.S. Labor
The 1937 General Motors strike presaged a highpoint for union membership in the United States and a period of shared prosperity. This podcast discusses how we got from there to today with record low union participation.
The Truth :: Meet Cute
A romantic comedy where one the members of the couple dies before the first date. There’s a lot of clever twists in this story.
Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:
Author: Sarah Bird
Title: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army. The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook. The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.
After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay. In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter. Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.
The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book. I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare. On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.
My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
Recommended books: Jubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Title: Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
One of the most under-the-radar animated film releases in recent Walt Disney Pictures memory, Atlantis: The Lost Empire pretty much stands alone as a Jules Verne + steampunk + Indiana Jones action-adventure story with science fiction and fantasy elements. Milo Thatch (perfectly voiced by Michael J. Fox), a scholarly cartographer and linguist, is recruited to join basically a military expedition to find the lost continent of Atlantis in 1914. Their inevitable discovery of a surviving civilization puts the noble and idealistic Milo at odds with the exploitative mission of the rest of the task force. He also befriends Kida, the princess of Atlantis (portrayed by Cree Summer), who is a criminally underdeveloped character who is drawn in ways that seem designed to appeal to the male gaze.
It’s stunning that this movie was released just a year after The Emperor’s New Groove which was saturated in the ironically-detatched pop culture of its era. Atlantis, by contrast, is disarmingly straightforward and sincere in its storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, old fashioned means that Atlantis is derivative and predictable in all of its plot beats. I can’t put finger on it exactly, but this movie comes so close to being great, and again and again fails to do so. Everything looks good and all the pieces are there, but it just lacks the Disney magic that brings it all together. I wish this movie had succeeded because there’s an opening for a solid animated adventure classic in the Disney canon.
Artist: The Specials
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Favorite Tracks: B.L.M, The Lunatics, Blam Blam Fever, 10 Commandments, The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression)
The Specials, the 2 Tone UK ska revival band from the 1970s and 80s, are back with a new album! I remember back in the 1990s, the band released Today’s Specials, which was good enough but since it was all covers it felt more like UB40’s Labor of Love than anything The Specials had done before. Encore has three covers, but the rest of the album is new material. And just as they did back in the Thatcher Era, The Specials have something to say to our times with tracks focusing on Black Lives Matter, gun violence, and women’s rights (the latter with guest vocals by Saffiyah Khan). The opening track is firmly in the disco genre which made me wonder what I was in store for, but the rest of the album falls into the more expected ska/reggae/punk sounds. I’d say overall, that the album is hit and miss, but tracks like “B.L.M” and “10 Commandments” make the whole thing feel more relevant than one would expect from a 40-year-old band. The deluxe version of the album features live versions of The Specials’ classic tunes.
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney adapts ancient Greek mythology – albeit using the Roman name Hercules instead of the Greek Heracles – with a story of an idealistic hero’s journey mixed with an old-fashioned screwball comedy and a sports drama (a la Rocky). And it’s all scored with gospel music, which is a strange, even subversive, contrast to the story. The artistry of the movie draws on Greek art and architecture which is then punctured with visual puns and pop culture references effectively. But acting carries the movie. The slimy, villainous James Woods does a great job bringing to life the slimy, villainous Hades. Susan Egan channels the wise-cracking, world-weary female characters of the golden age of Hollywood into her peformance of Megara. And Danny Devito steals the show as the grumpy satyr who trains Hercules to be a hero. While I wouldn’t count on this movie to get you a good grade on your Classics course exam, it is an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.
Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Narrator: Timothy Reynolds
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2017
Marcus Conway is a ghost. On All Souls Day, he sits at the dinner table waiting for his family to return, and unspools a stream-of-concious monologue about this life written in a single sentence (this is the second single-sentence novel I’ve read recently!). The single sentence isn’t as apparent in the audiobook – deftly narrated by Timothy Reynolds – but I do notice that he starts a phrase with “and” a lot, adding a certain rhythm to the prose. Marcus talks about his own father’s death, his sometimes troubled relationship with his wife and children, and his work as a civic engineer. Local politics also plays a big part of his story, from voting to a politicians thick-headed insistence on building a school that’s not structurally sound, to even the awful stomach virus that infects his community – including his wife – caused by bad sanitation. Over time, Marcus unravels the details of his own death and comes to terms with his mortality. The thing about this novel is that for all the experimental nature of its narrative, Marcus is a perfectly ordinary person doing ordinary things. McCormack’s writing unveils the fascinating stories within the everyday person.
Recommended books: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Title: The Emperor’s New Groove
Release Date: December 15, 2000
Director: Mark Dindal
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
The Emperor’s New Groove is the very strange story of an arrogant and selfish Incan emperor turned into a llama by his advisor and aided by a kindhearted peasant. Unlike any other Disney animated feature I’ve seen before, The Emperor’s New Groove is straight-up comedy akin to Looney Tunes rather than the typical Disney style. The movie is basically a long sequence of slapstick gags, many of which are funny, tied together with a thin plot. I particularly like a completely bonkers scene in which a squirrel creates a balloon animal and then pops it to wake a shadow of jaguars. (Note: if you’re like me and thought that squirrels were a North American animal, I verified that there are several species of squirrel indigenous to Peru).
Unfortunately, this movie was created in the 1990s and is incredibly dated by much of the edgy, irreverent humor style of that decade. The film also looks out of touch compared with more recent Disney films like Moana, where they made a conscientious effort to incorporate Polynesian culture into the story and cast voice actors with Polynesian heritage. The Emperor’s New Groove, by contrast, has no real reason to be a story about pre-Columbian Incans, and none of the main cast is South American, to my knowledge. The setting does supply a good excuse to animate some intricately animated Incan design elements and a funny llama, though.
David Spade stars as Kuzco, the emperor turned llama. Spade is the paragon of that edgy, irreverent 90’s humor style I referred to earlier, and he’s annoying in small doses, so it’s a challenge to sit through an entire feature film of his act. Thankfully the rest of the cast is excellent. John Goodman plays the kind peasant Pacha, and brings out the best of Spade in their scenes together, although its weird to hear Sulley’s voice coming from another character. Earth Kitt plays Yzma, the adviser Kuzco fires early in the film, and is drawn as kind of a manic combination of Cruella De Vil and a serpent. But the real scene stealer is Patrick Warburton as Yzma’s kind-hearted henchman Kronk, who is the real comedy MVP of this movie. Seriously, I like Kronk so much I’m considering watching the direct-to-video spinoff Kronk’s New Groove.