Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

TitleThe Princess and the Frog
Release Date: December 11, 2009
Director:  Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Disney made a number of interesting decisions when adapting E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess, itself an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince” as an animated feature.  First, they returned to a traditional animation style after making several CGI-animation films.  The artists really embrace the classic style by making visual references to Disney classics of the 1950s & 1960s, particularly in the dance scenes which emulate Cinderella, while the animals playing jazz on the bayou are reminiscent of The Jungle Book.

The biggest decision was in making the lead character, Tiana, an African-American young woman – the first black Disney princess.  Tiana is a lovely character, a hard-worker trying to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant.  She is, of course, paired with Prince Naveen, who cares for nothing more than to eat, drink, and be merry.  The opposites attract plot has Tiana learning to have a little fun while Naveen becomes more responsible.  The weakest part of the plot is that it never really allows time for these two to fall in love, so when they start talking marriage it feels very rushed.  Otherwise, their time together on the bayou as frogs is delightful fun.

The final big decision was to set the story in New Orleans in the Jazz Age as well as more rural bayous in the vicinity.  New Orleans is a romantic location on its own, and in a sanitized version it’s a beautiful backdrop for the story.  Unfortunately, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of knowing that this story takes place during the time of vicious segregation.  The depictions of black and white people cheerfully rubbing elbows and Tianaand Naveen’s interracial marriage just wouldn’t have been allowed to happen.  To its credit, the movie does depict the inequality of New Orleans as Tiana and her mother ride a streetcar from the mansion of Tiana’s friend Charlotte to her own community of shotgun houses, and a pair of real estate agents basically try to cheat her out of buying an old mill for her restaurant unless she can come up with more money.  While it can be argued that a light family film is not going to be the best place to address Jim Crow, it should also be noted that they film didn’t need to be set in 1920s New Orleans.

All in all, this is a fun, entertaining movie with great visuals and musical numbers.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Original Sin by Andy Lane

Author: Andy Lane
TitleOriginal Sin
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.

There’s a lot going on in this sprawling Doctor Who New Adventures novel.

    • First, it introduces a pair of new companions, Roz & Cwej, a pair of Adjucators (basically, cops) from Earth in the far future.  Roz is the grizzled veteran whose partner/mentor died and Cwej is the cheerful, ambitious rookie. In addition to these buddy cop story tropes, they find themselves uncovering a conspiracy!
    • The setting is the Earth in the far future when cities like London have been build up as spaceports with the wealthy living in gleaming towers, while the rest live in the dark, decaying Undertown (a concept that was later used in the tv story Gridlock).
    • The Earth is part of a dystopian society ruled by a Divine Empress who controls the galaxy (or at least the solar system, not sure).
    • Also featuring in this story are the Hith, a species of large, slug-like creatures who.  Berenice’s befriends a Hith whose death actually prompts her and the Doctor to visit future and get involved in this story.
    • There’s an imprisoned serial killer who the Doctor calls upon for advice, very much modeled on Hannibal Lecter.
    • Finally, the big reveal is that the Big Bad behind this all is Tobias Vaughn from the 1960s tv story The Invasion, who has managed to live thousands of years as a cyborg.

It’s a very busy story with a lot of weirdness, such as Cwej spending part of the narrative resembling a teddy bear, for fashion.  It also has the New Adventures’ trait of introducing lots of characters in new places and expecting the reader to remember them. That is, when the author actually mentions the names and is not doing that trick of keeping their identity secret.  It’s rather annoying and makes this book more of a struggle to read than necessary, but otherwise it’s entertaining.

Rating: ***

Virgin New Adventures

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 19th

The New Yorker Radio Hour :: How “The Apprentice” Made Donald Trump, and a Boondoggle in Wisconsin

“Liberal” Hollywood, and now the “liberal” media, help shape the image of the current occupant of the White House.  This is something that’s pretty obvious to many of us, but it’s interesting to hear how it was done.

What’s Next :: The Gymnast Who Went Megaviral

You may have seen video of UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine the past week.  Beyond just being a great routine, Ohashi’s performance is notable for her clear expression of joy and her teammates cheering and dancing on the sideline.  Rebecca Schuman explains why the attitude of collegiate gymnastics is so different from elite gymnasts in the Olympics.

The War on Cars :: Cars Versus Guns

People were shocked to see in a recent report that gun violence is the second largest killer of children in the United States.  What was overlooked is that the #1 killer of children in the United States is – and has been for a long time – car crashes.  The War on Cars panelists discuss American gun culture and car culture, their many similarities, and how they both allow so many preventable deaths to occur.

Planet Money :: The First Shutdown

The United States federal government is shutdown again.  Planet Money looks back in history to find the first government shutdown in 1879 as Congress fought with President Rutherford B. Hayes.  The reason is shocking.  Not only were former Confederates allowed to return to serving in the federal government, but enough of them were elected that they were able to take control of Congress (they were Democrats back then).  And to prevent the Hayes administration from enforcing African American voting rights, they shut down the government.  Just in case you ever wondered who really won the Civil War.

Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Review: What Will We Do by Lula Wiles

AlbumWhat Will We Do
Artist: Lula Wiles
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: “Love Gone Wrong,”  “If I Don’t Go,” “Good Old American Values,” “Shaking as it Turns,” “Morphine,” and “What Will We Do.”

Lula Wiles is the folk/roots music trio of  Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin, who met at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Their harmonies and spare arrangements are reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas and Crooked Still (and the various bands and solo acts that have emerged from those bands). Their music has a melancholy sound that makes me want to weep happy tears. It’s also steeped in the fine folk tradition of melding the personal and political, such as songs like “Good Old American Values.”

  The full album is currently available via NPR’s First Listen.

Rating: ***1/2

Favorite Roller Coasters of All Time

I’ve been thinking about roller coasters lately, so I decided to make a list of my all-time favorite roller coasters.  I’ll say this right off the bat that there are numerous famed roller coasters that make the “best of all-time” lists that I’ve never had the opportunity to ride, but nevertheless I think I’ve been on some good ones.  I’ve loved riding roller coasters since I was a kid when I thought that I would join the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) when I grew up, which I’ve never actually done.

I love the thrill of going up a big hill and then taking that big drop straight down, which of course leads to great speed (or at least the feeling of high velocity).  I love twists and turns and surprises along the way, as well as novel experiences that are unique to a particular coaster.  I particularly love a nice long ride with a lot of track and a combination of a number of features.  Loops and inversions are okay, but they don’t excite me as much as other features, and looping roller coasters tend to be shorter with few other thrills along the way.  For this reason I tend to favor old-fashioned wooden roller coasters, although you will see plenty of steel roller coasters in my list.  I also enjoy a roller coaster more with a bit of Disney-style theming and/or natural scenery, and feel a bit disappointed by roller coasters that run through a weed-filled lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.

NOTE: I used the names of the roller coasters and theme parks that were in use at the time I rode the roller coaster, and they may be different now.

1. Big Bad WolfBusch Gardens: The Old Country/Williamsburg

Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA is the theme park I’ve spent the most time at, as my family vacationed in Williamsburg several times in the 1980s and then moved there in the 1990s.  For a few years I even had a season pass.  My favorite ride at Busch Gardens – and possibly of all-time – was the Big Bad Wolf, one of the earliest suspended coasters. The designers of this ride took advantage of its suspension by including lots of curves so that the cars would swing out and feel like they were going to crash into the buildings of a Bavarian village.  Towards the end of the ride, the train would be carried up a lift hill which we called “Oh Hell Hill,” because it hugged a hillside and only when you got to the top would you see an enormous drop down a ravine towards a river.  It was fun to sit near first-time riders and watch them at the top of the hill as their eyes bugged out and they screamed “Oh, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttt!!!” (Oh Hell Hill was an inacurate, but polite nickname).  My mother, who generally hated roller coasters, absolutely loved The Big Bad Wolf.  Sadly, the ride closed in 2009, but I will always remember the joy of “Traveling at the Speed of Fright!”

2. Big Thunder Mountain RailroadWalt Disney World Magic Kingdom

This is not a fast nor particularly thrilling roller coaster, but oh is it fun!  It’s entirely possible that I rode the Disneyland version of this ride when I was six and went there with my father, but it was a visit to the Magic Kingdom two years later with my mother that remains one of the warmest memories of my childhood.  It was one of those evenings when the lines had dwindled to next to nothing so we were able to get off the ride and immediately ride again several times in a row.  This is the only other roller coaster my mother ever liked and I’ve seen it described elsewhere as The Roller Coaster for People Who Hate Roller Coasters.  It’s a simple thing really with lots of small drops, twists and turns, and theming of a mountainside and a mining town that make it a joy to ride again and again.  Two years I took my children to the Magic Kingdom for the first time, and they loved Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as well, and so we rode it again and again in the rain (and let me tell you that you get much wetter riding Big Thunder Mountain in the rain than Splash Mountain in the rain).  No matter what other big thrill rides I discover, I will always return to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for the pure joy of it.

3. Coney Island Cyclone – Astroland Park/Luna Park

I felt like I spent a long part of my childhood craving to ride the famed Cyclone, but I didn’t get the opportunity to do so until I was in my 20s.  It was worth the wait, and absolutely classic wooden roller coaster with steep drops and sharp turns.  It’s all crammed into a city block so it’s hard to tell where you’re going to go next, and it’s also a long ride although it’s hard to figure where how they fit in all that track.  I rode the Cyclone last summer, and perhaps due to my growing age and size, the bumps and jolts felt significantly more violent than I recall from twent years ago.  But the Cyclone itself is approaching 100 years old in 2027, so I won’t let age be an excuse for keeping from riding it again in the future.

4. Dragon CoasterPlayland Park

The Dragon Coaster is a classic wooden roller coaster from the 1920s that is similar to the Cyclone, albeit shorter in length and height, and not achieving the same top speeds.  Nevertheless, it is not short on thrills, and as an added bonus there’s a spectacular view of the Long Island Sound from the top, and a portion of the ride passes through the darkened interior of the Dragon itself.  I also like that other Playland attractions are built within the footings of the roller coaster supports. You may know the Dragon Coaster from it’s appearance in  Mariah Carey’s video for “Fantasy” and the movies Big and Fatal Attraction. I, however, remember it as the first “big kid” roller coaster I ever rode on.

5. Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden MountainWalt Disney World Animal Kingdom

While bigger and faster than Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, this is another ride that’s reliant on theming and tricks to provide the thrills, rather than high speeds or drops.  Expedition Everest carries its riders up a steep hill through a temple in the Himalayas and then winds its way through a cave in the mountains until coming to a stop.  We can’t forward anymore because the Yeti has torn up the track!  So the train rolls BACKWARDS through a darkened tunnel and it feels like you’re falling forever.  After another stop where we see the shadow of the Yeti tearing up more tracks we roll forward again through more twists and turns and then through a cave for our final encounter with the Yeti as it reaches out to grab at the train.  People make jokes that the Yeti audioanimatronic doesn’t actually work the way its supposed to, but I still find it impressive.  It’s a long ride with a lot going on along the way and thus an absolute delight.

6. Loch Ness MonsterBusch Gardens: The Old Country/Williamsburg

When the Loch Ness Monster opened in 1978 it was the first roller coaster with interlocking loops, and today it is the only one left.  Many looping roller coasters of that era would’ve said that two loops was quite enough thrill and leave it at that, but the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t rely on one trick and offers a lenghty ride of 3,240 feet with a 114 foot drop and speeds up to 60 mph.  If that’s not enough the scenery is gorgeous as the track criss-crosses a river and passes through beautiful forested areas as well as ducking into a cave.  Even the queue was charmingly-themed to look as if you’d gone to Scotland to join an expedition to find Nessie.  Busch Gardens has gained a lot more newer, faster roller coasters since I’ve left Williamsburg, but if I ever return I won’t pass up another ride on the Loch Ness Monster for old time’s sake.

7. Magnum XL-200Cedar Point

20 years ago I visited my friend and fellow amusement park enthusiast in Ohio and she took me to Cedar Point, the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.”  Among the many rollers coasters we rode was Magnum XL-200, the world’s first hypercoaster (meaning more than 200 feet high) with 5,106 feet of track, a 195-foot drop, and speeds up to 72 mph, with the added bonus of scenic views of Lake Erie.  In short, it’s everything I love in a roller coaster!  In the intervening decades, I’m sure Magnum XL-200 has been usurped in all of its superlatives, but I expect it’s still a great thrill to ride.

8. Outer Limits: Flight of Fear – Paramount Kings Dominion

For a period of time in the 1990s, Paramount decided to compete with Disney and Universal and make their own movie-themed park.  At Kings Dominion in Virginia that basically meant slapping names of hit movies on existing rides, but the Flight of Fear was one of the first new rides introduced under Paramount’s ownership.  At the time it was themed to the Outer Limits, but mostly I think that was because they couldn’t get the rights to the much more trendy X-Files.  The queue wound around a UFO inside an Area 51 hangar as videos showed a team of investigators dealing with creepy alien things happening around them.  To get on the ride, you’d walk up a ramp into the flying saucer itself. This was one of the first roller coasters launched by linear induction motors, and it was stunning to feel the deathly silence of the crowd of people waiting in line as they saw the coaster accelerate from 0 to 54 mph in 4 seconds.  The ride is entirely indoors in the dark, like a devious Space Mountain, and it feels like you’re spinning around a ball of yarn, with even up and down difficult to distinguish.  This is another ride I’m sure has been surpassed, but it was a unique thrilling experience back in the 90s.

9. Ultra TwisterSix Flags Great Adventure

I remember the ad below vividly and the desire to check out this intense new kind of roller coaster on a high school field trip to Great Adventure.  Ultra Twister was unique in many ways.  First, you rode straight up the lift hill, basically laying on one’s back.  What goes up must go down, so once at the top you went straight down face forward.  The ride was designed with tracks supporting it on the sides of the car so it could spin in a spiral while still moving forward.  Then the car was dropped down to a lower track and went through some spirals in reverse.  I only got to ride it a couple of times, as on later visits is was down for maitenance and then it was moved to Astroworld in Texas (which no longer exists).  While I remember enjoying the ride, it does have several faults as it was a challenge to maintain all it’s moving parts and it was a very short roller coaster with low capacity. But I am a bit disappointed that this pipeline-style roller coaster was never adapted into newer, longer, and more thrilling roller coasters, because it was definitely a unique experience. Apparently, I would have to go to Asia to find one of these in operation today.

10. WildcatHershey Park

The Wildcat is a big, wooden roller coaster in the Pennsylvania countryside which features  3,183 feet of track, an 85 foot drop, and speeds up to 50 mph, plus lots of twists, turns, ups, downs, and other surprises along the way.  The thing that’s unexpected about the Wildcat is that it opened in 1996.  When I rode it a year later, it felt a lot like the roller coaster equivalent of the Oriole Park at Camden Yards retro-ballpark revival.  The Wildcat combines the great features of classic wooden roller coasters with more modern design features.  And in the past twenty years a lot more modern wooden roller coasters have opened and I must seek them out and ride them, because it is my destiny.

So those are my top ten favorite roller coasters. Have you taken a spin on any of these classic coasters? What favorite roller coasters would you add to the list.

Doing some research for this post also prompted me to put together a wish list of 15 roller coasters in the United States that I would like to ride. Would you recommend any of these to a coaster enthusiast? And is there anything missing from this list?

Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @othemts.

  1. Apollo’s Chariot – Busch Gardens Williamsburg
  2. The Beast – Kings Island
  3. Boulder Dash – Lake Compounce
  4. El Toro – Six Flags Great Adventure
  5. Goliath – Six Flags Great America
  6. Incredible Hulk Coaster – Universal’s Islands of Adventure
  7. Kingda Ka – Six Flags Great Adventure
  8. Kumba – Busch Gardens Tampa
  9. Lightning Rod – Dollywood
  10. Maverick – Cedar Point
  11. Phoenix – Knoebels Amusement Resort
  12. Revenge of the Mummy – Universal Studios Florida
  13. Superman: The Ride – Six Flags New England
  14. Thunderbolt – Kennywood


Baby Shark: An Appreciation

This week, the Billboard Top 40 chart included an unusual debut song, with “Baby Shark” ranking at 32 on the list for January 12.  If you’re not familiar with “Baby Shark,” it is a children’s song sung at camps and preschools about a family of sharks accompanied by appropriately shark-y hand gestures.  I first heard this song in the early 1990s on a college beach trip, and since the people singing the song remembered it from their childhood, it goes back to at least the 1970s.  Stranger still, the version of the song on the chart is not by a famed popstar, but is from a video made by the South Korean education company Pinkfong in 2015.  The popularity of the song has been aided by the viral meme of the  where people film themselves performing the song’s choreography.

I’m tickled by the “Baby Shark” song’s chart success, because we expect the Top 40 to be filled with finely crafted pop recordings from internationally famed musicians.  “Baby Shark” instead is a song performed everyday by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, especially children.  It turns everything we know about chart success on its head.

More personally, when my son was a baby, my wife & I sang a version of this song we called “The Magic Shark Song,” because sometimes it was the ONLY thing that would soothe him when he was fussy.  Our version had a slightly different tune and lyrics.  Most significantly, instead of the famed/notorious “doo doo doo doo doo doo” chorus, we sang:

“Baby shark, baby shark, ba, ba. Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
Mommy shark, mommy shark, ma, ma. Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma…”

And so on, with the repeated sound being the first syllable of each member of the shark family.  As time went by, I varied the song to sing it in the style of Ethel Merman and Carol Channing (RIP).  Trust me, singing “shark teeth are a girl’s best friend” was a hit with the infant!

So, I lift a fin to “Baby Shark” this week.  Long may it chomp!


The Great Molasses Flood Centennial

Today is the 100th anniversary of strangest disasters in history, the Great Molasses Flood in Boston’s North End.  On January 15, 1919, a 2.3-million gallon tank of molasses on the Charles River waterfront burst open and sent a wave of the sticky, brown fluid into the working-class, immigrant neighborhood.  It’s a quirky story, and one that lends itself to jokes along the lines of “a sticky situation” and “slow as molasses in January,” but the disaster had catastrophic human cost.

21 people died in the molasses flood, crushed by the force of the wave or smothered by the sticky goo forced into their noses and mouths.  Another 150 people were injured, some trapped in the molasses as it cooled as rescue workers attempted to fight through the congealed mass to reach them. Buildings were damaged and demolished, including a firehouse that was pushed off it’s foundations by the wave.  The damage to the neighborhood was extensive, and it took teams of workers several weeks to clean up the molasses.

Panorama of the Molasses Disaster site. Photograph: Globe Newspaper Co. (creator). Boston Public Library.

I noted earlier that this storage tank was built in a working class, immigrant neighborhood, and as a result the victims were Irish and Italian laborers and children.  Not only was it dangerous to have an industrial structure in a residential neighborhood, but the substandard construction of the tank was directly responsible for the disaster.  The owner of the tank, United States Industrial Alcohol, was forced to pay out a large settlement in a class action suit and the government more stringently enforced regulation of industrial construction in the wake of the disaster. And yet, even today, the poorest among us – especially people of color and immigrants – suffer the most from industry’s callous disregard of human life.  I recently listened to a podcast about Africatown – a community in Alabama created by formerly enslaved people – which is suffering from pollutants dumped by a nearby paper mill. As I remember the victims of the Great Molasses Flood, I also think of how even today there are poor communities in America suffering from the effects of factories and refineries adjacent to their homes, illegal dumping of pollutants in their water, and interstate highways cutting through their neighborhoods.

The centennial was commemorated this morning with a ceremony at Langone Park, a baseball field in the North End where the tank once stood.  Participants in the event stood in a circle recreating the circumference of the tank.  Photo via Adam Gaffin (@universalhub) on Twitter.

There are a lot of resources available should you wish to learn more about the Great Molasses Flood. One of the best articles I’ve read covering the anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood is by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura.  Other articles on the anniversary were published in The Boston Globe and The Guardian.  Archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts-Boston recently performed a geophysical survey to find the foundations of the tank.  Scientific American studied the physics behind the disaster.  The definitive history of the Great Molasses Flood is Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo.  Dennis Lehane also included a fictional account of the disaster in his novel The Given Day.  The Hub History podcast episode on The Great Molasses Flood is also worth a listen.  Finally, The Dead Milkmen recorded a musical tribute to the disaster.

Movie Review: Robin Hood (1973)

TitleRobin Hood
Release Date: November 8, 1973
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Robin Hood is a strange movie.  The English legend is loosely adapted with all the characters portrayed as anthropomorphic animals, which is an interesting touch.  Doubly odd, despite the English setting, the music has a country twang and some – but not all – of the characters have a drawl rather than an English accent (I do like the music by Roger Miller, even if it doesn’t seem to fit). Although the movie was made in 1973 (in fact, it was the #1 movie in the United States the week of my birth!), it feels much older.  The animation is limited and lacks the artistry of earlier Disney films.  Dance sequences were recycled from earlier Disney animated features, and other elements feel derivative, like Little John essentially being the same as Baloo from The Jungle Book.  The movie is episodic with each sequence generally being different ways that Robin Hood & co can humiliate Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.  While Robin Hood has its charms, I did find myself wondering when it was going end, which is not a good sign for a movie that is only 80 minutes long.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Tangled (2010)

Release Date: November 24, 2010
Director: Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

Disney’s take on the fairy tale Rapunzel, is loosely tied to the original story (basically the long hair and a tower).  As any good contemporary adaptation should do, Rapunzel has far more agency and assertiveness than the original character (or princesses in early Disney films).  In this story she is a “lost princess” (one day Disney will create an anti-monarchical heroine)held captive in a tower by the witch Mother Gothel, who kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby, because the magic hair keeps her young. Instead of being rescued by a prince, Rapunzel essentially accosts the swashbuckling thief Flynn Rider and forces him to take her on a journey, although of course they grow to become friends and then fall in love.

There’s a great mix of humor and adventure, with cheerful songs sung by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi in the lead roles. Visually, the film is enticing and the animators never cease to impress with gags based on Rapunzel’s long hair.  My 11 y.o. son said “this is weird,” but he did like the animals in the movie, the martial horse Maximus, and Rapunzel’s chameleon sidekick Pascal.  I like them too.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 12th

On the Media :: Africatown

Survivors of The Clotilde, the last ship to carry Africans kidnapped into slavery in the United States, created a community outside Mobile, Alabama after the Civil War (covered in the recently published Zora Neale Hurston book Barracoon). The community has been devastated by environmental racism but survivors still hope to preserve its history.

99% Invisible :: Mini Stories: Volume 6

Have you ever watched a tv show or movie set in New York with a scene set in an alley? Did you know that New York City actually only has a handful of alleys?  Do you realize that Hollywood’s obsession with New York stories having scenes in alleys means that the same alley is used again and again? This story and the history of karaoke machines, Santa Fe’s burning Zozobra tradition, an American community only accessible from Canada, and Detroit’s railroad station are told in this podcast.

Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances: