Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Power Play
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, c2011
I was disappointed in the previous installment of the Kingdom Keepers, but the series regains its footing in the fourth book. The narrative is less bloated and even when the Keepers hit a snag in one of their moonlight adventures in the Disney Parks, it feels plot-driven rather than a dead end.
There are five Kingdom Keepers, with Finn the leader getting most of the attention, and Philby growing to be the co-leader. The other Keepers and the two Fairlies, Amanda and Jess, have had a lot to do in previous books, but this is the first book in which Willa has a big part, and it’s really great to see her character grow.
Willa is also present for a new factor in this books when she meets (and is helped) by Ariel, the Little Mermaid. The villains – known as the Overtakers – have featured prominently in the series, but this is the first time a good Disney character plays a role with hints that more good characters are looking for a leader to drive them to action. Later, Minnie and Pluto play a big part. It’s very bold for Pearson to wait until the fourth book to introduce this game-changing factor to the novels!
Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe. The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870. Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.
A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood. This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts. Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.
Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story. April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum. Disgraced inspector Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him. Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni. They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.
This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable. It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time. It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story. The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2010.
In the third books of the Kingdom Keepers series, the story is starting to wear thin. This book is much longer than its predecessors and feels bloated. There are a number of false starts to getting the plot moving that don’t really add anything as far as character beats go. There’s also a love triangle crisis among Finn-Amanda-Charlene that comes out of nowhere and seems unnecessary.
Nevertheless, when the action gets going, the Kingdom Keepers stay up all night fighting the Overtakers in Epcot in attempt to rescue their mentor Wayne. The action culminates in a full-on tech rehearsal of Fantasmic! where they battle of good versus evil is very real. I think the final sequence stands well by itself and if the novel were trimmed down to simply support it, the novel would be a much better addition to the series.
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney At Dawn
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2008.
Finn, Charlene, Maybeck, Willa, and Philby return for another adventure as the five young teenagers who defend Walt Disney World from the villainous Overtakers. The story begins with a parade celebrating the return of the kids’ DHIs (holographic hosts who work in the Magic Kingdom), but the appearance of their friends Amanda and Jez forebodes dark times ahead in the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Amanda and Jez are orphans with magical powers only just being revealed to the rest of the Kingdom Keepers, and the are known as Fairlies, as in “Fairly Humans.” When Jez is abducted the Kingdom Keepers not only need to find her but also avoid falling asleep and having their DHIs trapped in the Overtakers’ new server. They spend the day at the Animal Kingdom struggling to keep awake as they solve these mysteries. Charlene gets a particularly good boost in her character as she gets to disguise herself as DeVine, the camouflaged, stilt-walking performer, for reconnaissance purposes.
Aaaaaaaaand, the novel ends on a cliffhanger, meaning that my daughter and I will most certainly be reading the third book in the series.
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2005.
This book is the first in a series of adventure and mystery children’s novels set in the Walt Disney World theme parks that I’m reading to my Disney fan daughter. The basic gist is that five young teenagers have been used as models for holographic theme park guides in Disney’s Magic Kingdom known as Disney Host Interactive (DHI). A simple one-time acting gig unexpectedly leads the kids to start crossing over in their sleep and appearing in the Magic Kingdom in the form of their holograms. An old and mysterious Imagineer named Wayne tells them that they were created to counter the characters of Disney villains who are coming to life and trying to take over the parks (and thus known as the Overtakers).
The five teens kind of have a Scooby Doo crew crossed with a Disney Channel Original Movie vibe. Finn is the leader and the main protagonist of the book. Charlene is an athletic cheerleader who is often frightened about participating in the adventures. Maybeck, a tall African-American, is the sceptic of the group and typically responds with sarcasm. Willa, possibly of Native American background, is more positive and is good at working out clues. Philby is the redheaded tech genius of the group. Finn’s mysterious friend Amanda also helps out, although she is not a DHI.
They have to solve a mystery by finding clues on the rides. The Overtakers try to stop them by turning the rides against them. Which leads to the creepiest scene ever in It’s a Small World that will totally ruin the ride for you. They ultimately have to face down Malificent and her sidekick Jez.
It’s a fun and interesting story, and much more of a literary children’s book than you might expect from it’s commercial tie-in with a big theme park. In fact, since the Disney company is so image conscious, I’m surprised that they actually make the company look bad at some points in the narrative. My daughter enjoyed this book and I expect we’ll be reading the whole series.
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.
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: Jim Zub
Ilustrator: Filipe Andrade
Publication Info: Marvel (2017)
The merger of Disney and Marvel creates the opportunity based on classic Disney World attractions. This series tells the back story of Epcot’s original Journey into Imagination with the Dreamfinder (the comics reveal his given name as Blarion Mercurial) and Figment. The story begins with Mercurial working as a reasearcher at a university in London in the early 1900s and creating an invention that harnesses imagination and makes it reality. First he creates his sidekick purple dragon Figment, and then they’re drawn into imaginary worlds where they experience a series of adventures. The comic basically acknowledges that the 1980s Epcot attraction was steampunk before the word “steampunk” was coined. The story is basically a G-rated adventure akin to the Five Fists of Science or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And being set in imaginary worlds, it benefits from lavish illustrations by Andrade.
Recommended books: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan, The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin, and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction
Release Date: June 22, 2012
Director: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Production Company: Walt Disney Picture / Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar’s story of a rebellious Scottish princess is another instant classic. Merida enjoys a life where she can spend her time on horse riding and archery and has no interest in her parents’ expectations that she marry a suitor from of the kingdom’s three clans. The story is very familiar, and one true to life to feudal societies, but it is all a frame to the much more relatable struggles of a her girl with her mother.
Seeking to change Queen Elinor’s mind, Merida asks the help of a hilarious witch – er, wood carver – whose tricky solution is to literally transform Elinor into a bear. Girl and bear then must face various challenges together that bring them closer together and better understand the other’s point of view.
In addition to a satisfying story, this movie also has a ton of humor, including the comical body movements of characters like King Fergus, Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers, the aforementioned witch, and Elinor’s efforts to learn to be a bear. It’s also beautifully animated and I was stunned when freezing the movie how lifelike the scene appeared.
If you are like me and haven’t seen Brave up until now, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Title: Robin 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.