Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (1989)


Title: The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17, 1989
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners IV
Summary/Review:

I don’t know what the experience was for moviegoers who saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the silver screen in 1937, but I can tell you that there was an incredible buzz in 1989 when The Little Mermaid was released.  Disney was back.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s it was hard to see the classic Disney animated features which you might see in a theatrical rerelease, or the Wonderful World of Disney or on the Disney Channel, but generally as a Gen X kid you just kind of knew these movies existed without actually seeing them. By the late 80s, Disney started trickling out VHS releases of classic films, but it was the Millennial kids who’d get to watch them over and over.

As for the movies Disney released during the 70s and 80s, this was a well-documented down period for the animation studio, although The Rescuers was a hit and I have a personal soft spot for The Fox and the Hound. The reputation of Disney movies during this time was that they were “kiddie movies.” Teenagers, and even older grade-school children would turn their noses up at them.  The Little Mermaid was different.  It was a movie audiences of all ages enjoyed.

One thing that set this movie apart is the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Teenage boys more macho than me at my high school enthusiastically admitted that they loved the songs.  The calypso numbers by Sebastian the crab ( Samuel E. Wright), “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” were the gateway, tying into the World Music trend of the late 80s. All of the songs fit into to the story following the Broadway musical model, and the soundtrack proved very popular.

The animation for the film is also excellent, looking better than any Disney movie had for decades.  The aforementioned musical numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly spectacular in the use of various marine life and visual gags.  The fluid mermaid movements of Ariel (Jodi Benson) and her hair are also spectacularly brought to life in animation.  While Ariel’s dream of marrying a prince may not be a particularly feminist plot, her characterization is more realistic and relatable than previous Disney portrayals of young women.

I hadn’t watched The Little Mermaid in a long, long time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and funny and just downright entertaining it remains after all of these years.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince.  Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!

The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting.  While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made.  Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.

Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie.  The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent.  Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way.  So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


Title: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Director: John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed this movie before because I put it on a lot for the kids when they were little.  Granted, I did often use that time to take a nap on the couch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the adventures of Pooh and his friends.  I’m a fan of A.A. Milne’s classic books and the movie is not exactly a great adaptation.  And yet it ends up being great in it’s own way, even with the parts that are “not in the book.’

I love the voice work of Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.  I love the songs by the Sherman Brothers. I love the way the characters interact with the pages of the book.  I love the way that Owl’s house sways in the wind.  I love the drug trip of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”  I love the bee that laughs at Pooh.

It’s amazing that one of Disney’s most consistent films is actually an anthology consisting of three shorts made over the course of a decade.

Rating: *****

See also:

 

Movie Review: Finding Dory (2016)


Title: Finding Dory
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I know I watched Finding Dory, but for some reason I didn’t review it on this blog.  Watching it again there were big parts of the movie I didn’t remember at all (I know, ironic, considering Dory’s condition) especially the conclusion when Hank the Septopus (Ed O’Neill) is driving a truck and crashes while a Louis Armstrong tune.  Did I not review this movie because I didn’t finish watching this movie? Did I fall asleep?  I hope not.

Anyhow, I’m glad I got to rewatch this sweet gem.  Dory (Ellen Degeneres) works through her short-term memory loss by trying to find her parents. The search leads her the fictional Marine Life Institute on the coast of California. There she meets and is helped by cranky Hank, Destiny the Whale Shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the Beluga Whale (Ty Burrell).  Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) follow along and try to catch up to their friend Dory, learning to be more like Dory in the process. And we meet Dory’s parents, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

This movie is more of spinoff than a sequel to Finding Nemo, and it makes good use of the undersea universe to tell a fresh, funny, and heartwarming story.  I especially like that Dory and most of the animals at the Marine Life Institute have a disability and the movie serves as a metaphor of how people live good lives with disabilities without being heavy-handed about it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Treasure Planet (2002)


TitleTreasure Planet
Release Date: November 27, 2002
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I’ve heard of steampunk and cyberpunk, but I guess this movie is sailpunk, since it involves sailing ships traveling through space.  The retelling of Treasure Island in an alien setting has some fun features: Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes skysurfing, John Silver (Bryan Murray) is a cyborg, the captain is the anthropomorphic cat, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and a shapeshifting creature named Morph (Dane Davis).

But outside some impressive visuals, Treasure Planet doesn’t go far enough in reinventing Robert Louis Stevenson’s story as a space opera (and believe me, I just watched Treasure Island and Muppet Treasure Island, so I’m very familiar with the basic plot points that are repeated in all three interpretations. The movie soundtrack also features songs by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls that does nothing but date the movie to the early 2000s.

Treasure Planet isn’t bad, per se, but it had the potential to be so much more if the filmmakers had embraced the weirdness rather than playing it safe.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Meet the Robinsons (2007)


Title: Meet the Robinsons
Release Date:
March 23, 2007
Director:
Stephen Anderson
Production Company:
Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Lewis (Jordan Fry), a 12-year-old orphan with a talent for inventing, creates a device that scans the mind for lost memories. After the memory scanner seemingly fails at a science fair, a 13-year-old time traveler from the future named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) tells Lewis he needs to protect the device from the Bowler Hat Guy (Steve Anderson), a literal cartoon villain with a twisted mustache. They travel to the future where Lewis meets Wilbur’s large and eccentric family while continuing to fight against the Bowler Hat Guy. Lewis finds himself with a feeling of belonging for the first time ever with the Robinsons, although naturally he cannot stay in the future.

There are a number of fairly obvious twists in the plot and some dark moments involving the sentient bowler hat.  The movie tries hard to be clever but it often misses the mark, and I found myself groaning more often than laughing. The whole film seems like a failed attempt by Disney to make a Dreamworks-style animated film. The whole thing stinks of self-congratulatory mediocrity.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Fantasia 2000 (1999)


Title: Fantasia 2000
Release Date: December 17, 1999
Director: Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

Produced by Roy E. Disney to fulfill his uncle Walt’s vision of Fantasia as a running series, Fantasia 2000 is a “meh” follow-up to the original classic. The animation for many of the segments is uninspired although there’s some basic weirdness such as flying whales in the Pines of Rome and flamingoes playing with a yo-yo The Carnival of the Animals, Finale. The absolute standout segment is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue featuring the intertwining lives of characters in Jazz Age New York City drawn in the style of Al Hirschfield. The movie also includes The Sorceror’s Apprentice from the original Fantasia.

The segments are introduced by celebrities including Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, and Angela Lansbury in a cutesy, ironic, 90s style that feels very dated. In hindsight it’s also unsettling to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by notorious sexual abuser James Levine. Much like the original, this movie may best be enjoyed by focusing on individual segments, but it seems underwhelming as a feature film. Let’s hope that Fantasia 2060 is much better.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Cars (2006)


Title: Cars
Release Date: June 9, 2006
Director: John Lasseter
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I watched Cars multiple times when my children were younger, but for some reason never wrote a review. Now that I’m trying to review every Disney and Pixar animated movie, I feel resentful that I didn’t write a review because now I have to watch the movie again. And after all, this is the movie where the magic of the Pixar formula became just too much formulaic. Isn’t the cocky racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) learning he needs to be part of a team to succeed just too predictable a plot? And a world where all animals have been replaced by sentient motor vehicles opens up so many uncomfortable questions.  Besides, in real life, I really detest cars.

Well, I guess it was good that I rewatched the movie because it’s not as bad as all that.  It’s actually rather charming. And it was good to hear voices of so many actors who died not long after this movie was released – Paul Newman, George Carlin, Tom Magliozzi, and Joe Ranft. This does seem to appeal to a younger crowd than a typical Pixar movie – because racecars – but then again, there are a lot more actual racecar drivers in the voice cast than I realized too.  So, Cars is no classic, and may be a weak entry by Pixar standards, but it is entertaining enough.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Dark Crystal (1982)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

TitleThe Dark Crystal
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Technically, this is not a Muppets movie but it was the next step in Jim Henson’s vision to create an original live-action movie featuring only puppets and animatronics on screen. I remember watching this several times as a child (and imitating the Chamberlain’s “hmmms”) even though I didn’t like it much due it’s creepiness and the fact that I didn’t enjoy fantasy stories as child.

Rewatching this as an adult I still find a lot of the characters and scenes to be nightmare-fodder and now that I’m more well-versed in fantasy, I can tell that the plot is not at all original. It’s particularly disappointing that the gelfling Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick, performed by Jim Henson) is a protagonist with no real character beyond being the one to heal the crystal.

With those reservations, The Dark Crystal is nevertheless an impressive work of film-making. The puppet and animatronic work is jaw-dropping and shows a clear progression from the innovations made for the two Muppet movies that preceded it.  The movements and facial characteristics of the Skeksis is particularly impressive.  The movie really creates a dream-like alternate world unlike anything else seen on film.

I can see why this movie was not received well at the time of its release and why it’s also become a cult classic.  It’s easy to miss the greatness of what The Dark Crystal is for the even greater possibilities of what it could’ve been.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Dinosaur


TitleDinosaur
Release Date: May 19, 2000
Director: Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | The Secret Lab
Summary/Review:

Dinosaur, which features ground-breaking computer animation of dinosaur characters set in real-life scenery, is another Disney animated film of the Oughts that I never heard of at the time it was released (although it was in the top ten top-grossing movies of 2000, so that’s probably on me). I’ve been on the attraction DINOSAUR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but the ride (which was made before the movie) has little to do with the movie’s plot. The criticism of the film, which I agree with, is that for all it’s jaw-dropping technical achievements, it has a very bland and predictable story.  All the same, the movie was better than I expected.

Aladar (D.B. Sweeney) is an orphaned Iguanadon adopted by a family of lemurs including Plio (Alfre Woodward), her curmudgeonly father Yar (Ossie Davis), and her goofy brother Zini (Max Casella). When an asteroid strike (but apparently not the extinction-level event asteroid) destroys their island, Aladar carries his family to safety on the mainland where they join a migration of herbivore dinosaurs crossing a desert to get to the Nesting Grounds.

The herd is lead by by an Iquanadon named Kron (Samuel E. Wright), an autocrat who shows no sympathy to the old and slow dinosaurs who he will leave behind to die of dehydration or be picked off by Carnotaurus.  Aladar and his family befriend the dinosaurs at the back of the pack including Baylene (Joan Plowright), an elderly Brachiosaurus and her Styracosaurus friend Eema (Della Reese).  Aladar’s sympathy for the slower dinosaurs and desire to have everyone survive the migration leads him to challenge Kron for leadership, while also forming a relationship with Kron’s sister, Neera (Julianna Margulies).

As noted above, what happens next is predictable.  Nevertheless, the movie is entertaining, and I’m particularly impressed by all the terrific actors they got for the voice cast. It’s disappointing that a movie this technically innovative turned out to be just an average movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.

Rating: ***