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.
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.
Title: Monsters University
Release Date: June 21, 2013
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
The prequel to the Pixar classic Monsters, Inc. shows how Mike and Sulley first meet as students in the prestigious Scarer Program at Monsters University. They start off hostile to one another as Mike has dedicated his life to learning the arts and sciences of scaring, but finds it impossible to actually be scary. Meanwhile, Sulley rests on his family’s reputation and is too lazy to apply himself at school. It’s an interesting, and subtle, critique on how privilege can often be a barometer of success than hard work.
Both Mike and Sulley get thrown out of the Scarer Program, and in order to prove themselves they join a fraternity of the school’s nerdiest monsters in order to participate as a team in the university’s “Scare Games.” The bulk of the movie is their Oozma Kappa team stumbling through the challenges and succeeding through teamwork, creativity, and less savory means. The improvements in CGI animation since Monsters, Inc. is on display with several stunning scenes of monsters set against the red-brick, leafy college campus, and one spectacular image of Mike and Sully silhouetted against a moonlit lake.
On the one hand, credit is due for taking a chance and making the story of Monsters University so totally different from Monsters, Inc. On the other hand, by adopting the tropes of academia comedy, the creators of Monsters University have failed to do anything approaching the creativity of its predecessor, and that’s a huge disappointent. I’m not quite sure who this movie is made for since children won’t relate to the nostalgia of the college days’ gags and adults will get a few chuckles but no real belly laughs. Still, the charm of Crystal, Goodman, & co. is enough to distract from the fact that this is a rehash of dozens of stories of ragtag bands of misfits using teamwork to win, and make this movie an entertaining diversion.
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: The 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.
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.
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.
Title: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2019
Number of Episodes: 7
The third season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events adapts the final four books in the series. With the final book, The End, told in in one episode, it also the shortest of the three series at only 7 episodes. This season takes some strange tonal shifts from the earlier season, but that is also true to the books which became darker, sadder, and well … stranger than the earlier books. The Baudelaires find themselves trapped in an increasingly Kafka-esque world, and the quest for the sugar bowl seems to take precedence over their desire to just escape Olaf and get on with their lives. And then The End reveals that an entirely different story is being told about the loss of childhood innocence, mortality, and the impossibility of trying to escape to a quiet, safe place.
It’s been a dozen or more years since I read the books and I found myself constantly uncertain if the show was changing things from the books or if just forgot major details. I believe the direct involvement of Lemony Snicket in the Baudelaire’s story and the flashback to the opera are major enhancements of the books. And Kit revealing what the sugar bowl contains, rather than leaving it a mystery, is a somewhat unsatisfactory twist for something that was essentially a MacGuffin. But it’s most likely that the show is largely faithful to the books and I just plum forgot the details so I got to be surprised by them all over again. Either way, it’s time to reread the book.
As always, the acting is top notch, the gags are funny, and the set designs and costumes are eye-catching! This is a show that should be watched and enjoyed.
Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2018
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director: Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
I visited Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1990s and this nostalgic comedy seems to fit my memories of the city. Derry is known internationally for being at the heart of The Troubles – the ongoing sectarian fighting, riots, and terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. But I also remember Derry being something of a party town. Derry Girls captures the everyday life of the city’s citizens amid bomb threats that cause traffic delays, soldiers inspecting a school bus, and a family taking a holiday to avoid the Orange Orders’ “marching season.”
The core group of teenagers in this show are Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her live-in cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), Erin’s friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and Michelle’s English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), who is the only boy at their all-girl Catholic school because it’s feared that his English accent would make him a target for violence at the boys’ school. The quintet get themselves in all manner of trouble at school with the misanthropic Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney). Erin’s family also play a big role and they’re all generally awful in amusing ways.
The show is kind of an odd cross of “The Facts of Life” with the movie Heaven Help Us and and “Father Ted,” with some sectarian violence thrown in. But really, despite the unique setting, the show is strangely relatable.
Title: A Christmas Story
Release Date: November 18, 1983
Director: Bob Clark
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
I watched A Christmas Story for the first time not long after it was released in my 5th grade classroom (those days before Christmas when the teachers just put on a video to watch as a special treat because the kids are too pepped up to learn anything). I’ve seen it many times since, and even read Jean Sheppard’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash while I was in high school. But I haven’t watched in a long time, at least 15 years, maybe more!.
Well, it holds up well. The key to this movie is that it’s honest about childhood – from the genuine terror of visiting Santa, to flipping out and striking back at a bully, to the lengths a kid goes to get the gift their heart desires. It’s also honest about the parents as we see both the usually strict mother and father having their moments of softening up for Ralphie. Honestly, these days I find myself relating to The Old Man, especially on Christmas morning, when he just wanted to sleep. Some things I’ve never noticed in the movie before: The Old Man skipping with The Wizard of Oz characters in the Higbees store, the freighters in the background when they’re changing the flat tire. and that Darren McGavin was 60-years-old when this was made (so he was a really Old Man).