Movie Review: The Princess Bride (1987)

Title: The Princess Bride
Release Date: September 25, 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Act III Communications | Buttercup Films | The Princess Bride Ltd.

I don’t remember The Princess Bride making any impression when it got its theatrical release in 1987, but in the ensuing years it was played endlessly on cable tv. When I was in college in 1991, it was a movie frequently rented and watched among my friend groups.  And that was how it became a beloved classic!

At the time I first watched The Princess Bride, fantasy action adventure movies were rather unusual, seemingly old fashioned.  And yet it was also modern with self-referential humor that also felt unusual for the time.  Years later I would read the original book by William Goldman, itself a classic that bridges the border between spoof and homage to fairy tale romance.  The movie proved to be a master class in adapting a great book by capturing the spirit of the book rather than the literal. This is fitting since the book was a parody of adaptation.

The success of the movie is due to its terrific cast.  Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, then hot young newcomers, lead the film as Westley and Buttercup and in my mind are forever associated with those roles.  Mandy Patinkin, André Roussimoff, and Wallace Shawn play the trio of villains Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini (the former two latter become heroes). The real villains are Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his sadistic henchman with six fingers, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest).  The supporting cast includes comic legend like Carol Kane, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, and Peter Kane.  And then there’s a framing story with Peter Falk and Fred Savage as a grandfather and grandson reading the story.


Rating: ****

Movie Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Title: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Release Date: December 21, 1937
Director: David Hand (supervising), William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, and Ben Sharpsteen
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

The first full-length animated feature in color is noted for its technical innovation and it still impresses 83 years later.  Sequences such as Snow White running through a “haunted” forest and the Evil Queen transforming herself into an old woman are still awe-inspiring in their detail and fluidity.  Then there are  extended scenes like the dwarfs dancing and the dwarfs snoring that add nothing to the plot but are just plain fun in their exploration of animation.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever watched the movie before, but after seeing it I don’t think I have watched more than a few segments. I am familiar with the story and the songs because when I was a kid I attended a stage performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Radio City Music Hall.  This was well before Disney began producing Broadway musicals on the regular.

There’s a lot more dwarfs and a lot less Snow White than I expected, which is for the best because the dwarfs provide a lot of the entertainment and joy of animation.  And I never would’ve guessed that Grumpy gets the biggest character arc. Honestly, I found myself liking Grumpy a lot. There are also all those woodland creatures who mysteriously decide to help out Snow White.  They’re all great character studies of different kinds of animals, and what they look like performing things that are not animal-like.

One weird thing about the movie is that the faces of Snow White, the Prince, and the Evil Queen appear to be more “realistic” human faces like you find in the serious soap opera newspaper comic strips.  This makes them look odd alongside the more cartoonish faces of all the other characters. I don’t think any Disney movie animated human faces in that style again, although I suppose I’ll find out for sure as I work my way through the Disney movies.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)

Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Title: La Belle et la Bêt)
Release Date: October 29, 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Production Company: DisCina

In post-war France, escapist fantasy was the goal in this adaptation of the 1757 story Beauty and the Beast. Belle (Josette Day) works hard to support her widower father (Marcel André) as he falls into debt. She receives only insult from her vain sisters (Mila Parély, Nane Germon) and no support from her ne’er-do-well brother (Michel Auclair).  Her brother’s friend Avenant (Jean Marais) proposes marriage, but Belle is devoted to staying with her father.

While traveling in hopes of settling his debts, Belle’s father stumbles upon a mysterious castle and when he plucks a rose for Belle, he is condemned to death by The Beast (also Jean Marais).  Belle takes her father’s place as a prisoner in Beast’s castle and slowly begins to appreciate him. The castle is super eerie with human arms holding the candelabras and the eyes of the statuary moving. Belle and the Beast appear to move as if choreographed in a dance, and in once scene Belle glides down a corridor past blowing curtains (a scene that must’ve inspired 1000 music videos).  The design of the Beast’s castle and costume were very obviously inspirational to the animators of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The tone of this adaptation is very eerie, party psychological horror, part avant-guard art piece. And the clear sexual undertones of the movie are very unsettling.  It’s worth a watch for a well-directed and artistic take on a familiar tale.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Title: Beauty and the Beast
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

I’ve been uninterested in Disney’s spate of live-action remakes of animated classics, but since I recently rewatched the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, and the 2017 remake is leaving Netflix soon, I figured I give it a watch to compare and contrast.

Overall, the remake is extraordinarily faithful to the original, with similar shots and dialogue. Some changes include an explanation for why no one knows of the castle in the woods, why the household staff was cursed along with the Prince, and a more active recurring role for Agethe, the enchantress.  Le Fou, while still a fop and a toady, feels much more like a human than a charicature.  An unecessary flashback scene explains the absence of Belle’s mother and reason for moving to the provincial village.  Plus there are four new songs in addition to all the original songs by the legendary, late lyricist Howard Ashman.  Overall, this all makes the movie feel bloated and I think it would be more effective if it were trimmed by about 20 to 30 minutes.

The advantage of traditional animation is that there’s already a sense of unreality built in, so the dancing dishware of the “Be Our Guest” number fits in well with the real girl Belle enjoying the show.  By contrast, the CGI versions of Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, et al seem to distract from the story and the development of Belle as a character.  Despite the additional 45 minutes, the romance of Belle and the Beast STILL feels rushed.

All this being said, I enjoyed the movie more than I expected.  Emma Watson is a terrific actor and I liked her take on Belle.  A diverse cast, which includes talented vocalists like Audra McDonald really built up the spectacle of the musical.  The Beast’s costume in this movie was reminiscent of the 1980s tv show so much that I thought for a moment that they got Ron Perlman to play the role.  The movie has a charm and style that is reminiscent of classic 1960s movie musicals like My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Mary Poppins, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Title: Beauty and the Beast
Release Date: November 22, 1991
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

After our visit to Walt Disney World, my daughter said she wanted to watch Beauty and the Beast, although she left the room for the scary parts.  My son also watched parts of the film because he enjoyed mocking how everyone kept singing.  So there’s something for everyone!

This was my first time watching the movie in 25+ odd years and its held up well.  It is definitely the most Broadway of all the Disney animated films.  The best musical number is “Be Our Guest” which seamlessly blends the animation style of the Disney golden era with new digital effects that still can wow almost 30 years later. “Gaston” is also a great musical number because it is stupid funny.

Belle is a well-developed character and perhaps the most interesting Disney heroine (well, at least until Moana).  The shift in feelings between Belle and the Beast feel rushed, but I guess that padding the film wouldn’t make it any more believable.  And I may be in the minority here, but I think the Beast is more handsome than his human prince form.

Rating: ****

As an added bonus, here’s a short video of Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, dancing with the handsome Beast on Valentine’s Day.

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: ****