Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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.

Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Release Date: December 11, 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions

The first Muppets movie made after the death of Jim Henson offers some big changes from the earlier films in the franchise.  First of all, it adapts a well-known story to be told with popular Muppets playing most of the characters, and many other Muppets acting as a chorus. Second, the trio of Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Fozzie (Frank Oz), and Miss Piggy (Oz, again) are no longer the lead Muppet characters, but instead Gonzo (Dave Goelz) narrates the film as Charles Dickens with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) as his sidekick. My guess is with Henson deceased and Oz pursuing lot of projects outside the Muppets, that Goelz and Whitmire now had seniority among Muppet performers, and I like the approach they took foregrounding their characters rather than trying to recreate the work of Henson and Oz. The final big change is that the star of the movie is not a Muppet at all, but the very human actor Michael Caine playing Ebeneezer Scrooge.

The movie has some good gags and I enjoy the Gonzo/Rizzo rapport.  Statler (Jerry Nelson) and Waldorf (Dave Goelz) as the ghosts of the Marley Brothers are also great. Paul Williams returns to provide music for the soundtrack, which works well within the film, but is not as classic as his work on The Muppet Movie.  Ultimately though, A Christmas Carol has been overdone and there’s not much The Muppets can add to it.  The movie is more of a really well-made tv special than a feature-length film.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Cars 3 (2017)

Title: Cars 3
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Director: Brian Fee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Cars 3 basically pretends that Cars 2 never happened and goes back to the well with a story that follows up on Cars. Much of the movie is basically the Rocky III of the Cars franchise.  Lightning McQueen even races on a beach and there’s a character named Cal (not Carl) Weathers. After many years of success, Lightning finds himself challenged by fast and confident young cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer).  After losing several races and crashing, Lightning must train to be competitive again, hoping to finish his racing career on his own terms.

Initially, Lightning trains in a high-tech facility with an energetic young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).  Failing to adapt to the virtual techniques, Lightning and Cruz head out to train on real dirt, much as his late  mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) taught him. (I do wonder how a car “dies” in this universe, although it does make for another Rocky III parallel with Rocky losing his mentor Mickey). Eventually, Lightning and Cruz end up training with Doc Hudson’s former crew chief Smokey (Chris Cooper).

There’s a big twist in the final act that I won’t spoil (that is both corny and satisfying) that keeps the movie from being a total Rocky III remake. The animation has become more realistic since 2006 so the racing scenes are very intense.  There’s also a lot of good humor, especially when Lightning and Cruz end up in a demolition derby. I’m not sure if Cars is worthy of three whole movies, but this one like it’s predecessors is entertaining enough.

Rating: ***

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Movie Review: Cars (2006)

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

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

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

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

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: ***

Movie Review: The Muppet Movie (1979)

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.

Title: The Muppet Movie
Release Date: May 31, 1979
Director: James Frawley
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Henson Associates

It’s hard to review this movie objectively without the lens of nostalgia.  On the other hand, I’ve grown to expect that my childhood faves will disappoint me, so the fact that this movie holds up so well is a testament to its greatness. The Muppets transition to movies by making fun of Hollywood tropes – particularly road trip buddy comedies, sappy romances, and lets-put-on-a-show – while still being a loving tribute to movies and entertainers in general.  The meta-fictional humor in this movie was unusual at the time in in retrospect it must have inspired a generation that made that kind of humor widespread in the 1990s.

The Muppet Movie also has several moments that still make me think “how did they do that?” such as Kermit playing on a log, Kermit bicycling, Fozzie driving a car in long shots, and over 250+ Muppets singing and dancing at once in the finale.  Even learning things like Jim Henson spending hours in an underwater tank to perform Kermit in the swamp doesn’t diminish the sense of awe.

The movie is also fun for the cameos where one can test their memory of 1970s celebrities.  Luckily, you don’t have to know who Dom Deluise, Carol Kane, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, or Cloris Leachman is to laugh at their performances (I do wonder how much Orson Welles was paid for his one line, and if he showed up on time for the filming). Last but not least, there is the terrific music by Paul Williams.  “The Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” are classics of the American music book.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Oliver & Company (1988)

Title: Oliver & Company
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Director: George Scribner
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners III

On the precipice of the Disney Renaissance, Walt Disney Pictures released Oliver & Company, a movie that has many elements of the Renaissance era but doesn’t put them together quite right.  The movie features then-popular stars like Billy Joel, Cheech Marin,  Bette Midler, and Dom DeLuise, with musical artists like Huey Lewis, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Midler, and Rubén Blades singing on the cheerful soundtrack. The animation style is also a break from typical Disney style and the film is set in contemporary New York City.

The movie takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphan kitten who is taken in by a gang of street dogs including the carefree Dodger (Joel).  They steal and pickpocket to help the human Fagin (Dom Deluise), a good-hearted vagrant who needs to pay off a debt to the evil loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who looks an awful lot like Rudy Giuliani. Just as he’s settling in with the gang of dogs, Oliver meets a very wealthy, kind-hearted girl, Jenny (Natalie Gregory).  Jenny’s diva poodle Georgette (Midler) is insanely jealous of her new pet.  Comic hijinx ensue, and soon the stray dogs, Fagin, and Sykes intersect with Oliver, Jenny, and Georgette.

The movie is a bit of a mess.  Oliver is the protagonist for the early part of the film, but then it shifts to being a story about the “Company.”  The Jenny plotline is pure 80s cheeze (and mind you as an 80s kid I love that stuff, but I do warn you its schlock).  The songs are catchy, but lyrically tend to be obvious commentaries on the movie.  Dodger’s key song “Why Should I Worry?” is repetitive and the lyrics are basically nonsense.

I won’t say that Oliver & Company isn’t entertaining, but it doesn’t really go beyond the bare essentials of a competent movie for kids.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (1967)

Title: The Jungle Book
Release Date: October 18, 1967
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

The Jungle Book is a musical comedy based on the works of Rudyard Kipling, and is the last animated movie which involved Walt Disney in its production.  It’s a straightforward story of a boy raised by wolves named Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), who the wolves council determine must now return to the human village for his own safety.

The movie is episodic, linking together various musical numbers and set pieces with animals that Mowgli encounters on his journey.  The supporting characters make the film.  These include Mowgli’s allies, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a serious panther who oversees Mowgli’s exit from the jungle and Baloo (Phil Harris), a carefree sloth bear who wishes to adopt Mowgli to Bagheera’s strong disapproval.  The villains include a hypnotic python named Kaa (Sterling Holloway), a scatting orangutan named King Louie (Louis Prima) who wants the secret of fire, and Shere Khan (George Sanders), a Bengal tiger who hates humans and is determined to kill Mowgli.

The movie features some great music by the Sherman Brothers, with the exception of the most famous song, “The Bare Necessities,” which is by Terry Gilkyson.  The animation captures the movement of animals in a convincing way as well as providing a number of comic gags.  I’ve always thought that movie ends oddly with Mowgli deciding to go to the human village basically because he’s horny.  Nevertheless, this is a competent, straightforward Disney comedy musical.  Not quite an all-time classic, but a does the job for 78 minutes of entertainment.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Title: The Sword in the Stone
Release Date: December 25, 1963
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

The Sword in the Stone is an animated adaptation of T.H. White’s first novel based on Arthurian Literature (his work also inspired Camelot a few years earlier).  The Disney version distills the rich and detailed novel down to a few scenes in which Merlin becomes the tutor for Wart (young Arthur) and turns him into fish, squirrel, and a sparrow to teach him lessons.  The standout scene of the movie is a hilarious wizard’s duel between Merlin and the evil Madam Mim.

As a child, I disliked this movie because it was such a poor adaptation of the novel I loved.  As an adult, I am more forgiving and can see the movie’s charm and humor.  Still, I think The Sword and the Stone is below Disney standards.  The limited animation style betrays the possibilities for the fantastical worlds of Arthurian England.  And while Wart’s voice is suitably preteen, it’s odd that he is the only character with an American actor while being voiced interchangeably by three actors.

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