Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

The first spinoff movie from Harry Potter’s Wizarding World introduces mazizooligist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), author of the eponomynous textbook used at Hogwarts.  Set in the 1920s, the British Scamander arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  His ultimate purpose in being there is revealed slowly of the film, but first, hijinks!  Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a non magical person, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and several creatures escape.  As Newt and Jacob look for the missing animals, they draw the attention of an American witch, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who has recently lost her position as auror.  More hijinks ensue and Tina is forced to bring Newt and Jacob to her apartment and introduce them to her charming sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who has the ability to read minds.

The film feels at first a comedy of errors and takes time to delight in introducing aspects of the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts and Great Britain, with a lot of fun visual effects.  But there’s more going on here as the story unfolds.  First, there’s the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a 20th century heir to the Salem witch hysteria, who are openly promoting that wizads and witches are real (true, in the story) and need to be defeated. Second, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose and killing magical and non-magical people alike.

I enjoy the culture clashes between the British and American wizards.  Americans very practically call non-magical people “No-Maj” instead of “Muggles,” which sounds as silly as calling a truck a lorry, when you think of it.  Instead of a Ministry of Magic, the USA’s wizarding government is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), where Tina works.  And even though only European schools participated in the Triwizarding tournament, there is an American school of witchcraft and wizardry as well, called Ilvermorny.  And I’ve learned from Wikipedia that Ilvermorny is in Massachusetts, on the peak of Mt. Greylock, so wizards also send their children to New England for their education.

Newt Scamander is very good with magical creatures, but is a bit awkward around people.  Redmayne plays his introversion well, and I enjoy seeing another quiet lead character in an action-fantasy film to go along with Rogue One.  Despite being the main character, Newt is more of the straight man to the quirkier characters of Jacob, Tina, and Queenie.  The leading quartet have a lot of chemistry and I enjoy seeing them playing of one another.  They carry the film that at times is a bit thin on plot.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Christopher Robin (2018)


Title: Christopher Robin
Release Date: August 3, 2018
Director: Marc Forster
Production Company: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Out of a love of Pooh and a curious nature, I decided to watch Disney’s latest cash grab loving live-action tribute to the classic animated Winnie the Pooh films.  Here is a story of a beloved character from a children’s story growing up and finding himself so entangled in the adult responsibilities of work that he is unable to form a relationship with his child.  That is, until the beloved – seemingly imaginary – characters of his childhood enter his real life and help him rediscover joy in life and connect with his own child.  Yes, this is the plot of the 1991 blockbuster Hook.

To be fair, while I hated Hook, and it rankles me that the creators of Christopher Robin couldn’t come up with a different and better plot, I find it a relatively more enjoyable film.  While Hook was abrasive in its winking references, Christophe Robin is sweet and gentle, as it should be. And to be fair to Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), he’s working too hard not because he’s an egotistical workaholic but because his lazy, affluent boss (Mark Gattis, who seems to be typecast in these roles) will fire all the employees if Robin can’t find a way to balance the budget.

The movie’s tone is very melancholy, and even the color palette seems drained. The filmmakers even cast the great Hayley Atwell as Christopher’s wife and then hardly used her, which feels wasteful. Pooh and friends are the best part of the movie, and while this is “live-action,”  they are animated with CGI.  You wouldn’t know it though, as they look like they could be puppets right down to detail of their fuzzy fur (Owl & Rabbit, who are not based on toys, are depicted as anthropomorphic versions of a real owl and rabbit).  McGregor plays the surreal scenes of interacting with toys and animals in the 100 Acres Wood well.  And it’s cute that Pooh & Co. not only bring Robin closer his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), but they also solve his problem at work.

It’s just a shame that this slight, charming film couldn’t have been truer to the spirit of its source material. It could’ve been so much more.

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
Summary/Review:

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: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)


TitleOne Hundred and One Dalmatians
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske,  and Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of the few Disney movies I actually saw as a child. I remember liking it at the time but didn’t know if it would hold to watching it as an adult.  I was wrong.  After rewatching One Hundred and One Dalmatians, I think it’s one of my favorite Disney animated films of all time.

The movie starts off awkwardly as Pongo the Dalmatian examines women to determine which one is attractive enough to pair off with his “pet” Roger.  He then arranges a meet cute with Anita and her Dalmatian Perdita, and they all settle into a happy domesticity.  These bits and some casual sexism throughout the movie are really the only places it loses points.  The rest is creative, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable.

After Perdita gives birth to 15 puppies, Cruella De Vil storms in and tries to buy them, and when refused by Roger, has them abducted.  I’ve written about how some Disney villains are too one-dimensional and over the top, but if you’re going to take that approach, you do it like Cruella.  She’s just so ridiculously evil and singularly focused on killing puppies to make dog skin coats, that it just works.

A part of the movie that I remember from when I was a child is the twilight bark.  It actually takes up a significant portion of the middle part of the movie, and I don’t think they’d spend that much time on it in a modern-day movie.  But I’m glad they did as it sets up a transition from the domestic scenes to the comedy crime caper portion.  Pongo and Perdita walk from London to Suffolk (that’s 100 miles, I checked on Google Maps) to find their lost puppies and then find 84 more!  Hijinks ensue, and even my preteen boy was laughing and said “this is awesome” under his breath.

Everything just seems to click in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and I said before it’s among the Walt Disney company’s best work.

Some other thoughts:

  • I like how the characters spend so much time watching television, especially since the tv shows tell hilarious stories in their own right.  The puppies watch a Western show about a heroic sheriff dog and the dog-napping henchman what a game show called “What’s My Crime.”
  • Near the end of the movie Roger’s song about Cruella De Vil is playing on the radio, perhaps the first wide release of a diss track.
  • There’s a cow named Princess.  She should be included with the other Disney Princesses, henceforth!
  • In a movie about dogs, Sergeant Tibbs the tabby cat is the real MVP.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Winnie the Pooh (2011)


TitleWinnie the Pooh
Release Date: July 15, 2011
Director: Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Winnie the Pooh returns to the big screen for another adventure inspired by A.A. Milne’s original works in which the denizens of Hundred Acre Woods believe that Christopher Robin is abducted by a monster called the Backson. The hand-drawn animation style is modeled on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, complete with the visual pun of the characters interacting with the story book letters and pages. In many ways, though, this movie feels like a reboot more than a sequel.  By necessity, the character’s voices are very different and the music is sung by Zooey Deschanel.  Other aspects of the movie take on a modern sensibility.  All that being said, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable story involving Pooh and Friends, albeit one that’s too short.

In Disney’s Winnie the Pooh oeuvre,  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is officially an animated feature, although it’s also a collection of previously released short films.  The Tigger Movie, Piglet’s Big Movie, and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie were all made by Disneytoon Studios, which specialized in direct-to-video sequels, but got theatrical release.  There are additional Pooh movies that were only DTV.  And Christopher Robin is a live-action sequel to all of this.  Winnie the Pooh is officially the only movie that’s considered an animated feature alongside The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, although it’s only an hour-long and the story is slight.  It’s  not bad by any stretch of the animation, I just want more of it than what we got.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Tarzan (1999)


TitleTarzan
Release Date: June 16, 1999
Director: Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Tarzan is a story that has been adapted to film many times and although I can’t recall watching the other versions, the story is very familiar.  The Disney takes makes the idea of family the focus with Tarzan’s  desire for acceptance among the gorilla community a driving force of the narrative.  There are also ideas of colonialism and environmental exploitation with the arrival of Jane Porter and her father to appreciate the gorillas, while their guide is a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain in Clayton (played by a poorly used BRIAN BLESSED), who seeks to capture the gorillas. This movie is reminiscent of earlier Disney animated features like The Jungle Book, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.

I particularly like the characterization of Jane in this movie, who has many of the mannerisms of her voice actress Minnie Driver, and is demure in period-appropriate manner, but also adventuress and bold without falling into “strong woman” stereotypes.  Casting Rosie O’Donnell as Tarzan’s best friend Terk seems like an extremely 90s thing to do, but it works and adds a good comic relief element to the film.  Phil Collins is easy to make a punching bag, but his music doesn’t seem to fit this film, especially in a scene when Tarzan’s adoptive mother sings to baby Tarzan, and then switches to Collins singing the same song, draining the heart from the scene.  The best musical number is the one where a group of gorillas make up a tune while trashing the Porter’s camp.

Tarzan is a beautifully animated film of a familiar story.  There are no surprises here, but no big disappointments either.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Pocahontas (1995)


TitlePocahontas
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Director: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

When Pocahontas was released in 1995, I lived in James City County, Virginia, basically the same land where the real Pocahontas and the Powhatan people lived nearly 400 years earlier.  I worked at Colonial Williamsburg and remember a visitor telling me “Disney is giving you a great tourism boost!”  Well, it was the museums down the road at Jamestown that would have to deal with any Pocahontas-driven tourism.  But, having seen the trailers for Pocahontas, it became a running gag among my co-workers that visitors to the flat, marshy Tidewater region would be asking “Where are the waterfalls?”

I won’t go into the many other historical inaccuracies this film creates from the life of Matoaka (later Amonute and Rebecca Rolfe).  Disney almost always makes massive changes from the source material, but I find it unsettling that they would take a story about a real person – an indigenous person, at that – and take nothing from her many remarkable adventures in real life.  Disney’s Pocahontas is a mystical, new age character and the film is a clichéd retelling of the Romeo and Juliet plot.  With so many options available to tell a new and refreshing story with a historical figure, it’s disappointing that Disney chose to tell an obvious retread.

With all that being noted, I have three nice things to say about Pocahontas:

  1. It is a beautiful film to look at with the pristine American forests richly animated with great attention to water, leaves, and animals.
  2. Speaking of animals, I love the animal sidekicks, Percy the pampered pug, Flit the hummingbird with anger issues, and especially the mischievous and always hungry raccoon Meeko.  Unlike other Disney films, the animals don’t speak, but they mime in hilarious ways.  I’d watch a movie just about these three characters and their adventures.
  3. Disney doesn’t flinch about depicting the English colonists’ prejudices and avarice.  Yes, the villain Ratcliffe is an over-the-top buffoon, but even the “good guy” colonists aren’t exactly “woke” at the end of the film. If would’ve been bad if Disney had brushed over the exploitative nature of colonialism, but that hasn’t stopped them from avoiding uncomfortable issues in other movies, so I’ll give them credit for doing it here.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Rescuers (1977)


TitleThe Rescuers
Release Date: June 22, 1977
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, & Art Stevens
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’ve never seen The Rescuers before – even though it was released when I was just the right age for it – and oh, do I regret that because it is a perfectly charming and gently humorous film.  This is the first film where Don Bluth worked as directing animator and his style is all over it.  Thus even though I never saw The Rescuers it makes me nostalgic because it’s similar to Bluth’s films The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail, which I did see as a kid.

The movie is about the Rescue Aid Society, an international group of mice who work out of the United Nations to help people in need.  When they find a message in a bottle from a little girl who was abducted, Penny, the Hungarian agent Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers for the mission.  The paternalistic Chairman refuses to allow a woman to go on the mission alone so she chooses the awkward and superstitious Rescue Aid Society janitor, Bernard (Bob Newhart), as her co-agent.  These characters are perfectly voiced and I love everything about them.

The mission takes them from the streets of New York City, on a harrowing flight aboard a clumsy albatross, Orville (Jim Jordan), and into a mysterious Southern bayou. There are some dark undertones to this story as Penny is kidnapped from an orphanage by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) and Snoops (Joe Flynn) because they needed someone small enough to fit in a cave and find the Devil’s Eye diamond.  There’s a level of malice in these villains, a banality of evil, that is more unsettling than in a typical Disney film. On the other hand, there’s a scene where two alligators play a pipe organ, which is delightfully weird.

One thing about this movie that makes me bristle is that while Miss Bianca is the most capable character, it also includes gags built on stereotypes of women.  The 1970s take on “women can do anything” gets undercut when Miss Bianca takes a long time packing her bags or attracts alligators with her perfume.  Those reservations aside, this is a perfectly delightful film, an adventure with a gentle pace and a lot of heart.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)


TitleAtlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Hercules (1997)


TitleHercules
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Director:  Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***