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: The Aristocats (1970)


Title: The Aristocats
Release Date: December 24, 1970
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I thought I may have seen The Aristocats as a child, but upon watching it for this review, I think I may have only seen some scenes of the movie.  The story is basically Lady and the Tramp (with cats) crossed with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (with cats). It clearly comes from the era when Disney didn’t know what to do next with their animated films.  Dutchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens are set to be heirs to their owners fortune, leading the butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to try to get rid of them.

Stranded in the countryside, alleycat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) helps them back to Paris while wooing Duchess.  After dancing with Scat Cat’s (Scatman) jazz band, and some further hijinx, the cats are reunited with their owner and extract their revenge on Edgar.  The animation is limited for a Disney production although there is some interesting color and motion in the dance scenes.  Two floppy-eared dogs and a motorcycle play a part in some great comedic scenes.  On the downside there is a horribly racist depiction of a cat with the worst Chinese stereotypes.

Other than that, there is nothing really bad about The Aristocats, but there’s also nothing really good about the movie.  It’s just kind of is.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Reviews: Peter Pan (1953)


Title: Peter Pan
Release Date: February 5, 1953
Director: Clyde Geronimi | Wilfred Jackson | Hamilton Luske
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I remember watching Peter Pan with Mary Martin on TV and seeing a revival of the Broadway musical with Sandy Duncan as a child.  Later I read the play by J.M. Barrie.  But I never saw the Disney movie until I was an adult, and my general impression is that it is pretty awful.  Revisiting the movie for my Disney Animated Features project did not improve my feelings of the movie.

I get the appeal of the story and why it’s persisted in popularity for over a century.  The adventure and imagination are irresistible.  Any child would love to fly off to a magical world.  The pirates are Hilario and scary. And growing up is overated.

And yet, the movie is horribly sexist.  Tinker Bell immediately hates Wendy in the most awful stereotype of female jealousy.  The mermaids are no better. How is that Tinker Bell became a Disney icon when she spends this entire movie being a vindictive turncoat?  As awful as it is, it doesn’t compare with the viciously racist deception of Native Americans.  I had to fast forward through the cringey song and dance numbers.

Perhaps there’s a way to redeem Peter Pan, but I’m not the one who’s going to do it.  Don’t watch this with your children, there’s so much better out there.

Rating: *1/2

Movie Review: Brother Bear (2003)


TitleBrother Bear
Release Date: November 1, 2003
Director: Aaron Blaise | Robert Walker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

The period of around 2000 to 2009 was an odd one for Walt Disney Feature Animation.  After the Disney Renaissance era where every film release was a major event, this decade saw the release of several movies that had next to no cultural impact.  This era produced one unqualified classic in Lilo & Stitch, but most of the movies I’ve watched thus far are either ambitious but flawed (The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Bolt) or obvious duds (Home on the Range, Chicken Little). I keep hoping to discover a lost classic, and while Brother Bear doesn’t quite achieve that, it is a diamond in the rough.

Set among the Inuit people at the end of the Ice Ages, it tells the story of Kenai, the youngest of three brothers.  Kenai comes of age and his tribal leader gives him the totem of a bear representing love.  Kenai objects to this totem feeling he’s called to better things.  Shortly afterward, in a conflict with a grizzly bear, Kenai’s oldest brother Sitka (D.B. Sweeney) falls to his death.  Seeking revenge on the bear, The Spirits along with Sitka in the form of his totem, a bald eagle, transform Kenai into a bear.

Kenai is rescued from a bear trap by a chatty bear cub named Koda (Jeremy Suarez), and they join together to seek the salmon run near the spot where Kenai was transformed.  Pixar seemed to pilfer Brother Bear when they made The Good Dinosaur, as both movies feature an odd pairing on a journey of self-discovery across a beautifully animated primeval North American landscape.  Brother Bear is a much better movie though.  While some of the themes of Kenai finding his way to love and respect bears, and become a brother to Koda, are quite obvious, I was nevertheless surprised by the ending.  Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas also appear as a comic duo of moose channeling Bob and Doug MacKenzie.

While an enjoyable and heartwarming film, I feel it would’ve been better if like the later Disney film Moana, more indigenous people were involved in the voice cast and creation of the story.  I also didn’t think Phil Collins’ musical score was suited to the story.  Nevertheless, it’s worth a watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)


Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 
Release Date: November 15, 2002
Director:  Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

Chris Columbus is not a particularly imaginative director which is apparent in this second movie of the series.  The first half of the movie seems to emphasize gags about the strangeness of the Wizarding World to an outsider, Harry, and just feels old-fashioned in a bad way.  The second half of the film is an (admittedly well-done) action movie, but it sacrifices character moments.  For these reasons I find this to be the weakest of the Harry Potter movie adaptations.

Some good features include Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, a part he appears born to play.  Also, Dobby is introduced and is a good mix of special effects creating a suitably strange creature, but also has enough personality to work as a character.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Director:  Bob Persichetti | Peter Ramsey | Rodney Rothman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

There has been a glut of Spider-Man movies the past 17 years or so, but this one has the most spider-people of all!  This animated feature focuses on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Lation teen from Brooklyn in a universe where Spider-Man comic books relate the adventures of the real life hero, Peter Parker (Chris Pine).  Miles, like Peter before him, is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super-powers.  Peter offers to train Miles to use his powers, but dies attempting to shutdown the Super-Collider built by the villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

The Super-Collider opens up other dimensions and pulls other people with spider powers into Miles’ universe.  All of these characters are from various Marvel comics series, but if you’re not a comics reader (like me) they have a nice running gag where each of the heroes quickly goes through their back story. They include Peter B. Parker, an older and out of shape version of Spider-Man who Miles refers to as “the janky old, broke, hobo Spider-Man,” and Gwen Stacy, who is the teenage Spider-Woman in her universe.  Three more spider-beings play supporting roles, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a Looney Toons style cartoon spider-pig; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-style character in a biomechanical spider suit; and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), who is a 1930s gumshoe.

This movie has a lot going for it.  First of all, the animation is terrific, emulating the pages of comic books and multiple animation styles, with terrific colors, imagery, and flow.  Second, it is very funny, not taking the premise of the Spider-Verse too seriously and having fun with the conflicts and meta moments.  Finally, it is very sweet, working as a symbolic coming-of-age story for a teenager grappling with new responsibilities and changes in family relationships, as well as a fun adventure.

The ending indicates future movies in the Spider-Verse, and I for one would like to see the addition of the newspaper comics Peter Parker (who frequently yells at the television) and the pantomime Spider-Man from the 1970s children’s show The Electric Company.

Rating: ****1/2

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