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

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)

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

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)

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

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

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

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)

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.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Title: Alice in Wonderland
Release Date: July 26, 1951
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are among my favorite books of all time, and I’ve yet to see it translated into a film adaptation that captures the books’ whimsy and imagination.  I’ve kept my distance from the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movies because they just look to be commercialized, CGI-laden horror shows, but Disney animators did make a good crack at the story in 1951. Animation lends itself to Alice in Wonderland since it allows for the disorienting visuals while still keeping to a storybook premise.  There are some segments of this film that are real treats, such as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the Mad Tea Party, the very Disney-esque talking doorknob, and the Cheshire Cat.  But overall the movie is very episodic and doesn’t have much flow.  It’s also lacking in heart.  The biggest problem is that none of the character of Alice carries over from the book, so she ends up just being a girl reacting to the mad things around her, and sometimes she just seems left out of the story entirely.  Someday a film adaptation will be made that does Carroll’s Alice stories justice, and it will probably be animated, but until then this serves as good attempt, but deeply flawed.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

TitleLady and the Tramp
Release Date: June 22, 1955
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Lady is a Cocker Spaniel given as a Christmas gift from Jim Dear to his wife Darling as a puppy.  Lady grows to find a place at the center of Jim Dear and Darling’s life, but starts to be usurped when the couple have a baby.  Then when they go on a trip and leave Lady and the baby in the care of Aunt Sarah, Lady finds herself completely shooed out of the house.  On the streets, she meets the stray dog Tramp who shows her the good life of a dog with no attachments.  A terrifying rat and a thunder storm provide the drama at the climax of the movie, leading to a happily-ever-after in the conclusion.

There are a couple of dated elements that make it hard for a modern audience to fully enjoy this movie.  For one, it’s full of ethnic stereotypes, which is mildly amusing when it’s Jock, the Scottie, speaking with a Scottish accent, but less so with the Asian exoticism of the Siamese cats or the comedic fake Italian dialect at Tony’s restaurant.  The story also features a macho male in Tramp paired with a docile female in Lady that is old fashioned, and not in a good way.  That all being said, my 7 y.o., who has been reluctant to watch classic Disney movies with me, said she enjoyed this one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Title: The Wizard of Oz
Release Date: August 25, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
King Vidor
George Cukor
Richard Thorpe
Norman Taurog
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I watched this movie for the first time in a long time, and well, it’s basically just as I remembered it, which is a good thing.  It’s an adventure, it’s a symbolic journey of self-discovery, it’s a musical, it’s funny, it’s scary.  It looks really fake, but to the point that the painted sets and props are weirdly effective works of arts in their own right.  I was born long after color film was standard but the transition from the sepia of Kansas to the majestic colors of Oz is still astounding. Watching as an older adult, I am also impressed at how the young Judy Garland handles being central to almost every scene. About the only thing that is not good about this movie is that it’s not a good adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book which I also love.  One day, I’d like to see a faithful film adaptation of the movie made too, but this version will always stand alone as its own great thing.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Paddington (2014)

Release Date: 28 November 2014
Director: Paul King
Production Company: Studio Canal

While a lot of family films these days seem to focus on the lowest common denominator of fart jokes and rock music standards, this adaptation of Paddington strikes a nice balance between being faithful to source material with a contemporary appeal.  In fact, it feels a lot like the family films of the 1970s and 80s.  A prologue to the film where an explorer meets Paddington’s aunt and uncle in Peru in what appears to be the 1930s adds to this feeling because the main part of the film is supposed to be 40 years later which would place it in the 1970s although what’s on the the screen is clearly London in the 2010s.  Setting aside this chronological confusion, Paddington is a delight with well-timed slapstick humor and a lot of heart as Paddington finds a place with the quirky Brown family. There’s also a subtle commentary of the reception of immigrants in modern England, not just with Paddington but other characters such as an antique store owner who’s suggested to have fled Nazi persecution and a diagetic group of buskers whose mambo tunes comment on Paddington’s situation.

The thing that keeps the movie from being great is a plot involving Nicole Kidman as an evil taxidermist from the Natural History Museum eager to make her mark by stuffing a new species for display in the museum (namely, Paddington).  While this leads to the climax of the movie where the Brown family rallies to save Paddington, I think the movie would’ve been stronger if the filmmakers had the confidence that the story of Paddington adjust to life in London would be enough to carry the movie.

Rating: ***