Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Animal Crackers
Release Date: August 23, 1930
Director: Victor Heerman
Production Company:  Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This is the Marx Brothers first true classic film.  Like The Cocoanuts, it is adapted from their Broadway musical, which is reflected in the stage-like sets of the film.  But in this movie the songs reflect and commentate on the plot (thin as it is) and support the Marx Brothers antics. The setting is a party at the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) who is hosting the celebrated African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Grouch Marx). Another guest, art collector Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) will be displaying a famous work of art by a painter named Beaugard.  Not one but two parties of guests decide to steal the Beaugard and put their own work in its place leading to the thin plot for the film and the source of most of its antics.

The movie has some cringe-worthy moments considering that Grouch is playing a man who hunts big game in Africa, thus leading to many horrible stereotypes about Africans (including being carried in a sedan chair but several Black men). Another running gag has Harpo chasing a young woman who is clearly not interested in him.  But all-in-all the movie is not as cringe-inducing as you might expect from a 90-year-old comedy.  Groucho’s song “Hello, I Must Be Going” is one of my favorite bits and a song I had on my voicemail greeting when I was in college.

Rating: ****

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 Cocoanuts (1929)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: The Cocoanuts
Release Date: August 3, 1929
Director: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This the Marx Brothers first talkie and second movie overall after the lost 1921 silent film Humor Risk. Excepting Harpo, I can’t imagine the Marx Brothers in a silent movie since they are so reliant on witty dialogue. The movie is adapted from a stage performance and it doesn’t appear that all too many changes were made to adapt to the new medium.  Performances of dancing girls and musical numbers are awkwardly intercut with sketch-like performances by the Marx brothers and the requisite romantic subplot, but in more of variety show pattern than something that flows from one thing to the next.

Released a few months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, The Cocoanuts is a timely parody of the Florida land boom with Groucho as the unscrupulous hotel owner Mr. Hammer, Zeppo as his lazy assistant, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of crooks and conmen. As noted above the plot is very thin and this is more of an episodic linkage of Marx Brothers zaniness with song and dance.  It’s fun to watch but the Marx Brothers will learn to take better advantage of movies as they gain more experience

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince.  Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!

The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting.  While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made.  Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.

Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie.  The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent.  Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way.  So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


Title: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Director: John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed this movie before because I put it on a lot for the kids when they were little.  Granted, I did often use that time to take a nap on the couch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the adventures of Pooh and his friends.  I’m a fan of A.A. Milne’s classic books and the movie is not exactly a great adaptation.  And yet it ends up being great in it’s own way, even with the parts that are “not in the book.’

I love the voice work of Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.  I love the songs by the Sherman Brothers. I love the way the characters interact with the pages of the book.  I love the way that Owl’s house sways in the wind.  I love the drug trip of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”  I love the bee that laughs at Pooh.

It’s amazing that one of Disney’s most consistent films is actually an anthology consisting of three shorts made over the course of a decade.

Rating: *****

See also:

 

Movie Reviews: Yellowstone stories


I saw two different films related to Yellowstone National Park available on Disney+ so I watched them both in preparation for my trip to Yellowstone.

Title: Yellowstone Cubs
Release Date: June 1, 1963
Director: Charles L. Draper
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

This 45-minute, live action short tells the story of two bear cubs, Tuffy and Tubby, who are separated from their mother. She is marked as a “bad bear” and exiled from the park and then spends the whole summer tracking down her cubs. Meanwhile Tuffy and Tubby cause mayhem like causing a trailer to roll down a hill and take out a tent, stealing a motorboat, and eating all the food left out unattended in the kitchen of the Old Faithful Inn.

It’s pretty clear that domesticated bears were used in making this films, and bear paw props were used for closeups when a paw manipulates a boat engine or a can of whipped cream. To be fair, this movie never claims to be a documentary or even a True Life Adventure, merely a funny story about bear cubs. It is surprising to see the opening credits confirm the involvement of the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, and  Montana Game and Wildlife (I guess Wyoming wanted no part of this even though it’s where the movie takes place).

The message of this movie is made clear that feeding wild bears is dangerous for the bears and for human visitors for the park. And yet the folksy narration seems to undercut that with jokes about bears working the passing traffic for handouts (in front of signs prohibiting the feeding of bears). Times have certainly changed since this movie was made and so this movie serves as an odd time capsule rather something anyone should expect from a visit to Yellowstone.

Rating: *


Title: Wild Yellowstone
Release Date: December 3, 2015
Production Company: Brain Farm Digital Cinema
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary follows much the same structure of the BBC Yellowstone documentary with an episode for winter (“The Frozen Frontier”) and summer (“Grizzly Summer”) focusing on the survival strategies of various animals. Unfortunately, despite some beautiful captures of animals in the wonderland of Yellowstone, the movie takes a sensationalist approach in its narration as well as editing tricks which involve quick cuts among slow-motion and time-lapse.  I give this points for having lots and lots footage of otters as well as treating fights among hummingbirds as dramatically as fights among sheep, elk, and bison.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Out of Towners (1970)


Title: The Out of Towners 
Release Date: May 28, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Production Company: Jalem Productions
Summary/Review:

I don’t know where I got the idea that The Out-of-Towners was a comedy classic, but I guess I figured the combination of Jack Lemmon and Neil Simon would be good for a few laughs.  It turns out the movie offers very few laughs indeed.  Lemmon plays George Kellerman, a businessman from Ohio who travels to New York City with his much put-upon wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) in order to conduct an interview for a prestigious job. Naturally, every thing that can go wrong goes wrong including a delayed flight that is rerouted to Boston, a crowded train to New York, the inability to get a meal anywhere, losing their hotel room, being robbed, and then abducted, and even getting caught up in an anti-Cuban protest.

There are a few good moments. I particularly like when Gwen and George celebrate finding half-a-box of Cracker Jack to eat for breakfast. The topical references – sanitation and transit strikes, Cuban hijackings – make it a good time capsule for 1970. The movie was also filmed on location in a lot of places in New York and Boston, so I really enjoyed seeing what places looked like 50 years ago.

The main problem with this movie is that George and Gwen aren’t very likable.  Lemmon and Dennis are so talented that I was never totally able to hate them, but I also wasn’t really on their side.  The running gag with George creating an Arya Stark-like list of people he is going to sue is just one of the many things that are plain not funny.  My sense is the New Yorker Neil Simon created his stereotypes of what an awful pair of out-of-towners from the midwest are like without considering that the protagonists are someone you should actually want to root for.  This movie, like the latter-day comedy Quick Change, falls into the “New York is Awful” genre, but I couldn’t help thinking that at the end of the movie when George and Gwen decide to (spoiler) stay in Ohio, that it is New York City that dodged a bullet.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)


Title: The Muppets
Release Date: November 23, 2011
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

After a 12-year absence, The Muppets return to the silver screen with a nostalgia-laden story seemingly formulated to tug at the heartstrings of Gen-Xers.  Nostalgia, Inc. has ruined many a good thing this way, but fortunately The Muppets strikes the proper balance between dropping in beats for fans to recognize and telling a new and original story. Ok, so it’s not exactly original since it’s the “getting the band back together” trope, but it’s done in the uniquely Muppet style.

The story focuses on two brothers, the puppet Walter (Peter Linz) and the human Gary (Jason Segel) who grow up as big fans of The Muppet Show.  Gary takes a vacation to Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and invites Walter along so he can visit the famous Muppet Studios. During the tour of the now-decrepit studio, Walter learns that an oil baron (Chris Cooper) will be demolishing the Muppet Theatre to drill for oil and the only way to stop him is for the Muppets to raise $10 million before their original “rich and famous” contract expires. Walter finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and together they bring the Muppets back together to perform a telethon.

The movie has the requisite corny gags and lots of recreations of famous Muppets moments in the telethon.  But it also has a certain gravitas of old friends putting aside some bad history to come back together again.  Segel and Adams are fine in their roles as the human characters, but they do seem extraneous.  The one big exception is the musical number “Man or Muppet” performed as a duet between Segal’s Gary and Walter which is a hilarious performance. I hadn’t watched The Muppets before, and I was skeptical that it would be good, but I’m glad I finally caught up.

Rating: ***1/2