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: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

TitleThe Emperor’s New Groove
Release Date: December 15, 2000
Director: Mark Dindal
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

The Emperor’s New Groove is the very strange story of an arrogant and selfish Incan emperor turned into a llama by his advisor and aided by a kindhearted peasant. Unlike any other Disney animated feature I’ve seen before, The Emperor’s New Groove is straight-up comedy akin to Looney Tunes rather than the typical Disney style.  The movie is basically a long sequence of slapstick gags, many of which are funny, tied together with a thin plot.  I particularly like a completely bonkers scene in which a squirrel creates a balloon animal and then pops it to wake a shadow of jaguars. (Note: if you’re like me and thought that squirrels were a North American animal, I verified that there are several species of squirrel indigenous to Peru).

Unfortunately, this movie was created in the 1990s and is incredibly dated by much of the edgy, irreverent humor style of that decade.  The film also looks out of touch compared with more recent Disney films like Moana, where they made a conscientious effort to incorporate Polynesian culture into the story and cast voice actors with Polynesian heritage.  The Emperor’s New Groove, by contrast, has no real reason to be a story about pre-Columbian Incans, and none of the main cast is South American, to my knowledge.  The setting does supply a good excuse to animate some intricately animated Incan design elements and a funny llama, though.

David Spade stars as Kuzco, the emperor turned llama. Spade is the paragon of that edgy, irreverent 90’s humor style I referred to earlier, and he’s annoying in small doses, so it’s a challenge to sit through an entire feature film of his act.  Thankfully the rest of the cast is excellent.  John Goodman plays the kind peasant Pacha, and brings out the best of Spade in their scenes together, although its weird to hear Sulley’s voice coming from another character.  Earth Kitt plays Yzma, the adviser Kuzco fires early in the film, and is drawn as kind of a manic combination of Cruella De Vil and a serpent.  But the real scene stealer is Patrick Warburton as Yzma’s kind-hearted henchman Kronk, who is the real comedy MVP of this movie.  Seriously, I like Kronk so much I’m considering watching the direct-to-video spinoff Kronk’s New Groove.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Monsters University

TitleMonsters University 
Release Date: June 21, 2013
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company:  Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

The prequel to the Pixar classic Monsters, Inc. shows how Mike and Sulley first meet as students in the prestigious Scarer Program at Monsters University.  They start off hostile to one another as Mike has dedicated his life to learning the arts and sciences of scaring, but finds it impossible to actually be scary.  Meanwhile, Sulley rests on his family’s reputation and is too lazy to apply himself at school.  It’s an interesting, and subtle, critique on how privilege can often be a barometer of success than hard work.

Both Mike and Sulley get thrown out of the Scarer Program, and in order to prove themselves they join a fraternity of the school’s nerdiest monsters in order to participate as a team in the university’s “Scare Games.”  The bulk of the movie is their Oozma Kappa team stumbling through the challenges and succeeding through teamwork, creativity, and less savory means.  The improvements in CGI animation since Monsters, Inc. is on display with several stunning scenes of monsters set against the red-brick, leafy college campus, and one spectacular image of Mike and Sully silhouetted against a moonlit lake.

On the one hand, credit is due for taking a chance and making the story of Monsters University so totally different from Monsters, Inc.  On the other hand, by adopting the tropes of academia comedy, the creators of Monsters University have failed to do anything approaching the creativity of its predecessor, and that’s a huge disappointent.  I’m not quite sure who this movie is made for since children won’t relate to the nostalgia of the college days’ gags and adults will get a few chuckles but no real belly laughs.  Still, the charm of Crystal, Goodman, & co. is enough to distract from the fact that this is a rehash of dozens of stories of ragtag bands of misfits using teamwork to win, and make this movie an entertaining diversion.

Rating: **1/2

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: Bambi (1942)

Title: Bambi
Release Date: August 21, 1942
Director: David Hand
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

When I was just about 2-years-old, my costume for Halloween was Bambi.  Not coincidentally, I learned that Bambi was re-released to theaters that same year.  I’m not sure if I saw the movie at the time, but I was familiar with the characters, and remember really liking Thumper and Flower.

Nevertheless, it’s most likely that at the age of 45, I’ve just watched Bambi for the first time.  Bambi is an episodic film featuring vignettes of Bambi’s first year or so of life, as he learns to walk, makes friends, and learns to do things deer do like find food.  More seriously, he has to deal with the threats of Man which come in the forms of gunshots, packs of hunting dogs, and wildfire.

It’s an endearingly sweet film with some notably tear-inducing heartbreak.  And while the animals may be too anthropomorphized to be lifelike, I think the creators of this film really did capture the essence of human toddlers in the actions of Bambi and his friends.  The animation is beautiful, with backgrounds that look like oil pointings, albeit they are also too static to represent a real wilderness.

Anyhow, Bambi is a classic for a reason.  Don’t wait too long to watch it.  And keep some tissues handy.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

TitleThe Princess and the Frog
Release Date: December 11, 2009
Director:  Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Disney made a number of interesting decisions when adapting E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess, itself an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince” as an animated feature.  First, they returned to a traditional animation style after making several CGI-animation films.  The artists really embrace the classic style by making visual references to Disney classics of the 1950s & 1960s, particularly in the dance scenes which emulate Cinderella, while the animals playing jazz on the bayou are reminiscent of The Jungle Book.

The biggest decision was in making the lead character, Tiana, an African-American young woman – the first black Disney princess.  Tiana is a lovely character, a hard-worker trying to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant.  She is, of course, paired with Prince Naveen, who cares for nothing more than to eat, drink, and be merry.  The opposites attract plot has Tiana learning to have a little fun while Naveen becomes more responsible.  The weakest part of the plot is that it never really allows time for these two to fall in love, so when they start talking marriage it feels very rushed.  Otherwise, their time together on the bayou as frogs is delightful fun.

The final big decision was to set the story in New Orleans in the Jazz Age as well as more rural bayous in the vicinity.  New Orleans is a romantic location on its own, and in a sanitized version it’s a beautiful backdrop for the story.  Unfortunately, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of knowing that this story takes place during the time of vicious segregation.  The depictions of black and white people cheerfully rubbing elbows and Tianaand Naveen’s interracial marriage just wouldn’t have been allowed to happen.  To its credit, the movie does depict the inequality of New Orleans as Tiana and her mother ride a streetcar from the mansion of Tiana’s friend Charlotte to her own community of shotgun houses, and a pair of real estate agents basically try to cheat her out of buying an old mill for her restaurant unless she can come up with more money.  While it can be argued that a light family film is not going to be the best place to address Jim Crow, it should also be noted that they film didn’t need to be set in 1920s New Orleans.

All in all, this is a fun, entertaining movie with great visuals and musical numbers.

Rating: ***