Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)


Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Release Date: November 16, 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

My daughter has succumbed to the Harry Potter bug and wanted to watch the first movie this weekend (a bit of peer pressure since of her best buds was watching the movie too). I hadn’t seen this movie in about 17 years or so (!).  It was a reminder that the movie series (as does the book) starts off with a fairly simple plot compared with the intricate world-building it would acquire later.  It was also a reminder that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint were oh-so-little when this all started, and it was an impressive job of casting at that age to get actors who’d do so well over 8 movies and into their adult careers.  Chris Columbus takes a safe-but-boring approach to directing, I think some other directors are more creative and adventurous later in the series, but nevertheless the movie has its charms in bringing the books to life for the first time.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Title: Beauty and the Beast
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

I’ve been uninterested in Disney’s spate of live-action remakes of animated classics, but since I recently rewatched the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, and the 2017 remake is leaving Netflix soon, I figured I give it a watch to compare and contrast.

Overall, the remake is extraordinarily faithful to the original, with similar shots and dialogue. Some changes include an explanation for why no one knows of the castle in the woods, why the household staff was cursed along with the Prince, and a more active recurring role for Agethe, the enchantress.  Le Fou, while still a fop and a toady, feels much more like a human than a charicature.  An unecessary flashback scene explains the absence of Belle’s mother and reason for moving to the provincial village.  Plus there are four new songs in addition to all the original songs by the legendary, late lyricist Howard Ashman.  Overall, this all makes the movie feel bloated and I think it would be more effective if it were trimmed by about 20 to 30 minutes.

The advantage of traditional animation is that there’s already a sense of unreality built in, so the dancing dishware of the “Be Our Guest” number fits in well with the real girl Belle enjoying the show.  By contrast, the CGI versions of Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, et al seem to distract from the story and the development of Belle as a character.  Despite the additional 45 minutes, the romance of Belle and the Beast STILL feels rushed.

All this being said, I enjoyed the movie more than I expected.  Emma Watson is a terrific actor and I liked her take on Belle.  A diverse cast, which includes talented vocalists like Audra McDonald really built up the spectacle of the musical.  The Beast’s costume in this movie was reminiscent of the 1980s tv show so much that I thought for a moment that they got Ron Perlman to play the role.  The movie has a charm and style that is reminiscent of classic 1960s movie musicals like My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Mary Poppins, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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.

Walt Disney Animated Features


With plans to visit Walt Disney World for winter break, I decided to see how many Walt Disney theatrical animated features I could watch that I hadn’t seen before.  I made a list which included every movie from the Walt Disney Animation Studios from 1937 to present, as well as every Pixar Animation Studios movie from 1995 to present.  I did not include Disneytoons (mostly direct-to-video sequels but also some theatrical releases), films co-produced with other studios (like Studio Ghibli and Tim Burton), and hybrid live-action/animated films (such as Song of the South, Mary Poppins, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

My list is below, with movies I’ve seen at least once in bold, and if I’ve written a review for this blog, I’ve included a link and a star rating. One day I will complete this list, but I’m going to take a breather for now.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Pinocchio ***1/2
Fantasia
Dumbo – ***
Bambi – ***1/2
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Cinderella
Alice in Wonderland – **
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp – ***
Sleeping Beauty
One Hundred and One Dalmatians – ****1/2
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood – **
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers – ****
The Fox and the Hound ****
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under – **1/2
Beauty and the Beast ****
Aladdin
The Lion King
Pocahontas – **
Toy Story
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hercules – ***
Mulan – ***
A Bug’s Life
Tarzan – ***
Toy Story 2
Fantasia 2000
Dinosaur
The Emperor’s New Groove**1/2
Atlantis: The Lost Empire**
Monsters, Inc. – *****
Lilo & Stitch ****1/2
Treasure Planet
Finding Nemo – *****
Brother Bear
Home on the Range
The Incredibles – ****
Chicken Little
Cars
Meet the Robinsons
Ratatouille – ****
WALL-E ****
Bolt***1/2
Up – *****
The Princess and the Frog – ***
Toy Story 3
Tangled – ****
Cars 2 **1/2
Winnie the Pooh – ***1/2
Brave – ****1/2
Wreck-It Ralph***1/2
Monsters University – **1/2
Frozen – ****
Big Hero 6 – ****
Inside Out – ****
The Good Dinosaur
Zootopia – ****
Finding Dory
Moana – ****
Cars 3
Coco – ****
Incredibles 2 – ***
Ralph Breaks the Internet

Movie Review: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)


TitleThe Rescuers Down Under
Release Date: November 16, 1990
Director:  Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

There are a lot of interesting facts about The Rescuers Down Under:

  • it’s the first animated theatrical film sequel produced by Disney
  • it was released right in the midst of the Disney Renaissance but harkens back to the previous era
  • it was the first Disney film to be completed completely digitally without using a camera
  • part of the digital effects involved bringing Pixar, the first time Pixar and Disney collaborated

Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly engaging movie and doesn’t stand up well next to The Rescuers.  The animation is distinctly different and one of the movie’s strongest points, especially the opening tracking shot and the scenes of Cody flying on the back of Marahuté. Cody is kind of an Australian Christopher Robin who can organize groups of animals but isn’t a particularly compelling character.  The villainous poacher McLeach is another over-the-top Disney villain whose role is to be the scapegoat for humanity’s villainy in the film’s environmental message.  At least his pet monitor lizard Joanna is funny and entertaining.

There isn’t much story here and the movie goes off on odd tangents.  John Candy’s albatross character Wilbur is featured in a lengthy scene where is he trapped in a hospital run by mice who want to perform surgery on him without consent.  It’s a weird and annoying scene.  Another long scene shows Cody leading a team of imprisoned animals to get the keys to their escape, but this scene goes nowhere, and then we never see the other animals again (it feels like a later scene must’ve been cut).

The biggest flaw is that we just don’t get to spend much time with Bernard and Miss Bianca.  The scenes where they are onscreen are the strongest, with Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor showing great chemistry, but these scenes are few and far between.

Rating: **1/2

 

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)


TitleWreck-It Ralph
Release Date: November 2, 2012
DirectorRich Moore
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wreck-It Ralph does for video games what Toy Story did for toys, depicting the life of what arcade game characters do when no one is playing.  Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a character modeled on Donkey Kong, except he’s a big human rather than a big gorilla, who smashes things up until the hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), comes to save the day.  Feeling slighted that he’s not invited to Felix’s party for the 30th anniversary of the game, Ralph leaves the game to seek a medal that shows he can be a hero too.

Ralph ends up in a hyper-violent first-person shooter game called Hero’s Duty, where he’s able to get a medal, but also picks up a dangerous Cy-Bug.  Entering an escape pod, Ralph and the Cy-Bug are launched into another game, Sugar Rush, a go-kart race game set in a land of candy.  There Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a character who is an outsider in Sugar Rush due to glitches that make her teleport.  At first adversarial, Ralph and Vanellope team up and become friends, working together so that they can each find acceptance in their games.  Reilly and Silverman (and the animators) deserve a lot of credit for making the scenes between the two so heart-wrenching.

While not a particularly original story, Wreck-It Ralph has strong characters, brilliant visuals, and a lot of heart.  There are also a lot of gags and cameos that should be a treat for long-time gamers. There’s also some nice touches in giving the characters from older games some 8-bit flourishes even in the CGI animation. There’s also a scene of body horror featuring King Candy (Alan Tudyk, channelling Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter) that challenges Judge Doom falling into the vat of dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for Disney-induced nightmare fodder, so be warned.  Overall, Wreck-It Ralph is another quality family film from Disney.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Bolt (2008)


Title: Bolt
Release Date: November 21, 2008
Director: Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Bolt is a unapreciated gem from the Walt Disney Animation Studios.  The story is about Bolt, a German Shepherd (voiced by John Travolta), who stars in an action-adventure tv series as a bioengineered dog working with his teenaged owner, Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus, and by the way, nice trick of getting teen idols of different eras working together).  The conceit of the movie is that the entire production crew treat Bolt as if he is a dog with super powers in order to get the most natural performance from him. In this sense, it’s basically a doggy version of The Truman Show.

When Bolt escapes from his trailer in Hollywood and accidentally mailed to New York City he must find his way back home.  Helping him in this The Incredible Journey type of story is a cynical but tender-hearted alley cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), and the energetic hamster, Rhino (Mark Walton), who recognizes and reveres Bolt as a superdog from watching the tv show.  Along the journey, Mittens has to convince Bolt that he’s an ordinary dog – reminiscent of Woody convincing Buzz that he’s a toy – but with heartwarming scenes of Mittens teaching Bolt to enjoy regular dog things.

I’ve pointed out some similarities that Bolt shares with other movies, but even where Bolt feels familiar, it pieces these elements together in a fresh way.  It’s also a very funny movie, I particularly like the recurring pigeon characters.  In many ways it feels more like a Pixar film of that era (it came out not too long after Ratatouille), than a Disney Animation film of that same period, and perhaps would’ve been better received if it was released as a Pixar movie.  Perhaps not surprisingly this is also the first movie developed after former Pixar chief John Lasseter had control over all of Disney’s animation studios.  And it can’t be denied that Lasseter had good judgement in making movies, even if he is a lousy person who sexually violated his employees (good riddance!).

If you like funny and heartwarming family films, and you like heroic dogs, you can’t go wrong with Bolt.

Rating: ***1/2

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: ***