Movie Review: Pocahontas (1995)


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

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: Hercules (1997)


TitleHercules
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Director:  Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

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: Brave (2012)


TitleBrave
Release Date: June 22, 2012
Director: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Production Company: Walt Disney Picture / Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Pixar’s story of a rebellious Scottish princess is another instant classic.  Merida enjoys a life where she can spend her time on horse riding and archery and has no interest in her parents’ expectations that she marry a suitor from of the kingdom’s three clans.  The story is very familiar, and one true to life to feudal societies, but it is all a frame to the much more relatable struggles of a her girl with her mother.

Seeking to change Queen Elinor’s mind, Merida asks the help of a hilarious witch – er, wood carver – whose tricky solution is to literally transform Elinor into a bear.  Girl and bear then must face various challenges together that bring them closer together and better understand the other’s point of view.

In addition to a satisfying story, this movie also has a ton of humor, including the comical body movements of characters like King Fergus, Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers, the aforementioned witch, and Elinor’s efforts to learn to be a bear.  It’s also beautifully animated and I was stunned when freezing the movie how lifelike the scene appeared.

If you are like me and haven’t seen Brave up until now, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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
Summary/Review:

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: ***

Movie Review: Robin Hood (1973)


TitleRobin Hood
Release Date: November 8, 1973
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Robin Hood is a strange movie.  The English legend is loosely adapted with all the characters portrayed as anthropomorphic animals, which is an interesting touch.  Doubly odd, despite the English setting, the music has a country twang and some – but not all – of the characters have a drawl rather than an English accent (I do like the music by Roger Miller, even if it doesn’t seem to fit). Although the movie was made in 1973 (in fact, it was the #1 movie in the United States the week of my birth!), it feels much older.  The animation is limited and lacks the artistry of earlier Disney films.  Dance sequences were recycled from earlier Disney animated features, and other elements feel derivative, like Little John essentially being the same as Baloo from The Jungle Book.  The movie is episodic with each sequence generally being different ways that Robin Hood & co can humiliate Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.  While Robin Hood has its charms, I did find myself wondering when it was going end, which is not a good sign for a movie that is only 80 minutes long.

Rating: **

Theater Review: Pippin


Show: Pippin
Venue: Footlight Club
Date: September 21, 2018

Taking a Friday night date night performance of Pippin at the Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain fulfilled two long-term goals.  First, after eleven years living in Jamaica Plain, we finally made it to a show at the Footlight Club, a lovely and historic playhouse.  Second, I’ve liked the music from Pippin – especially the song “Corner of the Sky” – for a long time, but I’d never seen it performed.

I had a vague understanding that this musical was about Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, and his involvement with a troop of players.  Vague is more accurate than I realized. Pippin, Charlemagne, and the other characters share the names with historical figures, but otherwise have no historical parallels.  In fact, the show is designed to remind the audience that what we’re seeing is an artifice, a performance but on by a troop of players (who are performed by our real live actors).

The basic plot is young Pippin’s yearning to find meaning to his existence.  In the first act he joins his father’s army, experiments with meaningless sexual encounters, and plots a revolution to overthrow is father’s tyranny.  In the second act, he falls into despair and is restored to health by the widow Catherine, who owns a large farm.  While Pippin does not enjoy the daily routine of manual labor, he falls in love with Catherine and grows fond of her son, Theo.  The finale features Pippin deciding between the temptation of the Leading Player’s “perfect” but self-destructive act, or a quiet life with Catherine and Theo. It’s a much darker play than I imagined, and the music and the humor balances a sometimes cynical, sometimes sarcastic critique of the human condition.

The Footlight Club cast is absolutely wonderful. Andrea Giangreco needs to be singled-out for her performance as the Leading Player which she filled with exuberance and joy, cleverly uncovering the character’s manipulative and cruel side over the course of the play.  Mary O’Donnell’s performance as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe provided the standout musical number of “No Time at All.” Not only was O’Donnell’s singing humorous and heartwarming, but the ensemble helped the audience participate by displaying the lyrics to the chorus through a remarkable trick of opening trunks and suitcases.  I can’t imagine how long they rehearsed that!  The Bob Fosse choreography screams FOSSE, but it’s still awe-inspiring.

If you’re in or near JP, make your way to the Footlight Club to see Pippin before it closes on September 29th.

Movie Review: Zombies (2018)


TitleZombies
Release Date: 16 February 2018
Director:  Paul Hoen
Production Company: Princessa Productions, LTD
Summary/Review:

The Disney Channel heavily promoted this high school romantic comedy musical about zombies and cheerleaders, and it sounded so awe-sinine we felt compelled to watch it. The story begins 50 years after a zombie apocalypse when technology in a wristband helps prevent zombies from craving brains and basically live as ordinary people, albeit with green hair and pancake makeup. Despite this, there is still severs discrimination against zombies who are forced to live in a run down part of town behind a wall, wear government issued clothing, and have curfews.

Zed (Milo Manheim) is an idealistic zombie excited to be among the first group of zombies allowed to attend Seabrook High School where he hopes to play football. Addison (Meg Donnelly) is the daughter of the mayor and chief of police raised from childhood to compete for a spot on Seabrook High School’s illustrious cheer squad.  Zed and Addison meet, fall in love, and help bring the human and zombie communities together through big dance numbers.

The story is of course Romeo & Juliet by way of West Side Story (Addison and Zed sing a song called “Someday” which is an homage to “Somewhere” in West Side Story).  There are also influences from Teen Wolf (Zed uses his zombie strength to excel at football and gain popularity), and Addison’s story draws from Pleasantville and other movies about teenagers dealing with small town conformity. There are also true life influences such as the Jim Crow period in the United States, South African apartheid, and the present divide of Palestine and Israel.  However, you can’t go to far with those metaphors since the oppressed minorities in this movie were once brain-eating zombies.

Zombies is not a great movie, but it’s young actors are charming, some of the songs are good, the dance numbers are impressive, and it’s depiction of segregation and prejudice may be a good introduction for young audiences.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Frozen: The Cinestory by Robert Simpson


Author: Robert Simpson
TitleFrozen: The Cinestory
Publication Info: Joe Books Inc. (2014)
Summary/Review:

I read this adaptation of the Disney musical Frozen with my daughter over the course of several bedtimes.  It’s essentially scenes from the film arranged in a comic book format.  Strangely enough, none of the lyrics to the songs that made this musical famous are included in the book.  Instead the same basic ideas are related in the dialogue.  I don’t know if this is a licensing issue or if they just thought it would work better in comic form without the songs.  Nevertheless, if you and your children enjoy Frozen, this is an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Sing (2016)


Title: Sing
Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director:  Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Summary/Review:

Zootopia used a city of anthropomorphic animals as the setting for a socially-conscious police procedural, and Sing does essentially the same thing for the musical comedy, albeit not as sophisticated. Koala Buster Moon is a show biz impresario who decides to save his decaying theater by staging a talent competition.  Cue audition scenes followed by rehearsals with quirky core group of ambitious talent: a soulful gorilla who does not want to be part of his father’s bank-robbing gang, a punk rock porcupine more talented than her self-centered boyfriend, an overworked mother of 25 piglets looking for a chance to express herself, an exuberant, Teutonic pig in sparkly dance leotards, and a shy, teenage elephant with a strong voice.

The movie is full of gags and generally funny enough to entertain both children and adults.  But it also contains some serious undertones and cynicism about show business that seems a bit heavy, especially a terrifying scene in which the theater is destroyed.  The movie has it’s flaws, among them a soundtrack that switches frenetically among popular songs (the licensing bill must’ve been huge) and is a bit a bloated at nearly two hours in length.  But it’s better than the sum of it’s parts with some joyous musical performances, especially in the final performance at the end of the film.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)


Title:  Pitch Perfect
Release Date: 5 October 2012
Director:Jason Moore
Production Co:Brownstone Productions
Country:USA
Language:English
Genre:Comedy | Musical
Rating: ***1/2

Recently, I’ve been seeing references to Anna Kendrick everywhere, as if the universe wishes for me to know of her existence.  So I decided to watch this musical comedy which has a reputation as a cult classic.  I went to a college with a big a cappella scene, but the fictional college in this film takes it to a new level, where vocal groups are the highly competitive center of campus life (and apparently members have incredible recall for song lyrics and instant harmonies).  The plot leaves a lot of questions (“why if the Bellas routines are so stale & boring do they keep finishing in the top 3?” “does anyone realize that Beca’s plan to use mashups as the basis of their new performance is something already called a medley?”), but this isn’t a movie you watch for the plot.  Instead you watch it for the funny dialogue, the showstopping musical numbers, and strong comic performances from Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, and Ben Platt.  It’s kind of Animal House with harmony, but with the heart of an 80s John Hughes film (with a very obvious shout-out to The Breakfast Club as a plot point).  So, put me down as a fan of Kendrick and Pitch Perfect.  I’m ready for the sequel.