Movie Review: West Side Story (2021)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: November 29, 2021
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company:Amblin Entertainment | TSG Entertainment[
Summary/Review:

A remake (or, in Broadway terms, a revival) of West Side Story seems unnecessary, and most of the reviews I’ve seen of this version make the same kind of comments about how “meh” it is so I will try not to repeat them.  The strengths of West Side Story include a cast of talented, young actors/singers/dancers with appropriate casting of Latin American performers as Latin American characters (addressing the greatest flaw of the original film).  Rachel Zegler is delightful as Maria, and Ansel Elgort is serviceable as Tony.  David Alvarez and Mike Faist are great as Bernardo and Riff, but feel underused.  Just like the original movie, the role of Anita is the best performance, this time played by Ariana DeBose.

For a remake to work you’d expect a lot of significant changes, but the movie feels largely to tell the same story. It does feel like they were trying to make it feel “grittier” and more realistic, but it doesn’t really fit the tone of the musical.  And there’s so much lens flare it frequently obscures the actors’ faces.  For all the Spielberg wanted to make a musical, this ended up with song and dance numbers that feel subdued.  The only set piece that really made me feel “Wow!” is “America.”

The things that they do change feel minor. The entire story is framed by the pressures of urban renewal/slum clearance, a meta-commentary on how the original film was shot on streets condemned to make  way for Lincoln Center. The drug store owner/neighborhood mentor is now a woman named Valentina, a role obviously created to give a much-deserved part to Rita Moreno, and she does an excellent job.  Anybodys is played by a transgender actor,  iris menas, adding a new layer to that character.  But all of these changes seem to just be another ingredient tossed into a big soup of the movie so they don’t feel like they amount to much.

In sum, this movie has some great shots, talented acting, and a few new ideas, but it doesn’t add up to being anything more than an adequate movie.

Rating: **1/2

 

Hamilton and other theatrical productions I have seen


On Thursday night, I took my daughter to see Hamilton at the Providence Performing Arts Center (there’s a nice review from The Providence Journal). We’d watched the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney+ and listened to the cast recording countless times but this was the first time we attended a live performance.  It was nice to get the wide view from the First Dress Circle where we could see the intricate choreography of the ensemble cast.  I was also impressed with the lighting design.  And it was interesting to see the different takes the actors had on the characters from the original cast.  Not related to the show, the Providence Performing Arts Center is a lovely theater although a bit short on leg room.

Anyhow, it got be thinking of what other theatrical productions I’d seen in my life.  So I brainstormed a list with the help of some old ticket stubs I’ve collected.

Broadway

  • Annie (early 1980s) at the Alvin Theatre – I remember getting autographs from the young cast members outside the theater although those weren’t saved. Sarah Jessica Parker might’ve been in the cast at the time.
  • Barnum (early 1980s) at the St. James Theatre – A musical about the life of P.T. Barnum long before The Greatest Showman. I remember being impressed by a woman purportedly supposed to be George Washington’s nurse singing a bluesy tune.  Also, jugglers and acrobats performed in the audience before the show.
  • Peter Pan (early 1980s) – A revival of the 1954 musical starring Sandy Duncan.  She flew out over the audience at the end of the show.
  • Lost in Yonkers (December 29, 1992) at Richard Rogers Theatre – A nostalgic comedy-drama by Neil Simon. Didi Conn played the main role replacing Mercedes Ruehl, much to the disgruntlement of my sister.
  • Jelly Roll (January 10, 1995) at 47th Street Theatre – A biographical musical about jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.  I remember that it was performed by the second cast much to the disgruntlement of the guy behind me.
  • A Funny Thing Happened on Way to the Forum (March 19, 1997) at St. James Theatre – Whoopi Goldberg starred in the lead role that previously had been reserved for a man.
  • Once Upon a Mattress (March 19, 1997) at Broadhurst Theater -Sarah Jessica Parker was definitely in this show.
  • The Lion King (January 22, 2000) at New Amsterdam Theatre – Some friends convinced me to get SRO tickets for this show although I was resistant to Disney musicals at that point in my life.  I ended up liking it.
  • Monty Python’s Spamalot (November 19, 2005) at Shubert Theatre – As a long time fan of Monty Python and Tim Curry, I was eager to so this show and was severely disappointed.  Maybe because the cast felt like they were phoning it in the whole time?

Off-Broadway

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (early 1980s) at Radio City Music Hall – This production was made long before Disney movies were routinely adapted into Broadway musicals.  My dad took us to this show because he felt we needed to see something at the great Radio City Music Hall.
  • The Fantasticks (January 1995) at Sullivan Street Playhouse – Saw world’s longest-running musical when it was in the 35th year of its 42-year run. It was great.

West End

  • The Mousetrap (February 28, 1998) at St Martin’s Theatre – Since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York I had to see the world’s longest-running play of any kind in London.  This is a famous Agatha Christie murder mystery.
  • An Inspector Calls (February 28, 1998) at the Royal Theatre  – The second show I saw on the same night that featured people impersonating police officers.  This one was a satire of Edwardian society.

Touring Productions

  • Les Miserables (August 2, 1990) at National Theatre – The summer I went to a high school program at Georgetown University, I learned that big, bold, Broadway musicals are good actually.
  • 42nd Street (February 7, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – Part of a series of shows my Mom and I went to see when I was in college.
  • Last of the Red Hot Lovers (May 9, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – This production starred Don Knotts and Barbara Eden!
  • Camelot (October 24, 1993) at Chrysler Hall – I’ve loved Camelot since watching the filmed version of the 1982 revival so I was eager to see a live performance. Robert Goulet, who played Lancelot in the original production, starred is King Arthur.  This was a bit of a waste of his big voice since Arthur’s part was written for a lesser singer, but it was still fun and inspiring.
  • Rent (August 26, 1997) at National Theatre – The musical that brought a 1990s sensibility to Broadway.  I saw this with some friends in Washington and then listened to the cast recording for the next year.

Repertory, Community, and College Theaters, etc. 

  • Fiddler on the Roof (late 1980s) – My childhood parish had a community theater called the St. Catherine Players, although the performers weren’t generally members of the congregation.  Anyhow, I first saw this terrific musical about Jewish people in Russia in the basement of a Roman Catholic church.
  • Broadway Bound (August 1990) at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse – This is the third in a trilogy of Neil Simon’s plays after Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues (which I only saw as movies).
  • Antigone (August 1990) at Tisbury Amphitheater – This was a modernized take of the Sophocles’ play performed in a lovely wooded setting on Martha’s Vineyard.
  • All the King’s Men (Autumn 1991) at William and Mary Theatre – Robert Penn Warren’s fictionalized story of Huey Long was set to music by Randy Newman.
  • Once Upon a Mattress (October 16, 1992) at William and Mary Theatre – I saw this on a bad date.
  • Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at Matthew Whaley School – Sometime, I some group perform this at a public school in Williamsburg.  It was good, I recall.
  • Godspell (April 1993) at St. Bede’s Catholic Church Parish Hall – The Catholic/Episcopal Covenant Players performed this at William & Mary.
  • Night Sky (November 19, 1993) at William and Mary Theatre – A play in which the protagonist suffers from aphasia after an accident.  This was part of a much better date to celebrate my birthday.
  • Working (April 1994?) at The Fellowship Hall at the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church – Another Covenant Players production of a musical by Studs Terkel.
  • Into the Woods (January 20, 1994) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – The Sinfonicron Light Opera Company performed this Stephen Sondheim musical.  I remember feeling it was mean-spirited and feeling very depressed after watching it.  I’d probably like it better if I was in a better mind.
  • Helene (April 14, 1995) at William and Mary Theatre – I know this has something to do with Greek mythology, but I have no recollection what it was about.
  • Junebug/Jack (September 9, 1995) at The Arts Center Theatre – Another show I don’t clearly remember but it looks like something I would like.
  • Jim Crow Gotta Go (April 13, 1996) at William and Mary Theatre – I think that this was a touring production based on oral history experiences of people in a Southern town during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Walk Together Children (1996) – This was a production that took its inspiration from Jim Crow Gotta Go to specifically focus on the stories of people in Williamsburg.  My good friend and housemate worked on producing this show.
  • Crazy For You (October 17, 1997) at William and Mary Theatre – A romantic comedy musical with Gershwin brothers songs that I thought was funnier than my date did.  But it was still a good date.
  • Angels in America: Part One (April 18, 1998) at William and Mary Theatre – A production of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking drama about the AIDS crisis in the gay community was still controversial in Williamsburg 23 years ago
  • Jesus Christ Superstar (May 11, 2000) at Turtle Lane Playhouse – The main thing I remember about this production is that they made Mary Magdalene look like Monica Lewinski.
  • Blue Man Group – “Tubes” (September 8, 2000) at The Charles Playhouse – Got to see this show free-of-charge for participants of the Boston -> New York AIDSRide.  A Blue Man spat a piece of chewed-up Toblerone in my hand.  It was gross.
  • Miss Folk America (May 19, 2001) at Somerville Theatre – A comedy about the Boston area folk scene starring some of our favorite singer/songwriters at the time as fictional versions of themselves.  Extremely niche.
  • Nixon’s Nixon (March 2002) at Huntington Theatre – I volunteered as an usher and got to watch this comic drama of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the last night of Nixon’s presidency.
  • Blithe Spirit (February 19, 2004) at Walpole Footlighters – A colleague of Susan’s was involved in this production of the Noël Coward comedy.
  • The Birthday Party  (March 2004) at American Repertory Theatre – A very strange and very uncomfortable Harold Pinter play with the set’s furniture slowly being pushed into the center of the stage.
  • The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (2006?) at Cyclorama – A woman artist adopts the persona of Darryl Strawberry and becomes a success painting pictures of chickens.  Surprisingly it works.
  • Pippin (September 21, 2018) at Footlight Club -I’d long loved the music from this show but it wasn’t quite expected.
  • The Haunted Life (March 23, 2019) at Merrimack Repertory Theatre – An adaptation of a autobiographical Jack Kerouac novel about growing up in Lowell.

Shakespeare

  • Macbeth (Summer 1992) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – This was part of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival.  The star of the show also taught a theater course I took at William & Mary that summer.
  • Twelfth Night (February 25, 1993) at William and Mary Theatre – I played Sir Toby Belch in a high school production of Twelfth Night, so I love this comedy, but I don’t remember this William & Mary production at all.
  • Richard III (July 22, 1995) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Another Virginia Shakespeare Festival production.
  • Measure for Measure (July 28, 1998) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – The main thing I remember about this Virginia Shakespeare Festival production is that they emphasized style over substance and I really hated it.  Also, music by the Gipsy Kings.
  • Twelfth Night (Summer 2001) at Boston Common – The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare on the Common set Twelfth Night in the early-60s JFK/Camelot era.
  • Macbeth (2003) at Boston Common – Another Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production that moved the Scottish tragedy to Juan Perón’s Argentina.  Memorably, the three witches remained on stage for the entire show, pulling strings in the background.
  • Hamlet (2005) at Boston Common – In this production, the Danish prince had a swimming pool, I think?

Opera, Light Opera, Ballet, etc.

  • Romeo and Juliet (October 20, 1991) at Chrysler Hall – This was the first ballet I ever saw performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  However, the main thing I remember about this performance is that my sister mistook a Navy officer in his dress uniform for an usher.  Welcome to Norfolk!
  • Patience (January 19, 1995) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Another Sinfonicron Light Opera Company performance.  This made me realize that I really don’t like Gilbert & Sullivan
  • La Boheme (January 21, 1997) at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall – Having seen Rent, I saw the original with my Mom. Mimi has a strong voice for someone with consumption.
  • The Magic Flute (1997?) at Harrison Opera House – My first opera, also in Norfolk.
  • The Nutcracker (December 30, 2005) at The Opera House – Amazingly, I’ve only seen this ballet once, performed by Boston Ballet.  Maybe next Christmas?
  • Semele (September 28, 2006) at New York State Theatre – This was an adaptation of an oratorio by Handel that made the main character in Marilyn Monroe.
  • Urban Nutcracker (December 16, 2006) at John Hancock Hall – Another Christmas classic I need to see again.
  • Madama Butterfly (April 22, 2007) at New York State Theatre – A treat from my mother that I saw with Susan in the last months before we became parents.
  • Così fan tutte (March 24, 2018) at Metropolitan Opera House – My first show at the Met set the Mozart opera in a Coney Island-style beach resort. Broadway star Kelli O’Hara made a nice transition to opera.

I’ll add more if I remember them.

Movie Review: In The Heights (2021)


Title: In The Heights
Release Date: June 10, 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Production Company: 5000 Broadway Productions | Barrio Grrrl! Productions | Likely Story | SGS Pictures | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

In the Heights adapts a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and Moana fame) with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on her book for the musical).  The film tells the story of several people and their dreams in the Latin American enclave of Washington Heights in New York City, mainly of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds. Like most musicals, the narrative is slight but the song and dance numbers are spectacular.  The movie also features a surprising number of special effects that add to the wow factor. Put together this movie packs an emotional punch.

The main characters include:

Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who doubles as the movie’s narrator, a young adult who runs a bodega and dreams to returning to the Dominican Republic where he had his happiest days as a child.

Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), who works as a hair stlyist but dreams of moving downtown and pursuing a career in fashion designer. She is also Usnavi’s crush who gradually realizes that that feelings are mutual.

Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), who returns after her first year at Stanford University and feels conflicted about bearing the expectations of the community for her success while missing the community while at school and concerned that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits) is sacrificing too much to pay tuition.

Benny (Corey Hawkins), an ambitious young man who works as a dispatcher for Kevin’s car and limousine business. He is also a love interest for Nina.

Sonny de la Vega (Gregory Diaz IV), is Usnavi’s cousin who works in the bodega.  Usnavi wants Sonny to come with him to the Dominican Republic, but Sonny only ever remembers living in New York and wants to follow Nina’s example and go to college.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), an elderly Cuban woman who is Usnavi’s foster mother and a highly-regarded member of the community (and an amazing singer!).

The story is primarily set over the three hottest days of the summer (channeling the more cheerful parts of Do the Right Thing) leading up to a blackout.  The characters deal with the everyday struggles of love and money, while touching on bigger issues like gentrification (that’s forcing the beauty salon to move to the Bronx) and the rights of undocumented immigrants (particularly DACA). It’s an excellent movie, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  In fact it was my first cinematic experience since before the pandemic!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)


Title: Mary Poppins Returns
Release Date:
Director: Rob MarshDecember 19, 2018all
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Lucamar Productions |Marc Platt Production
Summary/Review:

It’s the Great Depression in London, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower with three children, is at risk of having his house repossessed by the very same bank that employed his father. His children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), have matured quickly and almost have to parent their grieving father. Even their Aunt Jane (a winsome Emily Mortimer), a labor organizer who has retained the joie de vivre of her childhood, is distraught by the potential loss of the family house.

Into this milieu steps Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt capably stepping into Julie Andrews’ shoes), who arrives to set things right by giving the children the chance to be children, help Michael recover his childlike sense of wonder, and oddly, pairing off the confident single woman Jane with a man. At least in this old-fashioned notion of forced pair bonding, Jane is matched up with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a charming lamplighter who fills the role of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert.

I’m struck by how much this sequel follows the same structure as its predecessor. Mary takes the kids on a couple of fantastical adventures – an undersea journey through the bathtub and into a ceramic bowl. They visit a relative who ends up on the ceiling, in this case Meryl Streep as Topsy. They dance with the working class laborers of London, in this case Jack and his fellow lamplighters. There is a final showdown in the bank. And the film ends with a day in the park but instead of flying kites, the characters themselves fly on magical balloons, with Angela Lansbury in a singing cameo as the Balloon Lady.

The song and dance number provide wonderful choreography and spectacle. I particularly enjoy the lamplighters’ number incorporating bicycles. This is a very bike-positive movie over all. And the animation of the ceramic bowl is very well done too. Unfortunately, none of the songs really made an impression. The music isn’t bad, there’s just nothing I remember after the fact that can stand by “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”


Movies made over 50 years typically do not need sequels, particularly classics like Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins Returns offers little to justify its existence. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, it just lacks the ambition to be great. Nevertheless, it does have enough whimsy and charm to fill a couple of hours should you be so inclined.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)


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

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Cinderella (1950)


Title: Cinderella
Release Date: March 4, 1950
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, & Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve gone and done it!  I’ve watched every single Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  I saved one of the most famous for last. Cinderella essentially made the Walt Disney Company as we know it today (or as we’ve known it for most of the past 70 years because the company has changed considerably in just the past decade) inaugurating a new golden age of animated films, ventures into television, and ultimately theme parks.  Cinderella Castle towers over the Magic Kingdom in Florida to remind you of the film’s importance.

Cinderella may also be one of the best known fairy tales outside of the movies, so I figured I knew the basic plot.  What surprised me in the Disney version is that the movie is told largely from the perspective of two mice, Jaq and Gus.  The first 20 minutes of the movie is almost all about the exploits of the household mice with Cinderella as an incidental background character.  It’s both a daring storytelling choice but ultimately a bit off-putting.  I just kind of wanted the Cinderella’s story to get started already.

While I had no idea the movie so prominently featured mice, I was well aware of the Fairy Godmother and her famous song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”.  So I was surprised that the Fairy Godmother literally appears in just one scene and there’s really no explanation for her existence other than to get Cinderella to the ball.

The movie is well animated and the music is solid and the mice are cute, but something about Cinderella just feels off.  I think Sleeping Beauty, a movie considered less successful than Cinderella, did a much better job with mixing story, character, humor, and drama.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

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

Movie Review: The Aristocats (1970)


Title: The Aristocats
Release Date: December 24, 1970
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I thought I may have seen The Aristocats as a child, but upon watching it for this review, I think I may have only seen some scenes of the movie.  The story is basically Lady and the Tramp (with cats) crossed with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (with cats). It clearly comes from the era when Disney didn’t know what to do next with their animated films.  Dutchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens are set to be heirs to their owners fortune, leading the butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to try to get rid of them.

Stranded in the countryside, alleycat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) helps them back to Paris while wooing Duchess.  After dancing with Scat Cat’s (Scatman) jazz band, and some further hijinx, the cats are reunited with their owner and extract their revenge on Edgar.  The animation is limited for a Disney production although there is some interesting color and motion in the dance scenes.  Two floppy-eared dogs and a motorcycle play a part in some great comedic scenes.  On the downside there is a horribly racist depiction of a cat with the worst Chinese stereotypes.

Other than that, there is nothing really bad about The Aristocats, but there’s also nothing really good about the movie.  It’s just kind of is.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)


Title: Fantasia
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid, my family never bought prerecorded VHS tapes of movies, and yet we somehow ended up with a copy of Fantasia.  And with no urgency to return it to the rental store, it sat on the shelf unwatched for years. Still, somewhere along the way I saw portions of Fantasia elsewhere, particularly The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This was my first time watching the movie in full.

The movie features the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, performing on a backlit stage so that the various instrumentalists appear as large shadows as they perform.  This blends into the first animated segment Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which builds on the music with abstract imagery.

The remaining segments include:

  • The Nutcracker Suite – a ballet performed by various plants and animals.  Amazingly, master of ceremonies Deems Taylor introduces this piece as “rarely performed.” The Nutcracker being popularized by Disney is even more amazing than “Aquarela do Brasil” being made popular by Saludos Amigos.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the most famous segment stars Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whose attempt to use magic to avoid doing his cleaning work leads to a comic disaster.
  • Rite of Spring – a depiction of the primeval world from the first single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs.
  • The Pastoral Symphony – Unicorns, pegasus, fauns, centaurs, and cherubs frolic about in scenes from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life (albeit with more bare breasts than you’d expect from an animated movie made in 1940).  Bacchus tries to celebrate but Zeus disrupts the proceedings by throwing lightning bolts.
  • Dance of the Hours – perhaps the other most famous sequence, this is a comedic ballet featuring ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and alligators.  And then it gets weird.
  • Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – just a wild party featuring various demons, followed by a peaceful lantern-lit procession.

For what it is, an experimental combination of music, movement, color, and imagination, Fantasia is fantastic.  What it isn’t is a family movie you can watch with your kids, although individual segments may be worth watching alone if you’re introducing your kids to music appreciation.  The movie is on the long side and Deems Taylor’s lengthy introductions don’t help it move along.  Fantasia may have worked better as a shorter feature with fewer segments, or even just short films, that carried on as anthology series as Walt Disney intended.  Nevertheless, it remains a spectacular combination of sight and sound.

Rating: ****