I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life. The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.
Title: The Cat from Outer Space Release Date: June 30, 1978 Director: Norman Tokar Production Company: Walt Disney Productions Summary/Review:
The whole 50 Years, 50 Movies project is in a sense autobiographical, so let’s go back to one of the earliest movies I remember seeing in the movie theater. Star Wars may be the first movie I saw since it was released in 1977 but in my memory it came later (was it re-released in summer 1978?). In 1978, I remember seeing Heaven Can Wait, Superman, and the Radio City Music Hall premiere of The Magic of Lassie. I also remembered not being able to see Grease because I was grounded (I didn’t miss much). But even though I only saw it once as a 4-year-old, I’ve always held a fondness for The Cat from Outer Space.
Well, it’s as cheezy as you might expect from a 1970s Disney movie and stylistically hasn’t changed much since Blackbeard’s Ghost. Released shortly after Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the special effects are lacking, but they’re not really trying to be a special-effects spectacular. See, there’s this alien cat, nicknamed Jake (played by Rumpler and Amber and voiced by Ronnie Schell), who makes an emergency landing on Earth. He reveals himself to scientist Frank Wilson (Ken Berry) for assistance in repairing his spacecraft. In turn, Frank brings in two other scientists, the inveterate gambler Norman Link (McLean Stevenson) and his romantic interest Liz Bartlett (Sandy Duncan). Meanwhile they are being pursued by the military under General Stilton (Harry Morgan) and an industrial spy named Stallwood (Roddy McDowall).
The movie holds up better than expected and I love Jake the space cat, and Duncan and Stevenson’s performances are charming. I’m also amused that Stevenson and Morgan are both M*A*S*H veterans playing characters similar to the tv show. The movie runs a little long and a whole section in which Jake uses his powers to help the win money gambling could be pared down significantly. But I feel that in the right hands, and with a more charismatic lead actor, The Cat From Outer Space could be remade today as an excellent family film.
I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Strange World Release Date: November 23, 2022 Director: Don Hall and Qui Nguyen Production Company:Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios Summary/Review:
I’d wanted to see this movie in the theaters but was very busy in November and December, and then suddenly it was streaming. I finally figured that I won’t be seeing it on the big screen so I gave it a watch. The latest animated Disney feature explores familiar themes in a, um, strange world. In a land called Avalonia, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is an explorer intent on discovering what lies beyond the mountains surrounding their country. His son Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is content to live the life of a farmer and discovers Pando, a plant that provides a power source for Avalonia. Searcher’s teenage son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) has more of his grandfather’s eagerness to explore.
So we have two fathers who want their son to follow in their footsteps, and two sons who a resentful that their fathers won’t see them as who they really are. The three come together, along with Ethan’s mother/Searcher’s wife Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), in an adventure beneath the surface of Avalonia as they seek to learn why the root of the Pando plants appears to be dying. There’s a twist to the story that felt easy to anticipate, although it’s still makes the “strange world” an interesting concept. The visual design would’ve been worth seeing on a big screen, for sure.
Strange World is a perfectly cromulent movie, which while it doesn’t stand on par with other Disney animated movies of the past decade, it also didn’t deserve to be a box office bomb. I guess it could stand to be even stranger than it is and the father-son relationship story didn’t need to be pat. There’s something about Disney when the reach out into higher concept stories like The Black Cauldron, Dinosaur, or Atlantis: The Lost Empire where they just miss the mark of something that could’ve been great. Who knows, maybe Strange World can be the source of fantastic attraction at Epcot one day.
I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Adventures thru Walt Disney’s Archives Release Date: June 27, 2020 Director: John Gleim Production Company: The Walt Disney Studio Archives Summary/Review:
The Walt Disney Company maintains extensive archival collections of records related to its founder, films and TV programs, and its theme parks. It was founded by Dave Smith in 1970 and to my knowledge is a model of a corporate archives. A lot of companies, even big ones, still don’t even have archives or they’re very limited in scope. This documentary is hosted by Don Hahn (who directed Waking Sleeping Beauty and produced Beauty and the Beast among other things) and humorously depicts his visit to several parts of the Walt Disney Archives.
As an archivist, I’m pleased to see positive representation of archives and archivists in media, especially since the field is so full of misconceptions. Hahn and the archives staff examine historical documents, photographs, props and costumes, and even a digitization laboratory. Historical researchers and people involved in making Disney productions also talk in interviews about how they use the archives, not to mention being wowed by the treasures it holds. But the archives staff is front and center in this movie which I think is really great.
Granted, the whole documentary is a long rah-rah celebration of Walt Disney and the company he founded. So you’re enjoyment of this movie will depend on how much you can tolerate corporate propaganda. But as an archivist and a Disney fan, I approve!
Title: Blackbeard’s Ghost Release Date: February 8, 1968 Director: Robert Stevenson Production Company: Walt Disney Productions Summary/Review:
This is not a scary movie in the very least. But it does have a ghost, and a classic New England fishing village setting, and it even has Elsa Lanchester of Bride of Frankenstein fame! But really I’m just exploiting the October mood as an excuse to watch some cornball comedy.
Steve Walker (Dean Jones) arrives in the fictional New England coastal town of Godolphin to begin work coaching the hapless track team at Godolphin College. As it typical of classic Hollywood era films, it is clearly filmed on the coast of California with rustic buildings added in. Walker’s lodgings are at the ramshackle hotel Blackbeard’s Inn, owned and operated by the eccentric old ladies of the Daughters of the Buccaneers, descendants of pirate Captain Edward Teach (including Lanchester). The Inn is under threat of acquisition by the local mob boss Silky Seymour (Joby Baker) so he can demolish it and build a casino. Through a series of events, Walker ends up summoning the ghost of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Peter Ustinov) himself. Hijinks ensue as Walker tries to strike up a romance with professor Jo Anne Baker (Suzanne Pleshette), win a tournament with his track team, and save the old ladies’ inn with Blackbeard messing everything up.
This movie is absolutely bonkers and had no right to be as funny as it is. The majority of the movie’s success lies in Ustinov’s over-the-top performance as Blackbeard, but the plot and script are charmingly bizarre as well. Pleshette looks pleasantly stoned throughout the movie which is probably a good way to take it all in. Still, it’s hard to believe this movie came out in 1968 because it feels far from the cultural zeitgeist. It could’ve been showing in theaters at the same time as The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also get the feeling that if Dean Jones was alive today, he’d be the type of person raging against how Disney is too “woke.”
I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.
Title: Frank and Ollie Release Date: October 20, 1995 Director: Theodore Thomas Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Theodore Thomas Productions Summary/Review:
I hadn’t planned it, but most of the documentaries I’m watching for A to Z are serious, social justice issues stuff. So it’s nice to tune into Disney+ for some lighter fare.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were animators and directors for Walt Disney Animation from the 1930s to the 1970s. They became known for their ability to animate characters with vibrant emotions. The movie focuses on their parallel careers at Disney, takes time to explicate some key character moments in Disney animated features, and talks about their multi-decade bromance. At the time this movie was made, Frank and Ollie were octogenarians who were not only best friends but nextdoor neighbors. This is some very sweet and wholesome content!
Like it says on the tin, this is a history of the legendary Disney Parks attraction, the Haunted Mansion. The story of its is one of competing ideas among the imagineers – some wanted it to be scary, some wanted it to be funny, and Walt mainly wanted it to be clean and well-maintained. The attraction opened after over a decade of planning and work, and despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of unity on what it should be, it became an instant classic. The book also carries us through on a virtual ride on a Doom Buggy exploring the different details and modifications made over the years. Would you believe they once had a live human performed in knight’s armor swinging a sword at passing guests? This is a fun and in-depth book about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it brilliant.
Title: Turning Red Release Date: March 11, 2022 Director: Domee Shi Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios Summary/Review:
Turning 13 comes with challenges for everyone, but for Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), it means that whenever she gets excited she turns into a giant red panda. Metaphors abound in this family comedy that deals with puberty, parental expectations, traditional Chinese spirituality, the beauty of friendship, and the power of boy bands in a multiethnic community in Toronto. I found there were some similarities in this premise to the 1980s comedy Teen Wolf, and a little bit to Pixar’s own Brave, but still an original and charming in its own right. The animation by Pixar is as always outstanding (and boo to Disney for not giving this a theatrical release), and there’s great voicework from Sandra Oh as Mei’s mother and Wai Ching Ho as her grandmother.
Author: Jason Surrell Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies Publication Info: Disney Editions (2005) Summary/Review:
Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my all-time favorite Disney attractions so it was a lot of fun to get a behind the scenes perspective on the history of the ride. Surrell, who was a Disney imagineer at the time of writing, digs into how the original Pirates came to be at Disneyland in the 1960s (one of the final projects with Walt’s direct involvement although he died a few months before it opened). Then he explores how the ride was adapted and changed for Florida, Tokyo, and Paris. The book also does a great runthrough of the ride experience in each location, with quotes from Imagineers who helped design them. Finally, the book concludes with a surprisingly interesting story behind the making of the first movie adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. This coffee table sized book is lavishly illustrated with everything from artistic sketches to models to photos of the ride in operation.
Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.
Title: Encanto Release Date: November 24, 2021 Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios Summary/Review:
In Disney’s latest animated musical, we meet the Madrigal family of Columbia who have magical abilities and live in an enchanted house (“Casita”). The main character is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a 15-year-old who is the only member of the family who did not receive a magical gift. The premise is simple, Mirabel must use her natural gifts of empathy and resourcefulness to hold the family together during a crisis.
This is one of those movies where a summary would not do the film justice. This is partly because much of the “magic” of this film is the bright colors and beautiful visuals. It’s also blessed with catch tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who seems to be everywhere these days). Finally the interrelation of the large, extended family each with individual talents and personality quirks just won’t translate to a list.
Title: Muppets Haunted Mansion Release Date: October 8, 2021 Director: Kirk Thatcher Production Company: Soapbox Films | The Muppets Studio Summary/Review: Kicking off this Halloween watch-a-thon with a brand new special on Disney+.
The Muppets and Disney’s Haunted Mansion are two of my favorite things, so bringing them together is right in my wheelhouse. The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) skip the Muppets’ Halloween party to take the challenge of staying in a haunted mansion overnight. Will Arnett plays the ghost house and numerous other celebrities (many of whom I don’t recognize) make cameos. Probably the best cameo for Haunted Mansion fans is Kim Irvine, an imagineer whose mother Leota Toombs appears in the original attraction. There are a few jump scares, including one with John Stamos of all people, but for the most part the show is corny dad jokes and clever songs. It starts off slow but it gets a lot better as it goes along. Definitely worth adding to the annual Halloween viewing rotation.