Title: The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17, 1989
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners IV
I don’t know what the experience was for moviegoers who saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the silver screen in 1937, but I can tell you that there was an incredible buzz in 1989 when The Little Mermaid was released. Disney was back. Growing up in the 70s and 80s it was hard to see the classic Disney animated features which you might see in a theatrical rerelease, or the Wonderful World of Disney or on the Disney Channel, but generally as a Gen X kid you just kind of knew these movies existed without actually seeing them. By the late 80s, Disney started trickling out VHS releases of classic films, but it was the Millennial kids who’d get to watch them over and over.
As for the movies Disney released during the 70s and 80s, this was a well-documented down period for the animation studio, although The Rescuers was a hit and I have a personal soft spot for The Fox and the Hound. The reputation of Disney movies during this time was that they were “kiddie movies.” Teenagers, and even older grade-school children would turn their noses up at them. The Little Mermaid was different. It was a movie audiences of all ages enjoyed.
One thing that set this movie apart is the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Teenage boys more macho than me at my high school enthusiastically admitted that they loved the songs. The calypso numbers by Sebastian the crab ( Samuel E. Wright), “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” were the gateway, tying into the World Music trend of the late 80s. All of the songs fit into to the story following the Broadway musical model, and the soundtrack proved very popular.
The animation for the film is also excellent, looking better than any Disney movie had for decades. The aforementioned musical numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly spectacular in the use of various marine life and visual gags. The fluid mermaid movements of Ariel (Jodi Benson) and her hair are also spectacularly brought to life in animation. While Ariel’s dream of marrying a prince may not be a particularly feminist plot, her characterization is more realistic and relatable than previous Disney portrayals of young women.
I hadn’t watched The Little Mermaid in a long, long time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and funny and just downright entertaining it remains after all of these years.
Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince. Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!
The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting. While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made. Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.
Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie. The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent. Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way. So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.
I saw two different films related to Yellowstone National Park available on Disney+ so I watched them both in preparation for my trip to Yellowstone.
Title: Yellowstone Cubs
Release Date: June 1, 1963
Director: Charles L. Draper
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
This 45-minute, live action short tells the story of two bear cubs, Tuffy and Tubby, who are separated from their mother. She is marked as a “bad bear” and exiled from the park and then spends the whole summer tracking down her cubs. Meanwhile Tuffy and Tubby cause mayhem like causing a trailer to roll down a hill and take out a tent, stealing a motorboat, and eating all the food left out unattended in the kitchen of the Old Faithful Inn.
It’s pretty clear that domesticated bears were used in making this films, and bear paw props were used for closeups when a paw manipulates a boat engine or a can of whipped cream. To be fair, this movie never claims to be a documentary or even a True Life Adventure, merely a funny story about bear cubs. It is surprising to see the opening credits confirm the involvement of the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, and Montana Game and Wildlife (I guess Wyoming wanted no part of this even though it’s where the movie takes place).
The message of this movie is made clear that feeding wild bears is dangerous for the bears and for human visitors for the park. And yet the folksy narration seems to undercut that with jokes about bears working the passing traffic for handouts (in front of signs prohibiting the feeding of bears). Times have certainly changed since this movie was made and so this movie serves as an odd time capsule rather something anyone should expect from a visit to Yellowstone.
Title: Wild Yellowstone
Release Date: December 3, 2015
Production Company: Brain Farm Digital Cinema
This two-part documentary follows much the same structure of the BBC Yellowstone documentary with an episode for winter (“The Frozen Frontier”) and summer (“Grizzly Summer”) focusing on the survival strategies of various animals. Unfortunately, despite some beautiful captures of animals in the wonderland of Yellowstone, the movie takes a sensationalist approach in its narration as well as editing tricks which involve quick cuts among slow-motion and time-lapse. I give this points for having lots and lots footage of otters as well as treating fights among hummingbirds as dramatically as fights among sheep, elk, and bison.
Title: Finding Dory
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
I know I watched Finding Dory, but for some reason I didn’t review it on this blog. Watching it again there were big parts of the movie I didn’t remember at all (I know, ironic, considering Dory’s condition) especially the conclusion when Hank the Septopus (Ed O’Neill) is driving a truck and crashes while a Louis Armstrong tune. Did I not review this movie because I didn’t finish watching this movie? Did I fall asleep? I hope not.
Anyhow, I’m glad I got to rewatch this sweet gem. Dory (Ellen Degeneres) works through her short-term memory loss by trying to find her parents. The search leads her the fictional Marine Life Institute on the coast of California. There she meets and is helped by cranky Hank, Destiny the Whale Shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the Beluga Whale (Ty Burrell). Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) follow along and try to catch up to their friend Dory, learning to be more like Dory in the process. And we meet Dory’s parents, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.
This movie is more of spinoff than a sequel to Finding Nemo, and it makes good use of the undersea universe to tell a fresh, funny, and heartwarming story. I especially like that Dory and most of the animals at the Marine Life Institute have a disability and the movie serves as a metaphor of how people live good lives with disabilities without being heavy-handed about it.
Title: Treasure Planet
Release Date: November 27, 2002
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
I’ve heard of steampunk and cyberpunk, but I guess this movie is sailpunk, since it involves sailing ships traveling through space. The retelling of Treasure Island in an alien setting has some fun features: Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes skysurfing, John Silver (Bryan Murray) is a cyborg, the captain is the anthropomorphic cat, Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), and a shapeshifting creature named Morph (Dane Davis).
But outside some impressive visuals, Treasure Planet doesn’t go far enough in reinventing Robert Louis Stevenson’s story as a space opera (and believe me, I just watched Treasure Island and Muppet Treasure Island, so I’m very familiar with the basic plot points that are repeated in all three interpretations. The movie soundtrack also features songs by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls that does nothing but date the movie to the early 2000s.
Treasure Planet isn’t bad, per se, but it had the potential to be so much more if the filmmakers had embraced the weirdness rather than playing it safe.
Title: Treasure Island
Release Date: July 29, 1950
Director: Byron Haskin
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Since I was watching Muppets Treasure Island and Treasure Planet for movie-watching projects, I decided to complete the trilogy of Disney adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel with this Technicolor spectacular. This was Disney’s first fully live-action film and benefits from moody set design and location filming in England.
12-year-old Bobby Driscoll plays Jim Hawkins as an all-American boy of the 50s and seems to specialize in making sour faces in reaction to other characters, but he does all right in the role. Robert Newton steals the show with his West Country accent and says everything you want to hear from a movie pirate. Denis O’Dea as Dr. Livesy adds some gravitas to balance the pirate antics.
Overall, it’s a good adventure, and while this move is clearly in the mold of 1950s family entertainment, it nevertheless holds up very well.
Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.
Title: Muppet Treasure Island
Release Date: February 16, 1996
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions
Muppet Treasure Island follows the same formula as The Muppet Christmas Carol: Adapt a 19th-century British literary work, cast a veteran English actor in the starring role, have Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) as the audience identification Muppets, and have the rest of the Muppets portray supporting characters and the chorus. I remember seeing this movie in the theater and was a bit underwhelmed, but on rewatch Muppet Treasure Island proves to be the rare movie that ends up being better than I remembered.
Much more so than the often somber A Christmas Carol, a pirate story plays to the Muppets’ anarchic strengths. Tim Curry brings roguish charm to Long John Silver, and Kevin Bishop is a a good-natured Jim Hawkins with a nice singing voice. Kermit (Whitmire) is perfect in the role of Captain Smollet. The music numbers are enjoyable, especially the bonkers setpiece “Cabin Fever”. I also love the running gag of rats going on a cruise.
Title: Meet the Robinsons
Release Date: March 23, 2007
Director: Stephen Anderson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Lewis (Jordan Fry), a 12-year-old orphan with a talent for inventing, creates a device that scans the mind for lost memories. After the memory scanner seemingly fails at a science fair, a 13-year-old time traveler from the future named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) tells Lewis he needs to protect the device from the Bowler Hat Guy (Steve Anderson), a literal cartoon villain with a twisted mustache. They travel to the future where Lewis meets Wilbur’s large and eccentric family while continuing to fight against the Bowler Hat Guy. Lewis finds himself with a feeling of belonging for the first time ever with the Robinsons, although naturally he cannot stay in the future.
There are a number of fairly obvious twists in the plot and some dark moments involving the sentient bowler hat. The movie tries hard to be clever but it often misses the mark, and I found myself groaning more often than laughing. The whole film seems like a failed attempt by Disney to make a Dreamworks-style animated film. The whole thing stinks of self-congratulatory mediocrity.
Title: Fantasia 2000
Release Date: December 17, 1999
Director: Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Produced by Roy E. Disney to fulfill his uncle Walt’s vision of Fantasia as a running series, Fantasia 2000 is a “meh” follow-up to the original classic. The animation for many of the segments is uninspired although there’s some basic weirdness such as flying whales in the Pines of Rome and flamingoes playing with a yo-yo The Carnival of the Animals, Finale. The absolute standout segment is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue featuring the intertwining lives of characters in Jazz Age New York City drawn in the style of Al Hirschfield. The movie also includes The Sorceror’s Apprentice from the original Fantasia.
The segments are introduced by celebrities including Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, and Angela Lansbury in a cutesy, ironic, 90s style that feels very dated. In hindsight it’s also unsettling to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by notorious sexual abuser James Levine. Much like the original, this movie may best be enjoyed by focusing on individual segments, but it seems underwhelming as a feature film. Let’s hope that Fantasia 2060 is much better.
Release Date: July 9, 1982
Director: Steven Lisberger
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions | Lisberger-Kushner Productions
I never saw Tron before even though I was in the key demographic for the movie when it was released. The movie is on the surface incomprehensible, but in reality it is the most basic of stories in which the good guys fight the bad guys for freedom. It’s just layered under so much technobabble that it’s easy to feel that you’re missing something deeper. There are some feints at having a message of fighting the dehumanizing affects of capitalism, but at the end the hero becomes the CEO of a tech company, so maybe not.
David Warner plays Dillinger, the evil tech company executive who shuts down access to the company’s mainframe to our hero program. Warner also plays Sark, the personification of the command program within the computer. Both Dillinger and Sark are reluctantly subservient to the Master Control Program (MCP), the sentient operating system hell bent on world domination. Programmers Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) want to regain access to their projects in the mainframe, so they bring in ex-employee-turned-video-arcade-operator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to hack the system and expose evidence of Dillinger’s wrong-doing. Flynn is almost instantly downloaded into the mainframe’s cyberspace.
Flynn must save and restore the cyberspace with the help of Alan’s security program named Tron (Boxleitner) and Lori’s input/output program Yori (Morgan). The famous Tron lightcycles make for a great visual effect and set piece, but sadly are only a small part of the movie. Much of the film is technobabble and characters moving from point to point to move the plot along. Bridges plays his character as if he was Han Solo becoming a nerdy hacker. The rest of the cast is kind of flat. I expect they were told to act like emotionless computer programs which is accurate but not very engaging.