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
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!
Author: Jeff Baham
Title: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2016)
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
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)
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.
Release Date: November 24, 2021
Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios
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.
I enjoyed Encanto and it’s a worthy addition to the growing library of Disney animated features.
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.
Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners
I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts. When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed. I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.
Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done. I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways. The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.
This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art). There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part. And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.
I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger. Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate. I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.
Title: Jungle Cruise
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Davis Entertainment | Seven Bucks Productions | Flynn Picture Company
Disney theme parks typically adapt movies into attractions, but sometime it goes in the other direction, successfully with The Pirates of the Caribbean, and not so successfully with The Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955 and actually was inspired by the True-Life Adventure movies, a series of nature documentaries that Walt Disney produced from 1948 to 1960, as well as the non-Disney movie The African Queen. The ride was originally planned to cruise past live animals but when it was realized they would mostly sleep during the day, they created audio-animatronic animals in naturalistic settings. Over time, the Jungle Cruise skippers began incorporating jokes and puns into their educational narration, and then some sillier scenes were added to the ride. All of this history is summed up well in a recent three part series of the Disney History Institute Podcast.
The Jungle Cruise seems almost destined to for film adaptation, the question is whether or not that adaptation was worth it. I’d say yes. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, returning to Disney after starring in Mary Poppins Returns) is an adventurous botanist pushing against the chauvinism of the scientific world in 1916 who goes to the Amazon to seek a legendary tree said to be able to heal all illnesses. She hires Frank (Dwayne Johnson, returning to Disney after starring in Moana) a punning trickster of a riverboat skipper to carry her up the Amazon to the tree. Along for the ride is Lily’s stuffy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).
The film is carried by Blunt and Johnson who have a great chemistry. The story is designed to undermine gender roles, but doesn’t make the mistake of pushing to far in the reversal. Lily and Frank each have strengths and they each show vulnerabilities. Even MacGregor proves not to be as useless as he initially appears. While Jungle Cruise is undeniably formulaic, there are some twists in the plot that are genuinely unexpecting. And as a delivery system for jokes and action sequences it is effective.
The downside of Jungle Cruise is that it is way too long. The movie may have been pared down if they chose one antagonist to develop instead of two. Instead the crew of La Quila have to contend with the German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) pursuing them in a submarine as well as the cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez). For a movie set in Brazil, there is a distinct lack of Brazilians among the many European characters. Indigenous people are still represented stereotypically even if it’s done as part of another gag about reversing expectations.
Jungle Cruise is a summer popcorn flick with some underlying substance, but not too much that it goes beyond just being a fun ride. In that way it is a worthy of the Disney attraction that gave it its name.
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar’s latest release is part Pixar formula, part innovation. The story is a coming-of-age comedy mixed with fantasy elements that is similar to other Pixar films. The animation veers away from the more photo-realistic style of recent Pixar releases with more cartoonish character designs and a fairy tale rendering of the Italian Riveria. The biggest disappointment is that Disney chose not to give this movie a wide theatrical release because I expect it looks amazing on the big screen.
The story centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young teenaged sea monster who is curious about the human “land monsters” and their artifacts that fall into the sea, but his strict parents warn him to keep away. Before he can get all moody and start singing “Part of Your World,” he is accidentally scooped up onto land by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an older teenage sea monster who has made a home for himself in an abandoned tower. The sea monsters take human form on dry land, the transformations being a great visual effect used throughout the movie.
The boys bond in friendship, and dreaming of exploring the world on a Vespa, they go to the local town. They meet Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous teenaged girl and misfit, and the trio work together to earn prize money in a triathlon of swimming, past eating, and bicycling. The movie tells a story of young people forming friendships and finding a place where they feel like where they belong, while dealing with bullying and prejudice. As you can expect from Pixar, there’s a lot of humor, charm, wonder, and tear-inducing heartfelt moments.
Title: Lady and the Tramp
Release Date: November 12, 2019
Director: Charlie Bean
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Taylor Made
The 1955 Disney animated feature Lady and the Tramp is a cute romantic comedy about jokes that attempts to derive humor through the aggressive deployment of ethnic stereotypes. Of any movie to get a modern day “live-action” remake, I figured Lady and the Tramp would be bound to be improved, especially since my favorite maybe-they’re-a-couple celebrities Tessa Thompson (as Lady) and Janelle Monáe (as Peg) were involved.
The remake succeeds at it’s basic point of being a cute, family-friendly story about dogs. It’s a movie that I expect parents will enjoy watching with their younger kids (although my kids were not interested in watching it). I’m not sure how much of the animals is CGI and how much is live animal actors, but the dogs looked like real dogs with animated faces. The cats and the rat, on the other hand look totally fake. The movie is overly long and seemingly didn’t have a director who could restrain himself from trying to make every moment magical. The movie would be improved with some judicious pruning.
The story is essentially the same as the 1955 original without the racism. In fact, the cast is racially diverse including a mix-raced couple as Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons). Hopefully no one will be watching a talking dog movie for a historically-accurate depiction of early 20th century America, but the fact that all the racial harmony is just as fantastical makes me feel a little sad.