Movie Review: Onward (2020)

Title: Onward
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

I was looking forward to seeing this movie when it came out last month, but suddenly we weren’t allowed to go out to the movies.  Thankfully, the Disney company decided to release it to Disney+ this weekend.

Onward is set in alternate universe of mythical creatures – elves, centaurs, unicorns, cyclops, pixies, fauns, and the like – where long ago beings determined that technology was easier than magic and settled into a quotidian suburban lifestyle.  Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an elf celebrating his 16th birthday. He never knew his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of an illness just before he was born and has been raised by his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).  Barley is an enthusiast for Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games which he believes are based on factual historic records.

Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father that she’s held until they were both 16.  It is a magic staff with a gem and a spell that will bring Wilden back for one day so he can see his sons.  While trying to cast the spell, Ian gets distracted and is only able to generate his father’s legs before the gem disintegrates.  Barley determines that they must perform a quest to find another gem before the 24 hours expire.

I won’t go into the details and be all spoilery for a brand-new movie, but Ian and Barley indeed go on their quest.  As should be expected from a Pixar movie there are many clever gags drawn from mythical creatures, and the ultimate point of this journey is that Ian and Barley will discover more about themselves and one another.  And, of course, there are heartrending moments of familial love, so be prepared to weep.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Title: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Release Date:  October 5, 1949
Director:  Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, and James Algar
Production Company:  Walt Disney Productions

This is the last of Disney’s package films of the 1940s, framed as stories about great characters, one from England and one from the USA.  Basil Rathbone narrates the story of Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Bing Crosby narrates (and sings) the story of Ichabod Crane from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  I remember watching this as a kid and being annoyed that it deviated so much from the sources.  As an adult, I’m more forgiving.  This will never be one of Disney’s all-time greats, but it has a sort of 1940s charm that makes it amusing diversion.  Both segments do some interesting things with flexible and comic animated horse characters.  And of course the Mr. Toad segment gave us the greatest dark ride in Disney theme park history.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)

Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Title: The Great Mouse Detective
Release Date: July 2, 1986
Director: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners II

Adapted from Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, itself a pastiche on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, The Great Mouse Detective is a classic mystery in Victorian London starring mice and rats. There’s the great detective, Basil (Barrie Ingham), his new acquaintance-cum-sidekick, Major Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), coming together to help an adorable young Scottish mouse, Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek).  Her father, the toymaker Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young), is abducted by the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, who steals the movie as well) and forced to work on his evil plan.

The movie is delightful with a lot of imagination and Rube Goldberg devices. I can’t help but wonder what this movie would’ve been like if it had been made a couple of years later in the Disney Renaissance era and given the tender-loving care it deserved.  New Disney CEO Michael Eisner cut the films budget and sped up the release date.  He also renamed the movie because he thought “Basil” sounds too British. Disney animators famously circulated a memo illustrating the bland and generic nature of the new title by renaming Walt Disney animated classics.  It may be past time for a Basil of Baker Street movie reboot (but not a “live action” version please!)

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Title: Fun and Fancy Free
Release Date: September 27, 1947
Director:  Animation: Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske; Live Action: William Morgan
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Disney’s fourth package film of the World War II features only two stories, neither long enough to make their own feature.  I’d argue that these stories only had enough substance for a short film. Jiminy Cricket returns from Pinocchio as the host who links the two segments together.

The first story is Bongo, which is presented as a storybook record narrated by Dinah Shore. Bongo is a performing bear in a circus who escapes to the forest. First he’s delighted by his newfound freedom, but then he faces challenges of adapting to the wild.  Then he falls in love with a sexy female bear named Lulubelle and there’s some clever animation of them floating through the clouds with Cupid bears.  The song about bears slapping one another as a sign of affection has aged poorly.

The second part is much better.  Mickey and the Beanstalk, features Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy as roommates who climb the beanstalk and outsmart Willie the Giant. This segment is narrated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd and child actor Luana Patten.  I’m absolutely certain that I saw this on tv and the Disney Channel as a kid with the ventriloquist dummies edited out because Disney realized that they’re nightmare fodder.

Watching this package film made me realize how the 1940s package films prepared Walt Disney productions for television.  Telling stories too long for shorts and too short for feature films turns out to fit perfectly into the television format, as well as using characters like Jiminy Cricket to link them together. It’s the formula adopted by Walt Disney’s Disneyland in 1954 and all the anthology shows that followed.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Home on the Range (2004)

Title: Home on the Range
Release Date: April 2, 2004
Director: Will Finn  & John Sanford
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

It’s hard to understand what happened to Walt Disney animated features in the first decade of the century.  Hot on the heels of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, when the opening of every Disney animated movie was a big event, suddenly you have a string of around 11 movies that opened with a whimper and are remembered well in retrospect either (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch, which is a masterpiece that arose from low-budget experimentation).

The concept behind Home on the Range, a Western movie from the perspective of cows, is a clever one.  And with women voicing the three lead cow characters and the owner of the farm they hope to save, it’s a strong women-lead story as well.  The animation style is reminiscent of the Post-Walt/pre-Renaissance features of the 1970s and 80s. But the movie seems unable to decide if it’s light family fare of that earlier era, or if it is the brash ironic comedy of the 1990s with bodily function jokes.  I mean, I like a good belching joke, but it has to be good, and a joke, not just belching.

Roseann Barr is surprisingly not irritating as the lead cow, Maggie, a new arrival on the Patch of Heaven farm.  When she learns that the farmer Pearl (Carole Cook) may lose the farm due to debt, she enlists the fussy, older cow, Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) and a spacey, younger cow, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) on a mission to save the farm.  This means hunting down the cattle rustler Slim Alameda (Randy Quaid) who uses his mesmerizing yodeling skills to lure cattle away from their ranches.

There are some good gags here and there, but it’s a bit one-note and feels padded to make very little story into a feature film.  My guess is that very young children may enjoy this movie, but it’s not one of those movies with the Disney magic that makes it entertaining for all ages.

Rating: **

Movie Review: A Bug’s Life (1998)

Title: A Bug’s Life
Release Date: November 20, 1998
Director: John Lasseter
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story shows all the signs of sophomore slump.  Unlike Toy’s Story’s timeless humor, A Bug’s Life is a product of the 1990s, relying on the irreverent and referential humor that was “edgy” at the time but feels tired now (not unlike The Emperor’s New Groove).  The movie has it’s moments but it lacks the magic of most Pixar films.

The story focuses on a colony of ants who are forced to gather food as tribute to bully grasshoppers.  An inventive but clumsy ant named Flik (Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall fame) proposes finding bigger bugs who can protect the ants from the grasshoppers (very much the premise of Seven Samurai).  Flik inadvertently hires a team of circus performers (from a “flea circus,” of course) instead.  Nevertheless, the ants and the ants and the circus performers team up to fight the grasshoppers in a fairly predictable manner.

The humor is slight and repetitive.  For example, a lady bug voiced by Dennis Leary gets angry every time he is mistaken for a female, because misgendering is apparently hilarious. It’s clear why Toy Story can still provide successful sequels 25 years after its debut, but A Bug’s Life was never fodder for sequels.  I suppose we can be thankful for it working out the, er, “bugs” in the Pixar formula leading to the string of greatness in ensuing films.

I remember when A Bug’s Life came out it went head-to-head with the DreamWorks animation film Antz. The latter cast Woody Allen in a family film despite allegations of his sexual abuse of his daughter Dylan Farrow.  Not to be outdone, A Bug’s Life was directed by John Lassetter who lost his position at Disney due to sexual misconduct and stars Kevin Spacey as the chief bully Hopper, who has his own litany of sexual assault accusations.  Somehow these men found a way to make movies about insects even creepier.

Rating: *1/2

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Title: The Good Dinosaur
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Director: Peter Sohn
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

In 2015, I had dinosaur-loving children aged 8 and 4 and somehow this movie still flew under the radar.  It’s a Pixar movie that came and went with little fanfare, and although I’d hope to discover a diamond in the rough, I can understand why it left no mark.  The concept is good as it tells a story of an alternate universe where dinosaurs do not go extinct and evolve to use language and perform tasks like agriculture.  Also, the animation is absolutely gorgeous, although it seems odd to have cartoonish animals in such a realistic setting.

The story focuses on Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a small and clumsy Apatosaurus who is unable to keep up with his parents and siblings in making a positive contribution to their farm. His father, Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright), is killed in a flash flood while pursuing a “critter” who is eating from their corn silo.  Later, Arlo tries to catch the same critter (who is a small human boy) and they are both washed downstream.  Arlo and the boy – who behaves in a dog-like manner and is named Spot (Jack Bright) – must form a partnership to find their way back up the river to get home.

The buddy-road-story meets child-finding-his-place-in-the-world-story feels overly familiar.  Obviously, Pixar can use familiar tropes to make something new, but they fail to do so here. Instead they’re overly reliant on swelling music and big speeches to create emotion that feels unearned.  The movie does get better as it goes along and I enjoyed some gags such as a paranoid Styracosaurus with a menagerie of animals in its horns or a surreal scene when Arlo and Spot eat fruit that’s gone rotten.  Overall though, it’s disappointing that a movie this basic has Pixar’s name on it especially since it has potential to be something better.

I would say that overall the simple and gentle story might be good to watch with younger children with the caveat that there are some terrifying scenes with pterodactyls hunting down animals.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Make Mine Music (1946)

Title: Make Mine Music
Release Date: April 20, 1946
Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Joshua Meador, and Robert Cormack
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

Last year, I started a project to watch and review every Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  With the launch of Disney+, I’ve decided it’s a good time to resume the project.  Instead of watching the remaining films in chronological order, I decided to watch poorly-reviewed films first and work my way to the all-time classics.  Make Mine Music is universally a Disney animated film held in low regard.  In fact, Make Mine Music is one of the few movies not available on Disney+ so I watched a version on Internet Archive that is from a 1985 Japanese laserdisc!

Make Mine Music is the third of six “package films” that Walt Disney Productions released in the 1940s when the war in Europe closed off markets and most Disney animators either were serving in the military or working on war time films for the US. government. These movies are basically a collection of shorter works around a theme that allowed Disney to release feature-length films cheaply and easily under these conditions.  (Fantasia, which was released before the US entry into the war is not considered a package film despite being made up of discrete segments).  With 10 different segments, Make Mine Music has more segments than any other package film and is basically a glorified collection of Silly Symphonies.

The theme of the movie is, of course, music.  The animated visuals are accompanied by musical performances by The King’s Men, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, Andy Russell, Dinah Shore, and The Andrews Sisters.  It’s tempting to see some of these segments as predecessors to music videos.  There are also some segments that adapt musical stories such as “Casey at the Bat” (more of a poetry recitation), “Peter and the Wolf,” and the longest segment, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”

There is no narration or anything that links together these segments, and a lot of them are below par by Disney standards, although parts could be spun off as mildly entertaining shorts.  And I know that this has been done, because I’ve seen “Casey at the Bat” before.  My favorite segment is “All the Cats Join In” which features stylized illustrations of teenagers enjoying swing music that is “drawn” as we watch (much like Harold and the Purple Crayon).  It might possibly also depict interracial dating although it’s more likely that it’s just a girl with a deep suntan.  I feel that “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is a noble failure, because it’s a cute story but it would have worked better as a short, or maybe even if the characters were developed it could be a feature film on its own.  But at it’s current length it just feels like a padded repetition of the same gags.

Make Mine Music isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t loathsome either.  With ten segments there’s probably something for everyone, although it’s doubtful that anyone will be delighted by the entire film.

Rating: *1/2

Movie Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Title: Toy Story 4
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Director: Josh Cooley
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

With Toy Story 3 tying up the Toy Story saga so well, the biggest question I had about Toy Story 4 is what reason does it have to exist. What stories does Toy Story have left to tell? It turns out that there are several smaller stories that are somewhat awkwardly tied together to make this movie.

First, Woody is questioning his purpose now that he’s no longer the leader of the toys and Bonnie doesn’t pick him to play with.

Second, to deal with the anxiety of starting Kindergarten, Bonnie makes a toy out of a spork and scraps named Forky who becomes her new favorite. Forky does not comprehend his existence and does not want to be a toy. The Forky plot is not as prominent as the trailers indicate.

Third, Woody reunites with Bo who has found freedom and empowerment as a “lost toy,” getting played with by kids who find her in a playground.

Finally, Gabby Gabby is a talking doll in an antique shop who was never owned by a child due to a defective voice box. She holds Forky hostage in order to get Woody’s voicebox.

All of these stories intertwine in a small town where Bonnie’s family stays in an RV campground near the antique shop. A park with a carnival and a playground sits between the two. The main plot involves Woody, Bo, and Buzz attempting to rescue Forky with the help of two carnival prize toys, Ducky and Bunny, and Duke Caboom, a Canadian stuntman toy.

Unfortunately, the core toy group of Jessie, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads, and even Buzz to a certain extent, are reduced in their roles in a busy movie. Gabby redeems herself and is never the villain of the level of Stinky Pete or Lotso. Her henchmen ventriloquist dummies are creepy but the fright factor is turned down. In the finale, Woody realizes that Bonnie does not need him and he can find happiness with Bo as a lost toy. It’s a moving farewell and certainly must be the absolute ending of the Toy Story series.

Rating: ***1/2