30 September 2012

Cinematic Capsules: September 2012

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Good but not great Howard Hawks feature (based ever so loosely on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name) contains the first of four screen appearances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The pair became high-profile lovers after meeting on this picture and enjoyment of the film will be almost entirely dependent upon one's opinion of the two leads. This viewer thinks they're both a bit too one note to hold everlasting interest, however the film wisely includes some very great supporting performances to round out the scenes. The film features the cinematic debut of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, who contributes a number of splendid musical moments (that are only occasionally soured by Bacall's deep-throated delivery). The best tune is "Hong Kong Blues" which is almost Dylan-esque in its rambling melody. The greatest performance in the film however is reserved for Hawks' stalwart Walter Brennan who plays Bogart's sidekick, a loyal rummy named Eddie, and imbues his character with a veneer of good-natured humor whilst simultaneously breaking your heart. Two years after the rabid success of To Have and Have Not Bogart and Bacall re-teamed with Hawks for the magnificent Raymond Chandler adaption The Big Sleep which is a superior film is every way.

Out of Sight (1998)

Just as Jackie Brown is the Tarantino film that even the director's detractors like, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight is the film that skeptics such as myself can enjoy. Both films, released one year apart, share plenty in common and while it is a bit obvious and lazy to compare the two, I'm going to do it anyway. Besides both being adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, even going so far as to share a supporting character played by Michael Keaton, the films also have an abiding taste for funky soul music and more importantly possess at their centers two of the best American romances of the 1990s. Jackie Brown's restrained and ultimately unconsummated relationship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster is a much more mature and rewarding pairing, whereas the star-crossed journey between George Clooney's career bank robber and Jennifer Lopez's federal agent is mostly about unbridled lust. Soderbergh however does a fantastic job depicting the interactions between the two leads, especially on the night they finally spend together, juxtaposing dialogue of a conversation earlier in the evening with images of them dancing and subsequently taking their clothes off. Clooney and Lopez capably sell their attraction even if they don't quite transcend it. Elsewhere in the picture Soderbergh tries to balance out the intensity of the love story with myriad comedic supporting turns, some that work (Don Cheadle's dumb but aspirational thug) and others that don't (Steve Zahn's shaggy stoner). Seen back-to-back, Jackie Brown is clearly the superior film. It is a deeper, more expansive picture with the sure-handedness of a genuine artist at the helm. But that's not to say that Out of Sight lacks merit. Oasis was incapable of a White Album but they sure had a couple really great songs.

Brick (2005)

Writer-director Rian Johnson's debut feature is a solid contemporary noir set among drug-running California teenagers. The slang-drenched dialogue is so stylized that it takes a good twenty minutes or so to grasp exactly what the characters are saying, but once one gets on its wavelength it becomes a rather rewarding experience. The noir tropes transplanted to the high school setting are clever and the film's occasional moments of humor are witty and refreshing. In particular, the traditional noir trope of the informant and police chief bargaining for information becomes an exchange between a kid with connections and the vice-principal. It works like a charm. Johnson also showcases a great eye for action, crafting a few kinetically visceral scenes that usually end up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt bloodied and bruised. Like quite a few first films, Brick can occasionally be too precocious for its own good, with its fair share of look-at-me moments. But when the camerawork, dialogue, and performances are all humming along in service to the story, the film works.

29 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 36: Mulan

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The 1990s saw the mainstream blossoming of the politically correct movement in American culture, where generations of casual stereotypes ingrained in the public consciousness were examined and scrubbed of their offensive connotations. It was a strident and altruistic period, sidelined occasionally by its own utter priggishness. The advances made during this time--though far from all-encompassing--were profound and effective. One of the effects of this cultural change felt among the Disney studios was the expansion of potential protagonists and stories the animated films could depict. No longer beholden to a Euro-centric source of storytelling, Disney in the 1990s put into quick succession films set in Arabia, the native New World, and Asia. Along with Aladdin and Pocahontas, 1998's Mulan expanded the palette of what a "Disney princess" could be.  

Unfortunately for most of its running time, Mulan squanders any possibility of making some sort of narrative stride. In fact, during the film's first hour it makes nary a dent at all, be it emotionally, intellectually, or artistically. The narrative occasionally hints at greater things to come, with war on the horizon and the fate of a nation in the balance, but the filmmakers choose to limit the external threat to a series of offscreen destruction, only providing us with glimpses of the aftermath. This is a decision based solely on audience acceptance and it is a misguided one. Showing the invading Hun army massacring entire villages would certainly be traumatic for Disney's intended adolescent demographic, but avoiding the atrocities for most of the film's running time cushions all impending evil to the point of obfuscation. It is difficult to fully empathize with the dire attempts of a rag-tag unit of unfit soldiers to defend themselves when one doesn't know exactly what they are fighting against. Far too much time in this first hour is spent in the training grounds, where these men and a disguised Mulan prove their mettle.

The first hour also attempts to cram as many wacky characters and comic relief into the proceedings as possible. In addition to Eddie Murphy's wise-cracking Mushu, dragon mentor of Mulan, we get Mulan's sassy grandmother who always has a quip ready to punctuate any scene, as well as Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, a trio of stooges who befriend the disguised Mulan at the training camp. With this saturation level of wackiness it is difficult to find footing in the film's emotional arc, which is confined and compressed into a series of tacky ballads of heightened histrionics, none of which possesses even an ounce of real emotion. None of the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel distinguish themselves from the recent work of Alan Menken. It is just more Broadway belting in dire search of a hook. The music uses just the token amount of Asian undertones to fit the setting, a bedrock that is completely nullified by the generic grandeur of the vocal melodies.

Happily, the film's second half is decidedly better than the first. It is not until the picture decides to fully embrace its epic potential that the narrative kicks into any sort of gear. The last half hour revolves around two solid action sequences that boost the stakes and provide a much needed thrill to the proceedings. The turning point comes when two armies clash in a well-conceived battle set in the snow-packed mountains. Borrowing from the grand stampede of The Lion King, an overwhelming horde of Huns come charging over the hill, their daunting numbers appearing limitless. Using her mental ingenuity in place of brute brawn, Mulan causes an avalanche that buries the enemy whilst sending her and her comrades scrambling over a cliff. The sequence blends the best uses of hand-drawn and computer generated animation and sets it against a vast, dramatic backdrop of jagged crags and all-consuming white powder.

The battle ends with Mulan injured and taken in for medical treatment. Here it is discovered that she is a woman in disguise and she is dishonorably abandoned in the mountains by her regiment. She soon learns that the evil warrior Shan Yu and several of the buried Huns are not dead, and she rushes to the Imperial City to warn everyone. Since she can no longer be trusted, no one will listen to her warning and Shan Yu barricades himself in the palace with the emperor. This results in Mulan infiltrating the building with the help of her friends. The final battle showcases Mulan's bravery, tenacity, and cunning, and results in Shan Yu being brutally exploded by a cache of fireworks. The section is not as strong visually or viscerally as the preceding snow battle but it manages to tie all of the narrative threads up nicely in a compact and efficient manner. 

Mulan's prevailing thematic preoccupation is with reflections and the revelations and distortions they can provide. It is a potentially interesting exploration that unfortunately remains thoroughly unexplored. This is not, however, for lack of trying. Despite the film's repeated attempts to showcase reflective allusions--not only cropping up in a series of visuals of varying subtlety, but in song as well with the bluntly-titled "Reflection"--it is curious what exactly the filmmakers set out to say. When they spend so much time and effort hammering home the theme, one would expect some sort of conclusion, but it all remains as oblique as the blurred image looking back from the water.

A far more interesting thematic tact involves the rejection of proscribed gender roles. The narrative of course is propelled by Mulan's decision to reject her culture's narrow feminine path, which involves little more than becoming a meek servant to her eventual husband, a duty for which she is entirely unsuited. She instead poses as a man to protect her father, which has its share of setbacks, but for which she is ultimately a resounding success.  Beyond her transformation, the climax of the picture sees the vulgar men who she spent weeks emulating, switching their own roles under the command of this cunning female, disguising themselves as women to infiltrate the palace. The progressive potential of this type of female is a welcome development, especially coming from a studio perceived as culturally conservative as Disney. How long will it be until we get our first homosexual Disney princess? Mulan is a small but necessary step in the direction away of the shrinking violet role of the stereotypical feminine archetype.  

Unfortunately, on the whole, Mulan is a middling affair that provides little to get enthusiastic about. Most of the film's potential is achingly wasted by goofy antics and a lack of interest in pursuing its thematic alleyways. If only the movie could have disguised itself much like its brave heroine, providing the conventional beats that propel a typical Disney narrative while subverting the audience's expectations with the audacity of progress. The film could have blended the graceful lines of Chinese watercolors with the fluid movements of martial arts, while exploring the perception of men and women in historical Asia. All of these elements are tantalizingly close to the surface throughout the picture but they remain fleeting, shuttled aside for the same tired narrative tropes and repetitive, nauseating songs. Mulan merely mimics the road tested tradition of its cinematic brethren, reinforcing rather than expanding Disney's storytelling scope.  

24 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 35: Hercules

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Disney never fails so consistently than when they try to be hip and edgy. By that rule, 1997's Hercules is a ninety-minute master class in Disney mistakes. The film is crammed so full of sass and attitude that its cup runneth over from the very first frame. This is the Aladdin effect to the nth degree. Not only are the sidekicks on either side of the film's good/evil divide loud, brash, and utterly annoying, but so is the villain and the love interest. The voice line-up, featuring such restrained thespians as Danny DeVito, Bobcat Goldthwait, Paul Shaffer, and James Woods, is a veritable who's who of mugging, scene-chewing, amplified "personalities", all vying for the largest chunk of comic "relief".

The film's abiding order of attitude is on display from the opening prologue. The stentorian voice of Charlton Heston begins to narrate the history of the Greek gods but he is quickly shuttled aside by the Muses, an incongruous gospel-pop singing quintet of sassy black women who come to life out of Greco-Roman artifacts. They sing an upbeat, completely generic appropriation of soul music called "Gospel Truth", one of the many entirely forgettable Alan Menken contributions to the soundtrack. By this point in his Disney tenure, Menken is completely spinning his wheels, writing banal genre pastiches to accompany trite, formulaic lyrics, penned here by David Zippel. The soaring melodies suffocate in the vast vacuum of their emptiness.

After the prologue, the plot gets thrown quickly into motion as the scheming Hades plots to wage war on the gods but discovers that he will fail unless the newborn Hercules is out of the picture. This is revealed to him by the Fates, who we are told in big bold letters are possessed with omniscient clairvoyance. This leads to a fundamental flaw that plagues any picture that turns to all-knowing prophecy to kickstart its story. The Fates say that Hades will succeed if Hercules does not fight, but of course since they know all, then they know whether or not he will fight. Why is that rather crucial element left out of the prophecy?!? Why don't they tell Hades that try as he might to thwart, hide, and even kill the child, Hercules will return in the end to save the day? It makes absolutely no sense. Regardless, Hades sends his minions Pain and Panic to steal the child away from the clouds and deposit him on Earth. They force Hercules to drink a potion that makes him mortal but retains his godly strength. The orphaned baby is then taken in and raised by two kind countryfolk who wait until he is a teenager to tell him he is adopted. Basically the origin of Superman. Due to his strength and the destruction wrought by his clumsy, klutzy foibles, Hercules is shunned from society. All is soon well however when he discovers that he was born a god and that when he becomes a true hero on Earth he can reclaim his place in the clouds. 

This is where Danny DeVito comes in. DeVito, who even in animated form can't help but be three-feet tall, plays Philoctetes, a satyr personal trainer who we first meet as he is spying on some bathing nymphs from behind some bushes. Creepy. Phil, as he likes to be called--and as a means of relieving the audience of the burden of having to remember a name more than one or two syllables long--trains Hercules to be a hero, all the while spouting bromides like, "oy vey" and bon mots such as "I've got a fur wedgie". Later on as he flirts with Hercules' love interest, Megara--pardon me, "Meg"--he sits in her lap and calls her "sweet cheeks". This is the level of wit on display throughout Hercules.

The film even seems ashamed that it is being produced by the company that created such enduring characters as Mickey Mouse and classic films like Bambi. At one point, Meg is walking through a haunted forest and she comes upon two overly-stylized woodland creatures, replete with big, innocent eyes and soft, rounded features. This is an all-too obvious nod to the quintessential "Disney style". Her response to meeting these two animals is to call them "two rodents looking for a theme park". A thoroughly strange response, even though the "rodents" are just Pain and Panic in disguise. 

The style of animation in Hercules is a unique break from the Disney tradition, borrowing from the classic line form of Greco-Roman art. This could have been an opportunity for artistic rewards but unfortunately it is all translated into a overly broad, thoroughly "cartoonish" palette that is reminiscent more of cut-rate Saturday morning television than anything else. Even the CGI--which was used to such jaw-dropping effect in the previous Hunchback of Notre Dame--is mediocre. The biggest computer-generated effect is for the multi-headed Hydra, who is so textureless that it looks like it was borne of plastic. 

The plot continues to steamroll along in a chariot of mockery and musical mundanity. Hercules falls for Meg, who unbeknownst to him is enslaved by Hades. At the romantic apex of the picture, Hercules tells Meg with complete sincerity, "when I'm with you, I don't feel so alone". Obviously the boy was famous for his braun, not his brain, for a reason. Hades of course recognizes Hercules' infatuation as his one weakness and he uses Meg as leverage to extinguish Hercules' strength while he unleashes his army of Titans. Hercules battles without his strength, then regains it, kicks further butt, and the world is saved. Ho-hum. 

Hercules is a failure through and through. There is nothing of note to grasp onto, not even a glimmer of promise to keep us going to the end. It is an inarticulate, uninspired slog, full of repugnant wiseacres shouting and groveling and canceling one another out. The film actually spends precious time showing us the cottage industry that grows up around Hercules and his heroic actions. We get the image of a demon wearing branded cross-trainers. We get kids calling the pre-pubescent hero "Jerk-ules" not once, but twice. We get Michael Bolton belting it out during the closing credits. What we do not get is a narrative arc of any emotion or consequence. We do not get any compelling characters to root for or sinister villains to loathe (unless the loathing comes from James Woods's hammy performance as Hades). We do not get enjoyment from this shallow piece of Hollywood hackery. 

15 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Cinema is a predominantly visual medium. Even the name "motion pictures" belies such a partiality. Despite the extraordinary efforts of filmmakers to marry their painstakingly crafted images with appropriately intricate sound and song, the pictures will almost always win our favor. Within the art form, animation is a subset that places even more emphasis on visual composition, with the only limitations to the frame being that of the artist's ability and imagination. The Walt Disney Studios is responsible for some of the most influential, everlasting, and beautiful work ever produced in the medium and 1996's feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of their most sumptuous and gorgeous films.   

The film is almost overloaded with jaw-dropping shots, breathtaking backgrounds, and especial effects. The animators use every tool at their disposal to create this feast of color and design. The film contains quite possibly the most heavy use of the multi plane camera in animation history, with a number of virtuosic tracking shots early on, zooming through Parisian streets and past delightfully detailed buildings. The realization of fifteenth century France is a resolute stunner, never more so than in the draftsmanship of the towering cathedral that houses a deformed orphan named Quasimodo, exiled by righteous villainy to the belfry forevermore. The church itself is a character in the film, from the expansive stained glass-filled halls to the claustrophobic jumble of beams and bells in the tower. The set is labyrinthine but believable, its layout fully understood in every scene of the picture.  

While the filmmakers use such veteran effects as the multi plane camera, they also relish in the rewards of computer-generated imagery, a technique that at the time of production was still in its relative infancy. There are a handful of circular tracking shots that push the digital tools to their brink, making one wonder why we haven't seen much to surpass it in the decade and half since. Meanwhile dozens of town folk scatter hither and yon as the camera looks down on them from the cathedral's peak. Flames dance devilishly and molten copper cascades through the square. Visually, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the art form of animation at its zenith. It is continually inventive and wonderfully exciting.

The design of the characters is probably the weakest link in the film's visual style. Not that there is anything too egregious but one would hope for maybe a little more invention to accentuate the scope and ambition. The feisty gypsy Esmeralda is a voluptuous, dark skinned beauty that still falls a little to easily into the mold of the generic Disney female. Her suitor, the guard Captain Phoebus looks even more like He-Man than Pocahontas's John Smith. It is heartening however that the animators managed to make our protagonist Quasimodo as ugly as he is, considering the hedging that went into the Beast's design in Beauty and the Beast. Quasimodo looks like a reasonable stand-in for The Goonies' Sloth, if he were to appear in a Saturday morning cartoon show.  

The story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is one of the more operatic and dark in Disney's oeuvre. Like Pocahontas before it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame eschews the traditional opening credit corporate theme. Here it is replaced with ominous chants and the tolling of bells. This grand preamble perfectly sets up the dramatic stakes of the ensuing tale. From there we are quickly plunged into the world of Paris in a prologue narrated by a gypsy puppeteer. This is the first of several instances in the film where characters and motivations are distanced by masks and the obfuscation of storytelling. Elsewhere we see Quasimodo living his life vicariously through the intricately carved dolls that he constructs up in his tower. Later, when he makes his entrance at the annual Festival of Fools--where nothing is as it seems--everyone assumes that the hideous man who stands before them must be masquerading. Meanwhile, Quasimodo's guardian, the treacherous Judge Frollo, hides behind a persona of piety while he secretly pines for the heathen gypsy Esmeralda, a woman who herself must wander the streets disguised as an old man so as not to be trapped and persecuted by the authorities. 

There are some truly emotional arcs to be derived from this tale. The vilification of Quasimodo after he is unveiled at the Festival of Fools is boldly disturbing. A mob of recently joyous partygoers now hurl fruit and epithets at the deformed captive. The cruelty on display in this scene of harassment is quite shocking and utterly effective. Later on, as he sees the beautiful Esmeralda kissing the wounded Phoebus, the filmmakers do not flinch from portraying the confusion and utter disappointment in the pining Quasimodo, who is forced by his good intentions to house a man who usurps his affections. The most interesting thread by far though is the effect that Esmeralda has on Frollo. After capturing her in the cathedral he takes a creepy moment to smell her hair, and one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film comes when Frollo is alone, questioning his righteousness in the face of this feminine temptation. He curses and falls to the floor, vowing to destroy the woman that has stirred such feeling in him.   

Understandably, the film tries to offset its incredibly dark themes with bouts of levity, coming once again from the usual sources, the irreverent sidekicks. Here, Quasimodo's chortling chorus is comprised of three gargoyles who while away the time with the bell ringer up in his tower. Unfortunately the comedy aspects in the picture are once again woefully juvenile and decidedly lowbrow. The tone deaf antics rely on increasingly prevalent gastrointestinal gags that here include a stone gargoyle singing "cut the cheese" whilst making an armpit fart. Belches too make an appearance and the best one can say about their presence is that they're fleeting. The other attempts at humor comes from a series of one-liners tossed off between the gypsy Esmeralda and the guard Captain Phoebus. The banter is supposed to sound playful but comes off labored. 

The film's score sees the second teaming of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and the duo succeed far better than their mostly uninteresting work on Pocahontas. There is still no song as memorable as "Under the Sea" or "Be Our Guest", but the marriage of chanting monks and gypsy music with familiar Broadway tropes is better integrated than the half-hearted attempt to include Indian rhythm to the story of the new world. Lyrically too the tunes are an improvement. The best bit comes from "God Help the Outcasts" sung by Esmeralda as she is held captive by the cathedral's sanctuary. While the incessantly pious churchgoers pray for riches and fame she longs solely for acceptance. The best songs in The Hunchback of Notre Dame play up the melodrama and expand the emotional palette of an already epic plot. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a surprising success. As the template for the films released during the so-called Disney renaissance became increasingly obvious, the filmmakers took on a intense tale of persecution and loneliness with a touch of rarely seen maturity. The film only falters when it caters to the perceived whims of animation's assumed audience, children. The themes at stake here, particularly those of jealousy, estrangement, and manipulation are ones that resonate far deeper with disillusioned adults than starry-eyed kids. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a big, bold entertainment that pops off the screen with relentlessly inventive imagery and dynamite dramatics. The bells toll in triumph.

13 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 33: Pocahontas

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It's rather remarkable how best laid plans often play out pear-shaped. For example, in the early nineties Disney put two animated features into production at about the same time. One film was considered a gamble at best, a disaster at worst. The other feature meanwhile was looked to as a sure bet, a winner from the start. All of the veteran animators jumped to work on the surefire film, expecting accolades and huge commercial success. The new kids were left to their own devices on the other picture. That other film turned out to be The Lion King, which would in short order become the biggest box office success in Walt Disney Studio history. And that previously pegged golden ticket was an animated version of Pocahontas. While the resulting film was a major box office draw and was liked well enough, it absolutely paled in comparison to the reception lavished upon The Lion King. This gap has only increased in the years since. 

Pocahontas opens strongly with a couple of nice flourishes that are unfortunately never fully realized. At the very beginning of the film we see the iconic Disney logo, featuring the white two dimensional castle on a blue background as it appeared on all of the features for decades. However, instead of the traditional corporate theme song we get ominous and epic drum rolls. Regrettably, as the logo gives way to the establishing shots of a port, the drums segue into a rather routine Alan Menken tune called "The Virginia Company" featuring John Smith and the rest of the westward settlers boarding their ships for the new world. The epic nature hinted by the drums does return though, albeit briefly. Shortly after the opening chorus we end the scene with the Union Jack swaying gently in the blue sky. There is then a severe cut to a now-tattered flag being tossed about as the boat crashes through a terrible ocean storm. The ensuing action sequence that displays Smith's heroics and defines his selfless nature is nowhere near as harrowing as that first shot which provides a genuine jolt of excitement.

The entire score is once again composed by Menken, who collaborates here with lyricist Stephen Schwartz. The best one can say about the soundtrack is that the songs are rather inoffensive. In another word, that means they're bland. Most of the compositions fulfill a perfunctory role of conveying a theme in big bold letters, nothing more. The grand love theme, "Colors of the Wind" is as fleeting and forgettable as the weather it describes. However the two best songs succeed, both for the same reason. "Mine, Mine, Mine" and "Savages" switch their perspectives halfway through their performance, becoming juxtapositions of previous verses and changing the meaning at the heart of the chorus. The former begins as a greedy manifesto by the foppish villain Ratcliffe who sings it to the British transplants he has tasked with digging for riches in this new land. Midway through the tune cuts to Smith, who has ventured out alone and discovered the majestic wonders of the natural world. He sings triumphantly of the beauty that awaits him. Intercut images of gorgeous vistas and barren holes reinforce the dichotomy of the men's missions. Later on, as the film roars to its climax, the manipulative Ratcliffe once again sings to convince his men, although this time it is to fight the "savages". This song splits its narrative between the British and the Indians who both think the other is the unenlightened villain. It's all so utterly obvious, with nary a trace of nuance, but to be fair, musicals are rarely known for their subtlety. 

Like its soundtrack, the film provides few surprises or opportunities for transcendence. However, there are a couple of touches that spark one's interest. The decision to include a depiction of the spiritual magic the Indians ascribe to the land is a nice one, and allows for choice moments of pretty animation. Twirling leaves entwining the hands of Pocahontas and John Smith and creatures conjured out of smoke remain the lingering images from the film. Occasional moments of movement shine as well, particularly the drawings of Pocahontas as she stalks John Smith through the forest. Her nimble crouching is a solid bit of physical animation.

Throughout the film there are images that recall moments of animation past. In the opening credit sequence we pass through a forest at dawn that look suspiciously like the woods of Fantasia's "Ave Maria" sequence. Meanwhile the exterior shots of Grandmother Willow, the magical, matronly tree that gives Pocahontas advice looks like a cross between the foliage included in Make Mine Music's "Trees" section as well as the sheltered cove where Sebastian serenades Eric and Ariel with "Kiss the Girl" in The Little Mermaid. A faint resemblance to a non-Disney character appears as well. Pocahontas's raccoon friend Meeko spends much of the film being chased by a pompous pug named Percy. Their antics fit in the lineage of myriad animated antagonists, including Tom and Jerry, but thanks to a subtle design (that admittedly may have been entirely unintentional) Meeko looks like the Roadrunner when viewed from the side. Another design nod may have been to a film then currently in production. While she examines Smith's helmet, there is a shot of Pocahontas's reflection in the metal that for a brief moment looks suspiciously like future Disney princess, Mulan.

While the film rarely reaches moments of grand artistry, the filmmakers do make a wise choice that distinctly separates Pocahontas from some of the worst aspects of the more recent features. This little omission in fact instantly makes the film feel more mature, even though the themes are the same as many of the pictures before it. Unlike Aladdin and The Lion King, which seemed to revel at times in their most infantile excesses, Pocahontas simply denies the supporting animal characters voices. This decision speaks volumes. Say what one will about the slapstick antics of Meeko and Percy, it is all a much easier pill to swallow than if they were voiced by the likes of John Candy as was originally intended. 

Pocahontas's shortcomings are many. The boring design of John Smith unfavorably recalls the uninspired work of He-Man, Master of the Universe. The themes ascribed this story are far too black-and-white, even for a Disney picture. Pocahontas stops John Smith from shooting a bear because we are to believe that she is one with all of nature, as if all Indians were tranquil vegetarians and giant beasts stalking the forest understood and honored that. Also, the filmmakers lazily use the surrounding magic to allow Pocahontas to understand English after Smith has only spoken a couple of sentences. Worst of all, the romance that is central to the entire success of the picture is rushed and wholly unconvincing. The two continent-crossed lovers meet only a few times. After the first visit Pocahontas tells Smith never to see her again and then shortly thereafter, as soon as he disobeys her, she pleads to see him again soon. It isn't long before they're making out and she's throwing herself upon him to spare his life. 

However, this romance--despite its unbelievability--results in a stupendous end for a Disney picture. The couple do not live happily ever after together. John Smith gets shot as he throws himself in front of Pocahontas's father, protecting him from Ratcliffe's intended bullet. It is then deemed that Smith will recuperate better in England, so he is loaded on a boat to return home. He asks Pocahontas to join him but she decides that she is needed at home with her people. As the boat sails off, she runs to a cliff and waves goodbye. The filmmakers don't give us any indication on what happens afterward. Possibly John Smith died during the four month return to England. It seems incredibly likely. It is difficult to describe how incredibly refreshing watching two people go their separate ways is. After all of the princesses who gave up everything without a moment's thought just to run off and join a boring prince, Pocahontas gains ample respect for her decision to stay. 

05 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 32: The Lion King

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Lion King was in many respects Jeffrey Katzenberg's baby. Katzenberg had arrived at the Disney studios in the mid-eighties and was largely responsible for the turning of the animation department's fortunes. While he oversaw the productions of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin from on high as a titled executive, he delved deeper into The Lion King's process than any film before. The initial idea of the film was pitched in a meeting between him, film executive Peter Schneider, and Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney, then head of the animation department. The story, which was one of the few original works developed by the Disney studios, would contain elements of the Bible, Shakespeare, and according to Katzenberg, pieces of his own life. Due to tensions between him and then-CEO Michael Eisner, The Lion King would turn out to be Katzenberg's swan song with the studio. He defected and formed a new media company called Dreamworks SKG with fellow moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. For better or for worse, The Lion King would come to define Katzenberg's legacy at the studio.

The Lion King possesses two truly great sequences that would almost be more successful as standalone short films. The first of these two scenes is the opening prelude set to "The Circle of Life" which shows the entire African savanna turning out for the unveiling of Mufasa the heralded lion king's first child. It is an evocative, moving piece with glorious shots of a mammoth menagerie making the arduous, sun-drenched trek to witness the presentation. The monkey sage Rafiki greets the lion family, bestowing blessings and marking the newborn child in a ceremony akin to baptism. The monkey then raises the baby (soon to be named Simba) to the sky and the animals rejoice in unison. It is a powerful moment that promises an epic cinema scope that the resulting film fails to provide. The sequence--which in many respects echoes the opening section of Bambi--was in fact released separately as the film's first trailer, unedited and ending simply with the distinct red title screen. Its rapturous reception hinted at the sweeping success the finished film would garner.

The second strong section of the film depicts the brutal death of Mufasa by his jealous brother Scar, who throws him off of a cliff and into a herd of stampeding wildebeests. The entire construction of the scene is flawless, beginning with a desolate shot of a lone Simba hearing the rumbling hooves on the horizon, followed by an overwhelming rush of fantastically rendered CGI creatures careening over the hillside. Mufasa's dramatic arrival to save his son and his subsequent peril and perishing tugs genuinely at the heartstrings. The section is most effective because it does not shy away or try and dull the impact of the death. The screen lingers on the fallen, lifeless body of the once great beast, his frightened cub curled up underneath his limp paw. Mufasa's death is one of the single greatest scenes in Disney history.

Unfortunately the rest of the picture fails to maintain such artistry. There is very little story to be had after the devastating demise of the jungle leader. His confused son is tricked into running away as the petty Scar takes over as king of the wild, allowing packs of hyenas to lay claim to the plains. We see very little of the devastating destruction this has on the landscape until much later when Simba returns to regain his rightful spot in the hierarchy. In the interim, we find that he has befriended two outcasts named Timon and Pumba, a meerkat and warthog respectively. Simba's lost years are treated flippantly with barely more than a cloying song to mark the passage of time. His decision to finally return home is handled fairly well as he encounters Rafiki who takes him on a soul-searching, spiritual journey reminiscent of Luke Skywalker's revelations in the swamp forest of Dagobah. (The fact that James Earl Jones has something to do with both films may be clouding one's perception.) Simba soon returns home, a fight ensues, and balance is quickly restored. Nothing much in the film's last half really sticks.

Part of the problem with The Lion King is that none of the characters make much of an impact. Scar is vain and petty but little more, and he is too easily undone at the climax. Although he commits atrocities far worse than many a Disney villain, he fails to possess the infectious scene-chewing malevolence that really defines a classic cartoon evildoer. He can't come close to challenging the supremacy of his most recent company, including Jafar and Ursula, let alone someone as deliciously vicious as Maleficent. Meanwhile, Simba's goofy sidekicks Timon and Pumba are ineffectual doses of comic relief at best.  At worst they are alumni of Aladdin's Academy of Annoying and Bombastic Buffoons. Nathan Lane's Timon shouts every other line as if he were trying to reach beyond the rafters and out to the ticket holders waiting in line for the next show. And while the humor isn't nearly as lowbrow as its immediate predecessor, The Lion King is responsible for Disney's first fart joke, a distinction one fondly wishes remained unclaimed. Even Simba, the star of the show, barely registers. As is the case with Bambi, he grows up in the middle of the film, switching looks and voices, from Jonathan Taylor Thomas to Matthew Broderick (now that's a devil's bargain) which certainly does not help. The best character onscreen is easily the mercurial, majestic sage Rafiki, who is giddy with wonder at the universe and all of the creatures who exist in it. His cryptic confrontation with the wandering Simba is a delight as he giggles his way through a series of nonsensical proclamations that belie a deep hidden truth. 

Another roadblock on the film's persistent quest for greatness is a truly inferior soundtrack. The Lion King marks the beginning of a new Disney tradition of commissioning a set of songs from a pop singer well passed his prime. This inaugural songbook comes courtesy of Sir Elton John, who collaborated with Aladdin lyricist Tim Rice on five tracks for the film. The kernel of John's approach is sufficiently interesting, which he unfortunately manages to completely squander in execution. Taking a nod from Paul Simon's seminal album "Graceland", John attempts to wed traditional African rhythms to Western pop structures and the first few bars of each song hint at the possibilities before completely giving themselves over to pure Hollywood schmaltz. "The Circle of Life", "I Just Can't Wait to Be King", and especially "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" drip with empty platitudes and soaring, boring melodies. "Hakuna Matata", the upbeat song about forgetting about one's troubles, decides to bludgeon the point home by singing the title phrase ad nauseum for minutes on end. Simba literally grows up during the course of the song.

The Lion King is a film not unlike its wayward protagonist. From the start they were destined for greatness but both managed to get a bit lost along the way. The film boldly and brazenly flaunts its potential on a handful of stunning occasions but unfortunately fails to sustain its promise as it stumbles into a series of frustratingly mediocre meanderings. Had the filmmakers dealt with the ramifications of Mufasa's death in a manner as unflinching as the murder itself (instead of running off into a land of singing, farting warthogs) it may have transcended its trappings and become a deep and satisfying work that depicted the real joys and sorrows to be found in the circle of life. Instead it gave us mere glimpses that faded away as easily as the sunset on a verdant horizon.    

03 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 31: Aladdin

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Howard Ashman, lyricist integral to the flourishing Disney Renaissance, was the one who pitched the idea of translating the fairy tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights into an animated feature. The film would be the first feature under the Disney princess umbrella to feature a decidedly non-Anglo cast. This would prove controversial to some who nitpicked the finished film, citing a generic white-washing of the protagonists. Due to his untimely death, Ashman would not live to see Aladdin hit the silver screen, nor the resulting controversy. Only three of his completed songs would make the finished picture with three more tunes written by his colleague Alan Menken and his new collaborator, lyricist Tim Rice.

The animators have an absolute field day in Aladdin. The opening action-packed chase through the crowded Arabian streets is a fanciful frenzy full of spirited leaps and crafty elusions. Withstanding one's tolerance for the mile-a-minute shtick of Robin Williams, the animation tasked with keeping up with his explosive hamming of the Genie is fluid and must have been an blast to draw. Same goes for the splendid realization of Aladdin's magic carpet, whose anthropomorphized introduction hearkens back to classic Disney shorts of yore, where every traditionally inanimate object had the ability to dance and twirl. The leaping, bowing, hand-shaking carpet has more life in it than most characters on the silver screen, hand-drawn or otherwise.

The true tour-de-force of animation in the film takes place shortly after Aladdin's introduction to the magic carpet in the Cave of Wonders. Aladdin has been sent into the cave to retrieve the Genie's lamp by the scheming Jafar. The sequence culminates in an Indiana Jones-esque escape attempt as the cave comes crumbling down all around Aladdin who narrowly avoids death on his enchanted rug. The scene may be the best blend of hand-drawn characters and computer-generated backgrounds ever committed to film. Bubbling, boiling lava belches up molten flames that barely miss our fleeing heroes, while ever-narrower rock passageways threaten to close them in. The scene is fantastically realized and breathlessly paced. A better action sequence in a Disney feature would be difficult to conjure up.

The villain Jafar is a splendid addition to Disney's deep rogue's gallery. His machinations are deliciously malevolent and sinister. The manipulations he bestows on the entranced Sultan by way of his hypnotic staff are genuinely creepy. His best moments come, as to be expected, at the film's dramatic climax where he first wishes himself to be sultan, than a sorcerer, and finally a genie. The animators once again throw all of their talent into these transformations, rising Jafar up to the heavens and having him literally toying with the cosmos. Jonathan Freeman's vocalizing of Jafar's dastardly dominance is effective and used solely in the purpose of the character, unlike say, the performance of his hence-parrot Iago. Jafar's serpentine battle with Aladdin may be a bit too short-lived to truly make an impact but several of the images inspire lingering terror.

The songs in Aladdin run the gamut from catchy and inspired (the infectious "Prince Ali") to generic and forgettable ("One Jump Ahead"). The central theme, the treacly, overwrought "A Whole New World" is fun mostly for its outrageous excessiveness. The song manages to push past obvious crescendoes and on to ever higher plateaux of histrionics. Unfolding as our two lovers circumnavigate the globe on their magic carpet, it is all so ridiculous, and yet quite entertaining. The visuals do really help here with some great point-of-view shots as Aladdin and Jasmine burst through clouds and careen towards moonlit rivers. It also appears that they briefly pause in the idyllic pastoral setting that housed the centaurs and imps of Fantasia. A much more subtle and enjoyable reference than the labored hijinks of Robin Williams.

Aladdin is arguably the most influential Disney film of the last twenty years for two very unfortunate reasons. With the casting of comedians Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried, who were hired more for their established personalities than their vocal talents, countless animated features that arrived in Aladdin's wake, like the Ice Age and Madagasacar franchises, were packed to the gills with celebrity voices, all involved just to put a recognizable brand on the poster. Williams's bombastic portrayal of the Genie would itself usher in an animated age littered with pop culture references, where a viewer's knowledge of an impression would be deemed an adequate substitute for a real joke. This chuckle of recognition would permeate the cinematic landscape, driving such box office powerhouses as Dreamworks' Shrek, a film which was produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg after his defection from Disney.

These two elements are by far the worst parts of Aladdin, which otherwise follows the trusted template set forth by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A host of Broadway-caliber songs propel a simple story of love overcoming adversity with a beautiful palette of richly drawn animation. The film was a hit with critics and filmgoers alike and would become the highest grossing feature of 1992. From the vantage point of the future, Aladdin still gives us plenty to enjoy. It contains both an engaging, entertaining story and a wealth of wonderful animation. I just wish it wasn't so frequently annoying.