Friday, January 31, 2014

Aladdin 1992

Personal Overview: I was dying to get to this one. It’s my favourite Disney animated film ever. I liked the original story from Arabian Nights, and I think what sealed the deal was the casting of Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie.

I still think Williams is the best bit of celebrity casting Disney have ever done. His scattershot adlib style suits the role so perfectly. I heard that they basically handed him the script and a licence to adlib as much as he wanted and they’d draw around what he did. That is largely what happens, although there are certainly instances where he can’t simply go off on his own tangent and has to stick to the story and the lines as written, although even then he seems to add his own spin to them. I’d love to hear what didn’t make it into the completed version.

Williams' one man tour de force aside, they do stick fairly closely to the accepted legend, although there’s a fair bit of embeliishment and some characters are altered or removed or included. Iago is one such inclusion. I do admit to wondering exactly why Jafar had a sarcastic parrot as a pet.

This is just FUN from beginning to end. They’d done the occasional bit of pop culture referencing and once in a while poking fun at their back catalog, but with Williams on board this went into overdrive in Aladdin and it helped make the movie the wonderful laugh a minute ride that it was.

I personally wouldn’t have thought this one would lend itself to a Broadway adaptation in the way the two predecessors did, but one is due to debut this year. It’s still popular as a movie and around the parks and Jasmine, despite not being the focus, was added to the Pantheon of Princesses.

The Beast, Sebastian and Pinocchio all make cameos and there are loads of other references to the studios and outside of it. I can remember when I first saw it with a friend we both went into hysterics over Williams' De Niro impersonation as the Genie (are you talkin’ to me?) and the same joke went right over the younger audiences heads although their parents laughed.

Aladdin had a cross generational appeal that earlier movies (mostly from the 80’s before The Little Mermaid) didn’t and that’s why it’s still popular and can still get plenty of laughs from me even on the umpteenth rewatch. It’s probably the only one where I can sing along with some of the songs too.

Hero/es: there are so many. Aladdin of course, that street wise,  slick character with a heart of gold underneath the rough around the edge exterior always seems to work with audiences. Jasmine has many heroic qualities, she’s very much a modern Princess and she stands up for herself and her family, of course being backed by a large angry tiger doesn’t hurt there. The Genie himself, he’s the focus of the story next to Aladdin and he helps Aladdin triumph even when bound by the laws of the lamp.

Villain/s: Jafar. Even before he opens his mouth and shows his true colours, and he does that before we even meet Aladdin, you know he’s a bad guy. He’s drawn that way. Of lesser consequence, and the laughs he get tend to mask how unpleasant he is, is Jafar’s assistant and almost constant companion the loud mouthed snarky parrot Iago. Casting comedian Gilbert Gottfried as Iago was another master stroke.

Cuteness Factor: there are again many contenders, but I managed to narrow it down to two. Abu, Aladdin’s best friend, the loyal monkey Abu. The fez and the vest just scream cute, plus he mugs for all he’s worth most of the time. I didn’t really warm to him as an elephant though. The other is Carpet. The flying carpet somehow manages to take on a character all of it’s own, even though it never says anything or has a face.

Animation: absolutely superb, a tour de force. You are in the faux Arabian Nights city of Agrabah, apparently it was based in some respects on the hometown of layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani who was from Iran. Then there’s the way they so brilliantly kept up with what Williams was doing. For me this one is faultless. Special mention must to go how they gave Carpet a character of it’s own, largely by moving the tassels to indicate emotions and feelings.

Final Words: Just one: WOW! I said it the first time I saw it and I say it again after many rewatchings. For me it’s as close as an animated film can get to perfection.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Beauty and the Beast 1991

Note: The Rescuers Down Under was actually released prior to Beauty and the Beast, but I’ve already covered that in The Rescuers entry.

Personal Overview: everyone knows the story of Beauty and the Beast, although I was probably more familiar with the version in the 1980’s TV show starring Ron Perlman as the Beast than I was with the original French fairytale.

I’d never seen the film until now. I think that had a lot to do with it being largely advertised as a ‘couples movie’ and I wasn’t in a couple at the time. It’s actually my wife’s favourite Disney animated feature.

It’s very unusual for a Disney film in that overall there aren’t any animals used either for the Cuteness Factor or as comic relief, unless you count Belle’s horse: Phillipe (I wonder if he was named after the prince in Sleeping Beauty or it was just a good sounding French name). The Cuteness Factor and the comic relief are largely supplied by the Beast’s household staff who are animated household objects (Mrs Potts is a teapot, Lumiere is a candlestick, Cogsworth is a clock, etc…).

It took Disney a while to do this and get it right, but while they look a bit cartoony the people in Beauty and the Beast are actually people and recognisable as such.

Also unusually for a Disney fairytale this is located somewhere real. It’s in France (they don’t go as far as to say what part of France) in the 18th century.

There’s a distinction made between the village and the Beast’s castle. The castle is dark for the most part and the village is full of light, yet the village is probably darker underneath than anything at the Beast’s castle.

At the heart of it Beauty and the Beast is a love story, with the Beast gradually falling in love with Belle, until she sees the man beneath the hideous visage that he was cursed with years ago.

Even moreso than The Little Mermaid this was an animated film that was a Broadway musical and it’s no surprise that it was the first Disney film adapted into a highly successful Broadway musical. Because singing was such a big part of the film, it being more of a musical than other films, the cast was largely composed of singers or musical performers.

Hero/es: I see both Belle and the Beast as the heroes of this, in their own ways. They complement each other. Belle is smart and lively as well as compassionate and able to see the best in people, unless like Gaston there’s really no best to see. The Beast, or Adam as I believe his real name is, comes in handy when things get physical as they were always likely to do when he went head to head with Gaston.

Villain/s: there’s actually only one. Gaston, the village bully. Everyone looks up to Gaston, because he’s good at killing things and he’s considered handsome. I guess he kind of is in a brutish way. When Belle refuses his advances and proposal of marriage he attempts to have her father declared insane and locked up, he also finds out about the Beast and leads the villagers with torches and pitchforks on an assault of the castle. This is one of the few times I can really remember seeing the villain actually die. Further evidence that the films were growing up and realizing that their audiences were too.

Cuteness Factor: now how do you get a cuteness factor when you don’t have animated animals to fall back on? Beauty and the Beast isn’t really that sort of film and it was a departure for Disney. There is a Cuteness Factor, though and that’s mostly provided by Chip, the cheeky cracked cup that seems to be Mrs Potts' son.

Animation: I’ve spoken about the darkness and the light and the contrast there. The real tough thing in this was giving the Beast a good range of expression and making the audience believe that there was someone human underneath the visage. There was also the challenge of making the utensil’s human appearance match their personalities when the curse was broken and they went back to being people. They succeeded in most cases, except I didn’t see Mrs Potts' son Chip as looking like that and she looked old enough to be more his grandmother than his mother.

Final Words: I wasn’t sure how I’d view this. I’m not big on love stories overall, and this one is odder than most. I actually quite liked it. The Little Mermaid definitely shaded it for sheer enjoyment factor, but this was still as Disney movies go a powerful entry and deserved all of the considerable success that it enjoyed. You don’t see the Beast that much in their merchandising now, but Belle is one of the pantheon of Princesses.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Little Mermaid 1989

Personal Overview: this was the film that really created Disney animation as we now see it. It resurrected the department and was responsible for what is referred to as the ‘Renaissance’. It made Princesses a viable market and proved that even if a story is cute and animated it can still live on in the memory and be translated into other mediums. One critic called it Broadway brought to cartoons, and although it was later performed as a musical, it wasn’t the first Disney cartoon to explore that market, although I do think it made the company realize the possibilities.

Walt Disney had ideas centred around Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale as far back as the 1930’s, but for one reason or another it kept getting put on hold and never appeared until 1989. In some ways I think that was a blessing, because they needed the technological advances as well as the more relaxed and open minded social viewpoints of the 1980’s to include some of the better concepts and jokes in the film.

I really didn’t know much about the story, in fact I only really became acquainted with it properly a few years ago when Jim Hines used it as the basis of the story for one of his Princess novels and then again later when it was used in Once Upon a Time to introduce the character of Ariel into the show.

Jeffrey Katzenberg (head of Disney at the time) warned his staff that since the film had a limited audience (young girls) that it may actually make less at the box office than Oliver and Company, which had been the company’s biggest animated box office success in a decade (colour me surprised there!), he did however get more enthusiastic as the film neared completion and was confident it would go on to be a ‘blockbuster’.

I’d never actually seen it before. I knew the story and most of the characters because I caught a few episodes of an animated series that used to screen on TV.

Maybe I’m turning into a grumpy old man, but at times Ariel’s behaviour did frustrate me. It was almost like if my Dad Trition tells me not to do something I’m going to go and do just that because he clearly doesn’t know anything, although he did cross a line when he trashed her collection. It is a lot of fun despite that and Ariel’s cluelessness about the land above the water is always amusing to watch. I also must confess I felt for Sebastian, the poor crab really does have a thankless task trying to chaperone the spirited Ariel.

Hero/es: Ariel is the focus of it, so she definitely qualifies, but I think you also have to include Prince Eric, Sebastian and even Flounder in the list. Maybe especially Flounder because he has to overcome his natural timidity to help his best friend Ariel out on more than one occasion.

Villain/s: definitely Ursula. I already knew about her because she was featured as one of the villains in a light show that was part of the nightly fireworks display at Disneyland when I went there on holiday once. She’d also been in the Once Upon a Time episodes that featured Ariel. It really doesn’t surprise that they based her appearance on female impersonator Divine, because it’s fairly obvious. Her eels Flotsam and Jetsam are suitably creepy and dangerous as well, they put me in mind of Roscoe and DeSoto from Oliver and Company and later Pain and Panic, Hades henchdemons in Hercules.

Cuteness Factor: the whole undersea setting has a cute feeling to it a lot of the time. Flounder is undeniably the cute sidekick and even Ariel’s habit of mistakenly using a fork to comb her hair because the eccentric seagull Scuttle has told her that it’s a human haircare item called a dingleproop is cute.

Animation: remember how I wondered what all the money spent on The Black Cauldron was used on? Well The Little Mermaid was also an expensive film by animation standards in the late 1980’s, but you can see where it went here. It’s bright and vibrant, it’s crisp and clear. It looks like you want a cartoon to look. The undersea sequences are particularly brilliant and showcase the talent used to create them. Interestingly enough both Ariel’s body type and personality were based on Alyssa Milano who was then starring in Who’s the Boss?

Final Words: I really didn’t know how I was going to react to this one. I knew I owed it a debt for what it did to the animation studio at Disney, because without it’s impact I doubt we’d still be seeing the films we’re getting today, but I didn’t have a huge connection with the story. I actually loved it, even if the character of Ariel can bug me at times. I also doubt that without The Little Mermaid if we’d have the thriving Disney Princess franchise now, although that wasn’t officially launched until the late 1990’s.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oliver and Company 1988

Personal Overview: before The Little Mermaid rejuvenated, and to a certain extent revolutionized Disney, in 1989, we got Oliver and Company.

It’s actually a cute idea. It’s a retelling of the Dickens classic Oliver Twist, only the Oliver of the title is a cute kitten, the Artful Dodger is a streetwise dog voiced by superstar musician Billy Joel, Fagin is a down on his luck gambler who owes a scary underworld figure and most of the main roles are dogs. 1980’s New York doubles for 19th century London and it’s been cleaned up and altered to suit the modern younger audience.

With names like Billy Joel, Bette Midler and Ruth Pointer in the voice cast (although Ruth Pointer only performs the singing voice of one of the characters, not the speaking voice) music and songs were going to be a big part of this and they are. Unfortunately there’s nothing particularly memorable.

It’s kind of fun and has everything one would expect from a Disney production of the time, but it’s disposable at the same time and not something you’re going to remember a lot about.

Hero/es: Oliver of course is one, and you do feel for the plucky little kitten who falls in with a gang of thieving dogs and captures a little girl’s heart at the same time. The Dodger is another one that comes out as a hero, initially he tries to swindle Oliver, but comes to like him and winds up putting himself on the line for his friends even when it’s a two on one fight against Sykes' vicious pair of Dobermans. You could also argue that Jenny (the rich little girl who adopts Oliver, and I keep thinking of as Penny, because she reminds me of the girl from The Rescuers) is also a hero of sorts.

Villain/s: Sykes the loan shark fills the role of villain. We don’t really see much of him, but Robert Loggia’s menacing voice and his presence always make the temperature in the room drop a few degrees. His henchdogs; the Dobermans Roscoe and DeSoto, told apart because Roscoe wears a red colour and DeSoto’s is blue, are also good villains as they’re always willing to do their master’s bidding and that usually spells bad news for the heroes.

Cuteness Factor: Oliver himself walks away with this, because who doesn’t love a plucky homeless kitten? He’s also the odd animal out as most of the rest of the non human cast are dogs. Cheech Marin’s cocky Chihuahua Ignacio is sort of cute and comedy relief at the same time.

Animation: like with many of the funny animal cartoons that Disney did from the late 60’s up until the late 80’s there’s nothing special to really recommend Oliver and Company or set it apart. I was actually unaware that it was even a Disney until I started doing this. I thought it may have been one of Sullivan Bluth’s productions, that’s probably not all that surprising because before Don Bluth started his own studio he did work for Disney.

Final Words: it’s inoffensive enough and the time passes quickly as you watch it. It goes a little over the top even for a cartoon, I still can’t work out how Sykes' car ran on train tracks when all the rubber had been stripped from the tires or how Fagin’s scooter got from the train tracks to the supports of the bridge above and it back down again, but then again it is a cartoon and normal logic doesn’t apply. I guess if I can buy a group of talking cats and dogs I can buy that. Not one that’s really gone down in many people’s memories.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Great Mouse Detective 1986

Personal Overview: the Disney animated Renaissance officially started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, but I think there’s evidence that it was underway with this underrated 1986 release.

At the face of it The Great Mouse Detective is basically Sherlock Holmes with mice in the lead roles. Basil The Great Mouse Detective lives under 22B Baker Street, the home of the great fictional detective.  He has an assistant, who is a doctor and has recently returned from military service in Afghanistan and he also has a very patient and somewhat motherly housekeeper, to complete it all he plays the violin…badly.

I was surprised to find out that the film was actually based on a children’s book series called Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus. The name of the mouse comes from actor Basil Rathbone, who was considered the definitive screen version of Sherlock Holmes for many years.

The story is largely what people had come to expect from Disney. A young (cute) female mouse has her father abducted by a bat and turns to Basil for help in locating him.

There were little touches however that set this apart. At one point Basil and Co are in a toy shop. One of the toys is Dumbo, if it’s not him it’s certainly based on him. The villain has a lizard as one of his many henchpeople. If I hadn’t been shotgunning the films I may not have picked up on this, but the lizard is Bert, the chimney sweep from Alice in Wonderland. Disney hadn’t done playful little call backs like this for years. I also really liked the scene where Dawson (that’s the Watson mouse’s name in this) and Basil go to a tough waterfront bar in disguise for information. Dawson, got up in a too small striped sailor’s shirt and with an eyepatch complains that he looks ridiculous which indeed he does. Basil tells him he looks fine and not to worry about it. He can talk, he’s wearing a pea coat and a flat sailor’s cap with a pencil moustache to round it out, and looks rather dashing.

There was a sense of fun about this that hadn’t been seen for a few films, it was like everyone with it was prepared to enjoy it and that translated through to the audience.

Hero/es: that’s Basil, ably assisted as the character on which he is based is, by Dawson. Toby, the basset hound that belongs to Holmes, but helps Basil willingly, is also important. Interestingly enough the mice, rats, small lizards and bats can all talk and wear clothes and act like humans, but dogs and cats don’t. Basil has an endearing humourous character trait in that he continually gets Olivia’s surname wrong.

Villain/s: I have to confess that I kind of liked Ratigan, the villain of the piece. He’s a stereotypical villain, probably based on Moriarty. He pretends to be a large mouse, but is actually a rat, however it’s not wise to remind him of this fact. He’s likely to feed anyone who makes that mistake to Felicia, an extremely overweight cat that seems to be at Ratigan’s beck and call. He was voiced with relish by veteran horror actor Vincent Price.

Cuteness Factor: it’s kind of hard to decide, because mice that act like humans, but I’d have to give it to Olivia Flaversham, the young Scottish mouse who goes to Basil for help after her father is abducted. The whole thing actually scores pretty high on the cuteometer, but never goes over the top or becomes sickening.

Animation: I’m not sure if there was a change in technology or personnel in the animation department between this and the disappointing The Black Cauldron, but The Great Mouse Detective appeared sharper and cleaner, even the backgrounds had more depth. Some of this can be attributed to Disney doing what they do best: anthropomorphic animals. The scene where Basil and Ratigan tumble down a building locked in mortal combat was so reminiscent of Reichenback Falls that I laughed out loud when I saw it.

Final Words: I can’t say much more than I have and this was a welcome return to form. Critics and audiences alike responded to The Great Mouse Detective positively and it restored the company’s faith in their animation department.