So I Just Saw Pixar’s Inside Out

Despite my deep and abiding love for action movies, I am not a regular theater goer.  It’s expensive to go see a movie, so Rachael and I typically reserve this particular kind of outing for occasions when we can go with friends and turn it into a more social evening.  Besides that, there might be one movie a year that I decide is worth going to see while it’s still in theaters.  The one shining exception to these basic rules is when Pixar releases a new movie; that studio has released so many great films over their history that we’re willing to pay to see their work immediately regardless of the movie’s eventual reputation (this has only steered us wrong once when we went to see Brave, which was a perfectly good Disney movie, but wasn’t really on par with what Pixar normally offers).

Given all of this, as soon as I told Rachael that Inside Out was releasing this past weekend, she insisted that we make plans to see it.

Inside Out (2015) Poster

Just guess who’s supposed to be who. (Image credit: IMDb)

Now, because Rachael and I generally dislike large crowds, we planned to go with some friends to a Monday night show, because we reasonably expected that the first night of the work week probably would draw fewer people; we were very wrong.  After some unfortunate scheduling mixups that had us arriving in the theater five minutes after the previews had started, we saw that it was packed, and we were forced to sit in the really awkward front row seats that make you crane your neck back to see the whole screen.  It was an inconvenience, but since the movie was so good it was a minor one.

First things first: this movie is excellent, and if you enjoy family movies, then you will enjoy Inside Out.  Everyone I know who saw it before me said that it was amazing, and I’m in full agreement with them.  Like all the really good Pixar movies, it does get pretty emotionally manipulative, but you honestly won’t mind because you’ll care so much about the characters.

The premise, for anyone who needs more explanation than “this is a Pixar movie and it’s really good,” is this: Riley is an eleven year old girl who is moving to San Francisco with her family from Minnesota.  Inside Riley’s head are five core emotions who help regulate how she reacts to things that happen around her: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  With the stress of the move, Riley’s internal emotional state gets thrown into turmoil, and Joy and Sadness end up going on a journey to try to help Riley manage the transition without destroying her personality.

It’s a very mundane story in many ways; Riley and her parents live in a world without any apparent fantastic elements, so her story remains grounded in a very simple setup of being forced to move a long way from everything she knows and struggling to deal with it.  All of the inner workings of Riley’s mind are entirely contained so that when we’re in her head, it’s a world unto itself; the emotions direct Riley’s actions in the outer world, but they’re unaware of anything else beyond what Riley perceives (as the audience, we’re treated to multiple glimpses into the minds of other characters where we can see that everyone is governed by versions of the same five emotions that Riley has, but there’s no indication that any of these characters realize there are parallel worlds in other people’s minds) so that the inner story works entirely as an extended metaphor for Riley’s actual mental health.  With those parameters, the story presents a very charming scenario where Riley’s emotions are in the process of learning just as much about themselves as Riley (the major epiphany for Joy, who’s the de facto leader in Riley’s mind, is that Sadness serves a very important purpose despite seeming like a major obstacle to Joy’s personal mission of making Riley as happy as possible).

Beyond the story, the world that represents Riley’s mind is incredibly imaginative, with clever and memorable ways to depict various mental phenomena (twenty-four hours later I’m still chuckling over the joke about why ear worms happen).  It’s a fun, colorful experience that enhances the movie to a point where I’m tempted to say it’s worth seeing just for the jokes even if you don’t have any interest in the story (of course, the story’s made all the better by the jokes, and you’ll probably end up caring about it by the time the credits roll anyway).

Theres is one odd thing that I think is noteworthy, not because it’s bad, but because it offers some interesting implications about the nature of the world itself.  Riley’s five emotions are not gender neutral entities; Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all coded as female, while Fear and Anger are coded as male.  In the views we get into other characters’ minds, we see that their emotions take on the physical characteristics of the person they inhabit (Riley’s mom’s emotions all wear glasses, lipstick, and have long brown hair tied in a ponytail; Riley’s dad’s emotions all have short brown hair and bristly mustaches).  They’re clearly modeled on the character concepts we see inside Riley, and on a meta-level this makes sense because we spend most of our time inside Riley’s head where these characters need to be distinct, and the segments inside others’ minds are all quick jokes that need some visual shorthand to help communicate what’s similar and what’s different about each situation.  Based on what we see we can infer that as Riley matures, her emotions will mature as well, and they’ll settle into a pattern that matches her personality, which seems to include a unified gender identity.  Though this was probably territory that Pixar didn’t intend to explore, I’m wondering if the implication here is that Riley’s gender identity is fluid; while a case might be made that she’s still growing so her emotions aren’t as established as her parents’, I’d also note that in the ending we do get glimpses into the minds of some of her same-age peers, and their emotions are clearly coded uniformly along cisnormative gender lines.  Again, on a meta-level this is probably just the creators doing what works for the sight gag, but on a world-building level I’m wondering if it’s a subtle nod to the reality of non-cis gender identities.

But that’s just where my mind goes when I’m watching a movie about other people’s minds.

So I Just Saw Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove

I like to imagine that there’s a great and glorious Disney pantheon somewhere in the ether, filled with dignified and whimsical characters from all of Disney’s franchises hanging out and eating ambrosia, Olympus style.  They’re pretty chummy with one another, but they never act below their station.  The princesses always act like princesses, the heroes always act like heroes, the villains always act like villains, the cute animal mascots always act like cute animal mascots.  No one ever acts in a way that’s undignified or asymmetrical to their assigned narrative roles.

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Pretty much sums it up. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

On the mountaintop next to Disney-Olympus is Kuzcotopia.  That’s where everyone from The Emperor’s New Groove lives, because they embarrass all the other Disney characters with their insistence that you should have fun while you’re telling a story, regardless of whether it makes sense to the narrative.

Also, there’s a water slide, which is wicked sweet.

In watching this movie, I’m reminded of the marketing campaign that actually revolved around the later Lilo & Stitch which emphasized that Stitch was not a typical Disney character, and he would actually alienate all the other characters if they happened to inhabit the same universe.  That’s true to an extent, but Lilo & Stitch, for all its zaniness, is a movie that still revolves around the heartwarming caramel center that all Disney films are built on.  Emperor says, “Screw that!  I’m going to have fun, and maybe I’ll teach the kids a lesson about friendship when I’m not too busy being awesome.”

Even though this movie comes really late in Disney’s animated canon, I think it’s best to compare it to the classic Looney Tunes shorts of the 1940s and ’50s.  Yes, there’s a definite narrative arc going on, but it’s always subservient to the comedy, and extended interludes like the entire diner sequence do almost nothing to move the action forward, but are some of the best parts of the film.

One particularly praiseworthy aspect of Emperor’s New Groove has to do with its portrayal of people of color.  This is a story set in a pseudo-Incan civilization where not a white person is in sight.  It’s a fantastic case of Disney (unlike when they did Pocahontas) not allowing themselves to exoticize non-European people, and thus undercutting really human portrayals of their characters.

On the flip side, one glaring flaw with this film is how it handles Kuzco’s treatment of Yzma.  Yzma is definitely the villain of the story, but she’s a pretty mild villain once you get past all the murdery plots.  Yzma wants to rule the empire, and she happens to be an older woman.  We don’t see any evidence that she’s a particularly bad ruler after she assumes control (for all we know, she’s actually an improvement over the self-absorbed Kuzco).  Given all of this, one of the biggest sources of humor about Yzma is the fact that she’s old.  A case might be made that it’s just Kuzco making these jokes, and he’s pretty much a jerk throughout most of the movie, but there are clearly instances where Yzma’s age is highlighted by the film in order to drive home a punchline, like when we get a close-up shot of the wrinkles around her eyes at the dinner party, or when Kronk stumbles into her bedroom and freaks out over seeing her in a facial mask.  It’s one of the few problems with the movie’s humor, but it should be highlighted, if only because Yzma’s such a great character otherwise.

The final opinion is this: The Emperor’s New Groove is a really weird Disney movie, mostly because it doesn’t feel like much of a Disney movie, and that’s what makes it so great.  Also, Yzma’s final fate, which in a more serious movie would involve falling to her doom from atop Kuzco’s palace, instead involves her getting turned into an adorable kitten and made to learn good socialization skills through the Cub Scouts.

So I Just Saw Disney’s The Fox and The Hound

I think this might be the most melancholic Disney movie I’ve seen to date.  I’m trying to think of anything else that has smaller stakes and a more bittersweet ending, but I’m drawing a blank.

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Original release poster. I like how the bear appears ominously in the background like it’s going to be an important character. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Modern Disney movies are usually notable for their sense of animated spectacle.  You watch something produced any time after the late ’80s (I think The Great Mouse Detective might have been the first Disney movie to go for really ambitious visuals with the clock tower fight scene, although I haven’t yet rewatched that one, so it may end up being less spectacular than I remember), and you can expect that Disney’s going to do everything it can to wow with you the animation.

The Fox and the Hound generally doesn’t go for impressive visuals and flashy scenes (the climactic fight between Tod, Copper, and a bear is a major exception), which is probably reflective of the more meditative nature of the story.  There’s no great conflict or adventure to be found here, only misunderstandings and personal grudges.

The story follows Tod, an orphaned fox (we actually begin by witnessing his mother’s death by hunter; it’s a pretty strong clue that this is not going to be the typical lighthearted fantasy that has been Disney’s bread and butter for most of its history), who is adopted by an elderly woman and raised next door to the hunter Amos Slade, who has just acquired a new hound dog, Copper, that he plans to train for hunting.  Tod and Copper quickly develop a friendship despite warnings from the local wildlife that there’s no way they’ll be able to maintain it.  These warnings ultimately bear out, as Copper swears revenge on Tod after his mentor Chief gets seriously injured while Amos is chasing Tod down for trespassing on his property (I don’t fully understand why Copper would hold Tod responsible for Chief’s injury, but that’s probably just my sensibilities about the aggressor being the one at fault clouding my judgment).  Of course, in the end the two make peace with one another, but they still have to bid farewell, since Tod can’t return from the game preserve where he’s been released by his owner.

In a lot of ways, this story’s a lot more adult than what Disney typically deals with.  Even with Tod and Copper’s reconciliation, they still grow apart in the end, and this is treated as something that’s to be expected.  When I was a kid first watching this movie, I was disappointed that the two friends don’t get an unambiguously happy ending.  As an adult, I can see how this story’s trying to make a point about circumstances forcing people to grow apart.  It’s unfortunate, but also unavoidable.

But then again, that’s the innocuous reading of this story.  Rachael pointed out to me that the whole thing takes on very unfortunate implications if you recast the story as an allegory for race relations (keep in mind that this is mostly just fancy, since I don’t think Disney’s ever been much for allegorical storytelling).  Tod is an outsider to the domesticated human world, and he’s only allowed to be there through the good graces of his owner.  Copper, meanwhile, is part of that order of things as a trusted companion to his owner.  It doesn’t take much of a stretch to read the clashing worlds here as representative of white and non-white social spheres.  Despite all of Tod’s best intentions, he’s unable to escape being seen as a threat by the hunter, and his benevolent owner eventually has no choice but to return him to his own kind.  The ending serves to drive home a rather mortifying moral that members of different tribes can’t mix without meeting insurmountable obstacles.

Let’s just hope that’s not what Disney was actually going for.

Besides the film’s intended moral, there’s really not much to recommend it.  It isn’t catastrophically bad like Dumbo (which is probably more fairly described as extremely dated), but it’s not especially good either.  All of the characters feel underdeveloped, and way too much of the run time digresses from Tod and Copper’s story to inject slapstick comedy by way of Dinky and Boomer, a pair of birds who are on a never ending quest to catch a caterpillar.  The music is lackluster, and Tod’s love interest, Vixey (who gets introduced in the third act as a device to cheer Tod up after he’s been let loose), is an all around horribly written character who has no perceivable personality.  All in all, if you’re in the mood for older Disney, give this one a pass (or chase it with something more jubilant, like Robin Hood).

So I Just Saw Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh is one of those weird Disney properties that I never really found that interesting as a kid.  All the other movies that I’ve looked at so far held some bit of interest, but having never been a real Pooh fan, I debated for a while actually looking at this movie in the first place.

Of course, after watching it I’m glad I did, because my recent viewing of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh revealed one very important thing that’s often overlooked.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.jpg

Don’t be fooled by the bright colors. This is a story of greed, resentment, and attempted murder. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Pooh and his friends are a bunch of jerks.

Let’s look at the evidence.

In the first short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Hunny Tree,” (this movie is actually an anthology of three earlier short films that Disney released featuring the Pooh characters), we meet Pooh and learn that he has a rather insatiable appetite for all things sweet, particularly honey.  Pooh’s appetite is so great, in fact, that when he stops by to say hello to Rabbit, who is just sitting down to lunch and too polite to tell Pooh no when he asks if he may join him, he ends up eating all of the honey in Rabbit’s pantry (for whatever reason, Rabbit keeps several large pots of honey).  Pooh eats so much that he becomes stuck when trying to leave, and Rabbit is forced to spend several days waiting for Pooh to shed the extra weight so that he will be able to squeeze out of the front door.  Pooh, being pleasantly dim, takes all of this in stride.

I’m not sure what the point of this story is; considering that the source material is a series of children’s books, I would expect some kind of moral, but I can’t identify anything of the sort.  Pooh’s friends help him out of his literal jam, but he never reflects on the experience or acknowledges that he might have been really greedy in the way he took advantage of Rabbit’s hospitality.  The entire episode’s kind of a nonevent where everyone just gives Pooh a pass for his bad behavior.

Of course, Pooh’s not the only jerk in the Hundred Acre Wood.  I really sympathize with Rabbit, since he strikes me as the poor neighbor who’s always getting inconvenienced by everyone else, but he’s even more of a jerk than everyone else.  When Tigger’s bounciness inadvertently destroys his vegetable garden, Rabbit hatches a plan to take Tigger deep into the woods and abandon him.

So where Pooh has incredibly poor manners, Rabbit’s willing to leave his friends to die when they inconvenience him (y’know, for kids!).  When the plot inevitably fails, Rabbit doesn’t even display any remorse that he tried to lose Tigger.  Of course, Rabbit’s sociopathic obsession with stopping Tigger’s bouncing doesn’t end there, as he uses a later incident where Tigger gets stuck in a tree as a chance to coerce him into giving up bouncing altogether in exchange for help getting down.  Once Tigger’s safely back on the ground, Rabbit is the only one who’s serious about holding Tigger to the no bouncing rule; it takes the peer pressure of every other inhabitant of the Hundred Acre Wood to get him to give in.

Besides the weirdly anti-social characters, the movie is highly engaging.  I honestly found the Pooh stories more entertaining now that I can see just how screwed up the characters are.

Also, Eeyore might be my spirit animal.

So I Just Saw Disney’s Treasure Planet

Confession time.

I kinda like this movie.

It’s not perfect, but given that it came out in 2002 when Disney’s traditional animation projects were waning in quality, I think it’s a lot better than its peers.

Treasure Planet poster.jpg

I think this film mostly just suffered from releasing the same year as Spirited Away. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Treasure Planet is Disney’s animated adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.  It follows Jim Hawkins, a troubled teenager who sets off on an adventure after an aging spacer named Billy Bones gives him a map leading to Treasure Planet, the hiding place of the infamous Captain Flint.  The broad strokes of the story follow those of Treasure Island closely, with Jim becoming a cabin boy on the ship that’s hired to look for the treasure, where he meets Long John Silver, the ship’s cook and secret leader of the pirate crew that plans to take control of the ship and keep the treasure for themselves.  The ship’s first mate falls overboard, the pirates mutiny, and Jim and a handful of officers loyal to Captain Smollett (who gets wounded in their escape from the ship) make it to the planet where they meet the castaway Ben who helps them reach the treasure.  The Captain’s party eventually get the upper hand on Silver’s crew and leave the island with Silver in tow.  On the voyage home, Silver manages to escape.

Major differences in the plot revolve around the relationship between Jim and Silver.  In this version of events, Jim’s father has been absent for a long time (instead of having just died a few days prior to the events of the story), and the boy frequently gets in trouble with the local police due to his lack of an authority figure (Jim’s mother, who runs the family inn by herself, struggles to help her son, although it’s clear that she’s stretched pretty thin just trying to manage the business).  When Jim joins the voyage to find the treasure, he’s put directly under the charge of Silver, who provides real mentorship on the journey.  This dynamic of friendliness between Silver and Jim is present in all versions of the story, but here the bond is made significantly stronger as Silver isn’t just kind to Jim, but also teaches him how to be a good spacer and encourages him to find a direction for his life.  In the movie’s climax where Treasure Planet is self destructing, Silver even chooses to give up the treasure in order to save Jim’s life, and at the end, when Silver makes his escape, Jim catches him in the act but lets him go on good terms (this scene particularly stands out in my mind because of its differences with the same scene from Muppet Treasure Island where Jim lets Silver go, but he makes it clear that he’s not forgiven the pirate for betraying him, and he never wants to see him again).  Overall it’s an interesting dynamic, simply because Silver doesn’t come off as quite the villain he usually appears to be.

Besides Jim and Silver’s relationship, which is the focal point of the story, the other characters are pretty well drawn.  I find the character of Ben the robot more annoying than anything, but he shows up late in the story and has minimal screen time, so I can overlook that obligatory ridiculous funny character meant to entertain the kids.  Captain Smollett has been turned into a Strong Female Character ™, which would be annoying in other circumstances, but here I feel inclined to give it a pass because a)besides being made female and pairing her with Dr. Doppler, her story arc mirrors that of the original Captain Smollett, meaning that her injury during the mutiny isn’t something that happens just because she’s a woman who needs to be incapacitated for the climax, and b)her competency is never used as a measuring stick for Jim’s own growth, because he doesn’t surpass the captain but develops skills that complement her leadership.  Unfortunately, Smollett’s the only major female character in the story, as Jim’s mother gets sidelined after the first act because she doesn’t want to go on the voyage, which means that this movie fails the Bechdel test rather spectacularly, despite being set in an alternate sci-fi-ish universe with no discernible reason that women wouldn’t be common as spacers (there’s no hint of the ridiculous sailor superstitions about women on boats, so the fact that most of the spacers we see read as male seems more like lazy design than an attempt at creating a specific social atmosphere).

Stepping away from characters, I briefly want to touch on the music in this movie.  This is from Disney’s “we’re not making animated musicals” era, so the music is mostly orchestral (and it’s good orchestral music, by the way) with a couple of pop songs used as background over character building montages (“nothing you can’t do with a montage!”).  Fortunately, Phil Collins isn’t anywhere to be heard; the pop songs were actually written and recorded for the movie by John Rzeznik, the frontman for the Goo Goo Dolls, and I think they’re pretty good as pop music goes.

As for visuals, this film’s a strange beast because it’s mostly a combination of traditionally animated characters imposed on CG backgrounds (John Silver being a notable hybrid with his CG cybernetic limbs).  By today’s standards the CG looks dated, but the visual style meshes well with the characters so when the characters are on screen, you mostly don’t think, “that’s CG in the background.”  Having CG sets does allow this movie to do something that previous Disney movies have been unable to incorporate, which is dynamic camera movement.  If you think about, say, The Little Mermaid, that film was almost entirely static shots, and the few dynamic ones (particularly the shot of Ariel running down the stairs in Eric’s palace) were rare because they took so much extra work (that staircase shot involved making a CG wireframe of the set, transposing it to cels, and hand coloring them; it’s a beautiful shot, but it’s just impractical).  With Treasure Planet, so many shots were dynamic that I found myself more surprised when I noticed a static scene with a traditional background.

Overall, I have to admit how surprised I was that I enjoyed revisiting this movie.  All I remembered prior to my recent viewing was that this was a film I remember thinking was extremely beautiful (I remember seeing the trailer for it in a theater and thinking, “That looks like an animated movie worth watching”), but otherwise unmemorable.  It probably doesn’t help that it was released the same year Disney distributed the English language release of Spirited Away, which naturally blew every other animated movie out of the water that year.  The verdict after seeing Treasure Planet again is that it deserves another look.

So I Just Saw Disney’s The Rescuers

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Original theatrical release poster. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I’m feeling a little ill at the moment, so I’ll try to keep this brief and bullet-pointed.

  • The color palette of this movie is extremely subdued.  The music is extremely subdued.  The whole movie is extremely subdued.
  • The scene at the beginning showing the United Nations is nifty, except that it’s abound with national stereotypes.  Shrinking down to look at the mini-UN in the storage closet doesn’t help, because when you go from realistic humans to anthropomorphic mice, stereotypes get turned into cutesy versions that seem harmless (except for the fact that we’re still reinforcing stereotypes).
  • I see you, Black Female Mouse With an Afro, and I like you as a character.  I just wish you didn’t represent the country of Africa, because, y’know, that’s offensive and oh so colonial (I mean, Latvia gets its own representative.  Latvia!)
  • Not all male mice objectify Bianca, the Hungarian representative.  Just most of them.
  • Bianca chooses Bernard as her partner for the mission either because he respects her as a person and isn’t clamoring to hang out with her like all the other dog-mice… or he’s a bumbling janitor who makes her look good in front of Openly Misogynist English Mouse by comparison.
  • Orville the albatross is the most incompetent bird I’ve ever seen.
  • Backwater stereotypes of southerners aren’t as bad as international stereotypes, but seriously, Disney, learn not to paint in such broad strokes with your characterization.  I know you can do it; I halfway believed that Bernard and Bianca would fall in love (except for the fact, again, that he’s a bumbling schmuck who demonstrates absolutely zero character growth throughout the movie and makes Bianca look awesome by comparison).
  • Flipping the gender roles where the woman is the exciting, adventurous one and the man is the reluctant tag-along is not feminist; it doesn’t elevate women to only have your female lead look great in comparison to the janitor.
  • For all my ribbing, I don’t want to imply Bernard’s status as custodian is a detriment and makes him a bad character.  What makes him a bad character is the fact that he’s absurdly superstitious and has no apparent competencies at the start of the movie, and by the end he’s still absurdly superstitious and has no apparent competencies.
  • On the plus side, Bianca does get to save Bernard a couple of times.
  • Having an orphan girl who just wants to be adopted be the person who needs rescuing is manipulative and melodramatic; having the lesson she learns from her experience be that with enough faith anything can happen is a cruel, false message that encourages an attitude of blind hopefulness without any sort of epistemological foundation.
  • An entire swarm of bats would not camp out all day just to have a chance at catching one dragonfly hiding inside a bottle.  I call shenanigans.
  • The real reason Bernard gets picked to go on this adventure is because he represents an important cultural myth: the hapless nice guy who deserves to catch a break.  Yes, Bernard gets thrown into this mess because he has a cultural right to be the hero of something worthwhile.  Let’s not get into yet another discussion of how this trope reinforces attitudes of entitlement in privileged classes.

The Rescuers is a low point in Disney’s animated canon.  It has some merits as a small story with low stakes (put on your nostalgia glasses and marvel at a film from bygone decades that wasn’t trying to be the BIGGEST THING EVER), but it lacks the visual pop that other Disney movies usually have.  The animation can be very lovely, but I’m just not a fan of the drab palette.

Of course, my opinion’s worth pretty much nil, since this was the first Disney movie to receive a direct theatrical sequel.

So I Just Saw Disney’s Brother Bear

The short version of my thoughts on this film is that it’s an entirely competent work with solid animation and a decent, if not so memorable, story.

The long version is this:

Brother Bear is a late entry in Disney’s traditionally animated oeuvre.  It released the same year as Finding Nemo, which is an infinitely more memorable film.  This was an issue that many of Disney’s later animated films ran into during the late ’90s and early 2000s when Pixar was having its heyday, because Pixar’s stuff in the decade following the release of Toy Story was critical and commercial gold.

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“You would fit perfectly inside my mouth.” Promotional poster. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The basic plot goes like this: Kenai and his two older brothers Sitka and Denahi are young men in an Inuit tribe living in North America following the last ice age.  Kenai is about to come of age within his tribe and is awaiting the rite of passage where he’ll receive his spirit totem from the tribe’s wise woman, who has just returned from the top of the nearby mountain where she has been communing with the spirits.  Kenai’s is presented with the bear of love, which he thinks is inappropriate because he hates bears and thinks that they’re no better than thieves.  Due to Kenai’s carelessness, a bear wanders into his tribe’s camp and takes some salmon that the brothers brought back from their recent excursion.  The brothers follow the bear to retrieve the basket that Denahi, the middle brother, made to hold the fish, and they find that it’s been destroyed.  Kenai goes on to kill the bear, but after a fight atop a glacier, Kenai finds himself cornered by the bear.  Sitka, the eldest brother, sacrifices himself to save his brothers by splitting off a piece of the glacier with him and the bear atop it.  The bear survives, and Kenai decides to pursue and kill the bear as revenge for Sitka’s death, eventually succeeding.  After he kills the bear, the spirits transform him into a bear so that he can learn some empathy, and then he goes on a series of misadventures on his way to find the place where the light touches the earth.  In the course of his journey, he meets a young grizzly cub named Koda who he eventually learns is the cub of the bear that he killed.  Kenai finally learns empathy and the spirits transform him back into a human, but he decides to remain a bear so that he can stay with Koda, who has become like his brother.

Okay, so the story’s a pretty typical Freaky Friday type situation, but with talking animals in place of annoying mothers.  Kenai’s a sympathetic enough protagonist, and his character arc is satisfying.  Beyond that, this isn’t a terribly interesting film either in terms of its problems or its successes.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film is the fact that it has no women.  Our only female characters are the old wise woman Tanana (she’s really only around for three scenes) and Koda’s mother (who dies early in the film before we ever actually get to know anything about her).  Both are hardly presences in the film, with the heavy lifting of Kenai’s spiritual guidance falling on the shoulders of his dead brother Sitka (whose totem is the eagle of guidance, so I guess that role’s kind of a given).  Koda’s mother probably qualifies best as a bear in a refrigerator, because her death is used as a catalyst for Kenai’s own development, but she’s just not well fleshed out (perhaps a case could be made for the fact that this is a story about Kenai learning to empathize and that Koda’s mother being obscured highlights the loss of opportunity that comes with being careless in one’s decision-making; on the other hand, it’s really overdone to use a dead mother for the sake of character development).  Maybe the lack of female characters wouldn’t be so bad, considering this is a film that’s very interested in exploring ideas of adult masculinity and male relationships, but I just can’t let go of the lazy use of the dead mother.

In terms of music, this film’s just bland.  I watched this movie a couple days after The Little Mermaid, and the contrast between the two films’ music is huge.  Menken and Ashman’s songs are a big part of what makes the early ’90s Disney movies so memorable, and Brother Bear, which comes from the era when Disney was moving away from traditional musicals to more of an emphasis on musical montages (this trend really began with Tarzan, which is notable for being the first time that Disney got Phil Collins to do the soundtrack for one of their movies; Brother Bear was the second).  Since I have a deep fondness for musicals, I’m not very well disposed towards this style of musical storytelling (also, Phil Collins is just a really bland artist).  I know that musicals can be ridiculous if you think too hard about the fact that characters are expressing their thoughts and feelings in spontaneous song, but it’s a kind of ridiculousness that I can get behind (usually it’s more interesting to watch than a montage too).

On the bright side, Brother Bear is a film that left me with pretty much no ill feelings towards Disney for turning an ethnic group into a caricature of itself (I still haven’t forgiven you, Pocahontas).  The Inuit depicted in the movie aren’t mysticized or idealized, but represented as just people living their lives.  Perhaps it helps that Disney didn’t have any white characters that they felt the need to contrast.

There’s probably good reason that Disney’s focus shifted towards computer animation not too long after this movie was released, but as far as traditionally animated movies go, it’s a solid one.  It’s just not terribly memorable in any way.

So I Just Saw Disney’s The Little Mermaid

We went to the video store this week, and now it finally feels like summer!

The great thing about doing my ongoing Disney movie review series is that there are a lot of Disney movies on Netflix.  It’s kind of absurd how many there are.  What Disney does not have available on Netflix are its big name films.  You know the ones.  I’m sure it’s a business decision that revolves around Disney’s obsession with creating false scarcity so that their big properties remain in high demand and they can sell new versions of the DVDs every five years.  It’s what I would do if I were a giant multinational entertainment corporation bent on world domination bringing family fun to the masses.

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Original theatrical poster. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The problem with this model is that Netflix’s library is full up of second- and third-tier films.  Disney’s A-list movies require a physical copy to watch, and my library, while impressive, has holes in it (Rachael and I tend towards collecting Pixar and Studio Ghibli movies over Disney animated classics).  Normally this isn’t a big deal, because we own all the Disney movies that we ever get an itch to watch, but with this series, I’ve expected for a couple months now that I was going to need to do some rentals to get into the really meaty bits of the Disney oeuvre.

So we finally got to the video store, and I rented The Little Mermaid (much to my chagrin, all Disney animated movies are permanently shelved as new releases now because they’re apparently the most commonly stolen discs in the store, and it gets expensive replacing copies of movies that are currently out of print).

This is the big one.  There are tons of well regarded movies in Disney’s history, but I don’t think any of them quite stack up to what The Little Mermaid represents for the company.  This was the film that ushered in Disney’s golden age.  In terms of sheer critical approval over the years, Disney’s animation studio never had a higher concentration of feature length hits than in the half decade that followed The Little Mermaid.

Of course, financial success for Disney’s not terribly interesting in comparison to how they adapted The Little Mermaid.  The original fairy tale, written by Hans Christian Andersen, details the story of an unnamed mermaid, the youngest of six daughters of the sea king.  When a mermaid turns fifteen, she’s permitted to visit the surface and observe it, and the little mermaid spends several years before her fifteenth birthday hearing stories from her older sisters.  When it comes to be the little mermaid’s turn, she goes to the surface and espies a ship with a handsome prince on it with whom she instantly falls in love.  A storm comes up, wrecking the ship, and the little mermaid saves the prince from drowning, but he never sees her, so he remains unaware of her role in his rescue.  The little mermaid pines over the prince and decides to make a deal with the sea witch, who gives her a potion that will grant her legs at the cost of her tongue, although her legs will be in constant agony like she’s stepping on sharp knives.  The mermaid drinks the potion and goes to the surface where, now mute, she meets the prince and befriends him.  The prince’s father orders him to marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom, but the prince confesses to the mermaid that he doesn’t love the princess and won’t marry her, because he’s actually in love with a girl from the temple where he awoke after the storm that nearly killed him.  It turns out the girl at the temple was in fact the princess, and the prince then happily marries her, leaving the mermaid brokenhearted, which kills her.  Unlike humans, mermaids don’t have immortal souls, so she turns into sea foam when she dies and washes away.  There’s an extra coda that gives the mermaid a pseudo-happy ending as instead of disappearing, she’s transformed into a “daughter of air” who can get into heaven after a period of trial where she either has to do lots of good deeds or she has to rely on the good deeds of children to shorten her sentence.

There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s really different from the movie (I wonder if we should keep a counter of all the times Disney takes a tragic story and gives it a happy ending).  To start, we have a shift in the dynamic between humans and merfolk where in the original story, it’s a rite of passage for children coming into adulthood to visit the surface and satisfy their curiosity about it instead of something absolutely forbidden because humanity is dangerous.  Though it doesn’t change the core trait of the little mermaid as someone who’s irrepressibly curious, in the Disney version we have the added dimension of teenage rebellion.  This change isn’t necessarily a bad one, because it still plays into the coming of age story, but it does do some things to the story that shift the focus away from Ariel’s journey to grow up.

With Triton banning contact with the surface world, Ariel has no way to legitimately explore something that she’s fascinated with, and so her encounter with Eric ends up being something clandestine that she needs to keep secret.  When Triton eventually finds out, Ariel’s so desperate to try to connect with Eric that she goes to Ursula seeking a solution and ends up getting used as a pawn in Ursula’s plot to steal Triton’s power.  The climax of the story ends up being about Ursula’s power play rather than Ariel’s attempts to be with Eric, and it hinges on the fact that Ariel has to act covertly to explore the surface against Triton’s wishes (conversely, if Ariel hadn’t been banned from exploring the surface, Triton could have given her an opportunity himself; we see that he has the power to turn Ariel human himself, so Ursula would have been a superfluous character and the story would have had to center more on the romance).

But let all that pass for the moment, and we’ll accept that conflict is necessary for a story to be interesting, and in order to have a happy ending that doesn’t require Ursula’s magic, Triton needs his own magic, and he needs to be unwilling to use it until the end.  Keeping Ursula as the antagonist does further enhance the coming of age themes by providing examples of how Ariel’s transition is costly and painful.  The original story has the sea witch cut out the mermaid’s tongue as payment, but that’s too gruesome for Disney so we’ll settle for a magical method of stealing Ariel’s voice.  This is a really interesting aspect of both versions of the story, because Ariel’s trying to buy her way into adulthood here, and the cost of such a transition is her primary mode of expression (the Disney version does a fantastic job of conveying how important Ariel’s voice is to her, with all of her major development through the first half of the film being related to her singing).  It’s a tragic thing to pay, because it suggests on a more symbolic level that women like Ariel have to give up self expression in order to become independent, almost like it’s too dangerous for them to be expressing opinions without the protection of a father or husband (note that Ariel’s voice returns once the period of courtship between her and Eric ends).  It goes without saying that this message is highly problematic, and one of the more irritating parts of the narrative.

Of course, for all the problems that come with Ariel not having her voice, her possession of a beautiful voice creates further complications.  From what we see of life in Triton’s kingdom, his daughters are valuable as objects of entertainment.  The introductory scene where Triton attends a concert featuring his daughters’ performance seems to be something that’s done regularly, and this particular event is supposed to be Ariel’s initiation into that function.  Besides the role that’s expected of Ariel at home, we also have the way more problematic portrayal of her relationship with Eric, who falls in love with her because of her voice.  Even after they meet for real, Eric continues to be distracted by the idea of his dream girl with the lovely voice; much to Ariel’s chagrin, Eric is convinced that she can’t possibly be his savior because she’s mute.  While Ariel’s voice is a central part of her identity, it becomes fetishized as the only part of her identity that matters to the men in her life.

I could go on for a bit about the problems with Ariel’s relationships with Triton and Eric (while I get her rapid leap to “I love him, Daddy!” when she’s never so much as spoken to Eric, the entire arc of their courtship is really rushed and shallow; I mean, it never even occurs to Eric to see if Ariel can write!), but there are other things I want to cover before this post gets too long.

On an aesthetic front, this movie’s just so freakishly beautiful.  It was the last animated film that Disney did that was animated entirely using traditional analog methods (even though the CG used to create several of the moving ships in various scenes is obvious now, they still stand out because the models were produced as wireframes that were transferred to cels and traditionally colored).  Seriously, this is the first Disney movie I’ve watched for this series so far that has left me with a desire to watch it again immediately, just because I want to take in all the detail on the screen.  If I have one complaint about the look, it’s that literally everyone besides Ariel and Eric look deranged anytime they’re illustrated with irises around their pupils.  Half of Triton’s scenes make him look like a crazy old man, particularly when he’s supposed to be happy.

The music’s as good and memorable as everyone thinks, and two days after watching it, I still have more or less the whole soundtrack stuck on loop in my head as an ear worm.  Howard Ashman’s lyrics are incredibly memorable, and thinking on them in comparison to the lyrics from other Disney films where Alan Menken had to work with a different lyricist after his death makes me sad.

Overall, there are a lot of good reasons The Little Mermaid is still so memorable.  It’s not a perfect film (what movie is?), but it does just so much right.  It’s really easy to see why this one is considered one of Disney’s best works.

 

So I Just Saw Disney’s Robin Hood

Well, it took thirty years, but I finally found a classic Disney movie that I still think is solidly enjoyable with minimal problematic elements.  Go figure, it ended up being another one of the many “cheap” Disney movies that were made on a tight budget to maximize profits.  Of course, unlike other cheap films like Dumbo and Lilo & Stitch, which are definitely very beautiful movies, this one actually looks cheap.

That’s really only a minor complaint about Robin Hood, because otherwise this movie still holds up remarkably well.

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Theatrical release poster for Robin Hood. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For anyone curious about what I mean about the cheap quality of the animation, it really only comes out if you’ve seen a lot of older Disney films.  Robin Hood has the same signature sketchy style that was prevalent in Disney films beginning in the ’60s and carrying clear on until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 (I’m not a huge fan of this style, but that’s probably because I grew up on the golden age films of the ’90s that had a much cleaner look to them), but that’s not what makes it look so odd.  In several key action sequences (and the big party scene during the song “Phony King of England”) if you watch closely you can see that multiple shots use animation identical to scenes from The Jungle Book (Little John and Lady Kluck dancing are just traces of Baloo and King Louie doing the same routine) and The Aristocats (if you’re watching along with me, you can see this most clearly when Maid Marian is dancing with the band in the woods; her animation is the same as Duchess dancing in O’Malley’s apartment, and the musicians perfectly correlate to the alley cats, right down to the drummer having the same caricatured facial features as Chinese Cat).  Apparently there are also some sequences pulled from Snow White of all places, but I’ve not seen that movie in years, so I can’t place the corresponding scenes.

It’s a strange effect, because you get the sense that you’ve seen this before, but you’re not entirely sure where.

Anyhow, that’s really a minor complaint, because I still think this film is one of Disney’s high points from that era.  Robin Hood’s a very well known figure in the Western consciousness, so he’s a natural fit for a Disney adaptation.  Making him a fox adds a fun layer to his character, since he transitions from simply being a well intentioned outlaw and folk hero to being something of a trickster.  This Robin Hood is a thief and a master archer, just like every well-known version, but the swashbuckling aspects have been mostly filed away to allow for someone more crafty.  He can fight when he needs to, but it’s telling that the two major action sequences in the movie come about because one of Robin’s ruses goes wrong (it might not make for the most exciting climax, but I think I’d enjoy seeing Robin and Little John breaking Friar Tuck out of prison and stealing all Prince John’s gold without a hitch).

On a thematic level, this movie doesn’t really do anything to irritate me the way other Disney fare does.  If Pocahontas and Aristocats grated on my nerves for their respective sexism and infatuation with the upper class, then Robin Hood‘s pretty much free and clear.  Our introduction to Maid Marian and Lady Kluck has them pass the Bechdel Test right out the gate as we see them playing tennis and enjoying each other’s company.  Yeah, Marian’s pretty moony over Robin, but there’s also some depth in the romance here where she’s uncertain about whether he’d return her affections after she’s been away in London for several years (I’ll admit that beyond the romance Marian’s a pretty flat character, so the movie’s not perfect with how it presents its female characters).  Setting character aside, the movie’s whole plot revolves around the core of any Robin Hood story: the overly wealthy nobility is squeezing the peasantry dry with unnecessary taxation.  Granted, the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish between overtaxation and regular taxes (the fact that King Richard returns at the end of the movie and sets everything right before he presumably sets off for another Crusade is problematic; that’s one unnecessary war after another funded by the people’s taxes, yet no one seems to mind that in comparison to Prince John’s hoarding of wealth just because he can).

Despite the problems with its message, Robin Hood still does some interesting things to emphasize its populist themes.  If you pay attention to the voice acting, you’ll notice there’s a pretty clear split between actors with American accents and actors with English ones.  Take a guess which class of people are typically American and which ones are typically English (remember that Robin, though he’s an outlaw, is also titled; if he weren’t then there’s no way it’d be appropriate for him and Marian to wed).  I don’t know for certain that this was a conscious choice on the part of the casting director, but it’s an interesting feature nonetheless.  Besides that, there’s also the device of framing the story as a tale being told by Allan-a-Dale the minstrel.  In medieval tradition, minstrels were folk singers who would travel about and spread news through song.  That same role is in effect here, but the sound isn’t traditional English so much as American western.  It’s not as odd a thematic mash up as gospel and greek mythology, but I think it’s in the same vein of taking a familiar American idea and using that to make something more esoteric relatable to the audience.

There are definitely some missteps in this movie, but overall it’s still a lot of fun to watch.  Unlike all the other pre-’90s Disney films I’ve watched recently, I can still recommend this one as worth your time.

So I Just Saw Disney’s Pocahontas

Alright, this is one of the big ones.  I’ve been putting it off for a few weeks, but I’m ready to tackle one of the major Disney movies from the ’90s.

I’m just not going to tackle one of the good ones.

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Great visuals, crummy story. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Now, don’t get me wrong, Pocahontas is a beautiful movie.  Its visuals are just gorgeous.  The palette’s really rich and the characters are all animated beautifully (and the CGI used on the canoes and Grandmother Willow could honestly look much worse nearly twenty years later).

Too bad the sexism, racism, and historical inaccuracies get in the way of all that.

For anyone who might not be familiar with Disney’s Pocahontas (I’m not sure how that could be possible, but it’s better not to assume), this movie’s the story of the meeting and conflict between the Powhatan tribe and settlers from the Virginia Company who arrive from England to found Jamestown.  Tons of artistic liberties are taken from the original account including, but not limited to, John Smith as a handsome blonde explorer who regularly puts himself at risk for the sake of his men, Pocahontas as an adult woman who has magical powers to commune with the spirits of the earth, and a whirlwind romance between the two leads that’s more reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet.

You know how Disney has kind of a mixed record on the whole “faithful adaptation” thing?  Yeah, this movie’s very squarely on the poor end of the spectrum (especially since this isn’t an adaptation of a fictional story, but historic events).  John Smith, by all accounts, was a lying self-aggrandizer who was notorious for blowing his own contributions to Jamestown’s establishment out of proportion (also, he was an older dude with bushy brown hair, not the dreamboat with the soft blue eyes depicted in the film).  Pocahontas (more likely a nickname than her given name) was a child when she and John Smith encountered one another.  There definitely wouldn’t have been any sort of attraction between them.

“But the clash of two worlds!  The critique of European colonialism!  The colors of the wind!” you may say.  Yeah, there’s some good stuff to pick apart, but none of that requires the love story angle (apparently Disney was just really keyed up on doing something in the vein of Romeo & Juliet when they conceived Pocahontas; I guess that means think of this movie as Disney’s Romeo & Juliet).  Also, let’s be clear that Disney didn’t do a whole lot to critique the settlers.  They cross the ocean looking for gold, find out there isn’t any, and then they decide to hang out anyway.  We’ll just ignore the fact that the peace that John Smith wrought with the Powhatan was short-lived and basically disintegrated as soon as he returned to England (which is how the movie ends; by the way, saying that a four month voyage across the ocean is Smith’s only chance of surviving a gunshot wound is incredibly stupid; if they couldn’t stabilize him with local supplies, the trip wouldn’t do him any favors).

Let’s turn away from the historical problems, because there are just too many, and other things should be pointed out and considered.

Disney made a pretty big deal out of their attempts to accurately reflect the culture of the Algonquians (the Powhatan are a subset of that tribe) in this movie.  They said that they consulted with members of the Algonquian nation to help ensure accuracy, but then there are also reports from the Powhatan nation that they offered to help Disney but were rejected.  I’m not sure how accurate the depiction actually is, especially since this is a fictionalization that includes some overt magical aspects (think about the shaman’s perfectly accurate soothsaying, complete with smoke images, and Pocahontas’s miraculous ability to understand English just because she “listens with her heart”).  Setting aside the fantastic bits, which are pretty standard for Disney (even if I think it’s problematic that the magic only relates to the Powhatan, thus feeding into the stereotype of the mystical brown person), I still have a problem with one particular scene that just gets on my nerves.

So, the setup is that the Powhatan send some scouts to see what the Englishmen are doing, and when they get spotted, a firefight breaks out (because Ratcliffe panics and tells his men to start firing even though they’ve not seen any aggressive behavior).  One of the Powhatan scouts gets shot in the leg, and they all retreat back to the village to tell everyone about what’s happened.  Now, here’s the bit that bothers me.  The Powhatan shaman is shown chanting over the wounded scout, and then he turns to Chief Powhatan and says, “This wound is strange to me.”

Okay, let’s back up and consider what we know, just based on what we’re shown in the movie.  The Powhatan are a very strong tribe whose warriors have just returned from a successful war with some neighbors.  They know how to fight.  Also, we see that they have bows and arrows.  Now, the difference between a musket and a bow and arrow comes down to a matter of size and speed of the projectile.  If they’re accustomed to treating arrow wounds (they should be), then there’s no reason they should be astounded by a bullet wound.  Yes, the bullet may not be easily visible, but it’s still the basic principle of a foreign object in the human body that needs to be removed.  Then you just clean and dress it.  There is literally no reason for the shaman to say he has no idea how to treat the wounded scout; that one line does nothing but reinforce the idea that the Powhatan are an unsophisticated people who lack a basic understanding of how to treat wounds that they likely encounter all the time.

Then there’s the sexism.  Oh my gosh, the sexism.  So you have Pocahontas.  She’s confident, athletic, and she has magical perception powers (branding the ability to listen as a superpower is pretty telling about what traits the writers value in our heroine).  It’s a very middle-of-the-road package of characteristics as far as strong female characters go.  On the whole, I’d probably say that there’s enough in the way Pocahontas is written that she shouldn’t be too infuriating.  Then you get to her “I want more” song.

The “I want more” song is a long tradition in Disney movies.  It’s typically the second song in the film (following the introductory song that sets up the situation), and it serves to let the audience get to know the protagonist and their goals.  Since our protagonist is the central character for the film, it’s usually a good song to use as a gauge for what the themes of the movie will be.

So Pocahontas sings “Just Around the River Bend.”  It’s not a bad song, and throughout most of it, there’s a focus on the tension between her father’s expectations and her own desires.  But then, at the end, we get to the last verse where Pocahontas represents what her father wants her to do in the form of choosing to marry Kocoum (a pretty typical scenario where marriage to a suitor chosen by the father represents adherence to tradition for a female protagonist).  I’m cool with that setup; it’s clearly not the choice Pocahontas wants to make.  My problem comes in the next verse where she pines away for her “dreamgiver,” whoever it is that’s the cause of some strange prophetic dream she’s been having.  Given we understand implicitly that the dreamgiver is John Smith, whom Pocahontas is going to meet and fall in love with, we’re left with a serious problem.  Pocahontas wants “more,” but that “more” is apparently just a strapping white Englishman instead of a strapping brown Powhatan warrior.

What the heck, Disney?  This is how you characterize the ambitions of the first female protagonist since Belle, whose ambitions revolved around adventure and companionship, not a dilemma of which suitor to choose (just ignore the fact that Pocahontas doesn’t end up with either Kocoum or John Smith; the former dies from his gunshot, and the latter gets shipped back to England).  It’s pretty crappy to build Pocahontas up as a strong character and then undermine that by boiling her problems down to which man she should accept.

So to recap, Disney set out to make a movie about the interaction between two cultures centered on a historic event, and in the process they butchered the history, caricatured one of the cultures involved, and took a potentially compelling heroine and reduced her to trying to decide how to resolve her weird love triangle.  It’s no wonder the best drawn characters in the whole movie are the white men; that’s all Disney apparently cared to get right.