Archive for June, 2011

51 Days of Disney (Day 35): Hercules

The choice by Disney to make a film based around Greek mythology is a rather interesting one. The mythology is not exactly lent to being made into family friendly films, but somehow they got Hercules to work.

The narrator (Charlton Heston) starts to tell us the story of Hercules, but is interrupted by the Muses, who end up being the real narrators of the film. They introduce us to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, where Zeus (Rip Torn, who has probably the silliest but most awesome name ever) and Hera are celebrating the birth of their son Hercules. They present the newborn with a baby pegasus, with the clever name of Pegasus, as a gift, but the party is interrupted by Zeus’ brother Hades (James Wood).

Hades is rather steamed about having to be the god of the Underworld and desperately wants to move up in the world. He asks the Fates, who can see the future and are responsible for severing the soul from the body, about whether his hostile takeover of Mount Olympus by releasing the Titans will work. The Fates tell him that if Hercules fights the plan will fail, so he has his minions, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic, kidnap and murder the infant Hercules. They are able to almost turn Hercules mortal, but are forced to stop right before the transformation is 100% done. This forced stop allows Hercules to keep his godlike strength. Pain and Panic are unable to kill the baby, but decide that they won’t tell Hades unless needed.

The film jumps a few years and Hercules is now a 16 year old boy who just can’t control his strength, which has not made him the most popular person with the surrounding towns. He accidentally destroys the village market and is branded as a menace. Hercules decides to leave his home and adoptive parents, Amphitrion and Alcmene, when they tell him that they found him with the symbol of Zeus around his neck. He travels to the temple of Zeus where he finds out that Zeus is his father and that he needs to prove himself a true hero if he wants to rejoin his parents on Mount Olympus. Zeus tells him to find Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) to get the proper hero training and gives Hercules Pegasus once again to help him. He starts his training and finishes a few years afterwards. Hercules, Pegasus, and Phil travel to Thebes to start  proving himself as a hero.

On the way, Hercules saves a girl named Megara from the centaur Nessus (Jim Cummings) and is instantly smitten by Meg’s beauty, but she shoots him down. The audience is then made privvy to the fact that Meg is enslaved to Hades due to a deal that brought her ex-boyfriend back to life, only to be turned down by the revived man when he saw a new girl. The trio reach Thebes, but because Herc hasn’t had any actual experience, the people just laugh when he says he’s a hero. He is able to prove himself when Meg returns to tell him that some kids are trapped under a rock in a gorge near the city. He frees the children, who turn out to be Pain and Panic in disguise and that this is all part of Hades’ plan, and ends up freeing the hydra in the process. Hercules decides that chopping off the hydra’s head is a good idea, not realizing that when the head is chopped off, three grow back in it’s place. He keeps on doing this until it looks like he is done for, but eventually kills the hydra.

Hercules starts killing every monster he comes across and saving everyone he can and ends up becoming the most famous hero in Greece. He even starts having a relationship with Megara, which is started by Hades in an attempt to find Herc’s weakness, but she eventually falls in love with him and Hades ends up using this to his advantage and does what he does best, strikes a deal. He takes Hercules’ strength for one day in exchange for Meg being safe during that time. This allows Hades to use the strength of the Titans to overtake Olympus, and it’s up to Hercules to find a way to save the world from the Titans and free Olympus from the reign of Hades.

If you are going into this version of Hercules expecting it to be accurate to the original myths, you will be sorely disappointed. Besides character names, the movie bares little resemblance to the source material, it actually only makes references to the source. This actually makes a lot of sense considering the fact that Greek Mythology is full of rape, murder, bestiality, and rape (You said rape twice. Well, I like rape). Zeus murdered and/or enslaved the titans, two of which were his parents, ended up having around 120 children (give or take) and a large portion of them were products of rape and Zeus turning into an animal and impregnating human women (sometimes through rape). Hercules (who should more accurately be named Heracles, considering that this is Greek Mythology) wasn’t even the son of Zeus and Hera. He was the son of Zeus and a human woman named Alcmene (he essentially raped her by disguising himself as her husband Amphitrion and convincing her that he was home early from the wars), and Hera solely existed in the Heracles stories to make his life a living hell. She tormented him at every turn and even drove him mad and killed his wife Megara and their children. Heracles took on the 12 labours in order to redeem himself.

Hades isn’t even always a villain in Greek Mythology, also Zeus is not always a good guy. In fact, Zeus is one of the biggest pricks in a mythology that is not short on dicks. It all depends on the story as to whether they will be portrayed as a hero or a villain.

The film does some interesting ideas with the music and also the idea of the Greek Chorus. In Greek theatre, the Greek Chorus is there to comment on the play’s theme, make jokes, and ultimately show how the ideal audience would react to the events taking place in the play. The idea of the Greek Chorus died off for a number of centuries unless an ancient Greek play was being performed, but was reborn in more modern plays and Broadway style shows. One example of this is Sweeney Todd and it’s reoccurring “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The Muses, who stand in for the Greek Chorus, sing most of the songs in the film. Three of the songs (“Go the Distance”, “One Last Hope”, and “I Won’t Say I’m in Love”) are sung by the main characters of the film. The best one is “Go the Distance” which is a song that always makes me feel better when I’m feeling down. “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” is a great, non-traditional Disney love song and really makes for a good change of pace. The score was, of course, done by Alan Menken, and the songs were done by a new contributor by the name of David Zippel.

When designing the art style for the film, Disney based it heavily off of a combination of ancient Greek art and more modern pop art. It gives the film a very distinctive look and is heavily stylized. It even could go well stylistically with the Pastoral segment of Fantasia. The character animation was based very heavily off of the actors who portrayed the characters, especially Phil and Hades. The animators captured Danny DeVito’s distinctive facial and mouth movements perfectly and Hades even has James Wood’s distinctive sneer. Initially, Hades was going to be a slow talking, quiet, and sinister villain, but when James Woods was cast in the role he turned into a character that talked a mile a minute and seemed a lot like a villainous version of the Genie. Woods even ad-libbed a large number of his roles like Robin Williams did.

Hercules is a very fun film, but if you are super into Greek Mythology and can’t separate this film from the original stories of Heracles, you will not like this film. If you can, you will most likely enjoy this oft-forgotten entry into the Disney canon.

 

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51 Days of Disney (Day 34): The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Pocahontas didn’t exactly make massive waves at the box office, both financially and critically. It was reasonably successful in the box office (there was almost no chance of it making Lion King money), but it ended up being the worst reviewed film of the Disney Renaissance. 1996’s Hunchback of Notre Dame would end up not making as much money as it’s predecessor, but did a whole lot better critically.

Our story begins with a group of Gypsies being smuggled into city of Paris, but they are ambushed by Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) and his soldiers. A gypsy woman attempts to run from the guards and Frollo, but he chases her down with the idea that she is harbouring stollen goods and kills her by kicking her down the steps of Notre Dame and cracking her head open. It turns out that the “stollen goods” was actually a baby, a deformed baby. Naturally, Frollo tries to drown the child but is stopped by the Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers). The Archdeacon convinces Frollo to raise the child as his own as a sort of karmic retribution to the murder of the mother. He agrees, but only if he can hide the child in the bell tower of Notre Dame as so no one ever has to see the child or know that he is Frollo’s adopted son. Within the first five minutes of the movie, someone has already died. This is already turning out to be a very different breed of Disney film.

The film then jumps 20 years to find the child, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), grown up and doing his job as the bell ringer of Notre Dame. Quasimodo has survived all these years because he befriended three “talking” gargoyles (who may or may not actually talk. They could just be a manifestation of Quasimodo’s broken psyche or loneliness as no one else ever really sees them talk or move except Djali the goat, who doesn’t believe what he’s seen) named Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes). Quasimodo desperately wants to get out for at least one day to see the Festival of Fools, a yearly festival where everything is reversed and topsy turvy. The gargoyles try to convince him to go, but they’re stopped by the arrival of Frollo who finds out that Quasimodo is thinking about attending the festival and proceeds to tell Quasimodo about the evils of the world and even uses Catholic guilt to great effect! Quasimodo just wants to be accepted by the people of the world and live along side them, so he decides to go to the festival.

We are then introduced to Phoebus (Kevin Kline), Frollo’s new captain of the guard, and the gypsy Esmerelda (Demi Moore). Esmerelda dances on the street for money in order to survive, but some guards start to hassle her because they thought she stole the money but are stopped by Phoebus. Frollo tasks Phoebus in the eradication of the “heathen and immoral” gypsies for the eternal soul of everyone in Paris, but Phoebus is perplexed by the idea that he returned from the wars to Paris to get rid of “palm readers and fortune tellers” but doesn’t have enough time to question the matter before he and Frollo are called upon to attend the Festival of Fools.

Quasimodo decides to sneak out of the tower and arrives just as the festival is starting. He eventually runs into Esmerelda who is actually nice to him, as opposed to what Frollo had been telling him for his entire life, but it turns out that she thinks that his face is a mask. During the festival, Phoebus becomes quite smitten by the beauty of Esmerelda, but Frollo sees her as a witch. At the Festival every year, they crown a new King of Fools. The King of Fools is the person who can make the ugliest face, and the “award” of course goes to Quasimodo. Much to the chagrin of Frollo when he finds out that Quasimodo left the tower, he shows his frustration with the boy when the crowd turns on the bell ringer and torments him by pelting him with eggs, produce, and insults and even tying him down to a platform to keep him from escaping. Frollo doesn’t make the crowd stop, but Esmerelda does when she sets Quasimodo free and shows that there is actually some good in the world. Esmerelda’s act of kindness does not keep Quasimodo from never wanting the leave the bell tower again, though.

Frollo tries to have Esmerelda arrested, but she flees to Notre Dame and, with the help of Phoebus, declares sanctuary but Frollo posts guards at every door to the cathedral and imprisons her inside. She meets up with Quasimodo and shows him that what Frollo has been telling him all his life is not necessarily true, in return he helps her escape by climbing down the face of the cathedral.

Frollo discovers that he has a newfound lust for the gypsy girl and decides that she can either choose him or burn at the stake as a witch, he then doubles his intensity in both finding the gypsies and killing anyone who gets in the way of finding said gypsies. Phoebus finally stands up against the insanity of the judge and saves some people from a building that Frollo set ablaze that he deemed as traitors. Phoebus flees from the soldiers, but is wounded in the process. Esmerelda saves him and takes him to Quasimodo for help shortly before Frollo arrives to tell the bell ringer that he knows where the gypsies are hiding and that he will attack at dawn with a thousand men. It’s up to Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Phoebus to stop the now genocidal Frollo from carrying out his vendetta.

What really sets the Hunchback of Notre Dame from other Disney films is the fact that religion is actually present. There are many people out there that will derive religion from the messages present in some Disney films but it is rarely ever brought up as a topic. This film is all about religion and actually shows one of the most balanced views of the subject that I have seen in film. It shows both the good and bad that is present in religion. The Archdeacon is a kind, generous, and giving man who would help anyone in need if given the opportunity to do so. Frollo uses religion almost as a weapon. He will eliminate anyone whom he deems to be immoral or unholy, he tangles with his self-inflicted celibacy with his new found lust of Esmerelda, and is incredibly prejudiced against anyone who is different from him. It also mentions the concept of Hell and damnation on numerous occasions, it even becomes Frollo’s theme for the movie.

Honestly, the religious angle of Frollo combined with his manipulative and brainwashing nature is what makes him such an amazing villain. What’s worse than killing a mother and imprisoning her child in a bell tower? Also imprisoning the child in his own mind by constantly telling him that he is a monster and that the world outside his tower is a living hell on earth minus the fire. The damage he did to Quasimodo would be almost irreversible in real life and knowing that is one of the many things that makes Judge Claude Frollo such a contemptible human being and what makes him the real monster in the film, not the man who only looks like a monster. Frollo is one of the greatest Disney Villains of all time (I rank him at number three, as you can’t really beat the devil or the Mistress of all Evil).

This is a Disney film that a surprising amount of people have not actually seen. It was released during the Disney Renaissance, but is oddly looked over by most people. The same can be said about Pocahontas (but there is kind of a reason that Pocahontas is slightly looked over), but that movie will never be forgotten because it was a Disney Princess film. Numerous parents would not let their children see the Hunchback of Notre Dame due to the darkness of the film, it’s themes, and it’s portrayal of religion as not being completely good. The movie is definitely a more family friendly version of Victor Hugo’s novel, but that does not mean that it is some saccharine-sweet version of the story. Hunchback still deals with a lot of complex ideas about religion, what actually constitutes a monster, and the persecution of anyone who is different.

The score was done by Alan Menken and he really took the religious nature of the film and ran with it. The score incorporates a full chorus for numerous pieces and they are all actually singing in Latin when used, it really ups the epic nature of the score and the scenes that use the chorus. Stephen Schwartz returned from Pocahontas to write the songs. The real standouts of the film are “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire”, “God Help the Outcasts”, and “Out There.” “Out There” is one Quasimodo’s themes for the movie (the other being “Heaven’s Light”) and sets up his boundless optimism, despite his ghastly appearance, and is very uplifting and sets the feeling for the first act of the film very well. “God Help the Outcasts” is definitely the “Beauty and the Beast” or “A Whole New World” of the film. It’s the song that everyone remembers for this film, it sets up the theme of the movie and like “Out There”, it’s a very touching song. “Hellfire” is easily the best song in the film, though. The sequence for it is intense and actually kind of scary with it’s almost demonic choir, illusions in the fire of Esmerelda dancing that eventually turn into Esmerelda writhing in pain and BURNING TO DEATH.

In the “Out There” segment, when the camera starts to pan across a street in the city, be sure to look for Belle walking down the street at the beginning of the camera movement.

Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite Disney films, I actually saw it twice in theatres when it was released in 1996 (which was almost unheard of at that time with me, now I’ll see movies 3, 4, and even 6 times in theatres (that movie is going to come later in this countdown)) and would incessantly quote “pour the wine and cut the cheese,” even when there was no context (especially when there was no context). The film is dark and mature, but still has that same Disney feel with the sweetness of it’s story and characters, the amazingness of it’s animation, and the epic music. This film is definitely in the upper echelon of Disney films and desperately needs an HD release because the 2002 DVD just isn’t cutting it any more. Seriously Disney (because I know that the big-wigs at Disney are TOTALLY reading this blog), get on that.

51 Days of Disney (Day 33): Pocahontas

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, they thought that their first stab at historical fiction would win the highly coveted award. Oh how wrong they were.

A ship led by Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) and Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) is set to leave England for the new world of America in search of gold and a place to help expand the British Empire. The ship is hit by a storm, and a young sailor named Thomas (Christian Bale, seriously, Batman is in Pocahontas) falls overboard, but is saved by Smith. The film then shifts to the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans where the warriors of the tribe return from a battle against an enemy tribe. Chief Powhatan tries to marry his daughter, Pocahontas, to his lead warrior, Kocoum. Powhatan finds out about the Englishmen and decrees that everyone in the village should stay away from them, but Pocahontas’ curiosity gets the better of her and she runs into Smith. The two become fast friends and teach each other about their world, but hostilities start growing between the two groups and the powder keg explodes when Kocoum is killed by Thomas. The Powhatans and English go to war and it is up to Pocahontas to stop the bloodshed.

One of the major problems with Pocahontas is the rehashing of some themes from previous Disney films and the somewhat weak story. The insistence of staying away from the other world is from the Little Mermaid, as is the fear of the relatively unknown other world. The story is also a bit of a mess. The insanely stupid plot element of the magic wind that allows John Smith and Pocahontas to be able to speak to each other is something that always brings me out of the movie for that scene. It just doesn’t make any sense, even within a movie that has a magic, talking tree. Ratcliffe doesn’t really have the motivation to be as maniacally evil, he is power hungry to a point where it almost becomes comical. I’m honestly surprised that his ultimate goal isn’t to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. There isn’t really enough motivation for the Englishmen to want to go to war with the Powhatans either, the Native Americans don’t even attack the English camp until they are provoked. The idea that Pocahontas can suddenly end the hostilities between the two groups is also rather naive.

The music is the one of the best parts of Pocahontas. The score was written by Alan Menken and the songs were done by Stephen Schwartz. Menken’s score is fantastic as usual, and got him another Academy Award for Best Original Score. The most amusing song in the film is definitely “Mine, Mine, Mine” but the best one is “Colors of the Wind” (which went on to win Best Original Song). The extended edition of the film that is found on the 10th Anniversary DVD release added a new song to the film, but the song is rather forgettable despite the surprisingly meaningfulness of the lyrics and the subtle beauty of the scene, which is really a shame. I blame Mel Gibson for this one, as his singing just isn’t very good. The montage near the end of the segment also feels very cheap, considering that new animation was actually done for the scene.

What really sets Pocahontas apart from other Disney films is the incredibly angular art style. Some connections can be drawn between the style of Pocahontas and the style of Sleeping Beauty. The style of the movie is both highly realistic and heavily stylized, which sounds like a major contradiction, but it really isn’t. The film looks fantastic with it’s varied and vibrant colors, with the “Colors of the Wind” segment looking the absolute best with it’s surprisingly minimal backgrounds, but very strong color coordination that helps cement the symbolism of the scene. The colors are honestly what I remember the most about Pocahontas. The film uses colors to represent very specific feelings in the film, blue is always used to symbolize love and red is hate, and these choices are used to great effect at the end of the film. The “Savages” segment has the best use of color in the film and really adds to the intense feelings between the tribe and the Englishmen.

Numerous animators at the studio wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of the Lion King as they thought it would be the film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Glen Keane passed over working on the Lion King in order to be the supervising animator of Pocahontas, and it really shows. Keane is a master of animation, and the movements of Pocahontas are so fluid and almost effortless that it really shows off Keane’s skills. He took what he learned from animating Ariel and took it to a whole other level. Pocahontas is an older and much more proud character than Ariel and it really shows in both her design and her animation. She moves in a much more mature manner than Ariel and holds herself very differently.

One little item of note, Pocahontas had the largest outdoor premier of a movie in history. The premier was held in Central Park and featured 4 8-story high screens built for the event.

Pocahontas is a beautiful and incredibly well designed film with fantastic music, but the mediocre story makes it into a merely passable entry of the Disney canon and it the weakest film in the Disney Renaissance.

51 Days of Disney (Day 32): The Lion King

“It is time.”

The Disney Renaissance was one of the best times in the history of the Walt Disney company. Just about everything the company touched started printing money, to steal a joke from the internets.

The Lion King follows the life of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and the hier to the throne of the Pride Lands. As a child, Simba is a rambunctious young lion who just can’t wait until he is able to become the king, but does not realize the responsibility that comes with the position despite Mufasa’s major domo’s, Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), attempt to teach the young cub. His uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons), wants to steal the throne from Mufasa and Simba and teams up with some hyenas, Banzai (Cheech Marin), Shenzi (Whoopi Golberg), and Ed (Jim Cummings), to assist him. The hyenas try to kill Simba when he goes to the elephant graveyard, but fail at the job through Mufasa’s intervention.

Eventually, Scar succeeds in his plot by using a herd of wildebeest to trample Mufasa and convinces Simba that he is to blame and that he should run away and never return to the Pride Lands. This allows Scar to obtain the throne and brings upon a dark time for the savannah.

Simba is found by Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and they end up raising him until he grows into an adult lion (and is now voiced by Ferris Beuller himself, Matthew Broderick) and his life in the Pride Lands comes back to haunt him in the form of his childhood friend, Nala. The two, of course, fall in love and they all return to the Pride Lands to challenge Scar for the throne.

One aspect of this film that I absolutely love is the transitions. A lot of time passes over the course of the film, and the way that they show those passages are rather fantastic. They manage to show a number of years passing without resorting to a montage or just blatanly saying “3 YEARS LATER.”

What really sets the Lion King apart from other Disney films is the maturity of it’s messages. The film is all about accepting what has happened in your past and how it affects the growth of you as a person. the film also deals with accepting responsibility and how that responsibility can change the course of your surroundings. Both the complexity of the messages and the sheer number of messages really makes the Lion King feel different from the other films in the Disney animated canon.

The voice acting in this movie is some of the best in the Disney canon. James Earl Jones brings the needed power and grandeur required to voice a king to the voice of Mufasa and Jeremy Irons is slimy enough (but still oddly regal) in his manner of speaking that he really sells the evilness of Scar. This film also shows off the vocal talents of Jim Cummings as he actually stepped in to re-record some of Jeremy Iron’s recordings of “Be Prepared” when the audio was unusable. JIm Cummings actually sings the very end of the song when the random mountain starts rising from the ground unti the end, but most people would not even notice. Nathan Lane is, well, Nathan Lane. He’s always fantastic in whatever he does, even if the movie he’s in is terrible.

Of course, no performance in an animated film would be good without fantastic animation to go along with it. Andreas Deja, fresh off his success of animating Jafar, was the supervising animator for Scar and it really shows. The two are very stylistically similar and finding out that the two of them were animated by the same person makes sense. Some of the best animation in the movie is in the stampede scene. Most of the wildebeests were CG, but they really don’t look like it. Part of this stems from the fact that each wildebeest had a random path that they followed and it made them look real. Something to note about this film is that Glen Keane is no where to be found in this film. It turns out that a large number of the animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation did not want to work on the Lion King. They all wanted to work on the upcoming Pocahontas because they felt like it would be a more prestigious film to devote their time to and that it would ultimately be more successful. Oh how wrong they are, but that is a topic for the next installment.

The songs were written by Elton John and Tim Rice and the score was written by Hans Zimmer. The music is fantastic, and because the songs were partially written by Elton John, they sound different from other Disney films. All of the songs are fantastic, even the song added to the film in the extended edition. “The Morning Report” is a very funny song, and it’s great in both the show and the film, but I still have a problem with it. Zazu was not voiced by Rowan Atkinson in this added scene, and you can really tell that it is not him. If you are someone who is bothered by the changing of voices, this might really take you out of the scene. I would have rather them put “Endless Night” into the film, but “The Morning Report” is a good enough song that it being in the film doesn’t really bother me.

One problem this movie has faced over the years since it’s release is the connection to Kimba the White Lion. For those of you not in the know, Kimba was a comic created by the god of manga, Osamu Tezuka, and was about a white lion named Kimba. There are numerous shots in the film that have parallels in Kimba and that led many people who are familiar with the anime to believe that Disney “ripped-off” Kimba and sold it as their own idea. Some people even cite the similarity of the names as evidence for this, but those people must not know that Simba is Swahili for lion. Personally, I don’t think that there is any actual evidence of wrong-doing here. Tezuka Productions did not file any sort of lawsuit against Disney, so no harm no foul.

Beauty and the Beast is the best film of the Disney Renaissance, but the Lion King is right on it’s heels at number 2. It also became the peak of the Disney Renaissance, as it was the highest grossing animated film until 2003’s Finding Nemo.

51 Days of Disney (Day 31): Aladdin

The year is 1992 and a then 3-year-old Ryan is in the movies for the first time. He has his popcorn and his juice, so what is a 3-year-old to do? Not knowing how the movie theatre works, he asks his mom to start the movie. Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, and  I am exceptionally pleased about that.

The movie begins with a merchant entering the city of Agrabah. After the merchant (Robin Williams) tries to sell the audience some cheap, useless junk, he shows them a lamp that is “more than what it seems” and proceeds to tell the story of how it changed a young man’s life.

Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) hired a simple thief named Gazim to find the other half of a magical pendant that would summon the mystical Cave of Wonders when combined. When the two halves are put together, the tiger head shaped cave rises from the sand and gives them two simple warnings: “Only one may enter here. One whose worth lies far within. A diamond in the rough” and “touch nothing but the lamp”. Jafar tells Gazim that all he wants is the lamp, but unfortunately for the humble thief, Gazim is not what the Cave of Wonders wants and he is swallowed up as the Cave sinks back down into the sea of sand. Jafar’s pet parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) is less than surprised and makes sure that everyone knows it.

The actual story begins with our hero Aladdin being chased by the palace guards led by the Captain of the Guards, Razoul (Jim Cummings, which is a name that is going to come up. A lot), after stealing a loaf of bread. It turns out that Aladdin is a thief with a heart of gold (he gives the bread he went through the trouble to stealing to some children) and desperately wants a better life for himself and his pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker). He’s trapped in his poor existence.

The film shifts to the palace, where Jasmine, the princess of Agrabah, turns down another suitor because she wants to marry for love, not for political convenience. The Sultan tells her that she has to marry by her next birthday due to the law and seeks the help of his Royal Vizier, Jafar, to find her suitor. Jafar uses his hypnotizing snake staff to hypnotize the Sultan into giving him his royal blue diamond to help with the search, which it turns out is needed to find the Diamond in the Rough, who of course turns out to be Aladdin, that can enter the Cave of Wonders. That night, Jasmine runs away from her trapped existence as a princess and escapes into the city.

The next day, Aladdin saves Jasmine from a hostile shop owner because she doesn’t understand how the marketplace works. The two find out that they both feel trapped in their individual lives and instantly connect, but are separated when the guards finally find Aladdin’s hideout and drag him off to prison. When Aladdin is brought back to the palace, she confronts Jafar about his crime and punishment. He says that Aladdin’s death sentence has already been carried out and Jasmine slumps into a period of depression.

Aladdin is broken out of prison by an old man, who takes him to the Cave of Wonders to get the lamp. This leads to one of the many amazing action scenes in the movie where Aladdin and Abu meet the Magic Carpet and eventually get the lamp, but Abu’s kleptomania makes the Cave turn against them. When they reach the top, the old man takes the lamp but tries to kill Aladdin. Abu fights the man off, but the two fall down into the dark depths of the Cave of Wonders. After Aladdin and Abu are out of sight, the old man reveals himself to be Jafar and finds out that the lamp is gone. Abu stole it when he attacked him, and Aladdin rubs the lamp to try to read the inscription and ends up setting free the Genie found inside (Robin Williams). The Genie tells Aladdin that he has 3 wishes, but the Genie cannot give any more wishes, kill anyone, make anyone fall in love with anyone else, or bring people back from the dead. Aladdin tricks the Genie into getting them out of the cave without using a wish and they all land in an oasis. It is here where Aladdin finds out that the Genie is a prisoner and vows to use his last wish to wish the Genie free right before wishing that he could be a prince to woo Princess Jasmine.

Jasmine sees the now dubbed Prince Ali version of Aladdin as being just another stuck-up suitor, but when he starts showing more of his true self, she starts to fall in love with him. Eventually, Jafar steals the lamp from Aladdin and turns the entire city of Agrabah on it’s head by wishing himself Sultan followed by wishing to become a Sorcerer and it’s up to Aladdin to set things right.

Aladdin tackles some pretty deep messages such as the idea that you can be imprisoned without physically being put into some sort of holding. The film is also about the idea that even though you might get exactly what you wish for, that act might have some repercussions that you were not expecting, this message actually came about through some major story revisions that came about during production.

This film was all Howard Ashman’s doing. He pitched the idea to Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1988. Ashman and Menken wrote and scored some songs and Linda Woolverton wrote a treatment of the screenplay. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker came onto the project and wrote their own treatment of the screenplay, which eventually won out over Woolverton’s own treatment and a number of the elements of the story that Ashman’s songs were about were removed. Three of the five songs written by Ashman remained, but a number of them (one of which was a song sung by Aladdin to his mother, who was also left on the cutting room floor) ended up being excised from the film due to story changes. Aladdin would have turned out to be a very different movie if that original story were to have been kept. If Ashman had been around longer into the production of the film, the film would have most likely stayed the way it was originally. Howard Ashman passed away due to complications from AIDS six months before the release of Beauty and the Beast in 1991.

The music is on the same level of quality as the past two Disney musicals, but it is very easy to tell which songs were written by Howard Ashman and which were written by his replacement Tim Rice. The music takes on a very different tone than the previous musicals, though. Ashman and Menken were very much inspired by Cab Calloway and other jazz musicians of his type, which is seen the most in the song “Friend Like Me” which is the real stand out of the film besides the very obvious choice of “A Whole New World”.

All of the characters except for Jafar were inspired by the caricature works of Al Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s distinctive flowing and simplistic art style was chosen to compliment the inherent forms that are prevalent in Persian architecture. Jafar was designed to look nothing like the other characters in order to make him stand out from the rest of them. It basically hung a “I’m the villain” sign around his neck, but it works out well from a design standpoint. The character of Aladdin went through the most design revisions out of the all of the characters. When the story included Aladdin’s mother, he had a much younger looking design which was originally based off of Michael J. Fox appearance-wise. When his mother was excised, it was decided that he should look more like a young adult than a teenager and his design shifted to looking more like Tom Cruise than Marty McFly.

The colour choice of this movie is very specifically designed. The good characters were represented with lighter tints and colours, specifically a light blue. The evil characters were dark colours like black, red, and dark blue. All of this was contrasted upon the neutral canvas that was Agrabah.

The Genie is probably the most interesting character in the Disney canon, part of which comes from having Robin Williams as a voice actor. Williams’ stand up style can best be described as frantic, and it really shows through in the character of the Genie. Very little of the Genie’s lines were even scripted, they essentially told Williams what needs to be said and he extemporized it. The audio editors took the most usable and funny segments of the recording sessions and sent them to be animated. The very beginning of the movie was literally recorded by giving Robin Williams a box full of random items and he made jokes for all of them. Disney, of course, advertised the heck out of Robin Williams being in the movie and it made Aladdin be the first Disney animated film to 1. have a huge star lend a voice and 2. be advertised as having that star in it. Aladdin was also the first Disney animated film to directly reference other Disney films and even had a reference to Robin Williams’ role in the Magic of Disney Animation attraction. Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast are all referenced, the last more subtly than the other two.

Unfortunately, Aladdin created a rift between Disney and Robin Williams. He took the role out of gratitude for the immense success that came out of the Touchstone film Good Morning Vietnam and only wanted the standard SAG pay ($75,000) but with the condition that his name cannot be used for marketing and that the Genie would not take up more than 25% of the artwork used for advertising. Disney did not follow these conditions almost at all and even made it so that Robin Williams got top billing for his roles. Eventually everything was worked out and Robin Williams became a Disney Legend in 2009.

Glen Keane was the supervising animator for Aladdin and produced more fabulous work, but this time more along the lines of Ariel rather than the Beast. Andreas Deja (who animated Gaston, Roger Rabbit, and King Triton before this film) animated Jafar and made him one of the most imposing villains in the Disney Canon simply by the fact that he looked so different from everyone else and the fact that he did not have that many funny scenes to himself.

Aladdin is a fantastic movie that is full of comedy and adventure, but the story is not nearly as good as the one in Beauty and the Beast. It is still one of my favourite films nonetheless and I am glad that this was the first film I ever saw in theatres. What a way to start a lifetime at the movies.

51 Days of Disney (Day 30): Beauty and the Beast

The Disney Renaissance was now going strong with a number of the soon to be classic Disney films being put into production. Walt Disney Feature Animation was looking for another success like the Little Mermaid, but no one could have predicted the success that was created by Beauty and the Beast.

The film opens with the narrator (David Ogden Steirs) tells us that there was a spoiled prince who turned away a old woman from a place to stay due to her appearance. She offered him a rose as compensation along with a warning that things are not always as they appear and that beauty is found within. After turning her away again, the woman transformed into a beautiful enchantress and made his exterior resemble his interior and placed a spell on the entire castle. The spell can only be broken if he can love another person and have them love him back in return, and the rose she offered would bloom until his 21’s birthday, but works as a timer as after it is done wilting, he would remain a beast forever.

The film shifts to a small village where our heroine Belle (Paige O’Hara) lives and is considered to be very odd by the local inhabitants. She is constantly reading any book she can get her hands on. She is the most beautiful girl in the village, which makes the local heartthrob Gaston instantly want her, but he is a boorish, brainless, and Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him. Belle’s father Maurice creates an wood chopping that will turn their life around and starts to travel to a fair that he is going to enter the invention, but gets lost in the woods and attacked by wolves. Maurice escapes into a castle, but is imprisoned there by the Beast for trespassing.

Gaston proposes to Belle the next day, but she pushes him away again. When Maurice’s horse Phillipe returns home without Maurice, Belle rides off to find him and arrives at the castle where her father is being held. Lumiere, Cogsworth (David Ogden Steirs once again), Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) and her son Chip, some of the servants turned magical objects in the castle, think that she is there to break the spell. She finds her father and trades her freedom for Maurice’s. Belle’s selfless act seems to have a profound effect on the Beast, but he drags Maurice out of the castle before Belle has a chance to say goodbye.

Maurice returns to the village to get help rescuing Belle, but all of the villagers think he is crazy when he starts ranting about the Beast. This gets Gaston thinking (a dangerous pastime) that he can get Belle to marry him out of her love of her father if he were to threaten to have im put in an insane asylum run by Monsieur D’Arque (Tony Jay, who is a name that will come up again later in the Disney Renaissance in an even larger and greater role).

During a tour of the castle presented by Cogsworth (by the way, what he is saying about the castle is almost, if not 100%, bull), Belle wanders off into the forbidden West Wing and finds the Beast’s magic rose. He is, of course, not pleased with this and scares Belle out of the castle where she is attacked by the same wolves that attacked Maurice earlier. The Beast saves her from the vicious attack because he felt bad about scaring her off, but is badly wounded in the process. Belle nurses the Beast back to health and he reveals that he has never felt like this about anyone else before. The two get closer as the Beast starts to soften up and through a scene that can best be described as the Oscar Winning Clip joke from Wayne’s World (and the worst part is I never learned to read!). The servants prepare the castle for one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous scenes in a Disney film.

The Beast sets Belle free when she finds out using his magic mirror that Maurice is sick. He gives her the mirror as a way to always remember him and she rushes off to help her father. When the two return to the village, Monsieur D’Arque is waiting to take Maurice away, but Belle shows everyone the Beast to prove that he is not crazy. Gaston sees the Beast as a monster and leads an angry mob to sack the castle and kill the beast, locking up Belle and Maurice in the process as so that they can’t warn the Beast. Belle breaks free and rushes to save the man she loves.

Like the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast had it’s roots in a film that was planned to be released in the 40’s or 50’s by Disney, but luckily for us, the project was shelved due to the complicatedness of the story. When the project was started up again, it wasn’t even planned to be a musical. Eisner wanted the film to be scripted out before the storyboarding process started, which was an odd choice as that process had been reversed for the entire back catalog of Disney films. He brought in a screenwriter named Linda Woolverton to script it and after she was finished, the storyboarding process began with her working directly with the story team. After seeing the storyboards, Katzenberg decided to shut down the project so it could be completely restarted from scratch. With that blow, the original director left and was replaced by the team of Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, and that is when the film everyone knows and loves started to take shape.

The amazing success of the Little Mermaid (compared to the little success that the Rescuers Down Under) made Katzenberg hire Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to work their magic on Beauty and the Beast. Howard Ashman had been working on his pet project, Aladdin, at the time, but reluctantly joined the production of this movie, but a horrible blow struck him. Ashman found out that he was dying due to complications with AIDS, but he kept on working on the films he was hired onto. Wise, Trousdale, producer Don Han, Woolverton, and now Ashman and Menken started retooling the story to both account for the new musical numbers and to make it stronger as a whole.

The original faerie tale for Beauty and the Beast only has two main characters and is actually very gloomy and depressing, so Disney made some changes to spruce it up. The 1946 French film adaptation of the story added an oafish suitor for Belle and magical objects to the Beast’s castle, so Disney took these ideas and made them their own. In the 1946 adaptation, the magical objects were not really characters, so Disney created a plethora of characters based off of the idea of magical items and added some needed warmth and humour to the story along with characters to guide Belle through the story. They also expanded the character of the suitor into a full-fledged villain that created a definite dynamic to Belle and the Beast’s relationship.

The characters are what makes Beauty and the Beast as mind-numbingly good as it is. Ariel was the first Disney Princess who actually felt like a character and actually showed not only a backbone, but independence. Belle takes that step up to the next level as the Beast actually needs to grow and change as a person in order for her to love him back, unlike Ariel who instantly falls in love with the incredibly milk-toast Eric at first sight. She is also incredibly intelligent and has a burning desire to read every book she comes across, as stated above. The Beast starts out as an antagonist, but eventually turns into a hero and love interest through Belle’s involvement. The choices of clothing even visibly shows the growth and change in his character from primal animal to gentleman. Gaston is an interesting character as in any of the Disney movies that came before, he would have been the hero and love interest. He is as “perfect” as the early Disney Princes, but is incredibly misogynistic (some would argue that the others are misogynistic, but they didn’t have enough of a personality to really get that feeling out of).

The music took what Howard Ashman and Alan Menken started in the Little Mermaid and upped it to the next degree. The songs were bigger, the score was better. The score had better audio cues for each of the characters and there is much more variation in the score for each character’s theme and “Transformation” is probably one of the best pieces of score written for a Disney film. “Be Our Guest” is a better version of the same style of song as “Under the Sea”, namely the song that is just there for fun. It doesn’t necessarily progress the story, but it makes for pure entertainment. “Beauty and the Beast” is the first in a long line of serious love songs in the Disney Renaissance rather than the fun love song “Kiss the Girl”. “Gaston” is a much more fun villain song than “Poor Unfortunate Souls” (and is my favourite song in the film and is made even better in the Broadway adaptation with it’s reprise that includes the line “Who can make up these endless refrains like Gaston”). There is actually two villain songs in Beauty and the Beast, the aformentioned “Gaston” and the “Mob Song” which gets bonus points for having a Macbeth reference in the lyrics and a reference to a popular song from the 20’s.

The one song I do not like in the film is the one added to the extended edition of the film. “Human Again” was a song originally written for the film, but was cut from the original theatrical release. It returned as a song in the Broadway adaptation and was the “fun” song for the second act, but the problem is that it is a really boring song. It should have stayed cut entirely from Beauty and the Beast, but it was added back in and the results are the same as in the show. Fun scene, but the song is boring. I would have much rather seen the song written for the Beast in the show, “How Long Must This go On”, added to the film as it is a much better and much more emotional song. Also, the changing of the story that Belle reads the Beast in the “Human Again” scene from King Arthur to Romeo and Juliet just feels cheap and makes that part even more of a joke than it was before. In the film, “Something There” replaced “Human Again.”

Even the animation is better than in the Little Mermaid, and that is REALLY saying something. Glen Keane was the supervising animator for the Beast and everything he learned from animating Ariel, the Bear from the Fox and the Hound, and Professor Ratigan in the Great Mouse Detective is shown off in this film. The primal nature of the Beast is fully exploited in the beginning of the film with him moving exactly like an animal, but his movements become more human as he does until he finally becomes human (also unintentionally hilarious with the face he makes after he transforms) in one of the most powerful scenes since the Ave Maria segment of Fantasia.

The design of the Beast is very interesting as it is made up of a number of different animals. During development, a story team member named Chris Sanders (which is a name that will come up in a big way in the 2000’s) was asked to do a number of designs for what the Beast was to look like. He produced a number of versions based off of fish, insects, and even birds before creating something that resembled the final product. Glen Keane then took that design and refined it while studying animals at the zoo until we got the chimera we have now. The Beast is made up of a number of different animals. His face is made up of of the facial structure of a mandrill, the brow of a gorilla, the horns of a buffalo, the jaws, teeth, and mane of a lion, and the tusks of a boar. He has the body of a bear and the legs and tail of a wolf.

The film used CAPS to meld 2D and 3D together and it made the shots in the movie much more dramatic. A number of the backgrounds in the movie were made in 3D and that allowed the camera to move like it would in a live action film. It allowed it to move like it was on a dolly and made the ballroom scene even more powerful than it inherently was.

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and the only until Up and Toy Story 3. It was also nominated for Best Original Score (which it won), had 3 separate nominations for Best Original Song (nominated for “Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, and won for “Beauty and the Beast”) and was nominated for Best Sound. The film even won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.

Beauty and the Beast is widely considered to be the best Disney film ever and for good reasons. The characters are amazingly created, the story is perfect, and the music is some of the best in film. The film went on to be the most financially successful film in Disney history and easily one of the most critically acclaimed and this would be a trend that would continue throughout the 90’s.

51 Days of Disney (Day 29): The Rescuers Down Under

After the success of the Great Mouse Detective in 1986, a number of animated films were put into production. Oliver and Company and the Little Mermaid have already been mentioned, but a third film was a sequel to the last big success the company had before the Little Mermaid, the Rescuers. This marks the second time a Disney film has ever gotten a sequel with a theatrical release and the first in around 50 years.

Cody is an adventurous young boy who is a friend to a great number of animals in the Australian Outback, so when his friends tell him that a golden eagle named Marahute was captured by a poacher, he springs into action to help her. After cutting her free, we are introduced to what this film is ultimately known for: the flying sequences. Marahute takes Cody to her nest and he finds out that she has some eggs. Shortly afterwards, Cody falls into a trap while saving a mouse and is captured by Percival C. McLeach (George C. Scott) and his pet goanna lizard, Joanna, due to Cody’s knowledge of the location of Marahute. The mouse that Cody saved alerts the Rescue Aid Society and the story really begins.

Bernard and Miss Bianca return from the original film (with their original voice actors in tow) and are given the task of rescuing Cody. Bernard tries to propose to Miss Bianca, but the mission gets in the way. They try to get Orville to fly them down under, but they find out that Albatross Airlines is under new management. Orville’s brother Wilbur (John Candy) is now in charge. After the long flight, they land in Australia and meet up with the agent there named Jake and Orville hurts his back in the landing. Jake appoints himself as their guide and instantly starts trying to put the moves on Miss Bianca, much to Bernard’s chagrin.

When Cody refuses to give McLeach the location of Marahute, he throws the boy into the holding cell for all of the animals that McLeach captured. They try to escape, but Joanna stops their attempt. Eventually they figure out a way to escape, but McLeach takes Cody away to find the eagle just as Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Jake arrive to break him out. McLeach appeals to Cody’s desire to help animals by saying that Marahute was shot, so Cody runs off to find the eggs and McLeach follows him. McLeach finally succeeds in getting catching the golden eagle (and Cody, Miss Bianca, and Jake in the process) and it’s up to Bernard to save them and stop McLeach.

Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are just as good in their roles in this movie as they were in the Rescuers, and George C. Scott is fantastic as the villainous McLeach. Scott’s voice just gives McLeach that needed sense of maniacal glee that is needed to show that he really loves his job. The music is passably adventurous, but not terribly memorable. It is not an animated musical like the Little Mermaid, which leads some people to say that it is not part of the Disney Renaissance, but in terms of animation quality it should definitely be included.

The Rescuers Down Under was the first Disney animated film to use the PIXAR developed CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) to digitally ink and paint the film. This gave the film a distintive look that had not been seen since 1959 in a Disney film. CAPS did away with the now outdated xerox method of inking and the Disney animated films were significantly better off for it. The black lines of the xerox method brought attention to the outline and made everything that was xeroxed look significantly more flat, but the coloured lines that CAPS provided gave the characters and backgrounds an added amount of depth on top of the inherent depth of the mutli-plane camera.

One other thing that should be noted is that because of the length of the film (it’s only around 70 minutes) it was bundled with the Prince and the Pauper starring Mickey Mouse to keep people from feeling cheated out of paying for a movie ticket for a film with a shorter length. What makes this interesting is that the 1983 theatrical reissue of the Rescuers was bundled with Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Disney is doing the same thing with Winnie the Pooh by bundling it with a short film called the Ballad of Nessie.

The Rescuers Down Under is more Rescuers. If that is something that interests you, definitely see it. It doesn’t use the same emotional appeals as the original Rescuers film, which unfortunately means that it is not nearly as emotionally charged, but it is still a very good animated film with amazing animation and flight sequences.