Disney Canon: The Little Mermaid

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Many factors contributed to the period of economic and creative bonanza Disney enjoyed throughout the nineties that we call the “Disney Renaissance.” One of them was the blockbuster success of Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the summer of 1988. You’re probably familiar with that brilliant movie, its fantastic sense of humor and its deep reverence for the theatrical cartoons of the 30s and 40s. Thanks in large part to the involvement of excutive producer Steven Speilberg, Roger Rabbit (which produced by Disney, but animated in Britain by a different group of animators) brought massive success back to cartoon characters on the big screen. Animation was suddenly a much more interesting medium than it had been in close to thirty years. It was the perfect moment for Disney to blow everyone away with a fantastic animated film, and that is precisely what they did on November 14 1989, when they released The Little Mermaid. 

Now, no matter how successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit would have been, or how much time and money Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg invested in bringing the studio to a point in which it could produce a new movie every year, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about any kind of DIsney Renaissance if The Little Mermaid wasn’t such a great film. I talked last week about how Oliver & Company feels in many ways like a quality movie that’s lacking a well-crafted story to tell. The animators had been training to make great looking movies for a long time now, what was lacking was a story worth telling. Not to undervalue the visual elements of the film –because it is a beautiful movie to look at thanks to so many aspects I will talk about later- but the screenplay for The Little Mermaid is so above and beyond anything the studio had done since World War II.

Somewhat ironically, in order to become a studio that made movies the “kids of today” wanted to watch, Disney looked to its past. For much of the 80s it seemed like they wanted to make different, edgier movies like The Black Cauldron or The Great Mouse Detective. It was returning to the Fairy Tale Musical formula that would bring them back to the top. And with a relatively obscure fairy tale at that. We know immediately know what people are talking about when someone says “the little mermaid”, but back in the late eighties, the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale wasn’t as much part of the public consciousness. At least not as much as other princesses like Snow White, Cinderella or even Rapunzel would have been. No matter the obscurity of the subject, there is no apparent reason why this movie shouldn’t work as well as Snow White did. The stories share a lot of similarities, including a young girl looking for love and fighting an evil witch.

Of course, The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have a lot of similarities in spirit. The execution of the films has, however, its fare share of differences. And understandably so. The Little Mermaid had the task of making a movie about a princess in a much more cynical cinematic landscape than that of 1937, with children that had been familiar with the Disney formula since they were born. And even more familiar with cartoons in general thanks to saturday morning television. The Little Mermaid wisely takes its cues from a stage musicals. After all, the men in charge of the music for the film -composed Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman- came from Broadway, where they had enjoyed success with their musical version of Little Shop of HorrorsThe Broadway Musical was also, unlike the Disney musical, an art form that had not receded, but evolved in the 70s and 80s. It’s easy to see how The Little Mermaid doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure, but the two-act you would see in a Musical. It’s easy to see when the curtain would drop separating act one from act two as well as other structural elements. But the movie is better for it.

This is the moment in which I sadly have to point out that The Little Mermaid is not a perfect movie. There are actually few Disney movies I would call perfect and while The Little Mermaid comes really close, there are still a few minor problems in the film’s second half. That shouldn’t detract from the greatness of the movie. Actually, even if the movie as a whole isn’t perfect, its first half is. Within ten minutes of movie, we have already met all of the major players and gotten the gist of what they’re all about. We meet Prince Eric and see how he’s having difficulties finding a girl he could fall in love with. We meet King Triton and royal-composer-jamaican-crab Sebastian. We get a small glimpse of the evil sea witch Ursula. And, most importantly, we meet our heroine: Ariel.

Ariel is the first modern Disney Princess and one of the best characters in the company’s entire history. What makes Ariel so great is how real she feels. We sympathize with her because her quest rings true. She’s a teenage girl who just wants to be with the guy she likes and feels like one. The discussions she has with her father and her thrill for adventure and emotion are aspects of her personality that late 20th century girls can identify with much more than the singing housewife style of previous princesses. And if all these aspects that make Ariel feel human isn’t enough, then there’s this:

With every viewing of the film, I become more convinced that The Little Mermaid features the best songs of any Disney film, and chief among them is “Part of Your World”. As Howard Ashman points out in Waking Sleeping Beauty (Don Hahn’s documentary about Walt Disney Animation in the 80s and 90s), “Part of Your World” is pretty much your prototypical “I Want” song; a number early in the movie (or Broadway show) in which the heroine sings about her deepest desires and the audience ends up falling in love with her. For my money, “Part of Your World” is the best “I Want” song ever. I’m sorry if that sounds hyperbolic, but Alan Menken’s music, Ashman’s lyrics and Jodi Benson’s performance are just brilliant. Not to mention the amazing work done by the animating team. The background and effects artists that worked on that gorgeous lightning and animating the bubbles. And, of course, Ariel’s supervising animator, Glen Keane who animates the hell out of Ariel throughout the film and especially in this sequence. And the way her hair moves! And her face!

“Part of Your World” is such a beautiful piece of animation, I can’t possibly think who wouldn’t fall for it when it comes up in the movie. Unfortunately, not every cell in The Little Mermaid is as beautifully animated as that sequence. Wide shots featuring more than one character usually have Ariel looking slightly funky, with weird body proportions. This is sometimes distracting, as in the reprise of “Part of Your World”, after Ariel saves Prince Eric from his sinking ship. The close-up on Ariel’s face as she sings leaning on a rock by the shore is some of the best animation I’ve ever seen, but the moment is sadly followed by a clunky wide shot showing the waves splashing behind her. For the most part, though, the animation is very well done and considering the heights the best moments take us to, I can live with a couple so-so shots.

Especially considering the great work done in the script. Did I mention how tight the script is? Absolutely everything in the first half of the movie flows perfectly in a beautiful cause-and-effect narrative. From Ariel missing the concert to snoop around a sunk ship, to her arguing with her father to her rescue of Prince Eric, everything makes sense and builds on narrative momentum in a way that very few Disney movies (which up to this point tend to be highly episodical) had done before. This narrative leads us to the Ariel going to see Ursula, the evil Sea Witch who wants Triton’s throne.

Since we’ve come to this point, let’s talk about Ursula, who is definitely somewhere at the top in Disney’s numerous list of villains. She has all the powers of an evil sorceress like Maleficent (or Snow White’s Evil Queen), while featuring the larger-than-life personality and humor of Cruela de Vil and Madame Medusa. A decadent diva pushed to the sidelines of the Sea Kingdom. As voiced by Pat Carroll, she even gets some hints of drag queen camp, especially since she is one of the few villains up to this point to have the luxury of singing her own song (something that almost never happened before the 80s, but with a diva as big as Ursula, how could the filmmakers resist?). “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, in which Ariel agrees to Ursula’s pact of turning her into a human in exchange of her voice, is also a clear example of Menken and Ashman’s musical genius. I’m going to start sounding like a broken record, but again, this is probably the best song ever given to a Disney villain.

Once we hit the second act and Ariel is on land, The Little Mermaids few problems start to show. As animated by Glen Keane, mute Ariel is kind of irresistibly adorable, but having a silent heroine is not the most dynamic of choices. As a conesequence, the narrative turns much more episodic. Most the episodes are quite enjoyable. Chef Louie’s “Les Poissions” is a pretty funny song, as is Sebastian trying to run from him (although the fact that Ariel is leaving the sea for a culture that eats fish has always bothered me). Another great episode is the lovely rendition of “Kiss the Girl“, another wonderful song in another lovely sequence. As amusing as these moments are, though, the momentum that drove the story forward so perfectly up to this point isn’t quite there anymore.

Things don’t get better when Ursula realises she has to do something so that Ariel doesn’t get Prince Eric before her spell runs out. She disguises herself as Vanessa, and using Ariel’s voice, convinces Eric to marry her. It’s a development that comes into the narrative very abruptly and makes Eric look like somewhat of a dick, considering he seemed very fond of Ariel and decided to marry this other woman less than twelve hours after meeting her. The final confrontation at Eric and Vanessa’s wedding doesn’t play out in any illogical way. Even though it involves Ariel turning back into a mermaid, King Triton losing his powers, Ursula becoming a giant monster and Eric changing his wedding clothes to drive his ship and kill the evil witch, the way things progress does make sense. All of it, though, happens really quickly and with so many characters suddenly losing and gaining action it’s hard to care too much. Not to mention that Ariel, after being a silent character for so long, loses even more protagonism in these final moments. Most of the action is driven by Ursula, Triton and Eric. Ariel sadly becomes a supporting player in her own story. Also, I don’t quite get how Eric’s ship could destroy Ursula’s magic.

It may sound like I’m down on this second half, but I really love the film. Even with all these flaws, it runs through at a smooth and incredibly entertaining pace. I also find it very rich thematically. A common critique of The Little Mermaid is that Ariel’s ark comes down to her abandoning her family and her life in order to chase a boy. But even if that is technically true, I have always read Ariel’s journey as one of self discovery and identity. Ariel was born a mermaid, but she identifies with the wonder of human life and Eric. It is a little reductive and childish that the relationship is based on love at first sight, but we’re talking about a Disney Fairy Tale here. The Little Mermaid’s message of not being afraid to change in order to pursue who you feel you have to be is not one that comes along very often in movies aimed at children. By all means, I think this is a LGBT film disguised as nothing more than a fairy tale fantasy. Just think of it; the “over-the-rainbow” style singing and dreaming, the dad who doesn’t understand, not to mention all the flashy song and dance numbers. The power of it’s telling is what makes the movie resonate all these years later. The Little Mermaid is a superbly made film with a message that’s more relevant now than ever before.

Next Week: The only sequel in the entirety of the Disney Canon? Well, kind of, but yes. It’s The Rescuers Down Under.

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ Review

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Ever since I’ve paid attention to the Cannes Film Festival (which admittedly isn’t that long), we’ve never had a Palm D’Or winner as scandalous as Blue is the Warmest Color. Not just because it features extended, steamy, lesbian sex sequences -although those were and remain somewhat of a talking point- but for the comments the director and stars have had about the movie and the making of those sequences. A sort of feud has been developed between director Abdellatif Kechiche and star Lea Seydoux that started when the latter expressed her disastisfaction with Kechiche’s uncomfortable and exhausting methods on set (especially when filming the sex scenes). Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based expressed her dissatisfaction with the way lesbian sex was depicted saying of the sequences “the heteronotmative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed becuase it’s not convincing, and found it ridiuclous.” Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, also expressed her concern with Kechiche’s depiction of these young women, saying the movie “feels more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else.”

As you can see, the argument about the effectiveness, realism and purpose of the explicit sex scenes is already a loaded one. As a straight man, I have no idea if the scenes realistically depicted what goes on in the bed of a lesbian couple. However, what I can say after watching the film, is that I can very well see what are the elements that made the initial Cannes response so overwhelmingly positive. There is no question in my mind that these are all talented people that worked in the making of the film and they have in fact made an effective movie. In that spirit, I want to point out to another landmark the film accomplished in Cannes, where the jury decided to award the Palm D’Or not only to Kechiche, but to stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, making it the first time the Palm was awarded to the actors of a film as well as the director. This is no small thing. We know movies are a communal effort, but thanks to those french guys from Cahiers du cinema and the acceptance of the auteur theory, we don’t have many quibbles with giving credit to the director. Giving equal credit to the actors is notable in its specificity. Out of all the people involved in making the movie, the Jury decided single out the actors, and two of them at that.

I have to say that I understand the triple-mention in the prize. I would dare to say the Cannes Jury probably loved the movie more than I did. I have a couple problems with it, but the one thing I wouldn’t call anything but brilliant is the acting by these two ladies. Our lead character is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom we meet as a fifteen year old girl frustrated with her sexuality. She’s gone out with a guy, but not much has come out of it. It’s not until she meets a considerably older art student named Emma (Lea Seydoux) that she finds she feels love’s true connection (also emotionally, but especially sexually). Movies as long as Blue is the Warmest Color (it runs just shy of three hours) are usually epics with blue aliens, hobbits or sinking ships, yet the movie isn’t overlong. It doesn’t move slowly or take unnecessary detours, it uses every minute of its running time to portray this relationship as completely as possible. That’s why the award to the actresses seems so appropriate. Adele and Emma are pretty much everything we have to hold on to in the movie, and with such a massive running time, the actresses have really been able to come up with fully rounded characters.

If not just for how amazing the acting is, the movie’s flaws make me realize how accomplished the performances really are. There are many moments of the film that feel a little too familiar. Most of them come in the first third of the film, but the general outline of the plot, except for a few somewhat surprising developments, is not particularly original. There is, for example, an aggressive scene in which Adele’s school mates confront her about her sexuality that feels like what you’d find in a PSA or an after-school special. Despite these moments, the film manages to earn an air of realism and viscerality; and I think it’s thanks to the Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. Much later in the movie there is a party scene in which other somewhat familiar plot-points occur. By this point, however, we’re so immersed in the actresses’ work that it’s almost impossible to realize while watching the movie how overwrought and obvious the scene could feel with performances that weren’t as nuanced and naturalistic as these.

It is  anything but surprising that a European movie is going for a naturalistic approach, but it does provide Blue is the Warmest Color with its strongest moments. It’s the relatability, the way these characters let us see ourselves in them that makes the movie connect. Lea Seydoux is becoming one of my favorite actresses, she’s been in great in many movies (most notably Farewell, My Queen and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and is fantastic at making a full human out of the strong-willed but delicate Emma. A task all the more impressive considering the places the script takes her. Our big entry point into the movie, though, is Adele. Kechiche seem to be as fascinated with Exarchopoulos as he is with Adele as a character, constantly lingering on her face and body. The movie is mostly close-ups of these two girls interacting as they go through the phases of their relationship.

That is why I had a somewhat mixed reaction to the sex scenes. Like I said before, I can’t really comment on the realism of the sequences, but I do feel like they don’t always work thematically for me. Those are, curiously, some of the few moments in which Kechiche decides to abandon close-ups and pull back the camera. Maybe it’s intentional that they seem like other people, letting themselves lose in their sexuality, but in those moments these girls don’t feel completely like Emma or Adele. It’s not that the scenes are ineffective, because we do get the passion and the urgency of their desires, but that the way they’re filmed is a little distracting. The best moments of Blue is the Warmest Color are really whenever the camera just surrenders to the performances and just lets the characters be. The party scene I talked about before is a perfect example. Within its movie-narrative-constraints, it feels incredibly genuine. The actresses go through so many feelings and they don’t act as they have to let us know that. They just do. It’s a great scene to watch. And there are many of those.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Academy Rules: Lead Actor 1994

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Nobody’s ever in agreement with the Oscars. Naming the best movies and performances of the year is a thankless thing to do. Someone’s favorite is always going to be overlooked and being named the “best” amongst a certain group will always result in scrutiny. “Academy Rules” is a monthly series in which I’ll take a look at a particular category in the Awards’ past. Let’s see if the Academy’s judgment calls hold up. With the release of Captain Phillips in theaters, I decided to kick off the series with the second time Tom Hanks won an Oscar. Here are the nominees for Lead Actor of 1994…

Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
1994 was the year of Forrest Gump. American audiences were enchanted by the story of a dumb goodhearted simpleton making it through life. The movie was the biggest hit of the year, so Tom Hanks became only the second actor ever to win Lead Actor two years in a row (the first was Spencer Tracy back in the late thirties). I’m not a big fan of either of Hanks’s Oscar-winning performances, but if I had to choose, I’d take his work in Philadelphia over Forrest Gump any time.
I rarely can answer when someone asks me what my favorite movie genre is, but my least favorite, without a doubt, is “dramas about the mentally-challenged.” I think movies are terrible at portraying these people. Because of how we see these people in real life, they tend to be way too sentimental and lack any kind of nuance to the point of feeling insincere (If you are curious, the best portrayal of a mentally disabled person I’ve seen is Jewel in the television series Deadwood).
Now, Forrest is only ever referred to as “dumb” or “stupid”, but the movie definitely fits the genre. I am not a fan of Forrest Gump, I find it on the one hand overly cutesy (with his doofus unknowingly walks through American history premise) and too typically sentimental in its more dramatic moments. But if there is anything that stops Forrest Gump from being an outright bad movie, it is probably the acting. Hanks is quite a charismatic actor and even if he can’t help the fact that he is trapped in such an irritating role, at least he can bring some of his chops to elevate the moments where it counts. I’m talking, of course, about that moment towards the end of the film in which Forrest meets his son. As much as I dislike the movie, Forrest asking “is he dumb?” is quite the moment.

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Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George)
Hawthorne’s performance, similarly to Hanks’s, is better than the movie it is in. Unlike Forrest Gump, though, The Madness of King George is a pretty decent movie. It’s sort of a precursor to The King’s Speech, in which George III is subjected to archaic psychiatric treatment when his detractors point out to his deteriorating sanity as a sign that he should be removed from the throne.
There are many moments in the movie that are scripted either as zany comedy or classic british costume drama, and the greatness of Hawthorne’s performance relies in the matter-of-fact approach he gives the King’s insanity. King George is without a doubt becoming mad, but he does so in a recognizable human way. Hawthorne plays the moments in which the King is delirious and those in which he is lucid almost identically as far as intention goes. What the King is saying might be crazy, but he still sounds and feels like the King. When the King has a moment of sanity in the middle of his craziest moments, it takes us a few seconds to realize he is making sense. When Queen Charlotte asks the King if he is becoming mad, he hopelessly answers: “I don’t know”. As entertaining and comedic (in a typical british way) as Hawthorne is in the role, his is also an appropriately touching performance in the way it so effectively conveys the tragedy of slowly but surely giving up to insanity.   

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Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool)
‘Sully’ Sullivan is a type of character that we have seen before. It’s that old guy who never grew up and always avoided responsibility. Nobody’s Fool also has the premise of a movie that we’ve seen before: the estranged father living in a small town, drinking, gambling and doing construction work for a despicable Bruce Willis finds himself in a trip to grow up when his son and grandson come to town. As played by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool, though, it’s a different story.
There are many familiar moments in Nobody’s Fool, but it all feels somehow realistic and understated in large part thanks to Newman’s performance. It’s kind of a cliché to say this, but he does so much with so little. There are no moments of Sully losing it, screaming, or emoting in the ways that would play in a typical Oscar clip. This didn’t have to be a completely internalized performance, but Newman plays it that way. He trusts in his charisma to make the audience connect with Sully and in his talent as an actor to convey the character’s feelings without even raising an eyebrow. In find it just satisfying to watch one of the greatest movie stars we’ve had so seamlessly at work.

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John Travolta (Pulp Fiction)
I feel like John Travolta is a very underrated actor. He isn’t always great, but give him a good role and this guy can deliver. It’s very well known how his role as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction pretty much revived his career and brought him back to stardom. But since he used this momentum to mostly do thrillers of average quality, there has always been little talk of how good of an actor he can actually be. Saturday Night Fever, for example, is not taken seriously these days, though off more for its corny disco dancing than its powerful drama, but Travolta channels James Dean in a brilliant performance that rightfully earned him his first Oscar nomination.
His work as Vincent Vega is similarly fantastic. There is certainly a metafilmic level to the performance in that Travolta the washed-out actor plays Vincent the washed-out gangster. Like the actor, this character is a guy who has gone through better days. His criminal activities once made him the coolest guy in the room. Now the sight of him doing cocaine in the bathroom is rather sad. Travolta wisely plays up the qualities of a guy who has gone through a lot of shit. You can feel Vincent’s years of beating up guys and killing enemies. The biggest praise I can give the performance is that he feels like someone who is acting cool, but only by default.
It feels somewhat arbitrary that Travolta was the one guy out of the cast of Pulp Fiction to be nominated for Lead Actor (Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman were nominated in the supporting categories). In such an ensemble-based movie, it’s hard to say one character is the lead, but I guess Vincent is as close as it gets. After all, he is the one character that appears in all three stories (and is at the center of two of them).  

morgan-freeman-shawshankMorgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption)
I’m afraid I’m not a huge fan of what seems to be the internet’s favorite movie. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Shawshank Redemption is a fine movie, I just don’t find what has made so many people love this movie so much. I think it is too sentimental and too keen on letting its audience know exactly how they should be feeling at every moment. But even if I don’t find the movie to be exceptional, I do really like the two lead performances by Tim Robbins and the nominated Freeman.
Even if he is an irishman in the original novella, ‘Red’ is very much the quintessential Morgan Freeman role; a street-smart convict, who knows perfectly how to make prison life work for him, but also benevolent and sympathetic despite his murderous past. It also features another Freeman staple: the voice-over narration. I don’t have much to say about the performance except that this is Morgan Freeman doing his typical Morgan Freeman thing at his best, which means he is quite good in the movie. It’s not often that this reliable actor gets to stretch in unusual roles, but if he was to win an Oscar for doing what he knows how to do (and does so well), it would have been nice for it to be for this performance and not for his uninspired turn in Million Dollar Baby. 

Overlooked Performances?
Amongst the people who were actually popular that year, Tim Robbins’s omission seems rather odd considering how much voters liked The Shawshank Redemption and how they nominated Morgan Freeman. Whether or not he was snubbed due to his -at the time- controversial political agenda, if you’d ask me to pick one of the Shawshank guys to be nominated, I would have said Freeman, so I’m not outraged by the Academy’s decision. Another huge deal in ’94 was Hugh Grant, who suddenly became a star thanks to his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s easy to forget, considering a career consisting mostly of middling romantic comedies, how charming and entertaining an actor Grant can be at his best. And he is definitely at his best in Four Weddings.
I you ask me what the single best performance not to be nominated was, well, I’d have to cheat and go with two actors. First, Johnny Depp, who so delightfully embodies the enthusiasm of Ed Wood, giving what is arguably the best performance of his career. Considering his more recent collaborations with Tim Burton, it’s hard to believe they could be such a wonderful match and that Depp could give such a humane performance. The other actor is Terrence Stamp who is incredibly funny and incredibly poignant as world-weary transexual Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. 

Did the Academy make the right choice?
Like I said before, it’s not so much that Hanks is bad, but that he has such terribly cheesy material to work with. He might have given his best, but there’s no question his is the worst performance of the five. And the only one, actually, that I would say isn’t good. I would like to say it’s a hard decision, because this line-up is so strong, but the truth is there’s no contest in my mind, I have to go with Paul Newman. Freeman and Hawthorne are very raw, and Travolta iconic; but I just can’t resist a performance as economic as Newman’s. His ‘Sully’ plays with an actor’s charisma and talent giving a masterclass in movie-star-acting.
If you forced me to rank the performances, I’d do it like this: 1. Newman 2. Hawthorne 3. Travolta 4. Freeman 5. Hanks.

’12 Years a Slave’ Review

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First, 12 Years a Slave played at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals to an overwhelmingly positive response. Critics said it was going to be remembered as a landmark, audiences loved it too (it won the Audience Award at Toronto) and Oscar prognosticators deemed the race over: this was the film to beat. The film was talked about a lot since those screenings, but in a rather sad turn, the conversations mostly centered on whether or not a film with such a raw approach to a very delicate subject is going to win the Oscar. Limiting the conversation about a movie (especially one as conversation-worthy as this one) is always frustrating, but when it is limited to a question of Awards-frontrunner, it also hurts the film, making it feel overpraised even before people have actually had the chance to see it. This is how in the last couple of days leading up to the release of 12 Years a Slave I found the internet to be full of negative or lackluster reactions to the film. The criticism was, for the most part, the same: 12 Years a Slave is a crude portrait of evil that shows how terrible slavery was without saying anything we didn’t know already. I can’t disagree with the first part of that statement -this is the most disturbing experience I’ve had at the movies this year – but I wholeheartedly disagree with the second.

Before becoming a movie, Twelve Years a Slave was a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man who in 1841 was captured and sold into slavery. As you might have already concluded, he remained a slave for twelve years, experiencing or witnessing all the characteristic horrors of that terrible institution before he could return to his wife and kids. In the movie, Solomon is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who you have probably seen in a supporting role here or there, in a career-best performance. Being based on an autobiographical source, the movie is highly episodic and features a lot of well-known actors in the supporting roles: Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender and producer Brad Pitt are all featured in supporting roles.

British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) comes from a background in visual arts, having been a video artist before making the jump to features. This is his third film and even if the material he is adapting is much more straightforward in structure than his two previous films, he remains linked to installation and video art. I think it is better to approach 12 Years a Slave as you would an art installation or an experimental piece of film. The reaction I got was closer to what I could get from an effective museum piece than any other movie I have seen. First a visceral, completely emotional shock and second, a series of unsettling questions that lead to mostly depressing or infuriating conclusions.

There have been many great films dealing with race, but surprisingly few that take on slavery and even fewer that have attempted to recreate the horrors people went through in this period as closely as McQueen does here. The violence is relentless and terrifying. McQueen and his collaborators do an extremely effective work of putting the audience in a deeply unsettling mood and a constant state of stress over what could detonate the next wave of violence (and how far it would go). Is as close as I think a movie has put its audience in the shoes of the victims of slavery.For example, the fact that the audience I saw this with felt the need to applaud at many moments. They were all moments in which Solomon asserted his humanity and they were almost without exception followed by horrifying repercussions. Cheering was continually interrupted with violence. As a physical experience, the movie is an attack on the senses and on our sensibility as people from the XXI Century. My stomach was turned and I still can’t shake the feeling of disturbance the movie got out of me.

After the initial reaction, though, my mind turned to the details. By the time the movie was over I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to think of it. I certainly didn’t like it, I was shaken and uncomfortable. It was the examination of the details in the movie and its filmmaking choices made me admire it as more than a sensorial experience. The episodic structure, the casting of well-known actors and McQueen’s preference for long scenes and abrupt cuts work to raise a number of questions about slavery, humanity and absolute truths. In every scene, no matter how horrifying or overwhelming, I always found weird nuances and details that sparked unanswered thoughts in my mind. For example: What do you make of the quick way in which Solomon an lose or gain his freedom? Or the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a benevolent plantation owner, kind to his servants, but still a slave-holder? What about the relationship between evil Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), his wife (Sarah Paulson) and slave girl Patsey (played magnificently by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o)? Or, most disturbing and heartbreaking for me, certain aspects of the exact moment in which Solomon is freed?

Disney Canon: Oliver & Company

Oliver-and-Company

The Great Mouse Detective got some good reactions from critics, but was overshadowed at the box-office by Don Bluth’s film latest film, the Steven Spelberg-produced An American Tail, which became the highest grossing animated movie ever (not adjusted for inflation). That record must have been a major blow for Disney, but they were building up their response. Despite not being able to revive the animation department so far, the studio’s new plan was to make a new animated movie every year. Not since the early forties (benefiting form the Snow White bonanza) had the studio been able to work at such an accelerated pace. And the Disney of the mid-eighties was definitely nowhere close in success and amount of manpower to the Disney of Pinocchio, Fantasia and DumboStill, Katzenberg, Eisner and Roy Disney were determined. They hired about 400 new employees and brought in Peter Schneider to be President of Feature Animation. Schneider, like Eisner and Katzenberg, had no background in animation. He came from the world of theater, but there is no denying that he was a great executive. With such an enormous staff there were certainly many great minds at work at Disney at the time, but Schneider’s time at the company overlaps precisely with the height of Walt Disney Animation’s success.

The first movie to be a part of the a-movie-a-year project was Oliver & Company, a loose adaptation that brought the story of Oliver Twist to 1980s New York City. The intention to make Oliver a hit is apparent, starting by the casting of big-name celebrities like Billy Joel and Bette Midler to provide voice work. The studio had done some stunt-casting before (Vincent Price in The Great Mouse Detective is one of the better examples), but never with the kind of big names that were supposed to lure people into buying tickets. This may very well be the beginning of the celebrity-obsessed casting of contemporary animated movies, but it’s also something that would become a big part of the Disney’s M.O. going forward. The casting of Robin Williams in Aladdin, Jeremy Irons in The Lion King and Demi Moore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame can all be traced down to Oliver. 

As a matter of fact, Oliver very much shares the DNA of the movies that would put Disney at the top in the following years. From a purely formal standpoint, one could make a great argument to deem Oliver & Company the first movie in the Disney Renaissance. First of all, the movie is the first all-out musical the studio had done in more than a decade. Their movies had had songs here and there, but Oliver has five major musical numbers, four of which are sung on-screen by the characters. All of them serve the narrative on some level and although the soundtrack is very much a piece of late-eighties pop music, show-stopping numbers like “Why Should I Worry?” and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” indicate the direction their approach to music was heading into. The Broadway influence in “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, as sung by Bette Midler, is obvious; while “Why Should I Worry?” ends with a chorus-line of dogs making its way through the streets of Manhattan.

The second big development in Oliver & Company is the extensive use of computer generated animation. CG had been used for the bubbles in the fairy scene in The Black Cauldron and the final action sequence inside the Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detectivebut never as extensively as in Oliver. It would obviously become a huge part of animation going forward, being used in all of Disney’s films in the decade to follow and becoming the primary style of animation today. The third, and I think most important, breakthrough for Oliver is the quality of its animation. Even though the black outlines make me think it was done with the relatively cheap xerography process (I haven’t been able to confirm this), it is steps above what we saw in the last few Disney films. Unlike in The Black Cauldron, the design of the characters, even when grotesque (Fagin is very unpleasant to the eyes), never feels cheap. And the movement of the characters is so fluent and consistent it makes the stiffness of the supporting players in The Great Mouse Detective even more frustrating*. This is the first Disney movie in a long time in which I didn’t see moments in which the characters didn’t look like themselves or other animation mistakes.

*This may be a tricky statement to make, since there are many static backgrounds featuring people or cars in Oliver & Company. Those people and cars obviously don’t move, but I’m referring to any animated characters that appears in the film.

The animation, the use of CG and the music would all become better with future projects, but Oliver is already a huge step forward as far as all these aspects are concern and in that sense could stand head-to-head with the movies that followed. There is still, however, a big reason why Oliver & Company is not the movie that sparked the Disney Renaissance: the story. The word loose should be underlined when you say this movie is a loose adaptation of Oliver Twist, especially if you consider a novel’s true value to be its message and not its plot. Oliver & Company recasts Oliver as a homeless kitten in New York City. He soon meets Dodger (Billy Joel), the leader of a group of pickpocketing dogs working for homeless guy Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who in turn is in trouble for owing money to Sykes (Robert Loggia), who being some sort of financial guy, sounds like the perfect ’80s villain. Out on a mission to get Fagin some money, Oliver gets trapped in little girl Jenny’s limo. The girl adopts Oliver even if that doesn’t please her jealous poodle Georgette (Bette Midler). Since Oliver has been adopted by a rich girl, Fagin thinks he can kidnap and ransom Oliver to pay his debt to Sykes. 

As you can see, the plot is fairly different to that of Oliver Twist. The weird thing is that even as it keeps the themes of homelessness and class distinction, the movie has zero interest in making any kind of comment about it. It prefers to spend time with somewhat-offensive mexican chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin). Well, that’s a little unfair. Tito is certainly a problematic character, but the rest of the dogs aren’t particularly bad. Neither are they particularly good, though. As a comedy about cats and dogs, Oliver & Company is competent. As a movie in and on itself, not so much. The themes of Oliver Twist as presented in the original novel may be a little too hard for a kids’ movie, but there are many ways in which they could at least have touched on them. I would say there is absolutely none thematic depth to Oliver & Company. 

Oliver & Company opened the very same day as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time, and this time, Disney won the box-office battle. Going a little deeper than nothing at all in its themes is what Oliver needed, especially if it was to stand the test of time and revive Disney Animation. While never actively bad, Oliver can barely be called a good movie in its own right. Still, it was a major step forward for the studio in most technical aspects. It would only take a better story for true greatness to come…

Up Next: … And it did come! The Disney Renaissance officially begins with one of the very best films the studio ever did. I’m talking, of course, about The Little Mermaid. 

Disney Canon: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

great-mouse-detective

The Black Cauldron was one of Disney’s biggest flops ever and the mid-eighties were looking more and more like the studio’s absolute low point. Still, the new management (led by Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney) was determined to continue in the animated movie business. They argued that was, after all, Walt’s biggest legacy. They might have taken a blow with The Black Cauldron, but the new kids were in town and they were going to turn this thing around. Disney fans know this resulted in the very famous Disney Renaissance I think I’ve mentioned a million times in these articles, the moment in which Disney animated musicals became cool again. But the road there was rough. 1986 saw the release of The Great Mouse Detective, one of the lesser known movies in the Disney Canon, but one that has a very enthusiastic group of fans (fueled largely by eighties nostalgia) and has been described by some people as the unofficial start tot he Disney Renaissance.

If you ask me, then I’d say there is no question that the Renaissance starts with The Little Mermaid. Still, I’d be willing to call The Great Mouse Detective part of a proto-Renaissance. The studio was certainly going in that direction, but undoubtedly wasn’t quite there yet. Also, there’s a special connection in the fact that directors Ron Clements and John Musker would go on to direct The Little Mermaid. They weren’t, however, working alone in The Great Mouse Detective; directing credits also go to Burny Matthison and Dave Michener. I had never seen The Great Mouse Detective, except for a couple scenes here and there, until preparing for this post; but I had heard enough of its fans to be very intrigued by the film. It’s not that I was expecting an underrated masterpiece or something, but while it’s sad and unfair that the film has been mostly forgotten, it is also not a particularly memorable movie.

The Great Mouse Detective is based on Eve Titus’s Basil of Baker Street book series (the change into the more literal movie title midway through the production is something that pissed the animators and resulted on this prank). The books are in turn inspired on Sherlock Holmes and focus on Basil, a mouse living underneath Sherlock’s floor who just happens to be the best detective in all “Mousedom”. When young Olivia Flaversham and Dr. Dawson appear at his doorstep after the girl’s father has been kidnapped, Basil must engage in battle of wits against the evil Professor Ratigan. By all means, this is a version of Sherlock Holmes recast with mice. Basil plays Sherlock, Dawson plays Watson, Ratigan is Moriarty and the characterizations are pretty much the same. I think Sherlock’s mysteries and his relationship with Watson and Moriarty work better as long-term storytelling. That’s why the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations tend to be composed of many installments in a movie or television series. That’s particularly interesting because despite all indications that The Great Mouse Detective was always intended as a stand-alone movie, it feels very much like the initial installment in a series. I can easily see it being paired up with Ducktalesfor example.

After the financial disaster that was The Black Cauldron, Disney was trying to scale back on cost, and so, the production values in The Great Mouse Detective are far more limited than those in the previous film. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the animation of the supporting players. Characters appearing in the background, or for just a couple of scenes are horribly wooden and limited in their movement. Examples of this are Ratigan’s supporting minions and especially supporting females like Basil’s housekeeper Mrs. Judson and Queen Mousetoria, who feels nearly as wooden as the clockwork version of herself Flaversham builds for Ratigan.

There is no denying this movie is aiming for a much lower bar than The Black Cauldron. At times, I might argue, a little too low. Like I said before, there is scaling back in the visuals, but there also seems to have been limited interest in telling a story that remained coherent the whole time. The movie’s only an hour and fifteen minutes, so it’s weird that instead of devoting as much time as possible to Basil working through the clues left behind by Professor Ratigan (as most Sherlock Holmes adaptations do), he puts things together fairly quickly and we spend most time in a couple set-pieces. I get a vibe of the animators trying to do a movie for kids with this one, so I guess that might be why they favor action to script. But there are things that can not be excused, like a terrible moment in which Basil and Dr. Dawson dress up as pirates and go to a bar where they think they’ll find Ratigan’s lair. There’s a show at the bar where a sexy mouse sings a song and has all the ruffians drooling for her. This extended musical sequence (one of two in the movie) serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. That sexy mouse character doesn’t appear at any other moment during the movie and the fact that everyone is smitten by her doesn’t affect Basil or Dr. Dawson in any way that has to do with the plot.

That’s the ultimate example of what keeps the movie from being as effective as it could be. The attitude from the makers of The Great Mouse Detective seems to be to make a good-enough movie that would entertain children. That puts some major road-blocks in trying to retroactively enjoy the film, especially for someone who never saw it before, but at the same time, I have to say that the movie does overall accomplish its goal. The Great Mouse Detective is not a boring movie. Watching it is like watching a good saturday morning cartoon. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but the movie really seems to be embracing the qualities of such a show. The story is as deep as something you’d watch on saturday morning during the late 80s or 90s and the characters are animated very much like cartoons, too. Cartoonish animation doesn’t require as much detail and time as trying to do something more realistic, and thus, that was the appropriate way for a studio in hard times to approach this project. That is actually big part of what makes this feel less cinematic than it should. I don’t begrudge the cartoony animation. I rather enjoy the way Basil is animated at his most exciting moments. And, also, it provides for what is far and away the very best thing about the movie…

Voiced by horror movie legend Vincent Price, Professor Ratigan is one of the very best Disney villains. Price played a number of campy villains throughout his career, so he was the perfect fit for Ratigan’s huge personality. One of the advantages of the not-so-serious or realistic approach given to the film is that it gives an enormous amount freedom in the type of comedy the actors can work with and no one seems to be more delighted with that possibility than Price. He is so cartoonishly over-the-top that he must have encouraged the animators to try to be as grand as his performance. The way Ratigan moves around, his operatic facial expressions and Price’s line readings work together perfectly. By this point most Disney villains had been women and from the few males only Captain Hook and Prince John showed traces of diva-like personalities. Ratigan seems to be the answer to what a male Cruel De Vil would be like, only even bigger. The levels of showmanship displayed in Ratigan are so excessive and provide so much life to an otherwise unremarkable film that it stands out as the most memorable -and interesting- part of the film. This wouldn’t be the last time Disney would play with this type of male-diva villain (the apex of the type would be Scar in The Lion King), but it would never again be as deliciously cartoony as Ratigan.

Ultimately, what can I say about The Great Mouse Detective except that it’s ok? It’s a movie that didn’t aim very high and consequently achieved most of what it was trying to do. There are certain pieces that stand in its way (the rough animation) and some that seem bigger than the whole (Ratigan), but the truth is that beyond being a good or bad movie, The Great Mouse Detective is a sign of where things are going, a step in the right direction. As much as fan as I am of Robin Hood, there is no denying that The Great Mouse Detective is the most “alive” movie made since Walt passed. There is a sense of motion, of adventure, of wanting to move forward. And that’s what the studio would do in the next few years. Their next golden age was on the horizon, and they were going there.

Next Time: Cats and dogs are cast in a New York-based modern retelling of Charles Dickens’s work in Oliver & Company.