‘Zootopia’ and Disney Progressivism Then and Now

zootopia

Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.

In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.

Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).

Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontasa beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.

Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Froganother beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.

This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.

Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.

The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?

Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.

The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox.  Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.

But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.

The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:

“At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this – she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people – they come from savagery.”

This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.

That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.

And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.

The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.

This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.

There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.

Grade: 6 out of 10

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75 Years Ago…

…the world saw the release of Pinocchio, which remains, in my estimation, the crown jewel of Disney Animation and the best animated movie ever made. Here’s what I had to say about it a couple years ago. I hope you enjoy.

Top Ten: Disney Sidekicks

Ok, everybody, this is it. The last list, and the last Disney Canon-related article I’ll be writing for a long time. Well, at least until the release of Big Hero 6 later this year. As for this final list, it was inspired by a rather fantastic article in the New York Times about a couple of parents reaching out to their autistic son through Disney movies. If you haven’t read the article, you can click here. It’s a little long, but worth the read. Anyway, one of the important “plot points” in the article involves Disney sidekicks, so I decided to pay tribute to them with a list. After all, they are more often than not the characters we end up loving the most, and definitely the ones I liked best as a kid. Without further ado, the ten best Disney Sidekicks…

Genie10. The Genie
From Aladdin
Sidekick to: Aladdin, young, handsome vagabond, and diamond in the rough.
So many people have retroactively hated on the Genie for a) being voiced by Robin Williams, whose career and  comedy, granted, hasn’t aged as well as one would’ve hoped, and b) because it opened the door to hundreds of horrible celebrity voice work. I would answer both points by saying that 1) Robin Williams was at the absolute top of his comedic game when he voiced the Genie and 2) all those celebrity voices can be annoying, but they can also turn out gems such as Ellen DeGeneres’s work in Finding Nemo. Anyway, the Genie is hilarious, and not only thanks to Williams’s performance, but to the fantastic work the animators (led by Eric Goldberg) did translating his comedy into the character’s visual language.

Dopey9. Dopey
From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sidekick to: Snow White, but also to the dwarfs, who are sidekicks themselves. Pretty meta, huh?
Dopey is the most noticeable and memorable of the seven dwarfs because how different he is to the rest. For starters, he doesn’t have beard, and second, he doesn’t talk (something that is often a virtue in Disney characters). He also seems to have been designed to be the silliest and funniest of the dwarfs, and he does deliver some of the film’s most charming laughs. And as fantastic as he is, his inclusion in the list must have an asterisk next to it, for he was chosen for his awesomeness, but also as a representative of the seven dwarfs, who with their particular and silly personalities, remain the rosetta stone for all Disney Sidekicks. Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, and especially Grumpy, all have their great moments and their honorary places on this list.

Olaf8. Olaf
From Frozen
Sidekick to: naive Princess Anna as she tries to save her sister and learns what true love is.
Olaf will probably go down in history as one of the most delightful surprises of my history of watching movies. If there was something that was keeping me from being too excited about Frozen before it came out (and I was pretty excited), was the ubiquitous presence of this snowman character in all the marketing material. He seemed like one of those annoying talking sidekicks, the kind that is usually voiced by Eddie Murphy, that always threaten to ruin a perfeclty good movie. The surprise, then, was how endearing and lovable a character was created thanks to actor Josh Gad and the rest of the creative team.

Thumper7. Thumper
From Bambi
Sidekick to: Bambi, young deer and future king of the forest.
I understand that Bambi is beloved and regarded as a classic and a Disney masterpiece, and while it is an absolutely beautiful film to look at, there is something that doesn’t quite click with me. That being said, if there is something that Bambi excels at, it’s cuteness, and none of the characters in the film (or possibly in any film ever made) are nearly as cute as Thumper, Bambi’s mischievous rabbit sidekick.

Eeyore6. Eeyore
From The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Winnie the Pooh
Sidekick to: Mostly Pooh, but also Tigger, or any character that needs a sidekick, really.
This is where the difference between a sidekick and a supporting character comes in. Eeyore definitely strands the line between the two. He isn’t either tagging along on a hero’s quest, or constantly hanging out and orbiting a specific character, which are the two main characteristics of a Disney Sidekick. He is, however, undoubtedly a supporting character. We only get small doses of his sad resignation, but they are pure gold, and work even better when standing in contrast to the much more lively residents of the hundred acre woods, as when he is paired up with his spiritual opposite, Tigger, in Winnie the Pooh. 

5Sir HissSir Hiss 
From Robin Hood
Sidekick to: Prince John, ridiculously unqualified British Monarch.
Even though I recognize the movies’s many weaknesses, I have a huge soft-spot for Robin Hood. There are, however, things that are unquestionably great about it, and one such thing is Sir Hiss. In appearance, he is basically a rehash of Kaa from The Jungle Book, but in personality, he is fantastic comic relief. Terry-Thomas’s performance is perfect at capturing how terrible it must be to be as intelligent as Hiss, and yet, not being listened by anyone and being constantly bullied by Prince John. Sir Hiss is such a kiss-ass that he definitely deserves what’s coming to him. I’m just grateful he exists.    

Kronk4. Kronk
From The Emperor’s New Groove
Sidekick to: Yzma, evil and decrepit sorceress
How does Kronk get so high on the list? Well, he is the funniest character in what is probably Disney’s funniest movie. And he is awesome. I think we can all agree that actor Patrick Warburton was born to voice animated characters, and he has never been better. What is so perfect about Kronk is that despite being incredibly dim-witted, and working for the movie’s villain, he is a good-natured guy. Somehow he is conflicted about doing bad stuff, but not about working for an ageless, evil, sorceress. Anyway, he is funny, and that always wins you points as far as I’m concerned.

Sebastian3. Sebastian
From The Little Mermaid
Sidekick to: Ariel, mermaid princess and human enthusiastic
I hear some people have problems with the Jamaican accent, but they’re idiots. Sebastian has an accent, but he isn’t a caricature of anything that I can think so. Unless you think making a character with a Jamaican accent a good musician is insensitive. Hell, not even a good musician, but a great one! I can’t think of any character in the Disney Canon who has a better musical record than Sebastian. He is the main voice in The Little Mermaid’s most memorable numbers: the show-stopping “Under the Sea”, and the utterly fantastic “Kiss the Girl”. He is also part of “Les Poissons”, which while not a great song, is a pretty funny sequence.

Tinkerbell2. Tinker Bell
From Peter Pan
Sidekick to: the boy who wouldn’t grow up
In terms of personality, Tinker Bell is far from a feminist hero. The whole thing about fairies only being able to feel one emotion at the time, and her murderous infatuation with Peter raise a few eyebrows. However, as animated by master Marc Davis, Tinker Bell is one of the most graceful characters in all of the Disney Canon. And I still find her to be the best realized, most memorable, and definitely the most fun character in Peter Pan. 

Jiminy Cricket1. Jiminy Cricket
From Pinocchio
Sidekick to: The title puppet-turned-animated-puppet-turned-real-boy
Jiminy Cricket tops the list because his whole existence is a point of genius. In the original Pinocchio stories, the cricket is quickly smashed by the wooden boy moments after being appointed as his conscience. Disney, however, decided to expand his role, turning him into one of the most memorable characters in the whole Canon. He is supposed to be the moral center, and the voice of reason for the little puppet who wishes to be a real boy, but his trully appealing quality is that he is really not fit for the task. He is fantastic because he is not a wise-ass constantly telling the main character what he should and shouldn’t be doing. His being responsible for this little boy provides him with a journey of his own, and something to fight for.

Top Ten: Movies in the Disney Canon

The Disney Canon Project has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that the fun is over. Actually, depending on your point of view, some of the most interesting stuff might be coming up. I’ve prepared a series of lists about my favorite elements of the Canon that will come out in the following weeks. This is the first of them, and it is one that I have been trying to make since I was a very young child, but I couldn’t, and hadn’t really been comfortable to make it until now that I have officially watched them, and all 53 movies in the Disney Canon stand fresh in my mind. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my ten favorite Disney Movies.

CinderellaFilms

10. Cinderella (1950)
If you ask someone to picture the most conventional conception of what a Disney movie looks like, they’ll probably picture something fairly similar to Cinderella. And although it wasn’t until the studio’s renaissance period of the early nineties that it started to rely strongly on the musical princess (Disney only released three movies starring princesses before 1989), Cinderella, with its family-friendliness, classic ideas of femininity, cute sidekicks, and happy ending, may look very old-fashioned. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a good film. Not only are the images and production values wonderful, but like I wrote on my review, there are aspects of the movie and the main character -especially the power dynamics in household between Cinderella, the Stepmother, and the animals- that speak very directly and effectively to the way children see the world. That might be a personal theory of mine, but believe me, I haven’t met a single small child who has seen it and hasn’t been captivated by this movie.

TangledFilms9. Tangled (2010)
I hope that by this point in time, after how miserably Disney failed at trying to be hip and copy studios that were more popular at the time (Dreamworks, Pixar) in the 2000s, there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that Disney is at its best when it embraces its legacy and doesn’t try to run and hide from it. It is fitting, then, that the best movie they have released in the last twenty years is a very classically structured fairy tale. Tangled is less ambitious than its contemporaries in what it is trying to say about the idea of the “Disney Princess” (and it is funny that, while being 3D, it ended up being a much more classical movie than the 2D Princess and the Frog), but it shows the most heart and detail of al of Disney’s recent releases. You just have to read my review to know what a fantastic pair of characters I find young Rapunzel and evil Mother Gothel to be.

PoohFilms

8. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
I always have difficulties judging The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh alongside other Disney movies, because it has the particular distinction of being the only movie in the Canon to be composed exclusively out of pre-existing material. But even if the three shorts that make up the film were released on their own throughout the sixties and seventies, they are great, and since the movie is considered canon, they must be ranked according to their greatness. There are very little movies that manage to perfectly capture the mentality of a child. One of them is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and another is this Disney gem. There is a reason why characters like Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore resonate with children up to this day, and they have never been better represented on film, or any other medium (yes, including the books), than in this movie.

LittleMermaidFilms

7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Many animated movies have had the distinction of “saving” Disney, but while Dumbo and Cinderella saved the company from financial bankruptcy, The Little Mermaid did a different kind of deed. It saved the studio from irrelevance. The fantastic story about Princess Ariel and her wish to know what live is like above water captivated critics and audiences, became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, won two Oscars, and ushered the golden period known as the Disney Renaissance. All of these accomplishments are more than deserved, since The Little Mermaid is an absolutely great movie, featuring a quality of animation not seen in American cinema since the fifties, a wonderful heroine, one of the most memorable villains, and some of the very best songs in Disney’s filmography.

DalmatiansFilms

6. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The period in which Disney had to cut back on expenses, and started using the “xerography” process of animation isn’t regarded as the best moment for the studio, but it started out with a bang in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is perhaps the most lively and energetic of all Disney movies. I think I love practically everything about its design, and the version of the early sixties these characters live in. And I shouldn’t leave the content of the movie behind, since this is a thrilling adventure that holds up surprisingly well, and infinitely better than the live action remake starring Glenn Close. It’s perhaps the movie I was most delighted to rediscover during this project, as I got all curled up and invested in the idea of these puppies managing to escape the hands of heartless Cruella De Vil.

LionKingFilms

5. The Lion King (1994)
The most epic of Disney movies, and for a long time also the most successful (it was just unseated by Frozen a few months ago). The Lion King is the very first movie I saw in theaters, so it will always have a special place in my heart, but its very high ranking on this list is not base don sentimental reasons. It is a fantastic movie on its own right. For starters, it features some of the most beautiful animation in the Canon, including a handful of iconic images that even the most pretentious of filmgoers could recognize. The Lion King was a massive phenomenon, and it keeps resonating with audiences for a reason. It is the best example of what a powerhouse Disney managed to become during its Renaissance period.

SnowWhiteFilms

4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The movie that started it all is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the genre. Disney spent a good part of the thirties just inventing and perfecting technology in order to make Snow White, and thus, he ended up creating a complete new genre. It was the first animated feature produced in the United States, and it was so successful that for virtually fifty years after its release, all animated movies would be made based on its image. Singing princesses, woodland critters, a set of funny sidekicks, and a luxurious, bigger-than-life villain are all animation traditions that started with this movie. The movie is a visual marvel, with wonderful watercolor backgrounds and flawless animation, it is one of the best movies of the thirties, and one of the most important moments in the history of cinema.

DumboFilms

3. Dumbo (1941)
All great cinema, but Disney in particular, manages to achieve classic status by tapping precisely in the correct spot in the audience’s minds and hearts. Dumbo, which was made for cheap after Fantasia and Pinocchio failed to turn a profit, managed to hit right on the bullseye. It was a huge success that saved Disney’s finances, but in its simplicity (at 64 minutes, it is the shortest movie in the Canon)* it goes straight to the point and tells one of the most moving and effective stories of animation (and cinema) history. If you want to witness the living proof that movies don’t need to be long to be great, watching Dumbo will do the trick

*Correction: As friend of the blog ‘The Animation Commendation’ mentioned in the comments, Dumbo is not the shortest film in the Canon. That would be Saludos Amigos. It’s still very short though. 

BeautyBeastFilms

2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and with good reason. Some of the animation is still a little uneven compared to what the studio would achieve in the following years, but in terms of marrying story and visuals, there’s no beating the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance. The character development, the structure of the story, and the simply fantastic music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman not only make Beauty and the Beast the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance, they raised the bar of sophistication for all animated movies to come.

PinocchioFilms

1. Pinocchio (1940)
The unexpectedly huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gave way to Disney’s most ambitious period. For all the flaws you may or may not find in the work of Walt Disney, there is no denying that the man always worked on projects he felt passionate about. And he never seemed to have more passionate than when his gamble to make an animated feature-lenght film succeeded. Instead of trying to make another Snow White, he shot for the stars, and came up with two of his most impressive works ever. I have my problems with Fantasia, but Pinocchio, the studio’s second feature, is simply the best animated movie ever made. The shot that pans over Geppeto’s village towards the beginning of the film alone is outstanding, but then you have one of the best song scores of the Disney Canon, and some of the most effectively primal and psychological sequences too. The relationship between Pinocchio and Geppeto, the seamless proficiency of the animation, and the movie’s treatment of its darkest passages are all signs of the relentless genius Walt and his collaborators were determined to achieve in order to secure animation’s place in the sun.

Don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. “A top ten is not enough, we need a full ranking!” Well, I figured as much. Now, ranking them was going to be a little too much for me, but here are all the other movies in the Canon in roughly my order of preference:

Other Really Good Movies:
Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Robin Hood
Good Movies:
Frozen, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Hercules, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The Three Caballeros, Fantasia 2000
OK Movies:
The Sword in the Stone, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Mouse Detective, The Princess and the Frog, Pocahontas, Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph, Meet the Robinsons, Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free
Not-So-Good Movies:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rescuers, The Rescuers Down Under, Oliver & Company, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Saludos Amigos, Home on the Range, The Black Cauldron, Brother Bear
The Bad Movies:
Trasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Dinosaur
The Horrible Movies:
Chicken Little

Disney Canon: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog

You may or may not be able to fathom how freaking excited I was to watch The Princess and the Frog back in 2009. Too excited, maybe. The return of Disney to traditional, hand-drawn animation, with a movie directed by Ron Clements and John Musker nonetheless (the guys behind The Little Mermaid) was the promise of going back to the studio’s greatest years. A promise for yet another Disney Renaissance. In early 2014, with Frozen having just become the highest grossing animated movie of all time, it would be easy to argue Disney is officially back to its early nineties greatness. Although it’s important to mention that the traditional animation is still missing. You see, The Princess and the Frog didn’t exactly set the box office on fire (at least not enough for Disney to want to do another hand-drawn movie).

Even if The Princess and the Frog doesn’t go down in history as an unmitigated and game-changing success, if some sort of Disney scholar wants to regard this period as a “second Renaissance”, then they better include Princess and the Frog, because, if nothing else, it fits incredibly well as the first part of an informal trilogy of Post-Modern Disney Princess. The second and third movies in the trilogy would be Tangled and Frozen. All three of these movies share essentially the same plot-structure (female lead and male lead that she doesn’t quite get along with go on an adventure and fall in love), but also try to spin the “Disney Princess” trope into something that would feel fresh and new in the 21st Century. The movie at hand is the weakest of the three, but it’s also very ambitious -maybe the most ambitious- in terms of trying to play with the Princess stereotype.

Let’s start talking about what is undoubtedly great about The Princess and the Frog, which is also talking about one of the movie’s very ambitious fronts. I’m talking, of course, about the movie’s visuals. Disney’s return to 2D animation, as far as the technical aspect is concerned, was nothing if not triumphant. The one complaint I could give about this aspect of the movie is that the design of some of the supporting characters doesn’t feel very inspired. I guess that, since the movie is set in the 1920s or thereabouts, they wanted to evoke the look of classic cartoons of that time, but the designs aren’t stylized enough to feel intentional. They look rather trapped somewhere between retro homage and typical Disney cartoons. But, hey, otherwise, this movie is freaking gorgeous. Especially because it seems like the animators took to task to show people how amazingly good-looking hand-drawn images can be. Above all the visuals, the gorgeously painted backgrounds make this one of the most beautiful movies Disney ever made. Just look at the art direction of the Louisiana bayou landscape in this number.

The movie’s other big, and unmitigated, “yes” is the music. As you might have seen in the clip above, the music goes after an early jazz style vibe (otherwise what would have been the point of setting the movie in 1920s New Orleans, right?). The man responsible for the soundtrack was Randy Newman, who had been scoring lots of Pixar’s movies throughout the 90s and 2000s. He does a commendable job with songs that do precisely what they’re supposed to, and what’s more, don’t even sound like Randy Newman songs most of the time.

Now that we’ve talked about what’s great, it’s time to talk about the aspects of Princess and the Frog that aren’t quite as successful. Obviously the big elephant in the review, and the only thing people seemed to be able to talk about in the months before the movie came out (and all throughout its production) is the fact that Tiana is the first African-American Princess in the Disney filmography. A big scandal went down when people learned about Disney’s original plot for the movie, which had Tiana being the maid of wealthy white family. Complaints were giving all over, and the people behind the movie decided to change Tiana into a hard-working waitress who wants to save enough money to open her own restaurant. I don’t think anyone can argue with the complaints about the original treatment of the character. Setting a movie in 1920s New Orleans was going to be tricky, and people had all the right to fear an insensitive portrayal of what it was like to be an Affrican American at that time.

But while Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is amongst the better fleshed out and more assertive female leads in the Disney Canon, I can’t help but feel like the movie indulges in a little bit of whitewashing. I guess the question of whether (and how) you want to introduce very young children to the concept of segregation is a very delicate one, but it does feel a little disingenuous to have Tiana work in a restaurant where black and white costumers dine happily side by side. I might be wrong, but as far as I know, that just wasn’t the case in New Orleans at the time. I must admit, though, that that is a problem that I can easily overcome. There is also the fact that we have our African American Princess, but she isn’t actually a Princess, she becomes one when she marries a Prince. I really don’t want to get into too much of a discussion of whether or not the movie does well by its black characters. Suffice to say that it seems to be as wiling to give them personalities (righteous and unrighteous) as it does the white ones.

What does end up being a problem with the movie, at leas tin my opinion, is the humor. Some of the stuff works. Particularly things that aren’t supposed to be too comedic, like the idea of firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) being in love with the moon, which is more cute than funny, but is just too sweet to resist. I also find Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), Tiana’s spoiled, rich friend to be quite funny although not all that original (it helps that she has a superbly animated arsenal of cartoony facial expressions). On the other side of the spectrum, however, The Princess and the Frog has way too many jokes involving gross things like farts, snot, mucus, or other things like that. It’s been a couple days since I saw the movie, so my memory could be faulty, but I wold venture to say absolutely none of these jokes work. They just feel too cheap. The biggest victim of this is the character of Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a blind lady who practices voodoo magic in the middle of the bayou, who reads as the creators trying way too hard to make her a sassy and fun old lady.

I feel like I may be coming too hard on the movie, so to clear the water I’ll say that besides its gorgeous look, The Princess and the Frog is a really sweet movie. I mentioned the Ray story, but I also really appreciate the characterization of Tiana (at least as initially presented in the film). She is not only the first African American Princess, which is a nice milestone, but not a very important one in terms of narrative. She is also the one with the biggest agency and strongest personality. She is a hard-worker who is determined to fight for what she wants. I really appreciated that, although it does bother me that the movie’s message of love being the most important thing in life kind of undermines her ambitions. Ultimately the movie does try to make a point of Tiana teaching Prince Naveen that hard work is important, but the movie doesn’t do a very good job of reconciling its vision of love and its vision of work.

This is all to say that this is a solid film, but that it doesn’t quite go all the way into greatness, which wouldn’t usually be a problem, except for the gigantic expectations that were put upon it. I, too, am guilty of putting too many hopes on the film. Going back to their traditional style of animation, plus finally having an African American protagonist proved to be a little too much for Disney, and while The Princess and the Frog is certainly enjoyable, it isn’t the masterpiece that we (or I) was waiting for.

Next Week: Computer generated technology meets a traditionally Disney story for the first time in Tangled. 

Disney Canon: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Atlantis

If there is a lesson that anybody who has been reading my posts about the Disney Canon should take with them to the grave, is that Walt Disney Animation Studios should not try to go after a teenage audience when making their movies. Disney and dark action adventure simply don’t go together in the public’s eyes. Whether or not Disney’s next movie, Big Hero 6 (based on a Marvel Comics property and scheduled to be released later this year) manages to be a financial success remains to be seen, but frankly, the odds are against it. People didn’t show up for The Black Cauldron, and they definitely did not show up for Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Ever since the rise of the action summer blockbuster in the late seventies and early eighties, studios have marketed their big movies almost exclusively to teenage boys. The exact reason for this eludes me, although I’m sure there must be some stupid marketing research behind such a decision. In any case, someone at Disney must have read that memo, because Atlantis is Disney’s most clear and shameless attempt at making an action-packed boys movie. What you wouldn’t have guessed from the movie’s history, is that it was actually directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who after starting their career with the magnificent Beauty and the Beast went on to helm the disappointing, but respectable The Hunchback of Notre Dameand somehow ended up landing on the utter misfire that is Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

To be fair to Trousdale and Wise, the idea of exploring the lost world of an ancient civilization, especially in animation, could have resulted in a thrilling adventure with insanely beautiful visuals. Sadly, that is not the case with Atlantis. Well, not for the most part. On the visual department, Atlantis is not entirely a failure. As a matter of fact, if there is something that I would say is unquestionably good about the movie, it’s its art direction. One of the credited production designers is comic book artist Mike Mignola (who you might know is the creator of Hellboy), and the visual style of Atlantis, while definitely inspired in his creations, is also surprisingly original and inventive both in the steampunk machines of the real-world part of the film as in the design of Atlantis itself, which takes visual cues from all sorts of ancient cultures to emerge with a unique vision of its own.

So, pretty inventive art direction, no doubt about that. The rest of its visuals, though, are not up to the sam standard. With that comment I’m mostly referring to the animation, although character design has a little bit to do with it too.  The mostly angular shapes of Mignola’s style don’t lend themselves too well to the kind of polished animation that usually goes on at Disney. Or at least, the animators of Disney at that time weren’t easy to adapt their talent. You can look, for example, at how hard it is for them to animate sexy femme fatale Helga Sinclair mostly due to her angular body. Had she been as round and curvy as a Jessica Rabbit, I think we would have hardly had the same problem. There is no question that Disney was trying to make a movie that looked like a comic-book. The first X-Men movie was released the year before, which is too short of a time span to have been an influence on Atlantis, which was most likely created in response to the growing popularity of Japanese manga and anime during the nineties. As a matter of fact, Atlantis has actually been accused of stealing some of its plot from the anime series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

*I wouldn’t know if there’s any truth to these allegations, since I haven’t seen the anime in question, but it lets me go on a somewhat interesting tangent: This is actually not the first Disney movie to supposedly have stolen from Japanese manga. The first is The Lion King which has been accused of being suspiciously similar to the series Kimba the White Lion from the similarities in the protagonists’ names to the fact that some of  The Lion King’s concept art features Simba as a white lion. There is also a rumor that Disney approached the Japanese creators to but the rights to Kimba, and when they refused to sell them, decided to produce a movie anyway, but that is only a rumor as far as I know. 

Even if Atlantis weren’t stealing from Nadia, it would be very bluntly stealing from Roland Emmerich’s StargateI only watched the Emmerich film in preparation for this post, and the similarities are staggering. If that weren’t enough, Atlantis also has the “white person awakens the potential of a group of natives” kind of storyline that feels so familiar to Hollywood movies. This may sound ridiculous, but I think James Cameron might have taken as much from this movie as he did from Dances with Wolves when he made AvatarThe hole in that theory is why a director as successful as Cameron would steal from such a bad movie as Atlantis. Why indeed. There is really little of substance to the plot of Atlantis, which is not only bland, predictable and boring, but also throws all of the world-building suggested by the production design by deciding that the rules for how this world operates range from unspecific to complete nonsense.

If your response to that criticism is to say that this is only a kids movie, well, then you might have missed the point entirely, since the very existence of Atlantis suggests otherwise. Disney was clearly wanting to get on the boat of action animation as to appeal to the boy audience it was, and I want to emphasize this word, supposedly losing to Pixar and Japanese animation, but completely missed the mark by not realizing that all those animes were becoming popular in America precisely because they were complex narratives that demanded commitment and involvement form part of their fans. Corporate Disney couldn’t go out trying to make an outright science fiction extravaganza, so they compromised at making a mediocre adventure movie. The result was, as you read, a fiasco.      

Next Week: Lilo & Stitch, a movie that mostly succeeds in Disney trying to go after the trends of the early 2000s.

Disney Canon: ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000)

Emperor's New Groove

I don’t remember the experience of watching The Emperor’s New Groove for the first time, let alone anything remarkable that happened that day, but I do have a very clear memory of the day I discovered The Emperor’s New Groove’s existence. I think it was when I saw The Tigger Movie (back then I was eight years old and went to see almost every kids’ movie in theaters). I remember seeing a set of character posters for the new Disney movie to come out later that year and seeing a weird looking Llama, then, I an Incan looking fellow. The poster said his name was “Kuzco”, and looking back at the Llama, I saw the poster said “Also Kuzco”. My initial thought was of disbelief. Was Disney making a movie about Peru?

In case you don’t know, I am Peruvian. Born and raised in Lima, I have lived there for my whole life until I moved to New York about a year and a half ago. I think I’ve mentioned that on this blog at some point. I have also mentioned the first movie I ever saw in the theater was The Lion King, which became my favorite movie. Also, in case this whole “Disney Canon Project” wasn’t a big enough clue, I grew up watching and loving Disney movies. So was it that at the tender age of eight, I learned that my worlds were about to collide when the studio responsible for most of my favorite movies was going to make a movie about my very own country. In my eyes, the movie was like a form of validation. There was so little movie and television production in Peru at the time, that you couldn’t have blamed any child from believing there was something inherent to the country that rendered it unfit to be represented on any kind of visual medium. My expectations were high, and my excitement even higher.

Like all stories about childhood anticipation, this one ends with dissatisfaction. The Emperor’s New Groove was the rare animated movie that I didn’t like. Even at the age of eight, which is an age in which you like pretty much anything that is showing on television. All these years later, I understand that my reason for not liking the movie had very little to do with the quality of the film itself, but with what I was expecting to see, and the way my stupid child brain organized the world around me. In any case, I didn’t like the movie, and I think there were two reasons for this. First, because despite being produced by Disney, the movie was not the kind of “Disney Renaissance” musical that I associated with the brand. Second, because even at that age I was kind of history buff, and I knew enough about my country’s culture to know this was simply not the great movie about Peru that I was hoping for. My eight-year-old self was disappointed. Still, I can only imaged how much more heartbreaking the whole situation would have been for me if I had known more about the movie’s production history

The Emperor’s New Groove started life as a movie called Kingdom of the Sun. It was the project Roger Allers decided to work on after he helped Disney make a fortune by directing The Lion King. Like that movie, Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to be an epic musical inspired by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper but set in the time of the ancient Incan Empire. In order to fully replicate the success of Lion King, the producers brought in pop star Sting to write the songs following the path stablished by Elton John and Phil Collins before him. You could already see the dollar signs on everybody’s eyes when the production revealed itself to be more troubled than anyone could have expected. The movie was being constantly re-written, but kept receiving overwhelmingly negative responses from test audiences.

Management brought on Mark Dindal, who had directed Cats Don’t Dance (a little known but completely fanastic animated movie) for Warner Bros., to inject some life and comedy to the project. Allers and Dindal, however, had very different sensibilities, and were making two essentially different movies at the same time. By 1998 it was clear that the movie would not be ready for the planned summer 2000 release. The executives at Disney were furious, and incredibly close to shutting production down. Allers asked for anywhere between six months to a year to finish the movie. He was denied the extension and fired off the project. Dindal took over as lone director and rushed production to what ended up being a completely different movie from what the people involved had set out to do. This was no longer a musical (only one of Sting’s songs remained in the movie in what seems like a move to claim they didn’t completely waste the musician’s time), it was no longer inspired by The Prince and the Pauper, and it was no longer called Kingdom of the Sun. 

(The story of this rather infernal and complicated production was documented by Sting’s wife Trudie Styler in a film called ‘The Sweatbox’. Because Disney is the most protective company about its image in the history of the world ever, they would never let the movie be released. However, every now and then, a copy of ‘The Sweatbox’ makes its way into YouTube. It is there right now, but you should be quick to watch it before Disney’s lawyers take it down)

That is basically how we ended up with a movie so different from the rest of the Disney Canon as The Emperor’s New Groove. It makes much more sense when you know about Dindal’s background and influences. Like Cats Don’t Dance, the influences of The Emperor’s New Groove’s lie much closer to Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons than to the Disney classics. The movie is the story of selfish emperor Kuzco (David Spade) who gets turned into a Llama by evil Yzma (Eartha Kitt), and must team up with a good-hearted peasant named Pacha (John Goodman) to come back to the palace and regain his throne becoming a nicer person in the process. The story, however, is maybe the fourth of fifth most important thing in The Emperor’s New Groove. Number one, of course, is the humor.

The movie might very well win the prize for the funniest Disney movie, which something you would be prone to do when you make a movie that is all about making the “gag” work. There are certainly a few jokes that are not that funny, but watch the scene in which Kuzco and Pacha must hide when they find themselves in the same diner as Yzma and her dumb henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton) and tell me it is not one of the funniest farces you’ve ever seen. This is an almost surreal movie where things barely make sense and the plot is more than content to stop in order to have a joke go on for a couple of minutes. And the thing about it that I didn’t realize when I was a kid is that it works. I was blinded by the fact that it wasn’t the movie I was expecting, and so, I didn’t recognize the movie’s comical genius. What’s more, having been watching Disney movies for over a year now, it comes as a refreshing breath of comic air.  

At the same time as it is hilarious, though, the movie manages to earn an emotional story where so many children’s movies with lots of crazy gags fail to do. It is, in part, the fact that the journey doesn’t feel too big or too important. We know the main focus of the movie is to make us laugh, but while it is always looking for the funniest gag, the makers of The Emperor’s New Groove were also careful to always keep them within the personalities of the characters. What separates the movie from those children’s movies that are basically garbage is respect and careful treatment of the characters. If you still don’t follow, think of what differentiates the best episodes of The Simpsons from Family Guy and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

That leaves us with just one thing to talk about, and that is the movie’s depiction of my home country and its culture. On that front, my eight-year-old self wasn’t wrong to think this was not the great movie about Peru, because it is, at best, set in a fantasy version of the country that never really existed. It is clear that when the movie took the more comedic tone, it also took a much lighter concern to making a faithful representation of the Incan Empire. If it had been released with the more dramatic and serious tone that Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to have, then it maybe would have warranted itself some indignation. As The Emperor’s New Groove, trying to point out historical inaccuracies in the movie would be an intensely stupid thing to do.

It is worth noting, though, that despite things like the fact that there was never such a thing as a Tumi palaceThe Emperor’s New Groove ranks pretty high as far as respectable and sensitive representations of Peru in mainstream American media go. Mostly, because it is mostly devoted to Peruvian designs and color palettes in its art direction. There is no doubt there were some people doing their homework, which is nice when the main thing you need to be on the sensitive side of American representations of the country is to not confuse Peru and Mexico. Talking about that, there is one clearly Mexican piñata in the movie, although I am fairly certain it is there for the sake of the joke and not because of neglect on the filmmakers’ part.

What else can I say, but repeat that The Emperor’s New Groove is a very funny and highly entertaining movie. It is quick, finely animated, stylish, and effective in its sweetness. It was something that took Disney out of its comfort zone and ended up paying off. At least in the creative side. If there were any justice to the world of animation, Emperor would have been a huge hit. I can only imagine what kind of awesome movies we would have gotten if the world had embraced this madcap extravaganza instead of falling head over heels for the pop cultural references of a certain ogre just one year later. That’s a story for another time, though.

Next Week: Once again, Disney tries to go after the elusive teenage audience with Atlantis: The Lost Empire.