Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Disney Films: Bambi- Mankind is scum and your children now need therapy. You're welcome.

Oy. I intentionally put off this post for as long as I could. I'm a big Disney fan. I love the majority of the movies. There are some I'm rather ambiguous on. But there are only a handful that I out-and-out despise. This is one of them:

I'm expecting the enormous backlash to start any moment now. But I don't care. I absolutely hate this movie. For several reasons.

First, it's boring. I mean horrendously boring. This is basically nothing more than an animated nature documentary. If I wanted to watch a nature documentary, I would, oh, I dunno...watch an actual nature documentary! Nature all by itself is pretty interesting. There's no need to make it animated and cutesy. But even as far as nature documentaries go, this one is dull. Baby deer is born, baby deer loses mother, baby deer makes animal friends, baby deer grows up, battles alpha male for attentions of female, and evades danger. The. End. Meerkat Manor had more drama and action than this!

Second, there's the whole "traumatizing an entire generation of young psyches" thing. Now, a lot of children flipped out when Bambi's mom got shot (and I'm not posting a spoilers warning because EVERYONE already knows this). Heck, I'll admit that even as a kid, it troubled me a little bit (mostly because the sound of the gunshot woke me up from my nap, but I'm sure I felt a little twinge of sympathy...somewhere). It's a sad, poignant moment in the life of our hero, but it was still a pretty big deal, especially back in a culture that didn't show dramatic violence to children. Kids were used to slap-stick violence, Tom and Jerry or Three Stooges style. People got hurt. But people never died. For that to happen in a kids' movie back then was a huge deal. Almost as big a deal as it was in Snow White when the heroine was poisoned. But unlike that first film, there would be no happy last-second rescue from death for Bambi's mom.

The entire thing has become so ingrained in popular culture that it's now lambasted and lampooned. Like this clip from Animaniacs:

Cracks me up every time. A lot of people get mad at this. They think that parodies like this cheapen the severity of the scene in the original film. And they're right. But do you know what else cheapens the severity of the scene in the original film? The very next scene in the original film! Just like in Dumbo, where the extremely poignant and tender "Baby Mine" was immediately followed by the alcohol-induced cheeriness (or creepiness, depending on your point of view) of "Pink Elephants", the extremely tender poignant death scene in Bambi is immediately followed by happy singing birds who are obviously on Prozac.

Seriously. What kind of emotional whiplash is this? We just witnessed the (in essence) murder of the protagonist's mother, so "Let's Sing A Gay Little Spring Song". (I'm not kidding. That's the actual title of the song.) You would never get away with this in, say, Batman, after the Wayne's are murdered in front of young Bruce. Way to go, Disney. You just cheapened everything touching and intimate about the previous moment. I understand that you don't want kids to linger in the trauma (too late) but you could at least ease back into it a little bit. Show Bambi going through the healing process or something. After this sequence happens, Bambi's mother is never mentioned again. Her death doesn't serve as any sort of motivation, doesn't progress the plot, and only marginally serves as any sort of character development for our hero. So.... why even have that moment at all? I'll tell you why...

Third. Man is evil. And I don't mean this in the Biblical "we're all sinful and in need of a Savior" sort of way. I mean in the environmental "mankind are monsters for killing animals" sort of way. I'm not a huge advocate of sport hunting. I believe if you're gonna kill something, you should eat it. Now, the hunters in this movie are never really even shown in any large capacity. We don't know if Bambi's mom was turned into stew or just had her head mounted on a wall (or both). But regardless, we judge these guys without knowing their motivations. God gave us this planet. He expects us to be good stewards of it. But He also gave us the beasts of the earth for food. I don't know if the hunters in this film were hunting for food. They may have been hunting for sport. The point is, we don't know, but the film paints them in a negative light regardless. If they're not shooting animals, they're burning them with forest fires (that are obviously caused by accident, since they were spread by a strong wind). This movie could have worked as one big PETA/Smokey the Bear PSA. The ultimate message of this film is basically that human beings are dirt bags who murder innocent animals and nothing more. I have many reasons for hating this film. But this is probably one of my biggest. Even Wall-E didn't have this much in-your-face environmentalism. Wall-E made humans look careless and lazy. Bambi made us look downright diabolical.

It's interesting to note that Bambi came out in 1942. Why do I find this interesting? Because it would be another 8 years before Disney had another hit film. Maybe it was because an entire generation of children were so terrified, or an entire generation of parents who had just come through the Depression eating whatever they could catch were so incensed that they just didn't trust Disney with magical storytelling anymore. It wasn't until 1950 that Disney produced Cinderella and returned to their "dreams come true" formula and started endearing themselves to audiences again. In the interim, amidst WWII and a massive animator strike, the studio would produce a lot of weak, relatively plotless films. It was precious time that the studio would never recover. And that's a real shame. Had circumstances been different, who knows what magic the studio might have produced? As it is, his next two projects are nothing more than some animation mixed with vacation footage from Walt's trip to Brazil. But that's another post entirely.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Disney Films: Dumbo- Ummm, what?

*Fair warning. If you like this movie, then I'm about to trample all over your childhood nostalgia like a mad elephant.*

Dumbo. Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo. What can I possibly say about this movie? I think the title pretty much says it all:

This movie is dumb. And I mean that in more ways than one. In the traditional sense, Dumbo is dumb because the title character never says so much as a word. He's silent. He's mute, voiceless, dumb.

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm a huge fan of silent movies. I love Buster Keaton. I think if done right, it could be pulled off very well. Heck, Disney even made a semi-silent movie less than a decade ago via Pixar and it's one of the most artistically dramatic things I've ever seen.

But we'll talk about him later when he gets his own post.

But in this case, Dumbo's lack of speech is a hindrance. His face doesn't translate expression well and we're left struggling to figure out what he's feeling. Yeah, he's cute and all and that makes us sympathetic, but his lack of development doesn't leave us very empathetic, which I think is a more important attribute for a movie that's trying to touch hearts. If we can't identify with the character's emotions, we can't connect with them.

But my bigger problem is the fact that Dumbo is dumb in the more vulgar sense of the word. This movie makes no sense whatsoever. The plot line, the side characters, the conflict... it's completely illogical and just doesn't seem to fit together very well. At just a hair over an hour long, you'd think Disney's second shortest movie would be pretty simple. A cohesive plot that tells a memorable story. But it was not to be.

The movie starts out with storks delivering baby animals to mommy animals at the circus. Ok. Cute, I guess. One particular lady elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, is anxiously awaiting her own special delivery. (Odd that we're never shown a Mr. Jumbo, but that's just Disney sticking to their "Nuclear families don't create enough conflict" formula, I suppose.) Once the stork delivers the baby to her, the other elephant ladies are shocked to discover Jumbo Jr. has unusually large ears. One might even say freakishly large ears. (Which renders their shock somewhat odd. I thought freaks of nature were practically celebrities at the circus.) Mrs. Jumbo is understandably very protective of Jr., who has been rechristened Dumbo by the other ladies. And this is the last time this movie will ever make sense. The rest of the film basically makes me have this reaction:

When a boy at the circus begins taunting Dumbo for his ears and physically abusing him, Mrs. Jumbo picks the lad up and gives him a well-earned spanking with her trunk. A riot ensues, and Mrs. Jumbo is locked away in quarantine as a "mad elephant". Dumbo struggles with the loss of his mother, befriends a rodent named Timothy Q. Mouse (I guess Jiminy Cricket was busy elsewhere. It wouldn't have mattered. These two are virtually the same character.) and tries to prove himself in the circus during the elephant pyramid stunt. His ears get in the way, the stunt goes horribly wrong, and Dumbo is forced to become a clown. This is where they started to lose me. Elephant clowns...is that a thing now? Wouldn't the circus try to cut their losses and sell him to a petting zoo or something more practical like that? Meh. Anyway. Dumbo achieves some moderate success as a clown, but he's unhappy because every show ends with him falling into a giant cream pie, which I guess is humiliating if you're an elephant. The clowns seem to have no problem with their jobs, though, so it's not as though the circus clowns are the scum of the earth or anything. 

In what may be the most touching scene in Disney history (for a lot of people anyway) Timothy takes Dumbo to visit his mother in quarantine, and a chorus sings a lullaby while Mrs. Jumbo rocks her baby on her trunk (the only part of her that's visible). It's pretty heart-wrenching, and I've no problems with the scene. It's what comes immediately after it. Dumbo cries over his mother and develops a case of hiccups. He drinks some water from a bucket to cure them, unaware that the bucket had a bottle of champagne knocked into it. This, for some unknown reason, allows Dumbo the ability to blow bubbles with his trunk, including, at one point, a cube-shaped bubble, which I think is a pretty marketable skill for a circus elephant, and why Timothy didn't think of going to the ringmaster with that little trick is beyond me. Both characters proceed to get completely wasted, and what follows is one of the most out-of-left-field, completely pointless, "what the actual heck?" moments in cinema history.

The infamous pink elephants sequence is loud, nonsensical, and wild. Since I've never done drugs, I can only imagine that this is something like an acid trip gone horribly, horribly wrong. Pink elephants ride trains, turn plaid, and merge and multiply. They dance around in psychedelic colors, stretch, grow, shrink, and run wild around your screen in a blur of unadulterated chaos. I hate this scene for two reasons. One: it cheapens everything lovely and memorable about the "Baby Mine" sequence by immediately following the extremely touching scene with drunken hallucinations. In a children's movie, no less! And two: it has absolutely nothing to do with anything. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't develop character, it doesn't provide any exposition. It's just there, then gone, and no one ever mentions it again for the rest of the movie.

What does this have to do with ANYTHING?!
During Dumbo's alcohol-fueled nightmare, our spunky hero apparently develops the ability to fly, as he wakes up the next morning in a very tall tree. (What he doesn't wake up with is a hangover, but suppose elephants don't get those.)There Dumbo meets some well-drawn 1940s racial stereotypes (who will probably get their own post at some point) in the form of a group of crows. (Technically, a group of crows is called a "murder" but to call them that outright would probably just confuse most people.) They give Dumbo a "magic feather" to give him the confidence he needs to flap his...erm...ears, and fly. This scene really only exists for the sole purpose of providing what I think is the best song in the movie. But that's my personal opinion and I'm biased because it's a song almost entirely made up of puns.

You know the rest. Blah, blah, Dumbo returns to circus, yadda, yadda, gains the confidence to fly without the feather, becomes famous, etc., etc. Somehow, I'm not entirely certain how, this results in Mrs. Jumbo getting out of... elephant jail... Wait... what? I don't... How does.... HUH?!

Even Jackie Chan doesn't understand this.
How does Dumbo becoming a famous circus performer convince people his mother isn't a mad elephant? It has nothing to do with anything! So he can fly, that doesn't make the riot his mother caused not happen. I'm not saying she should have been locked up. She was just protecting her child and the kid got what he deserved. But just because you're famous doesn't mean you don't serve jail time. Then again, this is the same studio responsible for Lindsay Lohan, so... yeah.

Look, I get it. Lots of people like Dumbo. They like the touching scenes, they like cheering for the little guy to come out on top, and they like...circuses, I guess. But if all of that isn't going to be part of a cohesive story, it's kind of pointless. I'm ok with suspension of disbelief, especially in a kids' film. I suspended my disbelief enough to accept the fact that Dumbo's large ears enable him to fly. But to suggest that fame and fortune can get your mother out of prison is pushing logic a bit too far. Those two notions aren't even remotely related. It's like saying if I climb a tree, I might get some toast for breakfast tomorrow. There's no logic connecting those two ideas. I'm not trying to be heartless and cynical. I'm just expecting a reasonable conclusion.

Besides, if this was a really true-to-life story, the circus would never have quarantined Mrs. Jumbo. They'd have put her down right off the bat because they can't make money off of her. In fact, they'd be losing money because they'd still have to feed her. Fortunately, Disney spared the delicate young psyches of children and didn't show the protagonist's mother getting shot dead. Nope. They saved that for their next movie.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Do you need a Moms' Night Out?

Yes. Yes, you do. It doesn't matter if you have kids or not. It doesn't even matter if you're female or not! Because this movie is straight up funny and can (and should!) be enjoyed by pretty much everyone.

Mom of 3 Allyson is starting to feel the strain of family life. She's a bit of a perfectionist, and anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes with a child knows that children and perfection go together about as well as fire and gasoline. But Allyson's determined to do the best she can to have the perfect homeschooled, organic-eating, well-behaved children. She's read all the books! She knows all the techniques! Unfortunately, her kids haven't read any of those books and know nothing of those professional techniques. They only know it's Mother's Day and they want to make Mommy breakfast in bed. The result? Eggs, flour, and orange juice smeared everywhere. Well, what do you expect from 3 preschoolers left to their own devices in the kitchen? Her airline pilot hubby Sean is out of town but should be home to help take care of things soon. So, with her head held high, Allyson is determined to make it through church with her dignity and her sanity somewhat intact.

At church, she meets up with BFF Izzy (whose husband is terrified of children in general and his twin boys in particular) and her solid rock mentor Sondra (the pastor's wife who's struggling to understand both autocorrect and her teenage daughter). After a major meltdown in the ladies room at church, Allyson decides what these three ladies need more than anything is a night away. Away from husbands. Away from household mess. And FAR away from whiny, needy, sloppy, crying, screaming children. A night of glamorous dresses, gourmet delights, and grown-up conversation. So, with the husbands baby-sitting (joined by Kevin, Sean's lifelong best friend and video game buddy who just so happens to hate children) the ladies doll up and head out for the evening. What could possibly go wrong?

"Ladies, tonight is our night and we look good."
Well, you know if nothing went wrong, it wouldn't be much of a movie, would it? So, suffice it to say, EVERYTHING goes wrong. And I mean that in a good way. This is one of the most hilarious movies I've seen in a long time. And not just because this is a "chick flick". It might be a movie about moms, but there's a lot of stuff for guys in here, too. Tattooed bikers. A Shawshank Redemption reference. A high speed car chase. And someone getting Tased. I saw the movie with my hubby, and I seriously think he laughed even harder than I did. The pacing of the comedy was perfect. The "blog post" type narration includes just enough humorous clips and quotes to make it funny without being distracting, and really gives you a look into Allyson's mind.

The movie is also very relatable. I only have one kid, and he's not even a year old yet, but I definitely found myself nodding in agreement with Ally's sentiments. There's a saying floating around the internet that behind every great kid is a mom who's pretty sure she's screwing everything up. It's how Allyson feels, and it's definitely how I've felt on occasion. I don't always feel like I'm the best mom. There are stale Cheerios under my couch. I never remember to take a bib to nursery, so I leave church on Sundays with a slobber-covered baby. I accidentally left a dirty diaper in the diaper bag once. For a week. My house isn't spotless. Heck, it's not even really organized. My hubby is very supportive, but he's also still a guy. He still likes to play video games with his brothers and watch movies with lots of explosions. And the last "night out" I had where I actually dressed up and went out to dinner was my anniversary...last year. The last time I went out with just some girlfriends? Erm. Hmm. A church function...about 5 years ago, maybe? So, yeah. I totally get where Allyson is coming from.

This is my minion. Don't let the cherubic smile fool you. He can be a holy terror when he puts his mind to it.

Under all the comedy, car chases, and chaos, though, is an encouraging message to moms from a very unlikely source. Big bad biker Bones gives Allyson some sage advice: to do the best you can with what God has given you and let go of the illusion of perfection. Sometimes as moms, we get so overwhelmed with the work, the demands, the competition with other moms (don't lie. You know you compare yourself to every other mom on the planet), that we lose sight of what's truly important. Your kids might remember that your house was always clean, and that your makeup was always flawless, and that you made every craft ever posted on Pinterest. But they will definitely remember how much you loved them, mentored them, prayed for them, and invested time in them. And so, I give a word to all you moms out there, or would-be moms, or single ladies, or even guys... heck, anyone who feels like their life is less than perfect. As Sondra says: "Life is about finding the meaning and the joy and the purpose in all the chaos."

Embrace the chaos. Embrace your kids. Embrace the love and grace that God has given you. And take a night out once in a while. Couldn't hurt, right?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Disney Films: The Reluctant Dragon- The Feature Film That Really Wasn't

I said in my last Disney review that Walt was an innovator and pioneer years ahead of his time. It was a pretty unique gift. Well, once again, Disney's gift was his curse. Only this time, there would be no lasting artistic legacy like there was with Fantasia. The fourth film that Disney released was almost entirely forgettable:

This film (and I use the term loosely) wasn't so much a cohesive story as it was a collection of shorts bound together by a simple, but completely unrelated plot. (Actually, this particular formula would rise from the dead in the form of direct-to-video animated sequels in the 1990s and early 2000s.) The shorts are kitschy, and only mildly entertaining. The live-action loose plot woven throughout involves real-life newspaper columnist Robert Benchly attempting to sell the story "The Reluctant Dragon" to the Disney studio (mostly because his wife pestered him to do so). The rest of the plot is basically a tour of the Disney studio, with stops in the sound, ink and paint, camera, storyboard, and animation departments, among others. It's kind of interesting, if you like that sort of thing (and I do).

The four shorts included are a black and white version of "Casey Junior" from the forth-coming film Dumbo, a story-boarded version of a short called "Baby Weems", a Goofy cartoon titled "How to Ride a Horse", and a 20 minute short on the titular dragon.

There are a few points of interest in the film for animation buffs and Disney-philes.

The "How to Ride a Horse" short would set the benchmark for a long legacy of Goofy "How to..." cartoons, which have been fan favorites for years, and still continue to be produced to this day (mostly for the Disney Channel, or as DVD extras).

 How to Ride a Horse...if you're completely inept.
Various other Disney films and characters make appearances: A brief animation segment is seen of Bambi. Artists in the life drawing room are learning to animate elephants for Dumbo. Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, gives a brief tutorial on how he voices the famous character. And maquettes (tiny statues for the animators to use as a reference) are being sculpted for various characters from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

I must preface my next point by saying that it's important to remember that this was a different time and, while racism is wrong no matter what the era, it was very commonplace and accepted at that time. With that being said, there are two blink-and-you'll-miss-them cultural insensitivies in the film. The first is a passing reference to a drawing of an elephant with distinct Asian features. Benchly refers to it as a "Coolie elephant". The word was a derogatory term for Asians in general and Chinese in particular. The second is a maquette of the now-infamous black centaurette from Fantasia (which Benchly absentmindedly pockets). The character, an African-American caricature from the "Pastoral Symphony" segment, was originally included in the release of Fantasia as a servant to the more Caucasian centaurettes, and was shown in the film (with her horse body striped like a zebra) pouring wine for Bacchus.

 This character and a handful of others were edited from Fantasia in later editions.
Other than that and a visual of a few animators and one cartoon character smoking (which was also common and accepted at that time), there's really no objectionable content here. Unless you count Benchly being henpecked by his nagging wife as objectionable.

The actual titular short, that of the reluctant dragon, is rather...odd. I found it mildly uncomfortable to watch. The plot is pretty self-explanatory. There's a kingdom, there's a brave knight, and there's a dragon. Said dragon is reluctant to, well, do anything, really. He doesn't breathe fire or kidnap damsels. He drinks tepid tea and writes tepid poetry. And the knight? He's pretty impotent, too. A doddering old man in the golden years of his life who also enjoys tea and poetry. They're brought together by a young lad who reads stories of brave knights fighting fire breathing dragons. And when the expected fight doesn't happen, the boy is mildly annoyed but ultimately accepts it.

In all honesty, this cartoon was a huge step backward in Disney's pursuit of animation as legitimate story telling. It's the kind of childish drivel that has been peddled to youngsters for decades, even through today, and quite frankly, it's insulting to kids. A lot of producers of children's animation assume that kids are stupid and will watch anything. But kids are smarter than animation studios often give them credit for, and they want good entertainment just as much as adults do. This short is nothing more than a patronizing "kids will watch anything" story with a plot weaker than the tea the main character constantly slurps down.

This dragon is a menace. Or at least his poetry is.
When I said that Disney's innovation was ahead of it's time, though, I meant it. Because had this "film" waited another decade for the technology to catch up, it would have made a great Wonderful World of Disney special on television. As it is, the "film" hardly merits the name, and would have been much better suited to the medium of television. Although the studio tour itself is mildly interesting, the stories are weak, the characters are one-dimensional, and the entire film is completely forgettable. Which is probably why hardly anyone remembers it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NerdFlix- Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Secret, secret, I've got a secret! In the new Marvel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, secrets are the name of the game. Everyone's got them. Everyone except Cap, it seems. Even S.H.I.E.L.D., the "good guy" organization responsible for the Avengers, has some skeletons in its closet. Especially director Nick Fury. As Tony Stark said in The Avengers, "He's a spy. Captain, he's the spy. His secrets have secrets." What's a standup, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda guy like Cap to do? He already feels like a relic lost in an ever-advancing world. Fellow operatives like Black Widow are making the situation very clear: get with the program or get left behind.

In a world of intrigue, lies, and suspicions, is there still a chance for truth, justice, and the American way? (Yes, I know that's Superman's bit. But my point still stands.) Captain Steve Rogers sure thinks so. He feels nostalgic for the by-gone days when America meant freedom and truth, and when a man's word was his bond. He even visits an exhibit of Captain America history at the Smithsonian. In his nostalgia for American history, he's also feeling nostalgic for his personal history. He catches up with former romantic interest Peggy Carter, now in her 90s in a nursing home. He still mourns the loss of his best friend Bucky Barnes. He misses just being able to be himself with someone.

Enter Sam Wilson. Rogers met Sam while they were both jogging. Sam is a military veteran who counsels PTSD sufferers at the local VA. He and Rogers may not have had the same story, but they both speak the same language of honor, courage, and hope. He's one of the few people who looks at Steve Rogers and sees him as so much more than a super soldier in a red, white, and blue suit. He's a man suffering through some serious issues of his own. It isn't that much different than the PTSD he sees in modern vets every day. Maybe Cap just needs a fellow soldier to walk him through it. A brother in arms, if you will.

Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers: Jogging buddies, veterans, heroes
Of course, a brother in arms won't stop the secrets from swarming around threatening to destroy everything these men love about their country. Between the ulterior motives on the missions Cap is given, an old enemy organization rearing its ugly head, and a new assassin with a high level target in his sights, there's plenty to worry about. As Fury tells our spangled hero, "Trust no one." But that's a difficult task for Captain America. More difficult perhaps than taking down Loki in The Avengers. Because Steve Rogers, long before he was a serum-infused hero, was a trusting man. It's because of that trust that he was chosen for the super soldier experiment. It's that trust that made him what he is today. To tell Captain America to trust no one is to remove a cornerstone of his identity. And it really shows. Cap wrestles with the command, but knows the safety of others lies in his obedience to it. In the end, though, he manages to save lives and keep his integrity, proving that you don't have to compromise your convictions to win the day.

Since I don't want to spoil the ending, there's a lot here that I can't say. The entire plot is basically built up of intricate twists and turns that tie up together at the end, and to give away too many details of any part of the film would be to spoil the whole thing. Of course, if you know anything about the comic books, you already understand the significance of Captain America fighting the Winter Soldier. The filmmakers definitely leave a lot of room for a resolution in the third Captain America installment, and I'll look forward to seeing it.

The Winter Soldier: One bad dude.

In regards to all the secrecy, though, I will say this: it's pretty creepy. Not in a horror movie kind of way. In a "we technically see this on the news every day" kind of way. With news stories pouring forth continuously about the NSA, the data mining controversy surrounding Common Core, drones patrolling our skies, and all-seeing satellites, it brings up a question that the movie hinges on: how much freedom will we give up in the name of security? In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. is attempting to use satellite-linked heli-carriers to track bad guys and potential threats and take them out pre-emptively. To some, it sounds like a good idea. Think of all the acts of terrorism that could be prevented! But as Rogers points out, "I thought the punishment usually came after the crime." Fury's attempts to squelch terrorist threats subvert the justice system. I was reminded of many acts of our government over the last several decades that shake the foundations of the Constitution in the name of national security. And of course, Fury never takes into account what would happen if that sort of technology were to fall into the wrong hands. No man, nor government, no matter how responsible or how good their intentions, should ever have that much power. And Cap knows it.

It's never been easy being Captain America. Taking down the Third Reich is no simple task. But during WWII, Steve Rogers at least knew who his enemy was. Lines were drawn in the sand. Everything was much more black and white. Now? The lines have blurred. The world is viewed in a shade of gray. And as a great man once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." It's refreshing to see that while the rest of the world may be gray, Captain America is still very much red, white, and blue. He stands for what's right, even if the people he works for refuse to. In an age of comic book heroes that are increasingly abandoning their convictions and playing dirty to catch the bad guys, Captain America is a breath of fresh air. He's a man of honor, conviction, and integrity, and the world could use more like him.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Disney Films: Fantasia- Revolutionizing Animation...Again.

Third in line in the Disney canon is another film that I like not only for what it was (which is pretty amazing, by the way) but for what it did:

If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs elevated animation to the level of legitimate story telling, then Fantasia elevated it to the level of pure, unadulterated art. A two-hour epic journey into the world of classical music paired with breathtaking animation, Fantasia was more than just a movie. It was an experience.

Walt Disney was a man of many talents. He was, first and foremost, a story teller. He loved reading and telling stories to an audience. But he was also a pioneer and innovator. Nothing fascinated Disney more than the concept of the new. With each successive film, he worked to push the envelope of what animation could do. And so it was with this project. It was never Disney's intention for Fantasia to be just a film. He wanted a continuous, evolving experience. Instead of simply releasing the film like he had with Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney envisioned a touring roadshow. He planned on having new material added every few years. He also wanted audiences to feel like they were really at a symphony, with the orchestra playing all around them. So, he developed a new system he called Fantasound. In essence, Disney pioneered the technology that would become surround sound, some thirty years ahead of its time.

Unfortunately, Disney's gift was also his curse. RKO, his distributor, was uncomfortable with the roadshow format, and only issued a limited release. The film was a huge success and was wildly popular, but the production costs of setting up the equipment and leasing the theaters decimated any profits the movie made. Disney also had some unfortunate timing. The advent of WWII caused demand for certain materials to skyrocket, and a lot of the Fantasound equipment was scrapped to help the war effort. In an attempt to regain some of his losses, Disney allowed RKO to issue the film in a general release to audiences, but to save costs and encourage higher ticket sales, the film was released in mono sound and was heavily edited for time. Subsequently, Disney's dream of an evolving experience was shattered, and he was forced to abandon the idea.

What remains of the project (and what most video and DVD copies contain) is still considered by many critics to be an artistic masterpiece. Disney had hired Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to conduct and gave him free reign over the musical aspect of the project. Stokowski was so thrilled with the concept, he offered to work on it for free. The music is brilliantly conducted and the passion that Stokowski has is obvious, even though all you ever see of him is a silhouette.

Disney had his animators choreograph the various musical pieces in differing styles:

Bach's Toccata and Fugue is backed with abstract shapes and designs that moved with the rhythm of the music.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite depicts various elements of nature (and some fairies) in sprightly dances.
Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice has the only recognizable Disney character, Mickey, playing out the story as originally written by Goethe. (Fun trivia tidbit: the Sorcerer's name in the film is Yensid. It's Disney spelled backward!)

Stravinski's Rite of Spring shows early life on Earth, including the reign and subsequent extinction of the dinosaurs.

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony portrays various characters in Greek mythology gathering for a celebration of Bacchus, god of wine.

Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours is a 4 act ballet, with the dancers played by various animals.

The final piece is a combination of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria. The music is accompanied by the Slavic demon Chernabog forcing the spirits of the dead to dance for his pleasure. (Trivia tidbit: Chernabog's facial expressions were based heavily on Béla Lugosi, best known for his portrayal of Dracula.) The festivities come to an end when the demons and spirits hear the sound of church bells and a choir singing Ave Maria, while monks walk through the woods to a cathedral.

A brief interstitial is shown after the Rite of Spring sequence that introduces audiences to the orchestra, and shows how sound is rendered on film with the help of an animated line displaying the vibrations of various instruments.

Disney's exceptional vision for the enormous potential of animation as legitimate art has left history with one of the greatest gems of the 20th century. While a few sequences might frighten younger children (the Night on Bald Mountain sequence and the Rite of Spring sequence), most older children, teens, and adults will thoroughly enjoy Fantasia, particularly if they have a love of art or classical music. Fantasia is much more than a film. It is what Disney envisioned from the beginning: an experience!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Disney Films: Pinocchio- A Tale of Christ? (A Counterpoint Review)

So, my husband, the budding theologian, has decided to put  his own spin on the Pinocchio story. After we discussed my review the other day, he had a few thoughts of his own, and his may be a bit more insightful than mine. I tend to look at things with a critical eye for the artistic value. But hubby has a mind set on the eternal. This is, perhaps, why we get along so well. We complement each other's view points. I see things from an earthly practical perspective. He sees them from a heavenly spiritual one. Take a look:
This is a good review. However, let’s look at the flip side of the coin here. Pinocchio, in my mind, has always been a story about a promise. That promise being of course that he would eventually be a real boy. This promise has stipulations; he has to be brave, truthful, and unselfish. The promise was given by a fairy who can be a picture of Jesus Christ who also gives us a stipulation. The rule is simple (Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.- Acts 16:31) (For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.- John 3:16). Now getting to this point can be difficult, not because the solution itself is difficult, but because like Pinocchio we tend to disobey and at times choose to completely forget what was promised to us because we think we see a better option.

The second time the fairy shows up, she frees the boy. Pinocchio was not seeking her per se; he was just crying out for help. And isn't that what Christ does for the fallen? We did not go to Him, He came to us. Like the fairy did with Pinocchio, He comes to most of us when we are at our lowest point.  

OK, now the lad is free from the cage/prison that Stromboli put him in and like Pinocchio we who chose to believe are free from the cage/prison that sin puts us in. The question now is, do we no longer sin? No, we do sin, stumble, and fall. This can be pictured in the story when Pinocchio goes to Pleasure Island. The fairy has just freed the boy and he again chose to go his own way. But eventually the lad goes back to the "straight and narrow" after he sees what the place is doing to him, in this case turning into a donkey. He then runs for all he is worth to get out. The Bible records a similar conclusion to this called the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11-32.

The final point I would like to make is the way the story ends. When the fairy comes after Pinocchio dies, she grants him the promise that she had made in the beginning of the movie. He becomes a real boy! New body, new look, new everything. This is portrayed in the Bible as well. When we die, the promise of everlasting life takes place. We also get a new body just like Pinocchio. (Philippians 3:20-21)

See what I mean? The guy can turn anything into a parable. That's why I love him. Thank you, babe, for a different perspective. Maybe I won't dislike the film quite so much if I approach it with this mindset in future.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Disney Films: Pinocchio- Messages, Morals, and Mediocre Writing

Ah, the second Disney animated film. After the masterpiece that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, audiences began to wonder, could Disney do it again? Or was Snow White a one-off anomaly that would never be repeated? Disney had originally intended for Bambi to be his second film, but production difficulties led to it being released later. And so, the second film to try and capture that Disney magic premiered:

Pinocchio is, at its core, a morality tale. It emphasizes the importance of hard work, obedience, and a good education. It has heart! It has morals! It has everything a Christian parent (or any parent, really) would want to teach their kids. So... why don't I like it?

I don't entirely blame Disney for this. I blame his source material. The original novel by Carlo Collodi portrays Pinocchio as a selfish, spoiled, bratty, crude puppet. In the original novel, he only learns his lesson after being subjected to brutal forms of torture. Not your ideal "family" story. The book is also rife with what I consider to be lazy story writing. While Disney was able to tone down both the character's behavior and the story's brutality, the lazy story writing remained. But more on that in a moment.

For those that don't know the story (all one of you), Pinocchio is a wooden marionette created by lonely toy maker Gepetto, who has no children. When Gepetto wishes on an evening star for Pinocchio to become a real boy, the Blue Fairy, who overheard his wish, brings Pinocchio to life. Well, sort of. He's still made of wood. The fairy tells Pinocchio that he can only become a real boy when he learns to be honest and brave, and to do what is right and shun what is wrong. She assigns a cricket named Jiminy to serve as the lad's conscience, since he has none of his own (what with being made of wood and all).

Gepetto is thrilled to discover that his wish has come true, and the very next day, sends Pinocchio to school with the other boys. But our titular character ditches school, and ends up in one scrape after another. And of course, for every bit of trouble he gets into, he tells a lie to get out of it again, only to discover that lies cause his nose to grow.

Admit it. You wish this happened to politicians.

First he is tricked into the clutches of a ruthless puppeteer who wants to use this "stringless" puppet for his own financial gain. He escapes, not by any act of his own, but mostly because the Blue Fairy shows up to magically set things right. Then he is conned by an evil coachman to visit Pleasure Island, a place somewhat reminiscent of a kid's idea of Las Vegas, where boys can drink beer, smoke cigars, and shoot pool all night, with no adults to boss them around.

However, Pleasure Island is a cursed place where naughty boys are turned into jackasses. (Kinda reminiscent of Proverbs 23:7, come to think of it. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.") The donkeys are then sold by the coachman to work on farms and in salt mines as pack animals. Pinocchio manages to grow donkey ears and a tail before escaping.

Pinocchio returns home, only to discover that Gepetto has gone looking for him. What he doesn't know is that Gepetto has been swallowed by the giant whale, Mostro. Will the two ever find each other again? Will Pinocchio ever be a real boy? At the risk of spoiling the ending (again, for the one person in the universe who hasn't seen this movie), I will say that lazy story writing emerges once again at the end to set things right.

Very well drawn lazy story writing. But lazy story writing nonetheless.

There is a lot to like here, especially if you're already a big Disney fan with a love of nostalgia. There's Jiminy Cricket, the eternally optimistic "conscience". The climax is easily one of the most perilous and frantic in the Disney canon. And who could forget "When You Wish Upon A Star"? It's practically the theme song for all things Disney.

But there's one thing I simply can't get over. That fairy. They might as well call her Deus Ex Machina Fairy, because that's essentially what she is. She's the one who sets the plot in motion by bringing Pinocchio to life. She's the one who shows up to get him out of trouble. And she's the one who magically makes things ok in the end. I'm convinced if Jiminy Cricket hadn't tagged along to constantly remind the audience of the virtues of being honest and doing right, the only lesson learned would have been that whenever you're in trouble, a magical blue fairy will come save you sooner or later.

As I've said, this isn't entirely Disney's fault. He didn't have much to work with in terms of source material. If you're looking for a basic morality tale that will frighten younger kids into submission, then this might do the trick. But if you're looking for a well-written story on why listening to your parents is what's best, you're better off with the VeggieTales version called Pistachio- The Little Boy That Woodn't. The fairy takes a back seat to a story more centered on the father-son dynamic, and Pistachio (the Pinocchio counterpart in this version) must learn to trust his father's judgment before either of them can be rescued from the belly of the whale. In the Disney version, meanwhile, Pinocchio's own cleverness and courage are what save the day, and he doesn't rely on his father for anything the entire duration of the film. It's hardly a good lesson for children: "Disobey your parents, get in trouble, and then trust your own thinking to save you."

Sure, my poor decision making brought us here. But trust me, Dad. I totally got this!

On the whole, it's one of my least favorite Disney films. Not to say there aren't worse ones. We'll get to those in due time. But if Disney was looking to capture the same magic and wonder of Snow White, then they missed the mark. Fortunately, their next film completely made up for it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Disney Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs- The One Start Started It All

I figured there was no better way to start the movie reviews than with Disney, since everyone can agree that they're pretty family friendly. I'll go through each of the Disney animated/semi-animated films in chronological order. Let's start with the one that started it all:

I like this movie, not for what it actually was, but for what it did. In the 1930s, animated cartoons were what you watched before the feature film started. When Walt Disney got the idea to have the animated cartoon be the feature film, most of the Hollywood execs wrote him off as delusional. Audience members would fidget through a 3 minute cartoon. There was no way they would voluntarily sit through an 83 minute one. Disney himself had such a hard time getting the film produced that he actually mortgaged his house to keep production running, all the while his own family trying to talk him out of it.

In the end, Disney got his way, the film was finished, and it premiered just before Christmas on Dec. 21, 1937. The film was a resounding success, received a standing ovation at its premier, and shut the mouths of Hollywood naysayers forever. People would voluntarily sit through an 83 minute long cartoon. And not just sit through it. They'd actually like it. So much so that Disney got an honorary Academy Award for "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field".

Disney receiving his honorary Oscar (along with 7 miniature ones) from Shirley Temple.

The film itself is, by today's standards, a bit bland. But for its time, the concept of seeing animation tell a believably touching story was entirely novel. The protagonist really is genuine, the secondary characters really are sympathetic, and the villain really is evil and even kind of scary. Up until that point, animation was lighthearted and fun. Characters were stretched in goofy ways, villains were caricatures not to be taken seriously, and situations, while often perilous, were never truly sad. Characters, as a rule, didn't die. Especially the main heroine. For Snow White to do what it did was nothing short of revolutionary.

While a few parts might be a bit intense for the youngest of viewers (the spooky forest scene and witch's transformation come to mind), anyone older than 5 should be able to handle it without much of a problem. Just make sure to have some tissues handy for yourself. I don't know many adults who don't get misty-eyed when they see Grumpy start sobbing.

Tell me this doesn't get you every time.
Other than that, it's a lighthearted family film that merits a re-watch every now and again. And if the prince coming to raise the dead and carry his bride off to a castle in the clouds doesn't scream "Christian overtones", then I don't know what does.