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.