(On DVD, September 2018) Released in-between One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, it’s easy to see why The Sword in the Stone doesn’t have the best reputation—not only does it pale in comparison to its better-known siblings, taking out the Arthurian legend for a juvenile comic spin is a marked step down from what could have been possible with such source material, and the execution leaves much to be desired. The comedy is aimed at kids, without much narrative substance for adults. Narratively, it doesn’t help that much of The Sword and the Stone is a series of episodes aimed at showcasing a visual gag or an animation challenge—it often looks good, but there’s no sense of build-up. Still, the film still does have its strengths. Merlin, as a magician unstuck in time and bringing back anachronisms in an Arthurian setting, is quite likable as a character. The final fight is notably inventive, and the squirrel sequence gets points for being a squirrel sequence (even if it ends with heartbreak). It’s not a whole lot to go on, but it is something. Definitely second-tier material (and maybe teetering on the lowest tier), The Sword and the Stone doesn’t have the staying power of its Disney contemporaries, but it’s worth at least a watch to see the sheer artistry of the Disney animators even in tackling substandard material.
(On TV, February 2018) There are Disney movies that leave me indifferent, but few of them feel as irritating as Robin Hood. It shouldn’t be like that—I grew up with a lot of Robin Hood paraphernalia, and I rather like the idea of playing with the classic Robin Hood story with animal archetypes. But knowing about Robin Hood and watching Robin Hood are different things—for viewers used to Disney’s ability to entertain whole families at once, Robin Hood seems far too clearly aimed at younger kids, with stand-in child characters taking a lot of time and the overall film pitched to a much lower common denominator. Then there are other annoyances, some of whom may not apply to others. As a rather proud taxpayer, I was really disappointed to see the film take on a quasi-Republican take on “all taxes are evil”—if, like others have claimed, Robin Hood was incredibly influential, then we have a single film to blame for both furries and libertarians. Maybe all copies should be locked up and designated dangerous. OK, I kid, but not too much—there’s a lot of caricatures going on in Robin Hood, and they all aim for a young and impressionable age. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the result, and part of it may be due with familiarity with the source material and the consequent lack of anything “extra” from the film to make it even better. Other, similarly familiar Disney movies usually had something more (songs, witty repartee, quality of animation, even sheer odd psychedelic sequences) that went beyond my childhood memories. Robin Hood doesn’t, and that’s why it feels so flat when it’s not being actively irritating.
(On DVD, June 2017) In the pantheon of Disney animated features, The Rescuers stands somewhere below the average—not terrible, but not a classic. It comes from the middle of the Disney Dark Ages, and shares with its contemporaries a number of not-so-encouraging issues: The animation is rougher (with plenty of in-between marks, and cheats such as a still-picture credit sequence in order to minimize nonessential animation) and the story is significantly darker than most other Disney movies. It’s dark enough, in fact, to be bothersome, what with an abandoned, perhaps abused kid in need of being rescued by our titular mice. There’s also a badly sexualized antagonist, and too many cute animal sidekicks in a story build around animal characters. Fortunately, there’s enough here and there to carry the movie: Despite some overlong self-indulgent moments, the lead characters of Bernard and Bianca are quite good, and the idea of an international rescue operation run by mice is cute enough to be cool. If you let go of the darkness and tension (perhaps by watching it a second time), some of the set-pieces work well enough, with enough danger and adventure to distinguish themselves. In the grand scheme of Disney movies, The Rescuers takes from The Aristocats’ style and gives to The Princess and the Frog’s bayou setting. It’s a bit less than solidly average, but it’s not bad … although it may be best for older kids.
(On DVD, April 2017) Here’s another Disney movie I have watched in bits and pieces (thanks to the resident household pre-schooler) but never from beginning to end in its original language. Widely acknowledged as the film that solidified the template for the Disney renaissance of the nineties, The Little Mermaid mixes in classical literature inspiration, princesses, humour, song, animal sidekicks and just about anything that we can recognize from the Disney archetype. It’s not always equally inspiring, but it certainly works. The songs can be memorable (although I suspect that my French rendition of “Under the Sea” only uses half the original words) while the comedy works to defuse some of the tension of an otherwise dramatic story. Ariel is likable (if not exactly the smartest … but give her a break, she’s just a teenager), Ursula is detestable, the animal sidekicks are equally funny and annoying … yes, this is a prototypical Disney film, at least until the 2010s Disney Resurgence era. Even today, The Little Mermaid remains a foundation piece for any family film collection for a good reason.
(On DVD, April 2017) Let’s clarify one thing: Thanks to more than twenty years of cultural osmosis and a pre-schooler, I have watched bits and snippets and segments of The Lion King dozens of times. But this is the first time I’m watching it from start to finish in the original English, so I’ll count it as a first watch. From the first few minutes, which introduce the African savannah in a series of top-notch animated snippets, it’s obvious that its reputation as one of the highlights of the Disney Renaissance is well deserved: 2D cell animation has never been more spectacular, and there is a firm control over the way the story is presented. The inspiration from Shakespearian dramatic plotting works well, and the character work is effective. I don’t quite like the turn from second to third act, though: If we’re to believe the film at face value, the hero does nothing but loaf like a stoner (to the tune of Hakkuna Matata) for a few years and re-emerges a hero, instantly able to take down a corrupt leader. Um … wouldn’t it have been better for him to actually develop during this time? Never mind … bring in the funny animal sidekicks instead. Oh well. Otherwise, though, The Lion King holds up well even today—many of the film’s songs have escaped into the wild to become part of pop culture, and so have a number of references to other moments in the film. Its darker tone (compared to other Disney films/musicals of the period) make it a better fit for older kids … and for adults as well.