(On DVD, September 2019) The original Fantasia was planned to be an annual event—according to Disney’s vision for the film, it would regularly incorporate new segments and be shown around the country in slightly altered fashion, evolving throughout the years. This did not come to pass (World War II nearly bankrupted the studio and derailed most of their plans), but it does provide a bit of historical context to the Fantasia 2000 reboot, which keeps the famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the original while introducing new animated segments focused on musical numbers. One of those films that work equally as well as an audiovisual spectacle and as musical accompaniment, Fantasia 2000 is about as accessible as classical music gets, with a little bit of jazz thrown in. As you can expect from a film with eight segments, the quality is variable— “Rhapsody in Blue” is terrific with its nostalgic depiction of an urban area, while the most striking thing about “Symphony No. 5” is how incredibly dated the CGI looks. Indeed, if there’s a point of comparison between this Fantasia sequel and the original, it’s how much of the sequel is irremediably dated by its reliance on CGI—the eighty-year-old original, meanwhile, hasn’t aged nearly as much. Still, you do have the option to look away from the screen and still enjoy the music, so at least the Fantasia 2000 has that going for it. I still enjoyed it quite a bit—as a way to experience some great music, it’s worth at least a listen.
(On DVD, September 2019) It’s easy, while watching Fantasia, to imagine an alternative reality in which Disney Animation Studios would have gone in a very, very different direction. Disney historians will be happy to tell you how WW2 nearly put the studio out of business: not only was the Disney business affected by the United States’ entrance in the war (taking away employees, cutting attendance, focusing popular entertainment toward propaganda which included some Disney films), but their own office spaces were used as barracks for military personnel. It took years for the studio to come back from this near-death experience, and it quickly focused on children-focused entertainment as a way back. (There’s an eight-year gap between feature-length Bambi and Cinderella, and that gap was filled by compilations of short films.) We know the rest: Disney’s post-war production was clearly aimed at kids, but that’s not so obvious in pre-war Fantasia, which is a conscious attempt to vulgarize and make accessible the high art of classical music. Integrating live-action footage of orchestra conductors and musicians, Fantasia spells out how general audiences can enjoy orchestral music, starting with visual accompaniment that can be either playful or eerie depending on the music. Everyone knows “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” of course, but there’s a lot more to the film. Segments range from abstract art to quasi-narrative pieces, with varying but generally high levels of quality. “The Pastoral Symphony” is an interesting take on mythology, with a bit more nudity than expected. “Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria” ends the film on a high note, with nightmarish imagery as harsh as seen in a Disney film leading to a gloriously upbeat finale. Fantasia does remain—and I don’t say this about many films, let alone Disney films—a primarily sensorial experience, designed to wash over viewers rather than being scrutinized throughout. Ironically enough, it may have been designed to bring orchestras to movie theatres, but it’s now ideally suited in the streaming era to be played on a loop as background atmosphere. It remains a very different experience (even its semi-sequel Fantasia 2000 feels far more conventional and dated twenty years later) than other Disney movies, and any cinephile can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the studio had the Fantasia experiment had more traction in the years immediately following its release.
(In French, Netflix Streaming, August 2019) One of the joys of being a free-range film critic (Wild! Carefree! Untamed!) is bouncing between all eras of film history, unbeholden to any specific genre, commercial imperative, venue specialization or upcoming deadline. One of the better consequences of such an all-inclusive perspective is thinking perhaps a bit too much about how contemporary releases are going to age. What, of the thousands of movies released in 2018, will still be watched in 10, 25, 50, 100 years from now? What distinguishes an enduring film from one that fades away? It’s largely an academic discussion—studios make movies for their weekly box-office results and quarterly reports, not posterity (although an enduring film does mean financial returns for a longer period). Still, there are circumstances where posterity becomes an interesting question, and you can point at the Disney Animation Studio films as one case where it matters most. There are, after all, Disney fans, specialists and historians with an encyclopedic knowledge of the fifty-plus movies produced by that studio. By being part of that lineage, they endure even as comparable films have sunk back obscurity. Then there’s the ultra-timely nature of Ralph Breaks the Internet to deal with—explicitly trying itself to technological innovations (and a current-day expression) in its very title, the film courts such discussions. That it’s a rare theatrical sequel to a previous title in the Disney pantheon also raises its own questions. Ultimately, we don’t know and won’t know how well it will endure—maybe Facebook will go bankrupt tomorrow, maybe computing will change radically over the next few years, maybe a global EMP event will reduce the Internet to inert electronics for a few decades. And trying to assess a film independently of its context requires a detachment of steel. (I mean—the Disney Princesses scene is fun and all, but how will it sound in a decade?) What can be evaluated, roughly, is how solid the film is—and on that aspect, the film is dramatically sound: the character relationships take centre stage, with the Internet providing a backdrop through which to explore timely yet enduring issues of how people interact. It’s also easy to forget that enduring films don’t always depend on timeless universality—sometimes, a perceptive period piece can be just as interesting to watch, and that’s probably how Ralph Breaks the Internet has the best chances of being fondly remembered. This being said—maybe there’s a lesson in how Ralph Breaks the Internet was widely expected to win the Best Animated Feature Film Academy Awards (all the way to some stores pre-printing celebratory material) … and lost to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. Which one of these two will be best remembered?
(In French, On TV, March 2019) The mid-1980s weren’t the best of times for Disney Animation Studio. It had been years since Disney had an all-out success (arguably 1973’s Robin Hood, less arguably 1967’s The Jungle Book) and Oliver & Company was the last of the not-so-good streak before The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance a year later. So, it’s perhaps best not to expect too much from the film. It does stem from a halfway clever concept, by setting a modern take on Oliver Twist in 1980s New York. The setting is probably half the fun of the film, with the other half being an easy (maybe even cheap) use of anthropomorphic animals as heroes. You can visually identify Oliver & Company as being from the Disney doldrums by the sometimes-cut-rate quality of the animation and the limited imagination of the result once the “talking animals do Oliver Twist in 1980s New York” thing is accepted. You can see in here some touches that portend the new and successful direction that Disney would soon take—the use of animals, obviously, but also taking a classic story and presenting it as a musical: it may even be somewhat underrated in this regard. Few will claim that Oliver & Company is a Disney classic, but at times it approaches some second-tier favourites such as The Aristocats—cute animals plus music equals nostalgic charm for those who grew up on the movie. It does get better as it goes on and ends on something of a high note, so at least there’s that.
(On DVD, October 2018) At fifty-some movies and counting, the output of Disney Animation Studios has been inconsistent at best—some of them are classics, and others have been nearly forgotten along the way. Even if it was a box office hit back in 2000, Dinosaur now languishes in the Disney bottom shelf, plagued by the absence of a princess, visually dated technological choices and overtaken by later movies (i.e. The Ice Age series) reusing similar concepts to better effect. It’s true that by choosing to focus on a photo-realistic representation of a dinosaur at a time when it was barely achievable to do so, Dinosaur shoots itself in the foot. Overlaying CGI characters over real backgrounds was a plausible choice before 2000—It would take fifteen more years, until The Good Dinosaur, before entirely computer-generated scenery could be mistaken for real-life photography. Still, it does look weird at times: Dinosaur is best watched today in as low a quality as you can tolerate, so pick that DVD over the Blu-ray version if you can. It doesn’t help that the film looks better than it sounds—or, more accurately, that it goes from an intriguing dialogue-free film to a kid’s comedy as soon as the animals start talking like teenagers. That, more than the dated special effects, dooms the film to third-tier status: It’s not even interesting dialogue, and it doesn’t really lead to an interesting plot either. The basic tension between the film’s then cutting-edge visuals (still generally beautiful) and the much-dumber plot and dialogue are enough to be exasperating. While Dinosaur can still be watched today, it does feel like a re-thread of other versions of the same idea done before and since.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) I grew up on a lot of Disney paraphernalia, so in a sense I’ve always known about Alice in Wonderland even if my memories of the film were hazy at best. I half-revisited the film two years ago alongside my daughter, but didn’t really write a review because my viewing was repeatedly interrupted—What I could see from the film was episodic, psychedelic and more interesting as an animation piece than a feature-length narrative. I decided to revisit the film in a less distracted state to find out if it made more sense when watched from beginning to end and … it doesn’t. For all of the familiar iconography and the set pieces that everyone remembers and the movie summary that figures in picture books, the full-length version of Alice in Wonderland is a trippy succession of absurd episodes that doesn’t really build to anything coherent. While that’s the point of the original Lewis Carroll book, it’s also a bit of a disappointment for basic movie viewers who expect something more narrative-driven. (A question to be answered by others: how popular was the film with stoner audiences?) To be fair, the animation in the film is really, really good—It looks much better than some of the seventies and eighties Disney movies, for instance, and there’s quite a visual imagination on display from the various set pieces that form the bulk of the film. Narratively, however, it sounds as if the Disney animators got permission to do half a dozen psychedelic episodes of the sort seen in earlier movies (most notably Snow White, Fantasia and Dumbo) and string them together. Having read (and re-re-re-read) the film’s junior novelization more than once as a bedtime tale, I was still disappointed and surprised at the lack of coherence in the film. In the end, this remains a second-tier Disney Animation Studio release—the animation is too good (and Alice too significant a character) to be forgotten, but it’s not on the level of the other iconic productions from the studio. And if you want a second advice, ask my daughter—she wasn’t overly impressed by the film on her first viewing, and never asked to see it again.
(On Blu-ray, October 2018) I’m usually soft on Disney Animation Studio features—they’re usually classics for a reason, and I’m not usually tempted to be overly critical of them. But Peter Pan is something else: Its racist portrayal of natives was dodgy back in 1953 and is completely reprehensible today—and I’m not talking about Pocahontas levels of well-intentioned but misguided representation: I’m talking full-blown insulting stereotypes featured front and centre within a musical number. I’m already cool on the Peter Pan story itself (most adaptations work hard to tone down the less pleasant aspects of the original story already) but the Disney adaptation is one of the worst ones I’ve seen so far. Finding Neverland was dull metafiction; 2015’s Pan was a generic fantasy adventure in Peter Pan costume; 1991’s Hook was a disappointing rethread but the Disney version redeems every single one of them, and consecrates 2003’s live-action Peter Pan as the best adaptation so far. There are a few things I do like about the Disney film—the opening segment is surprisingly long in introducing the characters, and Tinker Bell is an icon for a reason. Alas, Peter Pan shoots itself not just in the foot but in the gut with that “What Made the Red Man Red?” segment. I’ve got this half-baked theory that as far as Hollywood racism is concerned, native Indians have been consistently treated worse than African-Americans, and Peter Pan dumps an entire cord of firewood on the bonfire of that theory. The issue here is not having a tribe of “others” on the island intrinsic to the plot—it’s explicitly couching them in native stereotypes. Again; see other treatments of the Peter Pan story on how to tone it down rather than put it in stark relief. As I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t help that I’m not that fond of Peter Pan’s core conceit—but that deliberate racism is on another level. I am not showing that movie to my daughter. The crazy thing is that everybody knows that this part of the film is terrible—I grew up on a lot of material derived from the Disney movies (albums, picture books, recordings, etc.) and I do not remember that sequence, which was often excised from TV broadcasts of the film. This is bottom-tier Disney material as far as I’m concerned, and probably bottom tenth if I’m being honest—I’ll take Chicken Little and Brother Bear (which I like quite a bit, actually) and, yes, Pocahontas over Peter Pan.
(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, June 2018) Unlike many classic Disney movies whose reputation has outstripped their substance (Do no, I repeat, DO NOT try to watch Peter Pan), Bambi is almost exactly what it seems to be: A coming-of-age story involving a deer and other talking animals. Yes, the mom still gets shot by hunters. But everything else is what it is. On the one hand—great, you’re getting your money’s worth. On the other—the film does feel limited at some point, almost as if it was a nature documentary with added spoken interludes. Still, the film is often very cute, charming, and a hit with kids (as long as you get over the mother being shot and all). This was one of Disney’s last feature-length movies for a while: the studio was commandeered during WW2 and had trouble gearing back to long-story production. (Its next feature film from the studio would be Cinderella in 1950.) It enough to make you wonder what could have happened if Disney had been able to control its next few years: Bambi was a departure from the studio’s previous films in its more realistic approach, and we’ll never quite know what could have emerged from that direction.
(On DVD, May 2018) The interesting thing about Disney’s decades-long media saturation is that it’s possible to know almost everything about one of their movies without actually having seen it. I grew up in the seventies with tons of materials (multiple books, mostly) about Disney’s Pinocchio. The events, characters, themes (don’t lie!) and visuals were deeply embedded in my brain growing up, and further material available is available now for another generation. I know everything about Pinocchio the film … but this was the first time I’ve watched in beginning to end in its original language. As it turns out… I don’t particularly like it. Oh, there are plenty of things to like about it. The theme song is iconic, Jiminy Cricket is terrific, the quality of the animation remains exceptional … but there is something I don’t quite like about Pinocchio. Part of it is the heavy-handed morality tale; another is the uncanny valley of Pinocchio as a character; another has to do with the quasi-hallucinatory quality of the episodic plotting; much has to do with heavier episodes in the story that go well into child-endangerment territory. To be fair, few early-era Disney movies (and quite a few of the 1970s ones as well) escape the shifting of what we consider to be acceptable material for kids—there’s some rough stuff in everything from Snow White to Dumbo to Bambi to The Rescuers. Still, respecting the historical context in which Pinocchio was created isn’t the same thing as saying that the film is enjoyable today: I may appreciate seeing the film on my way to Disney Animation Studios completism but I won’t necessarily push for the film to be on heavy rotation in my household. (Not that I need to—my child isn’t particularly fond of Pinocchio either.) It’s certainly worth a look for a bunch of reasons, but a purely enjoyable viewing experience isn’t one of them.
(On DVD, April 2018) Among the Disney Animation canon, Sleeping Beauty is way up there as a crown jewel—it’s spawned an authentic Disney Princess, making it mandatory for parents of young girls. Having an iconic villain in Maleficent (who had her own sympathetic spinoff film recently) also helped. The story is a classic, but, of course, the Disney version had to make a few changes to make it more palatable, and so much of the fun of watching the film from beginning to end (as opposed to the start-and-stop of toddler-watching) is seeing the various adjustments made to make the original fairy tale more palatable to family audiences. Most blatant is the readjustment of the timeline of the film to cover a much shorter time span—allowing the prince and princess to meet well before the events of their final kiss, and taking away some of the sting of “ewww, who does he think he is kissing someone without their explicit or even implied consent.” From an animation standpoint, Sleeping Beauty has its highs and lows—in character animation, it’s as good as Disney (or anyone else) was at the time, although the use of some optical effects has really not aged well at all. What I do wonder, though, if the film’s influence on generations of fantasy writers—the final sequences is about a knight fighting a dragon and I’m almost certain that the iconography of that sequence has inspired quite a few prose fantasy writers. Otherwise, a close sustained viewing that avoid skipping from one highlight to another highlights that the three fairy godmothers really have issues to work out before they should be allowed to take long-term care of a kid … and that childproofing an entire kingdom against unauthorized yarn spinning is doomed to failure. Still, Sleeping Beauty generally holds up for those who don’t mind a bit of good old princess-being-rescued stuff.
(On DVD, March 2018) I wouldn’t go as far as putting The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the upper half of Disney Animation Studio’s production, but I’m relatively pleased with the adaptation. Bringing a dour Victor Hugo novel to the big screen for kids isn’t the easiest of propositions, and including a love triangle between a superb heroine, a movie-star hero and a consciously ugly hunchback doesn’t seem like the kind of bet worth taking. And yet, and yet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame works when it should. Turning the novel in a musical excuses a multitude of tonal shifts (who knew that funny gargoyle sidekicks would turn out to be effective foils for a murderous judge?) and the skill through which the love triangle is resolved (i.e.: without the death of any of the three) is kind of impressive. Of course, I’ve always really liked Esmeralda, unjustly forgotten as one of Disney’s original princesses (along with Megara, my other favourite Disney heroine) and she gets a chance to shine here as a relatively full-featured character—not to mention being one of the most mature Disney heroines. Of course, the surprise here is Quasimodo, underdog champion of the physically deformed yet spiritually admirable. What impresses me most about The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the way it balances many opposite intentions (not the least being delivering a fairly dark story in a format for kids) in ways that are more successful than the comparable Pocahontas (about which I have complex feelings). Still, there are contradictions and tonal inconsistencies and various other little issues. It’s not bad, and it’s quite a bit better than it should be … but it’s still a distance away from the best Disney movies. Although, if you’re looking for a dark horse candidate to argue for the next time you get to rank Disney Animation Studio movies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a bad contrarian choice.
(On DVD, March 2018) Discussing Pocahontas is … complicated. There are different levels of racism, and not killing others is only the first step in a very long ladder. The recent resurgence of racism in popular (North-) American discourse is a discouraging reminder that a lot of people get stuck halfway in the ladder, pointing to unimaginable cruelty below them as proof of their enlightenment, but only so far as it doesn’t really change anything for them. (With my own white privilege, I’m stuck 2/3 of the way.) Where I’m going with this in discussing a Disney movie is that while Pocahontas is a visible attempt to ennoble and represent Native Americans in a kids-friendly format, it does carry along a number of vexing issues. Anyone who knows anything about the history of race relations from the moment Europeans set foot in North America may be put off by the rewriting of history, the inclusion of magical talking animals, the sexualization of Pocahontas as a tall thin supermodel, or the almost-mystical link between Native Americans and nature. Even on a surface level, the film is problematic: My own daughter was not amused by the film’s more sombre moments (“Savages” may have all sorts of lofty intentions, but its irony and dramatic counterpoint is completely lost on the pre-school set) and the film never became a household favourite like other Disney films. The portrayal of hate in the film, even from characters who are obviously wrong and evil, is troubling to an extent that more fantasy-based antagonists aren’t. Sure, the film is PG-rated and aimed at older audiences. But that’s part of the problem: Pocahontas is dragged in different directions by cute animals, soaring paean to nature, racist antagonists, impossibly virtuous leads, and the result feels scattered. This is even more frustrating given that everyone involved in the film’s conception must have had the best of intention in condemning hate. Still, it doesn’t work as well, and in a far more sensitive 2018 it’s easier to see why. Too bad, because from a technical level, the film is nothing short of terrific: 2D animation was seldom better, and Disney clearly brought in top talent in terms of musical numbers and voice acting. Alas, little of these matters when there is clearly something off with Pocahontas. I wonder how a more modern treatment would deal with these issues … and if it’s possible to tell anything close to this story without annoying someone somewhere.
(On DVD, March 2018) Watching a lot of classic Disney animation movies, I’m actually struck at how a lot of them aren’t classic at all. This is particularly true in the fallow period between Disney’s Golden age and its renaissance. While I will always passionately defend The Aristocats, there are many other movies of the era that I’ll leave to sink on their own demerits. So it is with The Fox and the Hound, which is certainly not bad but ends up being a depressing shade of bland once everything is said and done. On one level it is a Disney animal movie. On the other hand, there won’t be too many lunchboxes made of this rather depressing acknowledgment that foxes and dogs aren’t made to be friends. The film occasionally punches hard for younger audiences, and it doesn’t exactly end on the most optimistic of notes. This, in turns, gives a rather sombre quality to much of what comes before, including a lot of material between anthropomorphized animal characters. The animation isn’t bad, and the script is built acceptably, but The Fox and the Hound simply doesn’t have anything (a song, a sequence, a character, a princess) to set it apart. It’s no surprise if the film doesn’t enjoy anything like the enduring popularity of other Disney productions of the time. It can be watched readily enough, but it can’t be remembered longer than necessary.
(On DVD, March 2018) As with many classic-era Disney movies, Dumbo is sufficiently well-known as to appear safe and obvious from childhood memories: It’s a movie about a flying elephant, what else is there to say? But a good look at the film from beginning to end does have a few surprises. The biggest one is almost certainly the pre-psychedelic Pink Elephant sequence, a small triumph of animation craft that quickly devolves in a hallucinatory, nightmarish blend of melting blank faces and other indescribable moments. Coming a few minutes after a heartbreaking sequence in which Dumbo’s mother is taken away, it does push the boundaries of what we consider to be appropriate for kids these days. This leads to a sequence with black crows that now seems saddled with racist language, and then to an ending so abrupt that the film seems to be missing another act entirely. This is all interesting, as is the contemporary depiction of an early-forties circus. It may not, however, match with the derivative representation of Dumbo from the Disney Corporation. But that’s all right—as long as you properly vet the film before watching it with your kids.