Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1985-1989)

25. The Black Cauldron
Most people remember this film nowadays because it’s pretty much without doubt, though “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” comes close, the darkest Disney animated feature. Separating the film from that controversy and taking it on its own terms, it’s a fairly successful fantasy adventure. Disney is obviously not completely committed to the dark material as three cute funny animal sidekicks are featured and a generous amount of light comical touches are added. Still the dark mood, suicide of a major character, undead army, animated cleavage, lack of songs, and the first on-screen blood in a Disney Animated Feature since “Sleeping Beauty,” adds enough excitement and edginess to keep this interesting.

The character’s are only slightly more compelling then your typical fantasy clichés and the plot and pacing could be better. The Horned King, voiced brilliantly by John Hurt, is a very threatening presence and ranks among the best Disney villains. The animation is very good with memorable character designs and moody coloring. I liked the score a lot too. The movie also features a death cheat, usually something I would hate, but they at least try to make it part of the plot, so the cop-out hurts less. [Grade: B]

26. The Great Mouse Detective
As I’ve sat back and re-watched all these Disney films, I’ve tried to separate them from the vague childhood memories I have. Nostalgia clouded ramblings never make for good reading. However, in this case, I just can’t do that. This was probably my favorite movie as a child and I can recollect watching it once a day at one point.

Of course this isn’t all that surprising considering it’s the only Disney animated feature to star Vincent Price. And he sings in it! Twice! He’s so great as the villainous Prof. Ratigan that I wonder why nobody cast him as the villain in a live-action Sherlock Holmes film. This is also one of the rare cases were the villain is as interesting as the hero of the story. Basil of Baker Street is certainly one of the less “straight” heroes as he’s prone to bouts of depression in-between his general cool as a cucumber persona. The rest of the cast is quite good as well though I honestly can’t remember any of their names. The film retains a little bit of the darkness of last feature and might be a little scary for young children. (The slow building of music box
melody leading to… Ah, I won’t spoil it but I’ll tell ya’, it’s awesome.)

The pace is also some of the best you’ll find in a DAF. The story never looses a beat and runs at a steady clip throughout. I love how easily this story could exist in the same universe as “The Rescuers.” I could go on and on for pages about how much I adore this film but I’ll just close by saying “The Great Mouse Detective” is, without question, my all-time favorite Disney animated feature.
[Grade: A]

27. Oliver and Company
Another “Pets in Peril” film with good music and little else to offer. The movie features the music of Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Huey Lewis, and one of the Pointer Sisters. Considering how very ‘80s the tunes are, they hold up well.

The animation is the standard for the time and is fairly bright and colorful though it doesn’t have any standout moments like the Big Ben sequence in the last feature or the Cauldron consuming the castle in “The Black Cauldron.”

Retooling “Oliver Twist” as a cute animal movie certainly doesn’t rate among Disney’s best ideas but it could have worked with some colorful characters. Sadly, that’s where this film fails. You’d think with an ensemble cast filled with talented actors that it would work but the groups of characters are all horribly underdeveloped. The cast is probably too large considering how one-note most of them are.

I found the climax pushed my suspension of belief even for an animated feature. Still, the movie really isn’t bad. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at seventy-eight minutes, there are one or two funny lines, and it should be perfectly pleasant viewing for the youngins but the rest of us really only have the music as a reason to stick around.
[Grade: C]

28. The Little Mermaid
This is the film generally credited with launching Disney into another golden age of animation, with a long succession of high-quality and successful animated films following.

The music is a primary reason for this success. For the first time in a long time, all the songs really feel like performance numbers, though how much some of the tunes advance the story is questionable. The voice acting, which lacks the big star voices that characterize many modern animated in favor of actual talented performers, is quite strong. The film features a much smaller cast then past Disney films and instead provides a captivating central group of core characters. Ariel is change in pace for a Disney princess in that she is not only interesting, but actually strong-willed and less submissive. Ursala, in the kind of role that could’ve been played by an aging Betty Davis or Joan Crawford, is a great villain with her manipulative intentions. The love interest, Prince Erik, still comes up with the short end of the stick personality wise but is still more rounded then Snow White’s Prince Charming.

The animation is beautiful of course and utilize many of the tools invented for the earlier eighties animated features to full effect. My biggest problem with the film is how overstuffed the final act feels. A lot of plot points come up pretty quickly and the final confrontation is a bit rushed. While later films would be better, I can understand how this would set the studio back on it’s feet, creatively and finically. [Grade: A-]

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