Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 6, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1995-1998)

33. Pocahontas
After three highly successful films in a row, you get the feeling that maybe the creative juices that went into “Pocahontas” were a little strained. As a result, the film is just not as good as those that precede it. Still, it’s not for a lack of trying.

The music is really spectacular here and certainly the best part. The animation is as excellent as always. Continuing on what was started with “The Lion King,” there is an attempt to work some social issues into the story. There’s a general message of tolerance here. It is clearly stated in the song “Savages” and is some pretty stirring stuff.

Sadly, the film lacks an emotional core. The relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith is not developed fully and none of the supporting characters really come to life. Sad to say, the talented voice cast, including Mel Gibson and Christian Bale, aren’t given much to do. So why I appreciate the visual beauty of the film and its message, I found myself only caring about half of it. And the cute animal antics feel really forced and out-of-place here. [Grade: B]

34. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Continuing the trend set by “Pocahontas,” in that it’s unafraid to tackle some heavier issue then you’d expect from a Disney, for a fact, "Hunchback of Notre Dame" might be the heaviest yet. The often visited theme of “accept people for who they are” is the main one, but it is handled with a steady maturity. Religious prosecution and hypocrisy are also major themes. It’s dark for Disney but still tones down the original novel quite a bit by adding several comic relief sidekicks. There are also some moments of slapstick humor that feel incredibly out of place.

The animation is absolutely spectacular, full of long wandering pans across the Paris sky line. The attention to detail is especially appreciated and I love how well done the lighting is. However, the use of cheap CGI extras doesn’t go without notice.

The music is some of the best ever featured in a Disney film, both the songs and the score. “God Help the Outcast” is gorgeous and moving while “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” are just some of the other sweeping pieces. The score, with its chanting monks and percussion, is very effective.

The cast is perfectly handled as well. Tom Hulce’s voice is so soft but forceful when necessary. Demi Moore proves herself to be a better actress here then in any of her live action roles. Veteran voice actor, and sadly recently deceased, Tony Jay oozes sinister intent with his deep baritone. The complexity of the character makes Frollo one of the most subversive Disney villains ever. Not quite perfect but “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” ranks third behind “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” as the best of the nineties era.
[Grade: A]

35. Hercules
It makes sense that after the relatively heavy subject matter of the last two features, that Disney would handle a much lighter film. The majority of “Hercules” is a comedy with enduring characters and plenty of amusing sight gags and one-liners.

As far as the animation goes, the style is obviously meant to be similar to the paintings of ancient Greek which contrasts nicely with the light material. There are some nice fantasy designs but there aren’t as many opportunities for beauty as there have been in past features. The action sequences are well-done and the fight with the Hydra and the Titans are both exciting.

As far as the cast goes, James Woods is the best, playing up his serio-comic villain, though Tate Donovan, Danny DeVito, and Rip Torn are also of mention as well as a Charlton Heston’s cameo. The score is good but the musical numbers are pretty light-weight. Selecting a gospel choir as the storytellers of Greek mythology is a bizarre choice but does lead to the best songs in the film. As a whole the music pales in comparison to the composer’s past work. “Hercules” is good but it’s closer to “The Sword in the Stone” then to “The Lion King” on the quality spectrum. [Grade: B]

36. Mulan
The first thing I noticed about this one is the art style which is obviously influenced by Chinese theatrical art and just looks fascinating. It’s a good way to distinguish “Mulan” from other Disney works.

The film can be separated into two very distinct parts. The first half is more comedy focused. The shift to a more serious tone halfway through the film is deliberate and actually works on some level. There are several exciting and well-done sequences throughout. Mulan’s decision to run away is shown in a very moody moment accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score. The battle on the mountain and the final takeover of the imperial castle are both very well managed.

The music is very underplayed and almost feels tacked on but is actually pretty good, particularly “Be a Man” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” The cast is decent, full of strong voices including James Hong, Pat Morita, and George Takai, but no body really stands out. Well, except Eddie Murphy. His role is potentially annoying and the casting is pretty gimmicky but it’s not a horrible performance. “Mulan” is a strong, entertaining effort. [Grade: B+]

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