Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1961-1970)

17. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Recently rewatching this film, I was surprised by the fluidity of the animation. All the characters move with a life-like spring in their steps. Though roto-scoping has often been misused as a dollar stretching technique, it adds a level of vividness to the character movements here.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable little movie. The characters aren’t anything new but still prove interesting to watch. The sequence were Pongo stares out the window trying to pick out a mate for his masters has always struck me as very clever, especially with the ways the owners resemble their pets. The love story between Roger and Anita, though not the main focus of the film, is also pulled off nicely. The story also feels very much of it times. Maybe it’s the art design but this one screams both “England!” and “Sixties!” Which makes it timeless and sort of unique, don’t you think?
Most people remember this today for the villain, Cruella DeVille, who truly is one of the great Disney villains. Just the fact that the character is so callous is what makes her so memorable. She’s not interested in financial gain or power or any typical villainous motivations. She just wants the perfect fur coat. And she’s willing to kill one hundred and one puppies to get it. Puppies, man! How more evil can you get? Her nasty-ness even makes the comic relief henchmen more threatening.

Music doesn’t play as big a part in this film as in other Disney pictures, but Cruella’s theme song is very catchy and instantly recognizable. I’ve also always thought the TV-shows with in the film were a nice touch of meta-awareness on Disney’s behalf. Not a really great Disney film, but definitely one of the more entertaining ones.
[Grade: B]

18. The Sword in the Stone
In keeping with the European feel, this plays out sort of like a low-key version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The art design is similar to that film in that it appears to be based at least partially on medieval artwork. Stained glass was an obvious influence on both films. Of course, the animation quality is of a much lower budget then that high point and the colors here are muted and the landscapes flat.

The tone is completely different as well, more in line with what you’d expect from Disney. It’s a mildly amusing comedy. The humor is mostly derived from character interaction which makes it fairly reliable for a laugh. I particularly like the love-struck squirrel. That always got a chuckle out of me as a kid. The characters are more archetypes then anything else. (This is a retelling of the King Arthur story, after all. Wouldn’t you expect archetypes?) I’m not sure I like Merlin as a mildly frenzied old coot either and I certainly could have done without his owl sidekick.
The story is slowly paced and laid back, mostly involving Merlin transforming young Wart into an animal of some sort and related wackiness ensuing. There’s never a definite moving force here and threats are introduced sporadically before being dealt with in an equally swift manner. I’m not sure how I feel about the character designs either, which are more exaggerated then usual.

The music is fairly minor but still manages to be catchy. I can hum you a handful of bars from “What Makes the World Go Round,” “Higitus Figitus” (which is basically “Bippitiy Boppity Boo” rewritten for a guy) and, the definite highlight, “The Mad Madam Mim.” The wizard dual at the end is a nice sequence and at least takes things out on a high note. A serious retelling of the Arthurian legend was obviously beyond the studios’ means at the time and I’m not sure I’d like to see that tale Disney-ized anyway. Either way “The Sword in the Stone” is completely pleasant and easily watchable, if far from the major masterpieces the studio is known for.
[Grade: B-]

19. The Jungle Book
“The Jungle Book” might have the best voice cast Disney ever put together. It was criticized at the time for casting well-known actors in part similar to their established personas. Valid criticism, I suppose, but when it works this well, you can’t really fault the decision. Each voice and character are matched so perfectly. There isn’t a single bad performance in the whole movie. Sebastian Cabot resonates authority as Bagheera but also brings warmth to the part. Though primarily a comic relief character, Phil Harris still gives Baloo a multifaceted personality. Sterling Holloway is allowed to expand past his usually benign personality as the appropriately slithery Kaa. (Ha, I made a pun!) George Sanders imbues Shere Kahn with a sense of menace and style, making him both a truly threatening villain and strangely likable. You certainly never doubt for a minute that he intends on killing poor little old Mowgli. (And, yes, that is the Clint Howard as the voice of the baby elephant. What a long way we’ve come.) I don’t know how much of the strong characterization has to do with performances or with the writing, but each character has a fully rounded personality, even minor supporting parts.

The music is really outstanding as well featuring, so far, the best music yet written for a Disney feature. It’s the closest the song team has come to feature out-right pop music. Every song here is a favorite of mine and, in between “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” and the appropriately alluring “Home of My Own,” I can’t decide which I like more.
The animation is a step-up from “The Sword in the Stone” and the detailed backgrounds and rich color from “Sleeping Beauty” returns as well, though this film lacks the sheer graphic brilliance of that one. The Indian jungle certainly adds a different color palette then previous Mouse Factory offerings.

Despite being only fitfully faithful the original stories, many of Kipling’s powerful themes are maintain, such as the importance of fire or Mowgli returning to civilization, in what might be the best ending of any Disney Animated Feature. If I had to find anything bad to say about this film, it would be that the plot is a little lacking. There’s not really a driving force behind the plot and it’s more of just running into a bunch of different characters but the experience as a whole is just so enjoyable, that seems like a minor squabble. “The Jungle Book” would be the last animated production Walt Disney himself oversaw. He certainly went out on a high note, as its one of the best of the collection.
[Grade: A]

20. The AristoCats
The one thing this film really has going for it is its music, which is excellent all around and some of Disney’s most hum-able songs. “Everybody Wants To Be a Cat” is actually a great little number and the standard of many youngster’s birthday parties, believe you me. Many of the other numbers, including “Scale and Arpeggios” and the title track, sung by the distinguished Maurice Chevalier, are also memorable.

Beyond that, however, the movie mostly plays like a weaker retread of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” You have the pets in peril, threatened by a selfish human. You have the owners of the animals, who grieve like they just lost a child. Both finales even feature the lower class critters coming to the rescue of our main cast. The resolutions are even similar, with the street animals being accepted into the nice homes.
There’s a wide range of supporting characters here but, despite the best efforts of the solid voice cast, including many Disney regulars like Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers, and Paul Winchell, but none of them feel like anything more then clich├ęs. Especially the Scat Cat gang who are all intentionally written as culturally stereotypes. (I point this out less not because its offensive but because its just lazy writing.) The two guard dogs, which meet the standard comedy concept of “Dumb skinny guy who thinks he’s smart and constantly belittles the really dumb fat guy,” bump up against annoying. And there’s plenty of that slapstick I’ve mentioned before, not to mention a totally non-threatening comic relief villain. (There’s a reason Edgar the Butler isn’t spoken of as often as Maleficent or the Evil Queen.) Despite some notable aspects, this is definitely one of the more forgettable Disney features. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1951-1959)

13. Alice in Wonderland
Decent, but not great. You’d think with a story like this, the animators would go crazy, but I get the feelings that they were restrained. Still, there are plenty of memorable sequences throughout and Wonderland is a pretty entertaining place.

The film doesn’t have much of a story, admittedly. It’s just Alice running into different characters without out any real flow. The film completely burns out in the middle and the final act didn’t really hold my attention. The music isn’t all that good and only a couple of the songs stick. (“I’m Late,” The Unbirthday Song” and “Painting the Roses Red” being it.)

“The Walrus and the Carpenter” segment is near perfect, however. It’s interesting to see characters like the Cheshire Cat and The Caterpillar brought to life, but I’ve never revisited this one as much as some others. Ultimately, I feel it’ll take a more experimental mind to faithfully bring Lewis Carol’s vision to the big screen.
[Grade: B-]

14. Peter Pan
Another favorite from childhood that holds up. Very little about this movie doesn’t work. It has the elements of a fun swashbuckler as well as a beautifully realized fantasy and surprisingly, it retains most of the psychological subtext of the original play.

Continuing the trend of Disney films at the time, all the characters are likable and surprisingly well-round. Wendy and Tinkerbell are far more resourceful then past Disney heroines and Captain Hook is a great villain, despite succumbing to wacky slapstick antics. The film is plotted far better then you’d expect, with a tight structure and even a little suspense, especially during the capture of Tiger-Lily.

While the music hasn’t gone onto become as iconic as other Disney tunes, I like it a lot, especially the score which, with its use of the pan flute and other airy instruments, is a bit of a departure for Disney. The Indians might bother some overly PC people now a days and not all the slapstick is successful, but this is still one of my favorites from Disney’s second golden period. [Grade: A]

15. Lady and the Tramp
The first in Disney’s “Pets in Peril” films, a theme they would revisit at least four more times. Considering some of the high stakes of those later films, this one is fairly reserved, which is ultimately its strength. The simplicity of the tale has allowed it to hold up pretty well over time. The romantic aspects of the story are handled well. There aren’t any “love at first sight” moments, it’s a realistic relationship that builds over time. Weird that they would get that right with two dogs. (Another weird moment is when the two dogs wake up together after having spent the night together. Gee, Disney, that was a little subversive, don’t you think?)

The animation isn’t spectacular but is nice and smooth and helped along by playful character designs. The musical numbers are also worth-while, with “Bella Notte” and “He’s a Tramp” being the stand-outs. The Aunt character is really more of a bitch then is necessary and is more annoying then menacing. And, hey, nice job putting a baby in peril there at the end. I keep telling you guys, Disney was up to some shit back in the day. Ultimately, how emotionally involving the film is what makes it endure. [Grade: B+]

16. Sleeping Beauty
The first thing I notice about this film is how brilliantly colorful it is. The bright colors and generally excellent quality of the animation as a whole provides this with a strong energy that carries the whole movie. This also a bit of a departure for Disney in that it comes off feeling more like a fantasy epic then a typical Disney film. This is due to the tone, which is slightly more serious then past efforts, and the scope, which is considerably larger then the other features. Basically, just on a visual level, I highly enjoyed this film.

Luckily, it works on other levels too. While the title character, Princess Aurora, and Prince Philip get top billing, it’s really the four different fairies that drive the plot. The three good fairies are a good example of Disney character with distinct personalities that play off each other very nicely. They are also the characters that save everybody’s asses over and over again and get very little thanks for it. Then there’s the fourth fairy, Malifcent, the bad guy. Truly one of Disney’s best villains. Imposing, powerful, and ruthless, she sums up the classical fantasy villain archetype perfectly. The music takes a back seat to the animation here, though the score is quite pretty and much more sweeping then you’d expect. It’s very different from the Disney Animated Features that came before and after, but certainly one of the studios’ greatest achievements. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1947-1950)

9. Fun and Fancy Free
Another package film. Oh, well. Jiminy Cricket is horribly underused in the wrap-around segments. The "Bongo the Bear" segment has some nice animation and a couple cute moments, though the Dinah Shore musical numbers really aren’t my thing.

I’ve never been a fan of Mickey Mouse, so "Mickey and the Beanstalk" does absolutely nothing for me. It doesn’t make enough changes to the familiar tale to be interesting and I found the mongoloid giant to be an annoying character. Edgar Bergen narrates the Beanstalk segment and Charlie McCarthy’s snide remarks are easily the most amusing part of the film. As a whole, it’s not bad, but not really all that good either, and is forgettable more then anything else.
[Grade: C]

10. Melody Time
The general reoccurring theme I’ve discovered with this Disney package films is that most of them are forgettable. This film doesn’t really do anything to change that trend. "The Flight of the Bumblebee" sequence is definitely the best part. I dig the jazzy variation on the classical tune and the animation is playful and colorful. "The Samba" is a sort of sequel to “The Three Caballeros” as it features some characters from that film but lacks the energy that maintain that feature.

The "Johnny Appleseed" bit has some catchy songs but is notable for nothing else. Disney's take on "Pasco Bill" is introduced and told by Roy Rogers and Trigger but the skit itself is filled with old-school Disney style slapstick so, you know, it’s boring. The "Wintertime," "Little Toot," and "Trees" segment are all also summed pretty well by “boring.” The latter I can’t even watch without thinking of the Muppet Show. So boredom is the name of the game with “Melody Time.” Only one more left to go before things get interesting again.
[Grade: C]

11. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
As the last of the WWII era package film, this stands as the best of the series. There are only two stories being told which works better then a collection of shorter segments that are vaguely connected. The best part is that both segments stand very well on their own.

“Wind in the Willows” works mostly because of its character. They all have very distinct personalities and watching them play off each other is great fun. There’s only one song in this segment, “Merrily on Our Way to Nowhere,” and it is a catchy, memorable tune. There’s some physical comedy but, amazingly, it’s actually funny. In all honesty, “Wind in the Willows” probably could have sustained a feature film but I guess this short will do for now.

Though I like the first one, the “Sleepy Hollow” segment is definitely superior. The whole thing is narrated/voiced/sang by Bing Crosby. This leads to three memorable songs though I think having an actual voice cast would have improved things. There are some funny antics throughout and it maintains everything that was good about the original story. Of course, it’s Icabod’s stroll through the hollow and the chase with the Headless Horseman that follows that everyone remembers. That’s because it’s frikin’ awesome. It effectively combines laughs and chills and rates right up there with “Night on Bald Mountian” as the spookiest thing Disney has ever done. The whole film is worth owning just for those last ten minutes. My only problem with this sketch is that I have difficulty buying somebody that looks like Icabod Crane as a lady’s man, even with Bing Crosby’s singing voice. If all of the collection films featured stories as strong as these two, I would have a much higher opinion of them over all. [Grade: B]

12. Cinderella
Ah, linear story telling. How I've missed you. Probably the best thing about this one is how relatable the title character is. Though Cinderella is about as assertive as the rest of the classic Disney princesses (that is to say, not at all.) she isn’t bland. Unlike Snow White or Princess Aurora, you actually find yourself kind of liking her. Maybe it’s because her situation is just so sad. The Stepmother and Ugly Stepsisters are pretty much the text book definition of evil bitches. Cinderella is portrayed as such a charming character and everybody treats her so badly, you can’t help but want her to succeed. The cute animal antics are a bit too typically Disney, but I found the rogue like quality of the mice endearing.

The music is good and many of the songs have gone on to become standards, with "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" and "Cinderell-y" being the stand out tracks. The animation is also up to snuff with Disney standards at the time, so it won't blow you away, but is still solid work by everyone involved. After those years of package films, "Cinderella" comes off as a breath of fresh air, even if just tells a common tale in a fairly standard way. There's something to be said for fairy tales, after all. [Grade: B]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1942-1946)

5. Bambi
The first thing you notice about “Bambi” is how visually beautiful it is. This is definitely a step-up from the bland backgrounds of “Dumbo.” Here you get rich, detailed, picturesque forest surroundings. The character designs are also very memorable and well-done.

The next most starling characteristic of the film is just how dark it is. Though there are plenty of cute animal antics throughout, this film certainly doesn’t back away from mature themes. The death of Bambi’s mom is infamous for how many children it’s traumatized over the years and the scenes remain heartbreaking to this day. Then there’s the scene were Bambi must fend off his girl from another suitor, which contains a not too subtle allusion of sexual assault. The fight that follows is very visually dynamic as well. And the final scenes were man invades the forest with fire and dogs are harrowing and very effective.

Of course, this is Disney, so it all turns out okay in the end, but still the fact that the film is not only willing to go there but does so in dramatic and well done ways is surprising and, frankly, gutsy.
[Grade: A]

6. Saludos Amigos
The film is utterly and completely forgettable. For whatever reason, old school Disney slapstick antics does nothing for me and that comprises a good section of this film. Perhaps the schadenfreude quality of live action slapstick is completely lost in a cartoon. The documentary segments are mostly boring and I found the narrator irritating. Fortunately, it’s also very short, only 48 minutes long.

The Pedro the Airplane segment is kind of cute, though it really doesn’t have much to do with the subject matter. The final segment features some interesting animation and the music in this film is at least different from the dull tunes that accompanied most of the films from this era. For the most part, however, being a Disney completest is really the only reason to own this one.
[Grade: D]

7. The Three Caballeros
I remember disliking this film immensely as a child. Watching it again, now knowing it was a sequel to the mediocre beyond words “Saludos Amigo,” my expectations were not high. However, I was pleasantly surprised. First off, it feels less like a package film then the last one. The Pablo the Penguin segment is really the only stand-alone bit and everything else sort of flows into each other in a weird way. The aforementioned Penguin segment is cute and funny and features the ever likable Sterling Holloway.

This film is really a major improvement over its predecessor in just about every way. The animation is more colorful and you even get a little bit of “Fantasia” style experimentation. The music is far better too, with the title
song being particularly catchy. There is some documentary bits thrown in but they come off far more interesting this time. As does the slapstick comedy, which feels less like harmless Disney stuff and more like the anarchic Looney Tunes/Chuck Jones productions and is, naturally, funnier.

The film’s energy does burn out before it’s over with the last twenty minutes feeling a lot longer then they should. And the part were an animated Donald Duck chases after live action young girls in bathing suits comes off as just a little creepy. Still, this is far better then I remember.
[Grade: B-]

8. Make Mine Music
Yawn. Here we go again, guys. “Make Mine Music” is remembered, when its remembered at all, which isn’t often, for featuring “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” Both sequences easily stand as the high points of the film. The former might have its origins as a “Fantasia” bit due to its classical soundtrack. Sterling Holloway is along to explain things and makes the segment go down easily. The wolf actually being intimidating is another strong point. “The Whale” is well regarded for its nice animation. Its quick pacing and snippets of opera music make for smooth sailing. At least, until that downbeat ending which is certainly surprising. “After Your Gone” is another notable segment, its jazzy, energetic, creative, and short.

The rest is dire, to say the least. “Blue Bayou” and “Two Silhouettes” are both sleep inducing, especially the last one which might as well have been called “Roto-scope-mania!” “All the Cats Join In” has its moments and features some unanticipated almost-nudity. “Casey at the Bat” has some creepy physical comedy. With the way it anthromorphizes hats, of all things, “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” comes off as slightly odd, though the Andrew Sisters keep things going. (God, is that what pop music was like in the forties?) A segment about the Hatfields and McCoys is cutted from the home video release, for some unforeseeable reason. Okay, that’s done. Let’s continue. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (1937-1941)

Like a lot of children, I grew up suckling at the teat of Disney cartoons. Unlike a lot of children, it fostered a deep love of animation in me that continues to this day. Proving I don't care how uncool I look, I'm going to start on my biggest project to date, a series report card for all 47 official Disney Animated Features. This was by far the easiest report card to prepare for. I didn't have to do any hunting or renting since, to my surprise, I already own all the movies, the majority on VHS. (Yea!) Anyway, on with the show:

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The one that started it all. Its biggest flaw is probably the fact that Snow White just doesn’t do enough to be a really interesting character. All the other characters drive the plot of the movie. Snow White basically hangs out, runs away, cleans, cooks, gets killed, and runs off with Prince Charming. (Another character who does nothing for the plot.) I’ve always thought the dwarfs deserved more screen time. It’s fun to watch the distinct personalities play off each other.Though it still has that trademark sugary sweet feeling too much of it, there’s still enough darkness here to keep it interesting. The animation is great and holds up well after all those years. How experimental some of the early Disney features are always surprises me. Snow’s nightmarish run through the woods surely freaked out its fair share of kid’s over the years and the Queen’s transformation into the old witch is terrific.

The music could be better but is still fairly memorable, especially “High Ho” and “The Silly Song.” It’ll never be my favorite Disney film, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
[Grade: B+]

2. Pinocchio
This is the first really great Disney animated feature. It starts off a little slow, but the whole second half of the movie is really excellent. Pleasure Island, the walk at the bottom of the ocean, and the whole Monstro the Whale sequence are all unforgettable, iconic moments in cinema history, not just animation history.

Another thing that’s admirable about this early effort, is it isn’t afraid of being scary. The jackass conclusion to the Pleasure Island act actually nudges up against being genuinely disturbing, and is certainly so when your five years old. And the main thrusting point of the story is, least we forget, an innocent being manipulated and abused by a cruel world. Eventually, poor little Pinocchio is chewed up and spit out, somewhat literally. Of course, we get a happy ending but I think, after all that, the movie earns it.
The quality of the animation has improved since “Snow White.” There is generally just more detail in everything here. The music has been greatly improved too and just about every song sticks out. “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “No Strings on Me” are rightfully classic sequences. The relationship between Gepeddo and Pinocchio is genuinely heart-warming and Jiminy Cricket is a character that could have been easily annoying but comes off likable. The biggest problem is probably just how stupid Pinocchio is, but his head is made of wood, so I suppose I should cut the kid some slack. “Pinocchio” is pretty damn awesome, I think, the first legitimate masterpiece to come out of the Disney cannon. [Grade: A]

3. Fantasia
This film gets some smack from snobs for pairing classical music with images often considered goofy or undeserving. One segment aside, I almost completely disagree with that. This is certainly Disney’s most experimental film yet as the opening abstract images set to Bach certainly makes clear. The Nutcracker Suite section is surprisingly good considering it’s a bunch of dancing fairies, flowers, mushrooms, fishs, etc. I think it’s the perfect melding of sound and imagery.

I’ve never been a big Mickey Mouse fan but “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is still full of great images, like Mickey conjuring up the fireworks and the brooms returning to life and multiplying. The first broom being splintered to pieces in silhouette has stuck with me my whole life for a reason. As a child, I adored “The Rites of Springs” because of the dinosaurs and it holds up extremely well today. And it’s also another example of early Disney not cutting any corners when it comes to realism, for the most part. It’s the bleakest hour of the early years, by far.
Beethoven’s Sixth is the weakest of the vignettes as the images are just too sugary cute for their own good and come off as coying. And the whole centaur courting ritual comes off as just a wee bit creepy. Honestly, not even the surprisingly audacious early Disney team would be willing to explore the debauch depth of Greek mythology, so perhaps the cute-y direction was inevitable. “Dance of the Hours” is goofy but also quite funny and another good combination of music and picture. Because, hey, who doesn’t love hippos in tutus?

And of course, everyone remembers “Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria,” the segment I never watched as a child because it frightened me. The swirling images are hypnotic and foreboding. As the giant demon on the mountain appears and the solemn, deep tones of the music kick in, a sense of dread actually creeps into the proceeding. It depresses me to know that Disney would never produce something this daring or creepy today. Basically, “Fantasia” is an unforgettable experience, a definite example of animation as art.
[Grade: A]

4. Dumbo
After the visual playfulness and intensity of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” is a serious disappointment. The animation is good but not up to quality with previous films and many of the characters designs are sadly lacking in detail. The central story is nice, with the scenes between Dumbo and his mother being particularly touching, but it’s just not all that captivating. Timothy the Mouse is basically just a revamp of Jiminy Cricket.

The slapstick comedy antics that take up most of the film do not hold up at all today. For a fact, that’s my main problem with the movie. Watching the elephants fumble and bumble around each other, especially when you know there is absolutely no risk or chance of anything really going wrong, is boring. The ending is a total non-ending as much isn’t resolved and is further example of the loose storytelling at work here. Dumbo’s slapstick revenge against his teasers just doesn’t have any dramatic snap to it and that the movie pretty much just ends afterward left me asking, “What? You mean that’s it?”
The music is repetitive and overly relied on. “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” are the only songs that stick out. For a fact, the “Pink Elephants” sequence is the only time the film even comes close to the rich creativity of the studio’s past features. The scene is a strange, borderline psychedelic dance number that plays like an out-take from “Fantasia.”

It’s easily the best part of a fairly mediocre feature. “Dumbo” provided the studio with the hit it needed after the hugely expensive “Fantasia” failed to resonate with the public. It was a retreat to safety after an artistic high period. And it worked. Oh well. These things happened.
[Grade: C]