Hey folks! Well we’re coming to the end of Summer 2016 and for anyone who’s been following this blog for at least the past two years, you probably know what that means. Yes, today marks the beginning of RIMC’s annual End of Summer poll in which I invite you folks to vote for your favorite film out of the many that have come out these past four months. For those who are new to the blog, here’s how it works. Below I’ll be providing a link to a poll that I made over on surveymonkey.com. There you can pick out your favorite film of the summer from the wide selection of options and believe me, you’ll have quite a lot to choose from. Because whenever I do this poll, I pretty much just list every major ‘wide’ release this summer. Obviously that doesn’t include every single film that came out this season so if you don’t see your favorite film on the list, don’t worry because I always include a write-in section for anything I missed. This poll will run for 2 weeks until September 4th. After that I will tally up the votes and from that, a post listing all of the ‘winners’ will be posted on the site shortly afterwards. Now when I originally did this, I had hoped to do something along the lines of a Top 10 list. But then I realized that this wouldn’t really be possible because most of the films that do get votes usually end up having a similar number of votes. So instead, I just list all of the films that DID get votes. And one last thing… I know that a lot of people on the internet have been saying that this has been a disappointing summer film season. Trust me, I’ve seen this mindset repeated through numerous online articles. But for the record that mindset will not be reflected in this poll and subsequent post.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Sunday, August 21, 2016
(Disclaimer: I don’t usually do this but there are going to be some MAJOR SPOILERS at the end of this review following the rating as I will be delving into how much the film has changed since I saw it at SXSW. Also some of you might have recently heard of the controversies surrounding this film’s production, namely the fact that some of its animators were overworked and underpaid. It’s certainly a troubling situation but I will not be bringing it up in the review.)
It’s time once again to talk more about one of the films that I got to see early at SXSW in Austin, Texas this past March. And this one, Sausage Party, is a particularly noteworthy one because when it premiered there on March 14th, it wasn’t finished yet. It was shown in ‘rough cut’ form, with some of the animation being unfinished. It so wasn’t finished yet that there was actually a scene that was just storyboards and apparently it had actually been screened sometime prior to that as nothing but storyboards. So because it was only a ‘Rough Cut’, I decided not to give it an official rating in my 2016 SXSW Recap Post. However, now the film is finally out in its finished state, meaning that I now have the opportunity to review it properly. Sausage Party is certainly a unique entry in the animated genre. While it may seem like your typical Disney/Dreamworks affair, namely in regards to the cartoony designs of its main characters that would certainly fit in any other animated film, believe me when I say that this is not an animated film you’re going to want to take your kids to. This is a very much R-rated animated flick that is as crass and filled to the brim with sexual innuendos and pot as you’d probably expect from the duo behind it; Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But if you can look pass all of the juvenile references, sex talk, and pot jokes, Sausage Party is actually a rather smartly written animated flick that very much takes advantage of its more mature rating, though maybe a bit too much at times, to produce a hilariously dark spin on what, on the surface, would seem like something you’d see in a Disney film.
The film mainly takes place within the confines of a supermarket called Shopwell’s. In this supermarket, its various food items are living beings who dream of being taken by ‘the gods’ [humans] and brought out of the store into ‘the Great Beyond’. One of these foods is a sausage named Frank (Seth Rogen) who dreams of being chosen along with his girlfriend, a hot dog bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig), so that they take their relationship beyond ‘just the tips’. As fate would have it, they do end up getting chosen together by a female shopper during Fourth of July weekend. However, a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) that had been previously brought to ‘the Great Beyond’ but was then returned to the store warns them that the ‘Great Beyond’ is nothing but a bunch of BS and jumps off of the cart to his death, ultimately resulting in Frank, Brenda, a lavash named Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), and a bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton) falling out of the cart as well following a collision with another cart. Now on their own as the store closes for the night, the quartet decide to journey back to their aisles, all the while dealing with a douche (Nick Kroll, and by ‘douche’ I mean the feminine hygiene product) that seeks revenge against Frank for getting his nozzle bent. It is during this time that Frank begins to learn more about what Honey Mustard was talking about and through a meeting with the ‘immortal’ non-perishables led by liquor bottle Firewater (Bill Hader), Frank finally learns the truth about the ‘Great Beyond’; it is a lie. Even worse, when food is taken by humans, the humans end up “killing their asses”, resulting in Frank having to try and reveal the horrible truth to his peers before it’s too late.
The humor in Sausage Party is very much what’d you expect from Rogen and Goldberg; it’s full of sexual innuendo, pot jokes, etc. And in the case of this film, that also means quite a lot of food-related puns. Pretty much any food pun that you can think of is probably in this film. Now as far as the humor is concerned, I must say that this film actually has a really solid gag-to-laugh ratio. It will legitimately have you guffawing throughout and while on the surface it may seem like a really stupid food version of Toy Story, the writing is actually much more complex than you think. Yes, amidst all of the f-bombs, marijuana use, and many, many, MANY stereotypes that are represented in food form, there’s actually quite a bit of in-depth social commentary in this film, namely in regards to religion as represented by the food of Shopwell’s being led to believe that nothing bad ever happens to food, which of course isn’t true in their cases. Instead, the film promotes unity amongst cultures and taking control of your own life. So yeah… this film basically gives the idea of religion the middle finger. With that said, admittedly sometimes the film can be a little too crass for its own good. I mean, sure, I get it, it’s an R-rated animated film so they do have much more creative leeway to get away with stuff that you would NEVER see in something from Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks. Still, there are times where it does feel like they’re just relishing in the fact that it’s R, meaning plenty of f-bombs thrown out here and there really for no real reason other than they can. Thankfully, that only happens a few times in the film.
Animation-wise the film is perfectly fine as a film made by a non-Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks studio with a low budget. It’s nothing special, for the record, but it does definitely deserve some credit for the ways in which it brings this world of food to life, mainly through its character designs. It also certainly does its job in giving the film a Disney-esque style with its own cartoonish and colorful style. Heck, they even got Alan Menken, the man who has brought us countless iconic Disney songs over the years, to do the film’s opening musical number. Needless to say all of this gets really hilarious when the filmmakers start to do more adult stuff with the animation, namely in the ending which, without giving anything away, is something that truly needs to be seen to be believed. The same can be said for scenes in which food characters are brutally killed by humans. Obviously it isn’t graphic in the same way that scenes like this would be if they involved humans but it does still provide a hilariously disturbing sight. As for the voice cast, pretty much every one is spot on for their respective roles; Seth Rogen as Frank, Kristen Wiig as Brenda, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as some of Frank’s fellow sausages with the latter being viewed as a runt due to him being a deformed sausage, Edward Norton as the Woody Allen-ish Sammy Bagel Jr. (no joke, some people at the SXSW screening didn’t even realize it was Norton until the end of the film), Salma Hayek as a lesbian taco shell who harbors feelings for Brenda, etc. Admittedly most of the characters are rather one-note save for a few (e.g. Cera’s character Barry) but the cast does make it all work in the long run.
Now like I said before, when I first saw this film I didn’t give it a rating at the time because it was only a ‘Rough Cut’. Plus, because the SXSW crowd was so into it (I’m pretty sure there were a few stoners in there… this is a Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg film, after all), sometimes I couldn’t even hear the dialogue. So now I’ve finally seen the film in its final form and overall I must say that it really is a solid animated flick. For one thing, the film is absolutely hilarious from beginning to end; most of the jokes, even some of the obviously offensive ones, do hit. And while on the surface this whole premise of food learning of their true purpose in life may sound really silly, and let’s be honest that’s exactly what it is, the writing can actually be rather smart at times, namely through how it comments on religion and the beliefs that one has through said religion. Pair that with the hilarious mash-up of Disney-style animation with the messed up crap that goes on in this film and the absolutely spot-on voice cast and you just have one absolutely crazy but still highly entertaining animated feature. Like Deadpool and superhero films earlier this year, perhaps Sausage Party will open the door for more R-rated animated films. Clearly people are open for films like this that aren’t afraid to be a bit more mature despite being part of a genre that’s mostly seen PG-rated stories. I’ve seen quite a few great R-rated animated films before; South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Team America: World Police, etc. So hopefully thanks to this film, we’ll be seeing more down the road, including the certainty that is a sequel to this film, which ends on quite an interesting note that will no doubt set up an even crazier follow-up.
SPOILER SECTION (IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM YET, READ NO FURTHER!!)
So as I’ve been saying throughout this review, when I saw this at SXSW not all of the animation was finished. Some scenes were in the early stages of rendering and some of them didn’t even feature full character animation yet. This was primarily the case during the opening song number and pretty much most of the finale, including the scene in which Frank tries to rally the supermarket food to fight ‘the Gods’ and, yes, even the infamous orgy scene. There was also one additional scene that didn’t end up in the theatrical cut. After the food have their massive orgy, Frank and friends learn from Firewater that they are actually only ‘cartoons’ brought to life by animators and voiced by celebrities like Seth Rogen and Edward Norton. The wise figure that is Gum then reveals that he has built an inter-dimensional device that would allow them to travel to their creators’ world. Frank and co. decide to enter it and they end up in Los Angeles right across the street from a diner where Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, and Edward Norton are having lunch. As the trio talk about doing an animated film about talking food, Frank and friends storm into the diner through the window to attack them. Now for the record I don’t know if this was actually intended to be in the film. The animation in this scene was completely non-existent; it was literally just the 2-D models of the characters on a 2-D plane set against the live-action footage. I mean personally I think it would’ve been a funny little ending tag seeing Rogen, Cera, and Norton get attacked by the food but it’s probably for the better that they didn’t use this scene. Instead, the film ends as Frank and his friends go into the portal. With that said, though, perhaps this scene will be featured on the Blu-Ray. It would certainly set the stage for what will no doubt happen in the sequel as Frank and co. interact with ‘their creators’.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
(Disclaimer: Due to the necessity to address certain moments from the plot in order to explain the controversies surrounding them, there will be some minor spoilers in this review. Fear not though, folks, for I will not be directly spoiling anything from the ending for those who haven’t read the graphic novel.)
There have been many iconic Batman storylines over the years and one of the most famous was the 1988 one-shot graphic novel The Killing Joke. Written by legendary comic writer Alan Moore, the man behind other classic stories like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, The Killing Joke focused on the Dark Knight’s most infamous adversary, the Joker. Moore explored the backstory of the Clown Prince of Crime in order to uncover just what it was that led to him becoming a criminal psychopath. The end result was a storyline that many considered to be not only one of the absolute best Batman stories of all-time but also the definitive Joker story. It’s so iconic that both of the modern-era Batman films that featured the Joker, Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, were directly influenced by it. Nearly three decades later, fans rejoiced when it was announced that DC would finally be doing an adaptation of Moore’s story in animated form as part of their line of ‘DC Universe Animated Original Movies’. Even better, Batman and Joker were to be voiced by arguably the most iconic duo to ever play the parts; Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker), who had done the roles for years on Batman: The Animated Series as well as other various forms of DC media like Rocksteady’s Arkham games. Seems like a home-run, right? Well, unfortunately that’s not really the case here. Because while this adaptation does deserve some credit for its effort to stay as faithful as possible to the source material, it ultimately suffers from what the filmmakers had to add to it in order to meet a much more suitable run-time. Said additions were done as an attempt to ‘make amends’ for the most controversial aspect of the comic; how it portrayed the character of Barbara Gordon AKA Batgirl. And yet these additions only end up making the whole situation worse, resulting in an incredibly disappointing affair for fans of the storyline.
The primary addition to this story comes in the form of a 30-minute prologue that is intended to further develop the character of Barbara Gordon AKA Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong). Having spent much time fighting crime with Bruce Wayne AKA Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy), she starts to realize that she is close to being taken ‘to the edge’, as Batman calls it, and decides to retire from crime-fighting. Sometime later, Batman comes across a crime scene that could have only been perpetrated by his long-time enemy, the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill). Unbeknownst to him, the Joker has broken out of Arkham Asylum and has purchased a run-down amusement park as part of a doozy of a plot in order to ‘prove a point’ in that ‘all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy’. This plan ends up affecting not only Barbara (in a very disturbing way) but also her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon (voiced by Ray Wise). It is during this time where we also begin to learn more about old Joker. As it turns out, a long time ago he was once a struggling comedian who desperately tried to support his pregnant wife Jeannie. Hoping to earn enough money to move them into a nicer neighborhood, the comedian meets with a pair of criminals and agrees to lead them through the chemical plant that he used to work at, before he quit in order to become a comedian, so that they can rob the business right next to it. Unfortunately for the comedian, things only proceed to get worse from there as a string of unfortunate accidents come together to become the ‘one bad day’ that ends up driving him insane.
So yeah… this film’s 30-minute prologue was not part of the original comic… and it shows. This film’s first half hour literally has nothing to do with The Killing Joke whatsoever. Seriously, Mark Hamill’s Joker doesn’t even appear in this part of the film. But the absolute worst part of this sequence is how they portray the character of Batgirl. For those who haven’t read The Killing Joke, the comic was rather controversial in regards to how it portrayed Batgirl. The story saw her brutally shot in the spine by the Joker, paralyzing her from the waist down which subsequently led to her adopting a new persona, Oracle. Part of the story also saw her being stripped naked by the Joker, who then proceeded to take pictures of her in order to torture Commissioner Gordon. So it’s understandable why some people weren’t too happy with how Barbara Gordon was both depowered, and in some cases very much objectified, in the story. Even Alan Moore himself admitted that he went a bit too far with the story in general. But when it comes to the film adaptation, it only gets worse from here. Basically all that this 30-minute prologue does is portray Batgirl as a hopeless romantic who frequently loses focus whenever someone tries to put the moves on her. And yes, as many of you have no doubt heard by now, there is a scene where she has sex with Batman. No comment. I mean in hindsight this 30-minute prologue ‘could’ve’ been effective in regards to actually further developing Batgirl’s character in order to make the tragedy that happens to her in the story even more impactful. But that doesn’t happen.
So how about when the film does get into the actual story of The Killing Joke? Well I hate to say it but even that part feels a little lackluster in terms of how its handled. Now to the film’s credit, the filmmakers clearly spent a lot of effort in regards to staying as faithful to the source material as possible. Save for a few changes in dialogue and how certain scenes are set up, many scenes in the second half of the film legitimately feel like they came straight out of the comic. However, I can’t really explain why but some of these scenes feel off in terms of the emotional impact. One specific scene in which pre-accident Joker learns of his wife’s death due to a household accident is executed differently from how it was handled in the comic and as a result it really doesn’t get across how emotionally devastating this is for him. After all, she and their unborn child were the reason why he decided to work with the two criminals in the first place so when he tries to back out of their agreement, the two force him to still do it and of course it ends up with him becoming the Joker. This is another example of how the longer runtime could’ve been used more effectively. Maybe the filmmakers could’ve bulked up the original story a bit more. Perhaps they could’ve put in a few more scenes between the Joker and his wife, who literally appears in only one scene before she’s killed off. But again, that’s not what happened and instead the filmmakers more or less played it safe. Sure it’s faithful to its source but ultimately it doesn’t really live up to the quality of either that or its legendary voice cast. Heck, the animation ain’t really that great either.
Ignoring the, to be perfectly blunt, rather terribly handled prologue, perhaps the biggest issue with The Killing Joke is that it’s ‘too’ faithful to the source material. The original comic was a pretty short story so obviously it wouldn’t cut it for a feature-length film. And while I’m sure that they could’ve potentially gotten away with just doing a 45-minute short film, instead they decided to add more to the story in order to reach a more suitable run-time. But ultimately they didn’t make any changes to the actual Killing Joke story, which actually sort of ends up being a problem. And yeah… that prologue. Obviously the point of it was an attempt to ‘do justice’ (seeing how this is a DC film, no pun intended) to the character of Batgirl after her arguably questionable portrayal in the original story… and it ends up being a major epic fail on every level. Not only is this arguably the worst portrayal of the character to date, it’s one of the worst portrayals of any superhero character period (DISCLAIMER: None of this, I repeat, NONE of this is the fault of Tara Strong. She’s still one of the greatest voice actresses in the industry. It’s the writers who failed both her and the character.). And as a result, the opening leaves a bad taste in your mouth that unfortunately stays throughout the film, even when it gets to The Killing Joke. I’m actually surprised that this was released in theaters given its rather low quality. I mean I know DC’s animated films don’t have as big of a budget compared to the live-action films but given the prestige of the original story, I don’t see why they couldn’t have given more money to the filmmakers to do the best adaptation possible. In short, this is not that adaptation. But despite all that I’ve said in this review, if you are a fan of the original story, this is still worth checking out if only to see the legendary duo of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill performing this legendary Batman/Joker story… just skip the first 30 minutes.
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Up until now, Disney’s current trend of live-action remakes have mainly been based on the studio’s long line of animated films; Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc. And as I’ve gone over before, while this current practice has obviously been rather controversial with some fans, at the very least the films have been performing very well commercially and some of their more recent ‘re-imaginings’ have actually been doing really well critically too. But with their newest remake, Pete’s Dragon, things are a little bit different. This time around the source material is not an animated film, well, not entirely at least. In 1977, Disney released Pete’s Dragon, a live-action musical centered on the titular Pete, a young orphan boy, and the adventures that he had with his best friend, a dragon named Elliott. While the majority of the film was live-action, Elliott was an animated character with the film’s animation notably being directed by animation legend Don Bluth. Upon release, the film was a fairly decent box-office hit and although the reviews were mixed at best, it has since gone on to amass a pretty sizable cult following. But now here we are with a brand new take on the story of the boy named Pete and his dragon friend Elliott, brought to us by David Lowery, director of 2013’s indie hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His take on Pete’s Dragon is noticeably different from its predecessor because whereas the original 1977 film was a full-blown musical, this new film is more of a drama. But despite the change in ‘genre’, this new take on Pete’s Dragon is still a very charming and heartfelt story that may seem simple but is full of strong themes that both young and old can admire.
The film opens as a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) tragically loses both of his parents in a car accident while the three of them are on a road trip. The accident ends up stranding him in the forest alone but he soon comes across a large, furry, and friendly green dragon whom he names Elliott (Elliott’s ‘vocals’ are provided by John Kassir) after the title character of his favorite book. The two become best friends and spend the next 6 years living together in the forest. But Pete and Elliott’s peaceful lives are soon interrupted by the growing presence of people from the nearby town of Millhaven, specifically a bunch of lumberjacks from the local lumber mill owned by Jack (Wes Bentley). Pete ends up being found by one of the town’s park rangers, Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), who also happens to be Jack’s fiancé. Fascinated by how a young boy like himself was able to survive ‘alone’ in the forest for six years, Grace decides to invite Pete to live with her, Jack, and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) until they can figure out where he really came from. However, Pete becomes increasingly anxious about being separated from Elliott for too long and Grace realizes that he’s referring to the same mythical ‘Millhaven dragon’ that her father, woodcarver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), had always told her about when she was younger. And to make matters worse, Elliott soon becomes ‘known’ to the people of Millhaven which then leads to people like Jack’s hunter brother Gavin (Karl Urban) to go after him.
As noted earlier, this film eschews the musical aspect of the original film for a more ‘straight-faced’ approach, which was probably the best move that it could’ve done in order to readapt the story for modern audiences. However, with that said, some have argued that this is really just Pete’s Dragon ‘in name only’ due to how much is changed from the original. However, despite the change in overall execution, this new take on Pete’s Dragon is quite fantastic. Thanks to the indie experience of director David Lowery, the film very much finds the heart within its extremely fantastical story. As a result, the film could certainly remind you of a film from the likes of Steven Spielberg or even more recent efforts like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. It’s a simple story overall (heck the film is even set in the late 70’s/early 80’s) but one that is rooted in strong themes; family, friendship, etc., and said themes are handled excellently. It also isn’t afraid to go to some dark places at times. After all, the film straight up opens with the death of Pete’s parents (this is a Disney film, after all). But amidst all of the serious moments, the film also very much wears its heart on its sleeve, allowing audiences to be whisked away by the magic of the story. And while it’s very much told from a child’s perspective, both young and old can appreciate it for its charm and lovable characters.
Pete and Elliott are very much the heart of the film. Oakes Fegley does a fantastic job in the role of Pete, displaying a great sense of maturity for his age and showing that he’s perfectly capable of carrying a lot of the film on his own. But of course it wouldn’t be Pete’s Dragon without its dragon and while he is a CG-created character, Elliott proves to be a very believable and extremely endearing character. Just watching Elliott respond to various things, from Pete scaring off a bear in the beginning of the film to when he ends up going into town to look for Pete, is an incredibly charming sight. Their friendship is so strong that, without giving anything away, the ending is most certainly a tearjerker. But they’re not the only great members of this cast. Another young star, Oona Laurence, also shines in the role of Natalie, who quickly becomes Pete’s friend as he adjusts to normal life. Bryce Dallas Howard brings much warmth to the role of Grace, who very much becomes the closest that Pete has ever had to a ‘mother figure’ in quite some time. After all, as Jack notes, Pete being alone in the woods for so long doing his own thing is very much reminiscent of her. Robert Redford also provides plenty of charm in the role of Grace’s father, who unlike his daughter and the rest of Millhaven still believes in magic due to his own experiences with the mythical Millhaven dragon. Finally, there’s Wes Bentley and Karl Urban as brothers Jack and Gavin, who admittedly end up getting the least amount of material to work with in the film. Both Bentley and Urban do excellent jobs regardless but Jack is basically the most thankless part of the story and doesn’t really add much to the proceedings. And as for Gavin, who’s basically the main villain of the film, while he is at the very least not a completely evil ‘mustache-twirling’ villain he’s still a fairly simple villain who’s primarily motivated by greed.
I should probably mention that, at the time I am writing this, I actually haven’t seen the original Pete’s Dragon. I recall watching snippets of it when I was younger as I did own the film on VHS (ah, the good old days…) but never in full. I promise that I will try and get around to watching it in the future but until then, I can only talk about the newer Pete’s Dragon. And remember back in my review of The Jungle Book in which I explained why I’m optimistic about all of these upcoming Disney live-action remakes, saying that if they can be done well and stand on their own merit while still respecting their original adaptations then this slew of upcoming remakes isn’t such a bad thing? Well, now Disney has had three straight hits in a row when it comes to their most recent remakes because Pete’s Dragon is another fantastic Disney flick. As someone who, as noted earlier, hasn’t seen the original, this new film very much stands on its own merit. I mean it pretty much does the smartest thing that any remake can do and doesn’t directly copy its predecessor note for note. Instead of being a straight-up musical like the original adaptation, this new film is more of a drama. But even with the change in tone, the film still maintains a lot of heart, especially in regards to the friendship between Pete and Elliott. Sure in some ways it’s a pretty simple story but sometimes that’s exactly what audiences need, if you ask me. As a result, this is very much a highly recommended family flick that both young and old will very much enjoy. It may seem strange that Disney decided to remake one of their lesser-known live-action films but ultimately it worked out in the long run.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Welcome back to Rhode Island Movie Corner’s ongoing series of Disney Retrospectives in which I go over the many films that Walt Disney Animation has produced since 1937. For those who are new to this site, this series started all the way back in November 2013 when I reviewed the Disney Animated films of the 90’s, a time period known as the ‘Disney Renaissance’, in preparation for that month’s release of Frozen. But it wasn’t until last March when I finally started to do more of these. Once again doing so in preparation for the newest Disney Animation release at the time, Zootopia, that month I reviewed every Disney animated film released since 2000, from Fantasia 2000 (which technically is a 1999 film but didn’t see a wide release until 2000) to Big Hero 6. After that post was published, my plan for future Disney Retrospectives was to go back to the beginning (the 30’s/40’s) and finish them in chronological order, having initially started by covering everything since 1990 because those were the films released during my lifetime. But then that plan hit a bit of a snag back in April when Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book was released in theaters. The week of its release, there were 3 videos posted online by Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers series, Cinemasins, and HISHE on the original animated Jungle Book. And to put it simply, these videos resulted in a collective critical mauling of the film, effectively decimating the legacy of what was very much an animated classic. And yeah, that burned me up quite a bit, so much so that I decided to fast-track the 60’s/70’s Disney Retrospective that I was working on so that I could give the film a much more positive review. But of course that meant that I went out of order again, against my original plan. So as a result, this next Disney Retrospective will be covering the Disney animated films of the 1980’s.
To put it simply, this wasn’t really that great of a decade for the studio, not necessarily in regards to the films released during that time but more in terms of the problems that they had to deal with during these years. Many refer to the 1980’s as the time in history when Walt Disney Animation effectively hit ‘rock bottom’. In 1979, a group of animators, including up-and-coming animator Don Bluth, left the company due to creative differences that emerged during production of The Fox and the Hound. Specifically, Bluth and the other animators were becoming frustrated by the studio’s increasingly growing sense of corporatism that was starting to have a severe effect on their film output. Bluth ended up forming his own animation company, Don Bluth Productions, that same year. Initially an independent company, Bluth and his team then got the opportunity to partner up with Steven Spielberg and his production company, Amblin Entertainment, in 1984. Bluth Productions would soon go on to become Disney’s biggest rival during the decade, with some of Bluth’s films even out-performing Disney’s films at the box-office (e.g. The Land Before Time against Oliver and Company). To make matters worse for Disney, this decade also saw the release of one of their most infamous critical and commercial flops in 1985. But on a positive note for Disney, the decade wasn’t all bad as it ended with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. That film would serve as the beginning for what we now know today as ‘The Disney Renaissance’. But for now, let’s look back upon this rather tumultuous period of time for Disney and the 5 films that came out during all of this.
THE FOX AND THE HOUND (1981)
The Fox and the Hound tells the story of a friendship between the most unlikely of characters, a young fox named Tod who was sadly orphaned at a young age but gets adopted by a kind widow farmer and Copper, the young pup of the hunter who happens to be the widow’s neighbor. But while the two end up becoming friends, that friendship is soon put to the test when the hunter begins to groom Copper into being a hunting dog. The first half of the film, in which the young duo become friends, is legitimately very cute and both of them prove to be very sympathetic characters. But once the two of them grow up (Tod and Copper are notably voiced by Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell, respectively, as adults), the way their relationship starts to be affected is actually pretty interesting, particularly when Tod ends up inadvertently causing the hunter’s other dog, Chief, to get injured which then leads Copper to angrily seek revenge. Admittedly the film does kind of lose a bit of steam by the end but it’s still really interesting to watch the development of this relationship over the course of the film, starting off with them being, to quote the film’s classic song, ‘The Best of Friends’ to becoming enemies as nature intends them to be. Plus, the film does have some very effective emotional moments, including the scene where Tod’s owner, Widow Tweed, is forced to let him go. As noted earlier, this film had a bit of a troubled production as a result of the departure of animators like Don Bluth due to conflicts between Disney’s original ‘Nine Old Men’, with this film being the last that they were primarily involved with, and a new generation of animators that included the likes of John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Tim Burton. Still, as traditional as it may be sometimes, The Fox and the Hound is a very enjoyable entry in the Disney canon that very much has a good heart.
THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985)
A loose adaptation of the first two books of author Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series, 1964's The Book of Three and the 1965 sequel whose name the film shares, The Black Cauldron was Disney’s first animated feature to be given a PG rating, effectively making it one of the studio’s ‘darkest’ animated features to date… and it ended up being a total disaster for them. Upon release, the film received generally mediocre reviews from critics. Even worse, the film was a major box-office bomb. At the time it had the biggest budget of any Disney animated feature to date at $25 million (though other reports claim that it was even higher at $44 million) and it failed to even make that back at the box-office. As a result, this film is generally considered to be the absolute lowest point in the studio’s history. But is it really as bad as its infamous reputation suggests? Well, yes and no. At the very least, the film does deserve some credit for at least attempting to do a darker and more mature animated feature. Granted, it still has plenty of the typical elements that you’d expect from a more family-friendly Disney film but for the most part this is easily one of Disney’s darkest films. Part of this comes from the animation. While I can’t say that it’s one of the studio’s absolute best-looking films, it certainly stands out with its stylish art direction, which sometimes produces some very creepy imagery. In fact, the imagery was so disturbing at times that following a disastrous test screening where younger audiences were absolutely terrified by it, newly appointed CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered cuts to the film to tone down some of the more graphic sequences.
However, the visuals are really the only noteworthy thing in this film, as the story feels underdeveloped and most of the characters are rather bland. Taran and Princess Eilonwy are fairly standard protagonists, the same can be said for their sidekicks like Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi (the latter of whom sounds like the precursor for Andy Serkis’ Gollum), and even the main villain, the Horned King, is pretty weak. Sure he can be a rather imposing figure and the legendary John Hurt does an excellent job in the role but for a character that I find many people frequently regard as one of the scariest Disney villains of all-time, he actually doesn’t do that much in the film. Heck, the whole climax in which he uses the mystical ‘Black Cauldron’ to raise his undead army of ‘Cauldron-born’ soldiers is really anti-climactic as both he and his army are dealt with fairly quickly. It seems as if along with the aforementioned graphic scenes that were cut, there were other story elements that were cut out as well that could’ve helped developed the plot and characters more, like a kingdom of fairy-like creatures known as the ‘Faire Folk’ that the protagonists encounter and yet are only in the film for a few minutes. In short, The Black Cauldron is, at the very least, not the absolute worst when it comes to Disney’s animated features. It does deserve some recognition for attempting to do a story geared towards older audiences and it certainly has some eye-catching animation. I can even understand how this film has managed to attract a bit of a cult following over the years. However, it still is one of the studio’s weaker efforts namely due to an underdeveloped story that feels really truncated in places and bland characters on both sides of its conflict. As controversial as this will sound to those opposed to this current trend, this is one Disney feature that most certainly demands a live-action remake.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)
So yeah… The Black Cauldron certainly didn’t turn out so well for Disney Animation, effectively putting the future of the studio in jeopardy as a result of its mediocre box-office performance. Thankfully they turned their luck around immediately with their follow-up, The Great Mouse Detective, released the following year. Simply put, the film fared much better critically and commercially, so much so that even though it’s not technically part of the ‘Renaissance’ era, many consider it to be a ‘Renaissance’ film. And while I’m personally unsure if I can fully agree with that notion, I do agree that it is a very entertaining entry in the Disney canon. It’s a fun spin on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, with the main character Basil being a mouse detective living under the residence of Holmes himself. The main characters are all very likable but the biggest standout of them all is the film’s main villain, Professor Ratigan. Voiced by the legendary Vincent Price, who clearly had a lot of fun doing the role, Ratigan serves as an excellent foil to Basil in the same way that Professor Moriarty is very much Sherlock Holmes’ equal. Pair this with the usual solid Disney animation, which includes a really exciting climax set within the clock tower of Big Ben, and you have an excellent Disney animated feature. Like I said before, I don’t know if I could go as far as to call it a ‘Renaissance’ film but it’s still a very important entry in the Disney canon. After the disaster that was Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective proved to executives that the animation studio could live on, effectively leading to the studio’s era of redemption that was ironically kick-started by two of this film’s directors.
OLIVER AND COMPANY (1988)
As noted earlier in the intro, this decade saw Disney deal with its first big ‘rival’ in the form of Don Bluth Productions following Bluth’s departure from Disney in 1979. And easily the most notable instance of this rivalry came with their respective 1988 outings, Disney’s Oliver and Company and Bluth’s The Land Before Time. The main reason why this particular ‘contest’ was so notable was due to the fact that both films came out on the exact same weekend of November 18th, 1988. Although Disney’s film did end up beating Bluth’s at the domestic box-office, ultimately it was the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas produced Bluth film about dinosaurs that ended up at the #1 spot that weekend, whereas Oliver and Company only ended up at #4. So what does that say about the final Disney film released before the start of the ‘Disney Renaissance’? Well, despite having the unfortunate distinction of being released in between two of the studio’s most beloved outings at the time, overall it’s still a decent entry in the Disney canon. It’s a loose adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist but one that envisions the main characters of the story as animals. Specifically, main character Oliver is a young kitten while the crafty Dodger is the grown-up leader of a gang of street dogs. Plus, instead of being set in 19th century London, this film is set in modern-day New York, which is pretty neatly animated in a cool ‘sketch’-like style. Admittedly the film doesn’t really do much with its Twist connections so fans of the novel may not be too big on the film’s method of adapting Dickens’ story. But even with this in mind, the film is still a very enjoyable affair.
The main cast of characters are all pretty likable and while not all of the film’s songs are that memorable, Dodger’s solo ‘Why Should I Worry?’ (Did I forget to mention that Dodger is voiced by Billy Joel?) has always been one of my favorite Disney songs. The only real weak link of the film is the character of Georgette, the pampered poodle of the family whose daughter, Jenny, adopts Oliver. Despite being played by ‘The Divine Miss M’ herself, Bette Midler, Georgette is a rather extraneous character story-wise. Really her only trait in the film is that she gets super jealous when Oliver is adopted by Jenny and tries to get rid of him in any way possible. This character ends up adding little to the story to the point where I’m pretty sure the film could’ve easily gotten away without her. Plus, her song, ‘Perfect Isn’t Easy’… is basically the weakest song in the film. But aside from that, Oliver and Company is a perfectly decent Disney flick. It’s by no means one of their absolute best but I’m sure that younger audiences will love this film just fine. I remember liking this film when I was younger. Granted I’m pretty sure that I only saw it like once in full when I was a kid but thanks to the ‘Disney Sing-Along’ videos (remember those?) I was introduced to this film through, of course, ‘Why Should I Worry?’. Like I said before, even if it’s not one of Disney Animation’s best films, it certainly has one of their best songs.
THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
After a considerably long period of under-performing films, both critically and commercially, Disney finally had a major hit on their hands at the end of their roughest decade to date when Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the co-directors on The Great Mouse Detective who would later go on to direct future Disney films including Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, many years after the studio had attempted to make it back in Walt’s days. It is commonly regarded as the film that kick-started the entire Disney Renaissance, though some may even argue that it began with The Great Mouse Detective. But as for The Little Mermaid, it’s admittedly gotten a bit of flak in recent years, primarily in regards to its main character. But really, it’s still an excellent entry in the Disney canon. It has everything you can expect from a great Disney animated film. It has great animation that still holds up today, especially when considering that this was the last major Disney film to be primarily done with traditional hand-drawn animation as Disney would then start utilizing the computer animation system known as CAPS that they had developed with Pixar. All of the main characters are unforgettable, from the delightfully villainous Ursula to the kooky seagull Scuttle, voiced by the legendary Buddy Hackett. And of course the songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are iconic, from the Oscar-winning ‘Under the Sea’ to Ariel’s beautiful solo, ‘Part of Your World’.
So what it is about this film that some people don’t like? Well, as noted earlier, it’s primarily due to the ‘Little Mermaid’ herself, Ariel. Definitely one of the more controversial Disney princesses (in fact pretty much every Disney princess prior to the 90’s has been a polarizing character amongst critics), Ariel has been accused of being ‘too whiny’ and ‘willing to sell her soul to be with a man she hardly knew’. But like another polarizing Disney princess, Cinderella, I think Ariel is a stronger character than some tend to give her credit. After all, her love for Prince Eric wasn’t her initial reasoning to become a human. It was her adventurous spirit and curiosity about the human world, which actually makes her stand out quite a bit from some of her fellow Disney princesses. It just so happens that she came across him one night and fell in love with him, which just strengthened her resolve. Now with that said, I do understand where some of her biggest critics are coming from, specifically the part about her seemingly not showing any remorse for getting into so much trouble with Ursula. But like Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, I primarily chalk that up to the fact that she’s just a ‘teenager’. At the end of the day, I do think she’s a solid female lead; perhaps a bit immature but still very much likable and Jodi Benson does a phenomenal job in regards to not only giving Ariel her likable personality but also giving the character her beautiful singing voice, which ends up being one of the film’s major plot devices as Ariel is forced to ‘sell’ it to Ursula so that she can be human. So with all of this in mind, The Little Mermaid is another excellent Disney animated feature that helped get the studio back on track after such a long time spent arguably having lost their way.
And those are the Disney Animated films of the 1980’s. Thanks for following along and before I go, I just want to announce that the remaining Disney Retrospectives are now going to be coming out on a monthly basis. The 30’s/40’s Retrospective will be published next month and this ‘series’ will conclude with the 50’s Retrospective in October. After that, well, let’s just say that I have something BIG planned for November. Until then, what are your thoughts on the Disney films discussed in this post? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.