Friday, June 26, 2009

The DAC: The Dork Age (well, mostly), part one

#47: "Mulan"
Now already I'm being unfair in dubbing this the Dork Age (but look at what's coming up). I am so glad I gave this movie another look. Very sweet and with truly gorgeous art direction, it's now one of my favorite underrated Disney movies.
Mulan herself deserves her own paragraph. She's easily the best Disney heroine since Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" (once again, dark-haired smart girls for the waffles). In fact, she's one of the best Disney heroines of all. Why in the world is she not a part of Disney's new Heroes line? Damn long-ingrained sexism.
It is well worth it to note that this is the first movie that was almost entirely finished at the Florida studio. (The supplemental materials cheekily note that the animators frequented Epcot's China pavilion for inspiration and "mental health breaks".) Note that most of the better and more interesting movies in this chapter all come from Florida. Man, I'm officially depressed by what happened to the studio.

#48: "Tarzan"
I promise you, I watched this movie earlier this morning. But I can't remember a thing about it except for a few sweet moments, an awesome prologue, gorgeous, gorgeous backgrounds thanks to the new Deep Canvas effects technology, and... and Rosie O'Donnell singing. This last item does not reflect well on the movie as a whole.

#49: "Dinosaur"
It all comes down to those damn lemurs, doesn't it?
If there was any doubt that we're now mired in Disney's Dork Age, it will vanish entirely at around the ten minute mark. This is where one of the monkeys is peed upon by baby Aladar (and we get to see dribbles of urine, so there is absolutely no question as to what happened. Whether dinosaurs could pee [a surprising number of animals don't produce liquid wastes] or whether babies are ever born with full bladders are both subjects I'm happy to know nothing about. But if neither is true, then the scene is just worse.) Did I mention that the only reason there are monkeys in this movie is because the executives thought we stupid primates in the audience wouldn't go and see a dinosaur movie unless there was something cute and furry for us to relate to? No, really.
I can't outdo Mr. Cranky's review, which absolutely nails everything worth complaining about in this movie. But I'll give it a try because in my opinion, "Dinosaur" gets the unhappy distinction of being Disney's Worst Animated Film. And when I call it the worst, I really mean it. Like I've said before, watching all these movies in order emphasizes just how incredible Disney's reputation has grown over the years. Seeing a crappy movie come out of them at this point is just embarrassing. And one must consider how much time and money was spent on their latest crop of movies. I don't think "Robin Hood" is the worst -though it's close- simply because it was so very obviously cheap. "Dinosaur", like "The Black Cauldron" before it, cost so much time and effort that it nearly sank the studio. That makes it much worse than a flop. Other studios have flops. "Dinosaur" is, as the kids say, an Epic Fail.
I can't remember who, but another review called this the Disney version of a Michael Bay movie and that nails it too: it is a ninety-minute long effects reel. The story is boring and a complete rip off both "Land Before Time" and "The Lion King" and every "Wah wah I don't fit in" Disney story ever told. The few original plot elements are absolutely ridiculous (we're supposed to buy the idea that a troop of bouncy tree-dwellers successfully raised a very large and heavy quadruped to adulthood?) And the characters are almost impressively unlikable and some of them are just downright ugly. Just because you *can* render every single scale of dry skin flaking off of a monkey's face doesn't mean you should.
I will say this: on DVD the movie looks and sounds very impressive. Here's the thing. You can have the most amazing animation, visual effects, music, and sound design ever to grace the eyes and ears of a mere Earthling, but if your story sucks and I don't give a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys about the characters, then you have made a bad movie. You FAIL. Simple as that.
This was the first movie to come out of the CGI and special effects studio called "The Secret Lab". Disney owned and operated this new studio and (well now this is thought-provoking) is rumored to have planned on using it exclusively if they found themselves in competition with PIXAR, who were reconsidering their distribution deal with the mouse. And who were kicking the Disney movies' butts at the box office because, you see, their scripts don't suck. This plan did not end well.

#50: "Fantasia 2000"
But how's this for a saving throw?
"Fantasia 2000" goes back to the kind of things Disney is deservedly known for: it's experimental, it's groundbreaking, it has downright amazing animation, and it makes you totally forget where you are for a while. This is easily the best Disney movie of the Aughts (Aughts? Nadas? Zilches? This decade needs a catchy nickname.) and is now my favorite under-appreciated Disney movie ever.
I have to get the bad stuff out of the way first. This movie took SIXTY YEARS to get into the theater and -here's the kicker- we almost never got to see it. You see, Walt Disney's original plan for "Fantasia" was for the film to be released every decade or so with entirely new sequences. While this is technically more like an "upgrade", it does mean that this is the only movie Disney himself ever wanted to have a sequel. And this plan didn't ever get off the ground until the early 90's. (That actually goes a long way in explaining why it feels a lot more like it belongs in the Bronze Age.)
My good old VHS copy has a lovely prologue hosted by Walt Disney's nephew Roy; totally awesome because this movie was Roy Disney's baby and he personally fought to have it made and released. He explains the legacy of the "Fantasia" films and gives a very moving overview of some especially revolutionary Disney features.
I like "Fantasia 2000" a hell of a lot more than the original "Fantasia". There. I said it. Not to knock on the original's animators (and it is an amazing movie) but this has a lot more "zip", it's funnier, and -thank goodness- it isn't so damn pretentious. (Remember back in the first post? "Fantasia". Serious. Business.) Someday, others will come to appreciate it as well. Right now, it just suffers a mean "Little Sister Complex", despite the fact that everything people complain about in this film can also be found in the original. Taking all the new material segment-by-segment:
"Symphony #5" - Trippy, man. But a little easier to take than the original's Obligatory Trippy Bit as it isn't as long and has a rudimentary story.
"Pines of Rome" - I forgot to *breathe*. This must have been unreal in IMAX. Re-release, please? Or at least another DVD release?
"Rhapsody in Blue" - A workout for later-Bronze Age animator Eric Goldberg and, rumor has it, originally a stand-alone short that rapidly mutated into "Fantasia 2000" (funnily enough, the same thing happened with "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in the original). It's very, very funny with truly gorgeous character animation of a quality we haven't seen since the heyday of the Bronze Age.
"Piano Concerto #2" - Oh, Bette Midler. Why the Dali hate? Anyway, I'm not sure if this was done by the Secret Lab. In any case, it's the nicest fully-CGI piece to come out of Disney Animation proper. The cell-shading gives it a unique look, lovely and storybook quality. (Of course, anyone surprised by the radically altered happy ending needs to watch more Disney movies.)
"Carnival of the Animals" - Very cute and funny, but way too short. Eric Goldberg headed this segment too.
"Pomp and Circumstance" - I won't get too crazy here. Donald > Mickey. Also, that blink-and-you-miss-it bit with Donald and the normal ducks is just about the greatest laugh-out-loud scene in any Disney movie ever. Bonus: Frank the Frilled Dragon is in it! ("Rescuers Down Under" director Hendel Butoy supervised much of "Fantasia 2000".) So is Donald's intimidating fighting stance!
"The Firebird" - Gorgeous. The Brizzi brothers, who directed this sequence, were rumored to have their own feature in the works. Whatever became of it? And what does the River Spirit have to do to be one of the Princesses? Or Heroes...?
I have to say, if we have to wait another sixty years for the next "Fantasia", I will be sorely p*ssed. The "Smashing Pumpkins" trick works here too.

#51: "The Emperor's New Groove"
A fun little movie that, sadly, almost nobody above the age of twelve remembers. Disney does well by movies set in South America, don't they? "Emperor" is upbeat, snappy, and a real treat. Major, major props to story contributor Mark Dindel. Disney could use a lot more of his kind of humor.
Now, although I was happily surprised by how much I liked this movie, I have to say this: don't you just wish Disney would let "The Sweatbox" out of the vaults?

#52: "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"
I forget who it was, but I like the reviewer who said that, "this is the kind of movie that opens with a quote from Plato and closes with a dedication to Jim Varney. And we all know what those movies are like, right?"
Fortunately, and even with it's flaws, "Atlantis" is now on my list of good underrated Disney movies. On DVD, it looks and sounds absolutely amazing. It moves very fast, and you have to love Mike Mignola, who inspired the film's production design. The story is very derivative of every adventure movie ever made, but it's still entertaining. It's fun to see Disney experiment with a movie that doesn't fall back on their old tropes, which were worn out at this point.
It is, to my knowledge, the only feature completed at the Disney animation studio that used to be in Europe. When it failed to make as much money as "The Lion King" had (85 million vs. 330 million; Disney has a very, very warped idea of what a flop is) the Paris studio was shut down. Class.
I am apparently obligated to point out the fact that this is possibly a totally accidental and not on purpose remake of "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water". And to that I say, whatever. Look, I've never seen, nor even heard of "Nadia" until just now reading Wikipedia. If it's true, than yes it's very bad on Disney. But, honestly, and remember how this is coming out of a dedicated cheerleader for Anime, does anybody really care? (And let's not even get into the "Lion King"/"Kimba" thing.)
Anyway, "Atlantis" is great and I'm glad I gave it another chance. Now what does Kida have to do to be a part of the Princess line? (I will keep complaining until I am told to stop it.)

#53: "Lilo & Stitch"
Here's the last Disney animated feature I saw in theaters. It isn't one of my favorites, but it's a terrific movie nonetheless. I think I related a little too well to Lilo… You know, let's just leave it at that.
You tend to forget how emotional "Lilo and Stitch" is. Everyone remembers the twisted humor; and the movie is absolutely funny as hell. But there's a darkness there too: consider how every character in this movie is messed up somehow. And yet, they're likeable. Once again, all the emotional moments are deserved. Stitch's character arc is incredibly moving. His little "Ugly Duckling" scene at around the fifty-five minute mark is just about the single saddest Disney moment ever. (While it would have been wonderful to have Disney's "Ugly Duckling" short among the special features, at least we get the teaser trailers and they're hilarious.)
"Lilo and Stitch" was the brain child of Chris Sanders, who had mostly done character designs and storyboards. His is the kind of story that reminds me why, while I love Disney movies, it's the Disney company that I have an incredibly ambivalent relationship with. For heading the most popular of the recent Disney animated features, Disney recently rewarded Sanders by kicking him off of the production team of his planned next film "American Dog". Oh, and they also rewarded the Florida studio employees for making "Lilo and Stitch" by firing them all and shutting down the studio. Oh yeah. Totally makes sense.
We're almost done! Next post: more disappointment and the latest Disney films at the time of writing. For more posts in this series, go here, or click the Chronological Disney Animated Canon tag below.


Off-topic, I just finished "Wolf's Rain" (I love Netflix) and... those last four episodes. My God. (It's very dusty in here...)

And I'll probably have a longer post about this later but here's the teaser trailer to the already polarizing M. Night Shamalian live-action adaptation of "Avatar".

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