Yarr, let me spin you a tale about an animation studio that had forgotten how to convey emotions honestly, and the lacklustre film that represents this creative malaise. Tis a sad story of a once great power reduced to half-hearted adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson books and how it struggled to be interesting in the middle of a decade where other studios were sailing the seas of creativity with swaggering confidence. Tis a short story, too, for the film itself, Treasure Planet, is barely worthy of extensive comment. If ye think this poor attempt at pirate speak is underwhelming, wait til ye see the film itself…
I’ll stop that now, for the sake of anyone that has read this far. Treasure Planet follows the same narrative as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, where a young dreamer, Jim Hawkins, gets hold of a treasure map and travels across the seas in a ship. On his journey he befriends the not at-all-suspicious Long John Silver, but obviously not everything goes according to plan when it emerges that Jim is not the only one aware of the map’s existence. Beat for beat, this is about as faithful to the book as Muppet’s Treasure Island, only instead of hilarious songs like ‘Cabin Fever’ it has maudlin 00s rock music playing over montages. The big change is, of course, the relocation from the Seven Seas to space. Long John Silver is no longer wooden legged, but a cyborg with a couple of handy mechanical limbs. The castaway they meet on the planet (not island) is a robot with a missing memory chip. Most of the baddies are sinister aliens, while the captain of the ship is the kind of anthropomorphic cat that furries go nuts for.
As with most Disney films of the 00s, the design is the strongest element, with the animators clearly revelling in the fact that they can go all out with their sci-fi stylings. Ships are powered by solar sails, giant space ports form entire moons, and Jim’s Inn at the beginning of the film is populated by customers that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mos Eisley cantina. Silver’s shapeshifting companion is particularly fun, and would probably be a popular character within Disney merchandising if anyone still watched this film. It’s a shame that Jim himself is a surly, badly designed rebel without a cause.
Jim is probably the centre of the film’s issues, a bland, forgettable hero with nothing more to his character than dreams of travel and ten-a-penny Daddy issues that make up the central dynamic of the film with the unexpected father figure Silver. The problem is that the emotions feel cheap, which is quite a claim to level at a studio notorious for saccharine sentimentality. But think about the Disney films that provoke the strongest emotions in you and it becomes clear that in those films the makers have invested far more in the characters, so the audience do, too. When Simba tells his dead Dad to wake up, it’s resonant because only moments earlier the two of them played together in a field under the stars. Here, it seems to be far more a case of ticking off the boxes in a checklist of how to make an emotional animation, and the result is perfunctory and oddly hollow.
Disney were in something of a rut at this point, making visually interesting but uninspired films that cared more about plot than heart. I’m yet to see Chicken Little, Home On The Range or Meet the Robinsons, but it is unlikely that any of them will feel as rote or humdrum as this sub par effort. There’s still a long way to go before Princess and the Frog…
In the early 00s Disney seemed to be going through an iconoclastic period where they avoided the genres and styles that had, time and time again, made them so beloved. This meant having a zanier sense of humour, genre settings (sci-fi was a particular preoccupation) and rejecting princess stories, big musical numbers and conventional romances. The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt all fit in this category before The Princess and the Frog proved a magnificent return to form (who knows what Brother Bear and Home on the Range are…). Lilo and Stitch is one of the least Disney films of this period, but is also the most interesting of the bunch. Not everything works, but it is so low-key and unassuming, whilst still having ideas and a sense of humour, that it feels wholly unique in the canon. It’s The Descendants meets Men In Black in animated form. Sort of. Here are some of the aspects that, taken together, make the film one of a kind in the canon.
Lilo is a fascinating central character, younger than many Disney heroines and a whole lot more real than most of them, too. She’s a child, and directors Dean De Blois and Chris Sanders (the geniuses behind How To Train Your Dragon) don’t shy away from making her as annoying and self centred as children can be. She argues with her sister and fails to see how much she is sacrificing for her. She is petulant, stubborn and a little bit odd. But she is also immensely charming, curious and resourceful. Like many children she has her own weird quirks and obsessions, including a penchant for Elvis and taking photos of overweight tourists. This combination of immaturity and childish wonder make her one of the most realistic main characters Disney have created. Humans are flawed but essentially good, and Lilo and Stitch is the first time that Disney has caught up with this. The closest comparison is probably Alice, 29 films ago.
By making the central character significantly younger than most of their teenagers, Disney are able to ignore a need for romances in the centre of the film. There is a little bit of a subplot between her sister and a local surfing hunk, but even that is underplayed in favour of the sibling relationship. This film could easily be described as a character drama, as the sci-fi is only there to compliment the main story, which is the developing relationship between Lilo and her sister.
While the 90s had seen a greater variety of settings round the world (Arabia, the Serengheti, China), all of those choices were informed by the narrative – for instance, Mulan can only happen in China. Lilo and Stitch could happen just about anywhere in the world, apart from the need for somewhere with no large cities, which begs the question as to why they chose Hawaii. My best guess is that the atmosphere and aesthetic of Hawaii is just an interesting one to explore. The azure, wave lined coasts and verdant mountains of the volcanic islands are gorgeously, but unshowily rendered, while the culture of the state lends the film an irrepressibly laid back vibe that again feels far more like an American indie than more plot heavy films from the studio. The tone and pace feels a world away from Atlantis or Treasure Planet, which come either side of this film.
There’s no need for it particularly, but it sounds nice and makes a change from 00s rock ballads.
Stitch is a kind of gross, destructive monster that flies in the face of ‘appeal,’ one of the core principles of character animation. But somehow, like Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon, something potentially hideous becomes immensely charming. He represents an intergalactic group of aliens of all different shapes and sizes, displaying a variety in design that is evidence of lots of time and effort in the worldbuilding. It shows the kind of inventiveness that marks this period in the studio’s history – design is the hallmark of even the dreariest of films from the 00s. Combined with the investment in character and the impressive animation, it makes Lilo and Stitch one of the best films from this era.
Late Title Card
This is just something that interests me and probably no one else, but there is quite a lengthy bit of set up before Lilo is even introduced, and the title doesn’t roll until 10 minutes into the film. Just another thing that is a little bit different.
Remember The Black Cauldron? That slightly weird, plot-heavy fantasy that made no money for Disney with impressive design but nothing noticeably Disneyish? Well, Disney didn’t apparently, because they were at it again in the 00s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film that shares the adventurous, fantasy DNA and emphasis on plot over character or, well, gaining an audience. It’s not quite as strange and not nearly as dark as Cauldron, but is still Disney’s attempt at worldbuilding and creating a mythology in a way that their more traditional fairy tales don’t. It also goes pretty insane towards the end However, also like the unfairly maligned 80’s obscurity, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is actually pretty decent. It’s no way near a classic, but it’s a good deal more entertaining than something like Dinosaur, as it crammed with events and contains some interesting designs.
The story, for the majority of you that haven’t actually seen it, is set in 1914, where a young museum intern dreams of completing his father’s work and finding the legendary lost city. He leads a group of slightly surly, slightly suspicious experts in various areas, down a sinkhole in the sea to find it. Once he gets there, however, it’s not quite as simple getting out, especially given some ulterior motives of the crew. Milo learns leadership, falls in love and beats the baddies – who they are won’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a film before.
There’s an admirable Jules Vernian sense of adventure to the film, abetted by some inventive, CG augmented steampunk designing. This is old, old school sci-fi, and starts a continued studio interest in the genre – they followed this up with Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, both of which are even more sci-fi based than this (later Chicken Little continued the 00s trend). The design is the strongest element of the film, all pistons, drills and clanking metal. The Atlanteans themselves have built an impressive world of ancient mech that is all powered by a a mysterious blue light. The film as a result often looks incredible. It’s not particularly original, but it is arresting.
In this sense it feels, at times, like Disney’s attempt at a Studio Ghibli film, most particularly Laputa: Castle in the Sky, containing that film’s eye for inventive means of transport, a mythical destination that few believe in, giant robots and underground shenanigans. It’s not as good, but very few films are – either way, it’s a marked change in tone for the studio, focussing more on creating an impressive, well rounded world than they previously have done. What separates a Ghibli from Atlantis, however, are that the design and beauty support the film as opposed to dominate it. Beyond the aesthetic elements of the film, Atlantis struggles.
The group of misfits that Milo travels with to the underwater kingdom are a crudely drawn group of racial stereotypes that don’t extend beyond their initial one line descriptions. Admittedly, the same accusation could be leveled at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but somehow the group here are even more crudely drawn than Grumpy and Dopey. Perhaps it’s the fact that they aren’t inherently interesting – let’s just say the mechanic would be played by Michelle Rodriguez if this was live action. There’s one scene of obligatory ‘character development’ where they reveal their motivations for being on the journey that has some forced attempts at humour and falls painfully flat. They regularly churn out direlogue that clangs louder than the steampunk engines. The lead double act of Milo and Kida are hardly better – although the latter surely deserves a place in the Princess canon? She’s better than Cinderella at any rate.
The film also isn’t really about anything beyond its plot. It just zips from event to event without really letting the film breathe. There’s barely any text for their to be subtext beneath, so the result is a thematically dissatisfying film that doesn’t hold interest beyond the surface of the narrative – and means you’ll probably forget it after it has finished as well. The more damaging result is that there is no real emotion to the film, it all passes by without engaging the head or heart. So you may be dazzled temporarily by Disney throwing everything into the art and design department, you will be left longing that they had spent a little more time on the script. They clearly didn’t notice as the exact same problems plague Treasure Planet, only two films later.
The dawn of a new era: an old way of life is about to die out after a violent and unwelcome explosion in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the unstoppable force of CG wiping out traditional forms of animation like a meteor crashing to earth. This is also the plot of Dinosaur, Disney’s underwhelming venture into the world of CG animation. Gone is the hand drawn beauty of their finest work, in comes blocky, glossy character design and the slight sense of soullessness behind the dead eyes. Admittedly, Dinosaur is a hybrid of CG animation and real locations, so a lot of it looks very pretty, but it heralds a new age and the passing of an old way, that is thoroughly unsavoury.
Before you all shout ‘PIXAR’ at me, I’m aware that there are several good computer animated films out there. I love How To Train Your Dragon, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, Brave, the Toy Story Trilogy and a few other Pixars. I’m even a fan of lesser loved CG animations like Surf’s Up and Rise of the Guardians. The medium doesn’t mean the film is going to be either bad or good. But it’s just not the same, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. I think part of it is that I’m yet to see a CG film that captures wonder or heart in quite the same way as the arguably more escapist traditional animation. There’s almost a sense that you are watching a series of codes instead of a work of art; it feels cold, in spite of incredible advances in technology allowing for some truly breathtaking sights – I’m thinking fantastical scottish landscapes in Brave, the flying sequences in Dragons – it feels more calculated than imagined.
This feels unfair to the many people that put a lot of work and creativity into making a computer animated film, but I’m just trying to explain why it doesn’t work quite as well for me. Animation, to me, is about transporting you to a totally different time and place – animation can explain whatever the mind can conceive. Arguably CG makes that more possible, able to create places with astonishing realism, but it loses some of the charm and heart that takes it there in the first place. I think I resent it more because it gradually led to the end of traditional animation at Disney, and I think the studio lost a vital part of its heritage and culture in doing so. Progress is not always the best option, particularly if it means discarding a valuable history and entire art form. It doesn’t help that Disney are yet to make a computer animated film that can sit alongside the best the studio have created using traditional animation. Tangled is decent, but I’ll come to that in December.
Anyway, this is all beside the point because the medium is irrelevant if the story is boring and boooooy is the story boring for Dinosaur. The problem is that the dinosaurs speak, and when they do they say very little of interest. The dinosaurs get wiped out by an asteroid crash landing on earth, and one iguanodon saves his family of monkeys and takes them, along with a herd of other generic dinosaurs that all look the same, to a paradisical land of green grass and fresh water. Along the way he teaches leadership through compassion, argues with another dinosaur who teaches survival of the fittest, and falls in love with another iguanodon. There is not one single element of the plot that is surprising and not one character that is interesting. Even the choice of dinosaur is boring – why choose iguanodon when your main character could be a triceratops?
I’ll make one concession for both Dinosaur and CG animation: it has the capacity for the spectacular. The villainous not-T-Rexes that chase the herd are properly menacing, and a showdown in the rain captures almost Jurassic Park like tension. These moments are few and far between, however. If I’ve used an article about Dinosaur as a bandwagon for my opinions on CG animation that’s because the film itself isn’t really worthy of much discussion, which says all you need to know about it.
The original Fantasia was meant to be the beginning of a series of shorts set to classical music that would grow and grow, so we’re told by Steve Martin, and Fantasia 2000 is the realisation of that dream after the classic Golden Age film flopped. This takes the exact same format, only with a series of famous faces in between the segments to make it more commercially appealing. The result is similarly wonderful, although with a couple more misfires than the original and lacking anything quite as spectacular as the ‘Nutcracker’ suite or the ‘Night on Bold Mountain’ that made the first film so magnificent. It’s refreshing that even in 1999, the major studio Disney were still prepared to make a film of shorts based on some pieces of classical music – you can’t imagine them getting away with it today. The opening sequence, based on Beethoven’s famous 5th symphony, like the ‘Toccata and Fugue’ is a series of abstract images accompanying the music, an inspiring commitment to the values of the first film, flying in the face of commercialism. It’s not as good as the ‘Toccata and Fugue’ as the animation isn’t quite as captivating, but the spirit of it lives on, which is heartening indeed. Like the first film, there’s so much going on that it’s best just to pick some of the highlights from the rest of the film to capture what’s so great about this. On the whole the music and the animation isn’t quite as good as the stunning 1940 film, and the ‘Pines of Rome’ sequence featuring some flying whales is an odd, uncomfortable matching of image to music, but that’s niggling, this is still a fantastic film and two sequences in particular are jaw-droppingly incredible.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
This is one of the said jaw-droppers. Inspired by the caricatures of Al Hirschfeld, this has a look reminiscent of ‘All the Cats Join In’ – which long-time devotees of the blog (hi, both of you) will remember as being a sequence from Make Mine Music – a series of simple, clean lines, bold colours and undetailed landscapes to bring New York to life. It’s manic, cartoonish and witty, zipping around the Big Apple as it follows a series of loosely interlinked stories that represent the many different facets of life in the city. Gershwin’s bolshy, brassy piece (recently seen in the best bit of The Great Gatsby) is the perfect accompaniment for showing the rich and poor thrown together in a kind of big dance of life. There’s a builder who dreams of drumming, a jobless down-and-out wishing for some work, a little girl who is harried around the city but just wants to spend time with her parents and rich man whose wife stops him from truly expressing himself. Jaw-dropping seems like quite a big adjective to use – if it is a real word – for something this carefree and cartoonish, but I use it because it perfectly captures the Fantasia spirit: it takes inspiration from great music and tells stories with it in a way that perfectly reflects the mood of the piece. Every beat of the drum and blare of the trumpets is matched by an image that makes sense of the music. What ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ does so well is show that such storytelling is not reliant on lush, detailed animation, but that a series of expressive caricatures can do the job just as well.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2
The ‘Steadfast Tin Man’ features something of a storytelling staple, exploring what happens when a toy shop comes to life at night (forget any famous Pixar films, Disney have been doing this since Merry Melodies). Here it takes a Hans Christian Andersen story about a one legged tin soldier who falls in love with a ballerina in a clock and his fight with a sinister jack-in-the-box who has designs on the pretty porcelain figure. The animation is not great, using some very early CG animation to bring the story to life, but the key elements of a good short are there: it’s exciting; it tells the story concisely; it has a lot of heart. Shostakovich’s music adds copious amounts of drama to a rather slight story, making a tale of toys seem grand and significant. Somehow, it manages this, and the short is a great success because of it.
Pomp and Circumstance
The aforementioned devotees of this blog will remember my hatred of Donald Duck. He is a menace to animation, a figure so relentlessly irritating that it made me consider animationcide. This duck shaped blight on the House of Mouse has turned up in more than one of the worst animations the studio have ever produced, so when the mildly less nauseating Mickey calls him up to take part in one of the sequences, I was filled with dread. How could Disney inflict Satan’s own pet on some amazing classical music – ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ no less – and get away with it? The answer is stop him from talking, animate it beautifully and tell the story of Noah’s ark. Sure, Donald is there, and yes, he is as annoying as ever, but such is the grandeur of Elgar’s magnificently British piece of music and such is the scale of the flood story that somehow the horror of Donald is mitigated by something entertaining and occasionally awe inspiring. It’s also really funny – note the unicorn and dragon laughing at the animals marching onto the ark.
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite
This is the 2000 attempt at ‘Night on Bold Mountain,’ a story of new life and rebirth conquering the destructive power of fire, the most beautifully animated of the segments, ending the film on a loud, inspiring note. Nothing will ever quite match up to the magnificence of that original masterpiece, but this is nevertheless an awe-inspiring short. While the Christian in me will struggle to connect with the more pagan overtones of this segment than with the defeat of Satan in ‘Bold Mountain,’ the craftsmanship and beauty of this piece are nevertheless stunning. Most impressive is the fluidity of the movement in this short. The Spring Sprite that flies over a winter landscape flows like water and everywhere around her the ground bursts with life. Being a mythical creature allows for her to change shape and size and to move unnaturally; it’s hypnotic. This movement makes the Firebird suite the most vibrant and beautiful of all the sequences in Fantasia 2000. Like the original film at its best, it’s bursting with life and energy and is, at times, majestic.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story of a man who was stranded in a world not his own, who must become like the non-human species around him in order to survive and who must eventually lead them to victory was one of Disney’s biggest failures. But enough about John Carter, let’s talk about Tarzan.
Unlike the Taylor Kitsch starring mega-flop, Tarzan was actually successful, opening at number 1 and outgrossing Mulan and Hercules. It was the last big success of Disney’s incredibly lucrative run in the 90’s. Arguably, as well, it was their last truly great film until The Princess and the Frog, but that is a controversial statement to people who love Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove, and also to the wrong-headed people out there who don’t really rate Princess (it’s their best film in the 21st Century, but more on that in December). I’ll have to wait to revisit Emperor’s and watch Lilo for the first time, but Tarzan remains a triumph nonetheless, a dark, exciting, dramatic and emotional drama that features the best integration of traditional and CG animation that the studio had yet achieved. Also, it has freakin’ Phil Collins.
I’ve spoken a lot about openings over the course of the Disney 52 project, and it’s because I think they are incredibly important in setting the tone and dragging the audience into the world of the film. ‘The Circle of Life’ shows the wondrous wildlife of the Serengheti in all its animated glory, while the introduction to Bambi introduces the hero in regal, formal framing, thus creating a sense of grandeur. The opening to Tarzan is an impressive whirlwind of scene-setting as it depicts two families – one ape, one human – as they build homes, look after their children and subsequently get attacked by a hungry leopard. The worlds of ape and human then collide as a distraught primate mother finds an infant homo sapiens sapiens and rescues him from said voracious big cat. The whole sequence is kinetic, exciting and charged with emotion – who wouldn’t get upset at the death of some parents and a baby gorilla? It shows early on that the film makers won’t shy away from drama and violence, but will keep family relationships at the centre of the story. Plus, there are healthy doses of Phil Collins.
This family relationship runs throughout the film, forming a core around which everything else is built. Any event in the film works or doesn’t based on how it ties to the core of Tarzan’s relationship with his adopted gorilla mother and the fierce silverback Kerchak. Therefore a crucial fight between the ape-man and the leopard who killed his parents is made more gripping as he saves the unapproving patriarch’s life in the process; the young Tarzan’s desire to fit in is largely based on his need for validation from the gorilla who refuses to be his father. The film is structurally ambitious in this sense: it doesn’t introduce the villain or the romantic interest until a third of the film has passed, suggesting that the crucial dynamic of the narrative is not romantic love or fear of outsiders, but familial love. The decision Tarzan has to make at the end of the film is rooted in his love of family, the tension of Clayton’s violent invasion is created by the fear of what might happen to his mother and friends. Many of Phil Collins’ excellent songs explore this theme, too.
Coupled with this beautiful relationship is a sense of wonder that makes Tarzan a truly remarkable film. What makes it stand out is that the wonder of the film works in two directions once Jane has arrived on the scene. The comically prim adventurer and gorilla fan is the outsider’s view into the world of Tarzan, a figure so obviously British and unsuited for jungle life that she makes an ideal fish out water, constantly surprised and in awe of everything she experiences. As she gasps at trees full of technicolour birds, the audience do too. However, as they introduce Tarzan to the sights of the civilised world, this excitement at the new and different is reciprocated as the old light projector flickers between sumo wrestlers, cityscapes and Edwardian transportation. The hero’s eyes widen as new countries and ways of life are revealed to him. Tarzan is a frequently wondrous film, making it all the more memorable. It makes sense, then, that they hired the wondrous Phil Collins to write the songs.
Bringing all of this to life is Disney’s best animation since The Lion King. Clear, thick lines and bold colours make the characters expressive and the landscapes lush and teeming with life. By the late 90s, CG had improved to the extent that it blends almost seamlessly with the traditional techniques (Tarzan was released the same year as Toy Story 2). The great moves forward in the technology enable the animators to achieve the potential they’d been hinting at from as early as The Great Mouse Detective: here, the CG means that there is much greater movement allowed for the theoretical ‘camera’. Where cel animation often required one static background for the superimposed characters to move across, computer animation allows for the backgrounds to move with the characters, so the result is a constantly energetic film where Tarzan can ‘surf’ along tree branches and swing through canopies with great alacrity. Much of the joy of the film lies in the sequences where the dreadlocked hero traverses the jungle, taking the camera along for the ride. Especially when accompanied by Phil Collins.
So Tarzan is a success all round, managing to be as exciting as Mulan, as heartfelt as Beauty and the Beast and as awesome as The Lion King. That sounds like high praise for a film which isn’t normally ranked as one of the bona-fide classics, but then, this has Phil Collins.
One final thought: maybe John Carter would have been better and more successful if it featured Phil Collins songs.
It’s only fair to add a disclaimer before this article about Mulan that I am not viewing it with subjective eyes. Admittedly, not a single one of these articles has been objective, but most I’ve approached with only a few vague memories from childhood. The ones I really remembered loving were The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast – the rest I saw a lot less, though I was still fond of them. Those two were the films I kept returning to however. Then, when I was 16 I lived for a short time with a family that had two young kids, one of whom adored Mulan. What The Lion King meant to me, Mulan meant to her. The result was that I ended up watching it most weekends for a few months. This kid was like my little sister, and it was constantly a joy to revisit Disney’s version of the Chinese legend. Sometimes it would be just for half an hour, sometimes I would watch the whole thing. Either way, I became very familiar with Mulan and I learnt all the words to ‘Make A Man Out of You.’ As such, it’s impossible to approach this with anything remotely approaching subjectivity; it’s almost like trying to review an old friend of yours. But then, I probably would review my old friends (3 stars, Jon) so here goes, anyway.
First and foremost, Mulan is just an excellently made, consistently entertaining film; after the uninspired Hercules, the deadly serious Hunchback and the po-faced Pocahontas, this action packed interpretation of a Chinese legend was a kind of return to form. It opens with a guard on the Great Wall being greeted by an army of menacing Huns who are scaling it like a child’s plaything. The leader of the Huns then sets off the beacon himself, grinning in the flickering light of the fire as he awaits the response from the Chinese army. It’s a thrilling way to begin the film, dramatic and with hints of violence. After a brief clip of the army’s General responding, it then cuts to eponymous heroine, waking up late and finding shortcuts to her chores before going to meet the Matchmaker – the woman who will set her up with a man and thus bring honour to her family. Within the first ten minutes, the two crucial appeals of the film are established: firstly, it is exciting; secondly, it explores and expands the role of women far more than any Disney film has previously done, even something as relatively forward-thinking as Beauty and the Beast.
So first, the excitement. Mulan is a war story, a historical epic of a fearsome invading force and the band of rejects and underdogs who defy them. Fa Mulan is a young woman who goes to war when a conscription law forces a man from every family to fight with the army. Mulan goes in the place of her father, a crippled war veteran. Her ingenuity and determination end up defeating the Hun army… twice. It’s a consistently exciting film, and one sequence in particular, where the Hun army storm down a mountain towards the plucky heroes, is utterly breathtaking. Building on the technology used to create the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, this scene is as epic and as sweeping as Disney gets, seen from the perspective of an eagle that soars over the vast force of warriors galloping at full speed down the steep, snow covered slopes. A training montage, a firework filled finale and a score as dramatic as the action mean that Mulan is almost unrelentingly thrilling. Yes, there is a love story woven into the war narrative, but this is Disney with swords drawn.
So action packed is Mulan that it barely stops for the obligatory Disney singing. There are only four songs in the whole film and they are all in the first half. After ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ (the weakest of the bunch), there are no more songs except a non-diegetic reprise of ‘Make A Man Out Of You’, making way instead for some magnificent action and the dramatic climax of the film. Thankfully, though, the songs are great, complimenting and expanding on the narrative but never feeling superfluous. Like many a good musical, the songs capture the emotional and thematic development of the plot, so ‘Honour To Us All,’ introduces the ideals of femininity and honour that Mulan is facing, while ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ and ‘Make A Man Out Of You’ expand on the exploration of gender roles in ancient China. ‘Reflection,’ meanwhile, takes the grand themes and makes them personal – this isn’t about establishing gender identity, necessarily, but personal identity.
Nevertheless, the songs reveal the film’s key theme, of women standing strong in a society that doesn’t want them to. ‘Honour To Us All’ establishes how women are meant to be seen, featuring pithy lines like, ‘men like girls with good taste, calm, obedient, with good breeding and a tiny waist.’ The implications are clear: women are there to marry men and bear their children; they should be seen and not heard. ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ reveals the expectations of women from a man’s perspective, as being good at cooking and being kind. When Mulan tentatively suggests, ‘how about a girl who has a brain, who always speaks her mind,’ she is summarily dismissed by the lads she fights with. It’s a shame that she has to end up with a man, as a large part of what she is fighting is the identity of women being rooted in their relationship to men; it undermines her biggest battle if she ends up with the buff Captain. However, a brief look at Mulan reveals her as, nevertheless, an almost feminist hero – something entirely unique for Disney.
Crucially, Mulan hasn’t got it sussed. She isn’t an infallible, kick ass heroine, but someone who is fumbling her way through a series of tricky situations and coming out on top. It’s not her abilities that make her an admirable heroine, but her motivation and determination. She takes the place of a man, and in doing so breaks down so many societal barriers surrounding women in Ancient China. She isn’t calm or obedient (although she does have a tiny waist), and she speaks her mind, everything that is seen as undesirable in women as presented in the songs. Yet she saves an entire nation. This may seem like an obvious point to be making, as if I am simply describing what the film is about, but I think it is worth pointing out just how clear Mulan’s role is: she changes the attitudes to women of an entire nation. She’s resourceful, intelligent and flawed, which immediately separates her from most Disney heroines, but her story makes her an admirable figure even outside of the Disney canon. On the point of her ending up romantically attached to the Captain, it almost feels like an addendum to the main story; she isn’t really defined by her relationship with him, and it isn’t what the film is about. It’s simply heartening to see a Disney film confront the expectations and prejudices women are lumbered with, and then go some way to dismantling them.
Mulan is a superbly animated, hugely entertaining film with amazing action sequences and a formidable heroine at the centre. As such, it stands as one of my favourites from the canon although, as I said, I may be a little biased.
In 1995 the animation world was rocked to its core when the plucky young studio Pixar released Toy Story, the first feature film to be animated entirely using computer generated imagery. As impressive as the technological advancements were, the real success of Toy Story lay in its whip smart humour that worked at two levels – there was loads for kids to enjoy, but the themes of insecurity and jealousy combined with a perfect script brimming with wit meant that adults flocked to see it, too. It was critically and commercially adored. Hercules feels like Disney’s response to this sea change in the world of animation, as the sincerity of Pocahontas and Hunchback felt out of place in the brave new world of sharp, multi-audience humour, so their next film, only two years after Pixar stormed the scene, is an attempt (sometimes successful) at making a more Pixarian film. Not that there was financial rivalry – Toy Story was partly funded by Disney – yet there seems to be a need for a creative response to the formidable challenge launched by Woody and co. Hercules is an admirable but tonally confused attempt at this, hampered by the fact that it is still, at heart, a Disney film.
Ancient Greece is a setting ripe for humour – the stories that came out of this time of heroes, monsters and Gods are frequently bizarre, rude, violent; in short, always exciting. This is the perfect set up for Pixar-style dual-level humour that appeals to kids (fighting monsters! comedy sidekicks!) and adults (Narcissus jokes! Oedipus references!) alike. To some extent Hercules succeeds at this, playfully messing around with mythology and slipping in (then) modern references; ‘Zero to Hero’ is a great example of this, full of throwaway visual gags during a big musical number about how great Herc is. A lot of it is likely to go over the heads of younger audiences, but it has some fun to things to say about celebrity culture. James Woods as Hades, Lord of the Underworld, is similarly anachronistic, a kind of villainous version of Robin Williams’ genie, only a lot more sarcastic. Then, there are two OTT henchmen for Hades, lots of slapstick and physical comedy, plus Pegasus – a precursor to Tangled’s Maximus in terms of anthropomorphised horses – all to keep the littl’uns happy. So to an extent, Disney aimed for Pixar and hit the target. They were just a few rings wide of the bullseye.
One of the problems is anachronism overkill, where their humour just aims to be too modern and silly, thus sacrificing some of the sincerity which makes Disney stand out at its best. There’s Hermes, a wise talking East Coast American who frequently sasses Zeus, and Philoctetes who is a wise talking East Coast American who frequently sasses Hercules. It’s as if everyone in Ancient Greece is Billy Crystal. Phil, in particular is problematic. Played by Danny De Vito, he’s a lecherous, world weary satyr who’s seen too many heroes to get too enthusiastic about the latest muscle-bound, wide-eyed wannabe. But with all his talk about ‘dames’, ‘oy veys’ and chasing after nymphs he feels too sarcastic and gimmicky to register emotionally or comedically. One Timon or Pumbaa is fine, but one too many and you have the gargoyles in Hunchback. The chasing after nymphs is a great example of Hercules’ other problem; it often makes light of some really horrendous stories. Satyrs traditionally were entirely sexual creatures and chasing nymphs would definitely have rape connotations in Greek mythology. The less said about Meg being caught by a centaur and referring to ‘yes means no’ the better. Admittedly, children are unlikely to understand casual references to rape, but it does mean that some of the jokes jar with audiences who have ever read any Greek myths – made more galling by the thought that the film makers certainly had.
Hercules’ other major issue is that in spite of its aspirations to post-modern wit and being cooler than your average Disney, it remains very much a product of the studio that brought you The Little Mermaid and Bambi. It follows a fairly generic hero’s journey structure from awkward origins, through training and downfall to ultimate victory via a troublesome romance, but it doesn’t really have anything more to it than that. Meg is ostensibly one of Disney’s new brand of heroines – smart, independent, witty – but she doesn’t have anything approaching an interesting character. She is passed between two men, a situation she only ended up in because another man betrayed her. This isn’t to disparage Disney at all – clearly I’m a fan – but Hercules is branded with the Mickey Mouse logo in spite of an apparent desire to be a little bit different. The result is a tonal awkwardness that mixes sass with sugar and neither fully works.
This uneven tone is not helped by the songs. The music largely amazing, an upbeat, gospel infused soundtrack where every song actually compliments the narrative instead of feeling extraneous. However, there is no seeming logical, narrative or artistic reason for having the Muses be gospel singers. The Muses act as a Greek Chorus that inform the audience of the progress of the hero, only here they are a quintet of divas belting out the tunes as if they just discovered the soundtrack to Sister Act. It works, just about, but makes no sense. What makes this worthy of comment is that none of the other songs fit into this musical genre. Hercules’ song of self-realisation, ‘Go The Distance,’ is a standard Disney ballad a la ‘Out There’ or ‘Part of Your World,’ but Phil’s training song feels way more like a 1930s Hollywood musical while Meg’s love song wouldn’t feel out of place in Grease. There’s no consistency to the sound of the film, unlike the best Disneys, and it feels like the song-writers didn’t quite know what they wanted the film to be. Which is fitting for a film that doesn’t ever quite feel comfortable in its own skin, torn between the brave new world of post-Pixar humour and the classical storytelling of Second Golden Age Disney.
It’s probably easiest to say right at the beginning of the article that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing like its source novel. They’re different mediums, this is Disney; they won’t kill the lead character. Disney themselves make the admission on the Blu-Ray blurb when they describe the film as ‘inspired by’ Victor Hugo’s novel as opposed to ‘based on.’ They’ve taken the very basic premise of Hugo’s tome – a gypsy women shakes up the lives of religious judge and the deformed human he keeps in the tower of the titular church – and turned it into a story about an unexpected hero and not judging people on their looks. What’s surprising about the film is how thematically rich it is as a Disney film. There is the aforementioned message of ‘ugly people can be good, too,’ but there is a lot more to it than that. There is a lot that is frustrating about Hunchback: the gargoyles are among the most annoying things Disney have ever done, and simply aren’t funny; the songs are largely rubbish, clearly inspired by Les Miserables but without any of that musical’s ability to stir or uplift. However, it’s one of the most interesting films that the studio have made, dealing with themes of religion and class and daring to go to some darker places than most films from the House of Mouse would dream of. This breakdown of three of the main characters highlights why this is so.
Frollo is introduced to the film chasing down a fleeing gypsy, who he promptly kills on the steps of a church. He then picks up her baby and, upon seeing that it is deformed, tries to drown it in a well. Within the very first scene he has been established as one of the meanest baddies Walts’ studio ever animated, but he isn’t just evil for evil’s sake: he’s motivated by the law, representing authority within the city of Paris. His journey, however, reveals him as being even crueller than this first scene suggests. Upon seeing the gypsy Esmerelda dancing at the feast of fools, his desire, previously suppressed out of self righteous conviction, is enflamed, and his subsequent actions in the film are driven by his internal conflict between his lust for the gypsy and his warped dedication to the law. His villain song isn’t a grand plan to get money or power, it’s about this battle between his hatred of gypsies and his sexuality aroused by one of them. ‘Hellfire’ is a terrifying song, as the chorus of the damned join with Frollo as he declares to the fire, in religious language, his manic desire to dominate her either through death or sex. That’s pretty messed up.
Frollo is more interesting than just being a dark villain; it’s the motivation behind his evil, and the themes that he represents that really makes him stand out. Take the opening song that introduces the character, which says that Frollo ‘saw corruption everywhere except within…’ He’s a figure like Javert from Les Mis, unable to understand forgiveness or grace and with a spirit of legalism that leads to his downfall; he represents the kind of religion that Victor Hugo hates. Legalism is when you think that your own personal righteousness can attain you salvation – the Christianity that Jesus taught (and that Hugo endorsed) fought against this as it led to hypocrisy and double standards, where people followed the letter of the law yet missed out love and compassion. Hellfire opens with Frollo singing ‘Beata Maria / You know I am a righteous man / Of my virtue I am justly proud,’ yet we have already seen that he is a violent, cruel man who kills innocent people and ignores the plight of the poor. One suspects God disagrees with the Judge’s claim.
The gyspy and ostensible romantic lead of the film is an unexpected Disney character in many ways. For one, she is an inherently sexual character that has a kind of carnal hold over the three main males in the film. She essentially pole dances at the feast of fools; clearly, she is one of the older, more mature heroines that Disney have had. She represents everything that conservative religious types hate – openly sensuous, part of the gypsy underclass and possibly a witch given her brief displays of magic – yet she is the character who, in one song, has a long communication with God and at the end, is held aloft in a cruciform pose, taking on an almost Christ like significance. This mish-mash of imagery surrounding her feels sometimes a little contrived, but she is nonetheless a fascinating figure, creating a fascinating religious discussion at the core of the film.
When she claims sanctuary in the church of Notre Dame – the action rarely leaves this grand, beautiful building – she sings ‘God Help The Outcasts,’ a long prayer right at the centre of the film. She is asking God to help her out in her time of need when the religious figures of the city want to harm her and her people, while stuffy Church types in the background ask for slightly more trite blessings. In this song, she asks of Jesus: ‘still I see your face and wonder, were you once an outcast, too?’ Jesus hung out with the rejects of his society, those that the Pharisees (the Frollos of his day) despised and excluded; lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. By making the ending a happy one, Disney remove the aggressively satirical bite that Hugo aimed for with his deeply depressing ending, but it does suggest that God is looking out for the outcasts. Either way, a plot revolving around the conflict between religion and faith makes for a fascinating film from a studio who are perhaps better known for slightly shallow but magical fairy tales.
Victor Hugo’s original novel was just called Notre Dame de Paris. By changing the name from the church to the hunchback, Disney have shifted the focus to one character, Quasimodo. This is a little disingenuous, as it’s as much about Esmerelda and, arguably, Frollo as it is the geometrically challenged Quasi’s. Thankfully, the team behind the film have made him an interesting character, more psychologically trapped in his tower than physically so. Frollo has him mentally bound to the place, afraid of the world outside his four walls and mistrustful of people. Most tragically, however, this fear of other people is entirely justified when he does venture outside and is subjected to the derision and scorn of the masses. (Side note: Disney had clearly developed their crowd animation recently, as the frame is constantly swarming with people in this film). His conversation with Esmerelda is a telling one, as he says hesitantly to her, ‘you’re not like other gypies… they’re evil.’ Here you realise the power that Frollo has over his ward, as his ideology has infected someone who is inherently good. The worst thing is that Quasi still sees Frollo as a benevolent figure, informing Esmerelda that ‘he took me in when no one else would. I’m a monster, you know.’ A subject of ridicule and psychological abuse, Quasimodo is an upsetting hero for children to get their heads around; even at the end, he doesn’t get the girl even if he does receive the adulation of the town.
Then there is Phoebus, someone who jokes and flirts but still serves Frollo almost unquestioningly until the final act, and Clopin, a clown who tells the story and seems friendly but is ready to execute two men without a trial. The Hunchback of Notre Dame does not shy away from difficult themes, or from posing interesting theological and political questions. As such, it feels tonally different from almost every other Disney film, an oddity amongst singing the singing Princesses and witty scripts of the other films from the 90s. But as Hunchback teaches us, being an oddity is not always a bad thing.
There’s a moment in Braveheart where some horsemen flee the English down a small hill, who pursue with a full attack across the wide, green open fields. When they get over the hill, they are greeted by an army of angry Scots fighting for their freedom and baring giant spears lined up against a ridge. Chaotic, thrilling, bloody battle ensues. This is the Battle of Stirling Bridge… hang on a second, where’s the bridge? This most egregious error is just one of the many issues that Braveheart has with historical veracity; people are alive far too early or far too late; Queens are impregnated by people they shouldn’t be; William Wallace probably wasn’t Australian. The problems with inattention to detail, however, are just that – it’s more a case of stuff not happening than a total rewrite of history to fit a particular agenda. The crucial events of the story are largely there (William Wallace fought the English, died for it), even if it is romanticised outrageously. Mel Gibson is clearly a fan of historical films rife with inaccuracies, yet Pocahontas, Disney’s spirited retelling of the settling of Jamestown, so drastically departs from history that it pretty much ruins a film that otherwise has quite a lot going for it. It’s an offensive, agenda-driven retelling of one of the most shameful moments in colonial history.
The final ten minutes of the film are where the majority of the terrible revisionism happens. Everything that leads up to that veers between twee and gorgeous, showcasing some stunning storytelling from Disney and one or two moments that feel uncomfortable with vaguely defined spirituality and bad animal slapstick. The short story is that Pocahontas, for the vast majority of its running time, is actually a good film, only with reservations. The animation is incredible, Pocahontas is a superb heroine and the score is among Disney’s best. Everything that is good and bad about the film can actually be encapsulated in the song ‘Colours of the Wind.’ This key point in the film sees Pocahontas teach John Smith the ways of nature and resists the claim that she is a savage. There’s a lot to love about the song, and a lot to dislike, and each element of the song reflects the film as a whole.
For starts, the animation in ‘Colours of the Wind’ is fantastic. The most impressive aspect of Pocahontas is the look of it, something which can be understood even if you only look at the mist. Presumably done on computers as opposed to hand drawn (although I don’t know this for sure) it drifts across the frame seamlessly in one crucial scene where the eponymous Native American meets the colonial soldier John Smith. He is pointing a gun at her as she stands beneath a waterfall, hair flapping regally in the wind kicked up by the crashing of the water behind her. The image is clearly iconic and mythological, and that establishes an aesthetic for the rest of the film. ‘Colours of the Wind’ revels in this kind of imagery; oddly, it shares closest visual DNA with Sleeping Beauty, its wide, clear-lined vistas recall the woods where Briar Rose met her Prince Charming. The texture of the trees and the play of light and shadows on the brightly coloured grass are clearly inspired by that slightly dull but beautifully animated romance. However, the crucial difference here is the relocation of mythology from Europe to something distinctly American. The landscapes are somehow bigger and wider than anything they’ve tried before, while the leaping dear and soaring eagles occasionally veer into jingoism. Disney are always at their most breathtakingly beautiful when they are consciously creating iconic images, and Pocahontas achieves that with flying colours (of the wind).
‘Colours of the Wind’ also displays the emergence of the film’s heroine as the figure with the most agency in the film. Part of the historical revisionism at play in Pocahontas is to recast the title character from being a 12 year old appropriated into British culture into an older, lithe, free spirit who resists cultural imperialism AND patriarchy-enforced arranged marriage. While this obviously has historical ramifications – some historians have deduced that her act of saving John Smith’s life was, in fact, an established ritual and a way of showing peaceful intentions – it does make her one of the more interesting heroines the studio have created. Although John Smith gets a hero’s entrance at the beginning, rescuing his mate from the sea, that’s pretty much the last bit of control he gets over the story. Pocahontas is the primary agent in her own story and makes the key decisions in her relationship with Smith. The most interesting thing about her character, however, is that she doesn’t end up with her man. This is true – she married John Rolfe and her name was changed to Rebecca – but for Disney this is still a fascinating choice (especially seeing as they don’t mind editing other details). It suggests that the themes of reconciliation and unity are more important to the story than the romance, and, in my eyes at least, that immediately makes her a great heroine. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is not a love song, and they don’t get one; instead she is instructing Smith in how the land works, a favour which he doesn’t return. The recasting of her into this great heroine once again contributes to the creation of a Disney myth that is distinctly American.
The score, meanwhile, also creates the crucial sense that Disney are attempting to create a legend. The soaring chorus of the Oscar-winning song at the centre of the film is repeated as a motif throughout the film. Ignoring the slightly nonsensical nature of the lyrics – wind is colourless, how can you paint with it? Am I missing something or is this just a lazy attempt at imagery that sounds nice? – the tune is undeniably aiming for an epic and, at times, it works. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is actually a great song, notable for actually having something to say whilst still being a song that you can belt out with friends when you are having a Disney night (a student staple here in the UK, or in my friendship groups at least). It has that awkward balance between the genuinely spellbinding and the awkwardly twee.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work about Pocahontas, most of which is present and correct in the big musical number. The comedy – largely involving a raccoon, a hummingbird and a pug – suffers from sidekick overload and just isn’t funny at all. John Smith is as unbearably bland as some of the songs are, and his angular character design is unappealing and just kind of ugly. Mel Gibson is terribly miscast – as he is in, well, most things starring Mel Gibson. Governor Radcliffe similarly barely registers, a weak villain with a weaker villain’s song; his obsession with gold feels forced and trite, and doesn’t really make much sense in history. His exit from the film is underwhelming. A lot of it just feels really, really twee, much of it is boring – catch the bit in ‘Colours of the Wind’ where they befriend a baby bear and try not to vomit. I could forgive all of this, however, because it’s amazing how much some good animation can help me overlook such flaws in storytelling. Then, ten minutes from the end, it all goes horribly wrong and suddenly it just becomes offensive.
The problem arises when both the English settlers and Native Americans are marching to battle to fight each other, with John Smith a prisoner and shortly to be executed. The set up is there for a big fight, then just as Powhatan raises his war club to strike the head of Smith, Pocahontas runs in front of her father’s weapon and throws herself over Smith’s prostrate form. So far, so according to Smith’s diaries. THEN the leaves float in on the wind. These leaves have been seen before, there to conveniently skip plot details with a dose of floaty magic that makes everything easier. Pocahontas needs to learn her destiny? Waft them leaves. Two people need to overcome language barriers? Gust that foliage. Want to rewrite history so that things ended amicably between power hungry, disease carrying colonists and the people whose land they were taking? Just blow some petals over the two armies and suddenly fighting will be forgotten. So thanks to some powerful flying plant-life, Governor Radcliffe is bundled back to England and the Native Americans vow not to fight the settlers, who are now their friends. Just like history.
Only anyone with a cursory knowledge of colonial history – or anyone who has basic deductive powers – can figure out that this isn’t actually what happened. Disease decimated the population of Native Americans, who were forced out of their lands by gun-firing colonists claiming it for King and Country. When disease didn’t kill the Native Americans, the settlers did. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is an attempt to convince John Smith that Pocahontas’ people are actually immensely civilised and wise – an admirable message, only around 300 years too late. Any resistance the Brits faced, they returned with even greater force. The settlers didn’t leave, they increased and spread out, often violently. Now Pocahontas doesn’t tell any of this story, nor is it obliged to as it is primarily about the relationship between the central pair; however, a film about the Jamestown settlers in which only one Native American is killed and that ends amicably between the two groups of people feels particularly galling given the true events of what followed. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was changed from its source material beyond recognition but this is much less of an issue because it is based on fiction; John Smith and Pocahontas were both real people. She ended up marrying John Rolfe, was taken to England to be shown off there and died before the voyage back home, only in her early twenties. This revisionism by omission feels like a piece of agenda-driven wish-fulfilment, as if the film makers are attempting some kind of catharsis for European guilt by re-writing the story of their country so it becomes more palatable.
Then there is the issue of the ‘Noble Savage,’ a Victorian trope where the indigenous populations of any outpost of the Empire were lionised by armchair travellers who wrote about these distant lands where the natives were described with a kind of hesitant admiration. These people are exotic others, different and fascinating but they are still, crucially, savages. Pocahontas, while admirably trying to cast the Native Americans as heroes, still resort to the classic, archaic image of a spiritually connected, wisdom-of-the-land type people who talk to trees and name rocks. The heroine sings at one point, ‘you think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you.’ An admirable sentiment, but undermined by a simplistic vision of Native Americans as Noble Savages. Admittedly, I am not au fait with Powhatan culture myself, but the sentiments behind ‘Colours of the Wind’ feel patronising and facile.
The big question surrounding this all is this: does it matter? Mel Gibson once claimed that as it was a film with a comedy raccoon, you weren’t supposed to take it too seriously and shouldn’t be looked to for a history lesson. Films about real people can take artistic license with history and still be good – Ip Man is a fantastic martial arts film, though I doubt the man single handedly took on the Japanese army – and this is just a film for kids, so the aversion to fact should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, the film ends before the violence would have really kicked off anyway. However, it’s the blasé nature with which Disney dismisses decades of violence and anguish that is particularly grating. If you can’t tell the story of the early settlers without totally changing the narrative of history then perhaps you should be looking to other sources for your films. Disney has immense power to make things enter pop culture – just look at the way that the idea of a fairy tale has been changed by the studio ‘Disnefying’ a lot of rather grim stories. So to take real events and turn them into a trite romance that ends with peace feels irresponsible. The magic leaves that waft in and out of the film showcase storytelling at its laziest and history at its shoddiest. So those final ten minutes undo an awful lot of good work set up in the first two acts, and stop me from ever really loving this film.
So that’s Pocahontas. For anyone interested in the story and who likes quality cinema, perhaps watch The New World. Terrence Malick’s mesmerising, poetic interpretation of events is actually reasonably accurate but is also an absolute masterpiece. It’s beautifully shot, features some stunning performances (including Christian Bale, who plays Thomas in this), and is charged with emotion. It’s my favourite film, so I couldn’t get through an article about Pocahontas without mentioning it.