Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"She Said, He Said": It's All Walt's Fault

Hello, readers! I’m sure you’re wondering why Bill and I did not post a “She Said, He Said” for the past two weeks. Well, I’m responsible for the delay, and I’m so, so sorry. As you may have noticed from my “Of the Week” homage, my pet rat Hermione died on Sunday, April 13th. She had been horribly sick for two days before that, and I basically spent every second with her, just holding her and trying to comfort her and give her all the love in the world. I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone. I mean, she technically wasn’t alone, because I had another rat, but the support of a parent is different and, I believe and hope, stronger. I loved her, and still love her, so much. Hermione was extremely adorable, affectionate (always giving kisses), and just one of the best pets I could ever ask for.

I know a lot of people despise rats, but they really make wonderful pets. They’re unbelievably cute and smart, and they’re great companions. If you want a rodent for a pet, go with a rat. They have the rare ability to interact and bond with you, and to love you as much as you love them. I also know that people might not consider the death of a rat a big deal, but I’m a huge animal lover, and I’m totally devoted to my pets. The death of my darling Hermione is as significant as the loss of any pet. I miss her terribly. I was a weeping, emotional wreck for days (while she was sick and then after she died). It’s agonizing to watch a pet die, and her illness and death hit me hard. I just didn’t have the energy to devote to our collaboration at the time. It was also my turn to pick the topic, and because of what was going on, I couldn’t think of anything good enough.

But then, as I was mourning my baby, I came up with what I feel was a stroke of genius. I was consumed with the loss of Hermione, which led me to think about animals and how much I adored them, and that took me way back to my childhood. Eureka! I’m positive that my love of animals is deeply rooted in the cinematic influence of Walt Disney during my formative years. Like most people, I grew up on Disney films, and they’ve always been a big part of who I am. There’s a special section in my heart dedicated to Disney (the entity, not so much the man). Because I couldn’t possibly narrow the list down to five, I suggested that Bill and I each choose our ten favorite animated Disney films (live action/animated combos, unless the live action is extremely sparse, as is the case of one of the picks, and Pixar do not apply) and discuss why for about a paragraph. So, I was really happy with this idea.

Yet even though the concept was inspired by my beloved pet, when the time came to make my list, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to think about all the animals in those movies. It was too painful. As that wore off, I encountered another problem when I realized that my recollection was seriously fuzzy. I had a definite idea of what would go on the list, and I distinctly recalled feelings associated with the films, but I couldn’t quite identify specifics or articulate why they made the cut because I didn’t remember, at least not to my satisfaction. I decided to give myself a crash course in Disney and just bombard myself with the candidates.

This Disney assault was a wise plan, because some of the films that I thought were definitely going to be on my list ended up definitely not. I had a theory that if it was magical for me as a little girl, it would hold up and still be as magical for me today. Indeed, some proved to be just as awe-inspiring and delightful as ever, and others did not. They just failed to impress me on that fundamental level. They’re still really good or even great, but they didn’t quite live up to the glorious memory, and they’re certainly not favorites. I’m glad I reviewed. I fell in love with the films all over again, but then, I put even more pressure on myself to get the piece right. It had to be special. So, it ended up taking me a lot longer than I thought it would to write. I put everything I had into it, and I think it paid off.

So, that’s the long story of why the “She Said, He Said” is late. Bill never complained for one second and has been a wonderfully supportive friend and colleague throughout this process. Regrettably, we’ve missed two weeks, and we're not able to post one next week either, but that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. Hopefully this entry is big and juicy enough to make up for it. The following week, we'll be back on track, and it'll be Bill's turn to host. Look for it on Wednesday, our regularly scheduled day. That's May 14th, in case you want to mark your calendars.

So, to officially introduce this collaboration, the topic is Disney. Bill and I each selected our ten favorite Disney films of all time, and I’m sure it was as difficult for Bill as it was for me. There are so many great ones that it’s hard to narrow the list down to only ten. But, huzzah, we’ve done it! What did we pick? How do our lists compare and contrast? Do we have anything in common Disney-wise at all? Aren’t you excited to see? And I put this to you: What are YOUR favorite Disney films? I promise you’ll have fun figuring it out.

She Said: Lisa Draski

This is dedicated to my pet rat Hermione (rest in peace, little girl), my other darling rats Junebug and Jasmine (she’s new - I named her during this process), my crazy clown of a conure Buster, and my angel of a dog Molly.

As is the case with most human beings, I was a child once, and a really cute one at that. I was born in 1981, and even though I dream constantly about what it would have been like to live during the Golden Age of Hollywood and gripe that I was born in the wrong era, I loved my childhood. Since I can’t change the date of my birth, I’m very happy with the one I was dealt. I feel extremely lucky. Growing up in the 80s was glorious, even if I was too young to fully appreciate the fun fashion fads. My mother read to me all the time. By the time I was 2, I could recite entire books back to her by heart. I hardly ever watched TV. We didn’t even get a VCR until I was 5, and I like to think that by then, I had already formed a pretty discerning, critical taste. Only the best was good enough for shy, precocious little me. I can’t, ahem, quite account for the Full House, Growing Pains, and Family Matters incidents, but those came later.

The VCR opened up a whole new world to me. Stuff that I enjoyed on TV could be taped and watched over and over. Children’s television was blissful during my youth. I feel sorry for kids today. I devoured Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, The Smurfs, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Alvin and the Chipmunks and, my very favorite, She-Ra. With her, a feminist was born. I dressed up as She-Ra for three consecutive Halloweens, you know. Anyway, the VCR also introduced me to a man who set the standard for entertainment, a man who irrevocably changed my life and shaped the woman I would become, sparked my imagination, and soaked my spongy brain with all sorts of marvelous ideas and possibilities. That man is Walt Disney.

The illusion of the grandfatherly nurturer has, alas, been shattered, but luckily it was when I was old enough to separate the man from his work. I think Walt Disney was a misguided, horrid, evil person. I’ve read so much about his Hitler-like business practices, and I’ve heard that he was a racist. Yes, that’s another thing he seems to have had in common with Adolf Hitler – raging anti-Semitism. I don’t know if the racism/anti-Semitism stuff is totally true, yet somehow I believe it is, at least on some level. I think he had some serious hatred in him. That’s just my feeling. Sigh. But there had to be good in him. How else could he cast such a powerful, beautiful spell over the hearts of children everywhere, including myself, and create some of the most beloved, enduring works of all time? He was a revolutionary who obviously loved children, and his dedication and creativity are unparalleled and inspiring. I am forever indebted to him for the joy his films have brought me. That’s what I choose to remember about him. Walt Disney, I salute you, sir.

My appreciation for Walt Disney and his awe-inspiring canon of films has only grown with me. I’m talking about all of them, including the ones made after he died during the Renaissance period that began with The Little Mermaid. In fact, it was the Renaissance that influenced me more than anything because of my age at the time and just being in the moment. So, when I refer to Disney, I mean the man and everything associated with that name. Anyway, besides fostering a lifelong love of animals, as I’ve already mentioned, Disney films were my main introduction to film, period. I think I was always going to study and write about film, but without Disney, who knows? He was the catalyst that got the fires of passion burning. These films molded me and opened me up to countless new and exciting people, places, and things. I emphasize places because you have to give the Disney bunch credit for exploring other worlds and cultures. There have been accusations of racism (Dumbo, Song of the South), which are sometimes totally justified. I tell you, though, when you’re a kid, you don’t think about that stuff. I didn’t grow up to be a racist because of the crows in Dumbo. It doesn’t make it right, but I think overall there’s a very, very low percentage of racism in Disney films. Unfortunately, I’m sure there’s been flack surrounding every film not set in America. Anyway, I seriously love how Disney has transported us around the world – the Arabian desert, the streets of London, France, China, India, Mesoamerica, and even under the sea – and to other time periods, while always remaining universal and timeless.

These films made me think wonderful thoughts. I said that She-Ra was responsible for my feminist sentiments. Well, she was part of it, but I’d say that she comprised about 10% (a tremendous 10%, though) of my introduction to female empowerment. The rest was all Disney. She-Ra didn’t have the same staying power, so Disney films (the whole shebang, or SHE-bang if you prefer), were infinitely more important in shaping my ideas of femininity, and I’m glad and grateful that they were. It’s rather remarkable that these positive representations of women came from virtually all men (seriously, check the credits) in a time when girl power wasn’t exactly cool in society. The Disney heroines are such empowering, glorious female role models and icons. How delightfully progressive.

When they say that every little girl wants to be a princess, it’s true. Why? For the answer, look no further than Walt’s vault of girl-centric goodies. Yes, Walt Disney is the reason that all little girls want to be princesses. I know I did. I’m sure there are some feminazis out there who scoff at the prevalence of princess-hood in Disney movies and get huffy because they think it’s a negative, old-fashioned representation of feminine oppression. To them I say: Get over yourselves. Join us rational people back on Earth, won’t you? Not everyone is out to get us. That poisonous anti-Disney argument couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s just absurd. The Disney women rock. They make me proud to be a woman. And seriously, there are far worse aspirations than wanting to be a princess. In fact, the princess notion taught us to strive for greatness and never settle. Be a princess. Be royalty. You deserve it. That’s awesome! Disney women are so strong, and that message of strength and empowerment was what I absorbed from them and the films. I wanted to be a princess when I was a little girl, but I wanted to be a princess who looked great, wore fabulous dresses, AND kicked ass. I knew we could have it all. Thank you, Mr. Disney.

Now, after much deliberation and some heavenly reviewing, here is a list of my ten favorite Disney films, in no particular order. Hey, I’m only human. I couldn’t possibly rank them. How do you rank pieces of yourself?

Behold the magic:

101 Dalmatians (1961):

Puppies! More than that, puppies speaking in British accents! How could I resist? Despite the ample cuteness, this film is deceptively sophisticated. I love the jazzy feel of the music and the mood. The streets of London never looked hipper. The animation has a unique, edgy unfinished look about it that perfectly complements the story. 101 Dalmatians opens delightfully with a voiceover of a male narrator discussing the pitfalls of bachelorhood and his pet, but we find out that the voice belongs to Pongo, the Dalmatian lounging in front of the window, and not Roger, the pipe-smoking musician toiling away in the background. Both bachelors find their matches in Dalmatian Perdita and her pet, Anita. What I think this film has over Lady and the Tramp is that the human owners, Roger and Anita, are just as interesting and fleshed out as the dogs. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a villain as delicious as the iconic Cruella De Vil (with a theme song written by Roger that you can really jam out to), the evil woman who steals Pongo and Perdita’s 15 puppies, and then gathers up 84 others, so that she can make a Dalmatian fur coat. And yet, I still dig her. She’s a riot. This film is still suspenseful, funny, and touching. One amazing sequence features the “Twilight Bark,” an emergency alert system for dogs. It was such a joy to watch 101 Dalmatians again and to discover that it’s even better than I remembered. Oh, and did I mention puppies? 99 of them?

Cinderella (1950):

This has always been one of my favorite Disney films. Cinderella is one of the toughest and most empowering women depicted on film during the 1950s, a decade that is not exactly known for its liberal attitudes toward the fairer sex. From the very first time you see her, waking up and singing the glorious “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” you’re hooked. You empathize with her, and you know that she has a brain and convictions beneath the beautiful exterior. Cinderella is definitely one of the biggest reasons that I love rodents. The mice are fantastic! All of the animals are wonderful characters, and so are most of the humans. The step-sisters are sufficiently icky, everyone wants a fairy godmother (bless you, Verna Felton!), and Lady Tremaine, the evil step-mother, is one of Disney’s best and most menacing villains. I think the prince has all of 5 lines, and he’s really pretty lame, but it’s easy to overlook. The animation is impeccably gorgeous.

The scene with the Fairy Godmother singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and transforming Cinderella, the pumpkin, and the animals for the ball is one of the most magical in film history. That glittering white dress she wears to the ball is exquisite. Some people think it’s blue, some think it’s white. I say it’s white. I’ve always believed that and still do. Regardless, it’s beautiful. It’s one of the best, if not the very best, of the princess dresses. Every girl (and woman) wants Cinderella’s dress. In fact, I wore a dress to my senior prom that looks like it. Now that I think about it, I must have been subconsciously influenced by Cinderella in my choice. All I knew was that I wanted to look like a princess for prom. I know that Snow White is historically significant, but I don’t care for it. As far as I’m concerned, Cinderella is the pinnacle of Disney excellence during Walt’s lifetime. It’s the quintessential fairy tale. It set the royal standard. And speaking of royal, the Cinderella castle is unquestionably Disney’s most recognizable piece of architecture. It’s the foundation, the most prominent fixture, of two of the theme parks (Tokyo and the main one, the big kahuna - Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida). Let’s be honest here: Disneyworld is way better than Disneyland in California. And the Cinderella castle of Disneyworld puts the Sleeping Beauty castle of Disneyland to shame. If you still need more convincing about the film’s significance, the Cinderella castle is also the Disney logo. Case closed. How’s that for cinematic longevity and influence?

Lady and the Tramp (1955):

Dogs. Enough said. No, just kidding. But seriously, I love, love, love dogs, and this film is one of the reasons that I’m so obsessed. Lady as a puppy is one of the cutest things ever. I think I squealed out loud a bunch of times during my recent viewing. She is such a sweetheart. The humans are a non-factor. They only matter because of how they affect Lady. The relationship between Lady and the Tramp is the classic attraction of complements: he’s street smart, and she’s, well, a lady. They need each other. With the roll of the meatball, Tramp is saying, “You complete me.” This is one of the most romantic movies ever made. The famous restaurant scene still makes me swoon. There are great supporting characters, mainly dogs, like Lady’s friends Jock and Trusty, and all of the dogs at the pound, especially Peg, the vixen who sings “He’s a Tramp.” It’s a fabulous song (performed sensually by the marvelous Peggy Lee). And who knew that a dog could be so sexy? She’s hot! The pound scene is devastating, though. I’ve had two dogs and rescued both from the pound, and I sense another Disney-real life connection here. I’m not a huge fan of the rat as villain, but I’m biased, as you know, and I can’t really fault the movie for that. That particular rat IS pretty gross and evil. Lady and the Tramp contains some of the most breathtaking animation I’ve ever seen, and it’s a timeless, enchanting tale, full of love and laughter, and it’s guaranteed to touch your heart. You didn’t think I forgot about the Siamese cats, did you? How could I? They’re sinfully entertaining. Their voices and that song are haunting, thanks again to the vocal and composing talents of Peggy Lee. You’ll be shaking your hips to that melody for weeks. Ba-dum-bum-bum.

Sleeping Beauty (1959):

Walt Disney wanted Sleeping Beauty to be a moving illustration, a painting come to life, and he succeeded. Since they had just done Cinderella, the animation had to be different to set it apart. If you compare it to the rest of Disney’s early work, Sleeping Beauty is totally unique. It’s more stylized, and it’s so lush and expensive-looking (which it was), but in a good way. The love and attention to detail that the animators put into this project are evident. The shot with Aurora on the bed asleep is so gorgeous that it blows my mind, how she looks ethereally unreal and yet shockingly realistic at the same time. I think Sleeping Beauty is a strong character, but she’s unfortunately not in it that much. The real star of the film is the trio of fairies – Flora (pink), Fauna (green), and Merryweather (blue). For people who don’t think Aurora is a well-developed female character, check out the rest of the women – the three fairies and the sinister villain Maleficent. The fairies are the ones who save the day in the end. Prince Philip is good, but they’re better. They basically do everything for him. Merryweather is my personal favorite. She’s such a cute, tough, feisty little thing. And even though Maleficent is evil, there’s no law saying that a villain can’t be empowering. I think Maleficent rocks. Aurora and Philip are incidental in this film, but who cares? The other characters pick up the slack, and it’s fun, touching, suspenseful, and totally scary. When I was young, I was absolutely terrified when Maleficent turned into a dragon at the end. It’s one of my most vivid Disney memories. It’s STILL scary today. And the battle between her and Philip and the fairies is one of the most magnificently animated sequences I’ve ever seen.

Bambi (1942):

I think this film was my first introduction to the concept of death, even though I probably didn’t really comprehend it at the time. Bambi’s mother getting shot and killed is shocking. Lots of Disney characters don’t have parents, but losing one so matter-of-factly during the film is extremely rare. Bambi and his mother have one of Disney’s best parent-child relationships, so her death is even more upsetting. There couldn’t be a better pro-preservation advertisement than Bambi. Who doesn’t want to live in that forest? It’s divine. As Bambi discovers the world around him, so do we. His joy is our joy. The extraordinary animation doesn’t hurt either. Seriously, none of the Disney animation is bad. Some is just better. Bambi is better than others. It’s so pristine, just like the forest before man came in and ruined it. Stupid man. The characters are wonderfully memorable, especially Thumper and Flower. And Thumper teaching Bambi to glide on the ice is classic for a reason. The film is delightfully funny and sweet, but it’s also devastating and profound. We’re dealing with heavy issues here – hunting, destruction of the environment, and death. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can watch Bambi and still go hunting. I don’t really get hunting as a sport at all. It’s cruel and senseless. I’m sure Bambi had a part in forming that sentiment. There’s all this talk now about “going green.” Well, go green – watch Bambi.

Mulan (1998):

There was the late 80s-early 90s Renaissance, and then there was nothing for almost a handful of years until Mulan came along. Mulan is worthy of being called a Renaissance film. I had no expectations for it. I was in high school, Disney had lost creative steam, and then Mulan blazed into my life out of nowhere like a shooting star. It’s a wonderful film that’s sadly rarely discussed and totally underappreciated. This is Disney’s first trip to the Far East, China to be exact. When the Huns invade China (my history is fuzzy – it was a long, long time ago, let’s just say that), all men are required to fight. The only male left in Mulan’s family is her sickly, old father, so she poses as a man and goes to fight in his place, along with her horse, an adorable lucky cricket named Cri-Kee, and a tiny red dragon named Mushu. Eddie Murphy does brilliant work as the voice of Mushu. It’s some of his very best. He’s absolutely hilarious and makes Mushu just as funny as Robin Williams does with the Genie in Aladdin, which is a huge compliment. Mushu is a great character. He’s originally the dragon sent to awaken the Great Stone Dragon, which will guide Mulan on her quest, but he breaks the Great Stone Dragon and goes himself without telling anyone. So, he has to prove that he’s worthy of a place among the rest of the family ancestors. It’s really sweet. All of the characters, human and otherwise, are fantastic. Anyway, did I mention that Mulan cross-dresses? That’s insane for a Disney film. She’s one of Disney’s best women – inspiring, exciting, and totally empowering. She literally takes matters into her own hands to save China. That’s awesome. The animation is excellent. There are moments when it literally takes my breath away, like in the outstanding sequence with the Huns rushing down a mountain with an avalanche, and basically everything in the city and by the palace at the end. The climax and denouement make me weep. Take everything I just said, and throw in a great love story between Mulan and her captain who thinks she’s a man (oh, snap!), terrific score and songs, and a sensitive, fascinating depiction of another culture, and you get a tremendously satisfying film. My ten favorites are not listed in any certain order, as I already said, but Mulan would be in my top 5 for sure.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000):

This goofy gem is the funniest Disney film by a long shot. Not only that, it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen in my life – Disney or otherwise. It’s so unabashedly ridiculous and, overall, unapologetically unsentimental. The fact that there still ARE some sweet, emotional moments is just gravy. The Emperor’s New Groove is brilliantly executed comic chaos. It seems out of control, but it never is. Do you know how hard that is to do? This film contains slapstick comedy worthy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and a relentless barrage of witty jokes and intelligent verbal sparring reminiscent of Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. It’s so fast-paced and funny that you barely have time to breathe in between fits of laughter. The Emperor’s New Groove takes place in Mesoamerica (1300s, I’d guess), and there is a wonderful fusion of ancient and modern cultures. Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) is a spoiled brat and a total jerk. His advisor, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), wants to kill him and take his place. When he fires her, it’s on. However, instead of killing him, her crony Kronk (Patrick Warburton) turns him into a llama. Kuzco winds up in the village of a gentle giant of a peasant named Pacha (John Goodman – could this cast be any better?). This is the same hillside village that Kuzco had just decided to tear down to build his summer home. He had called Pacha to the palace just to ask what side of the hill gets the most sun. Kuzco needs to get back to the palace, but Pacha will only help him if he agrees to build his retreat somewhere else. In the meantime, Yzma and Kronk are looking for Kuzco to finish him off. There are so many great parts that it would take me days to list them all. I’ll just let you discover them on your own. The actors are perfect. Yzma is my favorite Disney villain ever. She’s not terribly threatening, but she’s not supposed to be. She’s hilarious and crazy-looking, and Eartha Kitt is a genius. This is one of the best voiceover performances of all time. John Goodman is wonderful, Patrick Warburton is a riot (so much so that they made a sequel about his character), and this is David Spade’s best work. He brilliantly plays off of his own real-life persona and takes snarky to a whole new level. The result is hysterical. As far as I’m concerned, The Emperor’s New Groove marks the end of Disney animation as we know it. But boy, did they go out in style…

Aladdin (1993):

This Renaissance release doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves. People don’t take it as seriously as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King, the other three Disney Renaissance films. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it’s primarily a comedy. But it’s so much more than a comedy. It has romance, great music, stunning animation, action, and suspense. The 90 minutes fly by with never a dull moment. The characters are excellent. Aladdin might not be the most interesting of the bunch, but I like him a lot. He’s a plucky lad. The star of the movie, without a doubt, is Robin Williams’ Genie. He’s the heart and soul. Princess Jasmine is awesome. A lot of people don’t think she’s quite up to par as far as Disney princesses go, but I adamantly disagree. She’s gorgeous, yes, but she’s also smart (she constantly outwits the men), brave, and strong. Jasmine has grown up in wealth and luxury, but she’s not spoiled. In fact, she’d rather be independent. I love her so much. She’s one of my very favorite Disney women.

Jafar is a wonderful villain. He’s the Sultan’s (Jasmine’s lovable daddy) advisor who wants to usurp the throne. He’s more comical than sinister (I dare you not to laugh when he says, “I think it’s time to say goodbye to Prince Abooboo”), but he has his scary moments. There’s no way I can write about Jafar without thinking about the Family Guy episode in which Stewie takes over the world and says his first act will be to banish all straight-to-DVD Disney movies, pointing out the latest: “Aladdin 4: Jafar May Need Glasses.” We then see Jafar at an eye exam and the doctor flipping the lenses and asking him which is better, one or two, etc. Classic. Anyway, I also tremendously enjoy Abu the monkey, the carpet, Jafar’s bird Iago, and the Sultan. The Genie is just one of the greatest Disney characters ever. Watching it now, it reminds me of how Williams’ has totally devolved and that he’s doing the same exact shtick over 15 years later. It wears a bit thin at times, but overall, it’s still gold. And back then, it wasn’t old. It was fresh and brilliant and hilarious. He was at his comic peak. Williams' epic vocal performance is a work of true genius. The animation of the Genie complements it perfectly. That’s synergy for ya. Jasmine is still my favorite character in the movie (I have to go with girl power - I adored her when I was 11, and I’m happy to say that I adore her as much as ever), but the Genie is right up there. The songs are awesome (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken AGAIN - however, Ashman tragically died before the songs were completed, so the brilliant Tim Rice came in to help finish). “A Whole New World” still makes me all fluttery inside. It’s so romantic, and Lea Salonga can sing like nobody’s business. Oh, and for those of you keeping score, Aladdin would also be in my top five. Jafar may need glasses, but from way up here, it’s crystal clear to me that Aladdin is one of Disney’s best films.

The Little Mermaid (1989):

The Renaissance begins. I was 8 (almost 8 and a half, because you know halves matter when you’re 8), and I was lucky to have a front-row seat (figuratively, that is – I probably sat somewhere in the middle). All kidding aside, The Little Mermaid is sensational on every level. While Cinderella was a great heroine, Ariel was the first fully three-dimensional Disney princess. The character development in this film is unlike anything in Disney’s past. Ariel feels totally real, like you could be friends with her or like you could be her yourself (believe me, I wanted to do both). She's a smart, feisty dreamer, vulnerable yet strong, and not afraid to go after what she wants. Ursula is probably my favorite Disney villain who’s actually threatening. Otherwise, the favorite villain title goes to Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. Ursula’s legitimately scary but also tremendously entertaining. Pat Carroll does a bang-up job with her voice. Her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” brings down the house. Actually, that's the song I have the most fun belting out in the car while driving alone. I can’t believe that they based Ursula on Divine – it’s just too priceless. That sort of encapsulates the spirit of the Renaissance. Disney was willing to go there when they hadn’t before. There was this semi-subversive, delicious, mature aspect to the work. Adults could have just as much fun as kids. Sebastian is one of the very best sidekicks in Disney history, and Samuel E. Wright is my hero. His vocal performance as Sebastian is phenomenal. It's absolutely one of Disney's most endearing and memorable. Prince Eric was the first Disney prince with a discernible personality, and a great one at that. And he’s totally hot. Hey, guys say it about Ariel, so I can say it about him! The animation is beyond astonishing (the last totally hand-drawn Disney film, I believe).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that The Little Mermaid contains the best songs of any Disney film. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are gods. All of the songs are knockouts. Even the seemingly trifling “Les Poissons” is hilarious. “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, and “Kiss the Girl” – be still my heart. It doesn’t get better. Who doesn’t want to live under the sea after watching The Little Mermaid? Sebastian is so damn convincing with the elaborately exciting “Under the Sea.” I have a phobia of fish, and even I want to live there! I want Flounder as my best friend. Jodi Benson made “Part of Your World” iconic. She’s outstanding as Ariel. The “Kiss the Girl” sequence gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Sebastian wanted to create “the mood,” and he sure succeeded. It’s so romantic, and the animation takes my breath away every time. The ending is one of the most suspenseful of all Disney films (maybe the most, actually). As a young girl, I was petrified of Ursula, and that electrocution is damn freaky. Oh, it’s all so good. It’s a beautiful, timeless story. The Little Mermaid is pure, magical perfection. I love it so much. It’s so hard to pick the very favorites out of my ten favorites, but this is in my top two. Why else would a 26-year-old have “Kiss the Girl” as the ringtone on her cell phone?

Beauty and the Beast (1991):

I said that The Little Mermaid is in my top two – well, that’s one film. Beauty and the Beast makes two. I couldn’t possibly pick one over the other. I love both films so much, and they both move me immensely and reduce me to a weepy, quivering puddle on the ground. If I HAD to pick a favorite Disney film, it would be a two-way tie between them, with possibly a slight edge to The Little Mermaid because I think I have more of a personal attachment to it, seeing as it was the first one released in my lifetime to make such a big impact on me. However, if I’m being objective, I firmly believe that Beauty and the Beast is the best Disney film of all-time. The Little Mermaid runs a close second. There’s a reason that Beauty and the Beast was the only Disney animated film (actually, the only animated film at all) to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. With no animation category at the time, the nomination was beyond huge. I think it’s the best because of the three S’s – scope, story, and sophistication. The scope is epic, the story is beautiful and a bit more on the serious side, and it displays an unparalleled, transcendent thematic and technical sophistication. It’s almost operatic in nature. Without a doubt, Belle is my favorite Disney princess/heroine. I just adore her. I like to think that I’m a lot like her. She’s a total brain. I love how much of an emphasis there is on her intelligence. She’s opinionated, loyal, compassionate, and she loves to read. Belle isn’t impressed by the brawny, idiotic Gaston when every other girl falls at his feet. Gaston, by the way, is a hoot as the villain, but also really menacing toward the end. I know this is silly to even mention, but I think Belle’s the prettiest Disney heroine, too, with probably the best voice (by the incomparable Paige O’Hara).

The relationship between Belle and the Beast and how it develops is divine. The Beast, as the beast, is the most fully-realized Disney male. I mean, I guess he is as a man, too, but we only really know him as the Beast. And come on, who doesn’t prefer him as the Beast? Even Belle looks a bit disappointed for a second when he transforms, which I think is fascinating. The voice work is all amazing – Robby Benson as the Beast, Richard White as Gaston, David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth the clock, Jerry Orbach as Lumière the candlestick (I’m floored that Jerry “Law and Order” Orbach did this voice – he’s fantastic!), Bradley Michael Pierce as the adorable cup Chip (the cutest little kid voice in all of Disney), and, of course, the luminous Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts the tea kettle. Can you imagine anyone else but Angela Lansbury singing the titular song? The animation is gorgeous, and the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs are incredible (“Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, and my favorite, “Something There”). Cinderella’s ball gown is spectacular, but the heavenly yellow dress Belle wears to dine and dance, while Lansbury sings “Beauty and the Beast,” is the best of all the Disney dresses. THAT’S the dress that every girl and every woman wants. It’s exquisite. And speaking of exquisite, let’s talk about that phenomenal sweeping shot from the ceiling over the chandelier and down to the polished floor with Belle and the Beast dancing. Best Disney shot ever. There are no words to describe it adequately. When I see it, I gasp, I cry, I get all fluttery, the wind is knocked out of me, and my stomach and jaw just drop. It’s truly awe-inspiring. That shot is the very definition of magic. Actually, so is the entire film.


Even after writing all of that, I still feel the need to wrap things up or draw some sort of conclusions. This project ended up being way bigger than I thought it would be - in a good way, though. These Disney films mean so much to me that I was naïve to think that I could just breeze through them. I tried to keep it as succinct as possible, but it was important for me to do justice to these films that have shaped my life and will always remain a huge part of me. I think I succeeded, and I’m very satisfied with how it turned out. It was kind of like therapy to go through my existence according to Disney. My passion for Disney has been reignited through this endeavor (I rewatched 9 of my 10 picks in preparation, plus a bunch of others that didn’t make the list), and I realized just how significant Disney has been and always will be to me.

That being said, I want to talk a little more about the films. I know it’s a common belief that The Lion King is the best Disney film ever made. It is not. I loved it when it came out (I was 13, of course I did!), and I still think it’s great, but it hasn’t held up as well as the other three Renaissance films – The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. It’s diminished over the years. The opening sequence is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on film, period, but the rest is pretty banal by comparison. I don’t think it’s as special as the other three. I’m sure the absence of the dynamic songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the maestros behind The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, has a lot to do with it. Without their music, those three wouldn’t be half the movies that they are. Also, I just think those three are better stories. They’re infinitely more timeless and universal, especially The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

I want to make that clear, too. I think The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are better than Aladdin. I mean, they’re significantly better, almost in another league. But I fully stand by my opinion that Aladdin is one of Disney’s best, equal in greatness to anything put out pre-Renaissance. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are Disney’s crowning achievements. They are better than all other Disney films, from Snow White on. They’re the best. That’s all there is to it. The four Renaissance films just exist on a whole other plane of filmmaking than the old classics. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin (I really don’t care for The Lion King anymore, even though I respect it) have a new dimension, a connection to reality, that the old films lacked. There’s more depth and substance. These characters were the first fully three-dimensional that Disney ever created. Oh, and to put the Princess issue to rest, Belle is my favorite, followed closely by Ariel and then Jasmine. They're fantastic, empowering female role models. You go, girls. Anyway, while I hate to admit it, the Renaissance films make the older films feel trite and adolescent to me. I adore the Walt-era films, and I know that without them, we never would have had the Renaissance at all. The old classics serve their purpose, but they have definitively been outdone. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast surpass anything that came before them.

I was at exactly the right age at the right time when the blessed Renaissance occurred. I was 8, 10, 12, and 13 when The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King came out, respectively. I was enamored. The wonderful thing is that they, for the most part, are just as miraculous as they were then. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin haven’t lost the magic when many others have for me. The timing was perfect, and these films were always going to be more special because I lived through them firsthand. I want to reiterate that The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are in a class of their own. They’re the best of the best. No other Disney films can touch them. Aladdin is excellent and just as special to me in its own way, and it's terribly underappreciated, but it’s no Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid.

It’s sad to see what’s happened to Disney. The Renaissance officially ended with The Lion King. We just got lucky with Mulan and The Emperor’s New Groove. Disney as we know it is gone, and it’s not coming back. I don’t think there will ever be another Renaissance. I’m just lucky and grateful that I got to be there. I only wish that Walt could have been there, too.

He Said: Bill Treadway

There’s this old argument among animation lovers: that you are either a Disney person or a Looney Tunes person. You can like both, but at one point, you have to make a choice. Upon hearing this, I refused to go along with it. I firmly believed that such a choice was impossible as both Disney and Looney Tunes animation forged such an integral part of my childhood.

Fast forward to December 30, 2007; after updating my DVD collection to include the new titles received as Christmas gifts, I soon discovered something startling. That old argument I dismissed earlier as bunk may indeed be true. To be more concise, let us consider the following: in my collection there are 3 Looney Tunes DVDs and 26 Disney DVDs.

I am a Disney person after all.

Perhaps it was the fact that Disney dominated the video shelves back when I was a young boy. My family first acquired a VCR in 1984 - back when home video was just starting to become red hot. With the exception of the “Classic 15” animated features (more on that later), Disney didn’t have the attitude of limited release dates and pretty much released everything from their vaults onto home video. Also, Disney programming was loaded with the classic animation and live action Disney efforts then (now it’s all inane bubblegum junk dominating the airwaves; my heart breaks at the thought), so I was exposed to a LOT. I still look back fondly to that time and the joy I felt watching it.

Although I could go on forever about Disney entertainment, let us take a look back at the ten Disney animated features that mean the most to me:

Pinocchio (1940):

This is my very favorite of the classic Disney animated films. It was the second of the “Classic 15” animated films that the studio vowed would never be released on TV or home video. There was a fear that once on home video, any reissues would be a dismal failure at the box office. Fat chance! People like myself will never refuse the chance to see these movies on the big screen. (For the record, the “Classic 15” are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound.)

However, attitudes had changed enough by 1985 that a limited video release of Pinocchio became a reality. That is how I first encountered this charming adaptation of the Collodi novel. Disney’s film casts a long shadow that is still being felt today. Despite many other adaptations from Pinocchio in Outer Space (1966) to the execrable 2002 Roberto Benigni version, none of them manage to equal the charm and brilliance of the Disney version.

Disney’s film in many ways improves upon the source material - it’s much sweeter and more gentle than the very dark and weird novel. This film has everything you could ever want: exciting action (the climatic battle with Monstro at sea), delightful songs (“When You Wish Upon a Star” is one of the greatest songs ever written), hilarious comedy (Pinocchio’s clumsiness; Figaro’s attempt to eat Cleo the fish) and even nail biting horror (Lampwick’s transformation from child to donkey still gives me chills), all set to some of the most stunning hand drawn animation I’ve ever seen. There is so much detail that is exposed with each viewing that it never gets old.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977):

A special film in my heart - this is the first Disney animated feature film I ever saw and the first Disney video my folks rented for me. This is technically a package film - a genre Disney helped create in the 1940s when his resources were depleted by the war. All three segments in this film had appeared in theaters before (The Honey Tree in 1966, Blustery Day in 1968, and Tigger Too in 1974), but this was the first time all three were available to view in one sitting. This may be the best way to experience these three featurettes - the end result is so seamless you couldn’t tell they were separate shorts unless I told you first. With a few exceptions, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the A.A. Milne stories and an absolute delight even after 30 years. None of the subsequent Pooh sequels come close to the whimsical charm of this film; it’s sweet, gentle and effortless. And the animation is excellent considering 2/3 of this footage was made after Walt Disney’s untimely death in 1966 and the decline started to begin.

Fantasia (1941):

This may be the most difficult film to really enjoy in this list, but it’s likely the most brilliant and unique one you’ll encounter here outside of Pinocchio. If you’ll indulge me for a bit, allow me to go back to 1988. My godfather called up, all excited. He managed to get his hands on a copy of Fantasia, probably his favorite Disney film and had made me a copy of my very own. He seemed perplexed when I told him I had seen the picture. Little did I know that the 16mm print titled “Fantasia” that was screened for Student Appreciation Day at school was merely one segment: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

The complete Fantasia proceeded to blow away my little 9-year-old mind. Never before had I seen animation that wasn’t merely cute and cuddly, but also functioned as art - an expression of feeling open to ideas and interpretation. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid. It took a while for me to completely warm up to this very different kind of Disney animation but once I did, it was as smooth as silk.

Marrying music to animation wasn’t the most novel concept, but Disney allowed his animators free reign to take it to a whole new level. The Mickey Mouse segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the most known piece, but I wouldn’t do without “The Rite of Spring” (the creation of Earth and the life and death of the dinosaurs) or “Night on Bald Mountain” (chilling and scary even today) or the sweet nature ballet of “The Nutcracker Suite.” And did I mention that it was all hand drawn? The sequel Fantasia 2000 has its defenders but I’m not among them; the animation seems a bit too perfect and antiseptic compared to the marvel of the original.

Dumbo (1941):

Made as an effort to recoup some of the losses incurred by the failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Disney’s cheapest and quickest film is one of his best. This film packs a lot of emotional punch into its brief 63-minute running time. The biggest lesson learned is that just because you may appear different doesn’t mean that you’re not special - a powerful message for a young boy who was mercilessly picked on. It’s a lesson I’m still learning today. Some politically correct types have discouraged some from viewing this important film because of the racially insensitive caricatures at the end of the film (the gang of crows). Please - most children won’t take it as a racial thing. I didn’t when I was 5.

Bambi (1942):

Initially intended as a follow-up feature to his masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, technical and financial issues delayed Bambi for almost five years. It wasn’t a huge hit then (grossing $3 million on a $2.1 million budget) but it’s reputation has deservedly grown. Like Dumbo, it’s a sweet, simple fable about the life of a young deer growing up in the forest. It doesn’t sound like much, but a lot is packed into the 69-minute running time. It moves briskly, yet has a lot of depth and emotion. And let’s not forget the handsome production - lush, vibrant backgrounds and some of the most amazing hand drawn animation you’ll see.

The Little Mermaid (1989):

Life after The Jungle Book was not a good time for the Disney studios. The animation had taken a noticeable decline in quality and quantity. There were still good movies being made, but a lot of that old Disney magic was noticeably missing. Most of their product ranged from imperfect, ambitious fare such as 1985’s The Black Cauldron to entertaining but inconsequential fluff (Robin Hood, Oliver and Company). Most had written off the Disney studio, but in 1989, it rose like the Phoenix from the ashes and began to put together great animation again.

I think The Little Mermaid has become a little underrated these days, especially since it came from the 1980s - the low point of the Disney studios. Yet after rewatching it today, this film deserves to be in the same league as the acknowledged masterpieces. It’s such a visual and aural delight - great music (if you’re not humming “Under the Sea” as you’re reading this, you must be dead), stunning animation, intriguing characters that have substance and some wickedly hilarious comedy that is subtle and sly instead of obvious and groan-inducing.

Sleeping Beauty (1959):

A bit too sophisticated for the 1959 crowd, who stayed away from this excellent, intriguing adaptation of the classic fairy tale. It was Disney’s most expensive production, six years, nine million dollars and filmed in the expensive Super Technirama 70 widescreen process and then his biggest box office flop. But it’s found an audience over the years, especially during the 1986 theatrical rerelease, which I managed to get to see. My connection to this film runs deep. It was the first book and record set I ever had; it was always my favorite of the fairy tales. Hell, I even starred as Prince Philip in the second grade play adaptation!

Sleeping Beauty is a visual feast - since this was a widescreen film, the background drawings had to be even more detailed and lush than usual. They are truly mesmerizing, especially on the big screen. Even as a young boy, I knew something was wrong when I got the 1987 VHS release, which was in evil pan-and-scan. A lot of that detail was diminished. The very bigness of the film just wasn’t there on the TV screen. But I knew nothing about widescreen formats and aspect ratios then, until Siskel and Ebert did their landmark episode about letterboxing and widescreen did I finally figure out what went wrong with that first VHS release. But I still had to wait a long time to see Sleeping Beauty the way it was meant to be on home video, when a 1998 letterboxed VHS was released. It was an huge improvement, but the best way to experience this movie is still on the big screen in 70mm.

As for the story, Disney didn’t change too much, retaining many the darker elements that he likely would have removed had he made this film in the 1940s as originally intended. The climatic battle between Prince Philip and the dragon form of the evil witch Maleficent has to be seen to be believed - words can’t describe it.

Lady and the Tramp (1955):

The first animated feature in CinemaScope - and another film that was ruined on home video for many years until letterboxing became popular. Seeing this film in 2.55:1 widescreen is quite a revelation if you remember the putrid pan-and-scan VHS. But it’s the sweet, simple story that is the real reason that this film still holds up: the charming and quite emotional tale of two dogs who fall in love, with the usual complications.

What a delight this movie still is. As I mentioned before, this is a very simple story for Disney, yet it is a real rollercoaster of emotions - there’s humor (Lady’s pals Jock and Trusty), suspense (Tramp is sent to be destroyed and there’s only one dog who can save him), sweetness (the spaghetti dinner) and heartbreak (well, I’ll leave you to discover that one…). The current DVD contains both pan-and-scan and letterbox versions; avoid the former one at all costs. This movie’s heart and soul is in CinemaScope.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996):

A real treasure of a movie that was overlooked by many; it deserves to be rediscovered. In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a faithful adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel - how could it be and still remain palatable to young kids? As sanitized as it is, it is still a compelling film. It deals with some topical subjects that could and should be discussed with the younger crowd: prejudice, social injustice and the question of what is humanity and what right do some people have to question those who are different. All worthy food for thought. But the film is a rousing adventure, with comedy relief that doesn’t make me cringe, excellent animation and voice work and something I never thought I’d get - a truly satisfying conclusion.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947):

Another overlooked gem from the Disney factory - mainly due to haphazard distribution. It was among the first Disney VHS tapes released in 1980, but Disney made the strange decision to split it into two distinct featurettes for a VHS reissue in 1987. Few people have heard of it, never mind seen it: the complete feature was rereleased in 1997 on VHS and DVD but it quickly went out of print before anyone had a real chance to rediscover it.

This was another package film - compiling two featurettes (“Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk”) with short vignettes both animated (Jiminy Cricket for “Bongo”) and live action (Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd for “Mickey and the Beanstalk”). The “package film” was a genre born of necessity. Lacking financial and production resources to make complete features, Disney discovered that he could string together a bunch of short subjects, add some linking material in either animation or live action and presto! - a new feature.

Both “Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” were intended to be separate features but financial problems both to be packaged into into one feature - but it holds together a lot better than it sounds. “Bongo” is the shy, bittersweet tale of a circus bear that runs away from the circus and finds love in the woods. “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is, you guessed it, Mickey Mouse and pals Donald Duck and Goofy taking the place of Jack in the traditional fairy tale - but with far funnier, manic results. The Bergen material is hysterical even today - too bad there wasn’t a full fledged Charlie McCarthy picture.


Yeah, I know what you’re going to say. Where’s the love for classic features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella or more recent fare as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King? Trust me, it’s there. With the exception of Treasure Planet and the putrid Home on the Range, I love most of the Disney animated feature films. It’s hard to pick just ten favorites when you actually have twenty-something.

The question remains, will Disney ever reach such highs with their animation department ever again? Pixar is rightly taken as a separate entity that just happens to be distributed by the House of Mouse. A recent vow to abandon classic hand drawn animation for the 3-D computer fad begat such lowlights as Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons (only Pixar seems to get how to make computer animation truly work). Only time will tell if we experience another Renaissance like we did in 1989.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Homoeroticism on Ice

Blades of Glory is basically just one big, long gay joke about two figure skaters in ridiculously tight, flamboyant spandex outfits becoming the sport's first male-male pair and having to touch each other a lot. "Big, long" - that's what she said! Ha! Yes! I finally got to use that. Wow, I'm so immature. Um, blame it on the spirit of Blades of Glory, okay? Anyway, the guy-on-guy stuff is the movie's central premise, but it's totally harmless. The movie is too silly to be taken seriously or to be offended by it. The joke isn't anything revolutionary, but it manages to sustain itself fairly well throughout the 90-minute running time. And on a really base level, watching Jon Heder and Will Ferrell grope each other, get up all in each other's crotches, deal with the initial awkwardness of the closeness, and then learn to embrace the glory of their doublemeat sandwich is amusing. Good lord, I'm talking like the movie. Honestly, I saw it about a month ago. I guess that's sort of a testament to the movie that I can start writing and be transported back to that mind frame. Huh.

Jon Heder plays Jimmy MacElroy, the totally femme-looking good boy of figure skating known for his technical precision and aesthetic, lyrical beauty on the ice. Will Ferrell plays his rival Chazz Michael Michaels (I do love that name), the rebel bad boy of figure skating who's known for pyrotechnics (shooting flames from his fingers - deconstruct that if you want to go deeper - that's what she said! Ah, I did it again!) and his gyrating, lewd routines, as well as his techincal skill. He's also a sex addict who makes all the ladies swoon with his musky masculinity. Ferrell is at the top of his gross, flabby form in this one. He knows he's not sexy, and we know it, but it's fun to see how he plays with it. Jimmy and Chazz tie for the Olympic gold medal and get into a fight while sharing the top tier of the platform. They're both forbidden from competing professionally ever again. But, there's a loophole - they're only banned as individuals. Nobody said they couldn't skate as part of a pair. Jimmy searches for a female partner, but his coach (Craig T. Nelson, of course) realizes, while watching news footage of a backstage kids' skating show brawl between Jimmy and Chazz (Chazz is one of the costumed performers there), that the two men move beautifully together.

Coach decides to train them, the first male-male pairs team in figure skating history. The two men hate each other, but if they want to win, they'll need to overcome that. They're still not totally simpatico when they first skate publicly at nationals during a hilarious routine aptly entitled "Fire and Ice" set to Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." The costumes are outrageously, absurdly wonderful - Chazz in his flames and sparkly headband with a tiny ball of fire painted on his face and Jimmy in his pale blue with one cute little patch of blue in his hair to match and glitter on his cheeks. This routine sends them to the Olympics, much to the chagrin of vicious reigning sibling pairs team Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (real life husband and wife Will Arnett and Amy Poehler). They blame their sweet sister Katie (The Office's Jenna Fischer) for the death of their parents (they were driving her to skating practice when it happened, and she survived) and guilt her into servitude. It works really well until Katie falls for Jimmy and vice versa. Stranz and Fairchild obviously want Katie to exploit the budding relationship and sleep with Chazz to destroy Jimmy and irrevocably split the pair apart. By this time, Chazz and Jimmy have become friends. It's actually a really sweet buddy story.

So, I have no idea why I spent that long explicating the plot to this inconsequential movie, but so be it. I got carried away. I'm sure you can all guess how it ends. Anyone who thinks for one second that Jimmy and Chazz aren't going to win doesn't have the mental capacity required to watch this movie, and that's sad, because the movie's own mental capacity is questionable (and knowingly so, although that doesn't make it any less limited at times). But it's interesting to see how they get to that point. There's nothing remarkable in the least about the filmmaking. It's just there. Some of the costuming is pretty inspired, though. The special effects and stunts are appropriately and intentionally cheesy. Arnett and Poehler make incest so much fun, Fischer is great as always (I love her!) and manages to brilliantly pull off some subtle humor (there isn't much of it in the movie), and Nelson has a blast playing the coach role.

I have the utmost respect for Heder and Ferrell and their ability to utterly humiliate themselves. I hated Napoleon Dynamite and never cared for Jon Heder, but this movie made me rethink my opinion. He's hysterically, endearingly wimpy and naïve and really pushes gender boundaries by exploiting his girlish looks. To complete his "ice" ensemble, he sports glitter on his cheeks and one dainty blue streak in his feathery, wavy locks, for crying out loud. It's priceless. Ferrell is always fearless, if sometimes idiotic, but Heder is equally fearless in Blades of Glory. Will Ferrell's character just tends to embarrass himself more. I know Ferrell has been playing variations of the same persona for forever now, but I can't help it - I still think he's funny. I'm not sick of his shtick yet. And he's so committed to the joke, even when the joke is his own naked, untoned, hairy body. No one does over-the-top, balls-out, stupid humor like Will Ferrell. He is the master. I know he's better than that and can be funny in other ways, though, and I just wish he'd change it up more often and give himself a chance to really act. Regardless, he's hilarious here, and Ferrell and Heder have a strong comic chemistry that is fascinating and kind of special.

Blades of Glory is the type of movie that never blows you away; it's just generally pleasant and entertaining. It doesn't stimulate the brain, but I like that on occasion. It's not a great movie or even a really good one, but it's pretty darn okay (how's that for glowing?), and I enjoyed it. It's a bit better than average because when it's funny, it's really, really funny. There were parts that I wanted to show to people. I liked them enough to compile a clip collection of my favorite moments on a tape from the original TiVo recording. That makes it recommendable in my book. And while admittedly silly and exaggerated, the relationships, between Jimmy and Katie and especially between Jimmy and Chazz, seriously are extremely, genuinely cute and sweet, which gives Blades of Glory an edge over some of Ferrell's other outings in macho stupidity. There IS some sincerity amidst all of the insanity.

Other than that, Blades of Glory is a typical Will Ferrell comedy - no more, no less. If you go into it expecting something else, well, I don't know what to tell you. It is what it is. You know what you're going to get, so you only have yourself to blame if you hate it.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pimp My Pumpkin

What's up with the Ad Council's Booster Seat Awareness commercial?

I see it all the time (maybe because I watch a lot of Nick at Nite), and it irritates me. I resent that Cinderella is being pimped out for the purposes of this stupid ad. And is 4'9" really the cut-off height for a booster seat? That seems rather tall.

Ad Council, I hate your commercial. Leave Cinderella out of this.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

DVD Dream Date

On May 6, 2008, Teeth and I'm Not There are being released on DVD. This officially makes May 6th the My favorite film of last year and potentially my favorite film of this year coming to DVD on the same day? How awesome! It's like my own personal cinematic holiday.

Pinch me.

Ow, that hurt.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hellboy and The Boy Who Lived

I recently watched the new trailer for Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army. When I saw the first trailer, I was angry. Now, I'm just frustrated, bewildered, and sad. THIS is really what he turned down a chance to direct a Harry Potter film for?

If I take Harry Potter out of the equation for a minute, obviously I'm just upset with him because he proved, with Pan's Labyrinth, that he was capable of doing better and more significant work. As a follow-up, this looks pitiful. I'm sure Hellboy is perfectly fine for what it is, but this seems like such a step down for him.

Now, let me get back to Harry Potter. I know people will argue that Harry Potter is just as trivial as Hellboy II. Well, I totally disagree, to put it very mildly and as politely as I can. The Harry Potter books are some of the most beautiful, inspired, and inspiring works ever created. Period. They're brilliant! J.K. Rowling has single-handedly, in a digital age no less, motivated an entire generation to read, and other generations to read again. She's done more for books than anyone, and few have been responsible for as massive a pop culture phenomenon. Harry Potter is up there with The Beatles.

I think the films are marvelous. They could have been screwed up big time. Sure, some are better than others, but they all stay true to the integrity and spirit of the books. And the casting couldn't be better. They're really magical pieces of filmmaking, if you give them a chance. And how often do you see an 8-part film series? I'm not talking about James Bond and a bunch of individual entries that surround a character. I mean a cohesive sequence or structure in which each part is integral to the success of the whole. Every film is inextricably linked with, and dependent on, the others. So, an 8-part film series is absolutely unprecedented. It's pretty extraordinary.

Say what you want about Harry Potter, but the legacy of Harry Potter will endure forever. Hellboy II will be forgotten in months. How could Gullermo del Toro pass up an opportunity to be a part of that legacy? It's inconceivable to me. Why didn't Alfonso Cuaron persuade him? Guillermo del Toro could have reached so many more people with his art this way. The Harry Potter films all contain the individual stamps of the filmmakers. They basically would have given him carte blanche. He had a chance to make history. Instead, he made Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Sigh.

Hellboy II looks gorgeous, and the creatures in it are astounding and beyond fantastic. That's why I'm so sad. If he put that much effort and creativity into this crap, imagine what he could have done with Harry Potter. It's painfully disappointing. Hellboy II is visually stunning, mind-blowing really, and the style is so wonderfully interesting and trippy. I can see Pan's Labyrinth all over it. He's totally ripping himself off with Hellboy II, which is fine, I guess, but the film is so unworthy. What's the point? It's beautiful, yeah, but then the characters talk, and it's practically ruined right there. The plot is also ridiculously silly and stupid. What a waste of his enormous talent.

I would have LOVED to see what he could have done with Harry Potter. I think the result would have been spectacular. The Hellboy II trailer reveals the mind of a genius, to be sure, but why didn't he put THAT mind to use on Harry Potter? Why? Why Hellboy and not Harry Potter? Why, Guillermo, why? Harry Potter's beneath you, but Hellboy II isn't? Is that it? I really hope not.

Guillermo del Toro had a chance to try something new, to accept a challenge and really put his creativity to the test, to tackle a worthwhile project, to broaden his horizons, to grow and soar as an artist, to take a serious risk, and to bring his own type of magic to Harry Potter. He chose not to. I love you, Gullermo, but that just seems lazy and cowardly.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Box With Too Much Bite

I'm thrilled that Teeth is coming out on DVD. After I saw it in Cannes, I was afraid that my first time would also be my last. I didn't know if it would get picked up or if it would ever see the light of day again, even on DVD. I thought that one of the best films I'd ever seen was in danger of slipping through the cinematic cracks. I was shrieking with delight to see it get a theatrical release, but I think I'm even more ecstatic that it's being released on DVD. This way, more people can get a chance to see and love it. And I firmly believe that it will gain a huge cult following. So, hooray for DVD.

That being said, what is up with the cover art on the front of the DVD box? Apparently, it's being released as part of a line called "Dimension Extreme." Well, yeah, it's extreme, but why does extreme translate to smut? This cover completely trivializes Teeth and makes it look like a freaking porno. When I first saw it, I was pleased. I was like, "Hell yeah, she's sexy and empowered." As I mulled it over, I changed my mind. She's represented TOO sexually. She's depicted as a sexual predator, and that's not what she is at all. It's also just plain, old-fashioned objectification and exploitation to turn a trick...I mean, a profit. It sends the wrong message. It's an insult, the epitome of cheap, and Teeth deserves so much better.

Then again, it's just a box, right? I mean, I'm sure people who seek it out and purchase it already like it. And it's not like it's going to be on the main display at Best Buy next to Alvin and the Chipmunks or something. I'm mad about the cover, but I'll be damned if I let a cover prevent me from supporting the film, Mitchell Lichtenstein, and Jess Weixler.

Whoa, hold it. I just went on Amazon to get the picture of the DVD so I could include it in this post, but they've changed it. I confirmed it by checking with the site that released the news of the cover art in the first place. They have since reported that the cover art has been officially changed. Now, it's the Teeth poster.

Wow. I'm totally flustered. That's great. Good move, Dimension Extreme! Damn right you changed it! They must have known I meant business. Seriously, though, this was a wise decision. It leaves some mystery, and it's classier and way more appropriate.

Still, this would be my ideal cover:

While the revised art does fit really well with the film's intentions, I think this one would capture the spirit and the tone a little better. It's more fun and playful and makes her look sweet and innocent, like she is, but with a dash of mischief. In my opinion, that's the perfect combo.

But, I'm really just splitting hairs here. I'll take the revised DVD cover art any day. It's absolutely wonderful, and it IS the official poster, after all. I was so outraged about the original concept. This is a pleasant surprise and a HUGE improvement, and it shows Teeth the proper respect. It feels like Mitchell Lichtenstein and not like pervy Dimension Extreme. I'm very, very happy. See? If you believe, change IS possible. Don't give up on your dreams, kids!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Roger and Me and Ang Lee

I have huge news: On Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 11 a.m., I will be attending a screening at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert's annual film festival, which features movies that he believes have been overlooked. I ordered the tickets two weeks ago, and I've been toying with whether or not I should mention it on here before I went or if I should just wait until it was over to discuss the experience. Well, I can't wait. I'm about to burst excitement, so I have to share. Guess what film I'm going to see. Guess! Oh, never mind, I'll just tell you. I'm attending a screening of Ang Lee's The Hulk. But here's the extra awesome part - Ang Lee is going to be there! There's going to be a Q&A and everything! ANG LEE! Ahhhhh!!!

I saw The Hulk when it came out, and I enjoyed it. I don't get why people hate it so much. It's very stylish, and it looks so much better than the crap being released this summer. Anyway, in about a week, I will be sitting in a theater, watching The Hulk, in the same room as Roger Ebert and Ang Lee. It must be a dream. But it's not! I have the tickets! I was on the phone the minute tickets went on sale, too. I revere Roger Ebert. He's my critical hero and one of my biggest writing inspirations. I've sadly never seen him in person before despite living in Chicago my whole life. My first time will definitely be one to remember. I think it's amazing that he's still going through with the festival even though he had surgery so recently. He may not be able to speak, but that doesn't matter to me. I'll just be honored to be in his presence.

And Ang Lee is going to be there! I'll be breathing the same air as ANG LEE and watching one of his own movies WITH him. How epic is that? Oh my god. It's so thrilling! He only changed my life with Brokeback Mountain, and he inspired a cinematic epiphany with Lust, Caution. I knew I had to see Ang Lee because of Brokeback Mountain. That was my selling point. I watched Lust, Caution AFTER getting the tickets, so it wasn't a factor in my decision at all. Now, the fact that I've since seen Lust, Caution and adore it - well, that's the sweetest icing on the most delicious cake in the world.

I figured this post was an appropriate follow-up to my Lust, Caution review. I had to say something about Ebertfest after all that. I'll definitely get back to you with a full event report.

Roger Ebert and Ang Lee. Two geniuses, one place. And I've got a ticket. I'm a lucky, lucky girl.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ambition, Beauty

Lust, Caution is so much more than I expected it to be, and what I got out of it was nothing short of amazing. I'm not sure why my expectations weren't higher - Ang Lee only made one of my favorite films of all time, Brokeback Mountain. Lust, Caution isn't a masterpiece like Brokeback Mountain. Wait, maybe that isn't fair. I shouldn't use Brokeback Mountain as a measuring tool, because nothing else would ever have a chance. It's just too special to me. Lust, Caution is excellent in its own right. And really, the two films are so different that it's hard to compare. Actually, all of Ang Lee's movies are different from one another - he surprises me every time with his versatility. He very recently touched my heart with Brokeback Mountain, and he's done it again with Lust, Caution.

Lust, Caution is indeed the infamous film that received the dreaded- gasp - NC-17 rating for explicit sex. I respect Ang Lee so much for not compromising his vision and making this an R-rated film. In fact, I applaud him. The rating system is so messed up anyway. Violence is more acceptable than sex? What? How warped. I guess I agree with the NC-17 rating, because the sex is definitely graphic, yet how this gets slapped with an NC-17 and so many brutally violent films slide by with an R boggles my mind. I love Teeth. That's not a secret. But Teeth is as graphic in its depiction of violence (and the violence is sexual in nature, too) as Lust, Caution is graphic in its representation of sexuality. There are countless other violent examples. It just sickens me. It's not fair. America is so afraid of sex. The sex in Lust, Caution is not gratuitous at all. Every single scene involving sex advances the plot and enhances character development. There's a physical level to the sex, obviously, but there's also an emotional one. How Lee combines the two is exquisite. The sex is absolutely essential to the film. Bravo, Ang Lee.

Lust, Caution has gotten a raw deal, from the pitiful distribution based upon the rating to virtually no discussions of it other than accusations of sensationalism. Even when people were roaring about the sex, that passed by relatively quickly. The film has been misunderstood, overlooked, and forgotten, and I think that's tragic. It's an astonishing achievement. I'm reluctant to give too much away plot-wise, so all you need to know (I'm hoping to entice you into seeing it anyway) is that the film is set during World War II, in Japanese-occupied China, mainly Shanghai, and Tang Wei stars as Wong Chia Chi, a young Chinese woman who, along with five other college students, joins the resistance movement. Among many other people, the resistance plans to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese man working with the Japanese. Wong Chia Chi works as a spy and seduces him. I won't reveal anything else, but I'll give you a clue: It's not called Lust, Caution for nothing.

People utilize the expression "This film has everything" so often that I think it loses some of its impact. When I use it, I really mean it. I'm going to say it now about Lust, Caution. This film has everything. It really does. History, war, intrigue, suspense, action, sex, violence, drama, humor, friendship, danger, love and, of course, lust. It might be too slow-moving for some people's tastes, but if you stick with it, it's a very satisfying journey. I call it pacing, but I understand how it could be frustrating. I even had a little trouble getting into it for the first half hour or so, but once I was in, I was hooked. The story is so wonderfully complex, and I promise that you'll never guess how it'll play out. It's surprising and shocking all the way to the very end.

I've actually watched the film twice now, and it only got better the second time. I KNEW what was going to happen, but I was somehow even more riveted and anxious and on the edge of my seat with suspense. It was like a trance. For about the last 45 minutes, I was gripping my right arm with my left hand so hard that I was actually digging my nails into my flesh and causing pain, and I didn't even realize it. Lust, Caution affected me that viscerally. The ending is one of the best and most effective I've ever seen. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me, and my heart was beating out of my chest. It hit me really hard emotionally, tears and all. It's an extremely subtle film, but it's also dynamically powerful.

Ang Lee is an extraordinary filmmaker. He exercises such control over this complicated, intense story. To pull it off required incredible finesse, sensitivity, and dedication on his part. Lee has a distinct, delicate touch, but there's also an urgency and exhilaration about his directing. In many ways, he's as dichotomous as the the titular themes. Every minute detail has been planned and has a purpose. It's glorious. Lust, Caution is absolutely GORGEOUS. It's just heavenly to look at. The cinematography by the insanely gifted Rodrigo Prieto is breathtaking. The colors are dazzling, and the compositions are rich and layered. You can tell that Prieto and Lee have a wonderful collaborative relationship, because they create magic together. The production design is outstanding. I felt like I was transported back to 1940s Shanghai. A world that actually existed has been stunningly recreated. The costumes are also great, and Lai Pan did the costumes AND production design, so that's awesome. The screenplay by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang is phenomenal, especially considering this epic film is based upon Eileen Chang's very short story.

The whole time that I've been writing this review, and it's been awhile, I assure you, I've been listening to the Lust, Caution score, composed by the genius Alexandre Desplat. I'm almost done with my second spin. Something has actually dethroned The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favorite score of 2007. It's more than that, though - it's one of my favorites ever. It's so beautiful! The main theme is haunting and lovely, and his use of leitmotifs is divine. I love every single one of the 23 tracks he composed. I'm not sure that's ever happened for me with a score before. The music simultaneously gives me chills and melts my heart. It's perfect. Um, Oscar nomination? Anyone? Sheesh. Amateurs. Anyway, I don't know if heaven exists, but if it does, Desplat's score for Lust, Caution is what they would play there.

The two main characters played by Tang Wei and Tony Leung are extremely fascinating, but they wouldn't be half as interesting or sympathetic as they are without exactly the right casting and execution. Well, the casting and execution are impeccable. It's a tribute to the actors, for sure, but also to Ang Lee's instincts, knowledge, and skill. It's obvious that he's a remarkable director because the acting is as good as it gets. This is Tang Wei's FIRST film, and she's dynamite. I can't believe that she never acted before. She's a marvel. It's such a brave, passionate, skilled performance of a really demanding role. It's a crime that she's been blacklisted in China for playing this part. I sincerely hope things work out for her, because she's a huge talent. Lee-Hom Wang is another standout, and another newcomer to acting (he's apparently, like, the biggest pop star in Asia, which is a fun fact) as Kuang, Wong Chia Chi's closest friend in the resistance. And he's a total babe. Tony Leung is brilliant as Mr. Yee. My vocabulary is really good, but I'm worried that I'm running out of adjectives here. Leung is one of the most talented and prolific Chinese stars ever. I guess he had mainly played good guys or romantic leads before, so this was a total departure, according to Leung himself in the making-of featurette. Lee saw something amazing in him to realize that he could play such an angry, morally conflicted, carnal, ferocious character. He's quite terrifying at times. Tony Leung is fire on the screen. Like Tang Wei, he communicates so much with just his eyes. But then he has these tender moments that make me swoon from his poignancy and subtley. Tang Wei and Tony Leung make their flawed characters so real and memorable, and they both deliver multi-faceted, nuanced, courageous, beautiful, heartbreaking performances. No other actors could have done what they did. The acting in Lust, Caution is invigorating.

I adore Ang Lee. I really admire his intention of bridging the past with the present and connecting generations. He's done something so unique by taking a culture that is usually depicted as modest and repressed and proving, fiercely and unflinchingly, that people are the same everywhere. East, west, whatever. Boundaries mean nothing. This is probably his most personal project, and it's a knockout. He should be extremely proud. His passion and commitment to the subject and to the art of cinema in general are so inspiring. With Lust, Caution, he explores themes that are epic as well as intimate, controversial as well as relatable, and all deeply profound, universal, timeless, and human. At its essence, Lust, Caution is about what it means to be a human being and all of the heartache, terror, pain, confusion, happiness, and ecstasy that it encompasses.

You know, when I started this review, I was planning on giving Lust, Caution four stars out of five. I said it wasn't a masterpiece like Brokeback Mountain. I was wrong. It's just as much of a masterpiece, in its own way, as Brokeback Mountain. While Brokeback Mountain is my personal favorite of Lee's work and nothing can ever replace it in my heart, I don't think I was giving Lust, Caution a fair shake with that initial rating. Actually, I don't think I was being unfair; I just didn't know how deeply this film had penetrated me.

As I've been writing and writing, and loving every second of it, and examining my feelings and just allowing the film to consume me, my appreciation for it has been growing and blossoming. I think I've been experiencing a cinematic epiphany, right before my own eyes. I attained a sublime, pure state of being and became so wonderfully in tune with myself in this post. I was able to watch my thoughts unfold in surprising, gratifying ways. What a rare, amazing thing to happen. I certainly didn't expect anything like it when I started out. I was holding back somehow, and I wasn't even aware of it. I had yet to discover my true reaction to the film, and now that I have, I almost want to weep with joy. I guess I could classify this revelation as spiritual. After all, cinema is my only true religion. During this process, I realized that I like Lust, Caution a hell of a lot more than I thought I did. I mean, I really liked it before, but I'm throwing caution to the wind - I am madly in love with this beautiful film.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)
- In light of this review and the film's rating, I was forced to alter my Top 20 of 2007 list one last time. It was totally unexpected. Much to my surprise and delight, Lust, Caution made the cut.