Category Archives: Disney

Film Review: Aladdin (2019)

Going into this year’s live-action remake of Aladdin, I was full of misgivings. The trailers really didn’t do the film any favours, and it looked like it was going to be a very cheap-looking film. Having watched the film, I can say that some of those fears were ultimately realized; the film, for its enormous budget, does often appear awfully small. This is, ultimately, the problem of producing this particular type of fantasy film in a “real” environment. While 2-D animation allows for a truly magical world to explode to life on the screen, these live-action/CGI hybrids, somewhat paradoxically, are often strangely limited in their representation.

For all of that, I actually found myself enjoying the film more than I anticipated, and a great deal of that enjoyment stems from the undeniable charisma and chemistry of the three leads: Aladdin (Mena Masoud), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and of course the Genie (Will Smith). Masoud is, to put it bluntly, absolutely adorable, and he really seems to have fun in the role. He’s charming and awkward in all of the right ways. Scott, likewise, brings a political bite to the character of Jasmine that wasn’t really present in the original; in fact, she wants to be sultan in her own right, rather than settling as a consort.

And, for his part, Will Smith really owns the role of the Genie. Since no one could ever compare to the screwball, rapid-fire power that Robin Williams brought to the role, Smith opts instead to make it his own. There’s no denying that Smith has that certain sort of charm that has made him such a compelling star for so long, and he brings all of that to bear as Genie. Admittedly, it is still rather odd to see him as the big blue character but, thankfully, the film frequently opts to show him as a fully human character, which mitigates that strangeness.

Plot-wise, film hits the same points as the 1992 film, though there are a few significant differences. For one thing, the film fleshes out Jafar’s backstory–making him a former pickpocket who clawed his way up to the pinnacle of political power. However, that backstory just doesn’t do enough to lift the character into the same realm as he was in the animated film. Marwan Kenzari is fine as far as he goes, but he lacks the screen heft to do anything new or interesting with the role. (Though I hate to say it, his voice just isn’t the right fit for Jafar. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the character in the 1992 film, made him a far, far more interesting villain). And, unfortunately, this Jafar is significantly less queer than his predecessor.

This defanging of a villain is very much in keeping with the other live-action remakes that we have seen or are going to see. Luke Evans, bless him, doesn’t even come close to capturing the hyperbolic and camp masculinity of his predecessor, and it looks like Scar of the new The Lion King will lack the scenery-chewing queerness of Jeremy Irons’s rendition of the character. While some might greet this as a good thing, I beg to differ, as it robs these villains of the very thing that makes them so compelling and, well, fun.

That’s not to say that Aladdin isn’t fun. Unencumbered by the slavish devotion to re-staging every scene (the fatal flaw of Beauty and the Beast) and with Guy Ritche at the helm, the film is very confident in itself. Ritchie has a very distinctive visual style, and while I wouldn’t say that Aladdin puts these to maximal effect, there are a few flourishes that stand out. And, aside from everything else, Aladdin is just a fun film, one that doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Enjoyable as it is, it’s worth pointing out that the film still has its problems with representation. Like its predecessor, this film trades (very unreflexively) in Orientalism. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s just sort of a mishmash of sundry “Eastern” cultures, with no real sense of cultural specificity. Thus, whatever strides forward it makes in terms of racial representation–the cast is, thankfully, almost completely non-white–is undercut by these other issues. As that same friend pointed out, it would definitely help Disney to have a few people in positions of power to point out how woefully tone-deaf they can be (though I’m still not convinced it’s possible to do a version of this story that isn’t fundamentally Orientalist). While we’re on the subject of race: what in the hell was Billy Magnusson doing in that movie? Seriously, does anyone know?

Overall, I’d say that Aladdin is a fine remake. If this is the direction in which Disney is taking these live-action remakes, I think that bodes well for how successful The Lion King will be. Will it hold up the way that it’s predecessor has? Probably not, but for now, it’s an enjoyable enough magic carpet ride.

The New “Aladdin” Looks Like Trash: A Screed

The 1992 Aladdin was the first Disney film I well and truly fell in love with in the theater. Though I later came to understand the many problematic things about it (not least its flagrant Orientalism), I also came to appreciate the queerer textures that bubble under its heterosexual surface (Jafar is one of the queerest of the Disney villains IMHO). And there’s no question that the film is breathtaking and gorgeous and filled with irresistible music.

So, all of that being said, I was a little dismayed to hear that Disney was going to be doing a live-action remake. Though I had liked The Jungle Book, I felt that Beauty and the Beast was so devoid of imagination as to be a colossal waste of time. I still harboured hopes, though, that somehow Aladdin would be different.

If the recently-released trailer is anything to go by, it won’t be.

First of all, it boggles my mind how a film that is so expensive to make can look so distressingly cheap. As I watched the trailer, I just could not quite shake the feeling that I was watching an extended episode of Once Upon a Time. It is definitely not a good thing if your big-budget blockbuster looks like your network show, and I still cannot wrap my head around how so much money could produce such shoddy CGI. Admittedly, some of this cheapness may look better on the big screen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Secondly even if the CGI ends up looking better in the final film that we see in theaters, there’s no shaking the fact that the costumes aren’t great. Again, I’m not sure exactly how it is that such a big budget can produce costumes that look so….cheap and campy. Speaking of camp, I have a feeling that this film is going to be way camp, and not in the self-conscious way that the filmmakers and studio would like.

Third, while it’s no secret that the 1992 Aladdin was hella racist and Orientalist, one would think that two and a half decades would have taught studio execs something. Certainly, they made the right choice by populating the film with non-white actors, but there’s still so much about the aesthetic of the film–and even the core of the film itself–that can’t quite elude the aura of fetishizing the Middle East. While you could get away with that nonsense in the 1990s (sort of), I have my doubts about how well this is going to fly in 2019. (And don’t get me started on the fact that they still felt the need to cast a white actor as a rival for Jasmine’s affections).

Finally, there’s the fact that the whole affair just looks so…small. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because traditional 2-D animation still has a sense of wonder and magic about it, but I’m always shocked by how limited these remakes are. The Jungle Book probably came close to attaining the grandeur and majesty of the Disney Renaissance, but I think that may have to do with the fact that the film they chose to remake is one of the lesser lights in the Disney firmament. In any case, the trailer for Aladdin fell very short indeed of any sort o (the opening shot of the Cave of Wonders was particularly underwhelming).

And the worst part about whole thing?

I’ll still go see it.

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

Film Review: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) is a Charmingly Sweet Confection

If I had to use one word to describe Disney’s recent remake of one of its classic entries from the Disney Renaissance, it would be: charming. Not substantive, not really moving in the way that the 1992 version was, yet enjoyable all the same. If that sounds like damning praise, it isn’t. The film doesn’t really set out to do anything grand or earth-shattering and, to me, that’s perfectly okay.

It basically follows the same plot as its predecessor, though it does fill in a few narrative gaps. We learn, for example, that Belle’s mother died of the plague, and that the reason that the people in the village forgot about the prince and his servants is because the enchantress made that part of the curse. I don’t know about anyone else, but the smoothing out of these inconsistencies was rather nice, even if it did evacuate a bit of the mystery and glamour that always surrounds fairy tales.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objects in the castle threaten to steal the show from the human leads. Ewan McGregor steals almost every scene that he’s in, and he is a surprisingly fitting heir to the late Jerry Orbach (who played the witty and debonair candelabra in the 1992 film), while Ian McKellen is delightfully stodgy as Cogsworth (not quite as exuberantly uptight as David Ogden Stiers). Emma Thompson has a lighter touch for Mrs. Potts than her predecessor Angela Lansbury, though her rendition of the titular song is as charming and appealing as the rest of the film.

Yet Dan Stevens and Emma Watson more than hold their own, he as the rather gothic hero and she as the independent woman determined to make her own way in the world. The film is a little more explicit in its treatment of why the Beast turned into such a brat, suggesting that it was the indifferent cruelty of his father that led him astray. For her part, Emma Watson brings her signature brand of feisty feminist heroism to the role, so that she actively attempts to change the restrictive atmosphere of the town by teaching a young woman to read (which we learn is firmly against the law).

That being said, even the cast of Emma Watson can’t quite undermine the fundamentally conservative vision of this film. After all, this is still the story of an independent young woman who ultimately falls in love with a man who has attempted to rob her of her agency. No matter how much the film attempts to cover over that fact, it still leaves something of a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially given the fact that Donald Trump is president. Being a man who imprisons women is never a good look, even for Dan Stevens.

This sense of charm (rather than substance) is as relevant to the maelstrom swirling around LeFou’s sexuality as it is to the rest of the film. When it was revealed that Josh Gad’s delightful character would be “openly” queer, the announcement was met with a strange mix of hysteria (from the Right) and dismay (from the queer left, who were upset at the fact that he would continue to fit into the stereotype of the sissy). Gad brings his own unique brand of buffoonish charm to this otherwise infuriating character–one of the worst in the original film–and that in itself helps to make him a more sympathetic character. The film itself gives almost zero attention to his actual romance, though, so it appears we will have to wait a bit longer for an actual, fully-fledged queer character to appear in a Disney film.

There were a few sour spots. I like Luke Evans well enough as an actor, but to my mind he just doesn’t have the gravitas (or the singing ability) to play the role of Gaston. The original character was truly a paragon of toxic masculinity, but it was precisely the hyperbolic nature of it that threatened to deconstruct the very idea of gender altogether. Evans…just doesn’t have that much personality, if I’ve being perfectly honest. He’s more suited for brooding and sulky characters (such as Bard from The Hobbit) than he is as a blustering huntsman obsessed with his own beauty. It just feels like a role that Evans forced himself to take on, and it just doesn’t quite gel for me. It leaves me wondering if he might have done better cast as the Beast, but I suppose that will have to remain one of those what-might-have-beens.

All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a fitting tribute to the original though I, like many critics, still wonder why exactly it exists. If rumours are true, there are some indications there might be a sequel, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Even charm can only go so far.

Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

Film Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Pain of Endings

Spoiler:  Full plot details for the film follow.

As anyone who has read this blog is well-aware, I am a filmgoer who is fascinated by the endings of films. To my mind, the ending of a film can tell us much about not only how the narrative of the drama works (or doesn’t), but also how the film understands the world works (or doesn’t).

Thus, I was particularly compelled by the ending of Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels who undertake the perilous journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. Among them are the young woman Jyn Erso, the Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, the defected pilot Bodhi Rook, the reconfigured droid K-2SO, and Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen, a pair of warriors. While they succeed in beaming the plans to a waiting Rebel fleet–thus enabling the destruction of the Death Star that takes place in A New Hope–the entire brave troop is killed, either in direct battle or by a focused

I have to admit, I was rather stunned–overwhelmed, even–at the ending, in which Jyn and Cassian hold hands as the power of the Death Star is brought to bear, overwhelming them in a cataclysm. How was it possible, I thought, that the two main characters in a Star Wars film would perish? Wasn’t this supposed to be the franchise in which all of the good guys survive? (One would have thought that the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens would have disabused me of this naïveté, but apparently I forgot that valuable lesson).

Further, the atomic overtones of that destruction, with an enormous cloud of debris and fire rising into the sky, are acutely terrifying. This is particularly true in this era of renewed nuclear threats (witness Trump’s tweet about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race). As anyone familiar with the 1950s and 1960s will know, the threat of atomic annihilation is an acute one in the American unconscious, dovetailing as it so often does with America’s penchant for eschatological fantasies and Christian doomsday prophecies. Given this deep history, and Trump’s happy-go-lucky attitude regarding nukes, it’s no surprise that such a bleak and terrifying ending should appear in a Star Wars film.

What are we to make of the fact that the film ends with the death of the entire cast of characters that have grown to love and respect during the course of the film? On the one hand, certainly, it is meant to fill us with a sense of mingled fulfillment and unease, as we recognize the terrible blood price that has been exacted on those who have engaged in the struggle against tyranny. This is, after all, a war with tremendous consequences, with the Rebellion’s success hanging on a knife’s edge, struggling with its own internal dissent and the fact that the Empire has resources–both military and technological–that they lack. After all, if the Death Star can destroy even a sacred space (which it does, obliterating the capital of the moon Jedha), what hope can the members of the Rebellion have if the Empire should bring its full powers to bear upon them?

The ending, therefore, helps us to understand that this is a full-scale war and, like all wars, it exacts a terrible price in bodies and lives. Freedom, to use a cliche, is not in fact free. Furthermore, there is no guarantee, diegetically at least, that the sacrifices made by this (blessedly diverse) cast of heroes is going to actually do anything to bring about the destruction of the Death Star. We, in the audience, presumably know this, but the characters do not (and I would even go so far as to say that we might even be able to suspend our knowledge of this fact at least temporarily). There is something disquieting about this fact, that the characters perish without the knowledge of whether their sacrifices will ultimately bear fruit.

At a deeper level, it’s hard not to read it also as the expression of the ethos of those who have been dealing with the reality of a Trump victory and what that means for the future of the world that they had envisioned. Is their only hope to be as suicidally obstructionist as possible, in the hope that one day their sacrifices will come to fruition in the fullness of time? Must we continue to work and fight, not knowing whether there is to be any reward for what we do?

As Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in their view of history than the original trilogy. That is certainly the case here and, in my view at least, this has as much to do with the rise of Trump and his ne0fascist allies as anything else, as those of us who have embraced the ideals of Western secular democracy find ourselves faced with a very real manifestation of the same dark impulses that brought Palpatine to power and allowed him to maintain it.

As such, Rogue One, despite the claims of studio executives to the contrary, cannot but be seen as the natural product of a world in which the forces of “order” (remember that Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate”) are in the ascendant, threatening to bring about an end to to everything the Obama Era has come to stand for. However, as Rogue One almost makes clear, while the end of one era may give rise to a darker one, there is still an imperative for those of us who value justice to fight on, even when all hope seems to have vanished.


At an extra-diegetic level, the film also raises some quite unsettling questions about the nature of endings and the life of the actor. There has, of course, been no small amount of consternation about the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin (played in the original film by the late Peter Cushing) has been reanimated through digital technology, with Guy Henry playing the actual part and the rest being added through CGI. There is something (not entirely unpleasantly) uncanny about seeing this re-created Tarkin onscreen, a reminder of both the character from the first film and the actor who played him (both of whom are, it should be remembered, dead for those of us currently sitting in the theater). At a larger level, such a manipulation of both the digital image and the living body of the actor raises significant questions about whether, in fact, any actor’s performance is ever truly dead and passed, since it is now clear that any actor can be resurrected through digital performance.

As it always does, motion-capture continues to raise ethical and aesthetic questions about the role of animation and technology in the way we experience cinema and the world around us.

Film Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016) and the Pleasures of Joy

Every once in a while, you come out of a film feeling happy that you saw it. Not overwhelmed or perplexed or thoughtful. Just…joyful. Some films just have that power.

The Jungle Book is one such film.

I have to admit to some trepidation going into this. I was less than thrilled with the way that Maleficent turned out, and I was really afraid that the same would happen with this beloved classic from my childhood. I was afraid they might botch it with too many incoherently interwoven storylines and that the film would end up a complete mess. Fortunately, however, the opposite was true. It is, in essence, a retelling of the original Disney version of this film, with some elements of the Kipling stories thrown in and, fair warning, a bit of murderous violence on the part of Shere Khan.

For the canny viewer, the film contains a number of Easter eggs. Though she makes a very small appearance in the film itself, Scarlet Johansson’s Kaa does deliver a delightfully sibilant rendering of “Trust in Me,” over the end credits. For those who were perplexed (as I was) that the original King Louie was an orangutan (which are not native to India), the Favreau has cleverly rendered him into a Gigantopithecus, the giant ape that many believe to be the explanation for the Yeti.

The voice talents in this film are, in a word, phenomenal. I didn’t think that one could do any better than Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Phil Harris, and Louis Prima as Bagheera, Shere Khan, Baloo, and King Louie, respectively. However, I have to say that Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, and Christopher Walken do a stellar job. Kingsley adds just the right amount of gravitas and genuine affection to Bagheera, while Bill Murrary is in truly fine, charming form as the buffoonish yet lovable Baloo. On the villainous side of things, Idris Elba snarls and chews his way through the script, but he truly does lend a powerful grace to his portrayal. And truly, no one  but Christopher Walken could lend this much more terrifying vision of King Louie such a unique aura of menace and charm.

Of course, no review would be complete without praising Neel Sethi, the boy who plays Mowgli. At the most basic level, it’s refreshing to see a person of colour and of Indian descent playing this character. However, he is also just a great actor, bringing a certain world-wise charm and playfulness to the role that I really wasn’t expecting. Though I’m a little skeptical about the wisdom of the announced sequel, as long as Sethi is on-board, I’m game for it.

While I normally find 3-D to be a distraction, I actually found that it worked quite well. Part of what lends this film its joy and its unbridled energy is the use of the camera, which often mimics Mowgli’s own excitement. We as spectators are invited to enjoy this kinetic camera, and while the jungle world that we see is completely (or almost completely) computer-generated, this heightens rather than dampens the sense of beauty and wonder if evokes. Further, the claustrophobia of the final fight sequence is truly enhanced by the 3-D camerawork, allowing us to feel, vicariously, those last, breathtaking moments before Mowgli’s final victory. (FYI, if you’re interested in the cinema of sensations, check out Richard Dyer’s article on the subject in Sight and Sound, from 1994).

There is, indeed, something uniquely satisfying about seeing the devilish and sadistic Shere Khan finally get his comeuppance at the hands of the boy who has suffered so much at his hands. It’s important to remember that the tiger was responsible for the death of not only Mowgli’s human father, but his lupine one as well. While Shere Khan does have some measure of justification for his anger and hatred toward humans, he eventually becomes so blinded by his bitterness that it proves his undoing. I’m still a little anxious about the that the film reinforces Mowgli’s inherent superiority as a human, but I need a little more time to mull that over before reaching any firm conclusions.

Now that the bad taste of Maleficent has been thoroughly washed out of my mouth, I have high hopes that Disney’s other remakes-in-the-works will be similarly well-crafted. I have particularly high hopes for their upcoming Beauty and the Beast, which looks quite promising, indeed.

Come on Disney. Keep impressing me. We’ll both be better for it.

Film Review: “Zootopia” and the Triumph of Good Storytelling

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a fan of Disney. Admittedly, I rather fell off the wagon with Tarzan and some of the ill-conceived efforts that followed, but I’ve been largely on board since The Princess and the Frog.

Fortunately, Zootopia has reinforced my belief that we are living in a second Disney Renaissance.

The film follows Judy Hopps, an optimistic and ambitious young rabbit who yearns to move away from her small hometown and take up life as a member of the police force in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia. Once there, her fate becomes entangled with that of a huckster fox named Nick and the two of them, in turn, quickly become embroiled in a massive conspiracy designed to upend the precarious peace between predators and prey.

Disney has always had a knack for choosing voice actors who have a magical chemistry, and that is certainly the case with this film. Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White from Once Upon a Time) brings her own particular brand of bubbly optimism to the character of Judy Hopps, while Jason Bateman lends an ironic (almost but not quite hopelessly bitter) twist to Nick. Their obvious chemistry (whether or not they actually recorded in the studio together), makes their relationship utterly compelling and believable.

Speaking of that relationship…I can’t tell you how relieved I was that they didn’t try to force some sort of romance subplot into a film in which it really did not have a place. Judy and Nick function quite well as friends, and it is actually rather nice that they remain friends at the end of the film. It would seem that Disney has finally figured out that the rigorous focus on hetero courtship that was the go-to narrative for so many years isn’t the only thing that kids and parents will go to see, and hopefully this bodes well for the future and for the kinds of films that the studio will be releasing in the coming years.

The humour in this film is both razor-sharp and surprisingly nuanced. While there are many parts of the film that will certainly appeal to children (the scene with the sloth in the DMV is one of those), I would hazard to say that most of the jokes are designed to appeal to people old enough to remember the first Disney Renaissance. In that sense, the film harks back not just to that earlier era of animated greatness but also to a deeper genealogy, one that includes such other

This being a Disney film of the old style, there is of course a moral at the end of the film:  not to judge by the species but instead by the person, er, animal. While this may appear trite to the more jaded among us, in an era in which Trumpist xenophobia and rampant racism seem to be the order of the day, it’s rather pleasant, even exciting, to see a mainstream film send such a positive message of acceptance and good-spiritedness, a film that shows that we are indeed stronger when we band together than when we constantly tear one another down. Further, it’s also nice to see a film in which the heroine doesn’t need a man to help her succeed but instead does so on her own terms.

In the end, though, it is not the technical dexterity of the film that really wowed me (though it does feature some truly magnificent animation). Instead, it is the power–simple and unalloyed–of a good story well-told. In this age of dazzling, eye-popping special effects magic and threadbare storytelling and endless franchises, it’s rather refreshing to see a film that simply stands on its own a storyZootopia doesn’t rewrite any of the things that we know about how narrative and plot should work, but then again it doesn’t have to. Instead, what it wants to do, and what it succeeds at doing, is showing us how pleasurable story-telling can be when it is done capably.

We can only hope–as I certainly do–that Disney will keep up with this trend and continue to wow us with the stories that made us fall in love with the studio in the first place.

Christmas Classics: “The Muppet Christmas Carol”

As most of you no doubt already know, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been, to put it mildly, one of the most frequently adapted Christmas stories in the history of Christmas stories.  Some of these, admittedly, are quite terrible, but there a some that truly stand apart as worthy entries in any Christmas Classics List.  One of these, and one of my three favourite versions of the story (the others being Mickey’s Christmas Carol and the version starring the American actor George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge), is The Muppet Christmas Carol.

To begin with, the casting is truly exemplary, both in terms of human actors and in terms of their Muppet counterparts.  I would not necessarily have pegged Michael Caine as being an ideal choice to play one of the most iconic Christmas characters, but to this day his characterization stands as one of the best.  He manages to convey just the right amount of the various emotions that comprise Scrooge as he develops from a man with a heart of flint to a lively spirit who acknowledges and embraces the beauty of humanity.  Gonzo and Rizzo, of course, threaten to steal the show, with their witty repartee, but they are also a key part of the film’s optimistic charm.  And who else could possibly play Bob Cratchit in this version but the loveable and relatable Kermit?  Who, I ask you, doesn’t tear up when he returns from the church to say to his wife that he has found a place on the hill in which to bury Tiny Tim, because he liked to look at the ducks?  And that tiny little frog that plays Tiny Tim?  I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

While this version of the tale is more upbeat than some (it renders the Ghost of Christmas Present as much more of a gentle and jovial giant than the spirit of mingled joy and terror that emerges in other variants of the story), it does have its darker moments.  The lead-up to the appearance of the Marley Brothers, for example, is actually quite spooky, as is the appearance of the dementor-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (and it is worth pointing out that this film precedes any entry in the film franchise by quite some time).

Even more importantly, however, The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to capture a great deal of the sadness that characterizes Scrooge’s early life and that in large part explains his actions.  The brief montage that shows him slowly growing older, each Christmas spent alone, supported by Michael Caine’s pained and anguished expressions, provides us a glimpse into the pain and agony produced by years of crushing loneliness and solitude.  How can one not feel sorry for a man who has clearly feels so strongly that he had to invent, as a child, the rationalization that being one provided time for reflection and study?

Most poignant, is the scene in which Belle, convinced at last that Scrooge no longer has any place for her in his life, sings the truly heart-breaking song “When Love is Gone.”  This song perfectly captures the bone-deep sadness that can only emerge from that most tragic and despairing of words, “almost.”  Ebenezer and Belle almost spent their lives together in happiness; they almost found completeness.  The fact that this is so clearly in the past, so completely unalterable, imbues the already-melancholy lyrics with an even deeper layer of sadness.  When it is over and Belle walks sadly away, we in the audience weep along with Rizzo.  (Unfortunately, most newer releases of the film have excised this song, which is unfathomable to me, since it is integral to the plot and to Scrooge’s development as a character).  It is only through sadness that we truly come to appreciate the joys of life.

All in all, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a film that is remarkably faithful to the original novel, while also possessing charms of its own.  While it didn’t make that big of a splash when it originally premiered, it seems to have gained something of a devoted cult following (at least, if my English colleagues and I are any indication).  I would definitely advise procuring the earlier DVD release, however, if you want to experience the film as it should be viewed.

Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Well, it’s been quite some time since I shared my thoughts on the Potterverse, but with a Prospectus due to my Advisor and my annual Tolkien reading commencing, I haven’t had as much time to indulge in the world of HP.  However, I have had the chance to finish Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so here are some of my reflections on the fourth, and in many ways the best, of the Harry Potter books.

Even more than Prisoner, this novel reveals that shit is finally getting real.  We as readers know this from the very beginning, when the unfortunate Muggle gardener runs afoul of Wormtail and the frail Voldemort and pays with his life.  We now know, if we hadn’t before, that Voldemort is absolutely willing to murder anyone who threatens any aspect of his plans, no matter how trivial.  I remember being shocked when I first read this novel over a decade ago, and that earliest murder, as well as the darker conversation the gardener Frank overhears, still sends shivers down my spine as I read it.

There is much in this novel that is actually quite chilling, not least the fact that Barty Crouch’s wife actually sacrificed her life for the son that was so unambiguously in league with Voldemort.  There is something fundamentally touching and disturbing about the lengths to which she was willing to go to save a son that was, by all accounts, as monstrous as any of the other Death Eaters.  For all that her actions have made possible all manner of atrocities, one cannot help but be at least somewhat sympathetic for a mother’s desire to save her son from the horrors of Azkaban.  Although Rowling’s world is typically painted in broad strokes of black and white, this is one of those moments when a shade of grey gradually begins to make itself seen.  Who can say that they wouldn’t do the same thing, if presented with this sort of perilous and terrible decision?

More than perhaps any of the other novels in the series (except for perhaps Half-Blood), Goblet allows us to see the true consequences that come from the battling of evil.  Voldemort, however he may have begun, however oppressed and abandoned he might have been in his youth, has now become a creature so far beyond the emotional capacities of ordinary human as to be something else altogether.  His casual dismissal of Cedric as “the spare” vividly illustrates this, and Cedric’s death still remains one of the most saddening in the series, in no small part because it is both so unexpected and sudden.  Indeed, Cedric’s death illustrates something that will become increasingly clear as the rest of the series unfolds:  the battle against evil inevitably leaves the bodies of many innocents in its wake.  And that, I think, is one of the key features of the best fantasy.  The best fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is that which does not end on an entirely happy note.  Indeed, I am most satisfied after reading something that leaves me with a sense, however faint, of melancholy after I have finished the last page.  It’s good to  be reminded that, even when the quest is over and the war is won, nothing can ever be the same again.

It’s quite astonishing, really, how much this novel manages to accomplish, and accomplish well.  As with the previous novel, it has a beautiful artistry all of its own that allows you to recognize its brilliance only after you have read through the entire narrative.  Only after you are finished do you realize that all of the goings-on in the beginning were part of a larger master plan, delicately laid and executed (both by Rowling and by Voldemort).  Likewise, the elements of the Triwizard Tournament are compellingly written, with just enough mystery layered in to make them worth reading (though they do, of course, play second fiddle to the larger narrative of Voldermort’s return).  And who could forget the revelation that so many prominent members of the Wizarding community still maintain their loyalty to their master.  It is this revelation, perhaps even more than that of Voldemort’s actual return, that really brings home to me the reality that this world, far from being a safe haven, is itself full of dangers and betrayals as grave as any that appear in the Muggle world.

All in all, Goblet emerges as one of the best-written and tightly plotted of the series.  Unlike its successor, Goblet manages to weave its various plot threads together into a cohesive whole without seeming overly long or drawn-out.  At this point, we haven’t yet got mired in the teenage angst that plagues the fifth and seventh volume of the saga, but we still get the richer and more compelling character development.  Ironically, this was actually the first Harry Potter novel that I read (being the weirdo I am), and so it will always occupy a special place in my heart.  Having re-read it for the first time in many years, I recognize that it fully deserves that special place.