Friday, December 3, 2010

The Warrior's Way (2010)

I got a chance to watch this film at a preview showing, and I'm honestly not sure what to make of it.  The trailer and advertising made it sound like a wuxia Western, a cross somewhere between "House of Flying Daggers" and "Book of Eli."  It was. There was also a little "Scott Pilgrim v. the World," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and "300" thrown in just for kicks. On occasion it left me exhilarated; on other occasions it left me cold.  But in the end, I was just plain confused.

Rated "R" for strong bloody (stylized) violence.
This film is decidedly not for kids.

The story begins somewhere in Generic East Asia. The main character is played Dong-gun Jang (a South Korean superstar), his mentor is played by a Chinese actor, and the costume design and architecture looked vaguely Japanese, so more specificity is impossible. Our hero is on a quest to become The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a task which apparently involves fighting through waves of ninja henchman, dispatching the previous Greatest Swordsman (helpfully identified by subtitles), and finally killing a baby girl. It's not entirely clear how that last task is even relevant. Luckily, our laconic hero has a conscience, spares the child, and becomes a fugitive pursued by his own clan. Considering this clan consists of hordes of intimidating black-swathed ninja assassins, it's more than a little underwhelming when we learn that the clan is named "The Sad Flutes."

Our hero winds us in America, in a mostly deserted carnival town somewhere in the Badlands. The film soon introduces us to the One True Love, played by Kate Bosworth. In a note of striking originality, this is the one romantic lead in an action film that has grown up with loving parents, without any traumatic events in her life, and with the full hope and expectation of finding true love any day now. Right. What are the odds?  Anyway, our laconic hero settles into his new life, becomes the town's resident gardener and laundryman (no really), and falls in love with the jaded femme fatale. These events are accompanied by blitheringly obvious narration ("He learned that it was better to create beauty... than to cut it down") provided by the town drunk, played by "Pirates of the Caribbean" actor Geoffrey Rush.

Trouble arises, as trouble is wont to do. The town is terrorized by "The Colonel" -- a lascivious tyrant with facial disfigurement (covered a la "Phantom of the Opera") and a thing for clean teeth. In order to defeat him and his roguish henchmen, the laconic swordsman is obliged to bring out his weapon and smite them down. Unfortunately, this particular sword is like a homing beacon for ninja assassins, and so they soon arrive to join in the fun and games.

In the wake of "The Matrix," "Hero" and "300," it's hard to even imagine a film that can bring some originality in its depictions of stylized violence. This film succeeds, especially in a much-praised scene where the swordsman dispatches the guards outside the Colonel's hotel room. The sudden darkness, the strobe-light effects of the bullet holes in the walls, and the frame-by-frame detailing of the action are impressive and effective.

The greatest virtue of this film is in the visuals. It was shot entirely against green-screen, so even in scenes of excruciatingly dull dialogue, you are constantly being taken in by the magnificent vistas and breath-taking landscapes.  Even in the midst of violence, the film relishes in moments of genuine beauty.

Sadly, these moments are marred and married to other moments that aren't so beautiful. For instance, the ending is simply awful. The swordsman is told throughout the film that his nature attracts danger and would put those he loves in harm's way.  So, by the end of the film, having defeated all enemies, there is no catharsis, no realization that here at last he can find peace. The hero simply decides to walk off into the sunset alone, leaving the baby girl and his one true love behind him. The film ends... then resumes after several long seconds of darkness and silence to show him fending off ninjas in some arctic wasteland. He brandishes his sword, jumps in the air to cleave the first of his enemies... and then the film ends again.  I kid you not.

More generally, the love story is hackneyed, the jokes fall flat, and the characterizations are almost painful. Dong-gun Jang speaks his few lines with all the laconic depth of wet cement, while Kate Bosworth goes all out with the "aw-shucks" Southern belle style of over-acting. The script is as monotonous as I imagine life in a deserted carnival town in the Badlands would actually be like, so in that sense the film was very realistic. Only the action scenes and the backgrounds could redeem this film, but not even they are sufficient to warrant praise.  The film kept my interest through its run time, but I still wouldn't recommend it to others.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thomas à Kempis: The Imitation of Christ

By Publius

The blurb on the back advertises The Imitation of Christ as "second only to the Bible as the source of religious instruction and inspiration." Whatever the historical merits of that claim, I can hardly contest it for myself.  Alongside C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," this book was directly responsible for my spiritual rejuvenation in the summer of 2007, and has continued to inspire me ever since.

Originally published anonymously in 1418, De Imitatione Christi was written by Thomas à Kempis, subprior at the Augustinian monastery at Windesheim, in the Kingdom of Holland. It originally served as a manual for novices and junior "canons" under his charge, but it disseminated widely and became a classic in Christian devotional literature. Saint Ignatius of Loyola added it to the official index of "exercises" for the Jesuit order. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, cited it as a primary influence at his conversion.  John Newton, the slave trader-turned-abolitionist who wrote "Amazing Grace," was reading the Bible and The Imitation of Christ when he committed his life to Christ.  This is powerful stuff.

The Imitation was written in four books, translated in my edition as "Thoughts Helpful to the Life of the Soul," "The Interior Life," "Internal Consolation" and "Invitation to Holy Communion." The first book has been the most helpful for me.  In organization it reads like Proverbs -- every sentence or verse being relatively self-standing, though organized as a coherent whole. In tone and content it reads like Ecclesiastes on steroids.

This is a Saturnine work.  Written for monks and ascetics, its primary exhortation is to remember the relative worthlessness of things of this earth, and concentrate fully on the goodness of God. It urges us to pursue a serene life of contemplation, untroubled by the vanities of fame, riches, wisdom, or even human companionship.

In this sense, The Imitation of Christ is both beautiful and dangerous. In encouraging the contemplative life, this work pushes us further and deeper into God's Presence, but it also pushes us into the mystery and ineffability that we find there.  We ought not lose our bearings, or forget the other virtues that we are called to balance against this. James 4:9 bids us to "Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom." Yet we are also to rejoice in the Lord, and remember His triumph.  We ought to love God and not be troubled by things of this life; yet we are also love others and sacrifice ourselves for them.

The Imitation of Christ is an immensely valuable resource to those seeking to deepen their spiritual life. It is not Holy Writ, so each statement ought to be weighed carefully for its merit, but it still comes awfully close. The Imitation of Christ may have been written for Late Medieval Catholic monks, but it's still remarkably applicable to the spiritual walk of modern Protestants and Christians of all denominations.

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, Orthodox Reflections.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tangled (2010)

By Publius

“Tangled” marks the long-awaited return of the Prodigal Studio, the revival of classic Disney story-telling. The trailers made "Tangled" seem like an irreverent romp through the Disney Princess archetype, along the lines of "Enchanted" or (Heaven help us) "Shrek." Bless the stars, it wasn't. Sincere, sentimental, and mostly unselfconscious, "Tangled" was the genuine article. It also features my new favorite sidekick and favorite villain of all the Disney movies I’ve seen. All told, "Tangled" was pretty swell.

In case you haven't read the fairy tale (originally from the brothers Grimm), Rapunzel is a princess with very long hair trapped by Mother Gothel in a very tall tower, who ultimately gets rescued by a prince, the end. In case you haven't seen the movie, Rapunzel has grown up ignorant of her real parents, firmly convinced that Gothel is her actual mother, and instead of a prince she is rescued by a charismatic thief, Flynn Rider.

Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous. The scene with the lanterns ascending into the night sky very literally took my breath away for a second. The film trades primarily on an aesthetic of Joy – both with Rapunzel’s first steps on solid earth, and her vibrant dance when she first comes to the town square. On a technical level, the animators sought to marry the detail of modern graphics technology with the beauty of classic hand-drawn technique. They truly succeeded.

Musically, the film was scored by Alan Mencken, the man responsible for basically every memorable song from our childhood. His work here isn't quite as jaw-dropping as the scores he composed for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and more recently "Enchanted," but still more than passable. The lyrics for the typical "I want" intro song were -- dare I say it? -- almost unexpected at times, while the deliciously menacing "Mother Knows Best" is guaranteed to bring the house down on Broadway. The most memorable melody for me, however, was the falling-in-love duet "Waiting for the Lights," which was set in the lantern scene described above and complemented it perfectly.

Let's talk characters. First, the sidekicks were hilarious. Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal was a bundle of contradictions: mute but expressive, tiny but powerful, withdrawn but intimidating. However, the show was absolutely stolen by Maximus, the horse of the captain of the Palace Guard. The animators gave him the tenacity, temperament, and tracking ability of a bloodhound.  Being a dog person, this enthused me greatly.

The villain, Mother Gothel, adds another layer of excellence to this film. I'm pretty sure she is Disney's first passive-aggressive villain. Alternating protestations of love with biting deprecations, she has kept Rapunzel almost terminally insecure, trapping her in the tower by bars of stronger stuff than iron. Her manipulative nature actually amplifies and justifies the classic arch-villain trope of not seizing the immediate advantage. She finds Rapunzel, but decides to let her stay with Flynn Rider to ensure that Rapunzel's heart is broken.  She can't compete with Jafar or the great villains of classic Disney for menace or sheer quantity of evil, but in terms of plausibility and narrative coherence Mother Gothel is my new favorite.

Rapunzel herself is an interesting case-study in the Disney Princess files. Her relationship with Mother Gothel has made her so emotionally unstable, that you really do understand her initial passivity and dependence on others. Yet her true personality is defined outside that relationship. Not as aggressive as Jasmine in "Aladdin,” Rapunzel is certainly forceful enough to hold her own against the roguish charms of Flynn Rider and the roguish gallery at "The Snuggly Duckling." Unlike Mulan or Portia in "The Merchant of Venice," Rapunzel does not have to become a man, nor suspend her dreams and romantic aspirations, in order to learn the culturally “masculine” virtues of courage and assertiveness. Indeed, Rapunzel is refreshingly feminine for a modern heroine.

Flynn Rider may in fact be the more interesting character study in "Tangled." I was initially worried that this would turn out to be another entry for the "Myth of the Romantic Scoundrel" files, and indeed his initial betrayal of his partners-in-crime was concerning. I partly sympathized with Mother Gothel when Rapunzel started talking about how she met a boy. "Who, the wanted thief?  I'm so proud." On the other hand, the character for Flynn Rider is voiced by Zachary Levi (of TV's "Chuck"), who conveys such an unassuming "nice guy" vibe that it's hard to even think of him as a villain. His vanity is apparent, but his primary flaw seems to lie in his reticence. He is unwilling to open up to people: "I don't do back-story," he explains to Rapunzel. But when he is trapped to drown in a cave, his defenses break down and he makes his first baby-step towards trust, by admitting that his real name is Eugene Fitzherbert. The name is a delightfully archaic touch, but conveys a deeper truth: namely, his entire persona as "Flynn Rider" is a lie (as he practically admits in his next sentence), and that even his vanity was a defense mechanism for insecurity. I also thought it noteworthy that Rapunzel never again addresses him as "Flynn" but always calls him Eugene from that point on. She knows, and loves, his real nature. The two characters are in this sense growing in parallel -- Rapunzel learns the cardinal or classical virtues (courage, temperance, justice and prudence), while Eugene learns the spiritual or Christian virtues (faith, hope and love).  Romantic love may test and teach those who already desire the Good, but it should not be seen as a means of redeeming and bringing virtue to those who do not already seek it.

"Tangled" is a sincere celebration of romantic idealism in a world that satirizes idealism for breakfast. It must be conceded that this ironic mentality does penetrate the film on occasion. Parts of the opening narration, for instance, do incline towards the satiric or self-consciously cutesy. The worst offense to my mind was the “I’ve Got A Dream” sequence where the rogues in the Snuggly Duckling burst into song detailing their oddly domestic aspirations. Even as the scene abounds with joy and revels in its own cheesiness, the film finds it necessary to cut to skeptical mug of Flynn Rider, whose face seems to shout “I am not amused in the least.” On the other hand, it’s hard to find a single non-Pixar animated film from the last decade that didn’t at least wrestle with the satiric impulse. But like this year’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” “Tangled” succeeds in overcoming that initial handicap, and presents ideas and ideals of real meaning with honest sincerity.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By Cinema Muse

Being a lover of the Art Deco Era in which this movie is set, I absolutely could not resist reviewing it. Like most Disney animated films, it's not without it's problems, but I still find a lot to admire in The Princess and the Frog. Pixar head honcho John Lassiter had a large part in the restart of the Disney hand-drawn features, and his influence shows clearly in the quality of this film, which is higher than that of any Disney animated film since Mulan (I'm not counting Enchanted since it was mostly live action). It also features an earnestness in storytelling that recent Disney fare seems to have forgotten in the din pop culture references and cheap humor, and I think that quality will make this film stand the test of time.

Right out of the gate, I have to give Disney a lot of credit for capturing both the look and sound of 1920s New Orleans. Even though Tiana's waitress uniform and princess dresses are fairly generic-looking instead of having the feel of the period, the rest of the costumes and scenery are spot on, much to my delight. As much as this accuracy pleases me, though, I tried not to let it blind me from the movie's faults--and believe me, there are a few. As much as I like the score, moreover, I  don't think the songs are quite as strong as they were in past films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this film is the characterization, especially of Tiana and Prince Naveen. Ironically both are extremely materialistic, though Tiana doesn't realize how much that aspect of her personality has affected her. I feel like with Prince Naveen we get our first real depiction of royalty from Disney: a selfish, womanizing spendthrift who plans to marry for money. This is an improvement because it shows young girls that having a royal title doesn't necessarily make a man a desirable mate. Whereas Charlotte is prepared to marry Naveen purely to become a princess, Tiana won't even consider him until he has a major change of heart. I also find Naveen's chagrin at being raised to be "decoratively useless"--i.e. having no life and survival skills--to be quite believable, a common complaint of coddled children. Tiana's simple act of teaching him to cook, therefore, empowers him to take control of his own life instead of remaining a sponge. In fact his fulfillment in learning that skill reveals to us that his whole previous lifestyle was really what Pascal would call "diversion," a ploy to distract him from his meaningless existence. Once Naveen finds a purpose in helping Tiana achieve her dream, everything else takes is proper place in the order of importance for his life. He can still have fun playing the ukulele on occasion, but fun is no longer the point of his life.

Tiana's problem is much more subtle than her love interest's. Although she basically had a good upbringing. she has become quietly obsessed with the necessity of making money in order to realize her dream of owning a swank restaurant. Of course there's nothing wrong with having a dream and working hard to make it a reality, but Tiana takes it to an unhealthy level when she starts neglecting the people who love her in order to make make every penny she can. The lesson she learns from her father's example in the end is that sharing joy and love with others will make your life worthwhile regardless of whether or not your achieve your personal goals. Of course Tiana gets her restaurant in the end, but it's no longer the most important thing in her life because she's realized that people are far more valuable than things. Really it's not something that she didn't already know, but she's learned to evaluate how well she's living up to her standards, which is something that everyone needs to know.

Despite this flaw in her character, Tiana's initiative in pursuing her dream is truly admirable. Unlike other Disney princesses who yearn for something more without any idea of how they can go about getting it, she has a plan and she executes it to some success. To Disney's credit, this is the first time they had a princess in a situation where it would not be anachronistic for her to have entrepreneurial aspirations, and they manage to create a character who can incorporate these attributes without feeling like a feminist firebrand. The problem with those kind of characters are their complete rejection of traditional women's roles and the bitterness that usually accompany their viewpoint. I'm not saying that all feminists are bitter and wish to reject all traditional women's roles, but I want to emphasize that the extreme ones often paint their issues in black-and-white terms that ruthlessly villainize men in order to justify their viewpoint to an audience whom they perceive to be hostile to their stance. Their actions ultimately seem counterproductive because they only serve to foment more hatred on an already sensitive subject That being noted, there are some moments in this film where we can sense Tiana's frustration and resentment at the disadvantages that gender and racial prejudice cause her along with the poverty of her circumstance, but for the most part she seems to be a loving, well-adjusted woman. She also doesn't shy away from taking on traditional family roles (being a good wife and daughter), which attests to the fact that living for others can be just as fulfilling as accomplishing personal goals.

As I said above, one thing I really admire about this film is the earnestness of the storytelling. Yes, it does have funny moments and comic relief characters, but they are never loud enough to detract from the heart of the story, which is evaluating priorities and a rejection of strict materialism. It also warms my heart that Tiana, Ray, and Louis all have fairly far-fetched dreams, but those dreams are respected and fulfilled, even if not in the way they expected it. Only Charlotte's and Naveen's selfish dreams become the subject of ridicule and rightly so. I also appreciate how seemingly selfish people like Naveen and Charlotte can change, which is always more enjoyable than having them stay static characters.

Even though I love this movie greatly, I want to emphasize that I like as an adult, but I don't think it's at all suitable for children. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record with these Disney films, but I really do feel like they are often too scary for young children. The demonic elements of the Shadow Man character are particularly frightening to me, as are the way his demon cohorts operate in the middle of the night and the way they literally drag him down to hell in the end. That's a bit much for little kids to take. It's also quite sad the way Ray dies in the end, even though he gets to live on as a star with Evangeline. I know if I were a kid, though, I'd still find it emotionally crippling. 

So in the end, The Princess and the Frog pretty much succeeds in recapturing the glory days of Disney animated features. Apart from the overly scary moments, this film has heart, charm, and excellent production values. In addition the fact that it's a period piece and that it lacks pop cultural references means that it should continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. If Disney can keep up the pace in it's future endeavors, I shall watch their progress with considerable enthusiasm.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews at Seeing Sepia

Enchanted (2007)

By Publius

As this Disney Princess series winds down, I’ve felt it increasingly necessary to offer a summary or recap of the major themes covered this month. Cinema Muse’s "Enchanted" review raised many of the same issues I was considering, and I realized that the film was itself an exploration of the meaning of the Disney Princess genre. It begins with an animated sequence recapping the many elements of a typical princess film – talking animals, singing heroine, dramatic entrance of hero, scene of peril, then rescue and the inevitably ensuing romance. It’s all standard fare (though delightfully tongue-in-cheek) until the heroine is sent to New York City and must fight for her romantic ideals in a world of modern sensibilities and cynicisms. The film shows her maturation as an actual individual, and her realization that true love doesn’t always come in prince-shaped packages.

We live in a post-ironic world. Our cultural touchstones are defined by this trait: Seinfeld, the Simpsons, Shrek. Our culture accepts tacitly that nothing is sacred; everything must be questioned and tested. In philosophy and science, this is expressed as professional skepticism; in arts and literature, as satire.
The problem is that our culture elevates irony almost to the level of an intrinsic good, a thing worthy in and of itself. The truth is that irony is not intrinsically meaningful; it only acquires meaning when it conveys other values that are. Irony serves a corrective function, in forcing us to reexamine and reevaluate the things we hold dear. But it cannot and ought not serve as a vehicle for expressing our social values on the whole.

This is not to deny that professional skepticism can be a force for good, nor deny that satire can be uproariously funny. My initial attraction to the sitcom “Community” was precisely for its meta-humor and its commentary on pop culture. But there is a reason that “Shrek” is merely popular while Pixar films are treated as contemporary masterpieces. Is there any hint of cynicism in “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” or “Up”? “The Incredibles” did spoof the superhero genre, but in a way that reemphasized the classic values of family and friendship. We attach tremendous value to things which convey real ideals in honest sincerity. This is incidentally my ongoing reason for my enjoyment of Community,” incidentally: for the idealism that transcends even its own satiric impulses. Idealism is infinitely more meaningful than irony.

Over the last decade, the ironic tendency became particularly pervasive in animation. Disney Studios after Mulan fell into an almost self-devouring rut of self-mockery. Dreamworks was practically born into that rut, its early offering “Prince of Egypt” notwithstanding. Only Pixar seems immune from this ironic vein, but even they were sorely tempted. For instance, the original draft of “Toy Story” featured an aggressively cynical Woody, far removed from the loyal and loveable character we find in the final cut.

Only recently have animation studios begun to rediscover their own ideals. Disney’s latest offerings – starting to a limited extent with “Enchanted” but more pronouncedly in “Bolt” and “Tangled” – have flirted with satire but are growing increasingly sincere. Dreamworks has matured considerably as a studio, and its latest fare “How to Train Your Dragon” achieved near-Pixar levels of greatness, due in my opinion due to its sincere depiction of the father-son relationship at the heart of the movie.

What then to make of “Enchanted”? This film seems to mark a turning point in Disney’s approach, from the irreverence of its prior offerings to the renewed idealism of “Tangled.” The film is predicated on satire, and uses it quite effectively as a tool to point out the Disney’s own flaws. It eviscerates the superficiality of Disney romances, the vanity of their princes and the vapidity of their princesses. But in the end, it returns to that same source of romantic idealism, only with a deepened appreciation for what the originals were trying to convey. Without idealism, we would soon become bitter and cynical; without romantic idealism, love itself would grow sterile.

True, satire is useful as a corrective, and the excesses of the Disney princess genre ought to be tempered by it. For instance, “The Little Mermaid” urges us to root for a spoiled princess who wagers her soul to the devil on the off-chance that within three days she can attract a hunky guy solely on the basis of her looks. As far as superficiality goes, “The Little Mermaid” is exhibit A, and Neophytus’ review masterfully dissected its horrid morals even while praising its energy and vibrancy.

We should not let ourselves be carried away. Disney films may well be criticized (as by Cinema Muse) for “creating and perpetuating” the sort of romantic idealism as may leave us disappointed or disconnected from reality. This criticism is just, but only to a degree. In reality and in sum, Disney films were only the most consistent in depicting and defending such idealism. Though the films occasionally went too far, they are greatly to be preferred to the excesses of cynicism that has dominated animation this past decade, and dominated modern film and television well before then.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Enchanted (2007)

By Cinema Muse

Ten years after they made their first film questioning the princess archetype, Disney would revisit these problems with their hilarious parody Enchanted. I have to hand it to Disney for making a film that satirizes its bread-and-butter, especially when it was the first traditionally animated feature (or at least partially so) they'd produced in the better part of a decade. Of course admitting that their starry-eyed optimistic take on life is wrong would be shooting themselves in the foot, but they do a good job mocking the over-the-top nature of some of their stories anyway.

Our protagonist Giselle is the typical sweet, mindless Disney princess of the pre-Renaissance era who looks only for her handsome prince to come and take her to her happily ever after. She gets her wish by literally falling into the lap of a prince, who vows to marry her in the morning. Before this can happen, however, the prince's evil stepmother contrives to send Giselle to another world where there are no "happily ever afters," thus preventing the prince from ascending to the throne upon his marriage. The whole sequence is such a clever amalgamation of iconic scenes from other Disney movies, especially the three original princess films, and it's so delightfully tongue-in-cheek that I can't help dissolving into  giggles every time I see it.

Of course the dismal land of "no happily ever afters" is our own sweet reality, and Giselle drops right into the middle of the particularly inhospitable New York City. Very quickly she learns that her particular skill sets--singing, sewing, etc--will not get her far in the Asphalt Jungle. Again displaying great fortune, she happens to run into a kindly man named Robert whose young daughter is convinced that Giselle is a real princess right out of her storybooks, something Robert emphatically refuses to believe.

One essential problem with the Disney princess character becomes abundantly clear when Giselle meets Robert. After he catches her when she falls off a billboard, she tells him her story, in which she mentions getting to New York by falling down a well. Catching the irony, Robert asks her, "Is this a habit of yours, falling off things?" Giselle responds, "Well, usually someone catches me." Giselle, you see, relies on other people to get her out of scrapes instead of learning to take care of herself. That kind of attitude is a flatly unhealthy. Of course there's nothing wrong with having your friends help you out in a pinch, but that's no excuse for staying helpless yourself. After all, you can never tell when you'll be alone and need to get by on your own abilities. You can't always count on even the best of friends being there for you every time. I'm sorry for spelling out something that should be completely self-evident like this, but it needs to be said for the sake of rhetoric. Because it's the rightly-noted problem with the old school Disney Princesses.

Most of the film is taken up in the iconoclast between Robert's hard-nose practicality and Giselle's resilient idealism. Like most studies of this nature, Enchanted concludes that the best road is somewhere in the middle, but just how close to each side is this happy mean? I don't think this movie clearly states where exactly that mean lies, but the thesis seems to be that it's in different places for different people. In fact the conclusion may simply be to avoid the extremes personified by Robert and Giselle in the first place. I say this because Robert's streetwise ways are a great help to the inexperience of Giselle, and so is her optimism for him when he begins to despair. In that sense their personalities greatly complement each other.

Giselle's two big character moments as a princess are when she asks Prince Edward to take her on a date before they get married and when she scales the skyscraper to rescue Robert. Obviously the first part is important because she realizes that she needs to get to know the man she loves before she marries him, and thus base their relationship in more than just emotions. The second scene is equally important, however, because it shows that she's learned to continue fighting even when things look bleak. Earlier in the film when Giselle realizes that she cannot be with Robert, her despair leads her to fall prey to the evil queen's poison apple, which she tells Giselle will make her forget her heartache. Becoming cynical or giving up on true love, therefore, should not be our answer when we realize that the path of true love is a daunting obstacle course with many dead ends.

That brings us to the sad reality at which this movie hints, namely that the reason characters like Robert and his fiance Nancy are such jaded individuals is because they became disenchanted with the Disney fairytale mentality. In Robert's case we learn from his backstory that his first wife left him shortly after their daughter's birth, destroying his illusion of true love. Nancy too seems to yearn for a fairytale life, but she remains ready to believe the worst of the man she loves the first time she finds him in a compromising situation. Finally Giselle falls victim to this disenchantment, and in her case it nearly proves fatal. And I can't help thinking that the Disney idealism is what created this mess in the first place, since without that kind of idealization of romance, those characters would not experience a disconnect with reality in the first place. Which leaves me to wonder if this whole project isn't just Disney's way of making amends for a problem that they themselves create and perpetuate.

In the end, though, our belief in true love is affirmed, and the film turns out to be a pure joy to watch. The score by Alan Menken is memorable with tongue-in-cheek moments, euphonious melodies, and just enough sincerity to win us over in the end. The plot is well-crafted--except I can't help thinking that it would be more efficient to have Prince Edward murdered than trying to kill any girl he falls for--and the characters believable except for the cookie-cutter villain. Just when we all thought Disney was dead, it's so pleasant to find that you can teach an old mouse new tricks.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews, Seeing Sepia

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mulan (1998)

 By Aléxandros

In this review, I focus primarily on the characters and their interactions, as I found them to be the highlight of the film. First, I will address some minor flaws in the film, then I will jump into character analysis, which is the bulk of this review.

Aesthetically, Mulan is one of Disney’s best films. Whether depicting a mountain pass with a simple snow background, or throngs of celebrating Chinese citizens in a city, the animators know exactly when to dazzle the viewer and when to make the viewer focus on the dialogue. As for the music, Fa Mulan’s solo at the beginning of the film, “Reflection,” beautifully lays out her insecurities and doubts, setting the stage for her later growth. And who can forget “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”? The film excels at showing the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and decisions without telling.

The flaws were few, but should be noted. Mulan’s sword injury from Shan Yu and miraculously quick recovery seemed a bit absurd. The running around in the palace and many opportunities she had to finish off Shan Yu grew tiresome, and her impetuous hug of the Emperor seemed completely out of place for the culture and time. The movie also could have ended at a climatic peak once Mulan returned home to her family and Li Shang arrived, yet the film was drawn out slightly longer and ended rather abruptly with the dog and chickens running into the shrine of the ancestors. Despite these imperfections, the film is overwhelmingly dazzling in animation and presents some of the strongest characters of any Disney story.

Mulan’s mother, Fa Li, does not play a very critical role in the film, other than being an escort to “the Matchmaker” at the beginning of the film, and consoling Mulan after the disastrous results of said visit. Grandma Fa is similarly of little consequence to the film, being a minor character who provides some comic relief and introduces us to Cri-Kee, the “lucky” cricket.

I did not find Mushu to be very funny, neither did he have depth of character. The only time he did anything of particular value was his consoling of Mulan following the mountain pass scene.

Mulan as “Ping” befriends Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, soldiers who for all purposes fulfill the role of the Chinese “Three Stooges" in the film. While entertaining, I did not find these characters particularly interesting, although one does marvel at Chien-Po single-handedly pulling up Yao, Ling, Mulan, Li Shang, and the horse Kahn off the edge of the mountainside. Clearly Chien-Po is the most physically powerful character in the film, the stuff of legend, however it is the villain Shan Yu who gets to show off his strength most.

Speaking of Shan Yu, the villain deserves a mention. He is rather typical Disney villain fare so far as personality, but kudos to the animators for making him far more intimidating than some ugly witch. His menacing yellow eyes and hulking frame, along with the shrill calls of his evil saker falcon definitely gave me the creeps when I was young and first saw the film. Adding to dramatic effect, we are often shown the aftermath of the evil Shan Yu perpetrates, as with the burnt village that Mulan and the other soldiers come upon late in the film.

The Emperor is presented as peaceful and brave in the face of being kidnapped, and gracious as he gives Mulan both his personal royal crest and the sword of the defeated Shan Yu as tokens of honor. His appearances are brief but praiseworthy. He is both idealist and practical, being primarily concerned with the welfare of his people rather than his palace, yet immediately identifying the need for conscription in order to have an army capable of facing the Huns. The only mark against him is his poor choice in having Chi-Fu as his consul, but I suppose that Disney had to fit in a minor antagonist to provide a contrast to the bravery of Li Shang, Mulan, and the other soldiers.

Li Shang is presented as a straightforward and by-the-book leader: promising, strong, and young. He eagerly trains the men under his command all the while Chi-Fu attempts to undermine Li Shang in his written reports. Li Shang shows his character by tolerating Chi-Fu, although we do not see much character development in him until the burnt village and mountain pass scenes.

It is when Mulan and the troops discover the burnt village and the remains of General Li (no Civil War jokes, please) and his army that we see the strength of character in Li Shang. He quietly and rather quickly thrusts a sword into the ground and puts his father’s helm upon it, mourning and remembering him. Yet Li Shang understands the need to move on, and to keep his troops morale high by not losing his resolve. Li Shang inspires more confidence in his leadership both by his handling of the loss of his father, and by his brave resolve when attacked by overwhelming numbers of Huns in the mountain pass. Again Li Shang shows his character upon discovering Mulan’s identity and sparing her life after the battle. It is my contention that Li Shang’s strength of character is what draws Mulan to him, not his looks or class as with so many other male love interests in Disney films.

Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, is the central figure in both Mulan’s initial crisis and the conclusion of the film. Zhou is a devoted man of prayer, seeking guidance and protection for his family from his ancestors. He clearly loves and reveres his daughter, encouraging her after the unfortunate visit to ‘the Matchmaker.” While he hopes for a traditional life for her and is disappointed at her outspoken nature, he never rejects her, demonstrating signs of an unconditional love which is later proved at the end of the story. While Mulan already suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, the moving crisis of the film begins when Chi-Fu the Emperor’s consul arrives to conscript Zhou. Zhou shows that his age and crippled body do not dampen his spirit and resolve to fulfill duty. Mulan asks him at one point, “So you will die for honor?” To this Zhou replies, “I will die doing what’s right!”

As Mulan watches Zhou’s body fail him during sword practice, we see a daughter’s love for her father tearing at her. Zhou is obviously incapable of serving anymore, but will do what he believes is right regardless of consequence or ability. It is undoubtedly this which causes Mulan to realize that she too will do what she believes is right regardless of the consequences for her or her ability. Mulan’s decision to engage in deception and abandon her home is not motivated by rebellion, but out of overwhelming love for her father and desire to protect him.

Fa Mulan, the film’s protagonist and heroine, is not, technically speaking, a princess. Neither is she like any of Disney’s princesses. Mulan is flawed and sometimes impulsive, outspoken in a culture which values saving face and women’s silent obedience. Yet Mulan is not a foolish or rebellious young woman. She is a very believable, human character who struggles with the desire to fulfill her duties and bring her family honor, while she also feels called to a different life than the women of her family. She does not set out to find romance, or become infatuated with the first man she meets. Indeed, as the soldier “Ping,” she is surrounded by men. Mulan demonstrates both her resolve and inventiveness in climbing the pole to retrieve the arrow during training, and she as “Ping” again thinks faster and more clearly than others by commandeering the final rocket and aiming it toward the mountain peak. While her actions nearly kill everyone on the mountain, they succeed in destroying the bulk of Shan Yu’s forces, saving China and her comrades.

The film’s closing scene contains my favorite bit of dialogue. Upon returning home, Mulan presents to her father Zhou both the sword and the royal crest as gifts to honor the family. To this, Zhou states, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.” This line and the following embrace speak powerfully to the love that family can have, and were the favorite moments of the film for me.

Mulan is a masterful work in aesthetics, music, voice-acting, and especially character development. The heroine Mulan is truly strong while feminine, admirable despite initial insecurities, and very much human. The film is anchored around a great female protagonist, while providing some remarkably good male role models in the form of Mulan’s captain and her father, as well as the wise emperor.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hercules (1997)

By Cinema Muse

Although I believe this movie qualifies for Disney Princess status--heck, marrying a demi-god beats marrying a lousy old prince any day--it's usually not included on the list because a) it wasn't that successful in theaters, and b) Megera isn't technically a princess in Disney's version of the story, though she certainly was a princess in the Greek myth. I also really think she should be included because she was the very first anti-princess character in a Disney movie, and it always speaks both to the influence and weaknesses of the type when an anti-type is produced.

Obviously the most appropriate person to review a Disney film making fun of Greek mythology would be a Greek-American, and fortunately I am both genetically and culturally qualified for the daunting task. As a child I was both strangely attracted to this movie by my ethnic ties and repelled by the subject's dark moments. In fact, when I first heard that Disney was going to make a children's movie out of a Greek myth, I thought it an impossible task considering everyone short of the two virgin goddesses is promiscuous in those stories. Somehow Disney manages to alter the plot in order to weed out the gratuitous sex, and they also make everything look and sound superficially Greek, neither of which is any mean feat. Still, the movie is so blatantly anachronistic in order to put in pop culture references that we can never suspend our disbelief and think it's really Ancient Greece. But I must admit that I enjoy the mention of food like pita and mousaka enjoyable along with the casual mention of other myths. It's not Greek, but it's a very pleasing imitation, especially since Greek Mythology is such a ripe subject for satire.

Despite the cultural ties, though, I did not watch this movie much as a kid because my mother considered the villain too dark. Hades and his underworld abode are admittedly creepy, but I didn't find him that intimidating both because he was a wisecracker and because I was older when the film first came out. Still, the Fates in this film are revolting, and the hydra is truly frightening at moments. I could have taken this, however, were it not for the fact that Meg actually dies in the end--and not in that Snow White death-like-sleep way, either, but legitimate death. You know, the kind where if Dr. McCoy had been around he'd have said, "She's dead, Jim!" Even as a kid I knew that the film wouldn't end on that note, but the fact that a main character like that could bite the bullet still makes the movie quite disturbing for children's fare.

Let's concentrate on Megera, though, shall we? In my youth I really didn't understand her appeal as a character because I didn't have the life experience to appreciate her plight and motivation. I though she was too cynical, callus, and scheming to be a sympathetic character, even though her commentary made me laugh at times. I couldn't comprehend at that age the pain that would cause a woman to become that jaded, but since I've experienced some modicum of the suffering she goes through, she quickly skyrocketed up my list of memorable Disney characters. Meg is basically the Dulcinea archetype, the Jean Arthur character in a Frank Capra film (See Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to see what I mean). She's the good girl who has turned apathetic from overexposure to vice and corruption. Hiding behind the veil of cynicism, she's even managed to convince herself that she no longer cares about right and wrong until she meets Hercules.

Like our "princess" herself, our hero Hercules is hardly a moral paragon either. Although he has a functioning conscience, he becomes a "hero" for entirely selfish reasons. In addition he's extremely dense and unexperienced, or to quote Blackadder, he's "as thick as clotted cream that's been left out by some clot until the clots are so clotted that they couldn't be un-clotted with an electric de-clotter." But Herc's naivety and the way he treats Meg with dignity win her heart and revives her morality. Herc treats Meg like a princess without any ulterior motives, and once she realizes the sincere value he places on her, she regains her self-respect and with it her ability to stand up for what she believes in.

We must bear in mind that this awakening of consciousness is no mean feat because Meg has been horribly abused by men in the past, so her resentment is deep-rooted. Being myself one of many women who have been the victims of unscrupulous men--and indeed physical and emotional abuse against women has become increasingly common--I find her unwillingness to trust men very believable. Indeed when you've been betrayed by the person you love and esteem most in the world, it's completely natural to become suspicious of the everyone you meet. Not only do we find out that Meg was betrayed by the man she loved, but to add insult to injury she then became the slave of the evil-incarnate lord of the underworld. So the abuse and debasement she suffers is double and ongoing when she meets Hercules.

Actually, when we learn Meg's backstory, we realize that she is a victim of the princess mentality, which is why she becomes an anti-princess. Like the Disney Princesses we know and love, Meg used to be a virtuous girl who would do anything for true love, even selling her soul to the devil in order to save the man she loves. Unfortunately, just like many women today, Meg learns the hard way about the dangers of giving her heart too freely. After she sells her soul to win her beloved's freedom, he runs off with another woman, leaving Meg with years of enslavement to contemplate her mistake. So being a Disney Princess got Meg in serious peril.

In fact women like Meg danger in the face of scheming men every day of their lives, and the princess archetype so prevalent in our culture and especially narratives aimed at women only tend to exacerbate that problem. Those narratives tell women that their lives aren't fulfilled unless they're in a romantic relationship; they tell them that they should love men in spite of often egregious faults; and they tell them that love can solve any problem. All three of these statements are flatly false and dangerous to believe. They are also a bit redundant considering that women are already genetically programed to form strong attachments and forgive the wrongs of people they love. That what keeps us from murdering our children. So having mass media that tell us to cultivate these qualities without tempering them with reason poses a serious threat.

Let me just point out three ways in which this mentality can be harmful if it goes unchecked. First of all telling women that her life is meaningless without love can make those women desperate for love, and thus willing to get involved with guys that will mistreat them. Secondly the mentality makes women think they should overlook and forgive unhealthy behavior in the name of love, which often leads men to abuse this clemency and continue indulging their vices. And finally this mentality can make women stay in a bad relationship, hoping that the strength of their love and commitment will win out in the end. Scratch the surface of any woman who has experienced physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse at the hands of her significant other, and you will find these these values trapping her in the unhealthy situation, blinding her to the seriousness of her plight. Thus the Disney Princess Syndrome is extremely perilous to the mentality of young women, if they don't know how it can be manipulated against them.

Back to the plot of the film, however, when Meg feels herself falling in love, her fist instinct is a fight-or-flight response. This produces the best number in the film, "I Won't Say I'm in Love," and it also shows that the great labor that Hercules must perform in this film is not the defeat of Hades' monsters and titans but rather influencing Meg's change of heart. This isn't to say, however, that the defeat of Hades' minions doesn't play a part in influencing Meg's revival. When Hercules first "rescues" her, she thinks his whole heroism and chivalry act is a naive joke at best. The thought of good triumphing over evil seems impossible from her perspective, but Hercules shows that fighting for a better world isn't a futile endeavor. We see her change begin when he slays the hydra and she's genuinely glad that Hades' evil plan has been thwarted. She seems to experience similar elation with all his other successes, and by the time Hades thinks of the idea of having Meg seduce Hercules to learn his weakness, she flatly refuses until Hades offers her freedom as a reward. Even though she accepts his dirty bargain, she immediately regrets it when she goes on a date with him and gets to see how much he truly values her as a person.

Once Meg learns value herself, she gains the initiative she needs to stand up to Hades and do the right thing even at the cost of her life--just as Hercules will truly give his to save hers. In that sense, therefore, they are a well-matched couple. After all, you can't get hurt as badly as Meg did in the first place unless you care very deeply about things.

So while Meg starts out as an anit-Princess type who doesn't want men in her life and doesn't believe in fighting for virtue, she gets a reversion of values and with it a traditional happy ending. This was the first Disney movie that told a cynical generation that maybe the status quo didn't have to say the way they hated it to be, even though it still told them they could solve their problems with the right man. Whether or not they agreed with Disney's new thesis, it was nice to see the wizened point-of-view acknowledged by the studio of dreams and idealism without undermining those optimistic values. They'd pick up the same theme ten years later for their 2D animation revival, Enchanted, a more thorough treatment of the subject.

Hercules may be a problematic film in a lot of ways--especially in the accuracy to Greek mythology--but it succeeds at least in its portrayal of Meg. She takes us beyond the princess archetype, but in returning to it in the end, affirms it's power over our imagination. We may not like that she affirms the Disney Princess model in the end, but at least she points out its dangers to us.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews, Seeing Sepia

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pocahontas (1995)

By Thunder Fist

The first time I ever saw Pocahontas was just this month when I sat down to watch it so I could write this review. That being the case, I have no nostalgic attachment to Pocahontas as I do to most other Disney movies from the nineties. In retrospect, I’m surprised I missed it. The film was a big success and Pocahontas is well-established as one of Disney’s princesses. I did learn Colors of the Wind almost by heart because it was immediately catapulted to well-deserved fame, but I never saw the film itself until now. And now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why it never drew me.

Early American history—unpatriotic as this sounds—has never been a big draw for me. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith, which I already knew from school, also failed to interest me. As a kid romance left me cold, and it seemed that the story of Pocahontas was mainly focused on the romantic tension between the heroine and Smith. This I find to be the case in the film. However, let me first say that I find Pocahontas and John Smith to be one of the most well-rounded human couples in Disney history. (The animal couples are another story.) Both Pocahontas and Smith are given about equal screen time, and Pocahontas has much greater freedom in her world than Ariel, Jasmine and Belle—her three most recent forebearers—do. All three of these antecedent ladies are captives: Ariel is trapped in the sea, Jasmine in the palace, and Belle in the Beast’s castle. In Pocahontas it is Smith who falls more into the captive place: he is in Pocahontas’s world rather than she in his, and he needs her guidance and wisdom in order to fully understand this world. At the end of the film, he becomes the literal captive of Pocahontas’s people and is only saved from execution by the princess herself.

Aside from Belle and the Beast, Pocahontas and Smith are the most detailed and filled-out human couple of any pre-1995 Disney film I’ve seen. Pocahontas is a strong, thoughtful and energetic young woman; Smith is an ambitious, brave and experienced explorer. They hail from two different worlds that are in conflict throughout the story: the colonizing British and the coastal Native Americans. The story begins with Smith and then transitions smoothly to Pocahontas, and from then on flips back and forth between the British and Native American worlds.

While a childish (maybe just boyish) distaste for romance when I was little is understandable, it doesn’t make for a mature evaluation. I’m of an age now where I appreciate a good romantic story, and I expected to enjoy the film more. Yet despite its strengths, Pocahontas still doesn’t work for me.

The real problem is the dialogue and storyline. With the frequent transitions between the British and the Native Americans, the story feels hesitant and slow. The minor characters never really get developed because there are so many of them. Aside from a few funny moments between the evil British commander and his officious assistant, Wiggin, we have none of the Cogsworth-Lumiere wit or the brilliance of Abu and the Magic Carpet. There aren’t enough connections between the characters aside from Pocahontas and John Smith. As a result, the story doesn’t have the old Disney cohesion and flare. It feels quieter, longer, and rather ponderous, more of a character study of the two central figures than the creation of a fleshed-out and energetic world.

The film does have a beautiful aura: the gorgeousness of its artistry alone makes it a film for Disney to be proud of, and the imaginative depiction of the New World has its equal only in the breathtaking medieval artistry of Sleeping Beauty. What it lacks in the energy of its predecessors it gains in its elegance. The musical score, though not lending itself to the show-tune quality of The Liong King or Beauty and the Beast, is moody and expressive. The use of wind instruments in Pocahontas, the way the music underscores the quiet scenes and the enchanting natural beauty of the New World, is worthy of the highest praise. Pocahontas is a work of art.

But, for me, the storyline is still a problem. There just isn’t a lot of substance to the story aside from the central romance. Yes, there is tension between the Native Americans and the British akin to the Montagues and Capulets; but for me this is a broad picture without a lot of details. The dialogue feels stilted and the minor relationships are one-dimensional. The story tries to do what it can in the short time it has, and a few of the secondary characters are selected for nominal importance in the storyline, but for the most part both the Native Americans and the British seamen remain non-pivotal characters who make decisions and movements en masse. There are Pocahontas’ requisite animal friends and also Grandmother Willow, but these feel too much like stock Disney characters revamped from the earlier films. Disney usually handles stock characters with such finesse that they end up almost stealing the show, but these are a bit dull. With all the real emotional heart of the story thus invested in the two leads, I must find some way to relate deeply to them and their love, but I simply can’t.

The real reason is that I have a hard time investing in stories that are purely romantic. Unlike The Little Mermaid, there is no struggle of a young mermaid desiring something more in her life; unlike Aladdin, there is no longing of a young man to be more highly valued; and unlike Beauty and the Beast, there is no beast to be rescued by a woman’s unselfish love. Pocahontas doesn’t change from the beginning to the end of the film. She falls in love but remains who she is. Instead it is John Smith whose views are so drastically challenged and changed—but he isn’t the real main character; he’s the love interest. Pocahontas suffers from a malady that few other Disney films do: blandness. Despite the racial tensions, its characters are fairly static and, in the end, the British simply go home and Pocahontas remains with her people.

I actually admire this ending: I think it an example of Pocahontas’s integrity that she remains with her people rather than marrying Smith and going with him to England. But the story has no real arc; the central character makes no progress. In the beginning she is longing for adventure and excitement, but she can have adventure and excitement in either the New World or in Britain. Just because she doesn’t marry Smith doesn’t mean her life won’t have adventure. The choice she faces in the end doesn’t compromise or preserve her dreams: it is simply a choice of her love for her people over her love for Smith. I knew from the very start of the film that she was a strong person, so this ending did not surprise me. I think in one of the sequels she eventually marries Smith and goes to England, but here I’m only speaking of Pocahontas as its own feature film.

And this is my opinion of Pocahontas and her film: she is an admirable woman but already grown up when the film begins. She has some doubts and questions, but ultimately she makes all the right choices and her strength, not her love for Smith, bears her through. She’s a great role model but she doesn’t generate enough suspense, and her romance with Smith isn’t something I can get sufficiently involved in. The film is absolutely worth watching for its artwork and its orchestral score, and Colors of the Wind has a secure place among Disney’s hits. But as a story it’s hesitant, slightly disjointed, and too focused on a pair of lovers. In the end, the very absence of anything else to invest in emotionally turns me off altogether.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Aladdin (1992)

By Publius

The films of the Disney Renaissance defined my childhood. Being a little boy, I didn't have the pick of the litter that little girls did -- I might enjoy "Beauty and the Beast," but I could not have called it a favorite. Even so, there were more than a few films that a boy could love, and "Aladdin" was near the top of that list.

The film was based on an Arabian folktale from "One Thousand and One Nights," and the story's origins are clear from the very first shot: a peddler on a camel, traversing a desert, and just in case it wasn't clear, a singer warbles "Arabian Nights" as the credits roll in quasi-Arabic font. The film also honors the source material with a "story within a story" introduction: the peddler offers to sell you a lamp, and promises to reveal the secret it once contained.

The film begins far removed from the medieval European settings of many previous Disney outings, and far removed from the sometimes-sanitized fairy tale feel of such stories. The first real character we meet is the antagonist Jafar, cloaked entirely in shadow, meeting the thief Gazeem, who casually notes that he "had to slit a few throats" on his latest errand.  They unearth the Cave of Wonders, which within minutes swallows Gazeem whole. This isn't your standard Disney princess film.

The next scene introduces us to the eponymous Aladdin as he flees the palace guards after stealing a loaf of bread. As he's chased through a harem, he explains to the scantily-clad occupants: "Gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live, tell you all about it when I got the time." This isn't your standard Disney prince. At the same time, his essential good nature is demonstrated by the following scenes: having escaped and settled down to a good meal, he notices two starving urchins in the alley and gives his bread to them, and then saves the two urchins from being whipped by a filthy-stinking-rich prince in the streets. Returning to his home on the rooftops of Agrabah, Aladdin yearns in vain for a pampered life in the palace where he'd "never have any problems at all."

Finally we meet Jasmine, an independently minded princess whose idea of a "Dear John" letter is goading her pet tiger to attack any suitor who displeases her. She decides to flee the palace rather than be forced into a marriage against her will (which hardly seems possible anyway, considering she owns a pet tiger. Sheesh). Anyway, she stumbles across Aladdin in the marketplace, and he quickly falls for her good looks, long hair, and abnormally large eyes. Nothing so readily sparks "true love" quite like insurmountable obstacles, so they are inevitably caught, he's imprisoned, and she is left mourning his presumed execution.

But Aladdin is whisked from the prison by a disguised Jafar and led to the Cave of Wonders. He finds the lamp, but is trapped by collapsing sands on his escape, thanks to his avaricious monkey Abu. But he soon discovers the inestimable Genie, played by Robin Williams, and is treated to a glorious rendition of "Friends Like Me." It must be said, Williams' frenetic stand-up style of comedy is perfectly suited to the animated medium, and his performance continues to rank as perhaps the best vocal performance of all time.

Moving on, Aladdin is allotted three wishes, escapes the cave, wants to rekindle his love with Jasmine, becomes a prince to qualify as a suitor, makes his entrance to Agrabah as "Prince Ali," meets the princess, is rebuffed for acting just as arrogant as the rest of her suitors, persuades her hop onto his magic carpet, shows her "A Whole New World," enjoys a fireworks show in China and finally returns her home by curfew.  Seriously. They traveled to China for a date. These Disney folks weren't kidding about the whole magic carpet bit.

More adventure: Aladdin is kidnapped and nearly drowned by Jafar. He escapes thanks to the Genie using his second wish, and returns to depose the Vizier, but not before Jafar discovers Aladdin's true identity and his possession of the lamp. Jafar conspires with his parrot Iago to steal it, and with his first wish becomes Sultan of Agrabah. (Incidentally, if you listen while the Genie tears the palace from its foundations, you can hear the famous "Wilhelm Scream"). With his second wish, Jafar becomes "the most powerful sorcerer in the world," and sends Aladdin packing to some remote snowy mountain slope. The former Sultan becomes a plaything of Iago, while Jasmine pulls the old "Princess Leia slave girl" routine.

Aladdin returns again and confronts Jafar, who exercises curious restraint in not killing Aladdin outright (a common mistakes for All Powerful Super-Villains, I suppose).  Jafar is tricked into using his third wish to become a genie, only to discover he's trapped by the same "itty-bitty living space" arrangement that had enslaved the original Genie, and so Jafar is sent (Iago in tow) to a thousand-year vacation in the Cave of Wonders.

Happiness ensues. On the plus side, this means that the kind-hearted Aladdin gives the Genie his freedom. On the other hand, this means that the now-pauperized Aladdin must be suddenly enabled to marry the princess by an absolute deus ex machina. (The Sultan had a change of heart? Who'da thunk?) At last, the lovebirds have their happy ending, but not before the Disney animators dressed them in the some of ugliest wedding outfits I've ever seen, and made them share an awkward side-kiss while singing to the camera. I guess you notice these things watching the film as an adult.

Taking a step back, what does it all mean?  The difference between the film and the source material is quite notable , and not just because the original story was set in China. For one, the Arabian folktale was a fairly simplistic exercise in wish-fulfillment. On the contrary, the film presents a story where the grass is not always greener on the other side. The theme recurs throughout the film, starting with the initial poetic parallel between Aladdin yearning for the life within, and Jasmine yearning for life without, the Palace. "Aladdin" also deals in issues of honesty (the best policy), true love (conquers all), and prejudice (I didn't catch this one, but I think it had something to do with books and their covers).

As for the characters, Iago and Abu are appropriately entertaining sidekicks, the Sultan is bumbling, the Vizier is evil, and the Magic Carpet is strangely expressive.  The Genie is clearly the highlight of the film, but (the focus of this series being Disney Princesses) I want to focus briefly on the hero and heroine.

Aladdin is an interesting case in that he doesn't actually change much during the film: he starts off cocky but kindhearted while a pauper, and retains both his vanity and his considerateness as a prince. He learns to be more honest and forthcoming, but he doesn't ever fall into the category of romantic scoundrel redeemed by the power of true love. For that, I breath a huge sigh of relief.

As for Jasmine, she seems rather childish in her first scenes. For someone who has known from her infancy that she'll be legally forced to marry when she comes of age, she doesn't seem remotely interested in finding a husband or doing anything other than complain about the marriage law. At the same time, as Aladdin discovers while navigating rooftops with her, she is "a fast learner," and has enough of a head on her shoulders to persuade us of her maturity. Even if she does lean in for a kiss with a complete stranger mere minutes after meeting him   Seriously, I know Disney films specialize in "love at first sight," but this couple set several land-speed records. On the whole, I have a hard time being enthused by Jasmine's character. Even though it's better developed than the earlier Disney heroines, her personality is too bifurcated (between liberated feminist and thoroughly conventional princess types) to be convincingly human.

Even so, it's hard to find fault with a film that is so thoroughly entertaining, that can boast of one of Roger Williams' best film performances, of stunning animation and aesthetic design, and of as many memorable songs as the best of the Disney classics. I may try valiantly, but in the end I have to give up.  I'm smiling too much.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

My obsession with Beauty and the Beast can probably be traced to a home movie filmed shortly after my Belle-themed fourth birthday party. Sitting on the floor in my Beauty-and-the-Beast jammies, I am reading a Beauty-and-the-Beast picture book and singing the chorus of Belle's song in four-line iterations: "oooo, isn't this amazing...?"

Which leads me to review one of my favorite movies of all time.

Released on this day 19 years ago, Beauty and the Beast is one of only two animated movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards (the other was Disney-Pixar’s 2009 movie “Up”) and is the third movie in the “Disney Renaissance” of 1989-1999. Its quality is demonstrated not only its number of awards (two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and three Grammys) but in the number of spin-off projects it has inspired. Not only has Belle become one of the canonical Disney princesses, but the movie inspired two small-scale “midquels” and a full-length Broadway musical.

Why this grand-scale, enduring popularity? I think there are a few reasons: a strong, sensible heroine; tender yet fearless exploration of deep topics; and a universal theme that resonates with all humanity.

Belle is, hands-down, my favorite Disney princess. She is a strong and intelligent young woman who takes care of her father and reads voraciously (unlike Gaston, who asks “how can you read this? It doesn’t have any pictures…”). Far from being one of the cliquish blonde bimbos who have nothing better to do than let Gaston bench-press them, she outwits Gaston’s unwanted advances and stands up fearlessly to the Beast’s unchecked temper. She is no Snow White, deciding it’s fun to clean little men’s houses and take apples from strangers, or Cinderella, who can do nothing but cry about the ball.

However, neither would I consider Belle a rampant feminist. Unlike sword-wielding Mulan or Jasmine’s “I am not a prize to be won” attitude, Belle wears her femininity with grace. She wears dresses and lets the Beast pull out her chair for her. She allows him to grow into the part of a gentleman, not insisting on always having the leadership. She is capable of caring for herself, but does not dominate those around her. She is smart but not arrogant, brave but not masculine, beautiful but not vain.

What I think makes Belle a true heroine, however, is her attitude of self-sacrifice. She may be a cartoon character, but I genuinely admire her (and no longer just for her gorgeous golden ball gown). While she does dream of “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” she is no selfish Ariel, resorting to disobedience and rebellion to get her own way. Belle is more concerned for her father than for herself. She faithfully supports him in his eccentric inventing and leaves her budding romance with the Beast to tend him at his bedside. She even offers herself to the Beast in her father’s place, one of the most beautiful gestures of self-sacrifice in all of Disney. In short, she is forgetful of herself, and it makes her shine.

Her character, I think, launches the whole movie’s exploration of the meaning of “beauty.” The enchantress in the Prologue insists that “beauty is found within.” Most Disney movies make a simplistic parallel between outward beauty and inward goodness, leading many of the princesses to fall in love at first sight because the handsome prince is obviously the intended love interest. But Beauty and the Beast makes a much more complex investigation through the opposition of Gaston and the Beast. Gaston has the looks of a storybook prince, while the Beast has fangs and lives in a dark and gloomy castle. But as time passes, it becomes evident that Gaston’s handsome face conceals a rotten heart, while the Beast develops a kind and sacrificial character. By the end of the movie, it is evident that the Beast is the beautiful one, in spite of his claws and hairy face, and Belle’s love for him begins long before he is outwardly transformed. This movie offers a much more challenging and multi-layered evaluation of beauty than most animated films, and indeed, most films: that true beauty is much more than seeming.

This tempered view of beauty also leads the movie to a more realistic view of love. Beauty and the Beast may be animated, but it is one of my favorite love stories of all time. There is no three-day ultimatum, no first-kiss awakening. Seasons change, circumstances change, and yet this movie is clear: love is grown, not “fallen into.” Belle’s prince starts out far from charming. The Beast's vicious temper is as ugly as his face. Both he and she start out arguing incessantly, neither one willing to back down. But the song "Beauty and the Beast," I think, is one of the most tender and true looks at love in all of Disney:

"Tale as old as time, true as it can be /
Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly…”

Belle and the Beast first become friends, learning to sacrifice for each other and have fun together (including an epic snowball fight!). Ultimately, the Beast lays down his desires and lets Belle go to her father, and Belle returns of her own free will. Only after they’ve put themselves aside for each other and let each other go are there rainbows and kissing on the balcony. It’s a timeless masterpiece of storytelling that will have me finding new analogies forever.

In a way, this story of self-sacrifice tells the story of Christ, perhaps the reason it resonates with me so deeply. While we were still beasts, Beauty came to our world and said “take me instead” (Romans 5:8). Jesus saw the humanity behind our ugliness and bore patiently with us, even when our violence took His life. He is the one who sees the man inside the beast, and His love transforms us back to humanity. Maybe that's why I am so fascinated by this story: because it's not just a mindless animated movie or chick flick. It’s a love story of all eternity, a Tale as Old as Time, of the transformative power of knowing the Person who is Love.

All this, not to mention the Beast's beautiful blue eyes and the amazing castle library (my favorite room in all of film!) I may not be four anymore, but the rolling drums of the Prologue are still enough to plop me down on the couch and stick a smile on my face any day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Little Mermaid (1989)

By Neophytus

Disney’s 1989 animated feature The Little Mermaid is an enjoyable, fanciful tale of a strong-willed, titian-haired mermaid princess who falls head-over-fins in love with a human prince. The film is a mix of quite good and less-desirable features. On the positive side there are memorable songs, colorful animation, some good humor, a couple endearing characters, and the quintessential sordid, crafty villain (though you may rightly question my estimation of humor after that shameful pun in the last sentence). Yet despite its many attractive features, I would not rank The Little Mermaid with the best of Disney films. Its immature protagonist, Ariel, lacks certain admirable qualities such as good judgment, responsibility, and sympathetic understanding for others, and the film’s treatment of her faults lets her off the hook too easily.

The movie’s first scenes do well to evoke the excitement, power, and wonder of the sea. A ship bursts through the crest of a frothy wave and the viewer feels tossed up with the water to the tall ship’s deck where the dark-haired, bright-eyed Prince Eric pronounces it a “perfect day to be at sea!” The sailors begin a lively song about the “mysterious fathoms below”, and their references to merfolk and King Triton pique the viewer’s interest before s/he is plunged back down to discover the ethereal world under the ocean. Scenes of bright fish, skittish anemones, dolphins and a majestic whale meet the eye, and finally come the undulating forms of swimming mermen and mermaids.

While the viewer is drawn into the enchanting new experience of mermaids and magic, all Ariel can think of is becoming “part of that world up above”, as she sings; she is enthralled by the mysterious human realm just beyond the brink of her understanding. But this dream floats tantalizingly beyond her grasp due to her lack of human legs and as a result of her father King Triton’s injunction to stay away from the dangerous humans, whom he believes to be “barbarians” and “spineless, savage” creatures “incapable of any feeling”. At a large celebration at Triton’s palace, Ariel’s beautiful voice is supposed to be featured in a musical masterpiece written by the crab Sebastian, who is the king’s royal composer, but Ariel forgets about the concert. Instead she is off exploring a sunken shipwreck in hopes of finding artifacts from the human world. She surfaces to bring her finds to Scuttle, a well-intentioned, endearing, but inept seagull who wrongly identifies the human objects. After she hurries back home, her father and she have a heated dispute and he angrily commands her again to stay away from the dangerous surface. He assigns the crab Sebastian to keep watch over Ariel. Sebastian’s Jamaican-sounding accent and his ability to spontaneously conduct sea creatures to create music make him a fun character, even though his exasperation, high regard for rules, and his disapproval of his young charge do not make him unique among Disney characters. Similar characters include Prince Eric’s caretaker Grimsby, Cogsworth the clock in Beauty and the Beast and Zazu the hornbill in The Lion King.

Sebastian sings the upbeat song “Under the Sea” to convince Ariel that “such wonderful things surround [her] right here on the ocean floor”, so she does not need to gallivant off to the human world—“what more is [she] looking for?” Yet even before Sebastian has a change to finish his song Ariel sneaks away again to follow a ship, on which she sees Eric for the first time, and it is love at first sight. Suddenly a storm hits, and Ariel saves the unconscious Eric from drowning. Eric is even less of an original character than Sebastian because he is hardly distinguishable from other Disney males. His hair, facial expressions and voice are extremely similar to Aladdin’s, for instance. It seems he is in the film to occupy the stock role of handsome male love interest for the protagonist.

When Ariel’s father finds out that she disobeyed him again and furthermore that she is in love with a human, he destroys the treasures in her secret trove of objects from the human world, and leaves her in tears. The sly sea witch Ursula snatches up this opportunity to send her two minions to Ariel to pretend to sympathize with her. They coax her into coming to Ursula for help with pursuing her beloved Eric’s affection. Ursula proposes a deal to the young mermaid. She promises to change Ariel’s tail into human legs for three days. By the end of the third day Ariel must obtain a kiss of true love from Eric. The catch is that Ariel must relinquish her voice to the sea witch, and if Eric has not kissed Ariel by sunset on the third day, Ariel will become the property of Ursula.

Of course Ursula intends for Ariel to fail all along so that king Triton will be forced to give up his power in exchange for his daughter’s freedom. So when Ariel comes dangerously close to success in the form of Eric’s lips, Ursula must intervene. Her henchmen upset the boat in which the lovers sit and ruin the moment for a kiss of true love. Ursula then transforms herself to look like a beautiful woman. Using Ariel’s voice to lure Eric into her trap, the witch enchants him so that he vows to marry her the next day. Scuttle swoops on to the ship’s deck and sabotages the wedding, but it is too late. Ariel turns back into a mermaid and belongs to the witch. Triton is then driven to appease Ursula by giving her all his power in order to save his daughter. But the gallant Prince Eric slays Ursula by ramming her with the broken mast of the ship. As her dying form sinks below the waves, all is put to rights. Triton returns to his old self and his power returns. He himself turns Ariel into a human again and consents to her marrying Eric. As Triton and the merfolk wave goodbye, the lovers kiss and sail off under an arch of rainbow.

Thus the film rewards Ariel by making her dreams a reality. She finally belongs to the human world and is united with Eric. I agree that the film does well to praise Ariel for at least one characteristic. Unlike her father, she does not assume that the foreign land-dwellers called humans are simply depraved “barbarians”. Instead she takes time to examine the curious objects they have made. She finds beauty in them—even in a seemingly mundane, curved, silver fork—and subsequently senses that the people who made these things must also contain beauty and goodness in themselves: “I don’t see how a world that makes such beautiful things could be bad”, Ariel tells her friend Flounder. Although it is illusory that there is always a connection between making beautiful-looking objects and being morally upright, the association does have truth in it. (The aesthetic difference between the orcs’ and elves’ attire in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a prime example!) At any rate I believe there is always a connection between moral goodness and true beauty (which of course refers to more than just appearance), and perhaps that is the idea the creators of the film were drawing on. Ariel’s trust that humans are noble, and thus valuable beings, naturally prompts her to save Prince Eric from drowning whereas her father or another merperson would have likely left him to die. Ariel, Triton, and Eric all risk themselves in some way for another’s sake, and it is because of this that they are finally reconciled to each other in the end. Ariel’s father relinquishes his power to Ursula and suffers the transfiguration into a weak and wrinkled worm-like creature so that his daughter may be free from the witch. Eric nearly drowns again in his similar attempt to save Ariel from being dragged back to Ursula, and later he steers the breaking ship toward Ursula in order to stop her from killing Ariel, even though he could have chosen to flee to save himself. After Eric does this, Triton must understand that in their capacity to demonstrate real love humans are no different from merfolk. Triton no longer relegates humans to the status of barbarians, and he goes so far as to turn Ariel back into a human and consent to her marriage to Eric. The Little Mermaid rightly applauds Ariel for her willingness to believe in the nobility even of people different from her own, while her father had hastily judged the strangers to be degenerate and without feeling.

Aside from that however, there is much to dislike about Ariel. She often acts like a nine-year-old in a sixteen-year-old’s body. She is careless, irresponsible, somewhat selfish, and unsympathetic. The idea “Children must be free to live their own lives” which Sebastian pronounces near the end is presented as a wise theme of the film, and it may be true, but in the context of the movie it problematically suggests that each dangerous and disobedient thing Ariel did was Triton’s fault for being too stern. The movie glosses over her faults and asks the reader to light-heartedly shake his/her head at Ariel and laugh at her cute thoughtlessness. On Ariel’s first night as a human, Sebastian tries to tell her about the frightening day he had dodging a chef’s cleaver, and then he switches to giving her tips about how to make sure Eric falls in love with her. Her mind seems lost in dreamland. She doesn’t even listen and falls asleep. Sebastian pats her on the head and sighs lovingly, “You are hopeless . . . completely hopeless”, and the movie encourages the viewer to do the same instead of holding Ariel responsible for her actions.

Ariel is eager enough to extend sympathy to humans, but her sympathetic understanding for others stops there. At the outset the viewer learns from the chagrined Sebastian that Ariel rarely came to the musical rehearsals he held to prepare for the grand celebration at the palace. Then she is careless enough to forget about the concert altogether, even though she has a major solo part in it. Sebastian is clearly upset and hurt that she forgot. When he tells her that the concert was to be the “pinnacle of his distinguished career” but that she made him the “laughingstock”, she has her arms crossed and raises a skeptical eyebrow as if she does not think her thoughtlessness was a big deal at all. Granted Sebastian may be exaggerating, but she selfishly fails to show sympathy for him and her father. Also, her friend Flounder contends that missing the performance was not her fault because a shark chased her. In reality that was well after she left the palace anyway, so it is no excuse. In a later instance Ariel is angry at Sebastian for not being able to keep secrets from her father about her doings. She does not even try to imagine the difficult position he was in while trying to answer the sea king’s questions honestly but also protect Ariel’s secrets about the cavern of human-made treasures and about her infatuation with a human. Ariel is intoxicated with the world of humans and selfishly blinds herself to most of her friends’ and family’s concerns.

The little mermaid is also unable to fully imagine her father’s perspective on why he desires her to stay away from the surface of the water. To be fair Triton should allow her to voice her concerns and desires about the human world without getting angry at her and stopping the conversation. Still, Ariel shows poor judgment by continually sneaking off to the surface after he repeatedly told her not to do so. That will only worsen the current situation. As a sixteen-year-old she seems to believe she knows exactly what is dangerous and what is not, but the early incident in which she and Flounder were chased by a shark reveals that her danger assessment skills are still in their infancy. She had reassured Flounder that “nothing is going to happen” just before a razor-toothed shark burst upon them.

Ariel’s impulsive choice to sign the contract with the evil sea witch is a glaring example of her poor judgment and lack of responsibility. Perhaps she naively believes that she cannot possibly fail to fall in love with Eric in three days, so she does not heed the consequence of failure—belonging to Ursula forever. Yet since she is able to sense the correspondence between beautiful things and beautiful, moral beings, she should be able to take an educated glance around Ursula’s ugly, infested lair and deduce that the witch is not a benign being who intends to play fair. Yet when her father discovers the pact, Ariel’s desperate excuse is “Daddy, I didn’t know!”, and the film leaves it with that insufficient excuse.

Ariel’s character leaves much to be desired. Her willingness to trust that humans are as noble as merfolk is laudable. Yet how can one highly praise her curiosity and daring when she displays poor judgment of danger to herself and others, or no judgment at all? The Little Mermaid’s moral of allowing children freedom to “live their own lives” sounds admirable, but the movie’s failure to address Ariel’s selfishness and lack of sympathy and responsibility do nothing to prove its wisdom. In my estimation Ariel has a lot of maturing to do before she is ready to get married. It is a shame, really, that the caliber of the protagonist weighs down the rest of the film. As the beaming, sixteen-year-old sails away kissing her new love, I can’t help but wonder how happy their ever after will really be.