Fantasia

Director: Ben Sharpsteen

1940

“Although now commonplace, creating images to interpret music was revolutionary when this audacious milestone in animation and stereophonic audio recording was conceived and executed by the Walt Disney studio to universal acclaim and astonishment.” (159, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

41b563y0qal-_sl500_aa300_I have a vague memory of watching Fantasia when I was much younger but it wasn’t really one that stuck in my head for very long. I re-watched it recently and found it fairly disjointed and as Errigo says below somewhat disappointing. “Even on IMAX screens, the exhibition scene of choice for the most recent of Disney’s several anniversary restorations, recordings, and releases of their prized 1940 animation landmark, Fantasia can be disappointing because it is still a remorselessly kitsch experience, however impressive and groundbreaking an achievement.” (159)

The music is incredible, there is no denying that, but there isn’t a narrative to tie the different segments together and I think the film suffers because of that. It was an experiment that may have worked when it was produced in 1940 but just couldn’t stand the test in time. As the different segments were all animated by different teams there isn’t even a single cohesive visual style that could hold the film together. And some of the animation is clearly still  at the time of production. Having said that there are some foreshadowing of animation that would go on to form some of Disney’s later films. The one segment that I particularly enjoyed was the one that focused on mythology as I could see aspects of design that would be honed at a later date to form the basis of Hercules (1997, Ron Clements & John Musker) which is actually one of my favourite Disney movies.zeus2

I found that the segments Errigo mentioned as having held up the best against the ravages of time (“Mickey Mouse, never more delightful than as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice desperately trying to halt the self-replicating brooms he has conjured up to do his chores, the dancing Chinese mushrooms, a darling chorus line of eyelash-batting pachyderms, the hippos in ballet tutus cavorting daintily and fleeing caped alligators […]”) are the ones that didn’t really make an impression on me. Especially the much beloved Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment with Mickey Mouse but then I have never really found Mikey Mouse a sympathetic character. There is of course the exception of the dancing hippos because those are amazing! fantasia

It’s not one that I would watch again – mainly because I found the lack of narrative created a fractured film. It would work as a series of videos that would be amusing to watch as stand alone shorts but put them together and for me it just all falls apart.

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The Princess Bride

Director: Rob Reiner

1987

“Rob Reiner’s friendly fairy-tale adventure The Princess Bride delicately mines the irony inherent in its make-believe without ever undermining the effectiveness of the fantasy.” (739, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The Princess BrideNow The Princess Bride has an enormous cult following but it is one of those films (much like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, John Hughes) that I ever really understood the appeal of. I have given it a number of tries across the years and it just does not appeal to me. You would think that a fantasy film from the 1980s would be right up my street but this one really isn’t. The humor is reminiscent of the Monty Python films, which as you may know I am equally ambivalent of. It’s not the sort of humor that makes me laugh, I think it is base and juvenile and it just does not seem funny to me in the slightest.

“The colorful characters and adventures are, at their best, like live-action equivalents of Disney animated features, with lots of other fond Hollywood memories thrown in.” (739) The characters may be live-action equivalents of Disney animated features but they do not translate very well. Animation gives the directors and writers the leeway to do things that would appear completely ridiculous in a live-action movie. The Princess Bride attempts to make these larger than live characters fit in the real world but falls short in my opinion. I’m not saying that it cannot be done because it can – but it is nominally done most successfully by Disney (the most recent success that jumps to mind is Enchanted, 2007, Kevin Lima) There has to be a subtlety to the performance that results in a successful film, which seems to be severely lacking in The Princess Bride.

“Not even the crude ethnic humor [-…-] pricks the dream bubble, and the spirited cast has a field day.” (739) They certainly do go for it – overacting seems to be the watch word. While I guess the mood Reiner was going for was very much a tongue-in-cheek one but it just doesn’t wash with me. There isn’t really anything that made any sort of positive impression on me. But please by no means let my opinion colour your perception of the film – watch it for yourself and come to your own conclusion. After all that’s what makes cinema, and the arts in general, so interesting – everybody has their own opinions and one person’s masterpiece can be another person’s disaster.

Toy Story Trilogy

Director: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich

1995, 1999, 2010

“A Hollywood film franchise that heralded a new era in animation, the Toy Story trilogy irrevocably changed the cinematic landscape when the series’ first instalment arrived in the mid-1990s.” (844, Jo Taylor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I do remember Toy Story coming out and being immediately taken with the idea that my toys had an entire life of their own when I wasn’t playing with them – it was magical in a way that only Disney Pixar could be. And I did indeed grow up with the trilogy – I’m not entirely sure how I feel about there being a fourth instalment imminent, as I really felt that the whole story arc was finished perfectly in Toy Story 3. 

Toy StoryWoody and Buzz are brilliant characters, well they all are really – I love Rex being a complete scaredy cat and that Mr Potato Head would not be out-of-place in the Bronx. Buzz is wonderfully naive in the first film, entirely convinced that he really is a space ranger which is counterbalanced by the cynicism of Woody. Tom Hanks is awesome as the self-confessed hero of the trilogy. Supposedly he provided so much improvised material during the recording of the first film that the animators are still using that material in the upcoming fourth instalment.

“And if the first two films detailed the wondrous adventures and occasional travails of infancy and youth, the third instalment tackled the bittersweet reality of growing up.” (844) Toy Story deftly set up the franchise and introduced the core group of characters and while I would have been happy to continue watching their adventures the addition of new characters in Toy Story 2 only added to the fun of watching these films. Joan Cusack as the rowdy cowgirl Jessie was a brilliant addition to the little family that Pixar had created. And Bullseye, a horse who acts like a loyal dog, is adorable. And then we get to Toy Story 3, with even more new characters, although unlike before these adorable cuddly additions are not always as good as they first appear. Mr Pricklepants is brilliant with his delusions of grandeur, ably voiced by Timothy Dalton.Toy Story 3

I think part of the joy of watching Toy Story is that there are toys in the films, even if only in the background action, that I remember playing with during my childhood, especially the chatty phone and the etch-a-sketch. The humor of Toy Story is very much two-fold which allows the franchise to grow and expand beyond being simply a children’s film. On the one hand there is the obvious humor that appeals to children and then there is the more subtle humor that will ensure the adults are equally as interested. It’s this second level of humor that allows me to continue returning to the films as I grow up and still find something new or funny each time. There are also numerous pop-culture references littering the trilogy with the most obvious one being the relationship between Buzz and Zod that echoes the iconic relationship of Luke and Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

“Two scenes heighten Toy Story 3‘s gravitas and emotional heft: the near-oblivion encounter faced by the toys when they are almost pulled into a furnace, and Andy’s realisation that he must let go of his youth and pass on his toys to a more appreciative and understanding child. It is these moments, interspersed among the usual banter and knockabout scenes, which saw the film resonate strongly among an adult audience.” (844) I remember the hype surrounding the release of the third instalment of the wonderful Toy Story series and how I thought that the reactions couldn’t possibly be as strong as they were suggesting – grown men crying in the cinema over the fate of some fictional animated toys, surely not? And then I watched it and I was beyond choked up at the two scenes mentioned by Jo Taylor above. There was a very palpable sense of peril for the toys that we had come to know and love over the length of this series that really did cause some real emotion.

“The Toy Story series realized the emotional depth that could be invested in animation, recalling earlier Disney successes, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942), and highlighted how much had been lost among the less adventurous traditional animated features of recent decades.” (844) I’m not sure I totally agree with this as the Disney films of the early 90s, Beauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale), Aladdin (1992, Ron Clements), and The Lion King (1994, Roger Allers) were very much the films of my childhood and I will always count them as my favourite Disney films, although I can recognise just how much Toy Story shaped the studio as well as the face of animated films to come. If there are any people out there who have yet to see any of the Toy Story films (and if there are then what have they been doing with themselves?!) I cannot recommend this trilogy strongly enough – you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry and you will feel incredibly attached to some wonderful toys and you’ll feel happier for it. Toy Story reinvigorated Disney and launched its sister company, Pixar resulting in some brilliant films.

And see how easily Tom Hanks can still slip into the persona of Woody in the clip below. 

Mary Poppins

Director: Robert Stevenson

1964

Much like with The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) Mary Poppins is a film that I really have to be in the mood for in order to appreciate it. And after having watched Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013) which covers the culmination of Disney’s long courtship with P.L. Travers, I was definitely in the mood to watch the finished article. “As far back as 1938, Walt Disney had been trying to but the rights to the Mary Poppins books.” (428, Edward Lawrenson, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Mary Poppins and Bert singingMary Poppins is magical and like most Disney films was a staple of my childhood. I loved Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, dodgy cockney accent and all. He is the everyman and very much facilitates the telling of this story. I think there’s a small part in every child watching Mary Poppins that wishes they had a nanny like her, someone they could go on magical adventures with.  Jane and Michael Banks sometimes grate on me but then you know me – I have something of an issue with child actors for the most part. Mrs Banks is wonderfully scatty and far more focused on her campaign for equal rights then her children, at least in the beginning anyway. Despite this you can’t help but feel affection for her.

“Set in a stylized version of Edwardian England – and including some groundbreaking sequences combining live action and cell animation – the film features Julie Andrews as the eponymous nanny employed by the affluent Banks family.” (428) As a child I loved the animated elements of the film for the fun they portrayed. Now as an adult I still love the animated elements of the film and marvel at the technical genius of the technique used, especially considering when the film was produced. These elements still fit fairly seamlessly into the film, even in a time when computer graphics and special effects are advancing incredibly fast, which is a testament to the skill of the artists. I particularly enjoy the penguin waiters who even now produce multiple belly laughs whenever I watch them. 

“With the action interspersed with the Sherman Brothers’ infectiously catchy songs, it ultimately sees Mary Poppins bring the Banks children closer to their well-meaning but negligent parents, with the help of friends that include the happy-go-lucky chimney sweep Bert (the much maligned, cockney-accented Dick Van Dyke)” (428) The songs are indeed insanely catchy and stick with you for days afterwards. They do always bring a smile to my face when I hear them.

Frozen

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

Nominated: Best Animated Feature; Best Original Song

Ok so Disney may have done it again – Frozen is brilliant! The animation is exquisite as always with really textured costumes this time around and the songs are back on track … and let’s face it songs play a big role in any Disney film.

FrozenI absolutely loved the fact that the story revolved around sisters. While I identified with Elsa naturally as I am an older sister, I also found myself recognizing aspects of myself in Anna too. Especially young Anna when she is constantly knocking on Elsa’s door trying to get her to play – that’s completely me and I know how much it drives my younger sister mad.

The singing is exceptional in this film but then when you cast Idina Menzel in the role of Elsa you wouldn’t expect anything else as everyone knows she has an amazing set of pipes on her. The big surprise for me was realizing that Kristen Bell did all her own vocals herself. What a dark horse. I never knew she could sing like that (and I’ve loved her since discovering Veronica Mars [2004-2007, Rob Thomas] years ago!) I couldn’t help but smile when the second snowman created was called Marshmallow but then that’s my fan girl showing as Veronica Mars fans are known as Marshmallows. But enough about Veronica Mars and back to Frozen.

My favorite song is actually not the one nominated for Best Original Song but rather “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” It’s such a catchy song (I’ve been singing it since watching Frozen) and a surprisingly emotional one. I like that it charts the whole of Anna’s childhood, one removed of not only her sister but her best friend and then her only family. 

I love the trolls who initially disguise themselves as rocks and the reindeer Sven is just adorable. But then I have said it before that one of the many things Disney excels in is creating memorable and lovable animal characters. There’s a lot of similarities to Tangled (2010, Nathan Greno & Byron Howard) though you never forget that this is a new story. Again though that’s a very Disney trait, referencing their back catalogue. Olaf, the friendly snowman who loves warm hugs, succeeds spectacularly in providing comedic moments. He is fantastic and I instantly fell in love with him. He is eternally optimistic, even when melting, and you can’t help but adore him. Olaf

“Let It Go” is the obvious song to nominate in Frozen as it is the show stopper in a film packed with musical numbers. It is spectacular both in terms of animation and vocals but then Menzel’s voice lends itself perfectly to rousing epic numbers. 

Frozen was brilliant – everything a Disney movie should be. There was beautiful animation, catchy songs, lovable sidekicks and some heart-string tugging moments. And I think it will go on and scoop the Oscar for Best Animated Feature as well as potentially Best Original Song too (though I still like “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 more)Anna, Kristen Bell, Elsa, Idina Menzel

Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

2001

“With every film that he makes, Hayao Miyazaki sets the standard for animated features higher and higher.” (894, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Studio Ghibli has, in the past, been called the Japanese Disney. I guess because the films that set the studio apart are, for the large part, animation you could draw a comparison. And of course John Lassiter takes control of the American/English language versions. However I think that it’s too sweeping a statement. The films that come out of Studio Ghibli are as different to those that emerge from Disney as can be. Don’t get me wrong I love Disney – I have since I was tiny and probably will until I’m old and grey – and the films of Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, are exquisite but there are moments when a creepiness, or maybe uneasiness is a better term, emerges. Joshua Klein says “[…] his unfailingly intelligent films appeal to both children and adults, simple enough for the former to enjoy yet complex enough for the latter to appreciate on a different level.” (894) and this is another similarity with the Disney films.

I have watched Spirited Away a couple of times recently, once in the dubbed English version and then again in the original Japanese with English subtitles. I definitely prefer the Japanese version. I understand the idea behind the English language versions – they make the films a whole lot more accessible to a much wider audience but to me it just makes more sense to watch them in Japanese as they were intended. I certainly found the English version of Chihiro extremely annoying and quite grating however this wasn’t the case in the Japanese version.

The artwork is incredible and has an etherial quality to it. The level of detail in the backgrounds is always beautifully rendered which is a contrast to the sometimes simplistic character presentation. “[And] he certainly isn’t a precursor of things to come, because it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miyazaki doing what he does.” (894) Miyazaki has unquestionably created the most intriguing and beautiful films made the prestigious Studio Ghibli and they now have an almost precious quality to them following the announcement of his retirement. Spirited Away is one of his best pieces of work.

Klein says “Spirited Away is in many ways Miyazaki’s Alice In Wonderland. The writer-director’s hand-drawn scenes burst with energy and invention, and Miyazaki takes full advantage of the fantastical story to devise dozens of unique spirits and creatures that roam this world of utterly inscrutable rules and impenetrable logic.” (894) and I can see the comparisons. Chihiro goes down a rabbit hole of sorts and finds herself in a world beyond her control and completely foreign to her, much like Alice does. She finds herself surrounded by a whole host of unusual creatures and characters. Disney are great at creating lovable anthropomorphic characters. Ghibli goes one better and brings fantastical creatures into being. I particularly love the strange chicks and the soot demons. And for the most part No Face is adorable except when in the bath house and then he becomes this disturbing non-stop eating machine.Spirited Away Miyazaki

Watching it as an adult I get the underlying morality to the story – one that is essentially about greed and gluttony. Chihiro’s parents literally turn into pigs as a result of their gluttony. Similarly the bath house falls under the destructive control of No Face due to their greed for the gold he materializes. Yubaba is one of my favorite characters. The level of detail that went into drawing her is superb. She is a fully texturized character unlike some of the other human (for lack of a better word) characters. I can see similarities between her and the Queen of Hearts – further strengthening the comparison Klein made that this is Miyazaki’s Alice. They’re both larger than life characters, literally so as Yubaba towers over Chihiro, in control of their own empire, complete with workers who are scared of them. And both are ever so slightly insane.

Spirited Away always makes for interesting viewing for me, as does any of Miyazaki’s films. I love the artwork and the storytelling style is one that always intrigues me – I find it quite different to Western styles of storytelling. There’s a much more obvious and pervasive magical, otherworldly and mystical element to the Studio Ghibli films. I would say that it’s best to watch them in the original Japanese – it is worth it I promise.

“He is one of a kind, and as such his films hold a special place in the heart of movie lovers.” (894)

Brave

Director: Mark Andrews

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature Film

It’s certainly not a surprise that the latest offering from the Disney Pixar studio is one of the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Film in this years Oscars seeing as they are still considered to be the cream of the crop in the animation field. What makes Disney Pixar the stand out studio for animation is the combination of excellent technical abilities and moving, magical stories for the whole family, something some of the other animation studios still don’t have in quite the same way. The animation is once again exceptional with the wisps being particularly good as non-corporeal elements have previously been notoriously difficult to create with any sense of weight of believability.

Being half Scottish this film made me chuckle at the stereotypes being lovingly portrayed – you have every type of Scots man you can have represented in the four clans; the painted faces like those seen in Braveheart; a Glaswegian who’s almost incomprehensible. The bickering between the four clans provides much of the humor of the film. There are some really interesting angles used throughout the film but especially during the Games, (held to win the hand of Princess Merida) which have all the classics … tossing the caber, hay-bale toss and so on.

Everything quintessentially Scottish is included like highland cows wandering around, people playing bagpipes and of course everyone is wandering around wearing kilts. One of my favourite scenes, where I roared with laughter, that sees the clansmen shimmying down the tower has kilts playing an integral part to it. And was somewhat of a shock – you just don’t expect to see bottoms in a Disney Pixar movie!Brave Kilt

Billy Connelly is epic as the burly king – his voice is perfect for that character! Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, is awesome! She’s so headstrong and sure of herself, totally unsuited to being a princess and yet at the same time perfectly suited to be the future Queen of the bickering four clans of Scotland. I love her hair, a shock of ginger hair which is the perfect visual representation of her fiery nature. Plus she’s an archer and archers have come back in a big way in the last 12 months of movies with characters like Katniss (The Hunger Games, Gary Ross), Hawk Eye (Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon) and Kili in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) all deftly mastering this difficult skill (and of course there was the Olympics which also raised the profile of Archery!)

It’s a lovely story – one that is ultimately about the relationship between mother and daughter. It just takes one of them changing into a bear for them to finally understand one another. The characterization of the Queen once she’s been transformed into a bear is spectacular, but then Disney excels at anthropomorphizing animal characters.

I really enjoyed Brave. I will always love films that come out of the Disney Pixar studio no matter how old I get and that I think is the root of their success. They are creating films that move beyond childhood and yet remind you of it at the same time.Brave