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2005, directed by Mark Dindal
I don’t really have a lot to say about Chicken Little. It’s noteworthy, in my mind, for being one of the worst movies I have ever come across, in terms of quality the inoffensive animated corollary to Crash. It is a comedy that failed to get the corners of my mouth to twitch. Its central conflict is the story of a father and son who don’t see eye to eye, which, I dunno, maybe the problem is it’s too original. The supporting characters appear to have been focus-grouped into existence. There are aliens in the second half of the movie? I’m exhausted just thinking about the amount of noise once they show up which doesn’t appear to lead to anything. Worst of all, they chose the wrong R.E.M. song: after the pain of seeing this thing twice, which I’m sure doesn’t even compare to the number of parents whose mindless four-year-olds have put it on repeat, surely the right answer is “Everybody Hurts.” If this is the worst movie of seventy-seven over the course of eighty-two years, it seems like there ought to be more to say, and yet…maybe the best thing the movie has going for it is a mute goldfish who does silly things. I hate that goldfish.
2008, directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard
I dunno that I’ve got much to say about Bolt either, except that it appears to have combined a couple wayward elements of the extant Toy Story movies and hoped that would propel it somewhere interesting. Bolt, who plays a superpowered dog on a television show, is our Buzz Lightyear. Mittens, a stray cat who is embittered by having been abandoned by her person, is our Jessie. Even the movie’s third character, Rhino the hamster, is something of a Rex clone: loud, easily hurt, and devoted to the image he has of the famous newcomer. it goes without saying that none of this really works well. That’s a shame. We understand that every Buzz comes out of the box a certain way, but Bolt would be no different than any other dog except for the fact that he’s been actively brainwashed by his handlers. Bolt truly believes that his barks can break up a city street, for example, because the special effects department works hard to make it look that way. This is a fairly interesting premise, but the movie chooses not to do much with it. The suits on the show are on that scale from “business officious” to “business malevolent,” and the movie never digs into how this might affect Bolt beyond the fish out of water plot it chooses to run with instead. There’s no equivalent to that sequence in Toy Story where Buzz learns from a commercial that Woody was right all along, and certainly nothing to compare to “I Will Go Sailing No More.” Bolt finds out that he can’t bark his way out of trouble when he tries to bark his way out of trouble, and then he mopes about it for a little while and decides to move on with his life. It’s not quite as affecting.
There is one sequence at the end that’s fairly interesting because it is much more harrowing than I expected, even though there’s no real terror in the scene. A fire breaks out on set, and Bolt, who has found Penny but who also thinks that the show’s replacement for him is her new dog, breaks out of his slump and goes to help his person. It’s worth mentioning that Bolt is a very cute little animal, even if he has John Travolta’s voice, and one has to feel for him a little as he bursts onto the sound stage to try to get Penny out. When there is no way out, which I didn’t expect, it turns out that his barking really (and here it comes) is super, because it gets attention to the place where he and Penny are trapped. Obviously we aren’t rooting for the dog and the girl to burn up—I’m not descended from the owners of the Triangle Waist Company or anything—but I could have done without the obligatory scene where it looks like Bolt may not make it but he does, yay. It’s the one decent scene in the movie without endless wisecracks or vainglorious rodents, and I really wish they’d been able to let it breathe just a little more.
2016, directed by Andrew Stanton
As much as we all love Dory and as much as Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show is goofy and endearing and yadda yadda yadda, Dory is not a character. In Finding Nemo, she was a vehicle for one-liners that ultimately became catchphrases for the people who were young enough to see that when it came out. What’s the difference, really, between “Just keep swimming!” and “Dy-no-mite!” Finding Dory really wants to believe in Dory as a character, but even ninety minutes or so is too much time with someone who doesn’t have the depth for development. Like its predecessor, Finding Dory is at its most successful when it’s delving into its characters’ neuroticism. That means time spent on Hank, the nervy and nervous Frank Morris of the Marine Life Institute. Hank does not bust out one memorable line after another—in practice, the only really memorable lines of Finding Dory are the ones about Sigourney Weaver—but instead moves Dory closer and closer to her goal of figuring out what happened to her parents. More than that, Hank feels real in a way that Dory doesn’t; his fear, his goal to stay in a tank forever where no one can touch him or hurt him, is significantly more lifelike than Dory’s sudden need to rediscover the parents she hasn’t thought about in years. The movie’s best moments are about him as a character and the way that his ability to camouflage himself gives him room to stay out of sight from other people, so to speak, he might find himself involved with. And it’s not surprising that the movie’s worst sequence, the deeply weird one where some ocean-dwelling critters drive a tractor-trailor into the water, requires him to put down his fear of opening up very quickly.
What’s most surprising about the movie is how incredibly crowded it is, and how that crowding requires the movie to spend very little time on Marlin and Nemo. Marlin is one of the really strong characters from Pixar’s oeuvre, but in Finding Dory the movie’s not sure what to do with him. He can’t be as well-adjusted as we hope he’s become by the end of Finding Nemo, because then the laughs disappear, nor can he be as neurotic as he was in the first eighty percent of that movie or the journey he took us on means a little less. The most important thing that happens to him is that a nonverbal loon named Becky is an important of his B-plot, and she gets a lot of laughs which are a little too ungenerous for a kids’ movie. (It deserves to be said that for a movie that goes out of its way to follow a fish with memory problems, an octopus short a tentacle, a shark who doesn’t see too well, etc., the way it creates a new class of animal in Becky and Gerald the seal for us to laugh because we shouldn’t laugh at those less disabled critters is disheartening.) I didn’t need so much time with the seals, even though I love a weird reunion of The Wire actors, or even with Destiny and Bailey. Maybe the problem was that Dory always needed someone to bounce off of, and in the confines of the setting the filmmakers chose, someone new to bounce off of was a prerequisite in every new place. The movie falls flat over and over again because the characters are always more conceptual or defined by traits than they are people. That’s trite, but so is Finding Dory, which is hands down the most disappointing of Pixar’s movies (until Toy Story 4 comes out later this year.)
2003, directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
Brother Bear tries, at least. The animation in this movie is not particularly inventive, and it is definitely hemmed in by the weaknesses of early 2000s CGI, which it uses sparingly and too much all at once. But it is attractive. The animators restrict themselves to an earthy palette that makes the various browns of rocks and bears and dirt attractive, and there are stretches of Brother Bear which are really pleasing to the eye. The story is set in the Great North in the fall, and there is no better time to set it. Kenai’s transformation from man to bear is announced by the presence of ghostly animals appearing in an orange-green nod to the Northern Lights, which is certainly enticing. Give Brother Bear a little credit for imagining a supernatural world which has the power to change the present while housing the souls of the dead, like Koda’s mother and Kenai’s older brother, Sitka, and credit is due for its look as well.
But the story itself is, alas, airmailed, and what should be moments of emotional payoff never really land. The moral is that you don’t really know a bear unless you walk a mile in its paws, which is clear from the first. And it turns out that, shocker, Kenai is responsible for the death of Koda’s mother, and what he learns as a bear—and his, again, totally shocking choice to remain one in the end—makes him a better person. The tone of the movie is occasionally preachy, but when it’s not preachy it feels like it’s forcing you to feel the good time you’re supposed to be having. Scenes where the bears all hang out together and sing about how they’re all one big family fall well short of “Hakuna Matata.” Scenes where they pack all the laughs, such as those with Rutt and Tuke, the pathologically Canadian moose, are so earnest that you feel like you should smile just so no one’s feelings get hurt. Disappointingly, even Phil Collins isn’t quite on point for the movie’s soundtrack; the only song that’s even halfway memorable is the unmemorably named “On My Way.” Brother Bear wastes a very solid set of vocal performances. Joaquin Phoenix voices Kenai fairly well, and most interestingly, the most interesting voice in the movie belongs to Jeremy Suarez, whose Koda is frequently adorable while rarely reaching that cloying pitch we’ve come to expect from Disney kids. Seeing that he is about my age now, I doubt very much that he’ll have another crack at this sort of role, which is a shame.
1942, directed by Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, and Bill Roberts
Even by the standards of some of the earlier Disney movies, Saludos Amigos is real short, coming in under forty-five not entirely animated minutes. There’s definitely a cut-and-paste feeling to the movie that it can’t escape. Other anthology films from the ’40s are significantly better because they are more inventive or because the stories are more entertaining; Saludos Amigos has problems on both fronts, never doing anything particularly new and relying on the celebrity of its characters above all else. Donald Duck borrows a local boy’s panflute and a llama dances; Donald Duck meets a parrot and learns about the samba. Goofy gets into a slapstick bit with a horse and a rhea on the pampas. (In a movie this short, I was amazed that a not insignificant piece of the segment was given to replaying what had happened in slow-motion. It’s funny, but it only serves to make the movie more tired.) A new character, a little plane named Pedro, relives several of the aviation sequences from Only Angels Have Wings, but doesn’t plagiarize the less family-friendly and much more interesting homosocial relationships of Hawks’ movie. He’s cute, and there is some narration that keeps it very much 100 while he’s flying around Aconcagua in a blizzard, but I would forgive anyone for forgetting that they’d seen it.
The most interesting parts of the movie are the live-action sequences which preface the animated ones, such as the traditional dance performed by Argentinians or the colorful scenes of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. None of it on its own is any more interesting than watching a Little League game or seeing one of those very ’40s crowds at a New Year’s Eve party in our country, but that’s the movie’s point. The Argentinian dance is explicitly compared to the square dance that Americans had been doing for so long themselves; the gaucho-cowboy connection speaks for itself, although the movie decides to make it for us in case we couldn’t keep up. Saludos Amigos is one of the gentler propaganda movies of World War II, one that calls for Americans to look favorably at their southern neighbors, and which does so by humanizing people who weren’t exactly in the high school curriculum of the 1920s and ’30s. (Even now, South American history after Bolivar is basically elided in most of the high school history textbooks I come across.) A great deal of what makes the movie enjoyable is this amiable look at the rest of the Western Hemisphere, albeit one which never references the Monroe Doctrine and which has no idea that fascism-lite will be installed in Argentina within the decade.
2000, directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton
Does it look bad because it’s outdated or does it look bad because it’s shoddy? Dinosaur has moments where it really does look all right, as when the dinosaurs are seen in close-up and especially when standing still. There’s some nice work on their features when we can see that they are scaly but not pieced together; they are holistic animals, and they move in the ways we imagine a dinosaur should. After that the look of the movie falls apart pretty steeply, partly because someone made the ridiculous decision to place some scenes in real-life settings. Was it a cost-saving decision? Did they decide that they couldn’t make the water or the mountains look good enough? Worst of all: did they think their dinosaurs looked so good that we wouldn’t notice the difference between a real landscape and computer animation? It’s not a choice that has held up, moving me towards the “shoddy” end rather than the “outdated” end. I’ve seen the first three or four minutes of this movie a thousand times (because it was flat out one of the previews that they put on the VHS tapes), and I’ve seen the rest of it once. Those three or four minutes aren’t narratively interesting or anything—on the contrary, I can just imagine how awful that scene is to follow if you’re not one of those people who spent kindergarten learning about as many dinosaurs as possible—but they are certainly adventurous, featuring unusual camera angles and constant action. An egg rolls through the better part of a landscape, remaining miraculously unharmed; the Iguanodon it carries is a Mosaic figure from the get-go, as he will ultimately lead his downtrodden charges to a place of honor in the Canaanite “Nesting Grounds.” The movie never tries this hard again.
What’s especially surprising about the story, at least as amazing as the fact that real visuals are interspersed with animation, is that it so easily lifts from previous animated dinosaur movies. Two parts Land Before Time (outcasts traipse through a rocky wilderness to a happier place) and one part Fantasia (as the great lizards march to extinction), Dinosaur seems nervous about doing anything interesting with its plot. The beats of other stories are the beats of Dinosaur, and while that’s a complaint one can levy pretty freely against Disney movies, the problem with Dinosaur is that its characters are boring, the sort of low-hanging, low-interest folks that could only interest small children. Zini is the Jar Jar Binks of the picture, an annoying side character who is designed entirely to get giggles out of six-year-olds and who is likely to just annoy anyone older. “What you need is a little help from the Love Monkey,” he tells Aladar, and a little piece of me prayed that I wouldn’t have found that amusing at age nine. Aladar puts pressure on the cynical dinosaurs leading the push to the Nesting Grounds to believe a little more in teamwork, whereas they believe in survival of the fittest, ergo themselves. It goes more or less like you’d expect. There ought to be some sort of cosmic penalty for making dinosaurs as boring as they are in this movie.
Fun and Fancy Free
1947, directed by Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, and Hamilton Luske
Fun and Fancy Free is broken into two parts, neither one of which has the strength to become a full movie. The first half is “Bongo,” based on a Sinclair Lewis short story for children, which is a true oxymoron if ever I heard one; “Bongo” is a cute little bear on a unicycle who summons the wrath of God vis-a-vis his arrogance . The second is “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” which has its moments, although those belong primarily to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. (Sometimes I really do wonder if we’ve lost the art of the one-liner, which is an incredible thing to think after watching a ventriloquist in the live-action pieces of a Disney movie.) Fun and Fancy Free has a potential advantage over its cousins like Melody Time or Make Mine Music or Saludos Amigos: it has just two stories to tell, and there are fewer places for the movie to be exposed if it’s limited to two rather than, say, ten, as Make Mine Music has. The issue is that “Bongo” loses what darkness the short story intimated, and what we have instead is fairly straightforward fare. What “Bongo” loses in character it makes up for, somewhat, with the sheer weirdness of its sequences. Bongo tries to climb a tree and the previously nervous woodland critters become derisive instead; Bongo comes to learn that the courtship of bears is predicated by the giving of forceful blows. (“Every deer and every dove has a way of making love/But a bear likes to say it with a slap” is r/BrandNewSentence material.) And that unicycle turns out to be his secret weapon when he engages in paw-to-paw combat with a much larger bear in a battle for Lulubelle’s hard-slappin’ hand. It’s diverting, but not much more than that. And in fairness, the song that an unexpected Jiminy Cricket sings at the beginning is all about letting go of serious things, a seeming rebuke to the film noir that was already popular by the time they’d begun working on this movie.
“Mickey and the Beanstalk” is a little better—it has that scene in which Donald tries to go ham on a cow that was memed into oblivion before people were saying “meme”—and there are some fairly entertaining moments in the animated pieces of the story, as when Mickey tries to trick Willie the giant into turning himself into a fly or the ending, where Willie goes around Los Angeles searching for the tricksters who stole back the harp, but those are by and large not much better than “Bongo.” The best parts of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” take place at…Luana Patten’s birthday party, where the only guests are Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd? It’s a weird setup veering comfortably close to the absurd, and Charlie McCarthy is the best part of this movie running away. He roots for the wrong folks, letting Willie know where Mickey and Co. are hiding (“Behind the jar, stupid!”) and very much taking Donald’s side in the war against that unfortunate cow. (“Well, a friend in need is a friend indeed…they need some steak.”) It’s part of the reason that Fun and Fancy Free rates lower in this set of rankings; it seems to me that the animated portions of these animated movies should stand taller than the ’40s most famous ventriloquist.