The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.
2017, directed by Brian Fee
A fear of what it means to grow old is at the heart of a number of Pixar’s better movies: Toy Story 2 stands alone on this thematic promontory, but there’s applause to be shared for movies like Up or Toy Story 3 or The Incredibles, which each wonder about how we change as we get older. Cars 3 doesn’t share this poignancy not because the idea isn’t present, but because what Cars 3 is really talking about is obsolescence. Lightning McQueen is being phased out of the racing world he’s become an icon within, and while this movie really makes us think about the uncanny nature of where these anthropomorphic cars come from, the idea is similar even in our reality. (I want to give the floor to this article, which says, among other things, “There is no explanation of the universe of Cars that will not keep you up at night.”) Older athletes give way to younger ones; older filmmakers give way to younger ones. The setting of the movie and its techy emphasis removes the sentiment from the story, for although we may feel nostalgia for Windows 95, no one’s lining up to use it as their OS. The crowning moment of the movie comes when Lightning decides he’s going to give Cruz a chance to race on his number, which is like deciding that watching Jamie Moyer give the ball to like, Chad Durbin in the sixth inning is an emotional highlight. What Lightning McQueen decides to do is noble and fitting and all of that, but it’s also a risk that doesn’t entirely pay off in the story, the only way to give us a happy ending which seems even remotely realistic in this context. (Insofar as cars bounce off of walls, anyway.) By the third entry in the Cars series, there are two ways to look at a movie which veers pretty sharply away from the cast of characters we’re used to, even including Mater. Either it’s a sign that the series is trying to tell a story about its protagonist from the first film, taking him from arrogant youngster to crafty vet, or it’s a sign that there’s a lot of money to be made off of little die-cast Cruz Ramirezes and Jackson Storms from kids who already have the full set of Cars characters. The fact that we’re even talking about the second means that there’s a little more cynicism in this franchise than is healthy for a movie which has always been a brand first.
The Cars series has always been Pixar’s little nod to the Republicans who take their kids to the movies, and Cars 3 presents a model of conservative thought that’s awfully interesting. Much of the movie is set somewhere in the Deep South, and the true heroes of the picture are Doc Hudson’s contemporaries and competitors, who are still hanging around the swamps, swapping stories and listening to covers of “Glory Days,” which I am honest-to-goodness not making up. The villain is Jackson Storm, who is sort of smug and condescending but still less obnoxious than Lightning was in Cars, and who is designed to be basically unbeatable. Kerry Washington voices an analyst who brings some sabermetrics into the sport, which has been as much about grit and strategy as anything else. Nathan Filion voices Sterling, the techbro who is dying for Lightning to sell out and start using his legacy to sell junk. Cruz, who is Lightning’s new trainer, is herself suspect until she ultimately falls in line with the general tenor of tough, smart racing which is about heart and not about analytics, which was best exemplified by Doc decades before. Paul Newman had been in his grave for nearly a decade by the time this movie came out, but the car he voiced still gets nearly as much screen time as any other secondary character. The way things were is precious in Cars 3, and it makes the case for a conservatism which is essentially based in nostalgia. Things were better in the old days, when maximizing performance meant you sweated something more pure than whatever these cars excrete in their simulators. Occasionally this works when it feels like communing with the dead; it feels preachy when the dead are out of the picture.
1948, directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson
One of my pet movie interests is American cinema within five years of World War II: Let There Be Light, The Best Years of Our Lives, Battleground, Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce, A Letter to Three Wives, Wagon Master, It’s a Wonderful Life. Add Melody Time to that list for its nostalgic view of the American past, a point of view that is deeply troublesome and yet entirely indicative of its time. In short, it’s about Americana, about watching a visualization of Joyce Kilmer’s abominable poem “Trees” after the technical destruction of Hiroshima. It’s about watching Pecos Bill conquer the land and, incidentally, the Native Americans. It’s about a scene out of The Magnificent Ambersons but without the skewering of traditional gender roles, or even the questioning of them. Most of all, and most positively of all, it’s about making the fulcrum of the movie the story of Johnny Appleseed. The three symbols the movie gives him are the apples, the Bible, and of course that tin pot he is supposed to have used as a hat: productivity, Christianity, and resourcefulness are to be the watchwords of a new America as it closes out the 20th Century. It’s a message that John Ford had sent along a couple years earlier in My Darling Clementine when Wyatt and Clementine wander out to the church, with the American flag flying as high as the steeple next to it. The Johnny Appleseed segment of the movie is surprisingly moving, almost inspiring in its confident belief that after the war there can be a peaceable way to rebuild, one that propagates itself as sustainably and naturally as a grove of apple trees. Maybe for a moment people believed that before the Cold War froze out the possibility of peace indefinitely, and if they did it was because of things like “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed.”
Like the other anthology movies Disney made in the 1940s, Melody Time works as a sort of picture postcard of who was big. The Andrews Sisters are here, singing about a tugboat named “Little Toot” whose aspirations exceed his good sense in a cheerfully animated segment. Roy Rogers introduces the Pecos Bill segment, given an assist by the Sons of the Pioneers. And then there are the people who have faded much more from our memories—Jack Fina, playing the piano during a lively and really unusual sequence riffing off “Flight of the Bumblebee,” or Dennis Day narrating that Johnny Appleseed bit. On the whole this is probably their best list of guest performers, and it helps move Melody Time up the ranks. Likewise, the animation in this movie is among the best they did during those mostly fallow years after Bambi and before Cinderella. Some of the abstractions of Fantasia show up again during “Bumble Boogie,” as every inch of a piano transforms to somehow threaten a bumblebee. As much as “Trees” is an affront to basic human rights, the animation is certainly not to blame, and there are some unusual color combinations (black, green, orange) that work together well in that segment that I’ve rarely seen go together anywhere else.
2000, directed by Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, Francis Glebas, Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, and James Algar in absentia
To me, the most wonderful thing about Fantasia was the sheer exploratory ambition. Three years after releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature of its kind, Disney released a movie forty minutes longer (and even counting the amount of time spent with the orchestra, there’s more animation), betting that audiences would stick around for frequently abstract, always wordless sequences set to classical music. Fantasia 2000, by no real fault of its own, is missing that ambition. It’s also missing any sequence that would rank in the top five in the original, which certainly is its own fault. The “Pines of Rome” sequence is imagined with flying humpback whales in computer animation that looked dated within a couple years of the movie’s release; it’s nice. It’s not really anything more than nice, which is the problem even with the best of the sequences in Fantasia 2000. The ’20s slice-of-life homage presented by Rhapsody in Blue is entertaining, occasionally sympathetic, and does exactly what one would expect from a visual representation of the piece: it’s tinted blue, but not too garishly. Little Thurberish cartoons—some of whom are fairly similar to the people of Make Mine Music—wander about and hope for something better. A man in thrall to a harridan finds his way to some individual pleasure. A man who would rather be a drummer than a construction worker gets his chance. A man desperate for a job picks up where the new drummer left off. All’s well that ends well in Gershwin’s (abridged and thus more cheerful) ode to city life. As a high school teacher, I also can’t help but like the use of “Pomp and Circumstance” for something besides a graduation: not everything about making Donald Duck Noah’s oafish helper is successful, but it’s a really clever way to take the march everyone knows and apply it to a story we’re all just as familiar with.
One of the better segments is the last (even though, in my terrifically woke head, I think the gender politics are a little bizarre). Using roughly a sixth of The Firebird, Fantasia 2000 pays its respects to Bambi, the final sequence of Fantasia, and the first few minutes of this movie. Instead of using two pieces of music to tell a story of renewal, the film uses just one. It feels a little too compact, although the actual firebird they imagine (a volcanic spirit which pursues the naive dryad that stirred it up) is in its own way just as frightening as Chernabog was once upon a time. The opening piece is the “Allegro con brio” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the little triangular butterflies which will go on to populate The Firebird are released. Colorful ones appear to be overwhelmed by black ones before light triumphs over darkness. Beethoven’s Fifth never fails to stir, but there’s something awfully hollow about this little story, compressed into fewer than three minutes. Beginning with a platitude that threadbare, and applying it to music which I don’t think has much to do with weakling Manicheaism, puts a sour taste into our mouths from the get-go, and it’s one we never do manage to clear out.
1953, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
Peter Pan gets knocked down the pole for some casual and deliberate racism. There’s no excuse for the “What Made the Red Man Red?” sequence, which is exceptionally bad even for the 1950s. There are less racist, even positive, depictions of Native Americans even in contemporary Westerns like Wagon Master. Or, to keep this on a Disney plane, here’s something I truly believe: “What Made the Red Man Red?” is absolutely more racist than “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The Indians in Peter Pan seem bereft of even the limited language that the Lost Boys can trot out; the crows in “When I See an Elephant Fly” use wordplay with verve, and none of it defames characters who are clearly meant to be read as African-Americans. It’s not a high point, and the movie needs more high points than it has. The music is fairly weak, and there are always more of these songs than I remember the movie even having. The scene where the Darlings learn to fly with a little help from Peter manhandling Tinker Bell still works; childlike wonder as performed by little people who are achieving a dream that almost everyone has at some point is nice; the initial look at Never Land from the air is the sort of thing which sparks one’s imagination. Captain Hook and Smee are not uninteresting; I’ve always liked Hook as a villain, although there’s more slapstick in this movie than I can cope with on an empty stomach. Most of all, the crocodile is my personal hero. Often do I wait underneath my food and just open my mouth real wide to catch it as it falls.
The most incurably weird thing about Peter Pan is the bizarre sexual tension in a piece where the vast majority of the characters are children. Like a soccer mom gearing up for a family vacation, Wendy has what appears to be a pretty miserable time in Never Land while she tries to look after everyone else. It seems like every female character in Peter Pan is trying to get the pipe from the title character, which is particularly weird when his whole deal is that he is the boy who, emphasis mine, wouldn’t grow up. But this does not stop some mermaids, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily from standing in the way of whatever tropical tryst the movie seems to think Wendy and Peter might engage in, and this all gets another strange layer when Wendy is named the “mother” of these Lost Boys. I know whatever’s going on in Cars is pretty freaky, but there is a lot of stuff happening in Never Land that gets weirder and weirder the more you think about it. On the whole: colorful, occasionally swashbuckling, entirely surreal in a bunch of bad ways..
2002, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Treasure Planet is meh on the vast majority of its fronts. The story somehow retains a little too much of the original Treasure Island even though it keeps the major figures around. This has a good voice cast (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, Martin Short) but none of them ever feel entirely settled in. Thompson in particular feels out of place, though Short gives good reason for us to favor him in roles where we can see him as opposed to just hear him. I also like many of the visuals in the movie, even if they make no sense even after they’re explained (constitutionally I can’t get over people sailing through space and walking around on the deck), and the movie does a good job at evincing the adventure that Jim is intent on making for himself. Clements and Musker have a clever idea going on, simple and often-used as it is; if you have a story that the audience is already familiar with, then you can take a risk on doing something strange, because the audience will have less to worry over. The ship looks good. The spaceport looks good, nestled in a crescent moon and jumbled up with constant movement. The Legacy is quivering gold in the midnight blue of space, even though the computer animation of that contrast occasionally appears to have been lifted from one of the late seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. None of this is bad, really, but none of it is attention-grabbing, to say nothing of attention-keeping.
Fortunately, a good Long John Silver (here without the “Long,” alas) covers up a multitude of sins in a Treasure Island story. I have always loved Muppet Treasure Island, and although the roll call from that movie is the deciding factor that won me over (“Dead Tom!”), Tim Curry is the reason that this is probably the best English-language adaptation of a novel that has been made over and over again. Silver is the leader of the pirates, ergo the most ruthless man of them; he is also touched by Jim’s earnestness, his honesty, and his desire to do the right thing. Silver’s ultimately unfeigned paternal treatment of the cabin boy, and their harsh divergence when their principles shine through on the title island, is the heart of the story. See:
This is the key scene in any Treasure Island: Jim lets Silver go, though it’s understood that this act of mercy which will keep Silver from hanging is the final straw in their relationship: they must never meet again. Curry cocks the gun, holds it, and then drops it: “Hell, Jim,” he says, “I could never harm you.” While extolling Jim’s virtues, a rueful smile passes over his face. “You didn’t learn that from me,” he says, and in that moment we can see his heart break a little. Treasure Planet doesn’t have Tim Curry, but it does have stage veteran Brian Murray to play the cyborg cook, and Murray delivers one of the best performances in a Disney animated movie this century. His voice has a piratey tinge at all times, but it’s played off seriously, like he just sounds like that, and somehow Murray’s performance is the most natural and unaffected of the bunch. We can believe that he feels some affection for Jim, who is older and tougher in Treasure Planet than he is in most other adaptations, and we can believe too that he sees Jim as a potential partner he can have adventures with and collect enough loot to live like space kings off of. Without Murray’s performance, the entire movie would be more or less forgettable. With him, this movie has a rallying point.