The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
2018, directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Wreck-It Ralph is not an interesting or good enough movie to deserve a sequel, which is just resoundingly obvious in Ralph Breaks the Internet. Ralph and Vanellope are forced to reckon with their natures in the first movie, and that’s a story which is at least interesting for its time on stage. In this movie, Ralph and Vanellope are best pals already, and they’ve settled into a routine that Ralph finds comforting and Vanellope finds stifling. Watching them reckon with their friendship is far less engaging—Woody and Buzz they ain’t—and the gaps in this movie have to be filled in with the Internet. This is like trying to fill a cavity with the contents of a cement mixer, and the movie can’t decide if it’s interested in our Information Highway with all of its intrusive billboards and destructive potholes, or if it likes spoofing content farms (“BuzzzTube”), or if it’s into Gal Gadot voicing the queen of Slaughter Race. Does it want to say something about how the Internet has become monetized to a suffocating degree, and how Internet fame is ultimately degrading to the people who give us something to distract ourselves with into eternity? Does it want to make us laugh at a shark that pops out of manholes? Certainly a movie can do both! But this is not that movie, wrapped up in candy-coated messages about empowerment and setting free the things we love.
Its great weakness is the great weakness of movies like Zootopia and Moana: when in doubt, it reaches for self-awareness. The part where Vanellope meets the other branded Disney princesses filled the ads for this movie and takes up a surprisingly large chunk of it, too. The princesses quiz Vanellope on her experiences to decide if she’s one of them.
Rapunzel: And now, for the million-dollar question: do people assume that all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?
Vanellope: Yes! What is up with that?
Everyone: She is a princess!
Steve Buscemi: How do you do, fellow kids?
All of this has the smarmy, slick feeling of those Exxon commercials talking about green energy: sure, but you’re still making the money by furthering climate change. The ability to repackage everyone’s actual critiques of your brand as self-parody is not the same as wisdom, or even conscientiousness. Ralph Breaks the Internet is just a little too smug about itself to be enjoyable, and far too dumb to be good.
2006, directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
For about four minutes, Cars has its finger on the pulse of something interesting. Like George Lucas thirty-odd years before, John Lasseter—whose personal life deserves the kind of attacks that George Lucas gets for his work—looks back at the 1960s and cuts away the turmoil of the decade in favor of a boundless nostalgia. Driving, a quintessentially hetero masculine activity of the 20th Century, is glorified in the edge-of-a-precipice protagonists of American Graffiti. Milner drives that “piss yellow deuce coupe” around the strip a thousand and one times during the movie, meeting challengers with the brashness of a teen Hemingway. The fact that Terry and Curt don’t have cars is the first evidence that they’re beta males to the core, and further proof streaks the movie every time one of them chases a girl instead of the other way around. The movie’s climax is a car wreck. Cars takes place many years later, but still finds time to flash back to a time not so far off from the summer of ’62. Route 66 gives life to Radiator Springs the way that the Mississippi River gives life to St. Louis or New Orleans. When I-40 bypasses 66 near Radiator Springs, it’s as if someone had diverted the Father of Waters. The thriving strip fades away into nothingness. It turns out Mater the exasperating tow truck used to be a pretty blue color instead of wearing that rust coat he’s got now. Stores have shuttered, and the inhabitants of the little town we’ve gotten to know are recast. Instead of being hicks, they’re more like survivors. Lightning comes to look at the denizens of this nothingburger burg with a new respect, thanks to Sally, and he’s never quite the same. Like American Graffiti, Cars uses a wreck as its climactic moment, and like American Graffiti it places the film’s emotional heart after that crash. Cars is not American Graffiti, obviously. Lucas ends his movie with written postscripts that show how the ’60s obliterate the paradise of his old stomping grounds, where Lasseter sees a chance for a wealthy out-of-towner to carpetbag his way into making this little place of his choice a landmark once more. This is as unconvincing in real life as it is in Cars. The Newark school system is the envy of the nation, right? For four minutes, Cars has an idea. For the other 112…eh.
I’ve expressed my indifference to Paul Newman more than once, and I won’t tire myself out explaining it again. What I will say is that the more of him I watch, the more I am interested in him as an older man, or at least one staring down his age (The Color of Money, The Sting), and, well, he voices an antique car in this movie, and I’m here for it. I’ve decried the “nostalgia for its own sake” strand that the Cars movies insist on; age, whether old or new, is not a guarantor of quality. Something about Newman’s voice, familiar and redolent of that same time when the Interstate Highway System was new, functions nicely as Doc Hudson. Doc is something of an alias; years ago, he was “the Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” a great racer who was badly…injured? I can’t wait until I never have to talk about how weird the anthropomorphic cars are…in a crash, and returned to the racing circuit as persona non grata. (Only Lightning knows this identity, to say nothing of its import. “He won three Piston Cups!” he tells some of the Radiator Springs proles. Mater is gobsmacked. “He did what in his cup?!”) When Doc calls Lightning “rookie” and makes fun of this flaky, full-of-himself SOB, you hear the same frustrated awe that a slowed Eddie Felson has in Vincent’s presence. With that comforting perspective behind us, Newman singlehandedly keeps Cars from being a pity party. Without him, this franchise has never been the same, nor has it tried to meet even the slim nuance that Cars meditates on for four minutes.
1995, directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Back in 2015 (jeeeez), Matt and Josh I were still churning out podcasts—this was a time before all of our laptops exploded, among other things—and Matt spoke some words about Pocahontas that I have never been able to shake from my head when I think about that movie: “A couple of things I have…What is the point of this movie, really?” He clarified:
Is the point that these two groups of people didn’t actually understand each other all that well, and they’re struggling through that and besides Pocahontas actually getting that decision at the end, actually being able to make that, and sort of realize something about herself, I guess, is it that these two cultures did not understand each other and tried to start a race war?
The “These white men are dangerous” memes are good and true, and I wish Pocahontas had been able to sidle up to the idea behind that line. It would have kept the movie from the full both-sides-ism of a song like “Savages,” which is sort of a disgrace in retrospect; the whole movie has a very ’90s perspective (in pink! and teal!) on how it’s up to people of color to convince white people that they’re doing wrong. It’s never Peter Pan, but it is very All Lives Matter. The movie is not ready to confront the basic xenophobia of its English characters in particular, which I think I would care less about if the founding of Jamestown hadn’t, y’know, changed the world. Pocahontas puts the blame on Ratcliffe, a fictional person in a movie filled with real people, who whips up the colonists into a frenzy and who eventually oversteps himself; when his inferiors realize that he is a becoming megalomaniac, they depose him from his position of responsibility. This is the same sort of propaganda that our nation put out there about fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, namely, that a group of white people might be seduced by a forceful tyrant, but that once said tyrant is defeated, the people will come around to sanity once again. If that were true, of course, then Hans Globke would have never had a position of responsibility in Adenauer’s West Germany, Reagan wouldn’t have laid a wreath at Bitburg with Helmut Kohl, and Alexander Gauland would have been shouted down a long time ago. Pocahontas is just a little too optimistic about our own history for it to work, and its attempts at fair-mindedness are stilted enough that it might have been a better movie if it had just ignored the issues entirely.
Pocahontas may be the most beautiful movie of the Disney Renaissance, pink and teal included. Pocahontas sees the New World primarily in a fairly tight band of blues, ranging from aquamarine to midnight blue, and it paints the forests and the “Savages” is what it is as a collection of lyrics, but it’s also a highly stylized sequence for animation, using bright reds to color the landscape in a way that the movie hadn’t done before. It’s effective. “Colors of the Wind” is the movie’s shining moment not just for the music, but for the gorgeous animation that it showcases.
I love the way this looks. In the beginning, the deep, mild blues of the forest are in the background of two people whose blonde hair and buff dress stand out against it; even the birches are a pale blue. Vivid emerald leaves fall across the center of the frame. Those colors are repeated over and over again in the beginning of the song, whether it’s in a mother bear’s lair or in the night sky, culminating with a visual key change. The wind blows through Pocahontas’ hair, and as it does so it has reduced her to an essence, a pinkish miasma in a teal backdrop, with special attention given to her jawline and the angles of her arms. Pink and yellow and orange leaves swirl around them, and from there the sequence relies more heavily on warm colors. “Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest” in the same colors of peach fuzz. The circle of life metaphor is flirted within an inch of its life while Pocahontas and John Smith lie on the yellow earth and are reflected in the eye of an eagle on Pocahontas’ arm, steely against a gradient of marigold into tiger orange. But the song ends with the world in those forest blues again. “Painting with all the colors” is right.
Lilo & Stitch
2002, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Lilo & Stitch makes it this far on the basis of one of the zaniest first halves of a Disney movie, period. Watching Stitch acclimate himself to Hawaii (or, more accurately, watching Hawaii try to survive Stitch) is just funny. As he’ll say later on in the movie, despite his predilection for destruction, he is still “cute and fluffy.” So when we see him create a little city in Lilo’s bedroom and destroy it, rip up a painting from Lilo’s “Blue Period” in a totally blue setting, or threaten an oblivious highway frog, or dress up as Elvis…it’s cute. He has big floppy ears, round eyes, and for all his skill in blowing things up, he still waddles around on baby elephant legs. Lilo looks at him and sees “dog,” although her sister Nani is probably a little more to the point when she says he looks like an “evil koala.” He is strange enough that he obscures Lilo’s idiosyncrasies; what makes this movie really funny is her immediately bizarre view of the world. She’s rushing to practice for a dance recital, late because she has had business in the Pacific: it’s Sandwich Day. She brings Pudge the fish a sandwich each Thursday because he controls the weather. From a distance, Lilo is a totally delightful nutcase. Nani doesn’t think so, and the argument that punctuates the movie’s first act is one in which their hurt bounces back and forth punctures some of that zaniness for the better. Lilo’s weirdness feels more and more like a defense mechanism against a life without parents, in which her older sister (who appears to be a cool enough person) tries her best and still comes up short. One of the movie’s first scenes in Hawaii features a social worker (“Cobra Bubbles,” alas) who threatens to take Lilo away from Nani.
The movie’s human elements, as well as Stitch’s attempt to figure out how to adapt to the warmth he’s never known before, are pretty solid. After the rousing success of turning Swahili into a bankable catchphrase, Hawaiian does something more integral for Lilo & Stitch. Simba ultimately rejects “Hakuna matata” when he returns to Pride Rock. Stitch comes to accept “ohana” as a part of his own personal catechism, and even if it’s said in that silly voice, it’s a sweet moment that has hit a lot of viewers in the feels in the past decade and a half. The movie has alien elements beyond Stitch, though, and watching them you get why E.T. keeps the presence of other extraterrestrials to a minimum. Perhaps Lilo & Stitch wasn’t sure that there would be a good reason for Stitch to come to Earth malevolent, or maybe it couldn’t fill its quota with scenes of Lilo, Nani, and Stitch learning to adapt to each other to make this broken but still good family. No matter the reason, there’s really nothing that comes from the aliens who follow Stitch to our pale blue dot after he escapes. Dr. Jumba and Pleakley are a DOA odd couple, and the Skrull Mon Mothma in charge adds even less. Lilo & Stitch doesn’t need the action sequences that it has to work, and that’s really all that the aliens chasing Stitch around can provide. This is one of the several farflung movies that was altered by 9/11; the airliner/spaceship chase scene which takes place in the mountains in this movie was originally designed to take place in Honolulu, and the fact that it could be changed at all without any real consequences feels like proof enough that this subplot is extraneous.
The Rescuers Down Under
1990, directed by Mike Gabriel and Hendel Butoy
The Rescuers Down Under is a member of that most fascinating club of motion pictures: the ones that work way better as an elevator pitch than they do as finished products. The environmental eye that this movie takes is particularly noteworthy for Australia, a continent that has been maybe uniquely ravaged by climate change. The bad guy in this movie is a poacher, someone who takes a child hostage in an effort to make himself rich in the short-term by destroying a natural beauty he has no desire to understand. (Marahute is the Great Barrier Reef in this metaphor, I suppose; maybe she’s a moa, or a Paradise parrot, or a boobook.) There are some dazzling moments in the beginning of the movie. Cody’s airborne sojourn above Australia in the talons of a giant eagle is glorious. He dangles above the clouds, his shirt pulled up a little bit, his legs dangling, his eyes wide with wonder. The takeaway visual from this movie for me is where she skims his boots on a stream as he waterskis without a boat or the skis themselves. And as I’ve argued before, The Rescuers Down Under is actually a fairly smart idea. Bernard and Bianca will always be able to help children in trouble and will always return to the UN building for their next assignment. No Disney IP from the ’80s or before could have stood a sequel quite as easily as The Rescuers, and I don’t blame Disney for giving it a whirl.
Unfortunately, there’s enough in this movie that it doesn’t really need Bernard and Bianca, which it hurts me to say. Cody and Marahute are the real stars of this movie, the way he stands up to McLeach through intense and nearly lethal adversity works pretty well on its own merits, and it’s not that difficult to imagine that he might have been rescued without the intervention of those delightful little mice. Certainly Jake is an unnecessary addition to a team that did just fine on its own thirteen years earlier; there’s not much for Hopping Mouse Dundee to do short of give our New York residents the tour of Murder Island (“Suicide Trail through Nightmare Canyon, or the shortcut at Satan’s Ridge?”) That he makes Bernard jealous is the sort of thing that’s lost on the children this movie is targeted at, and it feels pointless for the adults who know where this is going. Maybe those scenes with Wilbur by himself don’t always land, although if the movie has a high point, it’s the scene where a team of little mice put him through the surgery from hell. I feel similarly about the animals who escape with Cody, like Frank the freaky frilled-neck lizard or Krebbs the sardonic koala. Adore them as I do, it’s hard to argue that they do much for the movie besides give the animators some endemic Australian fauna to draw. Like most of the movies in this post, The Rescuers Down Under is hamstrung by its attempts to do too much. Bernard and Bianca take an awfully long time to get into this movie, and the parts of the movie they feature in are never the most interesting. Cody’s loyalty to Marahute, the instant kinship he feels with nature, and the occasional loveliness of the animation are what succeed in this movie, and practically speaking, the “Down Under” just never connects to “The Rescuers.”