The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.
1970, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
We’re entering the Wolfgang Reitherman portion of the program, which I’m pretty jazzed about. (Everything from here on out is at least okay, which is kind of a relief…writing about bad movies isn’t super fun.) There’s good and bad in Reitherman’s long tenure as the chief director of Disney’s animated films. His movies are solid more often than not, frequently giving us entertaining characters, memorable dialogue, and at least one good song per movie. It’s worth noting that the animation in his pictures is approachable for kids, which is no small consideration when you’re Disney. At worst, his movies can feel like copies of one another or, lol, of Disney classics made long before. At this point I think everyone’s seen the reused Disney animation sequences. The vast majority of them feature Reitherman movies, particularly Robin Hood, but The Jungle Book and The Aristocats are offenders as well. The Aristocats has more of an issue, if anything, with the fact that its episodic plot feels like a rehash of the dullest previous Reitherman movies. The Aristocats tells the story of a cat and her three kittens trying to return to Paris from the countryside, where they were abandoned by a (not unreasonably?) jealous butler. In practice, that means there are new characters every ten to fifteen minutes, and these usually arrive in small groups. There’s nothing I dislike (short of the racism, obviously) in any of these groups, but it means that The Aristocats is less than the sum of its parts. Would the movie be more interesting if it focused more on Duchess, or Marie, or Thomas O’Malley, or even Madame Adelaide? I like Napoleon and Lafayatte and Uncle Waldo and Scat Cat, but they can be reduced largely to “WHERE’S MY BEDDY-BYE BASKET?” or “Basted? He’s been marinated in it!” and so on. It’s a lot of time to spend for very little payoff, and the result is that The Aristocats is a collection of non-entities.
Again, short of the racism that has been largely been excised from the song in more recent presentations, “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat” is a jam. Years ago this blog and friends ranked it the eighteenth best Disney song in a list that contained Mary Poppins and other animation/live-action hybrids, and Matt hypothesized that a wider audience would probably have ranked it higher. It’s a great ten o’clock in the evening song, which is unique for Disney movies. The vast majority of great Disney songs happen in the first half of the movie, and many of them (“A Whole New World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bella Notte”) signal the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. There are not many great Disney songs sitting at this point of the movie, when it’s 75-80% over—”I See the Light” is one of the very few that comes to mind—but as an exciting explosion to cap the penultimate vignette in the movie, “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat” works marvelously. It really is like an explosion. Every color in the world matters in this somewhat trippy scene, which came out in the same year as Brewster McCloud and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. When the members of Scat Cat’s band walk out of the building with their instruments in pieces, it seems like a miracle that the thunderous chords of that song didn’t bust the cats too.
1999, directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
Another movie in the same general vein as Sleeping Beauty, one that I’ve tried to like over a period of years and still can’t find particularly good, I think a lot of the problem with Tarzan is in its strange in-between animation. Much of the movie is done in the animation style that had reigned since Beauty and the Beast on, although Tarzan himself probably looks as much like a person as any single human being they’d animated since Oliver & Company. It looks good, for the most part, and on the animals it’s a mostly successful choice. It is the first time that they used this particular 3D animation technology (“Deep Canvas”), and it looks like it. In Treasure Planet it’s a mildly successful move. I actually think it works best in Atlantis, which doesn’t require quite as much intricate detail as Tarzan. In some sequences it’s fairly dazzling, as in the last twenty seconds of that “Son of Man” sequence when Tarzan surfs through the trees and the general sense of what they’re trying to show us about this extreme athlete comes through. Without that incredible action, though, the look of it is just a little off, and it’s something of a stand-in for the movie itself. It’s just a little off. Tarzan would not work particularly well as a traditional musical in the vein of Mulan or Hercules, just to mention its two immediate predecessors, and using the perpetually earnest Phil Collins was a good choice. Tarzan has a very good soundtrack and it works behind what they’re doing. Perhaps the soundtrack is even a little too good, because “Strangers Like Me” and “Son of Man” and “Two Worlds” are a little distracting from the fact that when Phil Collins is not singing, not much is going on.
In 1999, Tarzan and Jane’s courtship is trite, and in 1999, Rosie O’Donnell was still a thing and we had to listen to her voice a wisecracking gorilla. Neither one of those things is much good for the movie, especially because they are mostly segregated in the movie itself! Jane and Tarzan run into each other in the second half after we’ve had to suffer through the majority of Terk’s dialogue. Clayton is arguably the most realistic Disney Renaissance villain, and his death remains surprisingly horrifying. Unfortunately, short of “Find the gorillas and trap them,” there isn’t much to do, especially seeing as the “Find the gorillas” part takes up the vast majority of his screen time. Alternately, Sabor the leopard is another realistic villain, insofar as leopards living in the jungle which don’t talk qualify as “realistic.” She does eat a baby, which is, like Clayton’s accidental hanging, pretty metal for a Disney movie. Her importance is limited when Tarzan’s victory over her at the rough midpoint of the movie is treated as the event that brings him more fully into the band of gorillas. Amusingly, Tarzan has the same basic issue as a much better movie, Black Panther, in that the two villains both work well individually but could easily have carried a movie’s worth of threat by themselves
2012, directed by Rich Moore
Wreck-It Ralph has the same problem at its heart that Ralph Breaks the Internet has, and just about the only reason this movie is better than its sequel is because the world of video games is not as big as the Internet. There’s so much interest in “What if we stuck a whole bunch of video game villains in a fake AA meeting?” and other signifiers to people who might have ever liked a video game, and in those crucial first fifteen minutes or so the movie has already run off the track. Hero’s Duty, which is what you would get if you replaced Daniel Bruhl with Jane Lynch and the Allies with an infinite number of giant insects, is a foray into first-person shooters that slows the movie down further. It’s not until Ralph makes it to Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game featuring the PG version of Sarah Silverman (and God forgive me, I did laugh when Vanellope calls it “Hero’s Doody”) that we start to get to a much more interesting idea, and it’s then that it allows its voice cast a little more room to stretch their legs. Ralph is ably voiced by John C. Reilly, whose rubber face and genial demeanor has made him one of the essential American actors of the century, and it’s a strong choice. Likewise strong is Sarah Silverman for Vanellope, who seem so similar that I’d believe that they wrote the role for her. Instead of trying to spoof some other video game or include a Q*bert reference because someone on the creative team had their best years during Reagan’s first term, Wreck-It Ralph finally gets into what it means to be a decent person.
Obviously having the trappings of a success (i.e., a medal) is good, but it doesn’t fool anyone into believing that you aren’t just another nine-foot-tall literal homewrecker. Ralph is a little dumb, more than a little gullible, and it turns out that companionship is the thing that allows him to recognize that you can be good for someone else. In Fix-It-Felix, Jr., Ralph is entirely alone, dismissed by the other characters in the game. In Sugar Rush, he finds another outcast in Vanellope, who desperately wants to start racing but who isn’t allowed to get near the track because of her “glitch.” I do love the varied animation of this movie. The arcade that Ralph and Vanellope live in is tired, with bad carpet and worn out games. The place where all the characters can move between games admirably resembles a modern railroad terminal. And the video games themselves showcase the difference between where Ralph comes from (2D, a pretty clear resemblance to Donkey Kong) and where he learns to become a better person (bright, puffy, pink, sparkling). This part of the movie I can get behind, and although I was initially disappointed by the movie’s decision to limit itself to this one place, it’s clear with a little hindsight that this was the better move. Once it settles down, Wreck-It Ralph finally figures out how to focus on its people in a way that feels rewarding.
2016, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Every Disney movie from Wreck-It Ralph to Moana reveals a surprise villain at the end of the picture. Zootopia probably has the most convoluted route to get there, like Inherent Vice for children. As much as a single mystery (“Why are the predators of Zootopia suddenly reverting to their ‘natural states?'”) drives the story, it still can’t keep its hands off of material that weakens the internal logic of this animal universe. For the humor that the movie leans on pretty heavily to work, then the animals have to work off our characterizations of them. The bunny surprises everyone by being assertive, and her presence on the police force is funny because it’s typically the province of bigger animals. The fox is clever and confident but not necessarily competent, which is a type that goes back to “The Fox and the Crow,” which I think they still do in like, preschool. There’s something lurking in these carnivorous animals that makes them want to eat prey species. Sheep and similar ruminants make up an outsize proportion of the voting population, so much that they can swing an election if they put themselves in a strong bloc; thus Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a sheep who appears to be, yes, a little scared all the time and not so bright. The movie does not believe that biology is destiny—when Judy says something pretty close to that at a press conference, Nick drops her and we all learn a lesson—but it certainly believes in biology as a starting point. Preachy folks frequently miss the full import of what they’re pounding their pulpits about, and Zootopia definitely has a hole in its reasoning which, just as a random example, has been used to make arguments like “Women shouldn’t be able to vote because by nature they don’t have the logic and reasoning to make good decisions.” I wouldn’t hammer this so much if it weren’t the basis for the movie’s turning point and the tool the story uses to develop Judy and Nick more fully. Characters are revealed by overcoming their stereotypes, or subverting them, and it makes me a little queasy.
What works about Zootopia is the humor, and just as it is in Wreck-It Ralph, that is sped on primarily by its two leads. Ginnifer Goodwin brings spirit to Judy, who is endlessly loud and spunky, bringing a Stakhanovite enthusiasm to her day job. Her first assignment is to hand out parking tickets, which she does with pole vaulting verve. Her verbal quickness makes her likable, and fortunately there’s enough snappy dialogue for Goodwin to spit out that we come to like her pretty quickly. The animation backs Goodwin up pretty well, too, and this is a movie that does sight gags pretty well. More power to whoever thought of a scene where Judy, who has been the little one through her entire time in the police academy, wanders into neighborhood inhabited by tiny animals and finds herself like Godzilla. And Jason Bateman is, I dunno, the most perfectly cast voice actor in a Disney movie since Robin Williams in Aladdin? To be clear! Nick Wilde is nowhere near as interesting or funny or sympathetic as Genie. (I already regret that comparison. I can’t wait to get big so it can be my “best war movie since Saving Private Ryan” moment.) But Bateman has spent his entire career being snide and a little obnoxious and also weirdly charming and someone you can imagine yourself being friends with. That’s Nick Wilde, a tricky and sarcastic con man who is just vulnerable enough to let us in and see how deeply he can be hurt.
The Sword in the Stone
1963, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
The Sword in the Stone has the dubious distinction of being the second-best Arthur movie ever made, which probably says more about how difficult it’s been to make a good King Arthur movie than it does about this film. (For the record, Excalibur was a late scratch from the British movies list I’m doing when I’m not pounding these out.) Certainly this loose adaptation of The Once and Future King is a good effort, and unlike most of the too episodic movies I’ve decried recently, it has a clear through line that’s enjoyable and contributes to some character development. But for a movie which relies on the deployment of magic for so much of its run, The Sword in the Stone only has one trick up its sleeve. Merlin, who knows much about the future and fumbles his way through each day, has enough magic to transform himself and others into animals. And then the movie proceeds to do just that for a very long time until Merlin more or less disappears from the movie and takes whatever remaining fun there was with him. He and Wart become fish, squirrels, birds. Merlin engages in a magician’s duel and, well, turns into a bunch of animals. These are, on the whole, fun enough. Madam Mim is pretty weird, and it’s easy to get a kick out of her and her funky little theme song. (This is a Sherman Brothers joint, which I don’t know that I would have guessed if I didn’t like, already know. In their defense, none of the music is meant to be especially pretty, and I’m not sure that any of the songs hit three minutes.) The first transformation Wart undergoes, as a fish, is exciting enough in that it nearly gets him eaten, and is pleasant enough, coming with the best song of the movie. And were I a bard…I would write songs about the LUSTFUL SQUIRRELS which appear to have populated the trees of England and booby trapped them with their wiles and weirdly strong tails:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a LUSTFUL SQUIRREL and a Pendragon
Dropped in a forgotten spot in ye olde England by Providence
Backward and foolish, not fit to clean a stable,
Grow up to be a Knight of the Round Table?
There are a bunch of elements like those squirrels I like a great deal, although the trouble is that none of them matter that much. There’s an emaciated wolf that went on to inspire Simon Le Bon, and whose inability to get his jaws on Arthur becomes a pretty good running gag. Archimedes the owl is one of the most underrated Disney supporting characters. Few of them get to say anything quite so memorable as “Man will fly, all right. Just like a rock!” In the end, though, this is a movie which has to turn Wart’s transformation into Arthur into a gripping story. The lessons he’s supposed to learn while he’s being turned into various fauna are never quite as interesting as the fauna themselves, and unfortunately his return home to Sir Ector absolutely slams the brakes on the movie. It never really gets going again.