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1941, directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Like Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo is a short movie that probably would have been a little better if it’d had a little more going on. Unlike Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo has little things like “labor disputes” and “the onset of World War II” which get in the way of it having been a longer picture. (Short runtime be darned: there’s still time for the clowns to decide that they’re the most important part of the show believe they deserve a pay raise because of it. Remember, kids, your boss is not your friend.) As it stands, Dumbo is still a high point, as it crams in a crazy number of different takes on its subject matter in only an hour’s time. There’s the stormy night which shows us the dark side of the circus. For every big top filled with the smells of popcorn and funnel cakes and whatever, there is a team of men and animals striving and straining in a thunderstorm who have to put it up and who get no thanks for it. It gives over the majority of its dialogue to a mouse who appears to have made his way to Florida from New York and his brought his attitude and his accent with him in equal portions; making Dumbo mute is a bold call in a movie where all the other animals can talk for themselves, but it’s important, too, because he cannot advocate for himself. This is the movie which includes “When I See an Elephant Fly,” which is racially insensitive, but has small, quite possibly accidental moments of thoughtfulness. (This isn’t why you’re here, but there’s probably more that’s redeemable in the movie’s clearly African-American characters ultimately sympathizing with a social outcast than there is in the straight Orientalism of Aladdin, the white savior narrative of Atlantis, or the Magical Negro moments in The Lion King.) There are some whizbang moments with the circus clowns, proving that what people want to watch has seriously changed in the intervening eight decades. Above all there’s the tenderness of Mrs. Jumbo’s unquestioning love for her weird little child, who is also puppyish and trusting and, of course, adorable. “Baby Mine” is the first truly sad Disney moment. All but orphaned, condemned to the sad edges of a circus, with virtually no one left he can rely on, Dumbo can only curl up in his mother’s trunk to feel the shreds of affection he used to receive whole.
The best part of the movie is “Pink Elephants on Parade,” which, if you don’t count Fantasia, is the first time that we see Disney animators doing something that we’d see them do over and over again. Instead of sticking with a single animation style for the entire movie, they’ll stretch their legs a little in a single sequence as a way to vary the images, and “Pink Elephants on Parade” does that brilliantly. For about five minutes, we get a kid-friendly take on the DTs which is a pure exercise in ingenuity.
Elephants walk around the edges of the frame, a choice in using the entirety of that little box which would be adventurous today. Perspective is fooled around with. Every piece of the elephants can be changed: legs are stretched, bellies are shaped, and there’s nothing that a trunk can’t portray one way or another. A humanoid body made of elephant heads marches, smirking, towards the audience. There’s an extreme close-up of its head, and then its eyes turn into triangles and then into pyramids. The pyramids sway; an elephant-camel hybrid walks across the screen, passing another pyramid which has the rough shape of an elephant etched into it. This elephant comes to life and begins to play its trunk as a horn; the elephant-camel becomes a cobra becomes an elephant wearing a veil and dancing sinuously. For pure originality, I’m not sure Disney has ever equaled this sequence, and the proof is in the many kids who have been deeply skeeved out by this song.
2010, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
The great romantic Disney duet is “A Whole New World,” which should more or less go unquestioned. “I See the Light” is the best song of that kind since. Here’s a janky chart:
It doesn’t reach the highs of its elder sibling—I wouldn’t trade the visuals of “A Whole New World” for “I See the Light,” though those peach lanterns slowly filling the night sky are beautiful—but “I See the Light” is a really strong turning point in Tangled. The movie does not exert too much energy thinking about the infant kidnapping business that kicks off the story, nor does it want to fill too much airtime with Mother Gothel being a bad person. The former happens; the latter is dealt with in a song; in the meantime we’re introduced to a teenager voiced by Mandy Moore who spends most of her time doing arts and crafts in the company of a very cute chameleon. The movie is more interested in Rapunzel trying to figure out who she is now that she’s escaped her captivity than it is in getting at the darkness of her situation, and “I See the Light” basically gives us the answer to that question. After a life of solitude and exploitation, she is more than ready (perhaps even worryingly ready) to put her life into a relationship of self-sacrificing partnership.
The movie’s choice to be lighthearted more often than not works as a good contrast to what would otherwise be dark moments. Maybe it’s the computer-generated animation that makes everyone a little bit rosy-cheeked and butter-faced, or it could be her “Just kidding!” form of insult humor, or it could be as simple as how often she’s off-screen, but Mother Gothel is largely non-threatening. She and the Stabbington brothers are a clear threat to Rapunzel and Flynn, but Rapunzel is having such a blast at the Snuggly Duckling with the assorted friendly brigands that even action sequences where she nearly drowns feel like steps to an ultimate goal as opposed to threats. The beginning of the movie is narrated by Flynn, who lets us know that he’s going to die. (I don’t know what the point of this sort of introduction is in any movie that’s not a noir, incidentally, nor do I understand why its inverse, “This person isn’t going to die,” is desirable either.) When he does get stabbed, it’s fast enough that I was honestly pretty impressed with how rapidly it happened. Even so, there’s no doubt, even when he slices off Rapunzel’s hair and thus destroys the magic of it, that he’ll come back again. This is all fine. The movie chooses a tone and decides to run with it, and on the whole it’s a success.
1997, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
This was my first favorite movie. I was six. I saw it in theaters and I liked everything about it. Then I got into the mythology of ancient civilizations and learned that Disney had taken significant liberties with Greek mythology. I learned an important lesson around that time: the story in a movie could be unlike the story it was based on, and I could still like both.
Anyway, now that I’m not preaching anymore, Hercules does most of the things that the majority of the eleven Disney Renaissance movies do (I count Oliver & Company because that title has to do with visual style and plot progression, not quality), albeit not quite as successfully. Hercules is, for all of his ability, about as much of a doofus as Simba or Aladdin and, like them, has to work himself into a position where he can be a true hero. The soundtrack is a little more peppy than most of Alan Menken’s Renaissance work, and while good, it only has one standout in “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” Susan Egan is sort of a step down from Lea Salonga and Judy Kuhn, but she is exceptional for this jazzy torch song, and it’s a shame that they didn’t give her more than two and a half minutes to sing. I would have sat around even as a six-year-old to listen to her get another crack at a tune. And as far as sidekicks go who play themselves (Robin Williams, Nathan Lane), Danny DeVito is very good but not quite at that all-timer level. I like his Phil an awful lot, though. “One Last Hope” is a bouncy little tune, and one that gives us a way not only to see Hercules progress in his training, complete with an increasingly beat up damsel in distress, but to hear some of Phil’s enumerated rules. “Rule number 95!” he says to Hercules as he sizes up a target. “Concentrate!” A cut, and we see Phil pinned between several swords. “Rule number 96! Aim!” Like DeVito, Phil is at his most fun when he’s barking mad, and frequently he is at his most insightful when he’s ticked. Sometimes the answers are obvious, as when he tells Hercules to stop with the “head-slicing thing” during his battle with the Hydra. But then there’s his frustration with Herc when his lovesick student refuses to believe that Meg is playing him.
Where Hercules makes its own way successfully is in creating a villain who is equal parts comic relief and genuinely bad dude, a type that the studio used not infrequently in the 1970s (Prince John, Madame Medusa) but which they hadn’t really done since. Since then their villains had been dark and brooding (the Horned King, Sykes, Frollo) or played up outward charisma to shield suspicion from their deep inner evil (Ursula, Gaston, Scar). I hate to say anything nice about James Woods, but he was fabulous as Hades, the god of the Underworld and Zeus’ envious brother who sticks out like a fiery, cigar-lighting thumb amongst the happy, literally glowing gods on Olympus. Hades has total domination on his mind from the beginning, setting up a years-long plan in which the five imprisoned Titans will be freed and, together, will overcome the gods. (Hades and Sam Hinkie had a lot in common.) But it’s not worth it to rule the world unless you can do it with snappy patter, and no Disney baddie fires off more words per minute than Hades, whose command of insults, vexation, and Yiddish is truly something. For me it’s summed up in this scene, in which he castigates one of his minions for buying the wrong sneakers.
The Princess and the Frog
2009, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
The Clements and Musker show carries on in style. Even if it’s not always engrossing, The Princess and the Frog has a rock solid sense of place, and at least for an animated movie made by a studio which had never made a picture about African-Americans before, it does so without being condescending. It’s the early 20th Century and the relationships between black and white people are never problematized too much in the text itself, although the movie makes it clear that Tiana’s white friend Charlotte belongs to a different social class than our heroine. (Charlotte is not in this movie all that much, all things considered, but when she is she makes me laugh. She has a quote about what kind of people wish on stars, and another about “man-catchin’ beignets” that just slay.) Tiana is, even compared to some of the more responsible members of that cadre of princesses (Belle, Pocahontas, Moana), exceptionally responsible. For a movie that puts her in the body of a frog for most of it, she still manages to be a grown-up throughout. It’s hard to say what’s more difficult: to be a grown-up in a frog’s body, or to be a grown-up around Naveen, who is a true child. Her likability is placed against Dr. Facilier, who’s never struck me as a terribly strong villain—his power is entirely outside himself, which cuts down on what he’s capable of—but who for sheer ambiance is second to none. Keith David is great voicing him, and that purr he leans into during “Friends on the Other Side” matches the elegance of his movement on screen.
In the last entry, I called the soundtrack to Frozen “the foremost set of sing-along songs of its period,” but that’s a far cry from saying it’s got the best music of this Neoclassical period. That title rests pretty easily with The Princess and the Frog, which cements our understanding of the place by giving us a soundtrack that does a little bit of everything New Orleans. “Dig a Little Deeper,” with its clapping choir, is has gospel flair. “Almost There” takes place in an empty space where Tiana intends to place her restaurant, but it would transition seamlessly to one of those New Orleans cabarets where jazz acts take over. “Gonna Take You There” is Zydeco 101, measured and rollicking all at once. More than once New Orleans native and frequent Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard lends his trumpet to the film, and he gives the movie an extra layer of authenticity that it needs. Randy Newman does well to ensure that all of these songs reflect the history of New Orleans and the bayou. Frequent use of Broadway standout and third Dreamgirl Anika Noni Rose’s vocals are part of what keeps the music from being as sing-along friendly as Frozen. This is going to sound like an insult to Idina Menzel, although I don’t mean it that way: it’s harder for someone to do what Rose is doing in The Princess and the Frog than it is for someone to do what Menzel did in Frozen a few years later. Certainly the music didn’t need to be influenced by jazz to make it work—Frozen has a perfectly good soundtrack that owes zilch to Norwegian folk music—but including it adds subtext to the film. “When We’re Human” comes as close as the movie wants to in making subtext text. It’s a song where a couple of people who have been transformed in animals and thus cannot belong to the systems they so long to join, whether it’s the freedom to do whatever or the freedom to start a business (or, in Louis’ more unusual case, to play jazz). In the Deep South—heck, in America—in the ’20s, Tiana is absolutely going to struggle as an African-American woman to find a way to make her dream of a restaurant come true. It was hardly impossible, and what she sings in the song has to do with the hard work she’s already put in and will continue to put in order to make things work out.
The Emperor’s New Groove
2000, directed by Mark Dindal
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only Disney movie with a Burden of Dreams-style documentary about its making. It’s quite possible that Kingdom of the Sun would have been a far more interesting movie than this one, which boils down to a slapstick buddy comedy with disproportionate influences from Saturday morning cartoons and Incan design. One wonders at the decision to more or less end the Disney Renaissance at Tarzan. But The Emperor’s New Groove is plenty good based on what it is, and that is a seriously funny movie. A galling narcissist who’s been turned into a llama is exactly the bingo card that goes best with David Spade’s voice. Eartha Kitt and John Goodman are both very good, she as the would-be tyrant Yzma and he as the everyman Pacha. Both are intent on teaching the self-obsessed emperor, Kuzco, the error of his ways. Her goal is murder; his goal is rehabilitation. Neither one works for a long time, for the emperor is so deluded about his popularity that even being turned into a llama does not immediately put him in a different mindset. But the true reason this movie works is Kronk, who is both truly stupid and entirely goodhearted, which is the worst possible combination for a henchman. Patrick Warburton is simply perfect for him, managing to let us know that he’s in on the joke while simultaneously leaving the guy he’s voicing out of the joke entirely. The best example, although I feel like there are hundreds I could choose from, comes at the end of a long sequence where Pacha’s family has booby trapped a hillside in an effort to give their dad and his llama friend a headstart in escaping Yzma and Kronk. Yzma has introduced herself as a distant family member, which clearly never fooled Chicha, but of course Kronk has no idea. He’s having too much fun jumping rope with Pacha’s kids. Even when Yzma has replaced a pinata and is being beaten with sticks, Kronk gamely keeps up the act, and Warburton’s reading is spot on. “Let’s not wait until the next family reunion to get together,” he tells Chicha. His little adventures—accidentally getting a job as a short-order cook, or speaking the language of squirrels while Yzma wails “Why me? Oh, why me?”—are rarely connected firmly to the plot’s tissue, but he keeps The Emperor’s New Groove from becoming stale. With him around, anything can happen.
That feeling of possibility is amplified by the fact that The Emperor’s New Groove is not shy about letting us know that we’re watching a movie. The movie begins with Kuzco’s voice over a very clumsy, very wet llama. He is that llama, and he has been cruelly transfigured and abandoned by bad people even though he is a great guy. We return to this scene later on after Kuzco has learned that he has completely misjudged Yzma and Pacha, and when we hear the narration this time, the Kuzco on screen shouts at the sky to lay off. “I’m just trying to tell them what happened,” the narrator says. “They saw the whole thing,” Kuzco replies. “They know what happened.” Usually this sort of back-and-forth is used to comedic effect. In a sad moment where Pacha is packing up his things so he can tell his village that the emperor intends to bulldoze their hamlet to create a private waterpark (Chapter 4: “Eminent Domain Is Bad, Actually”), the frame freezes and Kuzco comes in with a llama to ensure that our sympathies remain with him. A map tracing the ways that Kuzco, Pacha, Yzma, and Kronk return to the palace from Pacha’s village marks their progress in a little dotted line that appears on the ground as they make their way. (Yzma and Kronk look at the little dashes appearing under his feet, look at each other, shrug, and keep moving.) When it turns out that Yzma and Kronk have somehow made it back first, even she is confused as to how it happened. “I dunno,” Kronk says, pulling out the map. “By all accounts it doesn’t make sense.” The Emperor’s New Groove keeps a fine demarcation between its serious moments and its madcap hijinks, and it manages to give us the best of both by treading lightly.