When I was a kid, my dad raised me on a steady diet of Abbott and Costello. Some of my fondest memories of the two of us include him popping in a tape of the classic duo’s capers after many of our intense Mario Kart sessions. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello contributed a lot to comedy in their thirty years together, most notably the famous “Who’s On First” routine, but for many they reached their peak with 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The meeting of the two teams sounds like something wouldn’t work in theory but does gangbusters in practice. Bud and Lou’s career needed a boost right around the time Universal’s famous movie monsters were dwindling in popularity, so it was decided to bring the two together. Though some, even Lou Costello, had their doubts, the film was so successful that kicked off a whole series of Abbott and Costello running into other notable monsters and characters (with varying levels of quality). It’s arguably the first mainstream horror-comedy and it’s easy to see why it was such a big hit. It’s a loving homage to Universal’s golden age of horror that knows how to poke fun at the cliches it’s wrought and when to inject terror to up the suspense. Even the contrast between our creature actors’ melodramatic, haunted delivery and Bud and Lou’s rapid-fire responses when played against each other provide just as much laughs as suspense.
“Oh! A horrid toad!” “Oh! A nasty princess!” – Our princess and titular amphibian upon first meeting
Ah, our very first episode of Faerie Tale Theatre. Where to begin…the beginning, obviously.
The story of the Frog Prince is one of a long line of folktales sharing the concept of an animal bride or bridegroom. The plot of these stories usually goes likes this:
The protagonist is given an impossible task, must be married before a certain deadline, or just needs something done that they can’t be bothered to do themselves.
A talking animal appears to offer aid in exchange for marriage. The protagonist agrees, even if they’re not exactly onboard with the concept of bestiality.
Surprise! The animal was really a gorgeous human under a spell the whole time! The protagonist is rewarded for not letting appearances deceive them and they all live happily ever after.
You’ll find stories with this motif all over the world with the animal in question ranging from cats, dogs and mice to monkeys, wolves, bears, and of course, frogs. The oldest known recording of The Frog Prince comes from a Latin translation of a German tale dating back to the 13th century, though some sources say a version from Scotland was what made its way to the Brothers Grimm’s ears. Some variations, such as “The Well at the World’s End” have the royal amphibian be part of a larger story. In fact, the Brothers Grimm retelling comes with the alternate title of “Iron Henry”, named after a servant that appears in the last few sentences who previously had his heart bound with iron bands so it wouldn’t break over the Prince’s fate (that in and of itself sounds like a great side story, why is this guy always left out of the adaptations?)
The Frog Prince holds an important place in the fairy tale pantheon, no doubt thanks to the iconic image of a beautiful woman kissing a frog in the hopes of finding a handsome prince – something which was a much later addition to the story. The original ending in the Brothers Grimm version does NOT in fact have the princess break the spell with a kiss, but by hurling the frog against the wall in a fit of anger! Later editions made by the Grimms changed it to what we know today; it’s not clear why, though considering the brothers’ penchant for patriarchal rewrites in their later years, it may be to give the moral that women will be rewarded if they are obedient and docile and do everything that’s demanded of them even if it crosses personal boundaries. If you don’t want to give this story a chance on that basis, I completely understand, but what if I were to tell you that in the right hands, The Tale of the Frog Prince is a will-they-won’t-they battle of the sexes with witty banter bordering on raunchy but still fun for the whole family?
The very first review I wrote for this blog was the 2009 animated masterpiece The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous blend of Irish art, fantasy, and history which, incidentally, centers around the growth of a young artist. So what better way to mark this blog’s fifth anniversary than to look at another animated classic that masterfully expands on the themes of creativity, the nature of the artist, their work, and how public perception and greed thwarts the new and experimental?
Oh, and it’s also the first Pixar movie I’m reviewing because somehow I never got around to one in the past five years (so-so holiday specials notwithstanding).
You know, animation directors rarely get the recognition they deserve. A ton of work goes into creating each scene, each character, each frame from scratch, and it’s not surprising that two or more people usually have to share the responsibility of getting the movie out on time. Only a select few animation directors have risen to some prominence outside of their community, but not quite to the level of their live-action peers – with perhaps one exception.
Brad Bird, maybe you’ve heard of him: The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, helped kick off The Simpsons; he even made the jump to live-action and made some pretty good stuff in that medium too. I specifically say medium because, as he so rightfully stated, animation, like live-action, is a medium, a method used to produce artwork, not a genre. There is a distinct difference that studios and the public tend to ignore because of the stigma that animation is meant for children. Animation is a means to tell stories through, not a boxed-in category to dump kids’ movies into.
You’d think Bird’s passion and dedication to crafting mature stories for both adults and children would have made him a shoo-in to direct Ratatouille, especially after his Oscar win for The Incredibles. That wasn’t the case, however. Long-time animator and storyboarder Jan Pinkava got the ball rolling, but was replaced when the the film hit story troubles. Anyone who’s kept an eye on Pixar’s output will undoubtedly note that whenever a director is switched out during production (Brave, The Good Dinosaur, and depending on your POV, Toy Story 4), the resulting features wind up being, well, let’s call them a mixed bag. But in this case, bringing Bird onboard was nothing short of a godsend for Ratatouille. The film may have started as Pinkava’s brainchild, but it was Bird who really got what the story was about. His drastic changes, from redesigning the rats to be less anthropomorphic to even killing off one of the central characters, reinvented the film from the ground up, and got him his second Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
I’m happy to say that at the time this review is being wrapped up, Ratatouille is undergoing something of a critical re-evaluation and renaissance; yes, it was a big hit on release, but there was a long period of time where, despite its overwhelming success, it was something that Pixar itself seemed to have forgotten about. There were no plans for a sequel (unless you count the uproarious short “Your Friend, The Rat”), no TV series, no high demand for a consumer product line, little to no character presence in any of the Disney parks, and it wouldn’t receive a proper ride until 2014; even then, it was added to Disneyland Paris (a clone was set to open in Epcot’s World Showcase last year though it was delayed due to 2020 being…2020). For whatever reason, nobody was interested in talking about it or utilizing its potential like most of Pixar’s other films. That apparently changed as of last year; Maybe the movie gave people that comfort food for the soul they craved during quarantine, or the Kingdom Hearts 3 minigames centering around Remy controlling Sora reminded them how fun it was, or maybe it was the Ratatouille musical meme on TikTok that became so popular that they turned it into an actual musical. But I have to ask, why? Why did Ratatouille fall off the radar for so many in the first place? Well, after poking my nose in a few places, the main consensus I got from people who didn’t believe it rose up to Pixar’s lofty standards was because they considered it “boring”.
Now I try to respect most other’s opinions when it comes to animated movies, but…boring?
Is fast-paced, expressive computer animation that still holds up with what Pixar puts out today boring?
Are colorful, relatable characters in a vibrant reimagining of the City of Lights boring?
Is an original story that shows how creativity can apply to an unlikely field and an even more unlikely creator boring?
Is one of the most iconic actors of the twentieth century delivering the greatest speech about criticism and its relationship to art boring?
If your answer is no, then you’ve come to the right review blog.
See that face smack dab in the middle of the poster there? That’s the face I made when I found out I’d be reviewing one of my favorite Christmas movies (and also when I realized I wouldn’t be publishing it on time; Happy Valentines Day!) Because, honestly, what can I say about Home Alone that hundreds before me already have?
There’s an argument to be made that Home Alone shouldn’t count as a Christmas movie because it’s a story that can be done on any given day of the year – except that Christmas is tied into this film’s very identity. Kevin’s house is full of reds, greens and whites, the soundtrack is stuffed with Christmas tunes, even beloved classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street are playing whenever a TV is turned on. Add themes of family and togetherness and a magical score by John Williams, and you’ve got a movie with Christmas in its DNA.
While Home Alone didn’t impress critics upon release, it made enough bank that it held the title of highest-grossing comedy of all time until 2011. It’s entered the pop culture lexicon not just here in the states but abroad. The film’s release in most former Soviet-occupied countries aligned with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is so tied to that feeling of holiday cheer and nostalgia for a monumental positive change that it’s broadcast with the same heartfelt frequency as It’s A Wonderful Life in America. “It’s not Christmas without Kevin” has become something of a popular slogan for most stations that air it. But why does this simple story retain so much of its appeal 30 years later?
I don’t think it’s a big secret that Gravity Falls is my favorite series from Disney. Not just animated series, I mean out of everything the channel ever churned out. It was mysterious, funny and occasionally frightening, with deep themes of family and growing up and some of the most well-written television characters to come from the 2010s. When it bowed out after two near-perfect seasons, it left some enormous shoes to fill. What show could possibly live up to the standards it set?
Well, it turns out the answer was one no one asked for, but we’re sure as hell thankful we got anyway.
Hot take for y’all, especially from someone who grew up in the 90’s and enjoyed the hell out of the original DuckTales: the 2017 reboot blows its predecessor out of the water. It takes the fun, creative adventures from the first series, adds a much-needed measure of character arcs and development (Huey, Dewey and Louie have actual distinct personalities now!) and amps it up with a huge dose of heart and enough lore borrowed from the Carl Barks and Don Rosa comics to win over even the most jaded fans. Also, as opposed to his unceremonious draft into the navy in the first series, Donald Duck finally has a part to play in the new adventures! (Well, in 13 out of the 65 of them anyway…way to get my hopes up, Disney.) By the time I was halfway through the first season I thought to myself, “Yes, this is it. This is the successor to Gravity Falls,” (though The Owl House definitely ties with that sentiment as well, and Amphibia isn’t too far behind).
I’m woefully behind on Season 3, but am well aware that they’re bringing in more characters and plots from the other classic Disney Afternoon series that were hinted at since the very start, and I can’t wait to see how they’re re-interpreted. On a similar note, since this episode deals with some major revelations from the tail end of Season One that have ramifications for the rest of the series, I must warn you that this review will have spoilers.
When I made my list of favorite Mickey Mouse shorts, I had a hell of a time combing through his filmography for what I considered “real” Mickey cartoons. This is because a good many films in the mouse’s oeuvre have the supporting characters like Donald Duck and Goofy quickly steal the spotlight from him. And that’s not the only thing they took: as more characters were ingrained into the Disney canon and Mickey was reduced to being a bit player in his own features, the scrappy traits that once endeared him to the public were siphoned away to his costars. And what was left for him once the childlike curiosity, playfulness, brash temper, big heart and fierce determination were gone? What kind of personality could Mickey cultivate for himself into when there was no personality left?
By the late 40s and early 50s, everything that made Mickey enjoyable was scrubbed away into a bland, neighborly squeaky-clean corporate-friendly icon. He was good for selling merch, but his cartoons suffered severely for it. Mickey was paired up with his faithful dog Pluto to keep things more interesting, though that resulted in him getting far more to do than his master. I always thought Pluto worked better as a supporting role rather than the main star, so I’ve never been crazy about the Pluto shorts or these in particular because…well, let’s look at a comedic dog and master duo done right:
Wallace, for all his mechanical ingenuity and good nature, is more than a bit of an idiot. Gromit is vastly smarter and is capable of expressing a variety of relatable emotions despite never uttering a word (though that has less to do with him being a dog and more due to the fact that he has no mouth). Whenever there’s trouble (usually of Wallace’s own making), Gromit steps up to the plate and the two always manage to work past their shortcomings together to save the day. They may not always be on the same level as each other, but their camaraderie and the situations they get into certainly make for an entertaining time.
As for Mickey, he may have been a lot of things in his prime, but he certainly wasn’t stupid. So seeing the resilient rodent who sailed steamships, conducted his way through storms, battled giants, saved kingdoms, slayed dragons and controlled the very cosmos have his IQ substantially lowered just so he could play second fiddle to his pet…well, it feels downright insulting. Pluto’s Christmas Tree was the second-to-last short made before Mickey’s thirty year-long retirement, and it’s a prime showcase for all the problems that come with his extreme flanderization, right down to the fact that his name isn’t even the one that’s in the title.
A long time ago in Russia, a young Jewish man was on his way to his wedding accompanied by his friends. As they passed by an old tree in the woods, the groom noticed to his amusement a stick poking from the ground that resembled a bony finger clawing its way out of the earth. In jest, the groom placed his wedding ring on the stick and recited his vows to his “wife”, performing the wedding ritual and making his companions roar with laughter. Little did he know that he made a grave error indeed.
The ground began to shake beneath them. A enormous hole opened up, out of it where the stick once lay rose a horrifying corpse! She was little more than a skeleton wrapped in bits of skin and a rotting wedding dress with a spider’s web for a veil. The bride had been murdered on her way to her own wedding years before by anti-Semitic Cossacks. Now that the groom had made his vows to her, she claimed him as her own.
In terror and desperation, the groom and his friends fled to the rabbi for help. Surely the wisest and most learned holy man in the village would know what to do. The groom presented his dilemma (as a hypothetical question, of course), but as the rabbi pondered it, the doors of the synagogue burst open, and there before them stood the corpse bride. Once again she laid claim to the young groom, this time with the whole village – and the groom’s living bride – there to witness it. With the situation blown wide open, the rabbi gathered other rabbis from the surrounding villages to consult with them. The village waited anxiously for their outcome, the groom’s living bride most of all. Finally, the rabbi presented his answer:
“It is true, you have put the ring on the finger of the corpse bride and recited your vows, which constitutes a proper wedding – however, the vows state that you must seek a life together hallowed by faith. Since the bride is already deceased, she has no claim upon the living.”
The groom and his living bride were relieved. The poor corpse bride, on the other hand, wailed and collapsed to the ground in tears. “My last chance at a happy life, gone! My dreams of love and family will never be fulfilled, every thing is lost forever now.” She was a pitiable sight, a heap of bones in a ragged wedding dress sobbing on the floor – yet who should show her compassion but the living bride herself? The young woman knelt and gathered up the corpse bride, holding and comforting her like a mother would a crying child.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured in her ear, “I will live your dreams for you. I will have children in your name, enough for the two of us, and you can rest knowing our children and children’s children will be taken care of and never forget you.” The living bride tenderly carried the corpse bride to the river and dug a grave for her, decorating it with stones and wildflowers, and laid her in there herself. At last, the corpse bride knew peace, and she closed her eyes. The living bride and her groom were married, and she kept her promise to the corpse bride: she had many children, and those children had children, and they always told the story of the corpse bride and the kindness she was shown so she’d never be forgotten.
This is a semi-abridged version of an old Jewish folktale that would have remained in obscurity if it hadn’t reached the late Joe Ranft, storyboard artist for Pixar and a little movie called The Nightmare Before Christmas. He passed it on to his good buddy Tim Burton and big surprise, this rather macabre love story clicked with him. Corpse Bride debuted in 2005, the same year as Burton’s Willy Wonka remake, and it’s safe to say that this my preferred film between the two. Obviously, comparisons between this and the previous Tim Burton stop-motion musical (which he did NOT actually direct, see the opening of my Coraline review) will be inevitable, but Corpse Bride is a fine companion piece to Nightmare in nearly every way.
…Then I watched The Princess and the Scrivener’s video on the film (do check out their channel by the way) where they raised a highly pertinent question. If you’ve seen the movie already, I’m sure you’ve noticed one major difference between this and the story it’s based on:
So because Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride changes the setting of this Russian-Jewish folktale to England and made the characters Christian (as well as taking Burton’s own dodgy history when it comes to diverse casting into account), does that make it guilty of Jewish erasure?
Look, events this past year have made me re-evaluate many of my views and privileges as a white person. I want to be as woke and supportive of as many marginalized voices as possible, and that includes reassessing media I previously assumed was harmless or at least fair for its day. I truly want to see more Jewish characters and stories in mainstream entertainment that aren’t overused stereotypes or victims (the only Jewish movies I can think of that don’t involve the atrocities of World War 2 are Fiddler On The Roof and Yentl). After seeing Scrivener’s video, I sometimes wonder how much more we could have gotten if they kept the film more grounded in its Semitic roots. In fact, wouldn’t there be far more tension and a greater commentary on marrying outside of race, class and religion if they kept Victoria Christian but made Victor Jewish? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a thoughtful, questioning rabbi to counter Pastor Gallswell’s narrow-minded austerity?
That being said, however, I still don’t have much of a problem with the changes made in Corpse Bride. Folktales are meant to be retold with changes naturally evolving through the centuries. Sometimes the true strength in a story lies in how it well it can be told through different ethnic lenses. HBO’s animated series Happily Ever After is excellent in this regard, giving us creative cultural retellings of familiar stories ranging from an Inuit Snow Queen to a Rastafarian Rumpelstiltskin. The fact that so much of the grimness and heart of the original tale remains after its conversion to Christianity is a testament to how well they managed to pull this adaptation off.
“My experts say we’ll have a vaccine for you by the end of the year! To the death!”
“No. To the pain.”
“…I don’t think I’m familiar with that phrase.”
“I’ll explain, and I’ll use small words you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog-faced buffoon”.
“That may be the first time in my life someone’s dared to insult me.”
“Then you haven’t been paying attention these past four years.”
“To the pain means the first thing you lose will be your sense of taste and smell. Then the aches creep in all over. Next an increasing fever alternating with chills.”
“And then I rinse and spit you out with some bleach. My advisors said telling the public that was a mistake but listening to them is a mistake I won’t duplicate tonight.”
“I wasn’t finished. Then comes the feeling of acute pneumonia. The next thing you lose will be the ability to breathe without a respirator.”
“And then I go blind and deaf, right? Let’s get on with it!”
“WRONG! Your eyes and ears you keep and I’ll tell you why – “
“So that every hacking cough and wheeze that erupts from your chest and slowly brings you closer to the same death you condemned 200,000 people to will be yours to cherish. Every former supporter who escapes your thrall, every person calling for your arrest, every human being victimized by your weaponized racism, every man, woman and child who cries out ‘Dear God, what is that thing we put in office?’ all while you lie there helplessly, will be burned in your eyes and echo in your perfect ears.”
“That is what ‘To the pain’ means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in sickness and misery forever, fighting for every single breath you will take for the rest of your unnatural life.”
“…I think you’re bluffing. You’re a hoax! You were made in a lab! I’ve been taking hydroxychloroquine every day! I don’t need a mask, I’ve got herd immunity!”
“It’s possible, fascist pig. I’m only lying here because you undermined all scientific research and your party lacked the strength to stand up to you and for the people they claimed to represent.”
“But then again, perhaps I’m not a hoax after all…”
“Push the button, Max!” – Professor Fate, usually before a catastrophe of his doing strikes
To say things have gotten tumultuous since the last review would be a gross understatement. But we’re not here to discuss today’s upheavals, important as they are. Let’s just take a moment to reflect and laugh. Lord knows we could use a good one right now.
Directed by esteemed comedy director and Hollywood bad boy Blake Edwards, The Great Race is a loving pastiche and send-up of silent comedies and melodramas from the early days of cinema (classic Laurel and Hardy in particular; the film even opens with a dedication to them). Thankfully the movie itself is not silent. What kind of genius madman would try to make a silent comedy in the late twentieth century?
Believe it or not, The Great Race was inspired by a real automobile race from New York to Paris that took place in 1908. Some of the more outlandish elements of the race like floating on icebergs across the sea were even based on genuine ideas that were proposed for the race but wisely ruled out. Despite its star power and a huge budget, The Great Race was a flop on release and quickly fell into obscurity. Critics assumed it was trying to ride off the popularity of Those Magnificent Men And Their Flying Machines, another big-budget all-star comedy with a similar premise. I’m more inclined to believe that its failure was due to the roadshow phenomenon that boomed in the late ’50s dying out at this point. It would be several more years until the epic format of a three-hour film with an overture and intermission faded from theaters completely, but audiences were already losing interest, and that rung The Great Race’s knell. Regardless, it’s garnered something of a cult fanbase from automobile aficionados (the original cars are still displayed at conventions), fans of classic cinematic comedies, and it even inspired the wildly popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races.
Whenever I discuss Sleeping Beauty with someone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for Disney, they have an irksome tendency to get it muddled with Snow White; their excuse being “it has the same plot”. I’ll admit, there are some surface similarities that even the most casual viewer can pick up on: a fairytale where a princess is forced into unconsciousness and wakes up with some necking, the comic relief and villain being the most beloved characters, a little frolic in the forest with animals, the antagonist plunging off a cliff, you get the idea. In fact, Sleeping Beauty even reuses some discarded story beats from Snow White, mainly our couple dancing on a cloud and the villain capturing the prince to prevent him from waking his princess. Yet despite that, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are two wholly different movies shaped by the era and talents of the time.
I’ve discussed how Walt Disney was never one to stick to a repeated formula, no matter how successful it was. He must have noticed the parallels between his first movie and this one, but decided to make one crucial change for Sleeping Beauty that would forever differentiate the two: the look. We all know the traditional Disney house style: round, soft shapes, big eyes; charming as it was and still is, Walt was sick of it after several decades. Meanwhile, artists like Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle were producing gorgeous concept art that rarely made a perfect translation into the Disney house style.
Walt wanted to make a feature that took the pop artistry of their designs and made the animation work for it instead of the other way around – which brings us to another animation studio that was doing well at the time, United Pictures Animation, or UPA.
UPA didn’t have the kind of budget Disney normally had for their animated projects, but what they lacked in fluidity they made up for in style. Watch The Tell-Tale Heart, Gerald McBoing-Boing and Rooty-Toot-Toot to see what I mean. UPA were pioneers of limited animation, taking their scant resources and creating some striking visuals with bold geometric designs. Through this, they defined the look of 50’s animation. Though perhaps unintentional, Sleeping Beauty comes across as Disney’s response to UPA, or what would happen if UPA had the funds they deserved. The characters’ contours are angular but effortlessly graceful, defining their inherent dignity and royalty. And the colors, ohhh the colors…
Because of the immense amount of work required to animate in this difficult new style (and in the Cinemascope ratio, no less) as well as story troubles and Walt barely supervising the animation studio now that he had his hands full with live-action films, television, and a theme park, Sleeping Beauty had a turbulent production that lasted the entirety of the 1950s. For a time, Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame was set to direct. Director Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack partway through production and Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men, took the mantle from there before Walt Disney replaced him Clyde Geronimi. And even after that, Wolfgang Reitherman teamed up with Geronimi as co-director to get the film finished after no less than three delays. Also, Don Bluth got his foot in the door as an assistant animator for this feature, beginning his short-lived but impactful tenure at Disney. Did all this hamper the movie, or did they succeed in what they set out to accomplish?
Well, one of the reasons why this review took so long was because I had a hard time not repeating “MOVIE PRETTY” and “MALEFICENT AWESOME” over and over. Make what you will of that.