Hey all! I’ve been going through some of my old writing for new story ideas and I rediscovered something I wrote five years ago that I felt like sharing with you. I created this in a twenty-minute sprint based on the sentence prompt “And you thought dragons didn’t exist”. The way it turned out, it read less like a short story and more like a chapter pulled from a preexisting book. For a time I constructed a plot to go around it, but eventually dropped it in pursuit of other projects. Having read it again, I felt inspired to return to work on it. I re-edited what I originally wrote, and that’s what I’d like to present to you today.
The plot, as of posting this, goes thusly: In modern-day China, a great-grandmother gives a young girl the location of the last dragon egg with her dying breath. The girl raises the dragon while keeping it a secret from her family. After she befriends her former bully, the son of the American ambassador, they must work together to learn its secrets before one of their respective governments can capture it. Think How To Train Your Dragon meets E.T. or The Iron Giant. The ideal age group for this book would be middle grade (about 8-12 years old) so keep that in mind. And now, I take you to a wooded park in the middle of China, where our story is already in progress:
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.
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.
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.
I expected this movie to have a few votes from those who remembered it as kids. I never expected it to win by a landslide. Lesson learned: never underestimate a nostalgic kids’ movie from the ’90s.
Once upon a time, David Kirschner, producer of An American Tail among other things, took his daughters to the New York Public Library. This visit inspired him to write a story about a fantastical adventure that would get kids excited about reading. The result was The Pagemaster, a 1994 box-office bomb that would go on to develop a cult following among children like me who grew up watching it. Animation historians tend to lump The Pagemaster in with the likes of Thumbelina or Quest For Camelot: 90s features that tried to coast off the success of Disney’s Renaissance films yet failed to match their caliber. But actually, trailers for The Pagemaster played in theaters and on home video a good four years before the movie was released…it was still in production for most of that time so the amount of influence Disney had on it is up for debate, but the point remains. I’m willing to bet what played a major part in its delay was the myriad of problems that cropped up during the filmmaking, from David Kirschner suing the Writers Guild of America for not receiving the sole story credit he felt was owed, to the plot being rewritten in the middle of the animation process, which is never a good thing. I’ve also heard stories about Macaulay Culkin being a diva on set, but knowing what we know now about his abusive father explains a lot so I’m not holding that against him.
And here’s another fun fact I dug up while doing my research: apparently Stephen King of all people wrote the treatment for The Pagemaster, which certainly explains the film’s more horrific elements. Does this means this movie is technically part of the King multiverse? I can see Richard hanging out with The Losers Club on weekends and trying to avoid killer clowns and langoliers in his spare time.
Though it was released under the 20th Century Fox banner, The Pagemaster was the first of only two animated films created by Turner Feature Animation, an off-shoot of Hanna-Barbera founded by media mogul Ted Turner. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that Turner had a hand in this children’s flick with an educational message. Let’s not forget the last animated project he invested himself in was all about teaching kids environmentalism in the cheesiest way possible.
But unlike Captain Planet, does The Pagemaster hold up after all these years? Will it get kids sucked into the magic of reading? And how long can I go without forcing in a Home Alone reference? Read on and find out.
There’s a lot to be said about J.K. Rowling, her consistent novel output since 2007, her living below the poverty line despite her level of fame, her absolute devotion to the representation of minorities and the LGBT community, but truly her greatest contribution to the literary world – no, society in general – is the eighteenth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. Where do I begin with it? What do I say that other minds more clever and eloquent than mine haven’t already? It’s exceedingly well-written with so many iconic moments etched into our hearts: the unicorns’ strike, Snape and Professor Grubbly-Plank finally confessing their feelings for each other, the drunken game of Quidditch over Mt. Fuji, Cornelius Fudge discovering the cure for herpes, Dobby marrying his sock collection! And yeah, I liked the goblin musical number! It was witty and a bold departure from the genre! All you musical haters can suck a dragon’s toenail!
If you can’t already tell, I have a lot of strong feelings for this particular entry in the Harry Potter saga. But instead of recapping the entire book, I’m going to do something a little different, possibly even risky. I’ll be reviewing the chapter that defines this whole story and is the crux of Harry’s emotional arc throughout the entire series, Chapter Thirteen: The Handsome One.
Last year I talked about Fantasia, which is not just one of my favorite Disney movies, but one of my favorite movies in general. And if I may be self-indulgent for a moment, it’s also one of the reviews that I’m the proudest of. Fantasia is a visual, emotional masterpiece that marries music and art in a manner few cinematic ventures have come close to replicating. One question that remains is what my thoughts on the long-gestated sequel is –
…you might wanna get yourselves some snacks first.
As anyone who read my review on the previous film knows, Fantasia was a project ahead of its time. Critics and audiences turned their noses up at it for conflicting reasons, and the film didn’t even make it’s budget back until twenty-something years later when they began marketing it to a very different crowd.
“I don’t wanna alarm you dude, but I took in some Fantasia and these mushrooms started dancing, and then there were dinosaurs everywhere and then they all died, but then these demons were flying around my head and I was like WOOOOOAAAHHH!!”
“Yeah, Fantasia is one crazy movie, man.”
Fantasia’s unfortunate box office failure put the kibosh on Walt Disney’s plans to make it a recurring series with new animated shorts made to play alongside handpicked favorites. The closest he came to following through on his vision was Make Mine Music and Melody Time, package features of shorts that drew from modern music more than classical pieces.
Fast-forward nearly fifty years later to the golden age known as the Disney Renaissance: Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney surveys the new crop of animators, storytellers, and artists who are creating hit after hit and have brought the studio back to his uncle’s glory days, and thinks to himself, “Maybe now we can make Uncle Walt’s dream come true.” He made a good case for it, but not everyone was on board. Jeffrey Katzenberg loathed the idea, partly because he felt the original Fantasia was a tough act to follow (not an entirely unreasonable doubt) but most likely due to the fact that the last time Disney made a sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, it drastically underperformed (even though the reasons for that are entirely Katzenberg’s fault. Seriously, watch Waking Sleeping Beauty and tell me you don’t want to punch him in the nose when Mike Gabriel recalls his opening weekend phone call).
Once Katzenberg was out of the picture, though, Fantasia 2000, then saddled with the less dated but duller moniker Fantasia Continued, got the go-ahead. Many of the sequences were made simultaneously as the animated features my generation most fondly remembers, others were created to be standalone shorts before they were brought into the fold. Since it was ready in time for the new millennium, it not only got a name change but a massive marketing campaign around the fact that it would be played on IMAX screens for a limited run, the very first Disney feature to do so. As a young Fantasia fan who had never been to one of those enormous theaters before, I begged and pleaded my parents to take me. Late that January, we traveled over to the IMAX theater at Lincoln Center, the only one nearest to us since they weren’t so widespread as they are now, and what an experience it was. I can still recall the feeling of awe at the climax of Pines of Rome, whispering eagerly with my mom at how the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue looked like a giant Etch-A-Sketch, and jumping twenty feet in the air when the Firebird’s massive eyes popped open. But did later viewings recapture that magic, or did that first time merely color my perception?
Yes folks, after a lengthy absence on this blog, we’re returning to the semi-popular recurring series By The Cover, wherein I discuss my favorite covers of songs entirely from movies. This is a particularly special entry as we’re marking the 80th anniversary of the timeless Disney animated feature, Pinocchio!
When people hear the words “animated musical”, movies like Beauty and the Beast or Snow White come to mind quicker than Pinocchio does. It’s a movie where the characters and story come first and the music comes a close second. That’s not a knock on the soundtrack, far from it. The music is the icing on what’s already a perfectly baked dark and delectable dessert. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington gave us some iconic songs ranging from the fun to the inspirational, and artists have stepped up to the overwhelming task of interpreting them time and again for the past fourscore. Let’s pay them some homage.
Ah, back to stop-motion animation. After dealing with Frosty’s nonsense I’m unsure as to whether or not I missed it.
Like most iconic fictional characters, Santa’s been the subject of many origin stories. My personal favorite is The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn, which combines his saintly origins with interesting tidbits about his modern portrayal and a ton of fun historical fiction (he’s helped shape events like Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and instead of elves he has a boatload of historical figures gain immortality to help him including Leonardo Da Vinci, Theodore Roosevelt and Attila The freaking Hun! It had me at hello!) Of course, Rankin-Bass had to do their own spin on the Santa mythos (not for the last time either as one of their final specials was based on L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus) and they did it by combining it with their tried-and-true method of basing it off a holiday standard.
Hi! If this is your first time here, I highly recommend checking out my other movie/tv/holiday special reviewsbefore this one, just to get a more positive idea of what to expect from my writing. Usually, I’m not this…well, you clicked on this review, didn’t you?
I suppose I should begin this month with a little bit of Rankin-Bass’ history. It was founded in 1960 by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass under the name Videocraft International. They began by producing animated television series for children, alternating between stop-motion and traditional cel animation before combining both with a process they called “Animagic” (which sounds more like a fireworks show at Disney World than an actual animation technique if you ask me). All the animation for these shows and the holiday specials and films that they would later branch out into were outsourced to Japan. Throughout the studio’s existence, work rotated between five different Japanese animation houses: MOM Production, Toei Animation, TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), Mushi Production, and Topcraft. Chances are if you’re into anime, then these names ring a few bells. These studios have produced hit after hit on the big and small screen, with some of them continuing to do so today, and many of Topcraft’s animators went on to bigger and better things at Studio Ghibli.
Most of Rankin-Bass’ Christmas specials, particularly the ones I’ll be looking at, follow a simple formula – take a well-known holiday song and build a story around it. It’s not a bad concept if a bit overutilized. Their first outing, and most beloved in the eyes of many, is Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, based on the tune of the same name written by Johnny Marks (who would also write the other songs in the special) and popularized by Gene Autry in 1949. The song itself was taken from a children’s book created a decade prior to promote the Montgomery Ward department store, and the special was sponsored by General Electric, who, by a stunning coincidence, were selling Christmas lights that holiday season which happened to resemble Rudolph’s nose.
In short, this special originated as a commercial, and always was one through and through.
In spite of its original intent, Rudolph has become a holiday staple and icon as big as Santa Claus himself. And if you are one of the millions of people on this planet who loves this special, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing so, and you are not wrong for enjoying it. After all, this is just one person expressing their opinion. If this person’s opinion differs from yours, that doesn’t invalidate how you feel nor should you feel as if you absolutely must agree with them –
“Hey…you’re making it sound like you’re about to say something bad about Rudolph!”
“Nobody dislikes Rudolph! Everyone in the entire world loves it! It’s a classic! The perfect Christmas special! You like Rudolph too, right? RIGHT?!”