If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know how much I love Disney. The projects they’ve announced for their centennial this year have been hit or miss (Little Mermaid and Peter Pan remakes? Not interested. Big history exhibit with Tupac Walt Disney hologram? Very cool. Suing the pants off Ron DeSantis? Awesome!) but the one thing I’ve been looking forward to the most is their next animated film Wish. What little of the premise revealed at D23 revolves around the time-honored Disney tradition of wishing on stars. What really drew me in, though? THE ARTWORK:
Ever since Paperman I’ve hoped that Disney would create a full animated feature blending traditional and CGI mediums in a beautiful, unique way, and now it seems we’re finally getting it. Look at that last picture, it’s like a watercolor illustration! I’ve been keeping tabs on Wish since the D23 debut because the potential here is staggering. Yesterday morning Disney released the first teaser trailer, and if you’ve read this far then you’re probably wondering what I think about it. After all, viscerally reacting to trailers and making bold assumptions before knowing the full context is nothing new on the internet, right?
Hey y’all, I’m back on one of my favorite podcasts, Escape From Vault Disney! Every March the episodes are themed to a viewers’ choice poll and this year the winner was Not On Disney Plus, meaning Tony and friends are covering Disney and Disney-owned media not on the streaming service for various reasons. In this case, we got to watch Down With Love, a 20th Century Fox comedy directed by Peyton Reed that we had A LOT of good things to say about (this movie’s joining The Shelf for sure). Come listen to us laugh and sing the praises of the movie on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Libsyn, Audible and Listen Notes. Down With Love is now Up On The Shelf! Cheers!
So, is me reviewing a different version of A Christmas Carol everyotheryear going to be a thing? Mind you I’m not complaining, each iteration has something interesting worth discussing, but if I had a nickel for every time I revisited the story for the blog on a consecutive even-numbered year I’d have three nickels.
But enough memery, let’s go back to 1990, a magical year marred only by the passing of Jim Henson. Much like Walt Disney, the studio he founded was at a loss without their main creative driving force. Could the Muppets and the brilliant people who brought them to life go on without him?
The short answer, yes.
The first idea Jim’s son Brian had was a Halloween special. But when plans for that fell through, he turned to adapting classic literature with that singular Muppet charm. That in turn would charter the course the Muppets would take throughout the 90s and even affect them to this day.
Released through Disney since this was in that grey area before they outright bought The Muppets, The Muppets Christmas Carol was overshadowed at the holiday box office by another Disney feature, Aladdin, and one that they would eventually own, Home Alone 2. But the generation that grew up with annual viewings of this movie had the last laugh. It has since been reevaluated as a holiday classic and one of the best screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Yet…for the longest time I just didn’t get it. People claiming THIS was the best version of A Christmas Carol? I was convinced it had to be a nostalgia thing. To be fair, my early memories of the film weren’t exactly positive. Anything involving Muppets was a gamble for baby Shelf; there was a 50-50 chance of it being enchanting fun and games or pure nightmare fuel, and in this case it was the latter due to one scene in particular. But in 2016 I finally gave it another chance, and…
Guys, I am a Muppets Christmas Carol stan. Despite my lack of childhood sentiment, I understand what makes it such a beloved holiday fixture. When Muppets fans say this is their favorite movie in the franchise, I can smile and say “Good choice, it’s easily in my top 3-4, natch*”. Heck, for the past several years it’s usually the first Christmas anything I watch come December. Brian Henson and the Muppeteers brought their A-game as well as some familiar names in their repertoire to give it that classic Muppet feeling. Jerry Juhl returned to write the screenplay and Paul Williams, who previously wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie, crafted the ones heard here. This might be a controversial opinion, but The Muppets Christmas Carol has the best soundtrack out of all the Muppet features. Though the music in each film is usually top-notch, there’s always that one song I have no qualms skipping over (“Never Before Never Again”, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better”, you get the idea). Muppet Christmas Carol, however? Every song is perfect, and to lose any of them would be a huge detriment to the viewing experience.
Following up from the previous post, here I am back on the Channel KRT podcast to discuss the little-known Frosty sequel “Frosty Returns”! What happens when a studio that isn’t Rankin-Bass tries to build their own snowman with blackjack and hookers John Goodman, Elisabeth Moss, and the Flying Dutchman? You get an odd, not-quite Christmas special with environmental overtones that furthers the divide between snow lovers and snow haters. Come listen to us discuss the inexplicable reappearance of everyone’s favorite snow golem on Apple Podcasts, Podcasts Online, and now on YouTube!
Ah, Garfield, bastion of feline laziness and gluttony. Forty years after his his first newspaper comic appearance, he’s living proof that a little cynicism is welcome now and then; that inside all of us, there’s a cat who hates Mondays, loves sleeping in and eating whatever he wants whenever he wants. Thanks to that relatability, Garfield’s popularity peaked to the point where he received no less than twelve television specials throughout the 80s and 90s. The two most popular based on my observations are the Halloween one, and today’s entry, A Garfield Christmas.
Funny enough, I was unaware of its existence until a certain critic of nostalgia included it in his follow-up list of favorite Christmas specials. It premiered a full year before Garfield and Friends, the series that introduced me to the cantankerous cat, yet it has a lot in common with it: the same voice actors, the animation studio, and much of the humor is directly adapted from Jim Davis’ comic strips. But does it hold up on rewatch or is it as flabby as our feline’s physique?
Surprise, you’re getting another Halloween review because I couldn’t wait another 365 days to talk about my favorite spooky special in recent years.
Muppets Haunted Mansion (or as I sometimes call it, “Muppets Most Haunted”) is one of those features that feels tailor-made me. It combines three things I love: the Muppets, Halloween, and the beloved Disney ride The Haunted Mansion. If you’re wondering why no one thought to do something like this sooner, well, they did. Brian Henson’s first idea for a Muppet project after his father Jim Henson passed away was a Halloween special. Though it didn’t pan out, The Muppets Studio toyed with doing something creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky with Kermit and the gang for years.
This brings us to the Muppets and Disney. The last time they both got together to do anything theme park-related was The Muppets Go To Disney World special, a couple of short-lived in-park shows, and MuppetVision 3-D. Cut to thirty years later and now Disney owns them. After the success of the 2011 film, the concept of a Muppets Halloween special was revived. Longtime Muppet director and writer Kirk Thatcher took the helm, and the result is magic.
I think Jambreeqi said it best when he called Muppets Haunted Mansion a variety show with a plot connecting the segments. It’s not unlike a classic episode of The Muppet Show made feature-length. There’s guest stars, gags, bad puns and musical numbers galore, and a surprising amount of heart as well. Every second is filled with love for the Muppets and the Haunted Mansion.
Please note that I’m going to be spoiling the entire special, so drop what you’re doing and go watch it first. You will not regret it. This special is truly something worth experiencing before I color it with my own commentary, no matter how glowing it may be. While it’s been on Disney Plus for a year now, it’s making its cable debut this weekend for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (or LAST weekend as of the time this is posted, thank you new job and stomach flu). Also, I’m aware that some of my readers have never been to a Disney park or ridden the Haunted Mansion before, so I’ll do my best to put some of the scenes, references and in-jokes in their proper context.
I’m kind of surprised that I’m reviewing Bedknobs and Broomsticks before the film that was responsible for it in the first place, the one everyone knows and loves – a little movie called Mary Poppins. Everything about Bedknobs and Broomsticks from its conception to creation is inextricably tied to its more popular predecessor. When Walt Disney was still tussling with P.L. Travers over the film rights for Mary Poppins, he sought out the rights to two other books as an alternative. Those stories were Mary Norton’s “The Magical Bedknob” and “Bonfires and Broomsticks” which, by an astounding coincidence, feature a magical woman taking in some children and setting off with them on fantastical adventures. Walt eventually succeeded in getting Mary Poppins on the big screen, and it goes without saying that it was his final crowning achievement, the culmination of every artistic endeavor he undertook over his forty-year career, a joyous musical extravaganza that deserved every award and accolade, and is pretty darn good too. And then he died, leaving behind a directionless studio and some Sideshow Bob-sized shoes to fill.
During that time where the world mourned and the company coasted on the last bit of Walt’s legacy, his brother, Roy O. Disney, remembered they still had the rights to Mary Norton’s books and thought, “Well we had one big hit turning a fantasy story into a big-budget partly-animated musical, why not do it again?” It’s not all that surprising that the studio would try to reproduce Mary Poppins’ success, especially now that they forced to recreate Walt’s brand of magic without him. In fact, they not only brought back a few actors from Mary Poppins and even the same songwriters, The Sherman Brothers, but Julie Andrews was the studio’s first choice to play Eglantine Price! As is often the case, the final product doesn’t fully measure up to the original, and yet…Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still an utterly fantastic film. Much like its heroine, it’s a plucky little feature up against insurmountable odds and its own overwhelming insecurities, but overcomes them both through sheer conviction. Whether its an apprentice witch trying to save her country from war, or a studio rebuilding itself after losing its beloved founder, you gotta love an underdog story. The film boasts a great cast, some memorable songs, phenomenal special effects, and even works as an interesting companion piece to Mary Poppins. Why is that? Well, just in time for its 50th anniversary (give or take a couple of weeks), let’s find out shall we?
Hi. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? I’ll level with you, on top of the usual burnout, every time I’ve done a By The Cover post, I’m always struck by some kind of bad luck immediately, or something bad happens in the world that affects me personally. Don’t believe me? The last time I did this was in February 2020; do I need to remind you how things went after? Still, I couldn’t resist dragging this series out of mothballs to honor the 30th anniversary of something that’s very much the reason why By The Cover exists at all.
On September 27th 1991, Disney released Simply Mad About The Mouse, a 35-minute collection of music videos featuring some of the most popular artists of the time covering, what else, Disney songs. It’s not the first time a well-known musician has taken Disney classics and made it their own, but none of them ever made a high-profile music video to go with it. These videos were exclusive to the Disney Channel and I remember occasionally hearing the songs on Radio Disney (yeah, remember when Radio Disney was a thing?) The CD version comes with two more songs; En Vogue’s “One Song/Someday My Prince Will Come”, which I already discussed in the first By The Cover, and an instrumental jazz version of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” titled “Mad About The Wolf” by Kirk Whalum – but we’re not here to talk about the CD. I had the VHS tape when I was a kid, and it had me spellbound. Without realizing it, I was introduced to singers who would go on to be some of my all-time favorites. As great as these covers are on their own, each video is a unique experience perfectly tailored to its artists’ genre and style. That tape I had disappeared ages ago, but an acquaintance gifted me a brand-new one after hearing me rave about it, and another friend even ripped me a higher-quality laserdisc copy for my birthday.
As of writing this, the individual songs are available for purchase on most online music stores, but the videos, either as a whole or individually, haven’t been re-released since 1991; it’s not even on Disney Plus. Thankfully, fellow Disney enthusiasts have kept the memory of Simply Mad About The Mouse alive through the magic of YouTube. So come with me as I explore this unearthed musical corner of Disney history and see what makes it worth going mad over.
One of my favorite books from my childhood was Stories From The Sea, a collection of folktales from around the world revolving around one thing:
These stories answered such questions as why the sea is salty, where do storms come from, who Sinbad the Sailor was, and why Disney had the right idea when they altered the ending to The Little Mermaid. More to the point, they introduced me to the wondrous mythical creatures known as selkies. What are selkies, you may ask? STORY TIME!
On a cliff by a shore lived a lonely fisherman. Day in and day out he pulled his nets and sold his fish, but had no wife and children to come home to. Early one morning, the fisherman heard the sounds of singing and laughter coming from the beach. He followed it until he found a group of beautiful women with flowing hair and large brown eyes, naked as the day they were born, dancing on the sand. He saw a pile of discarded seal skins nearby and instantly knew who they were – selkies, the souls of people drowned at sea who could turn themselves into seals.
“And what if I should take one of those wee skins for meself, I wonder?” the fisherman murmured. He snatched up the nearest skin, but one of the selkies saw him and cried out. The others panicked, grabbed their skins and fled into the sea, yelping like seal cubs at dawn as they changed back and swam away. Only the woman whom the fisherman had stole from remained; “Please sir, give me back my skin, I cannot return home without it!” she cried. But the fisherman refused, and told her he would return it to her seven years to the day if she agreed to be his wife. Left with no other choice, the selkie capitulated to him.
They were married and in time she gave him a beautiful son, one who brought light and laughter to her days. But as the years wore on, the selkie grew thin, pale and sickly. Her heart longed for the sea. If she continued on this way, she likely wouldn’t live to see next summer. When the seven years ended, the selkie demanded that her husband return what he promised her, but once again he refused; he was afraid that she would leave him if he gave back her seal skin.
As it so happened, their son wandered into the barn the following morning and found a beautiful, soft coat of silky fur hidden on one of the beams. Inhaling the sweet familiar scent, he knew at once that it belonged to his mother. The selkie was overjoyed when he brought it to her and flew to the shore, wrapping herself in her skin and becoming whole again. The son chased after her, begging her to take him with her. Alas, he was mortal and she was not, so the only thing she could do was give him a small glimpse of her world beneath the waves before returning him home to his father.
The lad grew up into a beloved storyteller with a voice that could make even the most hardened soul weep. On early mornings, one could see him out at sea whispering to a seal in the waves. Some say it was his mother, the selkie, passing on her songs and tales to him; why else would he have the same beautiful brown eyes as she?
I actually bring this tale up because many selkie stories, including today’s movie, follow the same pattern as the aforementioned one. Critics praised Song of the Sea as an original masterpiece, but if you were already familiar with this one story going in, then it’s incredibly easy to spot where things are going. And I’m gonna be honest here…maybe it’s because I know the story so well that I’m not as in love with this movie as most animation aficionados are.
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.