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?
It may come as a shock to my fellow readers, but I like animation a lot.
So I tend to keep up to date on forthcoming animated projects, especially if it’s hand-drawn animation. One thing I was excited for that seemed to fall through the cracks for most of the 2010s was an independent animated film that finally premiered to great acclaim on Netflix in 2019: Klaus.
The story of Klaus begins with Sergio Pablos, a Disney animator during the 90s Renaissance who struck out on his own after working on Treasure Planet. He did some writing and character design work for assorted films and also created Despicable Me (which I’m not holding against him because one, he couldn’t possibly predict the juggernaut Minions-being-crammed-down-our-throats-24/7 franchise it’d become, and two, apparently his more creative ideas for the first movie were shot down by executives in order to fit the Illumination mold). Pablos still held a passion for traditional animation deep in his heart, however, and founded SPA Studios in his home country of Spain to try to keep the art form alive. Moreover, he wanted to help it evolve so it could stand toe-to-toe with today’s computer animated films while keeping its handcrafted feel.
Believe it or not, Pablos’ first project was one most distributors he approached considered a huge risk: a Christmas movie, specifically a re-imagining of Santa Claus’ origins. Sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? Making a Christmas movie is no big gamble if you’re on something like Hallmark, they churn out eight of those a week; the mainstream market, on the other hand, is saturated with classic holiday films. Your Christmas feature would have to be something really special to stand out – and boy does Klaus stand out. I mean, no disrespect to computer animation, but after years of CG-animated films that start to blend into each other after a while, seeing fresh traditional cinematic animation is a palate cleanser for the eyes and the soul. Pablos also came through on taking hand-drawn animation to the next level. The studio developed software that renders detailed light and shadow on to the finished animation. How detailed, you may ask?
It’s like a reverse Paperman: instead of CGI that closely resembles 2D animation, it’s 2D animation that resembles highly-detailed CGI. So that on top of backgrounds that are Currier & Ives by way of Maurice Noble, and characters that are some of the most endearing in ages, that are part a story that puts on a fun yet heartfelt spin on a familiar plot that really puts you in the Christmas spirit…
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?
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.
Hi everyone! I hope you’re having a great summer so far! You’ve told me about what movies you want me to finally take a look at yourselves, so we’ll be taking a break from the voting system and celebrating six years of Up On The Shelf with a pre-chosen review party that’s going to be over a year long! I want to thank everyone who’s supported the blog for this long by sharing how the new review schedule looks for the time being, as well as who requested what. Mark your calendars and rev up your streaming service/media player of choice, because here’s how things are going down:
January ’23: The Little Mermaid (Ben Walderberger)
I’d like to add that in addition to these film reviews, I’ll be posting a review of every episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre each month. Expect the first shortly after this August’s review is done. See you then!
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.
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?
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Hold it for three seconds. And as you slowly exhale, say to yourself:
Henry Selick directed Coraline, not Tim Burton.
Henry Selick directed Coraline, not Tim Burton.
HENRY SELICK DIRECTED CORALINE, NOT TIM BURTON.
“Shelf? You got something you want to get off your chest before the review?”
“Yes indeedy do, Cynicism.”
I was waiting in line to meet Neil Gaiman at a Barnes and Noble book signing and a group of people behind me kept parroting a certain widespread falsehood to each other that drives me up a wall. Coraline was Henry Selick’s long-anticipated return to form after Monkeybone, and the film was advertised as being from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. HOWEVER, since that film tends to have Tim Burton’s name preceding its title, people often assume that he directed it. Ergo, those folks assumed Tim Burton directed Coraline and proceeded to bombard me with facts they pulled out of fat air to back themselves up. Never mind that a two-second glance at Wikipedia on their phones could have cleared all this up. And never mind that by attributing this stunning fantasy-horror masterpiece that Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro wish they could have invented to the wrong man further pushes whom I consider the Chuck Jones of stop-motion animation into undeserved obscurity.
I corrected them on their erroneous assumption and pointed out that the genius we were about to meet would most likely agree with me as he himself has been trying to dispel this notion for the past decade. But they stubbornly refused to listen. No, these idiots, with all the bullheaded conviction of a staunch flat-earther, were determined to prove that Tim Burton really helmed Coralne. After all, what would Neil Gaiman, the man who wrote the book Coraline was based on and handpicked Henry Selick himself to direct the movie, know about it anyway? I quickly gave up and tried to focus on not word vomiting once I finally got to shake hands with my all-time favorite writer. In the end, I walked away with a copy of The Art of Neil Gaiman signed with a very encouraging message from the man himself, and no doubt the losers behind me ended up doing the walk of shame after Gaiman the Mighty lay waste to their narrow minds and dealt their egos an irreparable blow.
Anyways, I love Coraline. I love the animation, I love its creativity, I love most of the characters, I love how it doesn’t cop out when it comes to the scary elements, and I love how this was my introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work and to Laika Animation. As someone who is always eager to support new original animated films, I will forever kick myself for not seeing it in its original theatrical 3D because the visuals, well, they pop.
“In our defense, it was halfway through freshman year of college and we were too busy trying to stay on top of everything. Not to mention something as simple as a trip to the movies could have bankrupted us then.”