Disney Animated Features - So Relaxing
When I was a youngster, there were the Disney animated feature films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Pinoccio (1940), to name a few. In those days the re-release of one or more of these famous treasures was big news. I would save my allowance or lawn-mowing money for weeks for the priviledge of seeing one. But as time wore on, the artistry and sense of story wore thin, until in the 1980s, it seemed as if Disney's golden age had come and gone.
Then, in the late 1980s, the magic was back with a new kind of animated feature. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Mulan, The Emporer's New Groove, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, WALL.e, as well as many others followed. Below are the features my family has most enjoyed.
My first experience with a modern Disney Animated Feature was with a musical called, The Little Mermaid. Released in 1989, the movie won Oscars for Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song. The story goes something like this:
Ariel, a mermaid princess falls in love with a human prince when she saves him from drowning during a storm. Partially in reaction to her domineering father, Triton, King of the Mer-people, who sternly condemned her attraction to all things human and destroyed her collection of human artifacts, she makes a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, trading her beautiful voice for the privilege of being human for three days. If, during that time, she succeeds in exacting from the human prince the 'kiss of true love', she may remain human. However, if she fails, she must surrender herself to the sea witch and be a slave forever. The sea witch cheats, putting a spell on the prince such that he falls in love with Ursula instead. Learning of this treachery, Ariel enlists the aid of her sea creature friends to reveal Ursula's plan and break her spell. A battle ensues, during which the human prince kills Ursula. The story ends when Ariel's father, Triton, repents of his previous attitude towards humans and makes Ariel permanently human so that she can marry the prince.
So no surprises here. We have a character sympathetic to little girls everywhere. All she wants to do is get her way. And she does. The end. This is the very reason I like movies like this. They are not like life. In life, despite one's best efforts, sometimes things go very awry. Not in a Disney animated feature. You are guaranteed a happy ending with all the loose ends neatly tied. Also the music, although a little on the saccharine side, is really good quality.
Beauty and The Beast (1991) won Oscars for Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song, so once again the music is top notch and this time does an even better job of moving the plot forward. Disney writers did a good job adapting the original fable. Although they reach a little too far perhaps to assure us that the villain is wholly evil at the end so that we can watch him get killed off with a clear conscience, the ending is no less happy for it. A little personal note, while it looks like the beast is dying and the heroine whispers to him, "I love you," I always cry. Never fails. My kids actually watch me well up. It's pathetic.
In the end, the beast has learned the lesson of humility, the villain has gone to his just reward, the spell laid upon the beast, his palace, and his servants has been lifted and - guess what? The beast turns out to be a handsome prince fit for the heroine to marry and go live happily ever after. The end.
In 1992, Aladdin won Oscars for - you guessed it, Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song. In a slight departure, Disney goes with a male protagonist more than a little upstaged by the Genie of the Lamp. The boy, Aladdin, lives by his wits in the street with the help of his adorable - if sometimes ill mannered - monkey, Abu, The sultan's daughter, Princess Jasmine, tired of her pampered, but sheltered life at the palace, escapes for a day of adventure in these self same streets, and meets up with - guess who? Aladdin, who saves her from getting her hand cut off for taking a piece of fruit without paying for it. What does she know? She had everything given to her for her whole life. With Aladdin's help, she escapes. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of the spirit guarding a secret treasure cave in the desert, Aladdin is sought out by the villain, the evil sorcerer, Jafar. Jafar's men capture Aladdin and the Princess. Jafar later apologizes to Jasmine for executing Aladdin. Jasmine, nonplussed at this news, retires to her chamber while Jafar, disguised as an old man, fetches Aladdin from jail, where he has been wishing he was an appropriate suitor for Jasmine, and brings him to the secret treasure cave. The disguised Jafar tells Aladdin that if he can just get this particular lamp which is down there safely from the cave, he will be richly rewarded. The spirit guarding the cave cautions Aladdin to touch nothing but the lamp, but Abu, the monkey, can't resists and grabs a football-sized emerald. A volcanic eruption ensues, and Aladdin and Abu almost escape, but Jafar grabs the lamp and shoves them back into the cave as it slams shut probably forever, so we are led to believe. Down in the cave, it is revealed that the light fingered primate accomplice, Abu, filched the lamp at the last second. They discover the genie, who gets them out of the cave and makes Aladdin a prince so that he can wed Princess Jasmine. Although shame over his roots threatens to derail his express train to success, Aladdin pulls through in the end, defeating the evil Jafar by using his own hunger for power against him. Because of his courageous actions in saving the Sultanate from Jafar, he is awarded the hand of Jasmine and, of course, they live happily ever after until the sequel. (More or less the end.) A little less relaxing than the previous two, but still relaxing.
In 1995, Toy Story hit the theaters and was nominated for Oscars for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, Best Music, Original Song, and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. I am characterizing this as a musical, since it was nominated for a musical film Oscar, however, while musical numbers are used to advance the plot, the characters do not sing.
Exposing the secret life of toys, this joint venture by Disney and Pixar brought computer animation to a new commercial entertainment level. The story here is much more complex than in many other Disney films. We have rivalry, betrayal, mob rule, false pride, false self-image, delusion, abduction, torture, disillusionment, recovery, acceptance, and courage as the two main characters are radically developed in the context of the story. In the end, Woody and Buzz Lightyear have made peace with each other and their own inner demons as well. A movie with that is deceptively deep, with strong messages about identity and trust. For a toy, the last word is, it's all about the kid.
In Hercules, (1997), we see a rougher animation style, purposely left a little raw for a slightly edgier effect. Nominated for Oscar, Best Music, Original Song, but the real treat for me was the gospel quartet that played the Muses. They were hot. The story follows the myth, sort of. At no point in the movie does Hercules murder all of his friends while under madness induced by his father's wife, Hera. Nope, in the Disney version Hera is a loving mother, and all she and Zeus want is for their son, Hercules, to be a success. They are heartbroken when Zeus's homicidally envious brother, Hades, secretly arranges for baby Hercules to be cast to earth and made mortal.
As a kid, Hercules just doesn't fit in. He's too strong, and he breaks everything. So when he's about 14 years old his human adoptive parents let him know the truth - that they are not his biological parents and they found him in the road with a gold medal bearing the sign of Zeus. Thinking that this could explain a lot, Hercules heads out to Zeus's temple, where his big dad brings the statue that is his likeness to life and scares the bejesus out of his boy, but in the process sets him on a quest to become a "true hero." Zeus gives Hercules a flying horse, Pegasus, who is not only excellent transportation, but fills the spot of cute comic animal sidekick very nicely. Hercules goes to Philoctetes, trainer of heroes, where he gets all buffed out, and together they head out in pursuit of hero-hood.
The first person they run into is Megara, a bit of a tarnished love interest who happens to be working for Hades, who owns her soul, and is planning a coup of Mount Olympus. Well, you see the problem. With Megara's aid, however unwilling, Hades sets a number of monsters against Hercules, but to no avail. Hercules defeats them all, and in the process, becomes a celebrity. Hades sends Megara to discover Hercules' weakness, and it is discovered that Megara is Hercules' weakness. Using Megara as a hostage, Hades convinces Hercules to give up his strength for 24 hours, however, Hercules insists that Megara must come to no harm.
Hades sends Cerberus, the cyclops, to kill Hercules. Hercules defeats Cerberus, but in the process, Megara is injured. Hades agreement is shattered and Hercules gets his strength back. Hercules joins the battle on Olympus, where Hades is staging a coup, tilting the scale in favor of the gods. Hades flees in defeat, but takes Megara with him, as she dies of her injuries before Hercules can return. Hercules breaks into the underworld and rescues Megara. Since this was truly a heroic gesture on his part, his godhood is restored, but he turns it down, because he would rather stay on earth and live happily ever after with that oh, so virtuous Megara. Well, good luck with all that, pal.
Sometimes I watch Hercules just so I can hear that gospel quartet open up the first scene in the story proper, as we go climbing up through the clouds to Mount Olympus and the soprano goes climbing up arpeggios into the sky. Then I like the Oscar-nominated song, "Go the Distance," too. Pretty inspiring when you're down.
The story of Mulan (1998), nominated for Oscar for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, loosely follows the tale of a Chinese girl who masqueraded as a boy to join the army and subsequently became one of China's greatest heroes. The story starts with Mulan painting crib notes on her wrist in hopes of remembering the answers to the questions the matchmaker will shortly ask. Late as usual, she gallops her dad's war horse into town just in time to flop miserably at the matchmaker's and leave humiliated. Things get worse, because when she gets home her dad gets re-drafted into the army. Her dad is not well, and Mulan is afraid he'll die serving his country, so that night, she steals his armor and war horse and goes off to join the army. Through a comedy of supernatural errors, she is joined by one of her family's spiritual guardians: Mushu, the miniature dragon, the screw up guardian who is trying to win back his place as a true guardian. Nevertheless, Mushu is somewhat helpful and sometimes unpredictably indispensible as Mulan does indeed become China's greatest hero of her time.
Sometimes I will load the DVD and select the scene and listen to the big song from Mulan, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You," and watch her overcome her lack of upper body strength with sheer willpower one more time. She's one inspiring cartoon character!
In the end, her captain comes to visit her at home. There was a little romantic tension there. As usual, Mulan takes charge of the situation. The end.
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Toy Story 2 used music to advance the plot much less than its predecessor yet was nominated in 1999 for an Oscar for Best Song for the tear jerker, "When She Loved Me." One of the few sequels to Disney animated features worth watching, this tale starts when Woody is stolen by a toy collector while trying to rescue a fellow toy from their family's yard sale. Buzz Lightyear leads the remaining toys on a hilarious hunt, stealing a delivery truck that they drive as a team to the toy store owned by the collector. There they meet Barbie, who is very helpful, another Buzz who still thinks he is the real Buzz Lightyear, and Buzz Lightyear's arch enemy, Evil Emperor Zurg, a ball-firing villain reminiscent of Darth Vader. They descend on the high rise apartment owned by the toy thief.
Meanwhile, Woody is cleaned up to mint condition and made ready for sale to a collector in Japan. The toy thief has assembled a complete set of toys which are, in fact, action figures for an old western TV show. These toys show Woody his heritage. The cowgirl, Jessie, relates her experience of being abandoned by her girl, and Woody is swayed. He, too, wonders how long it will be before his boy, Andy, abandons him for some more grown-up toy.
When the rest of Andy's toys (and additions) arrive to rescue Woody, Woody needs convincing. Nevertheless they succeed, but not before the toy thief returns. Boxed up and packed in a suitcase, it's off to the airport. But Buzz and friends, undaunted, rescue Woody and his horse from the baggage conveyor belt. Left behind (again) is Jessie, but Woody and Buzz, riding Woody's horse, use a lasso and a leap of faith to complete her rescue from the cargo hold of a jet.
Very satisfying action, all the heroes come out fine, and the villains are left gnashing their teeth in the outer emptiness, no one dies. Cool.
An unabashed comedy, The Emperor's New Groove (2000) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, a piece sung by Sting. This is just plain funny. The chemistry is great between the two leads, the villain is the best since Cruella de Ville, and the timing of the gags is sublime. Every kind of basic humor you could wish for: slap stick, "Who's on first?" style interchanges, sight gags, Stella and Mira style gags, bait and switch, you name it. It really is a laugh a minute. The story begins when Emperor Kuzco fires his adviser, Yzma, who turns him into a llama during an assassination attempt. Yzma's servant, the burly, but goodhearted Kronk, is charged with whacking the llama over the head, taking it outside the city, and killing it. There is a mix-up when Kronk is startled and loses control of the bag containing the llama emperor, which bounces down a set of stairs and into the back of a wagon belonging to Pacha, a peasant. Pacha unwittingly brings the emperor far into the interior. The rest of the story is all about Pacha and Kuzco trying to get Kuzco back into his palace and human again while Yzma and Kronk pursue. Kuzco starts off as completely self centered, but Pacha's continual insistence that there is a little good in everyone is eventually proven true. In the end, Kronk is leader of a troop of boy and girl scouts, Yzma has been transformed into a harmless kitten with a bad attitude, and Kuzco is back on the throne, though a kinder and gentler emperor than before. Pacha has returned to his former peasant life, except that now the emperor has a summer house next door, and the emperor has adopted Pacha's family as his own. The end.
The Incredibles (2004) won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Sound Editing, and was nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Best Screenplay. Personally I think this movie has one of the best soundtracks I ever heard. Sometimes I load the DVD just so I can listen to the music that goes along with the credits.
The story begins on a busy day for Mr. Incredible. That afternoon he rescues a cat from a tree, stops a robber's getaway car, apprehends a mugger, foils a suicide attempt, nearly foils a bank robbery (thwarted in his efforts by a child fan named 'Buddy'), stops a subway train headed for a crash, and marries Elastigirl. After that, things take a radical turn for the worse. Mr. Incredible is sued by the attempted suicide and the injured passengers of the train he saved from crashing. A general backlash against superheroes forces them underground, to try to blend with society. Mr. Incredible, now stuck in his mild mannered alter ego, Bob Parr, is less than successful, traveling from town to town and job to job as he repeatedly blows his cover to fight evil or to help the weak. Fifteen years pass.
Bob and Helen (Elastigirl) Parr now have three kids and a house in suburbia. The two older children, Violet and Dash, have superpowers and issues. The baby, Jack Jack, has no superpowers and seemingly no issues. Bob is at least 50 lbs. overweight and as a hobby listens to police scanners for chances to secretly be a superhero again.
Inevitably, Bob's employment implodes and he is left to try to find work. He feels he cannot tell his wife. When he discovers a package with a secret message offering big money for hero work, he jumps at the chance. The chance at first seems golden, but ends up being fan Buddy's revenge. Buddy, now Syndrome, has invented weapons formidable enough to defeat Mr. Incredible, and he does defeat him and imprisons him in a tropical island volcano fortress.
Elastigirl learns of Bob's plight and reluctantly dons her super suit to rescue her man from his own folly, but when she borrows a jet, her older kids stow away. Syndrome sees them coming and blasts them from the sky with heat seeking missiles. The Incredibles survive the attack, however, and make it to the island, where, working as a team, they defeat Syndrome's forces, only to be defeated by Syndrome himself. Yet, they regroup, and confronting Syndrome back on the mainland, use all their powers in concert to defeat their enemy at last. Syndrome dies in a ball of flame while being sucked into a turbojet engine. Not the worst way to go, I guess.
In the end, Bob realizes that his family is his greatest adventure; Helen realizes that people need to be themselves; Violet, formerly shy, now confident; Dash, formerly repressed, now finding at least a partial outlet in sports; and Jack Jack, his powers revealed, taking his place in the family. The end.
In 2008, WALL.e won the Oscar for Best Animated Film of the Year and was nominated for Best Musical Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Writing. We meet the main character, a clean-up robot, model WALL.e, as he goes through his day. His job is to pick up the trash and put it in piles. He has obviously been doing his job a long time, since the trash heaps are now as tall as the surrounding buildings. He is alone, except for the other lone survivor on this desolate, trash-covered, dust storm riven planet, Earth: a big cockroach. WALL.e collects things like hub caps, light bulbs, Rubic's cubes. One day he finds a plant growing inside an abandoned refrigerator. He scoops up the plant with some dirt, plants it in an old work boot and takes it to his home.
One day a spaceship lands and a small, clean, white robot gets out and starts looking around. The robot scans here and there, and WALL.e follows it. The robot turns out to be lethally armed and WALL.e is nearly destroyed when it fires at him. Later, they have a brief interaction, and the audience discovers that it is a she robot. Her name is EVA. So the love interest begins. He takes her back to his place, but when she scans the plant, alarms go off and she seizes it and draws it inside herself. She then shuts down, much to WALL.e's discomfort. He sits with her day after day and night after night, but there's no change. At last the space ship returns and takes EVA with it, but not before WALL.e hitches a ride.
In case you haven't seen this movie, I'll stop here. It is still pretty new. Suffice it to say it is a fine movie with a timely message about consumption and waste, not to mention love - and dancing!
And we all lived happily ever after.
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