My Take on Darkness in Disney

One thing which has been continually  brought up on the blog is the issue of darkness or evil in a movie and when does it cross the line into disturbing and violent.  It’s a hard question to answer to be honest.  It is kind of a ‘I know it when I see it’  situation but I will try to explain.

Few things to keep in mind.

1.  I am not a fan of scary movies or horror- I personally do not like the sensation of being scared, never have, never will.  I recognize that is my personal preference and there is nothing inherently wrong with horror movies, but everyone comes to movie viewing with a set of likes and dislikes such as disliking musicals or romantic comedies.  I am Legend, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark are about as scary as I get.

Even a very popular super hero franchise is too scary and intense for my taste.  I find violent content sticks in my brain and I have a hard time getting rid of it.

2. I am also a deeply religious person with conservative values so some things I do not care for because it crosses a line between ghost story and evil such as exorcism movies. I can’t really take off that hat because it’s who I am so I can only look at films through that perspective and try to learn from others who see through a different lens (that’s the whole point of blogging like this!).

Ghost stories are usually OK-

What I mean by this is a story can be set in an all dark world, a ghostly world and it usually is pretty good.  For example, I like:

Corpse Bride-

corpse bride

ParaNorman-paranorman-hero2

Nightmare Before Christmas-The_Nightmare_Before_Christmas121510

Spirited Away-

spirited away

These types of movies are not as upsetting to children or me because they are entirely within their world so the characters become likable and have nuances within the darkness.  There is usually a protagonist in these types of movies who is very easy to relate to despite their crazy environment.

Coraline I wasn’t as big a fan of not because of the images but I felt the story dragged and I didn’t feel that connection to the lead I needed for the dark imagery.

Good vs Evil is OK-

Many children stories are about the battle of good vs evil and I think that is great.  Kids should not grow up believing the world is gumdrops and rainbows.  In fact, being a religious person an understanding of Satan and evil is very important with of course an understanding of Christ and His goodness to compliment it.

I think that balance is the key to my liking a good vs evil movie.  There should be hope throughout the film mixed in with moments of real peril.  When it is all evil, evil, evil, evil and then finally the good guy wins I grow frustrated.

One of the great things about the Harry Potter movies is evil is a real palatable force but there is always hope, friendship, love and kindness.

voldemort harry potter2

The Wicked Witch of the West is a pretty scary villain.  It is unclear how Dorthy is going to make it out of the situation alive. I know kids where Wizard of Oz is too much for them, so a lot of this depends on the kid (or adult watching).  I would say Wizard of Oz pushes the line for small children but she is so over-the-top to be almost more funny than scary that I think it’s fine for most kids.  Most of the Disney villains fall into the category of the Wicked Witch.  They are villains but so over-the-top that they don’t bring us down but entertain us with their evil ways.  The heroine or hero is never completely without hope and there are enough moments of peace and safety to make it all work.wicked witch

Return to Oz on the other hand did not work for me and petrified me as s child.  It’s one thing to have a wicked witch.  It’s another to have a witch who has a hallway of her collection of heads, with wheelies and electroshock therapy on Dorothy.  That’s crossing the line and it gave me nightmares as a little girl.

return to oz

Don’t be mean spirited!-

You’ve heard me say on the blog, particularly about The Rescuers, is I thought it was a ‘mean spirited’ film.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it goes back to tone.  Villains can exist and should exist in a movie, especially a fairytale but when a character is picked on to the point of being an unempowered victim than the movie starts to lose me.  Penny is treated so badly in The Rescuers.  She is told she is worthless, unadoptable, homely, shot at several times, and forced to go down the cave.  To me there is no sense of empowerment or hope for the character.  It’s just beat her, beat her, beat her until she is rescued.  That’s where it crosses the line to me and becomes mean spirited, when it loses its hope.

medusa-and-penny

So not only do you have to get the right kind of villain but you have to use them in the right dosage.  Rescuers Down Under I loved because it kept its hope and used McLeach very little- just enough to be menacing without being shrill or overbearing.

Again, this is just my perspective but I thought it might helpful when reading my blog.   I was scared of Medusa (not in the good way) as a little girl because nothing that happens in The Rescuers (except for the mice rescuing Penny) is really that outrageous.  It could totally happen and probably has happened that a little girl has been abducted by mean people to help them with a task like going down the cave (or some other scheme to make money).

The music and color palate can also have a big influence on creating tone (and nothing is harder as a writer than creating the right tone).   The Rescuers had music which made me feel even worse for Penny and it was all very unpleasant.  Not exciting, funny or shocking like a good creepy villain or scary scene will do.

In Rescuers Down Under Cody immediately has friends when he’s abducted and there is a hope and light that makes it less dark and mean spirited.

Pinocchio was too far over the line for me as a child.  Pleasure Island is very disturbing and no resolution is ever made.  Evil is not defeated, the kids are never changed back to kids from being donkeys.  This was terrifying.  It has only been as an adult I can appreciate it for the morality play it is but I still couldn’t give it an A because I just know I didn’t enjoy it as a child and that has to count for something.

The thing about Pinocchio is it also maintains its tone throughout, which was terrifying as a child but as an adult I can appreciate it more; whereas, other movies try to swing around more and so they aren’t pleasant as an adult or a child.  Pinocchio does have Jimminy but for most of the movie it is a dark, scary tone.  I hated it as a child but like it all right now.

donkeys

Don’t Be R Rated in G Rated Film-

Occasionally a film will come out using childlike themes or settings but for adults.  I think this is great! A perfect example is Pan’s Labyrinth.  I admire Guillermo del Toro for not trying to wedge his vision into a G rated movie but just making the hard R he wanted to make.  I wish Disney would at least once be brave enough to make an adults only movie.  I think with Hunchback the artists wanted to but the studio toned it down creating a tonal mess.

pans labyrinth

I was lucky enough to be somewhat sheltered as a child and it served me quite well.  While I think it is healthy for children to learn about evil and that bad things can happen there are certain subjects I don’t feel a little boy or girl needs to know about until they are older.  Rape and violent murder are in that discussion.  That was my main issue with Hunchback.  I do not want to have to explain to my 7-year-old about lust, rape, assault and burning a family alive.  To me that crosses a line which kids don’t need to cross.  It doesn’t make them a better person or inspire their imagination like a Wizard of Oz or a Nightmare Before Christmas.

Like I said before, there are also certain things because of my religious views that I don’t really want to explain to children until they are older.  For example, in Princess in the Frog the villain is a voodoo man (won’t give away my review).  If I had kids that would be a concern for me because I don’t really want them to know about voodoo, possession, exorcism, heathen practices.  My parents would never let us play with Ouija boards for the same reason.  I recognize everyone does not have the same beliefs but those are mine and they affect my enjoyment of a movie.

Kids can be Sad-

You might think I only like movies which are happy Christian films and that is not the case.  I love movies that take children’s feelings seriously.  It is fine for children to be sad and to learn about themselves as full people.  I love Where the Wild Things Are and many people feel that is a depressing picture but I remember being that thoughtful, sometimes sad kid, wondering about life. wild things areI wrote up a defense of Where the Wild Things Are on my other blog:

http://smilingldsgirl.com/2014/02/20/where-the-wild-things-are-defended/

But it also gets a bit of a pass for me because like Pans Labyrinth it wasn’t really marketed or made for kids.  There are moments which are kid-like but they are still enjoyable to adults not like the gargoyles made clearly to appeal to only kids.   If I had kids I would have to weigh the type of child and maturity levels (and ability to handle a slower paced movie) before watching Where the Wild Things Are..

I love stories about people who don’t feel at home in their environment, who break free and find out who they really are.  That’s why I love The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Where the Wild Things Are . I could go on and on…

Who Knows…

Perhaps when I have kids I will go even further away from darker pictures.  I don’t know but I know what I like now, what I liked as a child and how certain pictures come off to me.  If I say something feels mean-spirited or hateful it doesn’t mean I don’t like darkness in children’s films.  I’ve just given you a number dark films I do like.  It just means that on the particular day with that particular film it was too much.  It was too hateful. It was too mean.

I think part of it also has to do with having been bullied as a child badly.   I know people roll their eyes know when they hear bullying stories but it was a profound experience in my life.  I guess that’s why I am more sensitive to situations where I feel a character is being victimized not merely threatened.

I also know I have become softer and less tolerant in some ways as an adult.  A few years ago I reread a bunch of Roald Dahl books I loved as a child and they seemed very violent to me.  I was shocked.  So, who knows! I just do my best to give and defend my responses and what I would feel if I had a daughter viewing the films.

That’s all I can do and I’m having a great time doing it, so thanks for reading!

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And I realize I am probably in the minority and a bit of a wimp in these views but it’s me and hopefully I still have positive things to say about any movie even if I don’t like the dark tones (no F’s yet! Always something I like).

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Movie 36: Mulan

Movie_poster_mulanIf you are reading all of my reviews you will remember my recent thoughts about Pocahontas.  I was not a big fan.  I felt the characters were more caricatures and everything was very predictable.  It also bothered me a little bit that the Powhatan tribe had tried to help Disney tell the true story and they had been denied that opportunity and hated the end picture.

So, now we have Mulan= also telling a non-Caucasian ethnic group’s female legend story.  Am I going to dislike it too?

Nope! I really enjoy Mulan.

mulan and li shang

The reason Mulan works better than Pocahontas is it has a layered and more complex lead character and aside from Mushu, it doesn’t try to teach Westerners or talk down to them.  This is a story about a Chinese girl and all that she meets and interacts with are Chinese.  Some of them are meant for humor but it is never cold and degrading.  At least not to me.

I did look online for about an hour to see if I could find any blogs of Chinese or Chinese Americans who hated the film but for the most part it was all positive.  (There were some hard-core feminists who still found fault with it. Geesh!).

Most of the movie is about Mulan fitting in and finding her place in the army.  And that it does very well.

The Production-

Mulan was released in 1998 and it was conceived as a way to appeal to the Chinese market.  Lion King had been a huge success there and Disney was on thin ice with the government because of their funding of a live action movie about the Dali Lama in Tibet.

They took a poem called The Song of Fa Mu Lan and a book called China Doll and combined them together to get the story.  Many scenes like the emperor’s palace were studied by the artists to be authentic.

They also used new technology made by Pixar to create thousands of soldiers in the battle scenes and they hold up very well- better than most CGI at that time.

huns

They also do a good job teaching kids about the costs of war without showing death, wounds, blood etc.

war

Such scenes give the film real heart and gravity without becoming overbearing or too much for children.

It has some problems but overall I really like it.

The score was written by Jerry Goldsmith with songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel.  It only has 4 songs and 1 reprise but they are a lot of fun.

The Story-

The Huns have attacked the Great Wall and word has gone out to the Emperor who decides to gather together an army to defeat the invaders.

Meanwhile Mulan is getting ready to appear before the matchmaker and be approved as a bride.  We get our first of 4 songs which sets a nice tone and helps us understand Mulan’s predicament (kind of like Belle in Beauty and the Beast).

The matchmaking ceremony does not go well and Mulan seems devastated.  It reminds me of Ariel in Little Mermaid- a girl not at home in her world, her body.   If you haven’t gathered I love when that storyline is in a movie . I relate to it so much.   I think a lot of girls do.

Desperate for a sense of belonging Mulan sings one of the better 90s Disney ballads sung beautifully by Lea Salonga (who was also Jasmine’s singing voice)

My favorite part of the character Mulan is how well- rounded and  interesting she is.  She doesn’t always behave the way you expect her too.  She isn’t just willful and disobedient (like an Ariel wouldn’t have even shown up to the matchmakers).  She’s trying to do what she is told but it isn’t working.  Same is true in the army.  She never has to be rescued at any point in the movie (actually her lowest is after the matchmaker, not after battle.  Love that!).

The main catalyst for the movie starts with Mulan’s father Fa Zhou being asked to fight in the war against the Huns.  Mulan tries to speak in his behalf but in doing so she shames him.  With her father unwilling to dishonor himself or listen to her she takes matters into her own hands (also like Ariel) and sneaks off in his armor to join the army, as a man

The music and staging of this scene almost reminds me of an 80s action movie.  (Pat Morita of Kirate Kid fame is the emperor in this movie btw).

Mulan’s ancestors hear of her leaving and accidentally send a dragon lizard to support her instead of a stone dragon.  These ancestors are a little bit cringe-worthy but they are in the movie so briefly that I don’t think anyone will be offended by them.ancestors

The lizards name is Mushu, and he is the Genie of the movie, the fast talking comic relief voiced by Eddie Murphy.  To be honest, I much prefer his voice work here to the Shrek movies.  It is less shouty and the writing is less crude.

mushu and ping

Arriving at the training camp Mulan muddles her way along, pretending to be a man, and learning to be a soldier.  The fellow soldiers are a lot of fun and her trainer Li Shang (singing voice by Donny Osmond believe it or not) is tough without being too mean for kids.

army friends

I really like everything about this musical number:

There is also a very funny scene where all the soldiers surprise Mulan as she is bathing! This is good physical comedy

They end up going off to battle to try and help Li Shang’s father and we get our last song- A Girl Worth Fighting For.

but they have been caught and destroyed.  Just then they are ambushed by the huns and we get our battle.

This is probably a good point to bring up Mulan’s greatest weakness as a movie- the villain.  I watched it twice today and I still had no idea what his name is or anything else about him except he is a Hun.  Even Edgar in the Aristocats had more personality than this guy.  I’m going to say it- worst Disney villain ever. Honestly his hawk is less bland.

shan yu

But in the battle with nameless villain army Mulan saves the day by creating an avalanche with a rocket but in celebrating she is wounded.   Her secret is of course out as she is bandaged up.  We get the classic ‘liar reveal’ story trope but it isn’t played to hard and Li Shang is angry but does not kill Mulan because she just saved his life.

The storytelling clips along so well in the movie.  Hardly anything drags and I think that’s what makes it work so well even with a predictable moment like the liar reveal.

Mulan is left in disgrace and the army pushes forward to the Emperor.  But as she mounts her horse Mulan see’s some of the Huns survived the avalanche and are heading towards the city. Racing Mulan warns Li Shang but he still feels betrayed by her and won’t listen, and the Huns take over the palace.

Through some creative thinking Mulan rallies the troops and they are able to defeat the Huns.  I can’t imagine a kid in the world not enjoying this scene.  It’s exciting, funny, and even with a lame villain it still works:

In a great moment Mulan is honored by the Emperor for her bravery and quick thinking.

Finally at the end we see Li Shang has forgiven Mulan and come to visit.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

The movie is actually really rich and deep in its characters.  I didn’t even go into the soldiers who are all funny, Mulan’s Grandma, a cute cricket, and a crotchety assistant to the emperor.  We meet a lot of people yet the movie doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded.  It is about a girl in the army so it is appropriate to have a large cast.  Perhaps this makes up for having the lamest Disney villain?

Mulan is kind of like Tangled in a way.  Both movies were made to please both boys and girls instead of the girl movie/boy movie philosophy so often employed by Disney.  I think it completely succeeds in that appeal.  Boys will like the action and humor from the soldiers and Mushu.

mulan

Girls will like Mulan because she can be their first warrior princess (ok.  She’s not a princess but you know what I mean).  Mulan is layered and interesting.  She is unselfish but not without flaws.  In fact, I think Mulan is one of Disney’s most dynamic characters.

Like I said, really my only flaw is the villain.  I think one or two scenes giving him some personality would help the movie.  As it is, the film certainly isn’t ruined by its villain.

The songs are more of the Aladdin/Lion King pop vibe, but I like them and the ancestors scenes are really the only cringe-worthy segments, which is saying a lot for Disney in an ethnic movie (usually not their strong suit).

They also do a good job blending in the traditional Chinese watercolors with the animation (see Girl Worth Fighting For…).  The backdrops are also beautifully drawn with a watercolor flair.  There are a lot of little touches like that which help it feel rich and textured.

But mainly I just like the character of Mulan a lot.  She is definitely one of my favorites.

Overall Grade- A 

Guilty Pleasure Movies

Since I just reviewed my guilty pleasure Disney movie, Hercules, thought you guys might enjoy reading about some other movies fall into that category. Enjoy! And share some of yours.

Smilingldsgirl's Weblog

Yesterday my friends over at Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys) posted a list of their favorite guilty pleasure movies.

http://jordanandeddie.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/top-10-guilty-pleasure-movies-eddies-take/

I commented on Eddie’s choice of Pearl Harbor, one of my least favorite movies, and it got me thinking.  What movies do I know aren’t great but I have an affection for?

The guys lists are:

Eddie- Phantom Tollbooth, Mouse hunt, Transformers, The Mummy, Pearl Harbor, Death Race, Con Air, Deep Blue Sea, Ave Ventura Pet Detective, Hot Rod

Jordan- Doom, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Doomsday, Kung Pow: Enter the Fists, Mallrats, Bad Taste, Mother of Tears, Man with Two Brains, My Name is Bruce, Resident Evil Franchise (I haven’t seen a single one of Jordan’s choices).

Jordan describes a guilty pleasure as- “There those endlessly rewatchable treats that appeal to some and are despised by others, usually nestled somewhere between bad and terrible”

It was tougher…

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Movie 35: Hercules

Hercules_(1997_film)_posterI guess if there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure Disney movie, Hercules is mine.  I know it’s got lots of problems and is probably drawn for Saturday morning airing more than a feature film but I love the music and it makes me laugh.  What’s it to you?’ 😉

Production-

It should be obvious to any Disney fan that Hercules was trying to copy off of Aladdin- male lead, pop culture references,  lack of regard for traditional story or setting, and bright colors.  They even have the same directors with Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm.

Interestingly enough they made a deal with Jeffrey Katzenberg to make Hercules so they could get their dream project Treasure  Planet greenlit (didn’t know that!).

Their goal was to put Disney’s stamp on a superhero movie- kind of a Disney comic book movie.  That’s why everything is so bright and vivid like the comic books and comic book movies of the 90s (for better or worse! Batman and Robin- yikes!.

They also brought in Gerald Scarfe who had done Pink Floyd’s The Wall to help them get a new take on the characters, and I think they are unlike any in Disney history.  Very angular and comic book-like.

autographs

Scarfe’s influence also helped them see outside the box and give a Greece by way of Las Vegas vibe with a little bit of gospel thrown in and I just find it fun and original.  I can see why it might turn others off, but it worked for me.

muses

The music is where I am completely sold.  Who knew Alan Menken had gospel inside him?  If you look at the differences between his music it is pretty remarkable.  He can do reggae in  Under the Sea, Broadway in Beauty and the Beast, pop in Aladdin, choral in Hunchback and now gospel.  The man is amazing!

The singers are also excellent with the muses played perfectly by gospel singers Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman and Vaneese Y.  Thomas.

I also love Susan Egan as Megura who Disney debuted as Belle in the broadway version of Beauty and the Beast in 1994.  She’s a richer, fuller sounding woman than Disney had ever used and I love it.

Everyone sounds like they are from Brooklyn but again it’s part of the humor.  For me Hercules did what the Shrek films couldn’t.  It is funny without getting obscene or crass.

The Story-

The story is where the film is admittedly weak, so I won’t dwell on this.  If you don’t love the music and think the writing is funny nothing in the story will convince you to stick around I can guarantee you that.

It starts with Charlton Heston narrating our Greek tragedy:

We quickly are introduced to our cast of characters.  We’ve got Haedes, God of the Underworld who is voiced by James Woods in a hilarious homage to all the villains he’s played before.  Everyone in this movie is very sarcastic so you have to like that kind of humor:

hercules hades 2 thumbs up
In one funny scene Hades gives his plan 2 thumbs up and Siskel and Ebert only gave it 1

Hades has 2 goons and they are Pain and Panic personified.  Literally that’s their names and what they are.

pain and panicI thought they were very funny.  They find ways of switching into sweet cuddly Disney creatures throughout, which I loved.  (Disney takes a lot of cracks at its own image in this movie)

Hercules crittersThere are also 3 fates who work with Hades and they have a string and when it is cut a person dies.

MSDHERC EC016

Hades stumbles in on Zeus and Hera’s party welcoming their baby Hercules into immortality. I like that Zeus is friendly with Hades.  He wants him to lighten up!

haedes and zeussInstead Hades sends  Pain and Panic to abduct Hercules and turn him into a mortal but he doesn’t drink the last drop of the hero potion so he stays strong like an immortal.

parents

Just like with Superman a nice couple find Hercules and try to raise him but he can’t control his strength and literally topples the entire town columns and all.

Hercules goes to meet his real father Zeus and he talks to him as a statue. He finds out he must be a true hero to be a God like his father

meeting zeusZeus tells Hercules to find Philoctetes or ‘Phil’ and he will teach him to be a ‘true hero’.  We get our  ‘Oscar-bait’ song Go the Distance which is ok. I wish it was the muses singing it instead!

The two meet but he is retired and not interested.  He is too heartbroken by Achilles and his darn heel!  Ha.

I can see if you don’t find Danny Devito’s performance funny than you will have issues.  I liked it.

Hercules-hercules-1854238-720-536

When he is about to finish his training Hercules meets Megura, who, again, I just love.  She is sassy, smart, funny and pretty. Something new and unusual in a Disney female lead.  Love it!

I also love that Hercules has the instant love but Megura totally doesn’t.  She thinks he’s the ‘wonder boy’ for a long time and it takes a while to wear her down.  Love that!

We find out why because she is working begrudgingly with Hades because she sold her soul to him to save her ex-boyfriend who left her afterwards!  (Again, kind of a clever take on the Disney woman)

Hades-and-Megara

Finally his training finished, Hercules arrives in Thebes which is basically Greek Las Vegas with traffic and even guys trying to sell you cheap sundials.

sun dial

At first the people reject Hercules as an amateur hero, and then he gets a chance to save 2 boys who are really Pain and Panic in disguise.  This gives Hades the opportunity to corner Hercules with his Hydra monster.  This scene does not hold up graphic-wise (whenever they relied on CGI in the 90s it doesn’t look great now. Makes me wonder how things like Avatar will look in 20 years)

Hercules becomes a hero, Disney style.  There is even a theme park and merchandise.   Pain and Panic are even shown sporting his gear.

merchandisemerchandise2For a stoic company like Disney to make so many jokes it is refreshing.  There are quick moments you might not even notice like a scene where Hercules is wearing Scar from Lion King

hercules scar

Figuring being so well known, Hercules asks his Dad if he is a true hero and he is told no “being famous is not a true hero”.

Meanwhile Hades forces Meg to flirt with Hercules to try and discover his weak-spot.  Trouble is she is falling for him.  He’s so innocent and sweet that it is making her nuts.  We get one of the best girl songs in all of Disney

Hades discovers watching the flirting that Meg is Hercules weakness and he says she must obey him as part of their deal.  Phil overhears this conversation and he tries to warn Hercules Meg is up to no good.  He becomes angry with Phil and the two part ways.

Hercules confronts Hades and agrees to give up his immortality for 24 hours as long as Meg isn’t hurt.  Meg tries to stop him but does it anyway and then he finds out Meg and Hades have been working together.

With Hercules nullified Hades unleashes the Titans which are admittedly weak and their destruction goes on too long.   He also imprisons all the Gods and takes over ruling the heavens.

titans

The cyclops tries to kill Hercules and at first he is letting himself get beaten.  Meg see’s this and gets Phil in hopes he can inspire Hercules to fight back.   It works and Hercules fights and defeats the cyclops as a normal man but Meg is crushed by a pillar.

Hercules hold pillar over his headThis breaks Hades promise of not hurting Meg so Hercules can defeat the Titans and release the Gods.

Unfortunately Meg dies before Hercules can get back to her so he goes to the Underworld to confront Hades. Hercules makes Hades an offer to swap places with Meg.  I love the design of the Underworld . My guess is Scarfe had a big influence in this scene:

Hercules can’t be killed because he has proven himself a true hero who loves more than himself.

Hercules and meg underworld

He puts the spirit back into Meg and reunites with his parents.

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Of course, he realizes he wouldn’t be happy in immortal world without his love Meg and he agrees to live with her on earth instead.

And we get a very good Disney kiss!

hercules kiss

And we get a closing out with a great song from the muses!  It may be my favorite of the movie

Movie Review/Conclusion-

As I was typing up that analysis it made me realize there is a lot more going on in Hercules than I initially gave it credit for.  Maybe the story isn’t so bad after all?

But I don’t think many people are going to like Hercules because of the story.  It’s kind of like Robin Hood.  If you find the one liners funny you will like this movie.  If you don’t it will be rough going.

Same goes for gospel music.  If you aren’t a fan than the movie won’t do much for you.  It is kind of like Fantasia is to classical music.  If it isn’t your favorite you probably won’t like the movie which relies so much on it.

I guess it’s something different from Disney which felt refreshing and it made me laugh. I know it isn’t the prettiest to look at and the story is Superman all over again but what can I say we all have our guilty pleasures and on that level it has a lot going for it.

So if it sounds like your cup of tea give it another watching.  You might be surprised!

Overall Grade- B

ps, I can do without Go the Distance especially the Michael Bolton version…The 90’s and ballads were rough!

Movie 34: Hunchback of Notre Dame

The_Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame-_1996If you had asked me going into this project what my least favorite Disney movie is I would have said Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Indeed when I asked my friends on facebook and instagram what their least favorite was Hunchback and Pocahontas were at the top of the list:

friendsTo my knowledge I don’t know anyone personally who likes Hunchback (I’m sure they will come out of the woodwork since I said that but I did ask and nobody defended it).   And yet online it has lots of fans.  I have seen it on numerous top 10 lists and people claiming it is the best Disney ever made.  On Amazon it has 230 5 star reviews and only 36 bad reviews.

amazon reviewsSo what is this separation between the people I know and the online community of Disney fans?  I am not sure.  It probably has something to do with my being very religious, conservative and family focused.  Hunchback is not a great fit for any of those adjectives. It’s tough on religion, morally relativistic and definitely not family friendly, so I suppose it makes sense for it to be at the bottom of most of our lists.

When I first saw it I was 18 and just starting college.  I was visiting a friend and we were watching her nephews.  In an attempt to placate them we decided to put on a Disney film and Hunchback was there.  Boy was I stunned!  The kids were completely uninterested in the story and we probably should have turned it off but it was on and I watched in shock as we had a girl dance erotically, characters singing about rape, a deformed man mocked and tied down, and a family nearly burned in their house for no reason.  I was stunned! This wasn’t the empowering Disney I had grown to love in Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

After that unpleasant experience I had no desire to watch it again but this project came and I turned it on last night with an open mind hoping to be dazzled.  Unfortunately, while it does have its strengths, and I can see why people love it, it has serious problems and contradictions which make it hard for me to recommend.

You can’t serve 2 masters is the takeaway from this movie.

Production-

The strange idea to do an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Hunchback of Notre Dame came from an executive reading the Classics Illustrated comic book version.

illustrated classicsThese comic books were published from 1941-1971 and were a fun way to introduce children to classical literature in a format they could absorb easily.  I wish they had picked Jane Eyre.  That would have been so cool to see with this same type of treatment. They had to know going into it Hunchback was going to be a tough sell at the box office.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise from Beauty and the Beast were approached with the idea and they ‘jumped at the chance’ to do something new.

I couldn’t find a ton of other production notes out there on the movie (the behind the scenes video is laughable and not in a good way).  But my overall consensus from what I’ve read is the creative minds who had been successful were able to steamroll over the practical considerations of the studio, with a few exceptions.

It seems clear  the production team wanted to make a film for adults where the studio wanted Burger King toys, sing along videos and even a ‘my first read along’ for toddlers…yes, Victor Hugo for toddlers!

my first read alongI really wish Disney had just allowed its team to make a movie for adults because the end result of creativity and commerce mixed together is extremely uneven and frustrating.

Back in the early days of Disney they had darker themes mixed with commercial appeal (think Pleasure Island mixed with Jimminy Cricket) but such a mixture is tough to swallow when your kids are wanting to act out the scenes from a movie where Quasimodo is beaten and tied up with their Burger King hand puppets:

The music is gorgeous with songs and score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.  And the voicecast featuring Demi Moore, Tom Hulce,, Tony Jay and Kevin Kline, is all fine.

The Story-

I must admit up front to having never read the original novel by Victor Hugo.  However, I do understand it enough to know this is a very loose adaptation.  The biggest change they make is the villain Frollo is a judge not a priest, which doesn’t make any sense.

In the original story  Claude Frollo, as Archdeacon of Notre Dame, had an all consuming power and righteous indignation to condemn anyone he didn’t agree with, and the authority to do something about it.. In the Disney version Frollo chases a gypsy woman to the cathedral and when she dies he almost throws the baby down a well because it is ugly (you know for kids!).

frollo and babyThe Archdeacon stops Frollo and as penance for killing the woman and almost killing the baby he insists Frollo raise the child who will live in the cathedral of Notre Dame.  Yes, that makes so much sense.  An Archdeacon wants a baby to be raised by a madman who wanted him thrown down a well?

If Frollo was the Archdeacon instead of a blah judge it all makes so much more sense for him to take the child in out of guilt over the mother.  In a way by ‘trying to not offend Catholics,  they do more harm than if they were outright villains.  The whole church in the film is an apathetic institution to the suffering of those  living within its walls. At least in the novel Frollo is consumed by Satan, which is an interesting conflict for a holy man to have.  The Disney version just left me dumbfounded at the Archdeacon’s choices.

archdeacon

Next we see Quasimodo as an adult who is basically a prisoner to the cathedral.  Again, why would the Archdeacon allow such a thing?  The film does not explain it well enough.

His only friends are 3 gargoyles who come to life making terrible puns. We never really know if they are imaginary or can only talk to Quasimodo or magic or what they are because nobody else can see them but they can shoot people?  Even reviewers who love this movie usually agree the gargoyles are the weak spot.  It so screams ‘we are trying to make this is for kids’ which is off-putting when the rest of it is so not for kids.  Got to pick one or the other Disney not both. Worst of all, they just aren’t funny.

Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame_gargoyles

The story gets going when we learn there is a Festival of Fools which Quasimodo has long dreamed of attending but Frollo won’t allow it.  Why?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to abandon Quasi now that he is an adult?  He is 20 years old so why does Frollo bother with his charge?  I guess just to get a feeling of power but that is never really explained adequately.  And again would the Archdeacon allow such treatment of someone in his church?  It’s very strange.

Nevertheless, the gargoyles encourage him to go and Quasimodo sings a gorgeous song called Out There

.

I love that Quasimodo’s voice is normal, unprofessional sounding.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like it in a musical but it is beautiful.

For the first time Quasimodo ignores Frollo’s counsel and goes down for the festival (and why they gave Quasimodo spiderman like abilities to climb up and down the cathedral is beyond me.) Nevertheless, he makes it and is immediately picked by the gypsy Esmeralda as having “the ugliest face in all of Paris” because they think it is a mask. I think we are supposed to like the gypsies but it is hard when they are so cruel to our lead character.

Esmeralda eventually saves Quasimodo after he is tied up, beaten, mocked and thrown food at (you know, for kids!)

quasi tied up

Esmeralda then dances for Frollo and the other men in a strange scene.  The movie can’t seem to decide if Esmeralda being a sexual object to men is a good thing or bad?  Frollo is clearly in the wrong for his lustful reaction but Phoebus can say ‘what a woman’ with no sense of condemnation at all?

esmerelda and frollo

phoebus

Frollo chases Esmerelda but Phoebus refuses to arrest her and she appeals to the Archdeacon for sanctuary in the cathedral.  (Again, why does the Archdeacon not do anything more than give sanctuary? In that day and age they had tremendous power!).

God_Help_the_Outcasts

Stuck in the church Esmeralda sings the best song in the movie- God Help the Outcast (singing voice Heidi Mollenhauer).

Quasimodo is able to help her escape using his spiderman skills and she gives him a necklace with a map to the gypsies hideout “The Court of Miracles”.

We then get the oddest but well done song of the film where Frollo sings to Mother Mary about his lust for Esmeralda.  Tony Jay is very good and it is filled with creepy animation.  Perhaps I would like it again if this movie was not marketed to children, but even for adults a song about rape is a tough sell.

The song is called Hellfire and he says

It’s not my fault…  I’m not to blame.

It’s the gypsy girl.  The witch who sent this flame….

Protect me, Maria
Don’t let this siren cast her spell
Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone
Destroy Esmeralda
And let her taste the fires of hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone
Hellfire
Dark fire
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or
Your pyre
Be mine or you will burn

Hmmm…So he wants to have sex with her but she doesn’t, but he’s going to kill her if she doesn’t.  Great we’ve got rape and murder in my Disney movie marketed to kids…(for the record I don’t enjoy adult movies about rape and murder but one even marginally marketed to kids is even worse)

Frollo's_Evil_Smile

When Frollo finds out about Esmeralda’s escape he does a massive search burning down homes, setting Paris ablaze.  (What kind of judge is this?  I’m not expert on medieval France but I don’t think this was how it went down? Not even Napoleon could have burned down France looking for a woman)

burning2

As captain, Phoebus (a thoroughly undeveloped character) must help Frollo, but we get to a scene where Frollo literally wants to burn a family in their home for being gypsy and nothing else. (you know for kids…)

The fact this movie got a G rating with that kind of violence should convince anyone the rating system is a total joke.  Do not pay attention to it!

http://smilingldsgirl.com/2014/01/20/508-swears-hollywood-ratings-are-ridiculous/

So Phoebus gets shot with an arrow for not burning down the house and Esmeralda brings him to the cathedral for refuge.

Before they arrive we get a little comic relief that sadly is not comical.  The gargoyles are trying to convince Quasimodo that Esmeralda will fall in love with him. It actually comes across as kind of cruel and at best patronizing.

Esmeralda arrives with Phoebus and Quasimodo helps them but also see’s them kiss and his heart is broken.  (you know for kids…).

Esmeralda leaves and Frollo comes causing Quasimodo to hide Phoebus under a table while Frollo lies about attacking the Court of Miracles.  Again where is the Archdeacon in all this?  You would think he would have a lot to say but not until the very end do we see him again.

Quasimodo goes with Phoebus to find the Court of Miracles where the gypsies capture and almost hang them (Aren’t the gypsies supposed to be the moral good in the story or is just everything corrupt except for Quasimodo?)

Frollo follows Quasimodo and arrests all in the Court of Miracles (again do I feel that sorry for them when they were minutes away from hanging our heroes?).

esmeralda-pyre-full

But Frollo wants to burn Esmeralda at the stake and even starts the fire.  Quasimodo breaks the chains which Frollo has bound him with in the tower and he and the gargoyles start attacking the crowd watching the burning (I guess they aren’t imaginary then.  They are like the toys in toy story who only move in certain conditions?).

The whole final battle is really slapsticky and so off the established adult tone. It’s almost like Home Alone with bricks falling on people’s heads and teeth coming out.  It feels so discordant from the rest of the picture. brick

And then out of nowhere Quasimodo has turned Notre Dame into a molten ore refinery with lava spewing from giant vats out all sides of the tower.  It’s bizarre.

lavaThe death of Frollo is pretty well done but again not appropriate for children. It’s too scary.  It’s too religiously confusing and too tense.

At least the movie has the guts to have Phoebus and Esmeralda together and not Quasimodo. That would have been so lame and I do like the optimistic tone we are left with.

Esmeralda_y_Febo_finalMovie Review/Conclusion-

This movie is very hard to grade because it is a failure at what it is trying to do but it has some wonderful moments.  I just wish they had made an animated movie for adults and forgotten all the softened edges for kids.  As it is, I feel frustrated.  The violent moments are too much for kids, they will be bored by a lot of the story and the commentary on religion, madness of crowds and power gets diluted out of a fear of offending people and institutions. But then the comedic moments are all wrong for adults so it is a miss for them too.

The messages in the movie are very muddled.  Power is bad, except for when it is used to save others.  Discrimination is bad except when it is done by the minority.  A hero can oogle a woman dancing but a villain cannot.  An Archdeacon can jump in when needed and then be absent  when literal crimes are being committed under his roof.  How am I supposed to explain even one of these things to a child?

People say ‘well, it’s not for kids’.  Well, then don’t market the movie for kids or have kid-friendly elements.  Don’t put it on kids meals and make plush toys.  Don’t have wise cracking gargoyles and slapstick home alone violence thrown in.

And I’m sorry when you have a song where the lead character is singing about wanting to rape another character that is where I draw the line.  I do not want to have to explain such a thing to my child, and especially have to tell her that bad people think rape isn’t their fault but the fault of the vixen who tempted them.  Are you kidding me Disney!

Hunchback actually makes me kind of mad because it has so much potential.  I wish it was a grand movie just for adults.  The animation is certainly stunning.  It is layered and beautiful.  The stained glass alone is awesome.

the-hunchback-of-notre-dame-75The music is also wonderful.   If I heard it in a Broadway show meant for adults I would probably love it.  But sadly the picture is both too grown up for kids and too childish for grown ups leaving me frustrated.  The rape undertones and burning the people in the house were just too much for me to support given the silliness of other elements.  Got to pick an audience Disney!

In the end, I admire what they were trying to do but I think it was a failure.

Overall Grade- D

Movie 33: Pocahontas

pocahontas posterA few days ago I did an informal poll amongst my friends asking ‘which Disney Renaissance movie is your least favorite?’.  While it had a few fans, the overwhelming choices were Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame and I’d  probably be right there with them. We will see what I think of Hunchback next but Pocahontas is not a strong film.  In fact, if I was going to give an F this might be it.  I’ll think about it while I’m writing this review.

Production-

It’s kind of a mystery why Pocahontas doesn’t work with all the resources that were thrown into it.  As I mentioned in my last review after Aladdin the Disney team split into two projects with some going to Lion King and a larger share going to Pocahontas.  Most of the big names like Alan Menken, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, Glen Keane, Joe Grant and Chris Buck all went with Pocahontas because they thought it was  a more promising project.

While nobody is going to a Disney film for a history lesson it is at least worth noting the long list of things they got wrong in their first attempt to tell the story of a real person.

pocahontas inaccuraciesMost of these inaccuracies I don’t care about but the one I find most confusing is why did they age Pocahontas?  It’s a Disney movie.  Wouldn’t it be better to have it be about a little girl who jumps on the fire and fights for peace over war?  That sounds very interesting. Instead they took the Titanic route and made a by the numbers romance inspired by Romeo and Juliet more than what actually happened.

The reason I believe they went the way they did is the project was started in 1990 and what was a big hit in 1990?  Dances with Wolves.  A film that has not aged particularly well with the stoic natives teaching the white man the true way to live…

But it was a huge hit back then both critically and financially so it makes sense Disney would want to create Dances with Wolves Jr and that Pocahontas being a well known folk-lore it is a natural choice.

The story went through a lot of rewrites, which is why it took so long to make.  At one point it was to be a comedy with the animals talking and John Candy playing a turkey.  I loved him in Rescuers Down Under so I would have been curious to see what he could have done with it.  Unfortunately he died in 1994 so a new direction was taken on the film.

The voice cast is interesting.  I like that they got a number of Native American actors to do the tribe-members but I wish they had coaxed better performances out of them.  Russell Means is a wonderful Native American actor but his line readings to me felt very stale, like he was reading off of cards not having a real conversations.

I felt the same way about Irene Bedard as Pocahontas but Judy Kuhn is stunning as her singing voice.  One of the best in all of Disney.  Mel Gibson is fine although why they didn’t have him do a British accent I will never know (we know he can do accents from Braveheart).  It makes no sense to have an American with the Jamestown settlers…

I tried to look into why they made the animation choices they did but didn’t find anything good.  Everything feels very geometric with hard lines and shapes.  This can work in a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland, but for a movie which is supposed to be a real world setting I found it very distracting.

Even the design of the characters is very geometric.  Governor Radcliffe is a giant rectangle:

radcliffe2

 

Pocahontas looks like 2 triangles and her face is very rectangular.  I found all the characters to be unpleasant to look at.  Some have also said all the indians have too almond shaped eyes and look more like Southeast Asian than Native American. I can see their point. She does have a Laotian, Cambodian,  Malaysian look about her more than Native American.

pocasidebarThe music was done by Alan Menken and new to Disney lyricist Stephen Schwartz who would go on to write the mammoth hit Wicked. My favorite of the songs is Savages about the prejudices of both the white and Indian groups but the rest are fine but kind of forgettable.

Native Americans, in general, were not happy with the film.  Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan tribe wrote a piece called ‘The Pocahontas Myth’ which is worth reading.

http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html

He says:

“In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.”

We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.”

If you watch the Behind the Scenes Disney makes it seem like they are doing a noble thing by sharing this great story and culture when in reality those of that culture, for the most part, felt it was a denigration to their history.  I understand films need artistic license but when a true good story exists and they choose to veer so far away from it than I have an issue.

At the very least it is disheartening to hear the tribe’s offer to help  was rejected.

The Story-

The movie begins with our introductions of the ship and crew leaving the new world.  I like the immersion into the painting and the aerial pan and zoom to the boat.

I wish more was made of the crewmembers families we see in these opening shots.  It would have given so much more heart to the scenes that come.

Next we see a storm which evidently reused some of the shipwreck scenes from Little Mermaid but it is very effectively done so I don’t mind.  John saves Thomas’ life creating a bond between the two.

Thomas-from-Pocahontas-Saved

We also get our first taste of Radcliffe and our first mention of ‘gold’.  I read they were starting with Gaston as their mold for Radcliffe and I wish they had kept on that vein.  Gaston works because he isn’t bad at first, just conceited.  As his vanity is wounded he grows more and more mad until he is a monster and murderer.  Radcliffe starting from the first sentence about savages and gold is like wearing a ‘hey look at me villain hat’.

He literally has a line where he says “This new world is going to be great.  I’m going to get a pile of gold. Build a big house and if any Indian tries to stop me I’ll blast him”  It took 5 years of rewrites to come up with that bit of subtle writing? Sigh…

Next we get our first introduction to the tribesmen and women.  The men have returned from battle and guess who is off scampering around the forest?  Why Pocahontas of course. We get a preposterous dive off of a waterfall for no reason but to prove she’s headstrong.

pocahontas diveIt’s Pocahontas the super woman!

Now I can hear a few of you saying “wait, Rachel. You love Little Mermaid and she’s super headstrong”.  Here’s the difference.  Ariel is 16, a mermaid and is legitimately not at home in her own body. Pocahontas is a grown woman and she hurts a lot of people in her quest to stay the same as she is at the beginning.  Ariel wants change.  Pocahontas doesn’t.

Anyway, Powhatan wants her to marry the great warrior Kocoum. Pocahontas doesn’t want to because ‘he’s too serious’.  He just got back from war.  Shouldn’t we do a little more to establish such a trait before he is discounted as an ineligible mate?  He has like 2 lines of dialogue in the whole movie.

kocooum

So Pocahontas sings about what could be coming for her but again she really doesn’t want change.  She wants to remain as free and prancing as she is forever. It’s a pretty song though.

Next the settlers land and I’m not kidding you right off the boat start digging for gold and sing a song called ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’.  Again, way to be subtle why don’t you!  Why not establish some of the actual reasons for conflict and hunger the settlers faced.  Why not make them a tiny bit sympathetic and give the story some wonder and mystery?  As it is, it is so predictable.

We also get introduced to Grandmother Willow- a tree that gives Pocahontas advice.   It is strange that only this tree talks and yet none of the animals or other trees?

willow tree

She is supposed to be the conduit for our modern audience like the Genie in Aladdin but it comes off as trite and silly.

The thing that is strange is they have a Shaman in the story who isn’t used.  Wouldn’t it be natural for Pocahontas to seek guidance from him?  Why not make him the spiritual core of the movie?  Strange choice

shaman

There is also Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who I liked but is underused.  She has to make harder choices than Pocahontas and is a more interesting conflicted unpredictable character.  I wish the movie was about her.

friend

Next John Smith and Pocahontas meet in a very cheesy scene with Pocahontas appearing out of the mist like a ghost.

mist

For literally 2 lines of dialogue they can’t talk to each other but then that’s done with and she’s busy teaching him why his ways are wrong and loving nature is good…Groan.

gold

There is also a major ridiculous moment where John teaches Pocahontas about gold. These are characters which now speak the same language.  Certainly a woman like Pocahontas would be familiar with valuable items used for commerce such as beads, stones, and other forms of currency  used by most tribes.  It’s just another moment where the whites love gold (gold is the 4 letter word of this movie) and the pure natives don’t need such superficial things….Double groan.

Like I said, subtlety is not this movies strong point.

Our next scene is back at the fort (which appears overnight) and Radcliffe shoots Manatuk causing Powahatan to prepare for war.

powhatan

There is also a moment where Radcliffe tells Thomas ‘Learn to use a gun properly”.  Hmmm wonder if that is going to prove prophetic…

We get a little comic relief here with Meeko the racoon, Percy Radcliffe’s dog and Flit the hummingbird.

pocahontas-and-john-smith

John and Pocahontas have one of Disney’s best kisses

kiss

Unfortunately both Thomas and Kocoum see their kiss and Thomas shoots Kocoum.  This is a pretty good scene with great sound effects.  If feels like two people fighting

Then we get the best number in the movie called Savages.  Some take offense to it but it isn’t approving of the views of the characters but merely saying that’s what some people think of others. I actually think it is a good thing for children to understand and be watchful for as racism and hatred will always exist.

The geometric graphic style in the picture also works well for Savages.  Great scene!

Then we get to the climatic moment we all know is coming but it is gone and over so fast it is a little deflating.

sacrifice scene

Pocahontas tells the people “this is the path that hatred has brought us”.  I don’t think that is true.  Thomas didn’t hate anyone.  Neither did Kocoum.  They were just trying to defend their friends.  You could make the argument ignorance or a lack of understanding created this scene but hatred I don’t know if that’s been established except for Radcliffe.

Radcliffe ends up shooting John by mistake and his men turn on him and in the end decide to take John Smith back to England to recover.  Pocahontas has the chance to go with him but she chooses to stay where she belongs.

I like that ending.  Not the happy ending we might expect.

backdrop

Movie Review/Conclusion-

So clearly this is not my favorite Disney movie; although I don’t think I can give it an F because Savages is a good number and I do love Judy Kuhn’s voice.

It’s just frustrating because they had an opportunity to take actual events and make them into a great movie.  Instead we got more of the same in a predictable story told by boxy characters with wooden vocal performances.

beautiful scenerySome of the backgrounds and scenery is nice.  I will give it that.

Most tribes have pretty thick skin and for the Powhatan chief to say:

“It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation”.

Need I say more?

You also have a heroine who is infallible and doesn’t want to grow up or change her behavior unlike Belle and Ariel who will do anything for a change.  A lot of people are hurt by Pocahontas’ selfishness but I don’t see real growth or change in her.

Radcliffe and the ‘gold’ is such a lame villain. There’s no nuance or depth to him.  Nothing that makes him different or unique.  He just wants gold…

Kocoum, Nakoma and Thomas are all more interesting than John Smith or Pocahontas but I barely remembered their names they are so briefly used.

The dialogue is not well written in almost every scene and every action is completely predictable.

The music is fine but the animation is boxy and unappealing.  They create characters like Grandmother Willow that doesn’t need to be there when a character like the Shaman already exists within Pocahontas’ culture.  Imagine how insulting that must be for a tribesman to see their true spiritual guidance tossed aside for a tree…

I know the movie has fans but I’ve watched it 3 times and don’t get its appeal.  To me at best it is bland and at worse it paints caricatures of a whole race of people, which is not okay in my book.

If you like it that is awesome just not my cup of tea, and got to keep it real on this blog or no point in my reviewing them at all.

Overall Grade- D-

Next 17 Movies

Just a quick little interruption now that I finished The Lion King.

With Pocahontas we get into my high school years where I was hit and miss with Disney  and then in 98 I started college and liked Mulan, Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove but that’s all I remember.  I went on a mission in 2003 so no movies till 2005. Then after that I was really more into Pixar than Disney.  It wasn’t until 2010 that I got excited about Disney again with the release of Tangled.

It had been probably since Emperor’s New Groove that a Disney movie had come out I had liked as much as Tangled, so 10 years.

When I blogged about Tangled I said:

“Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are the only movies I remember seeing as a child…I was mesmerized by them- by the characters, the romance, the animation and of course the music!  I am excited that with Tangled a whole new generation will have a Disney princess experience.  I hope Disney keeps up the good work and doesn’t rely only on the brilliance of  Pixar”

So the next 17 movies should be interesting because for the most part I either haven’t seen them at all or it’s been a long time.  Here’s how it breaks down:

Pocahontas- saw recently on netflix

Hunchback- haven’t seen since release

Hercules- own

Mulan- own

Tarzan- own

Fantasia 2000- haven’t seen

Dinosaur- haven’t seen

Emperor’s New Groove- own

Atlantis- haven’t seen since release

Lilo and Stitch- haven’t seen in long time

Treasure Planet- haven’t seen since release

Brother Bear- haven’t seen

Home on the Range- haven’t seen

Chicken Little- haven’t seen

Meet the Robinsons- haven’t seen

Bolt- saw a few years ago on netflix

Princess and the Frog- haven’t seen since release

Tangled!!

So there are 6 I haven’t seen, 6 I haven’t seen since release or a while, 5 I either own or have seen recently.

Always fun to try something new or reexamine something from the past.  After all, I am very different in some ways than I was in high school and college (and in other ways I’m exactly the same).

So there you go.  Just wanted you guys to be aware of the perspective I am coming from in this section of the project!

Thanks for reading!!!!

Any of these particular favorites of yours? Any I haven’t seen which you like?

Movie 32: The Lion King

The_Lion_King_poster

Some Pop Music…

Do you find yourself deciding whether to watch the Lion King?  Ask yourself this- how much do you like pop music?

In pop music there is a device called ‘the hook’.  This is a line, melody, riff or performance, usually in the chorus that hooks the audience in to the rest of the song.  Sometimes there are more than one hook like the huge hit Blurred Lines there are hooks in melody and even the hey, hey, hey’s at the beginning.  How many of the fans even know what the words are to that song?  There are a million examples of hooks.

The reason I mention hooks is it can certainly be used in movies as a way to draw people into the characters or story.  Pixar loves hooks in all of their movies.  They almost all start with a bold intro that draws you in and hooks you emotionally into the story.  Think beginning of Up, Wall-e, Incredibles, Cars etc.

The Lion King is the best Disney use of hooks I can think of (although Tarzan and Tangled both use them very effectively and have a pop music feel).  I don’t know if it is pop singer (yes, he’s pop not rock star) Elton John’s melodies but nearly every song, every scene in fact, has a strong hook.  You have the one idea you are supposed to be getting from the scene or song and the rest is kind of non-essential.

circle of life

Think of the difference between our intro to Lion King, Circle of Life, and the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast.  In Belle there really isn’t a chorus.  It’s just her singing about the poor provincial town and through the song we learn a ton about several characters and get the beginnings of the story laid out  for us.   In contrast,  I couldn’t even tell you the rest of the words to Circle of Life besides ‘it’s the circle of life’. All we need to take away from the song is there are animals and a baby has been christened.

Does that mean it isn’t a good movie?  No, I was actually quite blown away by it but I can also see how, just like some don’t like pop music for being contrived, people could feel manipulated and annoyed with The Lion King. And just like pop music can get a little grating after the 30th listen through The Lion King may not be a good choice for repeated viewings.

But I loved it! But I love pop music so go figure.

The Production-

What’s interesting is after Aladdin the studio split into projects.  Instead of all the top talent working on the next film together as had been done for a few years people could choose between Pocahontas or The Lion King, and surprisingly most picked Pocahontas feeling it was ‘more important’ of the two films.

Even Alan Menken moved over to Pocahontas, leaving The Lion King with kind of the Bad News Bears of Disney animation.  Tim Rice had taken over for Howard Ashman on Aladdin and won the Oscar for Whole New World.  Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were first time directors, Thomas Disch had written the strange The Brave Little Toaster,  Hans Zimmer had never done a score for animated film etc.

Elton John was recruited by Tim Rice and he had this pop music mentality from the start:

“Let’s do it for kids, because it’s just a great story” but most of Disney animated movies have a kind of Broadway score, and I said “Let’s not go for that, let’s go for a completely different feel and just write ultra-pop songs kids would like; then adults can go and see those movies and get just as much pleasure out of them” I mean, adults buy a lot of pop records”  (Billboard, Oct 4, 1997)

You see!  That’s why there are all those hooks!

lion king collage

They certainly spared no expense in their voice cast which also feels like  pop celebrity type thing to do.    We’ve got James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, teen king Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly (ala Cutting Edge fame), Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Cheech Marin and of course Whoopi Goldberg.  It is definitely the most ‘famous’ Disney cast ever assembled and they do a terrific job with the material.

The Lion King was also the first original story (takes inspiration from the Bible and Hamlet but not straight adaptation) and first movie to use no humans (Bambi had the hunters).

Unlike Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast which took 2 years to execute, The Lion King took 6 years from initial concept to release date.  It went through scores of animators and writers and from what I’ve read nobody was expecting it to be a big hit.

However, Disney marketing was brilliant, releasing the first 4 minutes instead of a trailer in November 1993 when only 1/3rd of the movie had been completed.  The intro is such a great hook it did it’s job and producer Don Hahn was actually “afraid of not living up to the expectations raised by the preview”.  They weren’t!   Lion King is the highest grossing hand drawn film in history so it did pretty well for itself!

The Story-

As I already mentioned we start off with a bang.  A huge hook of The Circle of Life.  It is a background song with African chanting and huge pan shots of baby Simba being presented (it’s basically a lion christening).

I can totally see why people saw this in 1993 and were counting down the days to see it in 1994 (1993 was a rare year with no annual Disney offering).

We then right away get another hook with the introduction to our villain, Scar.

mufasa and scar

The conversation between Mufasa and Scar kind of reminds me of the beginning of Sleeping Beauty.  First of all both Scar and Maleficent have obvious villain names and they are dripping with disdain for all around them.  It is very effective in drawing you into both characters and the story.

If anything the scene could have been longer.   We also get the first Moses/Ramseys biblical reference.  It probably goes without saying the voice work by James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in the movie is perfect.

Then we lighten things up in our next section introduces us to the baby lions Simba and Nala and the hornbill bird Zazu.  Zazu is voiced by Rowan Atkinson and it is a very funny performance and character.  He’s a big nag but most of the time he is right to nag so it is funny.

zazu

Zazu’s nagging makes a nice comedic foil for ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ a song right out of a boy band pop album but I like it.  I think it is fun.

Simba and Nala sneak away to see an elephant graveyard Scar had told Simba about earlier (practically every scene in the movie is prophetic of future scenes to come).  The hyenas almost take out the cubs but Mufasa comes to the rescue and defeats them.

Afterwards he has some very biblical sounding advice for his son:

The whole stars thing is kind of corny but those kinds of father son moments are usually like that and they do a good job establishing plot and a bond with little time spent together on screen.

Next we are back to our villain in the strongest song of the movie (and the only one actually sung by the voice talent).  With the Nazi hyenas (who would have thought of that!) and the green boiler room atmosphere Be Prepared is one of the best villain songs.  It is also nice to have another movie with a male villain because usually in Disney it is female.

The Hans Zimmer score is perfect.  It brings emotional intensity into even rather trite scenes.  I have it on my ipod and it is one of my favorites to listen to when I’m working.  I love the choral and tribal elements.  It reminds me a little of On Bald Mountain in Fantasia.  Beautiful.

So Scar puts his dastardly plan into action tricking Simba into being in the path of a stampede.  I remember seeing this scene and being blown away and it totally holds up.  The computer graphics, music and sound effects are stunning.

Mufasa has died and Scar becomes the master manipulator.  Some people don’t like that Simba runs away but if you listen Scar doesn’t actually say anything which isn’t true.  Mufasa would be alive if Simba wasn’t in that gorge.  The King is gone and it wasn’t supposed to happen.  And remember Simba is little, the lion equivalent of a toddler who would be easy to manipulate.  So it is no wonder he is scared and runs away.

I like the heart in these segments.  Yes is it pulling at our heart strings pretty heavily but it’s all been so epic it works.  Plus, his Dad has just died.  If there was ever time for an over the top cry that is it.

simba criesSo Simba runs away and that’s where we get to the charming but admittedly weaker section of the movie.  In a lush jungle Simba meets Timon and Pumba who agree to teach him a new way to live.  (It’s actually an interesting thought study for kids.  It’s a softer version of what is presented with Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.  Timon and Pumba believe in being happy and only living for yourself, for what pleases you, just like the boys at the island were only concerned with having fun and sinning.

And it is here we get probably the most famous song from the movie (so the kid pop thing totally worked out).  I am not a big fan of potty humor so it was never my favorite but it is catchy no doubt about it.

Simba grows up in the song and we can assume has completely bought into the lifestyle of Timon and Pumba, basically forgetting his other life.

hakuna matata

Then he meets Nala, his cub girlfriend, and she tells him how much they need him.  He refuses and to me it makes sense.  Most of his life has been spent living a hakuna matata lifestyle so why would he want to go back to all that hurt?

We then get a forgettable musical number Can You Feel the Love  (won the Oscar.  They loved those syrupy romance ballads in the 90s).  It’s also a background vocal and the scene could be cut out no problem.  Some people hate the comedic intro they decided to use but as I’m not a big fan of the song I don’t really care about that.

Then he meets Rafiki, the wise but silly monkey, and this scene is just masterful storytelling.  It is epic and subtle and anyone who has grieved can relate to all of the emotions involved.

The past hurts but we can learn from it.  That is a great lesson for all of us.  How tempting is it to take the path of least resistance but sometimes in so doing we are denying who we are what makes us special.

So Simba arrives at Pride Rock to find it like the elephant graveyard of earlier.  No food, everything gray and wasted away.  Simba confronts Scar and again he is very good at saying the truth but not being truthful.  He tells all of the lions that Simba is the reason why Mufasa is gone which Simba cannot deny.

The other lions do not support Simba at first but can you blame them?  He’s been gone all this time, abandoning them.  They are under the rule of a dictator who will use any such assertions against them and Simba has just said he is responsible for Mufasa’s death.  Why should they think otherwise?  In fact, they have every right to be upset and unforgiving of him.

It is only when Scar admits he was the one who is responsible for Mufasa’s murder that they come to Simba’s defense.  Again, to me this makes total sense and is probably the way I would behave if confronted with similar betrayals, accusations and knowledge.  Yes, you learn from the past and move on but people need a decent enough time to absorb new information.  Even Simba wasn’t ready to accept the change in one conversation with Nala.

new king of pride rockAs we close we get a new king of pride rock and the kingdom is restored.  (I wonder if Simba keeps being a vegetarian lion?)

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I was 13 when The Lion King came out so I was just starting to get into the ‘cartoons are for kids’ phase and so I liked Lion King but it wasn’t the transcendent experience Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were.  But, I can totally see how if you were 8-10 when it came out it would be huge.

Unlike Aladdin which really made the entire film for adults and kids, The Lion King has segments like Hakuna Matata and Just Can’t Wait which are geared to literally hook kids into them.  I find them cheerful and fun but what moves me is the dramatic sections that probably bore kids (but I don’t think so much so they won’t enjoy the movie).

The score makes the movie.  It is perfect.  The songs are mostly good pop songs and I like them.

The animation is beautiful with segments reverting from the lush 2D animation  to geographic tribal motifs. justcantwait1The stampede is still impressive from all angles and Scar is a great villain with a great villain song.  All in all it is a very satisfying movie to watch.  I really found myself moved and excited by it.  (I probably hadn’t seen it in 15 years before yesterday despite owning the score.  That’s how much I love the score!).

timon and pumba

If I was going to be a little critical it would be the middle section lags a little bit and when push comes to shove I do like Broadway music better than pop music.  It’s kind of amazing it was made into such a great Broadway musical given it was trying to not be Broadway but that wouldn’t have happened without the  creative vision of Julie Taymor.  When I saw Lion King in New York I said it was like watching a living painting.  The music wasn’t the standout although it was fine.

broadway

So maybe The Lion King isn’t perfect but it has tons to like and a message I’m still pondering after all these years.  Plus, some catchy songs and visuals that draw you in.  I loved it!

Overall Score- A

Movie 31: Aladdin

aladdin posterNext up we have one of the most popular Disney animated films ever made- their 31st film, Aladdin.  While  it is not as artistically special or as epic as the movies it is sandwiched between (Beauty and the Beast and Lion King), it is one of Disney’s best comedies and I think that is why it is remembered so fondly. We all love what makes us laugh!

I have now watched Aladdin 4 times in recent weeks.  When Robin Williams died I felt so sad so I hunted down Aladdin and watched it.  I kind of forgot about it and even said in my Disney Tag video I thought it was a little overrated.  I don’t know if it was just the passing,but I left that viewing completely charmed.  Now I watched it again and then with 2 commentaries and am still charmed.

Do I like all the choices they made?  No, but I think it is a ton of fun.

The Production-

Aladdin was released on Thanksgiving in 1992 (I remember going to see it as our Thanksgiving movie!).  It was suggested as a concept by Howard Ashman in 1988 when the ‘Gong Show’ had occurred and ideas like Oliver and Company and the Little Mermaid had been approved.

Aladdin

It was a return to the Disney tradition of making movies for boys but it starred a grown man (or teen) which had never been done before.  Every other male figure had either been an eccentric, a bore or a little child.  I had heard on a number of audio commentaries that male adults were harder to draw and I finally heard an explanation on the director’s commentary with Ron Clements and John Musker.   One of them said:

“Male leading men are harder to do in animation than the women because you can slightly caricature the female figure and look and a slight exaggeration makes it more appealing but when you do that with the male figure that slight exaggeration is a little off-putting”

So there you have it! Originally Michael J. Fox was used to create Aladdin but then when they decided to make the character older they went with Tom Cruise as their inspiration!

I wonder if the exaggerated style needed for a man, made them go with the even more exaggerated inspiration of Al Hirschfeld drawings from the New Yorker?  His comics  had ‘swooping lines and elongated faces.

bob hope hirschfield
Here is a Hirschfeld drawing of Bob Hope

It is also interesting that Disney made no attempt to tie the movie back to its original source material or the Arabic culture.  It kind of makes me laugh that people were offended by a line by the peddler/narrator ,’where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’ when a million other things are done that directly fly in the face of Arabic customs and culture.

How about the fact that none of the characters actually look Arabic?  I would think that is more potentially bothersome than a funny line in a song.  Seriously it’s the most white Arabs ever put on-screen.

aladdin

As much as I like the film I kind of wish they had been a little braver with their skin colorings and not only been tan on Jafar’s face (but oddly enough never his neck?).  It is such a cliché to have the people of darker complexion be the bad guy.  Sigh…

But Aladdin is not the movie for such discussion.  It is a comedy!!!  It has one job and that is to make you laugh and it does that job very well.  And pretty much all the laughs come from one man- Robin Williams.  He owns this movie.  There was talk after it was released that he should be the first person to be nominated for best supporting actor for an animated movie and I agree.  (I really wish they would have an award for voice work because it is such an art).

Robin-Williams-AladdinClements and Musker said they wrote the part of the Genie for Robin Williams and it was quite the labor of love for him to participate at all.  At the time he was filming Toys and Hook and would spend hours on set for those films and then come at night to record for Aladdin.

At one point in the commentary Clements says ‘people often ask me how much of the material was ad-libbed vs scripted? And I say none of it.  It was all written’.  This caught me off guard but then Musker says ‘he’s lying!’.

ed sullivan aladdin

Evidently they would give Robin Williams boxes of props, costumes and concepts and he would go from there.  For one of the songs he came up with 59 different characters!  Just the one’s included in the film are amazing. with everything from Ed Sullivan to John Wayne to Ethel Merman- all people most kids don’t know but they didn’t need to.  We knew it was a funny voice, which made us laugh.  The adults, for instance, could laugh at the Groucho Marx imitation, while kids thought it was a silly looking character.

They also said on the commentary Williams was nervous about his singing, which I guess he had never done before, and considering he does 2 of the 4 songs he’s great!

There was some ugliness between Disney and Williams because he had taken the SAG minimum to be in Aladdin on the agreement they would not use his likeness or make the genie more than 20% of the marketing in respect for Toys which opened the same month.  Disney did not live up to their side of this bargain (on one hand can you blame them but still a deal is a deal) and it angered Williams, which is why he is not in the 2nd Aladdin film but things were made up for the 3rd.

Unlike Beauty and the Beast or Little Mermaid there are only 6 songs in Aladdin, 2 of which are reprises.  3 of the songs are written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and a Whole New World is by Tim Rice and Menken.  I wonder if this song scarcity was partly to appease boys who would be less interested typically in musical numbers?  However, the songs we get are well written and once again very funny.   There is not a villain song except for the Prince Ali reprise by Jafar but this works very well so no issue from me.

kiss

Artistically it is simple with mostly color blocking as backgrounds.  Evidently blue is used to convey good in the film and red evil.  In fact, in the final scenes everything is red even the characters and their clothing.

aladdin and red

Some of the CGI in the film does not hold up very well.  Things like the cave of wonders looks pretty corny to a modern audience but the film is so over-the-top I don’t really care.

caveLet’s actually talk about the story-

The Story-

We start out with our narrator setting the tone with the song ‘Arabian Nights’.  It is a very effective number.  Robin Williams does not sing this song but he does do the other voice work for the narrator:

It does a very good job setting mood and tone. We get the gravitas of the music with the silliness of the peddler selling us tupperware (Evidently they brought a box of junk for Robin Williams from the $1 store and he ad-libbed all of it).

The narrator was actually supposed to be revealed to be the Genie at the end but it had to be cut because the ending with Genie leaving felt complete.

After the narrator we see Jafar and a thief.  They have found the cave of wonders but it takes a ‘diamond in the rough’ to enter.

Next we meet Aladdin.  What a great way to be introduced to a character.  We know from the beginning he is special, “our diamond in the rough”.

How rough is he?  Well, he is a thief and the next song shows us that.  It is one of the most ‘Broadway’ Disney songs,  so of course I love it.

So, 2 out of 4 songs done in the first few minutes.  Again, that feels very ‘please the boys’ to me but I’m ok with it.  It does take too long to get to the Genie (almost 40 minutes!) but it’s not terrible.

A lot of the scenes in Aladdin feel like a good sitcom.  Think of a show like The Office.  There would be a tender hearteded scene with Michael Scott immediately followed by ‘that’s what she said’ or other silly punchline.  It’ never gets too sentimental but it also doesn’t leave the viewers cold.

These tender moments start early in Aladdin with a Prince riding into the castle repulsed by Aladdin.  He says he is a ‘street rat’ and nobody will remember him.

street ratThen we meet  Jasmine . She is portrayed as a modern woman who wants to get out of the castle and live for herself.  Much to her father’s chagrin she rejects suitor after suitor (including the Prince who insulted Aladdin).  A lot of the time she is shown holding a bird symbolizing feeling caged in and lonely.  Jasmine is a little bland but I liked her. Again, it does not matter that she is completely implausible for an Arabic woman (even today in some cultures) because they’ve already established the movie is its own enchanted world, with its own rules and customs.

jasmineJasmine decides to run away and Aladdin saves her from getting her hand chopped off by a merchant.  They have some nice moments together and there is genuine chemistry.  (Like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast the couple in Aladdin have significant screen time together and form a realistic bond).

Our next scene is with Jafar and his hilarious pet parrot Iago voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.  Some find him shrill and annoying but  he was funny to me (but I love Fran Drescher so I guess I don’t mind shrill).  I don’t think he is in the movie too much.  Just enough to provide some good comic relief especially when the Genie is nowhere to be found.

iago

If parents have issues with words like ‘shut up’ or ‘moron’ they probably will not care for Iago as he uses them a lot.

Eventually Aladdin is captured and Jasmine is returned to the castle. To her dismay, Jafar tells her Aladdin has been beheaded for hurting the Princess. In truth, he has actually been taken to the dungeon and tricked into entering the Cave of Wonders with his monkey Abu (who is super cute).

abu

In the cave they find the lamp but Abu triggers the alarm and the cave starts turning into lava and they have to use a magic carpet (which has tons of personality for a rectangle) to get out of the cave.

aladdin carpet rideJafar thinking he has the lamp leaves Aladdin and Abu inside the cave but Abu steals the lamp.  That’s when we finally get our Genie!!!  I can’t imagine anyone not liking the Genie or Friend Like Me. It’s perfect.    Evidently it was the first number they animated so certain features are different (longer ears, Aladdin looks younger) but none of that matters.  It is so funny.  You forget most of the time it is just the Genie with blue background.  It’s so manic that’s all we need.

Eventually Aladdin wishes to be made a prince so he can woo Jasmine and we get the next musical number, Prince Ali.  Robin Williams is hilarious  as if he is commenting on a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

In a surprise to Aladdin, Jasmine is not impressed with Prince Ali (neither is Jafar of course!).  She won’t even meet with him, but he convinces her to try a magic carpet ride.  I know A Whole New World won the Oscar for best song but I think it is just okay but the animation is lovely and it provides one of the movies only softer extended moments.

After the ride Jasmine is smitten with Aladdin and has basically figured out he is the street rat from earlier despite him continuing to lie about it.  He tells her he dresses as a commoner for fun, but I don’t think she really believes him.

She is smitten enough to get one of the best Disney kisses ever!

aladdin and jasmine

After the date Jafar traps Aladdin and tries to drown him in the ocean.  The Genie is unleashed and uses one of Aladdin’s 3 wishes to save him..  This is a pretty intense moment for a Disney lead and probably the closest any actually come to dying.

Aladdin comes back to the palace and exposes Jafar as the crook he is but he is unwilling to come clean to Jasmine about who he is.  He also tells Genie he can’t give him his freedom because they want him to be Sultan and he needs to remain a Prince with his wishes.

Just then Iago steals Aladdin’s lamp and brings it to Jafar who makes himself Sultan on high.  The red coloring on these scenes is great at establishing mood (and contrast from the all blue of Aladdin’s scenes when he is master of the lamp).  We also get the reprise of Prince Ali which is Jafar’s villain song.

prince ali scene

Aladdin get’s sent to the ‘ends of the earth’ and we know it is somewhere with snow.  Again the CGI in some of these scenes doesn’t age particularly well but it is a nice emotional segment for Aladdin who feels terrible about Abu and The Carpet.

Getting free we get to Jafar imprisoning Jasmine and her father.  Her outfit is very slinky in these scenes which may be a problem for some Christian viewers.

red jasmine

Aladdin returns and he and Jafar have a wonderfully executed final battle  that feels like Aladdin may have met his match.  The Genie is also helpless because Jafar is his master.

For the finale we get one of the best moments of friendship in all of Disney and a great message about being yourself and loving others more than self.  Especially with Robin Williams passing it is a very tender scene.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

My thoughts on Aladdin are very simple.   What I look for in a comedy is ‘did it make me laugh?’ and this did.  It did as a child and it did now.  The schtick by Robin Williams still holds up and is full of energy and happiness,  which is hard to resist. The genie is one of the best Disney characters ever and it is one of the best examples of a side character stealing the show in a movie- live action or animated.

It also has some nice action segments that will entertain boys and girls.

I think the villain is fine but not one of Disney’s best (although it is nice to have a male villain for once).  I like Iago and think he is used just enough to not be wearing.

Jasmine is a little bland but charming.  The music is a lot of fun if sparingly used. The artistry is fine, does the job it needs to do.

I wish we got to the Genie sooner and the Whole New World sequence is a little forgettable, but not bad.

Like all the great Disney there is genuine heart mixed in with the humor and some nice messages about friendship and honesty.

So all in all, I really enjoy Aladdin.  Is it in my top 10? I don’t think so but it is probably my favorite Disney comedy, so maybe…not sure .  Ask me in a couple years when Robin Williams passing isn’t so fresh.

For now I give it an

Overall Grade- A-

I made donation to St Jude in Robin William’s memory after his passing (I just felt like doing something, not simply talking) and I’d like to make another contribution.  $1 for every view this post gets up to $150. I feel very sad at his loss.