A Fatal Flaw

Amid all the sequels Pixar has been rattling off the assembly line, last year’s Coco comes as something of a relief: original and visually brilliant, funny and tender in the good old Pixar way. Disney can’t handle two living parents; Pixar can handle a whole clan, in the capable, work-roughened hands of a fiery matriarch. Despite its strengths and its appeal, Coco is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.

The vision unfolds along with the story. Our first glimpse is a gorgeous cityscape made of color and lights – the Land of the Dead, shimmering beyond the mortal world. The unearthly appearance of the Land of the Dead is quickly juxtaposed by the bureaucratic procedures that surround entering and leaving it. The dead themselves hustle about on humdrum activities – working, traveling, eating and drinking, going to talent shows and arguing with customer service. They do much what they did in life, only they do it without skin. On some level, this is a pleasing incongruity; on another, it is a letdown. Why go to all the trouble to die if life just goes on the same?

It is revealed that death resembles life in still another way: You are going to die, this time the final death. All these skeletons will die of being forgotten. As they and their stories pass out of the memories of the living, they will be afflicted with spasms of weakness and pain before they finally collapse into dust. Some people will be kept alive in the Land of the Dead for years upon years, as long as their stories are still told among the living. Others must have a very short stay. Here we begin to sight the marrow-deep injustice of the vision, but it comes clear only later.

The villain in the Land of the Dead lives in luxury – gratis, we are told, of his admirers, who heap him with gifts on the Day of the Dead. And we see the old murderer in his celebrity and wealth, and think of the poor forgotten skeleton shivering into the final death, and we know …

There is no justice in the end. None at all. Your career, bred in the abuse of others, may be halted in life, but you will just resume it in death. Sell your soul to get this world and the next will be thrown in, too. Meanwhile, the unwanted, the unloved, the outcast and the forgotten – they are forever the losers. All the inequities of this life are transferred into the next. Indeed, new inequities are created by the fact that the dead can visit the living only through the possession and display of a material object. This opens, too, avenues of revenge, ways that the living can spite the dead and be sure they will know it.

Think of it: Even after you die, they can still get you.

All of this would be bearable if we could imagine that the Land of the Dead was only a stopping-place on the way to some other destination. The movie throws a bone in this direction, one skeleton shrugging that no one knows what happens after the final death. But the fact that they call it final hints at what they think. The story’s happy ending – Now you get to live as a skeleton in the Land of the Dead indefinitely! Pop the champagne! – makes it clear that no one has a better end in mind.

Coco presents an appalling vision of the afterlife. It would be easier to take if the movie knew it was appalling, but it doesn’t. Coco’s dreary afterlife drags down the whole story with a faint sense of depression, a subtle distaste. It’s well enough to imagine that the Land of the Dead is, but to imagine that it is all there is – that is the fatal flaw.

A Simple Line

Now that Amazon has acquired film rights to Lord of the Rings, and Netflix has licensed all seven Chronicles of Narnia, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: How much do bad adaptations of our favorite books really bother us? I am not saying, mind you, that the adaptations will be bad. But the possibility is strong enough that we should be thinking about it.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the profound emotional investment humans pour into stories that don’t happen and people who do not exist. We all know how real fiction can be, and how stories can accompany us through life, following us through changes that leave old times and old friends behind. Depending upon the time and manner of their entrance into our lives, stories acquire associations with larger things – a carefree summer, a person we knew then, old haunts, even (a thousand Star Wars jokes don’t change the truth) a gone childhood. To touch the story is to touch hidden chords.

Narnia and Middle-earth possess an uncommon power and resonance. Their potency is all the greater because they come to so many people in childhood and remain, among all the fantasy movies and books that follow, a kind of first love. Christians often associate these books with their faith and see Jesus in – or, perhaps, through – Aslan. Both for what they are and for what they represent, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia evoke a considerable degree of passion that does not wish to be disappointed.

The new adaptations further labor under the burden of previous adaptations. The animated versions of both works exist mainly as curiosities, arousing little antipathy or attachment. The live-action versions are weightier creations and well-known to the Tolkien and Lewis fandoms. Peter Jackson’s trilogy is iconic, binding its images to the books, and for countless people it was their initiation into Middle-earth. Many fans don’t only worry that the Amazon series won’t live up to Tolkien’s Middle-earth; they worry that it won’t live up to Jackson’s Middle-earth. There is even talk of bringing back the actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps some people feel about Walden’s Narnia films the way others feels about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The Walden films were not bad, but they fell far short of their source material. They failed to capture the spirit of Narnia, always seeming to be made by people tone-deaf to the meaning of Lewis’ works – people who replaced Caspian’s thirst to see Aslan’s country with boilerplate daddy issues because they just didn’t understand. Netflix has, in many ways, an easier task than Amazon, and strange as it may seem, it helps them that they are trying to do something no one has done: bring Narnia’s magic to the silver screen.

For myself, I am glad that Amazon and Netflix are producing their adaptations. I take a simple line: If the adaptations are good, I will enjoy them, and if they are bad, I will ignore them, and in either event I will be an interested viewer. But other people will take other lines. What is yours?

Do You Want to Go?

The Greatest Showman (now in theaters!) opens with an exuberant musical number titled – this follows logically – “The Greatest Show”. It’s on YouTube, of course, though merely listening pales against viewing it and, even more, viewing it in theaters. Part of the brilliance of this song is that it captures what made the greatest show and it was, above anything else, the greatest showman.

And what made the greatest showman? The song spins out an answer to that, too: his peerless ability to draw his audience into a world of his own construction. Call it persuasion or illusion, call it seduction or a con, but it is what he does. The song is an invitation and a promise. Here, beneath the colored lights, is the answer to the ache in your bones and the end of your search in the dark; this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is where you want to be, the greatest showman tells you, and this is what you want to have. “Tell me,” he asks, “do you want to go?”

Do you want to go? This is the question P.T. Barnum put to the crowds that flocked to his circus. The greatest showman was not without a touch of the conman, and he knew the great secret of the con: The “mark” participates in his own deception. A true conman doesn’t outwit his victims; he sells them what they want, and their own desires override their judgment. A true showman is also in the business of selling people what they want, and if they forget it isn’t real, it’s only because they want to. Barnum never had any pretension of hoodwinking people who didn’t take it as a pleasure.

Do you want to go? This is the question Hugh Jackman puts to anyone who ventures to his film. No one with a fine sense of balance, to say nothing of humor, could make a movie about P.T. Barnum and not mix in a dose of malarkey. The Greatest Showman lives by this. Happily anachronistic, luxuriating in the idea of 1800s New York without any undue attachment to the facts, making its nineteenth-century subjects reflect a little too clearly the values of its twenty-first century audience – it cannot be the way it was. But you’re willing to forget that for the spectacle and the joy and the thoughtful examination of a dreamer and his dreams.

Do you want to go? This is the question that every book and show and movie asks. A great deal has been said and written about how that movie strains human credulity or this book breaks the facts clean in half. Dramatic courtroom revelations aren’t really a thing, a punch to the face is enough to end any fight, love at first sight could get you into a car with a serial killer, it’s ridiculous that anyone – even with superpowers – would choose to save the world wearing a cape but no pants. There are more solemn warnings of more pernicious falsehoods, reminders that we can’t really believe in the heroes and the happy endings, the perfect love stories and the last-minute rescues.

Yet I wonder – how often are we really fooled? Are these constructed worlds really so persuasive? But we want to go.

Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to the city, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. That it never got on the networks’ annual run of Christmas specials, but Frosty the Snowman did, is part of what’s wrong with the world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Frosty! I liked it when I was six.) Small One‘s run-time is 26 minutes, and the only character who has a name is the donkey. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, to be seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Review: Beauty and the Beast (the Other One)

(Yes, I know: I’m six months late to this party. But that is how long it took them to put the movie on Netflix.)

In 1991, Disney released a magnificent version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”. Then they released another version.

Disney’s decision to remake Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film was always questionable for two reasons. One, the story is intrinsically suited to animation, and two, the original film is so close to perfection that it leaves little room for remaking. But all things are possible, and these hurdles might have been jumped.

One of the special powers of animation is that it can make things whimsical or agreeable that, realistically, are not. Beauty and the Beast needs this power, both for the Beast and his servants. The living household objects, rendered realistic in the new version, are all exquisite. They also have about an ounce of the charm and vibrancy of their animated counterparts. Worse, they make you think that it would be kind of creepy if your coffee cup had eyes and your dresser liked to pick out your outfits.

The change from animation to live-action would not matter so much – if more significant changes had deflected comparison. And here we come to the second pitfall, which the new Beauty and the Beast plunges right into: Why remake a movie that was already nearly perfect? To make it different – not necessarily better but different in a true and interesting way. That is the successful way to remake a great film. There are two ways to fail – make it too much the same and make it different in a bad way. Disney manages both.

Beauty and the Beast reproduces its predecessor’s plot, its songs, and its most iconic shots and scenes. To its credit, the film does innovate in smaller matters. To its discredit, it innovates badly. It reshuffles events and characterization in ways that are often puzzling and invariably damaging. Its original ideas are slight and usually poor.

The Beast is a much reduced figure in this second outing. He is less of a beast, for one: physically smaller, more tame in temperament, more human in appearance, lacking the mouth full of fangs and the animalistic power and agility of the old Beast. The first Beast literally roared; the second huffs and puffs. The first Beast had a violent, mercurial temper; the second is mostly just dyspeptic. The first Beast had sudden shifts into realization and regret; the second … no.

Gaston receives a kinder, gentler, and ultimately scrambled characterization. His buffoonery and presumption are sanded down significantly, and his worst moments in the first half of the film are excised. Then, as if suddenly in the throes of some psychotic break, he resorts to murder. After that, Gaston loses all initiative. His maneuver to clap Maurice into the insane asylum is no longer a sinister scheme to blackmail Belle into marriage; neither does he incite the mob against the Beast out of jealousy and offended pride. Both acts are merely defensive and desperate attempts to hide his crime.

The servants-turned-household-objects fare worst of all. Their warm (even enthusiastic!) welcome of Maurice is eliminated, and it matters because their welcome of Belle is so suspect. They adopt the peculiar habit of declaring selfish motivations for acts of apparent kindness. (Why does Lumiere – it’s not the Beast in this version – get Belle out of the dungeon? So he can kiss the maid again!) They sing “Be Our Guest” not because Belle wanders into the kitchen saying she’s hungry but because they realize she’s planning an escape. When Belle flees, doors slam and lock, the dog rears up and barks at her – it looks like a jail break, and they’re the prison guards. Incompetent ones, but still.

As for new ideas, Disney did decide to give Belle a shamelessly maudlin back story. The Beast has a sob story, too, and he and Belle bond over shared childhood trauma, and it’s all very dreary. Disney also anchors the story to a particular time and place, shifting it away from fairy tale and into history. Then it fumbles the history, and drops it, and steps on it. Disney clearly sends out the message, “This is eighteenth-century France! Btw, we have no idea what eighteen-century France was like, and we don’t care, either.”

The movie has its good points. The technical skill is obvious, and the film treats us to some beautiful vistas. The re-imagining of Maurice and Gaston has merit, whatever the flaws in execution. There is talent in the cast. But the new Beauty and the Beast is inevitably heir to the old one, and it neither breaks from its legacy nor upholds it. Fans of the movie say that there are many versions of Beauty and the Beast, and that’s true. But the precise trouble is that this movie is not a version of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale; it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – and a worse one. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is so notably like Beauty and the Beast (1991), and yet so notably inferior, that there is hardly even a point.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Despite the old and no doubt wise saying, Disney canon clearly holds that being raised by wolves is not injuriouspetes-dragon to childhood development. This is one of the lessons of The Jungle Book, another being that if a ferocious man-hating tiger gets your calling card, you cannot lose if you arm yourself with a blazing torch. In the remade Pete’s Dragon, released close on the heels of the remade Jungle Book, we find that it is even better to be raised by dragons.

But still, inevitably, tragic to need such raising. And children grow up only to leave, don’t they?

Pete’s Dragon is a unique movie, at least in today’s world. The opening sequence sets the pattern. It is the slowest opening I have seen in a long, long while, taking its time to the disaster you can feel is coming. A lone car on an isolated highway, the land gorgeously forested around it … a young, pretty mother, a quietly strong father, an adorable little boy … the well-loved book, haltingly read by the little boy with his mother’s patient help, about a dog that gets lost and adventures and being brave …

And then the car crash, because Disney does love to warm your heart just before ripping it out. The crash itself, far from being violent or graphic, is dreamy, fragmented, to some extent detached. And it feels oddly realistic – not that this is the way a thing like that would happen, but it is the way it might be remembered, especially by a child.

If the movie shies away from the violence of the car accident, it still evokes – quietly but effectively – the horror of it, as the little boy wanders away alone from the wreck. The sequence where he encounters the dragon tastes strongly of a fairy tale, from the old, green, untouched forest, to the inhuman menace of the wolves, to the powerful, initially ambiguous appearance of the dragon. (I feel that this is what it would be like to enter Faerie: the beauty and fear and the unknown.)

The rest of the movie is crafted in a similar way. This is a film that lingers – on its characters, on its world, on its pivotal moments. It means to bring out all these things richly, and it will pause to do so. There is action in Pete’s Dragon, but it is not a fast-paced movie.

Neither is there exactly a villain in this movie. The one character who comes close is certainly reckless and somewhat selfish, but in the end even he is not so bad. The movie also rejects the cynical and sarcastic humor so much in vogue today. All of these elements add up to a gentle movie, an unusual movie in today’s theater. Even Disney and Pixar’s animated offerings are a tougher breed.

Pete’s Dragon does a fine job handling Pete’s reintroduction to human society, giving him much the reaction of a wild animal. Perhaps the most notable flaw is that Pete possesses language skills difficult to believe in a child who has lived in the wilderness for six years, with no interaction with other humans since he was five. I do not, however, complain of it. But not because I think it’s ironic or unfair to bring such a complaint against a movie that has a dragon; it may have a dragon but it has normal humans, too, and this is not realistic for humans, y’know. I give the movie a pass because to be realistic, in this respect, would have been more trouble than it’s worth.

The movie is, to the end, ambiguous on Pete’s dragon. The dragon is always central but also always silent, and it is impossible to tell whether he is a highly intelligent animal or in possession of a real, childlike sentience. The adults speak of him as an animal but only Pete could know the answer, and he would not ask the question.

Pete’s Dragon is a gentle, thoughtful film skillfully shot with beauty and a sense of wonder. It may not be the best kind of movie, but it’s the best movie of its kind.

Movie Review: Treasure Planet

If there is one thing we can all dream about, it’s finding buried treasure. We could all use the money, of course, and this way it comes with mystery and romance and adventure. What more could we ask for?

Pirates. That would add danger, ratchet the adventure up to a new level, and give us desert islands and the high seas. It would also add a touch of nobility, exalt us beyond mere fortune-seekers to the brave fighters of vicious cutthroats. We are the heroes of our story.

This is the enduring charm of Treasure Island. We all want to have the treasure, and the adventure, and come triumphantly home at the end. Treasure Island has been remembered and retold, made and remade in film after film. When Disney set out to create an animated version of Treasure Island, some fifty years after its live-action version, it needed a twist. It settled on: outer space.

And so Disney gave the world Treasure Planet. The movie may be labeled science fiction, but it can even more accurately be labeled science fantasy. The creators merge Stevenson’s nineteenth-century milieu with sci-fi, and this is most clearly seen in the ship that carries our heroes to the treasure planet. Although it is, in a highly technical sense, a spaceship, it looks like a wooden sailing ship from the nineteenth-century. It even flies like the old ships sailed, to some degree: Its sails are not decorative but entirely functional.

A curiosity about this movie: In outer space, there is no gravity but there is, apparently, atmosphere. After watching the movie, I read a bit about it online, and evidently the characters’ ability to breathe in space is explained by “etherium.” I believe etherium was mentioned in the film, but I did not know what it meant. The sort of viewers who must have breathable outer space justified to them may find this film jarring or inconsistent in its science-fantasy elements. But if you’re game for the ride, it will go smoothly enough.

The makers don’t merely choose a sci-fi setting; they go for broke. Jim Hawkins and his parents are the only humans in the film. In this telling of Treasure Island, Long John Silver is a cyborg – a natural enough leap from the one-legged man. The aliens that fill the background, and sometimes stand prominently in the foreground, are inventive but, with scant exceptions, unattractive. Disney transposes its mandatory Animal Sidekick to sci-fi with tremendous success: Long John’s parrot is, in this version, Morph – a small, playful glob of a pet whose shapeshifting and good-hearted mischief make it second only to Tangled‘s Maximus in Disney’s pantheon of sidekicks. 

Treasure Planet tinkers with the original novel to produce a solid, workmanlike plot. The movie shines far more in characterization. Jim begins the movie as what they call a troubled (read: delinquent) youth. This is not, of course, original, but what matters is that it is convincingly played and gradually becomes important to the story and, finally, meaningful. For this is the heart of his relationship with Long John Silver. Jim began that relationship distrustful, and Silver began it, at best, utilitarian; how quietly it became real, and how much it came to affect them, is a lasting credit to the film. Despite all his original intentions, Long John Silver becomes the father-figure Jim needs, giving him both discipline and encouragement.

This is, of course, the most important relationship in the film. Jim’s other important relationships are with his mother and the doctor (here Dr. Doppler because, you know, sci-fi). All three are either parental or quasi-parental, and Jim doesn’t get a girl to so much as look at. To take a young protagonist and completely sideline romance in favor of such relationships is quietly subversive in a Disney film, and possibly in all films.

Treasure Planet doesn’t quite ignite the magic of Disney’s best; possibly, with its visions of robots and outer space and bizarre aliens, it never really tried. Disney is the undisputed king of pop fairy tales and this film is an outlier. It never broke through to audiences in a way that could inspire successors of any kind. Still, the care and skill of the creators can’t be doubted. Treasure Planet is a creative sci-fi romp, with heart and with humor, and some lovely animation. Recommended.

Movie Review: Tarzan

The foundling raised by animals in the wilderness is an immemorial idea. A couple weeks ago I reviewed a movie about one of the most famous of these foundlings: Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle. Today I will review another movie, this one about another foundling of almost equal fame: Tarzan.

Disney released its animated version of Tarzan in 1999, on the dying wave of the Disney Renaissance. After the wave crashed, Disney languished in cheap, lusterless sequels for a decade; as it crested, it released celebrated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. In between, Disney released more experimental, and now largely forgotten, films – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and, of course, Tarzan.

Tarzan is the least experimental of the three. It’s a departure from classic fairy tales, but still fantasy, unlike the sci-fi incursions Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Disney formula of orphaned hero, boy-meets-girl, and animal sidekicks is intact. Variations are evident, however. Tarzan is an unlikely hero, his character made up of two divergent halves – one the epitome of physical strength and skill, the other naive and imitative in the most childlike way. The lively Jane, with her scientific interest and artistic bent, is an unusual heroine, neither too timid to slap Tarzan nor too proud to demand his help.

The music follows a similar pattern. Tarzan features the classic Disney spate of songs, hurrying the story along and encapsulating character motivations. Phil Collins, writing the songs, provides a departure of style. The lyrics are written from the viewpoint of various characters but sung by one outside singer – a technique curiously reminiscent of the songs in Toy Story. The music may well be the highest-quality element in the movie, although the stellar animation of Tarzan’s physical agility and ape-like mannerisms comes close.

Tarzan is strongest in its lighthearted moments; when the movie wants to be entertaining, it is. It stumbles when it tries to be dramatic. Tarzan’s adoption by the gorillas, and Clayton’s trickery, are competent and more. But outside of these and a few other moments, the drama fails to be convincing.

A great deal of this failure springs from Clayton, who manages to be, as the story’s villain, both over-the-top and underachieving. He is so obviously bad you wonder how Jane and her father ever got mixed up with him in the first place. On the other hand, his ambitions aren’t scary, or even particularly impressive. He wants to capture some gorillas alive! Only two of whom we have, as the audience, any reason to care about anyway! Remember when Disney villains plotted spectacular revenge and to take over kingdoms and control powerful magic and fun things like that?

The film is also unconvincing in answering the question it sets itself regarding Tarzan’s nature and place in the world. It comes too quickly, with too little reflection and reckoning. This disappoints me because the question was so interesting. It is, however, the movie’s lesser failure.

Despite the film’s stumbles, Tarzan is a fun romp with two or three musical numbers that are good almost to the point of being addictive. Unlike Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, it may not stand up to a thousand viewings, but it is certainly worth at least one.

 

Postscript: About that music … It’s been in my head.

Now it can be in yours.

 

Movie Review: Peanuts

I am back! Where have I been? Well, that’s a long story. I will only say, for now, that with finals week behind me, I hope to be posting more often. And I will begin with this review of a movie I now regret not catching in theater.

 

Who hasn’t seen it – Snoopy balancing a typewriter on his doghouse, Linus with his blanket, Charlie Brown decked by a fast ball on his own pitcher’s mound? These are all unforgettable images, imprinted on our culture’s memory.

But who has seen all these things in 3-D computer animation? Because, thanks to The Peanuts Movie, now we all can.

The Peanuts Movie, released last year, takes up this challenge: How do animators change Schulz’s comic into a computer-animated movie, while retaining its style and its appeal? This challenge is paralleled by the greater one faced by the writers – how to remain faithful to the old, great comic without simply repeating it. The specials were short, and this full-length movie requires a greater adaption than they did, a greater bending to the requirements and limitations of a different art form.

The makers of Peanuts meet both challenges with considerable skill. The film translates the style of the comic into 3-D; the characters look like themselves, and their world looks like the one Schulz created for them. Beyond its visual style, the film draws so much inspiration from the comic that every moment is suffused with it. Watching the movie, you can feel the comic.

And yet just enough is new. Movies, unlike comics, demand to be unified into one story, and the filmmakers provided this unification through the little red-haired girl. The story, although episodic in structure, is held together by the thread of Charlie Brown’s single purpose to impress her. The episodes, although never directly copied from the comics, all have their antecedents in the book reports, school adventures, and sports that Charles Schulz used so richly.

Some characters, most notably Charlie Brown and Snoopy, have been subtly changed. Charlie Brown spends most of the film as star-crossed as ever, always trying to be the hero and somehow always ending up the goat. Yet his failures are more dignified here than in the comic; it is hard to imagine Schulz giving Charlie Brown as much ability as this movie does, or as much meaning in his losses. Charlie Brown, in the film, loses a school competition because of an act of kindness; in the comic, it would have been because of something less meaningful, more random, more darkly comical.

Here, as in the comic strips, Snoopy is distinguished chiefly by the fantasies that so far outstrip his actual position in the world, and by his own unawareness of that fact. He is, however, far kinder to Charlie Brown, helping him and rooting for him throughout the film. Snoopy’s obliviousness to Charlie Brown, whom he thinks of as “the round-headed kid”, is removed from the movie. He yields the dance floor to Charlie Brown where Schulz, funnier and harsher, would have had him beat his owner to win the dance with the little red-haired girl.

This general softening goes beyond the characters to the story itself. The ending held a victory Charlie Brown never, in fifty years, achieved in the comics. This is partially, no doubt, because comic strips go on and movies end, and the unified story must have an ending to match. But it is also, no doubt, part of a judgment that the comic was a little too sad, Charlie Brown a little too inadequate, his world a little too cruel.

Schulz’s Peanuts was never truly jaded, never reached the bitterness or cynicism of some modern comics. Yet it is, in certain moments, more achingly sad than any of them, and running jokes like Charlie Brown’s always-bad baseball team seem to reflect this same blue measure of the world. The movie’s alleviation of this sadness is its one true departure from the comic. Other alterations, such as putting Peppermint Patty in the same school as Charlie Brown, are mere compression for the sake of time.

The Peanuts Movie is an accomplished retelling of Schulz’s great comic strip, successfully exchanging the art form of a comic for the art form of a movie. It is both funny and touching, and if less profound than the comic, it still provides that moment of satisfaction that the comic never did.

That moment where Charlie Brown finally wins.