Review: Cinderella

I’m tempted to begin this review the way they used to introduce famous people on TV: “My guest tonight needs no introduction …” This line has received its share of ribbing, being an introduction that declares itself pointless, but in fairness, you always need an introduction. Even for people everybody already knows about.

banner_cinderella2015Like Cinderella.

When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action remake of Cinderella, I thought they could not have chosen a better fairy tale to remake. Of all the classic Disney princess movies — and by “classic”, I mean movies that Walt Disney himself had a hand in — Cinderella was the weakest. I have never regarded the old Cinderella as a bad movie; Disney, at his worst, was better than that. But it is nothing approaching a great movie. It does not really explore the fairy tale of Cinderella, its facets and its potential.

But the new Cinderella does. Rather than rewriting the old fairytale (evidently a great temptation for modern storytellers), the movie retells it, making various changes and elaborations but staying faithful to the essential story. At the same time, the movie seriously considers the fairy tale and its characters.

As Tangled did, Cinderella finds its exceptionality in blending the best of the old with the best of the new. In the classic Disney princess movies, the princesses tended to be mild and predictable, and the princes absolutely generic. (Only Prince Philip, who fought a dragon and has an actual first name, stands out.) The secondary characters were always more colorful and often more developed: the dwarves in Snow White, the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, the mice in Cinderella.

Cinderella had this syndrome particularly bad, almost sidelining the human characters; perhaps Walt Disney’s first love of animated mice betrayed him. But the new Cinderella finds its focus on Cinderella and her prince, realizing them as actual personalities and making them active agents of their own story. This movie pursues the outstanding question the fairy tale raises about Cinderella: Why did she put up with her stepmother’s mistreatment so sweetly?

In another modern touch, it also seeks to understand Cinderella’s stepmother, to find the human reason behind her cruelty. Yet it never poster_cinderella2015_thewickedstepmotherrelents in making her the villain — notable during a time when turning traditional villains into heroes and antiheroes is popular, and probably a feat at any time; it’s not easy to both understand and condemn.

If stepmothers are the bugaboo of old-fashioned fairy tales, then fathers and arranged marriages are the bugaboos of newfangled fairy tales. Cinderella rejects the first, including fathers with unusual prominence, and also unusual respect and tenderness.

It does, however, incorporate arranged marriage as a danger to True Love, threatening the prince’s quest for happiness as Cinderella’s stepmother threatens hers — a total innovation on the first Disney Cinderella, where the prince could marry anybody he wished and his father merely insisted that he marry somebody (he daydreamed of grandchildren). But as with the stepmother, the movie finds the reason without giving approval.

Although the modern influences are obvious, and generally constructive, em>Cinderella is anchored to the old tale. It makes no attempt to be an action movie, firmly resists any pull toward darkness, and most importantly, lets Cinderella be Cinderella. For what is most arresting about Cinderella is that she endures hardship and injustice with a “sweet and steadfast will” — a kind of heroism in its own right. And not only does this movie leave that to her, it sums it up in two words: courage and kindness.

Or, to put it another way, strength and goodness.

Cinderella is the best sort of fairy tale retelling, one that takes the story to the heights of its possibilities while remaining itself. Told with heart and thoughtfulness and style, Cinderella turns one of the Disney canon’s weakest points into one of its strongest.


This review was originally published on SpeculativeFaith.com.

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: Big Hero 6

If you really want to get the bad guy, it’s logical to conclude you need a hero. You might further conclude, especially if you’re fourteen, that you need a superhero.

But to go from there to creating a superhero? For that, you need adolescent logic combined with genius-level skill. So enter, stage-right, Hiro Hamada, the protagonist of Disney’s just-released Big Hero 6.

I’ve never had much interest in superheroes; I don’t know why, although I suspect it’s related to why I never cared for comic books. But I knew I wanted to see Big Hero 6, due in large part to my memories of The Incredibles and Frozen. (This makes sense. Frozen was a Disney computer-animated movie, and it was very good; The Incredibles was a computer-animated superhero movie, and it was excellent; Big Hero 6 is a Disney computer-animated superhero movie. See? It follows.)

From the very beginning, Big Hero 6 exhibits its blended nature. It’s a superhero film, yes, but beneath the flash and action is an essentially sci-fi framework. The city of San Fransokyo – a delicious mesh of Tokyo and San Francisco – and elements such as bot-fighting create a world that is near to ours and yet misses it entirely. This may be the future, and it may be an alternate universe, but either way, it’s sci-fi. The story brings even “harder” sci-fi concepts into play, anchoring deeper into science fiction and eventually leading to one of the film’s most imaginatively beautiful moments.

The characters are likable (especially Tadashi) and often quirky (especially Wasabi and, uh, Fred). As in Frozen, a sibling relationship is the linchpin of the story. But here the relationship is less complex and far more positive. It’s also brother/brother, which I mention to bring up something I’ve long wondered about: Why, on those unusual occasions when sibling relationships really are important in a story, are they almost always brother/brother, or sister/sister, and not sister/brother?

There’s a dose of tragedy in Big Hero 6 – nothing new in that, even for a so-called “family movie”, but the movie digs deeper and darker than normal. It deals strongly, though with a light hand, in themes of revenge. The movie also raises the old comfort that “He lives on in our hearts” – a standard consolation when people want to provide some assurance of continuing life but don’t want to bring up heaven. But Big Hero 6 breaks form to portray dissatisfaction with the comfort: “He’s gone” – a simple counterpoint, simply expressed, but true and right at the heart of the matter.

Not that the movie seeks comfort in heaven, or that dissatisfaction is disbelief. All truths can seem like platitudes in the face of death, and to believe is not always to be comforted. But it was a sad moment and an honest one, and it felt almost subversive.

More than anything else, Big Hero 6 is a movie of enormous creativity. From the futuristic (or AU) world of San Fransokyo to a glimpse of what I can only imagine to be some sort of fourth dimension; from the robots and other tech to the incredible CGI that brought them to full glory – the cleverness of this movie is wonderful.

And so, for that matter, is its heart. As Big Hero 6 follows Tangled and Frozen, I think we’re on the wave of the third Disney Renaissance.

Movie Review: Peter Pan

All children grow up, except one. And Peter Pan, eternally young in Never Land, has another sort of immortality in the real world. Everyone knows who Peter Pan is.

Of all the re-tellings of Peter Pan over the years, Disney’s 1953 film may well be the most famous. A skilled artistry underlies the whole movie. The animation shows an expert hand. The writers wove together a complete story, with a villain and resolution and change, and sprinkled it generously with humor. The composers contributed a few lively songs, as well as the classic “Second Star to the Right” and the tender “Your Mother and Mine”.

While the Darling family is sympathetic and more or less normal, the denizens of Never Land have a strange tendency to seesaw in their natures. Captain Hook is sometimes a villain of brute and even senseless force, sometimes a villain of considerable cunning. At some points in the movie he’s a dapper sophisticate, and more often he’s a victim of comic mischance and the sort of slapstick only an animated movie could pull off. (I recently watched the movie with a small child, and apparently the slapstick sequences are hilarious.)

Tinker Bell spends the first half of the story in a fit of such burning jealousy that she actually tries to engineer Wendy’s death. But if she, among all the protagonists of the story, commits the most ignoble act, she also commits the most noble one. Her self-sacrificial rescue of Peter Pan grows into the only tender scene that revolves around Peter.

Which leads me to Peter Pan, the title character who is so much at the center of the action and so much on the edges of the film’s emotion. He whisks Wendy and her brothers to Never Land, and he sets off Captain Hook’s aggravated quest to get him. Though he readily engages Hook, all the life-and-death passion is on the captain’s side; Peter Pan plays the game with zest, but no gravity. And though he brings Wendy to Never Land to be his mother and the Lost Boys’ mother, he begins to forget about her shortly after they arrive. First the mermaids, then Tiger Lily draw his attention away.

In addition to this forgetfulness, Peter Pan showed a streak of mean-spiritedness – laughing as the mermaids ganged up on Wendy, humiliating Hook after defeating him.

Yet there is the scene of Tinker Bell’s rescue, which takes Peter Pan out of himself and his own self-enjoyment. And there is a poignant moment where he – listening alone to Wendy’s song about mothers – snaps his arrow in half.

Walt Disney was dissatisfied with Peter Pan when his company finally finished it, finding Peter Pan cold and unlikable. But there’s no greater tribute to Disney’s success than calling Peter Pan one of his failures. It’s a fun movie, an adventure filled with memorable and sometimes charming characters. Even Captain Hook is entertaining; even Peter Pan is fascinating.

Review: Epic

One of the oldest dreams of humanity is that there is another world within ours – maybe smaller in size, but larger in most other things. And while we dream of that grand world, thrilling with fear and with wonder, we sometimes dream of finding our way in. To judge by all the stories, it’s easier to enter by accident than by earnest seeking.

Epic – released into theaters just last month – is the old dream made new once more. Mary Katherine is a modern girl, from her cell phone to her broken home to her moniker “MK”. But she’s about to enter a world they could have told a story about a thousand years ago.

With a few additions. The snail and the slug – the comic relief of the movie – are thoroughly modern touches. Epic also makes a twenty-first century take-off of the “wise man” trope.

And these are only within the fairy-tale world. From without, the movie goes so far as to add sci-fi elaborations to its fantasy milieu – talk of the “ecosystem”, of another dimension. It employs a similar idea to what Terry Pratchett said of his gnomes in Truckers: They live faster.

For a movie, Epic is unusually complex. There are five story threads weaving together, at least four major characters whose stories are being told. In most of these characters there is some hint of cliche – the charming, high-spirited rebel, the obsessed scientist, the stoic warrior. Yet the movie deepens them with a sense of history and, with it, a sense of sadness.

The filmmakers handle their large number of characters and subplots expertly. They keep the pace up and integrate all into a cohesive whole. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing is wasted. Certain elements could, in a less full work, have been expanded upon greatly. I know that not everything was told, but I believe enough was.

Epic is a clean movie – surprising for any movie released in 2013, and especially for a DreamWorks movie. The story gives the action and the adventure you would expect, with the requisite dose of humor. More unusually, it draws its viewers into an elemental struggle between good and evil and sounds a light but pervasive note of sadness. Something, it seems, has happened to everyone.

Epic‘s crowning artistic achievement is the world it creates, realized with beautiful animation and with a sense of the grandeur, the peril, and the humor possible in such a world. Epic is an entertaining ride, and a satisfying tale, as it plunges into our old dream, the world within ours.

CSFF Blog Tour: Cleansing Legends

These past few days, as the blog tour has been reviewing and debating Merlin’s Blade, I have been reminded of Walt Disney’s Sword in the Stone. I don’t know what that tells you about my frame of reference, but there you have it.

Merlin’s Blade and Sword in the Stone are vastly dissimilar; any exhaustive treatment of their differences would turn exhausting. But there are a few, interesting similarities, arising in large part from the fact that, in both works, Merlin is a straightforward hero.

Anyone who wishes to make Merlin the hero of Arthur’s story must first face that, in the old legend of Arthur’s conception, Merlin was – to put it in legal terms – an accessory to rape. Also to adultery. It’s a disagreeable story that, if kept, sullies Uther and Merlin alike, with a stain that can be dealt with only by an epic redemption story or an enormous disregard for sin.

Naturally, then, Sword in the Stone and Merlin’s Blade discarded it. The former made it clear that, however Arthur came to be hidden, Merlin had nothing to do with it. (Remember Merlin explaining to his owl that he didn’t know who was going to drop through the roof, only that whoever it was would be important?) Merlin’s Blade also began after Arthur’s birth, absolving Merlin of all involvement in the event.

As both stories avoided the unpleasantness of Arthur’s conception, so they avoided the unpleasantness of Merlin’s. In an interesting paradox, Merlin’s Blade humanizes and Christianizes Merlin, and Sword in the Stone does neither. Disney made Merlin good; it took no pains to make him Christian, and it skipped entirely any question of how he acquired his powers. Merlin was a wizard, in the sense so often used in modern culture – another being, his power independent from the devil’s and from God’s.

In all this there is a cleansing of Merlin and the old myths of King Arthur – Sword in the Stone to an innocence, Merlin’s Blade to a more positive goodness. I consider both works creditable pieces of the sprawl of Arthurian legends. I also consider Disney’s Robin Hood – you know, where everybody was an animal – a creditable piece of the Robin Hood legendarium.

The Mind’s Reel

There are movie lines that stay with you, that your mind keeps on playing whether you ask for it or not. And many of these lines stick without any inherent merit or apparent superiority. These are not the things that, while reading a script, leap up at you; no, they stay tamely on the page, all flat ink. But somewhere between the script and the screen, some magic comes in and turns these sentences to gold.

Here are a few I’ve marked in my family’s own movie experience.

I don’t want to be a pie! I don’t like gravy. Chicken Run

These are the jokes, kid. Monsters, Inc.

Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow. Mulan

Period. End of story. Very sad. But personally, I’m crazy about it. Son of Flubber

Never trust a bunny. Hoodwinked

We’re in a war, man! There’s no time for stupid questions. Mulan


This one is useful to quote when you need more information:

Be specific, Bob. The Incredibles


This is an all-purpose expression of dismay:

I’m a lost toy. Toy Story


This – another line from Toy Story – no doubt owes its immortality to Buzz Lightyear’s heartfelt melodrama:

Years of academy training wasted! Toy Story


I think the alliteration plays a part in making this one memorable:

Foreign as a frankfurter. Chariots of Fire


And poor grammar has a part in these:

Don’t let’s get personal. The Love Bug

I told you they was organized. Chicken Run


These play off the fact that certain words – like monkey – are just inherently funnier than others:

What’s with the monkey? The Lion King

Dude. He ate our cake. Veggie Tales


And the most famous, most immemorial of all, known by everyone in the English-speaking world:

Lions and tigers and bears – oh my! The Wizard of Oz

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Stooges come in all shapes and sizes. Some are culpably stupid, some are innocently stupid, some are actively corrupt. Some stooges know that they’re stooges, and some don’t know even that. Many are bought men, and a few are only duped.

Jefferson Smith was another type of stooge – a tall, thin, Lincoln-quoting patriot, a leader not of men but of boys – boy rangers. They made him a senator because no one could complain that he was part of the machine, and he would still vote with them all the way. He didn’t know any better.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made by Frank Capra in 1939, stars Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Smith, Diogenes’ honest man. This David-and-Goliath tale belongs, like its brother It’s a Wonderful Life, to that genre once called corn-a-Capra. But it is a mistake to equate either movie’s happy ending and assurance of goodness with shallowness.

The writers and the actors bring out, between them, an unusually broad array of characters that seem like people. A few are one-trick acts, but most appear with human complexity. There is the governor whose cowardice – in a wholly accidental moment of glory – is conquered by his self-interest. A reporter introduced as a slob, his gallant offer of marriage (“I’d cherish you, and I’d stay sober”) refused, further on shows sense and even decency. The Speaker, wonderfully acted, is just enough on the hero’s side to give him a chance – and no more.

Clarissa Saunders – a brilliant foil to Stewart’s Jeff Smith – takes contradictory actions and still keeps her integrity as a character. She is complete enough, in her personality and motivations, to do so.

That same quality is possessed by Thomas Paine, the Silver Knight. We are told where he began, and we see where he ended; watching the story unfold, we can piece together his journey. As Jeff is the man Paine used to be, Paine is the man Jeff could become.

Parts of the movie are dated to the point of being historically interesting. One man’s political machine “muzzles a whole state”, at almost the last time in American history such a thing would be possible. A few general mentions are made of the hard times the country faced; the movie was released, after all, when America was in the grip of the Depression and Europe was boiling over into World War II.

More than anything else, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a story about ideals – what price you pay to keep them, what price you pay to lose them. It’s about causes worth fighting for, causes worth dying for – and why. It soars into a wonderful movie, a drama mixed with comedy and delivered with superb acting. The death of naivete is the triumph of idealism, when Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: The Fox and the Hound

The world has its natural enemies, creatures it pits against each other. Wolves and sheep. Farmer and locust. Hunter and deer.

The fox and the hound.

Disney’s The Fox and the Hound is called a story of friendship. It’s as much a story of enmity, and most of all a story of a confusion of the two. In childhood innocence, the fox and the hound became friends. Then they grew up and learned better.

Fox and the Hound is, at its heart, not much suited to be a children’s story. Not that it is the Disney movie least suited to be a children’s story. That distinction goes to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (What were they thinking? What were they thinking?)

But if there is a lingering somberness, other elements of the movie strike the Disney chord with great trueness. In an entertaining subplot, two birds hunt a caterpillar with great perseverance and absolutely no success. “That fuzzy worm,” they call it. That side-story captures so much classic Disney: cute creatures, humor, animal antics, it all coming all right in the end.

The shooting of Todd’s mother by hunters brings memories of Bambi – how could it not? And you cannot help but think Bambi did it better. The animation of Fox and the Hound also seems inferior, particularly the fire and smoke. Even so, it’s decent enough, and even rewards the viewer’s eyes with moments of loveliness.

The weakest part of the story is the climactic struggle, when the hunter is attacked by a large, mutant bear. It was as tall as a house, tore down trees, swatted the hound away like a mouse, and had red eyes. It was Godzilla Bear.

Once I found it frightening. Somewhere along the way it became silly. You wonder if there is, somewhere in the game preserve, a secret lab where unethical scientists are performing questionable radiation experiments.

Disney movies have been accused of being coated with sentiment. The Fox and the Hound is coated with pathos. It begins with the orphaning of a baby fox and interludes with a brief and splendid friendship. Then we have the end of the friendship, then it turning to hatred, then the sadness of the old woman as she pushes Todd out into what is turning out to be a cold world. Then she went back to her loneliness, and Amos and Copper went on the hunt.

At the end, there is some redemption – a revival of loyalty, a triumph of the old affection. Yet those very acts of self-sacrificing courage are a final salute to their fleeting, and now fled, friendship. It will not return. In the final moments of the film, we hear the wistful echo of a lost childhood hope: “We’ll always be friends forever, won’t we?” “Yeah, forever.”

“Forever,” Big Mama said, “is a long time. And time has a way of changing things.” Is that the lesson of The Fox and the Hound? Or is it that the world is older and larger than we are, and it has limits we can’t change? No Hallmark greeting card, either one.

The Fox and the Hound has its tenderness and its humor, but I don’t enjoy it as I did when I was little. It seems thinner fare now. But I am still moved by its bittersweet ending, its sense that in a different world the fox and the hound could have been friends.

And maybe, in a different world, they will be. After all, the lion and the lamb are going to lie down together.