The Best and Worst of Disney Part VIII: Animated Features (But Not Part of the Canon)

 

Animated Features But Not Part of the Canon

For reasons that can only make sense to Disney executives, there are a bunch of movies released under the Disney banner that don’t count as part of the official Canon. Reasons range from “Not animated by Walt Disney Studios” to “Feature length movie based on one of the Disney Channel properties” to “We thought kids would be scared of it” to “Christ, just release this thing so we can go back to pretending it doesn’t exist.” As you can imagine, the quality of these movies kinda varies.


JUMP TO: 

The Brave Little Toaster | DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp | The Nightmare Before Christmas | A Goofy Movie | James and the Giant Peach | Doug’s 1st Movie | Recess: School’s Out | Teacher’s Pet | Valiant | The Wild | A Christmas Carol | Gnomeo & Juliet | Mars Needs Moms | Frankenweenie | Planes | Strange Magic |


0078693621765_500X500 The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

This, besides Return to Oz, is the kids movie that millennials will inevitably bring up as the defining “Man, that movie was disturbing.” “Yeah, but it was AWESOME!” conversation piece of our generation. It is a weird, weird, WEIRD movie, full of dark themes and scenes that could give the little ones nightmares at best, severe phobias at worst. And yet, there’s something about it that makes you love it. Incidentally, future Lord of all Disney John Lasseter worked on this film.

THE BEST:

  • Oh my god, the soundtrack. The soundtrack to this film is incredible. It’s not your typical Disney musical in that the songs don’t really sound like Broadway, they’re more pop-rock oriented. And it works really well with the dark tone of this film. The absolute best song from the film is Worthless. While the lyrics go so rapid-fire I have to rely on captions to follow along with what the cars are singing, they’re well worth paying attention to, especially since the lyrics are really well written, and, well…they’re sentient cars singing about their lives in the seconds before they’re crushed to death. FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY! (I also love It’s A ‘B’ Movie for the Peter Lorre lampshade)

THE WORST:

  • Tough to choose between the “Killer clown in the shower” scene or the “Flower dies of a broken heart” scene (seriously, what the hell, movie) but I’ll go with the broken-hearted flower scene, because it just comes out of nowhere (wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the film’s Big Lipped Alligator Moment), and I still don’t get what the point of that scene was. At least the clown was representing the Toaster’s own phobias, but…why? Why would you have a scene where a beautiful flower falls in love with its own reflection in the Toaster’s body, then it dies when the Toaster naturally rejects it? WHYYY. WHYYYYYYYY? (Would you be surprised to learn that when I was little, this scene made me absolutely bawl?)

Ducktales_the_movie_treasure_of_the_lost_lamp_6756DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)

Once upon a time in the late 1980s, Disney launched a television series entitled DuckTales, based on the popular comic book character Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s Scottish maternal uncle who was an adventurous billionaire. The TV series would be Scrooge’s second animated appearance, as he debuted as, uh, Scrooge in the Mickey’s Christmas Carol short. Of the many Disney TV series airing in the late 80s/early 90s (which also included Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Gummi Bears, Gooftroop and TaleSpin), DuckTales was and is by far the most popular series. We can attribute DuckTales‘ success to a few factors – Donald Duck and his relatives are still incredibly popular (particularly in Scandinavia), kids loved the Indiana Jones-inspired fantasy adventure plotlines, and DuckTales has the most catchy theme song in history. Don’t deny it. Anyway. The feature length film served as a kind of a Grand Finale for the series, as it came out near to the end of its run. Unfortunately, the movie bombed somehow, so it remains a cult classic.

THE BEST:

  • I have gushed many a time about how much I love Back to the Future and The Addams Family, and take great pleasure in talented actors hamming it up when they play villain characters. So naturally I’m going to name Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Merlock as the best thing about this movie. I recognized him instantly, though in a roundabout way – “Gee, that sounds like Rasputin. Oh. Must be Christopher Lloyd.” The man never knew how to act in a way that wasn’t hammy (which is his greatest asset) so he works really well as a diabolical sorcerer. It’s actually kind of funny how similar Lloyd’s later part in Anastasia is to this role. In general, Merlock is a fun villain – menacing, talented, and also a magnet for slapstick. Nothing in this movie is taken all that seriously, which is perfect since that’s really how the mood of DuckTales is. “Yeah, this villain is powerful. But watch him turn himself into a cockroach and get squished!”

THE WORST:

  • Dijon the kleptomaniac serial betrayer backstabbing underling etc etc made me uncomfortable. He’s got a French name, but an EXTREMELY stereotypical Indian accent. I was half expecting him to say “Oh my golly gosh!” (Maybe he did when I wasn’t paying attention!) The subtext of the spineless literal weasel having an “other” accent doesn’t say good things about this movie. He’s also literally brown coloured whereas the “good guys” are literally white. Scrooge’s Scottish accent is stereotypical, but he’s given realistic flaws and virtues that form him into a cohesive, well written character. Dijon is just a pile of negative traits. Whether or not the subtextual racism was intentional, we do internalize these kinds of messages.

nightmare-bfr-christmas-2 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

This is one of my absolute FAVOURITE Disney films, and has been since the very month it came out. I dressed up as Sally for Halloween 1993, and my mother was an utterly fabulous Mayor – she would ask the parents if they were going to vote for her, and she had a bristol board cone-head that she would swivel around to the “sad” side if they said they wouldn’t (or had never heard of her…which happened a lot since the movie was new). Based on an illustrated poem by Tim Burton (who otherwise had nothing to do with the film’s production), Nightmare was originally intended to be an entry in the Canon, but was shuffled over to Touchstone Pictures when the execs (Eisner, I think. Katzenberg, you get off this time) feared that it would be too scary for Disney’s usual young audience. The film is a cult classic at this point, and one of the cornerstone marketing machines for the girls who aren’t into Pooh or Princesses.

THE BEST:

  • Oh, goodness. There are a LOT of things I love about this movie. I think that I’ll go with my usual “The music” answer, since that’s what I think of first when I think of Nightmare. This is Danny Elfman’s best soundtrack, which is saying something since he’s had a pretty great career. This was before Tim Burton started being way too derivative of himself, so everything in this film still feels fresh and new. Elfman’s performance as Jack’s singing voice is a hoot (so full of pomposity and impulsiveness!), the songs are all catchy and have some great wordplay, and the score is really evocative too – a perfect combo of ethereal and spooky, with some very memorable leitmotifs.

THE WORST:

  • Can I say “Giving Tim Burton all the credit for this movie”? Cause seriously, he only wrote and illustrated the original poem, which, yes, was wonderful, but that’s it. He didn’t direct the film, nor did he write the script. Henry Selick deserves most of the credit here, and he should be as much of a household name as Burton is (Go see Coraline if you haven’t already). I even had to correct a film professor about this. They’re paid to know better about this shit! It doesn’t help that Burton has spent the last decade of his career banking on the aesthetics of this movie, but surely it’s not a lot to ask that people give credit where credit is due.

a-goofy-movie-movie-poster-1994-1020366560A Goofy Movie (1995)

This was the second feature-length film based on one of Disney’s television properties, this film being loosely in the same continuity as Goof Troop. Goofy is a single dad who is having trouble connecting to his resentful teenage son Max, and when Goofy drags Max on a vacation, hilarity and by-the-numbers dramatic tension ensues. I didn’t really watch Goof Troop as I don’t like Goofy (I was a Darkwing Duck girl), so I’ve got 0 nostalgic attachment to this movie. All I can remember about it is how the advertising for this movie pushed the “Leaning tower of Cheese-a” joke to the point where it was no longer funny and became one of those comedic bits that sucks all the fun away. I can say though that A Goofy Movie was a lot better than I was expecting it to be.

THE BEST:

  • The musical numbers are RIDICULOUSLY catchy in this movie, especially the opening number After Today. It’s rather obvious Max’s singing voice is provided by someone else, which confuses me – Jason Marsden is a career voice actor, so shouldn’t he be able to sing too? Part of the plot involves Max trying to trick Goofy into taking him to a concert held in Los Angeles by the Michael-Jackson-meets-Prince singer Powerline. Powerline’s songs really do sound like they could have been huge early 90s pop hits – slick production, lyrics with very simple metaphors, dance moves and a fairly high tenor vocalist. I did find it kind of corny that Powerline just happened to perform a song where the message was about the newfound understanding in Goofy and Max’s relationship. Subtle, Disney.

THE WORST:

  • The characters who were not Goofy or Max might as well not have even been there, because they have little to no impact on the plot. If I remember correctly, Pete had a wife and a daughter, right? Where are they? (I’ll leave my lingering question as to why Pete is no longer a peg-legged cat for another day) And even then, Pete and his son PJ are barely in the movie at all, despite being deuteragonists in the TV series. They just occasionally run into the Goofs in the most contrived coincidences ever. Max has a crush on a girl, who basically does nothing besides admit she liked him in return, even when he displays traits similar to his father’s. And then there’s that character who Pauly Shore voiced, which already makes him desperately dated, but the way the advertising pushed him you’d think he was a major character. Nope! I guess the writers felt the whole father-son relationship thing was too important to bother developing anything else. Because obviously what media is short on is father-son stories.

james-and-the-giant-peach-movie-poster-1996-1020264301James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Based off of a Roald Dahl novel, JatGP was Selick’s followup to The Nightmare Before Christmas (complete with Jack Skellington cameo!). The stop-motion animation was incredible in this film – each scene is a visual delight. The music was once again by Danny Elfman, but the lyrics were often taken straight out of Dahl’s book. The film’s plot is on a whole new level of weirdness – a kid eats crocodile tongues, which makes a peach and some insects giant and what was Dahl smoking when he wrote this?

THE BEST:

  • As I mentioned earlier, the animation in this film is supreme. Even now, I look at scenes in the film and think, “How did they do that?” Imagine how much work it took to separately animate all of the seagulls flying the peach. And the mechanical shark, while utterly bizarre, is a visual overload, and again, they would have had to animate every single tooth separately. It’s just nuts. The designs for the characters are also fun and appealing, and show a lot of influence from the original novel’s illustrations (which were done by Quentin Blake, if I recall correctly). 

THE WORST:

  • Okay, I am really really sick of “New York City is the greatest thing ever because we said so!” movies. It makes me roll my eyes every time. And although I remember it was something from the original novel, seeing these English characters talk about how wonderful NYC is and how they’re going to do all this stuff there just irritates me. What can they do in NYC that they can’t do in England? Rack up ridiculously huge health care bills? Get mugged? Get stuck in gridlock? It’s been a pet peeve of mine that so many children’s films spend an awful lot of time building up the superiority of the US – in general, I dislike it when American media is intended from the beginning to be marketed to an international audience, but still assumes their audience is American and/or wishes to swallow more bile about American exceptionalism. Cut that shit out.

s_1st_Movie_Poster_8369Doug’s 1st Movie (1999)

Not only is this film a good example of hubris (that title was just tempting fate), it’s also a good example of what happens when the Nostalgia Goggles are shattered. Doug was a fairly successful TV series that ran during most of the 90s. The first four seasons were produced under Nickelodeon, then Disney bought the rights and produced 3 more seasons. Disney did a lot of retooling of the series (such as changed character designs and new plot developments) and one of the biggest losses the series suffered after its move to Disney was that voice acting superstar Billy West was too expensive to hire by that point, so the protagonist’s VA had to be changed. I remembered the series fondly, but this was during its Nickelodeon days when I could watch it on weekday afternoons. I wasn’t great at keeping up with Saturday morning cartoons, so I generally missed the Disney years. At any rate, this film came out just as the TV series was ending production. It did better on home video than it did in theatres (appropriately, this film was animated by DisneyToons and originally intended to be Direct-To-Video) but was still not successful enough to get a, er, 2nd Movie.

THE BEST:

  • This is going to take a lot of explaining, so bear with me. The Doug universe is definitely not our own, and that’s made evident by the fact that the characters (minus the Funnie family) have wacky coloured skin tones. Although on the surface it’s a middle school sitcom, there are sci-fi and fantasy elements woven into the story just for the hell of it. Anyway, the school bully Roger (and correct me if I’m remembering this wrong, because the movie didn’t give any reminders/exposition) became rich after the series moved to Disney. He wanted to do some sort of prank so he hired the town geniuses to build him a robot. And that robot is absolutely hilarious. Roger’s original plans asked for a behemoth killing machine, but what he got was instead a metal mother. The robot redecorates his room to be incredibly feminine, it chases after Roger to make sure he’s wearing his coat in the cold weather, and has this weird, warbling voice as it desperately calls after Roger that is very hard to describe, but also really funny. The best comedic timing was used with this weird little subplot, and it’s just so bizarre and ridiculous that I couldn’t help being entertained by it.

THE WORST:

  • Doug’s 1st Movie really did not feel the least bit like a movie. It felt like an extended episode, as the animation was completely average, and the overarching plot with the Lake Monster apparently stems from an ongoing plot during the TV series. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve watched Doug, and this movie didn’t even try to bring non-fans or former-fans up to speed. It basically dumps you into the plot, and expects you to remember who everyone is and what the character relationships are. I managed to follow along okay since I did watch a lot of the series when I was young, but this film would not serve as any kind of acceptable introduction to Doug. It’s strictly for existing fans only, which is probably why it didn’t do that well at the box office. Some other issues that the film had was that the only DVD copy that was available had jarring fade-outs/fade-ins between scenes (TV commercial breaks, I guess?) and a credit sequence that was sped up to the point that it abruptly ended in the middle of the credits’ love song. This is how little Disney cared about this property – they couldn’t even be bothered to get an original master of the film instead of grabbing the TV edit version. Also – this is not a flaw that the film exclusively shares, but I noticed practically everyone has a ridiculously squeaky, shrieky or overly “cartoony” voice. It was all very exaggerated, and very irritating after a while. (This is what I mean by the shattering of the Nostalgia Goggles.)

220px-Recess_Schools_Out_film_5253Recess: School’s Out (2001)

I remember even less of this TV series than I did of Doug, but this film eases you into its universe a lot more gently than Doug’s 1st Movie does. I don’t know a damn thing about Teacher’s Pet so I hope that movie isn’t dependent on preexisting fans as well… From what I can tell, this was meant as a grand finale to the series, but then it got renewed for one last season and there were a couple more direct-to-DVD movies? It definitely does work best as a finale, because of the overarching theme of how summer vacation is (to quote the movie) “the ultimate recess.” One question though – why the hell did they release this movie in FEBRUARY?

THE BEST:

  • The movie is at its best when it explores the important life experiences that summer vacation offers. I probably chose the best time period possible to review this movie [it’s mid-July 2015, for those reading this later]! I am not a big fan of summer, but there really is something important about it that has an emotional experience unlike anything else. Doing nothing doesn’t feel like a waste of time in the summer. And there’s one scene where the Principal talks about how every adult remembers what it was like to be a kid, and what summer vacation was like for them. That speech really resonated with me, because I genuinely do have wonderful memories of summer. I am using the word summer a lot in this paragraph. Summer summer summer. *cough* The movie also has a lot of 1960s nostalgia (the entire soundtrack is hit songs from the 60s, for one thing), which leaves me to conclude that the screenwriter(s) have most of their childhood summer vacation memories tied to that particular decade. One niggling complaint though: James Woods’ character justifies his completely wacky evil plan by ranting about how Canada has better test scores because it’s constantly cold and we apparently don’t have summer vacation. Um. No. Bad James Woods. Go to your room and rant about Benghazi some more or something.

THE WORST:

  • The overarching plot and the villain’s evil plan is such a ball of cliches, it comes off as a missed opportunity. I wanted to follow those kids to their separate summer camps and see what it was like for them being on their own and following their respective dreams, but still staying in touch with each other. (Maybe something like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?) Recess as a series has never been grounded in anything approaching reality, but the sci-fi stuff about using a tractor beam to move the Moon and thus prevent summer from occurring was really weird. It was also disappointing how much the film focused on T.J. and basically relegated the rest of the main cast to have to share the remaining screen time. It’s an ensemble series, right? I like T.J. but it kind of felt like he was the only character who seemed to matter.

Teacher's_Pet_film_poster

Teacher’s Pet (2004)

I knew absolutely nothing about this series before watching the film, and it seems that this was a chronic problem on Disney’s part. The TV series had only 39 episodes, kept having its timeslot and channel swapped around, the release date of the movie was more than 2 years after the series concluded, the series itself (beyond the premiere episode) has never been released on DVD, and Disney keep DMCA-ing fan uploads of the episodes. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that this was a box office bomb, and basically killed the practice of theatrically released film spinoffs of Disney Channel/ABC TV series. Which really bites, because, even though I wouldn’t call it a favourite or anything, Teacher’s Pet turned out to be the best one of them all. To summarize the premise of the series, Spot is a talking blue dog who disguises himself as a boy named Scott so that he can join his master Leonard’s 4th grade class, which happens to be taught by Leonard’s mother. (I don’t think public school works that way, but okay…) The Pinocchio reference that is right in the poster is very deliberate.

THE BEST:

  • This movie is absolutely crammed with witty, catchy songs. Which makes sense, since Nathan Lane (who played Timon and is a well-known Broadway star, if you don’t recognize the name) voices the lead character, Spot/Scott. There are 9 songs appearing in a film that’s only 1hr15min, so it’s even more of a traditional musical than most Disney Canon films are these days. In general, this is quite a funny movie that uses lots of self-aware humour (and takes full advantage of having the rights to use Disney references). For me, a little Nathan Lane goes a LONG way and I get tired of him pretty quickly, but the film was strong enough to keep me entertained despite this. In addition, I can say that it’s fairly accessible for new fans (unlike Doug and Recess), though I probably would have liked the film even more if I’d been familiar with the source material.

THE WORST:

  • However. The animation style for Teacher’s Pet is extremely stylized (the dog being blue is the least of the visual weirdness), which is commonplace for television animation, but not so much for feature animation. I really, really hate the animation style, and it was very hard for me to look past how grotesque I found the characters to look. I might have gotten used to it with time, but one reason why the film may have bombed is because heavy stylization can be a turnoff for many audiences (we were well into the “traditionally animated films are box office poison” part of history, which certainly doesn’t help). Teacher’s Pet still deserved way, way better, but looking past its animation style was a major hurdle for me. Thank goodness it’s got really good writing!

Valiant (2005)


the-wild-movie-poster-2006-1020348092

The Wild (2006)

This film is an odd duck as far as Disney Features go. It was animated by C.O.R.E. Feature Animation (Disney acted as producers and distributors), but is actually considered part of the Official Canon in certain European markets (replacing Dinosaur). The Wild is also highly suspected to be a victim of corporate espionage, as Dreamworks’ Madagascar has an almost identical premise (big city zoo animals break out and have a culture clash with human society and other animals), but because it came out first, it was a big hit, and The Wild was judged as an incredibly derivative bomb. Jeffrey Katzenberg is a petty, petty man.

THE BEST:

  • Just gonna say right off the bat that I found this film to be a baffling mess, and thus have trouble thinking of the movie’s high point. I think I’ll give credit to Eddie Izzard’s performance as Nigel the Koala, since he at least was acting his ass off and having as much fun as he could with this completely bizarre movie. Although this doesn’t count as a “Best,” (I’m actually rather embarrassed about it) I feel the need to mention how very, very Canadian this movie is. C.O.R.E. Feature Animation were based out of Toronto, and this was their first and only feature; they mostly did television series and visual effects. This film also features Kiefer Sutherland and William Shatner in major roles, and Don Cherry doing a cameo bit. And yet, there’s a scene with “Canadian Geese” (The species is called Canada Goose. Just Canada Goose. No “adian.”) using the phrase “Bob’s your uncle.” Canadians do not say “Bob’s your uncle.” You can take my word for that one.

THE WORST:

  • This movie appears to operate on dream fog logic. The characters move episodically from scene to scene, with barely anything in the narrative tying it all together. Things just…happen, and I kept having to pause the movie and livetweet my thoughts, because I couldn’t believe/understand what was going on. Some of these extremely bizarre scenes include a game of Curling (how Canadian) played with farting Turtles, Rock Pigeons with stereotypical Indian accents and Bollywood dancing, a Squirrel forcibly kissing a Giraffe, a “LOOK EVERYBODY IT’S NEW YORK CITY” montage set to Coldplay’s Clocks, the Koala crapping himself in fear and asking for “eucalyptus wipes,” Wildebeests doing yoga and choreographed dancing, Dung Beetles with German accents & outfits who think the Squirrel is a ball of dung, and the Giraffe deciding that she wants to mack on the Dung(?) Squirrel after all. All of these things happen. None of these things make any more sense in context. Please understand that this movie nearly broke me with how completely and utterly weird it is. It is not even weird in a good way.

christmas_carolA Christmas Carol (2009)

As if there weren’t already far too many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Disney decided to release yet another adaptation, which, if my memory is correct, is the 3rd version they’ve produced (the other two being Mickey’s Christmas Carol and Muppet Christmas Carol – the best version, incidentally). Sometime in the mid-2000s, Robert Zemeckis got on a major animation kick. Not just any animation, but CGI Motion-Capture animation involving real-life actors being turned into unsettling digital versions of themselves. The first and most successful of these CGI Mo-Cap experiments was 2004’s The Polar Express, followed by 2007’s Beowulf (which has been almost entirely forgotten), and then this film. The gimmick of this film was that Jim Carrey would be playing Scrooge and the three Christmas spirits, which was similar to The Polar Express‘ gimmick that Tom Hanks also played multiple parts. Zemeckis was so enthusiastic about this animation process that he’d had plans for films extending years into the future, including (for some reason) a remake of Yellow Submarine. Why he was so attached to CGI Mo-Cap, I’m not sure. It doesn’t look all that great, and considering the budget for this film was $200 million, it doesn’t save any money. I guess it saves labour, but I’m of the opinion that maybe you shouldn’t choose animation as a film medium if you want to cut corners.

THE BEST:

  • The Victorian-era tradition of telling ghost stories during the Christmas season has all but died out, perhaps owing to people’s insistence that Christmas should involve nothing but heartwarming and cheerful emotions (even if it kills us). Even many other adaptations of A Christmas Carol gloss over some of the more unsettling parts of the story, like the implications of Jacob Marley’s afterlife. So it is to this version’s credit that it is quite a faithful adaptation that does not shy away from the scary stuff. The very first shot in the film is Marley’s corpse, with his jaw held shut and his eyes covered with pennies (which Scrooge steals). All three Spirits are creepy in their own way (rather than only Christmas Yet To Come), which is particularly startling when it comes to Christmas Present, since many other adaptations cut out the parts where he exposes/challenges Scrooge’s cruelty and hypocrisy. This makes sense, of course, because they are spirits, even if they’re benevolent ones. There were some instances where the “Make it scary” thing didn’t work, like the painfully long sequence where Scrooge is chased by his own (future) hearse. But otherwise, this film had a really effective use of fear to make its point, without going too far into something that might terrorize kids.

THE WORST:

  • I reaaaallly don’t like Mo-Cap. Although this film is much better about not having “dead-looking” eyes like A Polar Express did, the animation style still looks like crap. It hovers this weird line between hyper-realistic and stylized, and just has the effect where it looks like the actors were just covered in thick layers of cellophane. The actors were vaguely recognizable, but why they made Colin Firth look pretty much like himself but Cary Elwes look completely different doesn’t make any sense to me at all. (I guess it didn’t help that Elwes was also playing the iconic characters Businessman #1 and Guest #2) And maybe it was related to the tone of the film Zemeckis wanted to strike, but his use of some hideously ugly character designs was very distracting. Scrooge is actively unpleasant to look at, his housekeeper even more so, and even Bob Cratchit looks like hell. The only part of the animation in this movie that looks good is the backgrounds, and that’s cause there’s no Jim Carrey involved in animating those.

32092Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)

This is one of the features that was released under the Touchstone Pictures label. To my great shame, it was animated by Starz Animation, which is based in Toronto. (Though to be fair, the animation is not the film’s problem, it’s perfectly fine.) A film that seems to have been borne solely due to a groaner of a pun, it’s kind of like Toy Story meets Shakespeare, except, you know…not good. I’m not entirely sure why this film needed to be made.

THE BEST:

  • Very, very easy choice here – it’s the commercial and concept of the world’s most excessive lawnmower, the “Terrafirminator.” I will link the ad here (which Touchstone Pictures’ official YouTube account has helpfully posted!) because I want you all to understand just why this is my favourite part of the movie. This ad is HILARIOUS. Masterful use of Hulk Hogan as the pitchman, way better puns than “Gnomeo,” and the concept of a ludicrously powerful and overly manly lawnmower really could have been a plot all on its own rather than just a diabolus ex machina. This ad actually gave me hope that this movie could be genuinely funny, buuuut…it was not to be. Still, props for the Terrafirminator.

THE WORST:

  • I have a BA in English, and it’s practically universal that all English majors have some degree of familiarity with Shakespeare’s works, and I would hazard to say that the majority of us deeply respect him. This film pissed me off. Gnomeo and Juliet opens with a scene making fun of how boring Shakespeare’s prose apparently is, which is extraordinarily telling. The movie goes on to try to have its cake and eat it too, by peppering the entire script with terrible Shakespeare references (like a teapot manufacturer calling itself Tempest Teapots) while simultaneously thumbing its nose at Shakespeare (almost literally) and directly claiming their happy ending is inherently better than Romeo and Juliet‘s famous tragic one. No. It is not. The arrogance of claiming that their silly movie about goddamn garden gnomes is better than the play that fostered its existence is just astounding. Who the hell do they think they are? I like to see love fulfilled and happily ever afters too, but how do you miss the point of Romeo and Juliet that badly?
  • Also: The entire soundtrack, including the score, is Elton John music, because he and his husband produced the film. I waver between liking and tolerating Elton John, but the soundtrack seriously tested my patience. I mean…the ending is the cliche Dance Party bit set to Crocodile Rock for no reason!

mars-needs-moms-poster

Mars Needs Moms (2011)

Hoo boy.

Chances are that if you’ve heard of Mars Needs Moms, you’ve heard what an infamous box office bomb it was. This film lost so much money, it singlehandedly killed the Mo-Cap subgenre (submedium?) of animation and prompted Disney to shut down the ImageMovers subdivision that had produced this film and A Christmas Carol. I don’t think anyone besides Robert Zemeckis is going to miss Mo-Cap, to be honest. Allegedly based off of a children’s book by Bloom County cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, the story is rather a throwback, combining Alien Abduction and the Damsel in Distress in which Mars needs to kidnap ideal mothers in order to somethingsomethingrobots to somethingsomething raise Martian children. If you’re frustrated by my vagueness here, I assure you that the plot is nonsensical and not worth trying to clarify.

THE BEST:

  • I’ve made my opinions of Mo-Cap pretty clear. This film looks even worse than A Christmas Carol did, which was compounded by the baffling decision to have Seth Green, an adult, performing the motion capture for the protagonist, Milo, who is a little boy…but have an actual little boy provide Milo’s voice. It looks really freaky, so why did they not just…have a child actor perform the Mo-Cap? Anyway, because the character animation looks so terrible, the art direction and backgrounds look absolutely wonderful by comparison. The areas where the female Martians live have a rather generic sci-fi chrome & cyan colour composition, but other areas such as the surface of Mars and the ruins (which have a kind of pulsing rainbow light pattern) look quite authentic/pretty.

THE WORST:

  • I didn’t come into this film with an open mind, as the Something Awful review I read several years ago was very memorable. Give that review a quick read if you like. Vargo certainly doesn’t need me to validate his interpretation, but I’ll say it anyway – he’s absolutely right about the really weird conservative viewpoint this film has about “nontraditional” families. It posits that women in power simply wouldn’t have the time to raise children, and that once they’re in power, they no longer care about families. The leader of Martian society, an aged (and rather wrinkled) female Martian known as “the Supervisor,” is first introduced to the audience by way of Milo making a Botox joke. The Supervisor is a comically stereotypical Straw Feminist, who outright throws the male Martians out of society because she thinks they’re weak, and somehow managed to convince the entire race that Martians never had families and were always raised by robots. (How exactly are new Martians born if the males and females are kept separate their entire lives?) She gets peed in the face at the end of the movie, by the way, which is her sole punishment for propping up a society that kidnaps and murders innocent human women. Milo is only able to describe his mother by the traditionally domestic tasks she does (feeding him, vacuuming, etc). And as I mentioned, Milo’s Mom is pretty much a Damsel in Distress, right down to being asleep most of the movie. It’s just so strange to see a “families with a mother and father are the only ones that are valid” story as recent as 2011, even when taking account of how conservatism seems to have an obsession with dragging things back to the 1950s. And the thing that’s really bothering me is that I know Berkeley Breathed is a very liberal cartoonist, so how much of this film’s plot was actually in the children’s book?

Frankenweenie_1_5611Frankenweenie (2012)

For those of you who have not studied film theory, I’m going to teach you a term that pops up in analysis all the time: Auteur theory. Basically, it posits that the body of work of a particular director has certain recurring traits that illustrate the director’s creative vision. This has nothing to do with the quality of films that the director has made – Michael Bay is as much an auteur as Alfred Hitchcock is. I mention auteur theory because Tim Burton is perhaps the most accessible example of a modern auteur, because everyone knows what certain traits to expect from a Burton movie: Danny Elfman as composer, he works with the same actors repeatedly, macabre and dark storylines, black comedy, reverence for visual art, etc. I have noticed that within the recurring macabre themes of Burton’s work, he seems to have a thing for reanimated dead dogs. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride both have ghost/skeleton dogs, and Frankenweenie is a remake of his short film of the same name from 1984, both about a boy who does the Frankenstein thing (almost literally) to revive his dead dog. The major difference between the two films is that the 1984 Frankenweenie was a live action short, and this is a feature length stop motion animation film.

THE BEST:

  • Although I suspect the target audience won’t appreciate it until they’re older, the vast majority of this film is a gigantic homage. Everything about its plot and visuals is in tribute to iconic images and stories that have come before. Primarily, Frankenweenie is somewhat of a parody not only of Frankenstein (which is obvious) but also of the cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies and the Universal monster movies from the Depression era. It’s deliberately monochrome, which not only helps to recreate the visuals of the older films, but also creates a dark and sinister mood just like a film noir movie does. The stop motion animation is also an homage, because many of these same films used that technique to animate its monsters (King Kong being the most famous example). Tying back to auteur theory again, Corpse Bride ALSO had an homage to stop motion by writing “Harryhausen” on Victor’s piano, and Ed Wood is a biopic about the director of the most infamous of the 1950s sci-fi movies, Plan 9 From Outer Space. What I mainly want to point out is that although Tim Burton can be annoyingly derivative, he also knows a hell of a lot about film, and unabashedly adores the stuff that film academics often ignore (you might find analysis of classic sci-fi, but not so much a study of stop motion animation!). And that’s just fantastic.

THE WORST:

  • Although the remake allowed the story of Frankenweenie to expand to explore other characters, such as Victor’s classmates, I’m not really sure if that time was spent all that well. Victor Frankenstein is a rather generic protagonist – he’s a nice boy who loves his dog, and is supernaturally (literally) good at science & filmmaking. There’s none of the emotional/mental torment and guilt that his book counterpart had, and any hubris that his character might have gone through wasn’t his fault, but the fault of his peers for messing with God’s natural order (or whatever). The rest of the cast hasn’t got much going for them either in terms of characterization, but I will say that Victor’s parents clearly go through a development arc. It is clear that the point of the film was to celebrate film, not so much about imitating the literary inspiration.
  • One other mild thing: Why is the movie called Frankenweenie when the dog’s name is Sparky?

planes_ver2_xlgPlanes (2013)

A spinoff of the Cars franchise, Planes was originally going to be a direct-to-video release that was, for whatever reason, released theatrically. Although most of the creative work was done at DisneyToons Studios, the animation itself was outsourced to an Indian studio. Which means this movie didn’t cost much (comparatively speaking) and thus made a decent profit without having to try too hard. As my introductory paragraph on the main reviews page indicates, I was expecting this film to be an unbearable disaster. It’s still not any good, but…Chicken Little is still worse, and Cars 2 still pisses me off more. I think I lowered my expectations preemptively.

THE BEST:

  • Uhh…I guess I kind of liked Skipper, the veteran WWII plane? He’s just a retread of Doc Hudson from Cars but he was at least an actual character rather than a dull everyman (like the protagonist, Dusty) or a cultural stereotype (pretty much everyone else). His tragic backstory gave the film a teensy little bit of pathos. Pretty typical character arc. He starts out gruff and critical, warms up to the protagonist, protagonist finds out that Skipper isn’t exactly who he says he was and that he has lived through tragedy, Skipper proves at the end that he’s still awesome. His backstory kind of unravels once you think too hard about it – the existence of WWII in the Cars/Planes world means that there was a HitlerCar. Or HitlerPlane. I don’t know. (I see that TV Tropes also noticed this same little worldbuilding problem!) I also feel that I should caution screenwriters about continuing to write WWII veteran characters if they’re going to continue to set their films in the present day – WWII ended 70 years ago. They’re basically writing characters who are, at minimum, in their mid 80s, but depicting them like they’re just in late middle age or something. But anyway, here is the one positive thing I have to say about Planes: Skipper is an okay character.

THE WORST:

  • Good god this film is a predictable tumbleweed of cliches. Every beat of this story is a scenario we’ve all seen a million times before, and it’s so relentlessly by-the-numbers I was bored out of my mind. I’d had a vague hope that John Cleese’s presence in the film might liven it up a bit, but he plays a pretty small role. I’m sure the lack of originality doesn’t matter to the film’s very young target audience, but holy crap, at least test yourself a little, O “World War II Took Place A Lot Longer Ago Than I’m Depicting It” Screenwriter! The thing that really sinks the film, though, is that its greater moral message about how you can overcome any limitations with perseverance is shot all to hell at the end. Dusty keeps being told that as a crop duster he isn’t “made” to be a racing plane. So he naturally wants to overcome that. But the climax has him not only having his dusting equipment removed, but being given donated racing plane parts, and then he wins the race that way. Great message for the kiddies – you can become anything you want, provided you’re the Six Million Dollar Man!

strange-magic-posterStrange Magic (2015)

Strange Magic is only a Disney feature film by default. They inherited the production after acquiring Lucasfilm, and basically tried to bury the film as deeply as they could. Disney released it under the Touchstone label, and dumped it out in January with little-to-no advertising (much of it not even revealing that Strange Magic was a musical). As a result, Strange Magic has the dubious honour of setting a record for the lowest opening weekend gross for an animated film that opened in 3000+ theatres. George Lucas had reportedly been developing this story for 15 years, as he wanted to make a film for his daughters – he believed that Star Wars was only for 12-year old boys (if I express my feelings about this mistaken belief we’ll be here all day, so I’ll walk away cringing for now). The result is a jukebox musical variation on Beauty and the Beast and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has fairy princesses as its protagonists, but also attempts to give a happy ending for the Bog King (a hideous goblin king who, while possessing a great set of pipes, lacks David Bowie’s all-important codpiece).

THE BEST:

  • Back in the 1970s, George Lucas made a name for himself as a writer-director with his influential hit film known for its iconic soundtrack, its nostalgic coming-of-age story, and introducing the world to Harrison Ford. I speak, of course, of American Graffiti. (…That joke sounded better in my head.) I’m a big fan of film scores and soundtracks, so I was pleasantly surprised at how good the music was. The soundtrack is really the star of Strange Magic, and all of the actors did their own singing and did it well (if they used autotune, I couldn’t tell). It’s hard not to compare this film with American Graffiti, because the vast majority of Strange Magic‘s soundtrack is hits from the 1960s. Both films feel absolutely CRAMMED with songs, and that’s saying something for a jukebox musical. However, a better comparison for the soundtrack is actually to Dirty Dancing, since both films use Love Is Strange in important moments, and Strange Magic also mixes in modern pop music with its Boomer-era pieces like Dirty Dancing did. I actually have Kristen Chenoweth’s version of Love Is Strange stuck in my head right now.

THE WORST:

  • Don’t go to this film expecting a fresh and thoughtful take on the fantasy-romance genre, because this ain’t it. The pretty fairy kingdom vs. the dark goblin forest thing has been done. The tomboy sword-fighting princess vs. the boy-crazy girly-girl princess thing has been done. The ugly fantasy creatures deserve love too thing has been done. Even the soundtrack is derivative – the Electric Light Orchestra song that the movie gets its title from was used in a similar context for Ella Enchanted. The stuff that is mildly original is unfortunately half-baked. Why is the Sugar Plum Fairy the one who makes the primrose love potions? Why does she look like a genie instead of resembling a butterfly like the other fairies? The love stories are cute enough, but the Tomboy/Bog King Twu Wuv romance happens over the course of half an evening, and the Girly Girl/Elf romance didn’t have any real establishment in the script. However, Strange Magic isn’t really that bad. Just uninspired.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter into

Part IX: Sequelitis and Direct-To-Video Hell!

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