Month: July 2013

Hunchbackposter (2)

Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

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Hey, you know what I love? Long, angry flame wars. By which I mean, I do not love those. At all. I bring this up because…while I know that I don’t have anything to worry about (the followers of this blog were, after all, recently voted Nicest Commentariat on the Internet)…
There was a whole ceremony and an award presented by Tom Hanks and a crazy party after…did I forget to tell you guys?

There was a whole ceremony and an award presented by Tom Hanks and a crazy party after…did I forget to tell you guys?

…but nonetheless I’m a little nervous going into this review. Hunchback, man. People feel…”strongly” about Hunchback. There are those who will loudly and passionately proclaim this to be the unacknowledged masterpiece of the Renaissance, the best thing Disney ever did. And then there are the Hugo loyalists, who think that the movie is an absolute disgrace to the source material, the perfect case-study for the abominable practice of Disneyfication. And then there are some who don’t have any particular fealty to the source material and just hate it as a movie. My friend Moira, (bracketsandampersandsyoureadnow) has often told me she just finds the whole film to be downright nasty and unpleasant.
So, which camp do I fall into?
Alright, let’s be honest here. This movie has problems. Serious problems that run right to its very core. The source material, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, quite frankly is not suited to being adapted into a Disney movie. Not because it’s dark, although it is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Disney can do dark. It just can’t do bleak. Now, full disclosure, I haven’t actually read the novel…
Yeah. That’s right. I didn’t read the 200,000 word 18th century French novel to research my silly little cartoon blog. Scandal.

Yeah. That’s right. I didn’t read the 200,000 word 18th century French novel to research my silly little cartoon blog. Scandal.

…but it ends with Frollo being flung from the cathedral by Quasimodo, Esmerelda being hung and Quasimodo mourning beside her body until he slowly starves to death.
mickey_head
Coupled with that, the book is an often scathing critique of religious hypocrisy and extremism…right?
"Hm? Uh...sure, why not?"

“Hm? Uh…sure, why not?”

And that’s something that Disney is just not cut out for. So we get changes like Frollo being a judge rather than the Arch-Deacon of Notre-Dame which leads to all kinds of plotholes and general silliness. These two forces, the dark source material and the sunny demands of the Disney formula are constantly pulling this movie in different direction and often threaten to tear the whole thing to pieces.
And yet…and yet…
When it works? When the emotional power of the story comes together with the gorgeous visuals, the near flawless animation, some great voice work and an absolutely spine-tinglingly excellent soundtrack by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz?
Guys, when this thing works? It SOARS.
And it’s brave too. I mentioned the laicisation of Frollo (and you know what? Fair enough. Catholic parents shouldn’t have to deal with a Disney movie telling their kids what’s wrong with their faith any more than Aladdin should have a screed on the depiction of women in the Qur’an) but notwithstanding that, this movie goes to some pretty dark places. And in its portrayals of sexual obsession and prejudice it’s remarkably honest and unvarnished. And that’s really Hunchback all over. It’s a weird, misshapen, sometimes ugly thing on the outside. But inside it has such beauty, and heart and courage…it’s kind of like…um…
Dammit, I had something for this.

Dammit, I had something for this.

Ah well, let’s take a look at the film.
Pocahontasposter

Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #33: Pocahontas

 

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

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We’d been working it on it for a couple of months and then Jeffrey calls a “breakfast meeting”. And in the meeting, we have the whole crew from Pocahontas and Lion King. And Jeffrey said “Pocahontas is a home run! It’s West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet with American Indians! It’s a smash hit!  Lion King on the other hand, it’s kind of an experiment, we don’t really know if people are going to want to see it.””

Rob Minkoff, Co-director of The Lion King.

Guys. You know me. I’m not a hatchet artist. I don’t enjoy tearing movies to pieces. I didn’t start this blog because I wanted to take cheap shots, I did it as a cynical promotional tool to advance my writing career because I love this gorgeous, hilarious, deeply weird gaggle of animated films we call the Disney canon. And I know a lot of you have been looking forward to seeing me feast on this thing’s entrails like a rabid boar but I honestly cannot think of anything more dispiriting to write and unpleasant to read than one long, unending rant.
So…
I’m laying down a few ground rules right from the start. Think of these as handicaps to give this movie a fighting chance so that it doesn’t just turn into a complete bloodbath.
  1. I’m not going to mark this movie down for its inaccurate portrayal of Indians, Native Americans, American Indians, Amerindians, Native Peoples
These guys.

These guys.

Not that the movie doesn’t get a lot of things wrong (I have it on good account that it does) but it’s not like I’m an expert so I don’t really feel qualified to call the movie out on its failures in that regard. See, the thing is…it is damn hard to write a portrayal of Those Guys in any medium that doesn’t end up annoying somebody. There are just so many stereotypes and tired tropes floating around that it is almost impossible to write a character that doesn’t fall into at least some of them. (Actually, if there are any Native Americans or people of Native American ancestry reading this I would be very interested to know if there are any portrayals in TV or movies that you feel actually got it right. Let me know in the comments.)  I am under no illusions that by deciding to make this movie Disney wasn’t setting itself up for a lose/lose situation.
Having said that, let’s be clear: They FUCKING LOST.
  1. I’m not going to mark this movie down for its historical inaccuracy.
It’s a cartoon. Not a historical document. So I don’t particularly care that Pocahontas is not twelve and John Smith is not a forty year old ginger. I will still mock this movie like the dickens for comedic effect, but it’s not going to have an impact on the final score.
  1. I’m not going to mark this down for failing to address the issues of genocide, forced relocations, slavery et al.
It’s a movie set in 1607. Short of one of the characters getting their hands on a time machine, how can the movie address events that wouldn’t happen decades or even centuries into the future? Granted, it hangs like a big black hanging thing over the entire movie, but that’s more history’s fault than the film’s. Besides. Do you really want to see a Disney movie that gave a realistic depiction of the Jamestown settlement? (Answer: No, no. Not even a little. No.)
I’m laying down these rules because, honestly, if this movie was good? If I cared deeply about the characters? If I was entranced by the story and thought the script was witty and emotionally satisfying? If I loved the art style and didn’t find the songs insufferably smug? None of the above would matter. You think I care that Mulan is set in the wrong dynasty or that Jungle Book makes no reference to India’s struggle for independence from British rule? Not a bit. So if it doesn’t matter to me when the movie’s good, why should it matter when the movie’s bad?
Oh yeah. The movie’s bad. Really bad. Like, a failure on all but the most technical level. Technically, it’s fine. The story structure is pretty much text-book. The animation is largely excellent if joyless and devoid of any real inspiration. But this thing is dead inside. It’s like someone killed a Disney movie and staged a macabre puppet show with the body. It’s the worst kind of formula driven, corporate movie making trying to hide its soullessness behind  a vague veneer of empty New Agey spirituality. And it’s dumb. It’s really dumb. There are dumb movies, and there are smart movies and the great earth is big and rich enough for both but one thing I cannot stand is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart.
So. How came we by this travesty?
Being Irish, I know a thing or two about booms and busts and when I read about the giddy optimism that was bubbling through Disney by the mid-nineties I can’t help but feel a little twinge of Celtic Tiger PTSD.
True story. Where I live was right in that thing's crotch.

True story: Where I live was right in that thing’s crotch.

Under the guidance of the Katzenberg/Eisner/Disney triumvirate the Disney animation studio had gone from being a financial liability to a money making machine. Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Lion King. One after the other.

"HEY! WHAT ARE WE, INVISIBLE?!"

“HEY! WHAT ARE WE, INVISIBLE?!”

Four of the biggest animated movies, hell, four of the biggest movies of all time in a six year span. Couple that record box office take with equally record breaking VHS sales and merchandising and you are talking about a billion dollar enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if years later it turned out that the real reason Katzenberg left was that Eisner kept cheating during their daily money fights. And, to their credit, Katzenberg and Eisner made sure plenty of that money got to the people who made it all possible. Suddenly, the animators’ parking lot was filling up each day with Bentleys and Jaguars. Generous bonuses were being lavished all around and the animation wing had a brand new state-of-the-art office building built just for them. But there was a cost to all this. Whereas the animation studio that Walt Disney had founded would slowly and methodically work on one film, release it, and then start on the next, Roy Disney had decreed that a new full length animated film would be released every year. As well as working on Pocahontas, the animation studio was finishing off Lion King, prepping for Hunchback of Notre Dame and working on A Goofy Movie and Nightmare Before Christmas. This massive workload resulted in long hours, stress and more than a few ruined marriages. And the toll wasn’t merely psychological either. Watch interviews and footage of the Disney animators of this period and you’ll see a lot of people rubbing their wrists, flexing and unflexing their fingers, squinting…we don’t normally think of artistic fields of endeavour as being physically gruelling but animation can put an absolutely brutal toll on the human body. Then of course there was the tragic death of Frank Wells, a huge psychic shock to the company made worse by the ugly fallout and Katzenberg’s departure from Disney.

It’s not possible to recount why Katzenberg left without getting into a lot of “he said she said” bullshit. From what I can gather Katzenberg’s version of events was that Eisner promised Katzenberg the  position vacated by Wells but then withdrew the offer because he was jealous of how Katzenberg was getting all these press accolades for having turned things around at Disney. Eisner, for his part, says that the position was Katzenberg’s for the taking if he’d just waited a while and not been lobbying for it so soon after Wells’ death. Did Katzenberg resign? Was he fired? Don’t know, honestly don’t really care. The point is, halfway through production of Pocahontas Katzenberg had left Disney vowing revenge.
"Fools! I shall destroy them all!"

“Fools! I shall destroy them all!”

I think all these factors, the over-work, the shock of Wells’ death, the sheer weight of expectation to keep the gravy train on the tracks and the bad blood caused by Katzenberg’s departure all combined to make Pocahontas a thoroughly miserable experience for the animators to work on. I have no proof of that, maybe it was an endless merry go round of delight, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. There is a sense of joylessness that pervades this thing, like everyone was just gritting their teeth and thinking of the paycheck.

Kind of like me, except I don’t get paid.
Sigh. Let’s just get this over with.
Joanna

Shameless self promotion!? THAT’S OUR SECRET WORD OF THE DAY!!!

So yeah, I wrote a play which is being staged as part of the 10 Days in Dublin Festival . If you like what I write here…I’ve got to be honest, it in no way resembles what I write here but I am really, really proud of it. It’s called Joanna  and it’s about two teenage girls who hire a legendary vigilante named Joanna to abduct, torture and kill the man they blame for their best friend’s suicide. Cheery stuff, right? It’s running in the New Theatre in Temple Bar for three afternoons, tomorrow, the eighth and the ninth at one o’clock. Any local Unshaved Mouseketeers (can we make that a thing? No?), or anyone who just happens by pure, random chance to be in Dublin right now, pop on over and say “Hi.” Tickets are €10 or €8 with concession.

Oh, and because I want to get all my shameless plugging done for today, check out this interview with me and artist Stephen Byrne over at Mentalist Dave for the new issue of League of Volunteers.

Now, back to the Pocahontas review. Where’s my hatchet?