unshaved mouse

Disney(ish) Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: The Hunchback of Notre Dame II

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Execution is more important than concept.

Consider Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Doing Victor Hugo’s classic melodrama as an animated Disney musical is an objectively terrible idea. Awful. Comedically bad. You would have to really sit down and think to come up with a classic novel less suited to the genre. Dracula has more potential as a Renaissance Disney movie than Hunchback (Magical villain with a cape and animal sidekicks, heroine who yearns for more than her safe, stale existence, funny comedy relief foreigner and a happy ending, what more do you want?).

But the thing about Hunchback is that, despite the inherent cruddiness of the core concept, everything else is JUST SO GOOD. That animation! The character designs! The backgrounds! The acting! The direction! The singing! The music! YE GODS THE MUSIC!

So what if the final product resembles Hugo’s work so loosely that Disney might as well have claimed it was original IP and called it the “The Adventures of Maurice the Not-So-Pretty Bell Man”? Gorgeous movie is gorgeous.

But what if…what if all that was taken away?

What if you took away the animation, the character designs, the backgrounds, the acting, the direction, the singing, the music ye gods the music?

What if all you had left was that initial terrible, terrible idea?

Probably something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, produced in 2000 but only released in 2002, presumably out of shame. This movie is why we have words like “nadir”.

Let me be clear. It’s not simply terrible compared to the original. It’s not simply terrible as a movie in its own right. It is terrible compared to other Disney Sequels.

Scared?

By God, you should be.

***

Alright, so imagine you’re making a cheap sequel to one of the most beautiful animated movies made by an American studio in the twentieth century, and it’s to be animated by Disney’s notoriously shoddy Japanese TV animation studio. It’s not going to look good. Make your peace with that right now. But a good script is no more expensive to animate than a bad one so, y’know, you can still pull this off. You can still make a decent movie provided you don’t go out of your way to remind people of the original movie oh are YOU KIDDING ME…

You know what? I appreciate that. The movie just flat out dispenses with any pretense and shows us where we stand. The opening scene of the original is one of the single most powerful sequences in the whole canon. The gentle Latin chanting suddenly blasted away by the thunderous bells and those mountainous opening chords while Notre Dame looms impossibly tall over pristine white clouds, God, it nourishes my soul.

The opening scene of Hunchback 2 tries to replicate it and every single element is just so hideously inferior. Especially the animation. But especially the music. Especially everything. Everything is equally especial.

So, since last movie featured the Festival of Fools, this time around Paris is getting ready for the Jour D’Amour, with Clopin and Quasimodo OH SWEET JESUS MERCIFUL SAVIOR…

SEND IT BACK TO THE BELLTOWER!

Yeah, so here’s an interesting thought experiment. What if you had a cartoon where the animators simply didn’t have the skill to animate the main character? James Baxter’s original Quasimodo design is quite possibly the most marvellous and intricate model of any hand-drawn character in any Disney movie. It breaks every rule and somehow it works, it’s asymetrical, and heavily detailed and yet it moves with fluidity and grace and somehow manages to look ugly and appealing at the same time which shouldn’t be possible.

This movie’s version of Quasimodo is the animation equivalent of badly performed Shakespeare. The brilliance of the source material actually makes the whole experience ten times worse. Quasi truly is “half-formed” now, veering so wildly in appearance from scene to scene that it’s kind of hard to tell what he was supposed to look like originally. The fact that they actually managed to get Tom Hulce back (and even more bafflingly, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore and Jason Alexander) lessens the pain not a jot.

So Quasi is hanging bunting by swinging from the rooftops like a kyphotic Spider-Man while Clopin sings about the coming Jour de L’Amour. On the one hand, I suppose it’s a positive that the movie doesn’t try to undo the previous film’s happy ending and shows that Quasi and Clopin are both now beloved and accepted members of Parisian society. On the other hand, this is the fucking worst, right here. It’s all so wholesome and saccharine. Seeing Quasimodo and Clopin dancing in the streets together while smiling onlookers cheer and clap just feels…wrong.

“Ha ha my friend! Remember the time I almost hanged you in a sewer?”
“Ho ho! We’re such good friends!”

The opening song…actually no. Let me talk about the songs for a minute to explain why I’m not going to talk about the songs. Imagine for a minute you were taken hostage by a cult of inbred hillbillies who proceeded to slowly eat you over the course of many months. You would, possibly, decide that one of the hillbillies was nicer than the others. Maybe Ol’ Uncle Zeke is a real peach because he only eats your toes. Having a favourite song from Hunchback 2 is kind of like having a favourite cannibal hillbilly. You might convince yourself that one was less terrible than the others but it’s just your brain trying to protect you. The fact is,  all the songs are regurgitated garbage and comparing them to each other is a waste of my time and yours. Moving on.

So Quasimodo is excited because on the Jour D’Amour he gets to ring “La Fidele” a bell that is plan on the outside but studded with gold and jewels on the inside.

Because it’s beautiful.

On the inside.

Do you understand? Do you see what they did there?

“Do you see? Do you see?”

Now you might say “Mouse, isn’t the inside of the bell the absolute worst place to put a load of gold and priceless jewels? Wouldn’t the jewels be damaged and the bell sound terrible thus making the entire undertaking a double failure?”

To which I reply “Yeah. Yeah. But…uh, I think we got a bigger problem here.”

The bell doesn’t even have a FUCKING CLAPPER.

No, no. I’m being unfair. How could I expect them to understand how a bell works, they’re notoriously complex instruments.

Anyway, the three gargoyles try to convince Quasi to get out and enjoy the Jour de L’Amour but he says he has too much work to do. The gargoyles are again voiced by Jason Alexander (Hugo) and Charles Kimbrough (Victor) with Jane Withers stepping in to voice LaVerne as Mary Wickes couldn’t appear in the film, as she had passed on by this point. Allegedly.

“That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!”

We then meet Zephyr (Haley Joel Osmond), the six year old result of Phoebus and Esmerelda’s union and every bit as bad as the start of this sentence would lead you to believe. None of the original characters from the first film are anything but a pale shadow of their former selves, but I have to say that Phoebus and Esmerelda both suffer virtual character assassination, as they are here re-imagined as the kind of people who would name their child “Zephyr”. Phoebus and Esmerelda just start making out in front of Quasimodo (nice guys, classy) and talking about how they’re going to be yelling about how much they love each other when La Fidele rings. Zephyr asks Quasimodo who’s going to be screaming his name and he says “I don’t think anyone will” which is completely untrue. I haven’t stopped screaming his name since the movie started, usually followed by “WHY!?” and “WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU, MY CROISSANT SHAPED PRINCE?” Anyway, Esmerelda tells Quasi that there’s a girl out there for him, not her, obviously, I mean, Jesus, but you know…somebody.

A circus arrives in town and the magician/proprietor Sarousch puts on a show for the local rubes. However, his act almost comes a cropper when his assistant fails to appear. He finds her practicing a tight-rope walking act and chews her out, saying “You’re job is to stand there and look pretty.” but she says she want to contribute more to the circus. This is Madellaine.

Madellaine is voiced by America’s Sweetheart For Around Forty Minutes in 2000, Jennifer Love-Hewitt and she will be our love interest for this ordeal. This brings me neatly to what I call the “Quasimodo’s Girlfriend Dilemma”.

So, if we can acknowledge that this whole area is a minefield that we would run from if we valued our lives, let me say that I don’t object in principle to the idea of giving Quasi a girlfriend. I mean, pairing him up with Esmerelda is always going to be too far against the grain of the original novel (plus, two male and female Disney leads having  a loving but platonic friendship is important in its own right) but yeah, having Quasi never find love is problematic in a different way. So fine, a romance for Quasi, I’m game.

The trouble is that Madellaine…

Hold up. Has anyone, anywhere, ever seen that name spelled that way? Anyone? I’m half convinced Disney invented a new name just to trademark it. Anyway, Madellaine™ feels anachronistic in a way that none of the other original characters do. Everything about her mannerisms and performance screams “Meg Ryan Rom Com Heroine” and it jars in a way that’s difficult to describe. Oh, but she’s an unqualified success, a veritable Lando Calrissian of seamless sequel integration compared to Sarousch.

Sarousch is our villain and, believe it or not, actually makes for a worthy successor to Frollo. What’s that? You don’t believe it? Well done. I was testing you and you passed. Sarousch is garbage. Not even being voiced by Michael McKean can salvage this trainwreck.

There’s something about this that’s so crap, it’s like how much more crap could this be? And the answer is none. None more crap.

As well as being vain and obsessed with his own appearance, Sarousch is a thief who uses his circus as a cover for heists. Because, if there is one thing this movie wants you to know, it’s that circus folk are all dirty, dirty thieves. Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to go to the bell tower and charm the bell-ringer into showing her La Fidele so that he and the rest of the circus folk can steal it. Madellaine™ is not not happy about this but goes up to the bell tower anyway. Quasi hides because it’s a g-g-g-girl. He hides under one of the bells and talks to her, and they engage in some of the most excruciating romantic banter I have ever had the misfortune of sitting through. Madellaine™ tells Quasi it looks like he’s wearing a massive hat and, OH MY GOD BUT THEY MILK THIS. THEY MILK THIS ONE NON-JOKE UNTIL IT DIES ALONE AND IN AGONY.

Oh, and Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles. She shouldn’t be able to see the gargoyles, because as I made very clear in my last review, the gargoyles are all in Quasi’s head and even when we see the gargoyles interacting with other characters that’s just Quasi Tyler Durdenning.

I explained this. I made it very clear. This movie is undoing a lot of hard work on my part and this will not stand.

Quasi is amazed that Madellaine™ can see the gargoyles (SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP). She thinks she’s going crazy but he says she just has an active imagination. She asks to see his face and when he finally comes into the light she of course doesn’t judge him by his appearence…oh.

In fairness, I’ve been making this face since the opening title.

She runs off and Quasi sadly goes back to his table of figurines to make a Madellaine™ doll that he can smush against the Quasimodo doll while making kissy noises. Quasimodo then sings An Ordinary Miracle and I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the songs but seriously guys, you need to watch this shit. Come. Come and gawp at the carnage.

Not even Tom Hulce could save that that! It could not be Hulced!

The gargoyles tell Quasimodo…no wait, back up a step, what the fuck is happening with Victor and Hugo?

They’re changing colour so fast they looks you could stand beside them, play some techno music, drop some molly and get a rave going. Who was in charge of continuity on this? I mean God, they just did not care.

Back the circus Madellaine™ tries to explain that even in the circus she never trained for that kind of ugly but Sarousch tells her he wants the most useless bell in all Christendom and to seduce the Hunchback. Madellaine™ feels obligated to Sarousch because he didn’t turn her in to the authorities when he caught her stealing from him when she was six years old and also because she’s kinda dumb. She feels really guilty about lying to Quasimodo though, and stares at herself in the mirror so long that one of her eyes becomes larger than the other.

Is it a metaphor for the way her soul has become corrupted by Sarousch’s greed or is this just an awful cartoon? Who can say…

So after the magic show Madellaine™ catches up with Quasi and seems him carrying Zephyr home on his shoulders (so now he’s got two worthless lumps on his back, hi-yo!). Realising that anyone who could put up with Zephyr’s unending asinine prattle without dropping him down a well must have the gentle nature of a saint, she does…this.

I’ve mentioned the weird phenomenon of bad acting in cartoon characters before. I don’t mean bad voice acting, I mean when actual cartoon characters give unconvincing performances and Madellaine™ is an excellent example of this. Every gesture she makes is so over the top, so completely excessive, that it makes the Wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood look like Philip Seymour Hoffman. And here’s the thing, that is hard to do. Cartoon characters exist in their own world, we don’t think of them as actors, we think of them as real beings inhabiting their own seperate reality. For a cartoon character to be unconvincing would be like you giving a bad performance as yourself in your every day life. Sucking that hard is an achievement.

So they go far a walk and before you know it she starts falling for him for real. Meanwhile, Phoebus is suspicious because there’s been a wave of thefts since the circus arrived in town and he suspects Sarousch’s troupe. Esmerelda, Quasimodo and Zephyr all get mad at him when he blames the circus folk the thefts and theorises that Madellaine™ is using Quasi to get something else. So, big problem right here. Phoebus, is one of my favourite characters in the original movie and here he’s presented like a bigoted authoritarian jerk. But if your movie is going to be about bigotry you can’t have the bigot be right about every single thing. It is really suspicious that the crimes only began when the circus arrived. The circus troupe actually is behind the the thefts. And Madellaine™ really did get close to Quasimodo to steal something. And frankly, if Phoebus wants to investigate the circus troupe he has really good, compelling reasons to do so.

Meanwhile, Sarousch tells Madellaine™ to lure Quasimodo away from the belltower so that he can steal La Fidele. She doesn’t want to, but he tells her that if she doesn’t, Quasimodo could get hurt. Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Oh gee, I really hope Sarousch doesn’t hurt Quasimodo. I am so fearful for Quasimodo’s safety. That Sarousch sure is a dangerous force to be reckoned with.

God I would pay money to see that.

Never happens of course. In fact, Quasimodo and Sarousch never actually exchange dialogue. In two movies we’ve gone from one of the most emotionally rich and dark hero-villain relationships in the Disney canon to a movie where our hero and villain never even speak to each other. I just realised that. This movie keeps finding new and ever more galling ways to show me that that it is the fucking worst thing.

Phoebus shows up at the circus and interrogates Sarousch who pins all the thefts on Madellaine™. While Phoebus looks for her, Sarousch’s men break into the bell and steal La Fidele. They’re discovered by Zephyr and Sarousch decides to take the kid as a hostage.

Quasi and Madellaine™ arrive back at Notre Dame to find the bell stolen and Quasi is furious at her for lying to him. Madellaine™ is arrested but when Esmerelda discovers that Zephyr has been kidnapped Madellaine™ offers to help them find Sarousch. She leads them into the catacombs and Phoebus’ gaurds block off Sarousch’s escape but he threatens Zephyr so they have no choice but to let his boat pass. Madellaine™ convinces Quasi to free her from her shackles and they work together to rescue Zephyr.

She tightrope walks over the boat and grabs Zephyr and Sarousch yells “What are you doing here?” and she replies “Just standing here looking pretty.” because that was the thing that he said and that was the thing she was doing and that’s how screenplays work.

Writing.

And the movie ends with Sarousch getting thrown in jail and all our couples celebrating La Jour D’Amour, Quasimodo with Madellaine™, Phoebus with Esmerelda and Hugo with Djali. Yes. That happens. The gargoyle and the goat are our first official gay Disney couple. I wanted this for so long.

But not like this. NOT LIKE THIS!

***

This is probably breaking some kind of movie-critic omerta but I enjoy bad movies. The Room brings me real, pure joy. I enjoy the first Transformers and Armageddon and probably more of Michael Bay’s oeuvre than I care to admit. Bad movies can be wonderfully enjoyable and even intellectually stimulating. They have a way of getting my creative juices flowing, wondering how I’d fix this character or that plot point. Pocahontas 2 was a bad movie but it was interesting and weird and hilarious and I honestly got more enjoyment out of it than its staid, bland, competent predecessor. But Hunchback 2 hits that awful, awful bad movie deadzone between good enough to be enjoyable and bad enough to be hilarious. However bad it gets, it’s never stunningly bad. It’s suffocatingly bad. Numbingly dull. It’s hideousnesses never sinks to the level of the bracingly garish. It’s ugly, but “seventies Tory” ugly, not “freakshow” ugly. It’s a bad, bad time, is what it is. I’ll watch Foodfightagain before I watch this.

Scoring

How butt ugly is the animation? Is it as ugly as a butt: 2/20

Well, the characters move. So it meets the criteria of being “animation”.

Are the main characters jerks? I bet they’re jerks: 2/10

This Quasi makes me queasy.

Bet the villain’s a real shitpile, character wise: 2/20

Shit sandwich.

“You can’t print that!”

Oh what’s this? Supporting characters? Fuck you supporting characters!: 1/20

No, you know what, I can’t, I just can’t I’m welling up guys…

Man, fuck the music. I hope it dies: 1/20

AW CHRIST.

FINAL SCORE: 8%

NEXT UPDATE: 07 September 2017

NEXT TIME: Taking a bit of a break to focus on other writing but I’ll back in September for a slightly belated extra special fifth-anniversary review. When I started these reviews five years ago I didn’t really know what I was doing.

“Plus ca change.”

“Shaddup.”

So I thought it might be fun to revisit a movie I reviewed way back in 2012 and see what an older, wiser Unshaved Mouse review might look like. What’s the movie?

What else?

Mouse Goes to War!: Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943)

Hi guys!

We’re two days into our fundraiser to get Mauricio the fruck out of Veneuzuela and we’re already one third funded! So, to say thanks, I’m publishing the first of the War Era Short reviews which I was originally going to put up in September. I’ll publish another when we get to €500 and a third when we’re fully funded. And if you haven’t contributed already, please consider doing so. And if money’s tight, please help spread the word by sharing the GoFundMe page. Actually, do that anyway.

Both Mauricio and I could not be more grateful,

Thanks,

Mouse.

***

Studio: Walt Disney Productions

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: January 1st, 1943

Ugh. Ugh! A review of World War 2 shorts that includes Der Fuehrer’s Face. How obvious. How predictable. How vulgar. How basic.

But there’s really no way you can’t talk about this, one of the most controversial of all American animated shorts made during the war years (and hoo boy is that up against some stiff competition!). So let’s state three things straight up front.

1)      Yes, this is the cartoon where Donald Duck yells “Heil Hitler!” 33 times (also known as “a full Bannon”.)

2)      Notwithstanding that, it’s a really, really good short.

3)      Actually, in context, it’s probably less offensive than pretty much any other short we’ll be reviewing as part of this series.

When I announced this series, I posted this image of a saber wielding Donald leading a battalion of cartoon critters into battle against the forces of the Third Reich.

There were no survivors.

Some of you very astutely spotted something rather weird with this picture: How prominent Donald is, how de-emphasised Mickey is (he is driving a tank waaaaaaaaay in the background in case you missed him) and how “not there” Goofy is.

It suddenly struck me that I’d never seen a Disney short from the war years that featured either Mickey or Goofy, while I’d seen plenty that featured Donald as well as Huey, Dewey and Louie. So why were the ducks so heavily featured? I resolved to find the answer and embarked on an epic quest across the internet. I consulted Wikipedia. I consulted Quora. God help me and forgive me my sins, I consulted Reddit. And after all that research, do you want to know what I found?

 

Frustrating and unsatisfying as it might be, from what I can gather the answer to the question “Why did Disney use Donald Duck so heavily in their propaganda and not Mickey and Goofy” the answer appears to be “’Cos they…just…did.” I can offer a few theories, though. At this point in history Donald Duck was cresting in popularity whereas Mickey was already yesterday’s news so his reduced role could simply be a reflection of the fact that he just wasn’t drawing the crowds any more. Goofy was still very much a star, though, which makes his absence quite baffling. The only clue as to why this might be is that Pinto Colvig, Goofy’s voice actor, and Walt had fallen out by this point. Goofy had thus been transitioned into the “How to…” series of cartoons where Goofy doesn’t speak and instead follows the instructions of a suave narrator. These cartoons were very popular so Disney may have simply decided to use the ducks for their propaganda shorts rather than tampering with a formula that was working by sending Goofy into the army.

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Disney(ish) Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: Pocahontas 2: Journey to a New World

I was once a mouse of honour.

Once I had a code.

My very first post on this blog, half a goddamn decade ago, set out some rules that I swore I’d follow come hell or high water:

No live action movies.

No Pixar movies.

No direct to video Disney sequels.

So here we are. Come and witness as my last scrap of virtue is torn away. Today, I review a direct to video Disney sequel, the cinematic equivalent of hiring a prostitute to dress up like your high school sweetheart, something beautiful and pure rendered tawdry and mercenary.

Oh come, come, Mouse, I hear you cry. Are they really as bad as all that? Well…

Okay, real talk time. None of the direct to video sequels made for the canon movies are as good as or better than the movies they are based on. Not one. By definition, really. I mean. If Disney Toons had somehow made a sequel to The Little Mermaid that was even better, they wouldn’t have released it straight to video, right? They’d have given it a full theatrical release and made it an official entry in the canon like The Rescuers Down Under or Winnie the Pooh (is Winnie the Pooh still in the canon? Disney?)

“Um…yes? I dunno. Look, the canon is just a marketing gimmick, who even cares?”

“Oh yeah, sure, I understand, I just dedicated FIVE YEARS OF MY LIFE to this, no biggie.”

But, y’know. I’m fair. I’m a fair mouse. Everyone says so. Believe me. And while all of the Disney cheapquels are objectively worse than the movies they were based on, that doesn’t mean that they were entirely without merit. In fact, let’s play the game that’s taking the globe by storm, Mouse Says Nice Things About Disney Sequels For As Long As He Can!

Return of Jafar: Obviously (OBVIOUSLY) not as good as Aladdin but it actually did some interesting stuff plot wise by giving Iago a character arc and actually leaving a real, lasting change to the status quo by having him become a hero. Maybe not a great movie but a very decent pilot for a better than decent TV show.

King of Thieves: Robin Williams back as the genie, some much needed delving into Aladdin’s backstory and a fairly satisfying conclusion to the story of the Agrabah gang.

Lion King 1 ½: As a sequel it busts the original’s continuity straight to hyena infested hell buuuuut…great cast, really nice animation, some genuinely funny gags and Diggah Tunnah is honestly a good enough song that it could have been in the original movie (and a good song in a Disney sequel is a rare, precious thing indeed).

Bambi 2: Patrick Stewart as the Prince of the Forest. It’s truly sad when a Disney Sequel is making better use of Patrick Stewart than the actual canon movies.

Cinderella 3: A Stitch in Time: Faced with the task of making a second sequel to Cinderella and with the imminent closure of their studio, Disney Australia went all in on a batshit insane time travel caper. They went out fighting. They went out weird. And we salute them.

And as for today’s movie…

Okay, look. We need to take a minute to talk about the plight of a certain persecuted minority. A proud people who have suffered indignity after indignity in the face of a hostile and uncaring majority.

I refer, of course, to Pocahontas fans. And I am sorry that I must add to their legacy of suffering, because the truth is this:

I prefer Pocahontas 2 to the original.

“Never thought we’d be mobbin’ for Pocahontas of all gol-durn things.”

No, I’m not joking.

No, I’m not just trolling you.

No, I’m not being contrarian.

No, I haven’t suffered some kind of head injury.

Here’s the thing, if you love Pocahontas you probably love it for the music and the animation and I’m obviously not going to pretend that Pocahontas 2 holds a single solitary candle to the original in either of those categories. But in terms of story…

Okay. It’s not perfect. It’s not even particularly good. But. This is the story of a young Native American woman who most leave her home, travel across the sea and navigate the intrigue of a strange and hostile foreign court with the survival of her entire tribe hanging in the balance. And that, to me, is automatically more compelling than the warmed-over Romeo and Juliet plot of the original.

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”

Back in my Ant-Man review I had some pretty harsh things to say about Ant-Man as a superhero concept. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that I don’t like the character. To tell the truth, I’ve always found Hank Pym to be oddly compelling. There’s something about the guy who is good but will never be the best and the gnawing insecurity that brings that I think a lot of writers can empathise with.

Conversely, for this review I re-read some classic Doctor Strange stories and have had to come to terms with something deeply troubling about myself.

I, straight up, do not like Doctor Strange.

I love silver age Marvel comics. I love the aesthetic, the corny jokes, the ridiculous villain names, the artwork, the snarky editorial captions from Stan Lee, all of it. It be my jam. But my God, reading Doctor Strange is a slog.

And I think my issue with him is this; Doctor Strange is a character who rewards bad writing. Characters should challenge their writers. Superman and Captain America challenge their writers to portray them as morally pure and incorruptible while still being human and relateable. Spider-man is a challenge because he requires funny dialogue. Wolverine is a challenge because he requires almost no dialogue.

But Doctor Strange’s whole schtick requires him to recite turgid, purple prose at every problem he comes across and it is just such a grind. Even a phrase of such magnificent silliness as “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” starts to lose its appeal after the twentieth time reading it. But ultimately, it comes down to this: Wizards should not be main characters.

Glad you brought him up, we shall return to him presently.

When you have a main character who is a wizard it is almost impossible to generate real drama. So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:

EVIL WIZARD: I will do this bad magic thing!

DR STRANGE: I will cast a spell that stops you from doing this bad magic thing!

EVIL WIZARD: Aha! I have cast a spell that means your spell doesn’t work!

DR STRANGE: But I use my magic forcefield to block your spell!

EVIL WIZARD: But my spell is too powerful for your forcefield!

DR STRANGE: Nuh uh! My forcefield has infinity power!

And then the bell sounds and they have to go back to class. It’s basically the same problem as technobabble in bad episodes of Star Trek; artificial problems solved by an artificial solution. It’s never concretely stated what Strange’s magic can and cannot do, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t just pull a random spell out of his ass to deal with whatever the problem is. It’s why wizards are usually relegated to supporting roles. We follow Arthur and Frodo, not Merlin and Gandalf. Harry Potter gets around this problem by clearly establishing the rules of how magic works in its universe. Yes, Harry can use magic, but he never uses a spell that we don’t see him learn in class. So the audience is never in doubt as to his abilities and what the real odds are in any given confrontation.

Strange can be great when used as a supporting character, a kind of consultant brought in to help other characters when they run afoul of the supernatural. But as a lead character he just does not work for me. Can the second live-action Doctor Strange movie change my mind? Oh yes. I said “second”.

You have questions.
1) Yes, it’s a real movie.
2) No, it’s not a porno.
3) Yes, that’s the legendary Jessica Walter, star of Arrested Development and Archer.
4) No, it’s really not a porno.
5) It’s terrible, but also wonderful.

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

Once More With Feeling (2001)

Before I start this review I feel like I owe an apology to Martha Brady, who donated to Joanna all the way back in 2015 and requested this review. And the truth is, I think I may have put this one off a little too long. I would have been a happier mouse if I had not lived to see the day when I posted that I was going to be reviewing Once More With Feeling, possibly the most beloved episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a significant number of readers had not responded with:

“Who’s that?”

No.

No.

No no no.

You bloody millenials with your avocado toast and your auto-tune and your trigger warnings GET OFF MY LAWN! HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHO BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER IS? WHAT YEAR IS THIS?! HOW OLD AM I?! WHO’S PRESIDENT NOW?!

Alright, sit your asses down while I explain some things to you. You like TV? Well, it used to be crap. And then Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along and now it’s good. That sounds like hyperbole but..it’s kinda…not? Buffy, a never hugely successful (in ratings at least) TV spin-off of a pretty terrible movie on an also-ran network with no name actors was an unlikely avatar of the current television Golden Age ™. But in terms of impact on how TV is made, written and discussed it’s probably one of the all time most influential shows. It inspired a generation of TV writers, begat a slew of imitators, began a slow and steady move towards female-led drama in network series, turned Joss Whedon into a bona fide geek God, birthed the “actually this is a real goddamn thing” academic field of “Buffy studies” and helped move nerd culture firmly into the mainstream. Apart from the Simpsons, it’s hard to think of a show that has had a bigger impact on how dialogue is written for TV, with the show’s snarky, pop-culture laden patois instantly setting it apart from the pack when it premiered. And it is responsible for a website so dear to my heart, with TV Tropes actually beginning its existence as a Buffy fansite. The premise is this: You know the blonde cheerleader who gets killed by the monster in every horror movie ever? Well, what if she was actually the latest in an ancient line of demon hunting warrior women? Buffy Summers, outwardly an ordinary if not particularly popular California high school student, battles the forces of evil in her home town of Sunnydale. She is aided by her mentor and “Watcher”, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), sweet-natured nerd/witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brandon) whom Wikipedia describes as “a classmate of Buffy’s with no particular skills or abilities”. Which, firstly, harsh. Secondly, incorrect.

Because damn, that boy could smoulder.

In its early years, Buffys central gimmick was literalising the expression “high school is hell”, putting a supernatural spin on the trials and tortures of trying to get through your teenage education in one piece. The girl who nobody notices becomes literally invisible, a teacher who preys sexually on her students is actually a giant praying mantis, the foreign exchange student is actually an evil mummy instead of just an evil foreign exchange student. That kinda thing. As the series progressed it started delving deeper into Slayer lore and fleshing out its world to tell an epic tale of good versus evil. It also got increasingly experimental, with episodes with almost no dialogue, or music, or even basic narrative logic.

The Cheese Man was my favourite character. Mostly because of the cheese.

And undoubtedly the most ambitious episode the show ever did was Once More With Feeling, an extra-long episode that was a comedy horror…musical. Now, Buffy was not the first or last show to do a musical episode. Ally McBeal, The Cosby Show, Xena, hell, I Love Lucy did one all the way back in 1956. But they rarely go this “all in”. This is not simply an episode of a TV show where the characters sing a few songs, this is a fully scored musical with over a dozen original songs and fully choreographed dance numbers which the cast had to learn and rehearse while also making every other episode of the TV series. It was, by all accounts, an absolute ordeal. But did Whedon’s ambition overshoot his talent? Was this musical a Hamilton or a Spider-man: Turn off the Dark?

Let’s take a look.

“Oh yeah, Mouse is gonna take a look! At the sets and the costumes! The songs and the book!”

“And if he doesn’t like it then he’ll say “It sucks!”
‘Cos he’s the fuzziest, loviest critic in the whole wide…”

“What are you DOING?!”

“I thought we were doing a musical review? It’s my opening number!”

“No, I’m doing a review OF a musical, not a musical…how would that even work?! No one can hear you on a blog! It’s all text! That’s
a terrible idea!”

“I…I spent six months writing the score. Are you serious?”

“Yes! No singing!”

“Alright, but YOU have to tell Gangsta Asia his big dance number is cancelled.”

“Wow. He is in INCREDIBLE shape.”

(more…)

Announcing: Mouse goes to War!

TEN HUT!

So, having tallied the results from the recent poll to see which series of shorts gets reviewed next, I found I had a three way tie between WW2 propaganda, The Censored 11 and Over the Garden Wall with the Fleischer Superman Shorts coming in at a distant fourth.

So I decided to do the propaganda shorts as I figure that it has enough overlap with the other categories to keep the largest number of you happy since some of the Fleischer Superman cartoons and Censored 11 were also war propaganda and so could be covered in this series. And for fans of Over the Garden Wall, I promise I will cover them at some point (Frog and I have been talking about doing them as co-reviews for a while now).

See you on the frontline.

DISMISSED!

 

“No. You move.”

Far back in the mists of time I named Marvel’s 2006 series Civil War as one of my all time favourite comics which was proof enough for many of you that I was a fool and a scoundrel whose opinion on comics wasn’t worth a soiled back issue of Youngblood. It’s a controversial story, no doubt, and while I probably wouldn’t keep it on my Top Ten list if I was to do another, I stand by what I said about it before. It was a new kind of comic event, one where right and wrong wasn’t clear cut and black and white and which had a real, lasting effect on the status quo. Comics are a very conservative medium. Sooner or later, everything goes back to how it was before. No one stays dead, the bad guys always lose, the good guys aways win. In a word, they’re safe. Mark Millar, who wrote Civil War, has been accused of many things over the course of his career…

…but being safe has never been one of them.

The story kicks off with a young superhero team called the New Warriors trying to catch a group of supervillains as part of their reality TV show (hey 2o06, how ya been?). Turns out one of the supervillains is a dude called Nitro whose power is that he explodes. Which he does, killing most of the Warriors as well as a nearby school. “The Stamford Massacre” causes a massive sea change in American public opinion and swift legislative action from the federal government in exactly the same way that real life school massacres don’t. The superhero community is given an ultimatum: Either give up their secret identities, submit to training and register and work as a paid employee of the US government or give up being a superhero. This splits the superhero community right down the middle. Iron Man supports registration, seeing as any alternative would likely be much more draconian. But Captain America sees it as massive government overreach, like if the only way you could intervene in a mugging was if you were a cop. So right there we have a conflict that’s really fascinating and multi-faceted. Both sides have perfectly valid concerns and points of view. Personal liberty versus the greater good. The desire for security versus the rights of the individual. Heady stuff. Aaaand then Mark Millar kinda turned Tony Stark into a Nazi because it was a Marvel event and SOMEBODY has to turn into a Nazi in these things.

It’s Squirrel Girl’s turn next.

I love Civil War…

Let me clarify that, I love Civil War the comic, but it’s got big problems, the most glaring being that it undermines its own unique premise by having the pro-reg side resort to increasingly extreme and amoral methods and making Iron Man and Mr Fantastic into outright villains. But there’s more good than bad and I think its reputation has risen quite a but in the years since it was published, not least because virtually all the events Marvel has done since form an elegant, unbroken chain of perfectly formed turds.

This was the WORST Civil War, and yes, I’m including all the ones that happened in real life.

In the MCU, the Captain America series was the natural home for a movie version of the Civil War story, especially since Winter Soldier had already touched on its themes of government overreach and the War on Terror’s intrusion on personal privacy and liberty. Winter Soldier was a high-watermark for Marvel critically, and with the Russo brothers back directing, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both previous Cap movies and Agent Carter) and Chris Evans returning to sling the shield you’d think that Cap 3 would be about a safe a bet as a movie could be. But it nearly all went terribly, terribly wrong thanks to Marvel’s other civil war which was just now coming to a head. The head of Marvel studios, Kevin Feige, had been butting heads since the start of the MCU with the CEO of Marvel comics, Ike Perlmutter.

File photo.

Perlmutter is, by all accounts, about as pleasant to deal with as a scorpion in your anal cavity. Miserly to a Scroogian degree and a rather nasty racist (if you ever wondered why Don Cheadle was chosen to replace Terrence Howard it’s because Perlmutter thought they looked exactly the same. Yeah.) He’s also an alleged war criminal and I say “alleged” because I don’t want him to sue me. And for no other reason. Things came to a head when Perlmutter told Feige that this Robert Downey Jnr kid was costing too much money and that they should fire him.

Feige went directly to Disney who re-organised Marvel studios so that Perlmutter was completely cut out of all decisions involving Marvel’s films. And so Perlmutter was defeated and left with nothing but his incredibly lucrative job, his billions of dollars and the immense power that comes with being part of Donald Trump’s inner circle (come one, you knew this guy was friends with Trump as soon as I described him). It’s probably just a coincidence that Marvel’s notoriously racist CEO was kicked off the film lot right before Marvel released “the blackest Marvel movie ever” but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. But is the movie? Let’s take a look.

(more…)

“I ruined the moment, didn’t I?”

Ant-Man just does not work.

That’s not me giving away my opinion on the movie in the first line of the review (what kind of slut do you take me for?) I mean that fundamentally, as a superhero concept, Ant-Man is broken. The best superheroes are power fantasies, that’s their essential appeal. We all want to fly, that’s why we love Superman. We all want to be righteous, that’s why we love Captain America. We all want to be the richest, handsomest, smartest, coolest person on earth with an awesome car, that’s why we love Idris Elba.

And also Batman. I guess.

Now, of course, that’s not enough on its own. But that has to be your starting point. Even the superheroes whose lives are legitimately, genuinely awful have to have some kind of vicarious appeal. Sure, logically it would suck to be the Hulk, but who, stuck in early morning traffic, hasn’t wished they couldn’t just pick up that bus that’s holding everyone up and fling it into the sun?

But waking up and discovering that you’ve shrunk to the size of an insect isn’t anyone’s idea of a power fantasy. That’s the start of a horror story. Which, of course, is what the story of Hank Pym originally was. The character was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in a one-off story for Tales to Astonish in 1962. Scientist Hank Pym accidentally shrinks himself (sixties comic book scientists: buncha ditzes) gets trapped in an ants’ nest (where else?) before escaping and returning to normal size and vowing never to use the technology again.

The story was popular enough that Stan decided to bring Pym back as a superhero named Ant-Man, whose powers were getting small and talking to ants. It is, at the risk of angering die-hard Ant-Man fans of which I’m sure there are…some, not a strong concept for a superhero. Aside from the essential “meh-ness” of his power set, Hank Pym just wasn’t that interesting. He was in many ways a relic of fifties Marvel, when the comics were full of square, white-bread scientists battling monsters and aliens. Hank Pym was essentially Reed Richards with less interesting powers and without the fantastic villains and colourful supporting characters. And so, Hank Pym’s history in comics has been one long attempt to fix the character. To start with, Marvel tried to make Hank likeable the same way Scientology tried to make Tom Cruise likeable; by getting him a girlfriend.

Tales to Astonish #44 debuted Janet Van Dyne, who also gained size-changing powers and joined Hank’s crimefighting as The Wasp. Janet and Hank joined The Avengers at its founding, and since then there have only been rare gaps where one or both of them has not been on the team. But whereas Jan’s distinct personality (and, let’s face it, the fact that she was the only female member for two whole years) helped her stand out from the pack, Hank didn’t really bring anything to the team that wasn’t already brought by Tony Stark or Bruce Banner.

And so began a seemingly endless series of attempts to remake the character into something halfway cool. He got the power to become bigger and changed his name to Giant-Man. Then to Goliath. Then to Yellowjacket. In comics, like in life, you only really get one chance to make a first impression. If you think of the sublime purity of: “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man” then Hank Pym’s wild shuffling of powers and identities is the opposite of that.

And then there was…the incident.

In the eighties, Hank started suffering from mental instability and was booted from the Avengers as a result. Driven by feelings of inadequacy and suffering a complete nervous breakdown, Hank concocted a plan to programme a robot to attack the Avengers which he could then save them from and be welcomed back on the team. Janet was all “Oooookay, let’s put that idea in the maybe pile.” And then Hank hit her.

And that one panel is probably the single most famous panel featuring Hank Pym. Now, for context, the character was suffering from schizophrenia, had never laid a hand on Jan before or since  and his guilt over this has been one of the character’s few consistent traits over the years. But this panel is the reason why, if anyone outside of comics fandom knew anything about Hank Pym prior to the movie, it was that he was a serial wife beater. And, because I haven’t gone skating on thin ice in a while, I would say that that’s not entirely fair when you consider how many better known superheroes like Reed Richards and even Peter Parker, have hit their wives or children and it never gets brought up.

Seriously, Reed Richards is like the Sean Penn of superheroes in terms of the horrible shit he’s done that nobody remembers.

Not helping matters, when Mark Millar did his revamped version of the Avengers in 2002, the hugely popular Ultimates, which is set in an alternate continuity, he made Hank a full on psychopath who almost kills Jan by siccing his ants on her.

Sooooo, in case this hasn’t already become apparent, this character has some baggage.

Marvel’s original plan for their cinematic universe was to do movies of all the founding Avengers, Ant-Man included (there is even dialogue in Thor meant to subtly set up Ant-Man’s movie). But Ant-Man had by far the most troubled production of any of the MCU films, and after losing its director and undergoing multiple re-shoots and re-writes, it finally debuted in 2015, years later than intended and to possibly the most hostile pre-release of any Marvel movie to date.

You see, by 2015 the clamour for a female or minority led Marvel movie was becoming deafening and instead of that Marvel was giving us another origin story headlined by a handsome white dude (not a blonde named Chris though, so progress?). And of course, it wasn’t just any white dude superhero, but the white dude superhero was who was most famous for…

Yeah…tough sell.

But, against all odds, Ant-Man not only opened at number 1 but also earned a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, it also attracted a larger female audience than any previous Marvel movie, indicating that female movie-goers either didn’t care about the character’s reputation or didn’t know about it to begin with. You might say that’s because girl’s don’t read comics, but I’d counter that it’s more that girls don’t read Ant-Man, because nobody does. Because, as I’ve already spent over a thousand words explaining; Ant-Man doesn’t work. But does Ant-Man?

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #56: Moana

Question. Do you think that when Ron Clements and John Musker show up at the Disney studios they’re all…

‘Cos they’d kinda have to, wouldn’t they? I mean, they’ve earned that. If they wanted to stop at every cubicle and say “Oh by the way, we’re the reason you have a job. You’re welcome.” who among us would begrudge them that? With The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker kick-started the Disney Renaissance, catapulting the animation studio back to cultural relevance and critical and commercial acclaim. And then, just for poops and giggles, they did it again in 2009, with the Princess and the Frog marking the end of the Lost Era and inaugurating the current golden age of the canon. Come to think of it, I have a feeling that Disney could have saved themselves a lot of worry and financial distress over the decades if they’d just hung a sign on the wall saying “WHEN THINGS ARE GOING BAD, JUST MAKE A PRINCESS MOVIE”. Seriously, never fails. Okay, apart from that one that almost drove the company to bankruptcy.

Totally worth it.

Where was I? Oh right, Clements and Musker. These two men wrote the book on the modern Disney Princesses movie. They are O fuckin’ G, or at least as gangsta as one can be while making movies about princesses and their talking animal friends. They are the Biggie and Tupac of this one very specific movie sub-genre.

In this analogy, Walt would be Ice-T.

Moana honestly feels less like a Disney Princess movie, and more like the Disney Princess movie, an attempt to make as definitive a version of this kind of movie as it’s possible to make. That may sound like a compliment…but…

This movie feels like it’s trying to take everything that worked about the previous nine modern Disney princesses (Merida doesn’t count FIGHT ME) and distill them into one character. Moana is all those princesses combined into one. But is she an awesome Megazord or a shambling Frankenstein’s monster?

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

Charlie the Unicorn (2005)

I hate the internet sometimes. Sometimes I feel like it’s just this huge malevolent thing that holds me in its thrall, designed to make me outraged and depressed and extract as much money from me as is physically possible. Sometimes it’s hard to keep sight of just how much it’s changed the entire world, and often very much for the better.

Oh yeah, this series is still going. Sorry about the delay. One of the reasons why (apart from work being crazy) was the sheer, monumental task of picking just one animated short to represent the first decade of the 21st century. It’s like I said; before now there were only so many animation studios producing shorts in the West to choose from. Now though, virtually anything that appeared on Newgrounds between 2001 and 2010 was fair game, literally thousands of creators. How to pick just one? I bounced around between Homestar Runner and Badgers, which was essentially “something I could never cover in just one post” versus “something I couldn’t talk about long enough to fill even one post” before finally settling on today’s short; Charlie the Unicorn.

I said back when I reviewed Injun Country that just because a cartoon is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be good and Charlie is a pretty excellent example of that. It is objectively the worst animated of any of the shorts I will review for this series but it overcomes that through a combination of strong writing and hilarious voice work (all done by animator Jason Steele) all leading up to a single, hilariously dark punchline.

It’s a great short, and pretty much a perfect summation of my generation’s sense of humour. There’s a clear Simpsons influence with an even bigger debt to South Park, two of the single most important shapers of the comedic voices of anyone who grew up in the nineties. It’s also a reaction to the  ridiculously saccharine cartoons of the eighties, correctly twigging that there was something undeniably sinister about relentlessly chipper characters who want everyone to get along and have fun no matter what.

Be honest. If it turned out the Care Bears were harvesting organs, would you be shocked?

Animation was once one of the most exclusive and gated art forms in existence, with only a handful of universities and companies worldwide offering an entry point. Now, with the explosive democratisation of the artform brought on by the internet, anyone with an idea or a story to tell can buy some inexpensive software and become an animator. And, with the advent of sites like YouTube, they now have the perfect platform to thrive on.

Animated shorts never died, they just went to heaven.