Category: Family Musicals


SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs1

The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

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If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

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Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

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As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

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AliceInWonderland1951-1

It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

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For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

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Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

We have a (necessary) habit of looking past many of the traumatic moments of our childhood. We learn our lessons but our mind has the common sense to not let us dwell on the things we found most terrifying or emotionally scarring. My mind must have been especially scarred by 1987’s children cult classic, The Brave Little Toaster, because when I popped it in my DVD player today, I remembered very little of the film (which I hadn’t seen since the early years of elementary school) other than thinking that I thought it was a good movie. It is… but it’s also one of the darkest and most terrifying children’s movies this side of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. With an on-screen suicide, evil demon firefighter clowns, and countless deaths of ancillary characters, The Brave Little Toaster was a quick reminder that many of my favorite older children’s movies used to downright horrifying.

On its surface, Brave Little Toaster is just another children’s fantasy involving talking and adventurous inanimate objects, and in fact, it is now painfully obvious that a significant portion of Toy Story 3‘s plot was “borrowed” from Brave Little Toaster. However, beneath the shallow observations of a film about common household appliances going on a grand adventure to find their master is a surprisingly prescient meditation on loneliness, abandonment, and becoming obsolete. Since several future members of Pixar were involved in the film’s creation, it’s thematic maturity shouldn’t be all that shocking. I lost track of the number of times in the film that my sister and I broke out in uncontrollable “awwws” because something especially heartbreaking had just happened, and that’s not even getting into all of the pure nightmare fuel that The Brave Little Toaster is built on.

After being abandoned for ten years by their former master (who is now about to leave for college), five talking appliances in an abandoned cottage pass the day away desperately hoping for the return of their Master. Led by the moral leader of Toaster (Deanna Oliver), the group of the childlike Blanky (Timothy Day), Kirby the vacuum (Thurl Ravenscroft), Lampy (Tim Stack), and Radio (Jon Lovitz) wile away a meaningless existence in isolation, all knowing that their Master will never return but praying that he will. After discovering that the cabin is for sale and witnessing their air conditioner (Phil Hartman) intentionally kill himself, the group goes on a quest to find the Master, but crossing a dangerous forest and run-ins with a maniacal appliance shop means that their grand journey will be more dangerous than they anticipated.

I can’t emphasize enough just how scarring this film is. It’s the only children’s film I can think of where a character commits suicide (it wasn’t just the air conditioner either. One of the cars in the infamous junkyard scene intentionally drives on to the conveyor belt where he’s crushed into a cube). There’s a scene (with Phil Hartman playing another character with a spot on Peter Lorre impersonation) in an appliance shop from Hell where appliances who have been driven mad by witnessing their peers turned into scraps sing a macabre musical number full of terrifying imagery. Toaster has a nightmare with the above demon clown firefighter that morphs into a smoke monster that whisks his Master away. The junkyard scene has cars who are being compacted sing about how pathetic and worthless their lives have become. The Brave Little Toaster is probably much more emotional and disturbing for the adults who actually grasp what is happening. The children will most likely just be scared by the more frightening images.

There were two (semi) big names in the voice cast, and unsurprisingly, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman stole the show. Jon Lovitz’s Radio provided the film with many of its best comic moments, and his rendition of old 50s/60s style radio broadcasters was great (and the writing peppered his rapid yammering with enough pop-culture in-jokes to please the grown-ups in the audience including an especially clever North by Norhtwest reference). However, it was Phil Hartman in his two roles that was the most impressive. Who knew that Phil Hartman was such a great impressionist (well I’m guessing anyone who watched Saturday Night Live in the late 80s and early 90s). The air conditioner was an obvious Jack Nicholson impersonation and the hanging crazy lamp was an obvious Peter Lorre (Casablanca). For the older people watching the film, it was a good nod to the adults watching it with their kids (or grown-up now and watching it for nostalgia’s sake).

I’m always shocked to find just how well many of the children’s films from my youth have aged or at least the animated films. I don’t know what happened at Disney after the mid-90s but their game really went downhill (though Disney only produced this film. They didn’t actually make it) over the last 15 years or so. If you’re thinking about showing The Brave Little Toaster to your kids, they’ll survive it. All of us who grew up in the 80s and early 90s did. Just be prepared that they may not be able to sleep for the next couple of days afterwards. Although don’t be surprised if you find yourself to be more affected by the movie than your children. Much like Toy Story 3 which was all about growing up and moving past the so-called golden years of your youth, the themes of abandonment and loneliness will be much more important to the grown-ups watching the film.

Final Score: B+

The very first movie I ever saw in theater’s was The Muppets Christmas Carol. Between that holiday classic and The Great Muppet Caper, I can easily say I drove my parents Muppet crazy in the process of wearing out our VHS copies of those films. The antics of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and (for young Don Saas) especially Gonzo kept me entertained for countless hours. While my tastes have certainly evolved since the days where Mary Martin’s Peter Pan and Fantasia accompanied the Muppets as the height of personal entertainment, I’ve never completely outgrown my love of Jim Henson’s most long lasting creation. For a franchise that introduced me to Michael Caine, fourth wall breaking comedy, the perils of being green, and of course the heckling of Waldorf and Statler, it’s long lasting effect on my appreciation for both absurd and sardonic humor can’t be overstated. While the series last entry (nearly a decade ago), Muppets in Space, isn’t quite as memorable as the earlier films and the television show, it is with great joy that I can report the newly released, The Muppets, is a resounding success that combines the wonderful nostalgia of a franchise that’s nearly 30 years old with fresh jokes that will have you rolling in the aisles.

The film centers on brother’s Walter (Muppet) and Gary (Jason Segal). Walter and Gary have been life-long fans of the Muppets, especially Walter who sees kindred spirits in these puppet celebrities. Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a romantic getaway to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10 year anniversary as a couple, and they bring Walter with them so he can visit the fabled Muppet studios. When they arrive in LA, the trio discovers that Muppet Theatre is a ramshackle shell of its former self, and it hasn’t been used in years. After slipping away to explore Kermit’s abandoned office, Walter stumbles upon a plot by oil baron Tex Richman (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) to purchase the abandoned lot to tear it down and drill for oil. Now, it’s up to Walter and Gary to round up all of the Muppets for one last show to raise $10 million in order to save the studio. With cameos from Jack Black, Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Arkin, and many others, you get a star studded comedy musical that’s as much fun for the adults as the kids.

This film elicited tears on two separate occasions. Once, I was crying simply because I was laughing so hard. Without wanting to ruin the joke, the series manages to incorporate two songs in a row from sources that may seem as incompatible with children’s humor as Tupac or Biggie. When the first song began, it took me nearly a minute for the first song to register but when it finally did, the laughter didn’t die down until the second song was over. As to the second time I cried, it was related to the emotional depth the film portrayed. While I would never put the dramatic storytelling in this film on the same level as recent classics such as Up or Toy Story 3, I certainly found myself quite attached to series newbie Walter, even more than I cared about some of the B-List Muppets in this film like Rolf, Animal, or Scooter. Similarly, Kermit’s emotional journey throughout the film was as genuinely compelling as you could hope to get from a children’s movie, and while it wasn’t the most complex tale, I found myself legitimately involved in the Muppets triumphs and tragedies.

The film’s original musical numbers were a little more hit and miss than the jokes and characterization. I sincerely enjoyed some (especially the wonderful cameo by Jim Parsons as Gary and Walter sing about whether they are men or Muppets) and the pleasure of seeing the whole crew do the opening number for the Muppets TV show was great. However, too many songs just seemed like an opportunity for Amy Adams to show off her admittedly beautiful voice and didn’t contribute enough to the actual action on screen. Kermit sings a number at his house though as he ponders the lonely state he’s found himself in the last couple of decades that is just heartbreaking. This can be an incredibly sad children’s movie. I saw this with my little sister and I lost track of how many times one of us would turn to the other and say how depressing any given scene had become. That’s part of what makes it great though. Rather than insult children’s intelligence like so much of what is fed to them these days, The Muppets provides sincere emotion and life lessons along with the outrageous humor.

For anyone who prides themselves not necessarily on being a kid at heart but at least still being able to enjoy the childlike sense of wonder and innocence when you watch something like The Iron Giant or Where the Wild Things Are, then The Muppets is the first top rate children’s movie to come along since Toy Story 3. It’s not perfect, and at no point did I find myself completely wrecked with convulsive sobbing as I do every time I watch Up‘s prologue or Toy Story 3‘s final moments, but this is still the Muppets franchise at its best in decades. The absurd and often surreal humor that are the series hallmarks are on full display, and I’m almost willing to say that this movie will be even more enjoyable for the parents in the audience than their children. I found myself magically transported back to the little child who knew every scene from The Great Muppet Caper by heart, but with a new found respect for the clever puns, parodies, and sight gags on display in nearly every second of this film. Young or old, Muppet fanatic or neophyte, this film deserves your attention.

Final Score: A-