Another List of Great Screenplays

If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember I recently did a post about the scripts for the 2018 BBC miniseries of Les Misérables, which are available to read online. Sometime before then, I did a post about which movies I’ve covered on here had the best adapted screenplays. You probably gathered from that that I enjoy reading scripts online. That’s to say, I enjoy reading them when they’re for movies I think are good or at least OK. I wish there were more available for free besides the ones put up for award consideration, but naturally a lot of the ones expected to win awards are based on capital-C Classic books and it’s even more obvious from this blog that I’m interested in those. Which of them are the best reads? Here’s my list. I’ve included links to each one, so if any sound intriguing to you, give them a click. You may find the screenplay format as enjoyable to read as I do. (Then again, you may not.) Note that this list is in alphabetical order as I find it too hard to rank all of them. The last one mentioned isn’t necessarily the best and the first one isn’t necessarily the worst. [1]Well, the last one might be true, come to think of it. Also, I’m not including screenplays on archive.org since you have to be a member to borrow them. If I did include them, there would be more Shakespeare on this list.

Honorable Mentions

While my favorite adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is Douglas McGrath’s 1996 movie, its script is sadly not online for everyone to read. Eleanor Catton’s script for the 2020 movie is though, and while it’s not as inspired as the other Austen-inspired screenplays on this list, it’s quite engaging and does a good job of restructuring the novel as a movie. There’s an argument to be made that it tells the story better than McGrath’s script did-indeed, it does a better job than the final movie did. Many scenes and lines were cut that shouldn’t have been in my opinion. Catton also relies on the actors’ faces to convey their inner lives a bit too much for her own good and, if you ask me, the 2020 movie’s cast let her down, so reading this script is actually more satisfying than watching the film.

I think I’ve written enough about Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship in the past, though I do regret that every time I write about it, I have to mention that I don’t think it quite as great as it could have been. As it is, it’s still wonderfully quotable thanks to both the source material and the adapter.

Part of me feels like Moria Buffini’s script for the 2011 movie, Jane Eyre, deserves more than just an honorable mention. The only reason I don’t favor it more is that I’m not a huge fan of the book by Charlotte Bronte, though I can certainly see its appeal, mainly because I don’t really buy into the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.[2]I can understand why he’s attracted to her but not why she’s so into him. Regrettably, since the script has to trim down the dialogue between the two characters, I buy it even less there. But for the most part, Buffini does a beautiful job of adapting the book, staying true to its story and spirit while making it feel cinematic. I know not everyone likes nonlinear storytelling, but I applaud the decision to begin with Jane’s desperate flight from Thornhill and intersperse flashbacks of the events leading up to it with her stay with the Rivers family. As the latter is basically a character study albeit an interesting one, it would have felt boring and anticlimactic after the melodrama of the former. This restructuring also makes it more of an open question with which of her two potential love interests Jane will end up. The opening montage contains a lot of details from the book which were sadly cut from the final movie as was a scene explaining the backstory of Rochester’s ward, Adele.[3]There are actually two drafts of the script to read online, the shooting script and an earlier one. I believe the final script was the best on the whole but there are some interesting things about … Continue reading

Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci’s screenplay for the 2019 movie, The Personal History of David Copperfield, is less true to its source material than most, if not all, of other scripts on this list. Not only does it take liberties with the story and some of the characters, but it leans much more into comedy and away from sentiment and its sense of humor isn’t exactly the same as that of the book either. But it’s so witty and fun that I had to include it and I’ll begrudgingly admit that, even more so than Charles Dickens’s other long novels, David Copperfield, with its loose “autobiographical” structure, needed a certain amount of reimagining to work as a movie. In most adaptations of it, even some of the longer ones, there are allusions to a number of things that don’t get any payoff, such as the traumatic backstories of Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick. That’s not the case here. (Ironically, this version does more justice to the serious aspects of the latter character than most of the more serious adaptations.) I still feel the version of the script that’s available online is a little too clever for its own good and tries to do a little too much visually. The movie was wise to back away from it a little bit. But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to read the script and compare it to the final product. Especially interesting to Dickens fans are the allusions to other books of his and not just the most famous ones. Again, I think it was the right decision to cut these since they’d have been confusing to mainstream audiences, but I find them fascinating.

Coriolanus (2011) by John Logan

There are handful of screenplays adapted from William Shakespeare available to read online, though sadly not as many as I might wish. My favorite is actually based on one of his lesser-known plays. Coriolanus himself is a notoriously hard protagonist to like with his violent nature, his defiant pride and his cruel contempt for the common people.[4]Whether Shakespeare agreed with the snobbery of his patrician characters in Coriolanus is hard to say. The citizens are shown to be pathetically gullible and easily swayed. But when they’re not … Continue reading But while I don’t approve of many of his actions and attitudes, I do like him in a weird way and pity him. Maybe it’s because I relate to many of his character flaws[5]His lack of people skills leads me to think he has Asperger’s Syndrome like myself. unlike those of Shakespeare’s more popular tragic heroes, like Hamlet, Romeo, Cleopatra and King Lear, whom I mainly tolerate for the many great quotes they’ve given the world. Corionalus has one of the most powerful endings in Shakespeare in which we see both how much the main character is able to bend and how much he hasn’t changed at all. The latter might be the real tragedy of Coriolanus.

Logan’s screenplay does a magnificent job of expanding on Shakespeare’s minimalistic stage directions. His descriptions of the characters are all on point. The updating of the time period makes much more sense than other modern dress versions of Shakespeare plays, though maybe that’s more thanks to the source material than to this adaptation. The script also excels at rearranging and cutting the fat, so to speak, from Shakespeare’s text while still being loaded with great quotes. It’s about as accessible to modern audiences as possible without dumbing anything down. A couple of memorable details, Coriolanus’s son chasing and “mammocking” a butterfly and a poor man in enemy territory showing Coriolanus kindness, are shown rather mentioned. The script flows like a movie, not a stage play, yet it’s as Shakespearean in its content as you could wish. I haven’t actually watched the movie itself, apart from clips, due to the bloody, gruesome nature of the beast and my own squeamish stomach. But if it lives up to the screenplay’s potential, it’s awesome.

Great Expectations (2012) by David Nicholls

Unlike The Personal History of David Copperfield, this screenplay stays very true to story and spirit of its Dickensian source material, though it arguably had an easier job since Great Expectations, while a complex work in many ways, is dramatically tighter and has fewer subplots than other doorstoppers by Charles Dickens. Nicholls does justice to all the different aspects of the book, the humorous, the tragic, the creepy and the heartwarming.[6]By contrast, the acclaimed 1946 movie does a great job with the creepy aspects but not with the heartwarming. The plot is certainly compressed compared to the slow paced novel, particularly the last act, but it never feels compressed if you know what I mean. I do have a minor problem with how it drops a redemptive act on the part of Pip and Miss Havisham. But it’s amazing just how much of the plot it includes without feeling crammed. I have a bigger problem with how it compromises the character of Estella, implying that she’s much more capable of love than she admits.[7]The creepy character of Mr. Jaggers also ends up being softened but I don’t mind that much. But that’s less of a problem reading the script than it is watching the movie. This one of those screenplays where I love the movie that plays in my head when I read it much more than the one that was actually made from it. The script includes some great scenes and lines for Herbert Pocket and Biddy, the wisest character in the book, which should not have been cut in my opinion.[8]In the movie’s defense though, cutting a pointless scene of Pip and Herbert holding a housewarming party was the right decision and the movie has a great line from Joe Gargery that isn’t … Continue reading

Little Women (2019) by Greta Gerwig

I feel like I’ve written enough about this script already.

Miserables, Les (2012) by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer

Ditto.

Sense and Sensibility (1995) by Emma Thompson

As I wrote in a previous post, I find this movie to be quite drab and lifeless to watch[9]To be fair, a movie set in England during the summer may inevitably be too drab looking., but the published screenplay is wonderfully fun and engaging to read. It’s full of witty lines and humorous characters that either are from Jane Austen or feel like they could have been. (In the one of the many great lines and scenes that were shamefully cut from the final film, a dying man, discussing the future of their daughters with his wife, says that the youngest “will go to sea and become a pirate so we need not concern ourselves with her.”) But Thompson also brings a warmth and humanity to the material which I don’t usually associate with Austen’s aloof prose style. Despite its anti-drama queen message, Sense and Sensibility arguably has one of its author’s more dramatic plots and the script takes full tearjerking advantage of that.

If I have a problem with this adaptation[10]Of course, I’m just a casual fan of Austen. The “real” fans are notoriously hard to please and could tell you more problems., it’s that it makes the character of Col. Brandon too obviously a romantic hero from the beginning, long before we learn his melodramatic backstory. Having him come across as awkward and unappealing at first and having his true nature be a twist, as in the book, would have been more interesting.[11]And I think he could easily have attracted fangirls anyway. But I have to give Thompson credit for staying as true as she does to the message of the source material, that letting one’s emotions be unrestrained leads to suffering not only for others but for oneself. This wasn’t very popular in the 1990s and has become even less so now when bottling up emotions is seen as dysfunctional. While this script probably leans a little more into the idea that it’s OK to be emotionally vulnerable once in a while, it’s amazing how relatively little the original message is compromised. It’s something modern people might not want, but probably need, to hear.

References

References
1 Well, the last one might be true, come to think of it.
2 I can understand why he’s attracted to her but not why she’s so into him.
3 There are actually two drafts of the script to read online, the shooting script and an earlier one. I believe the final script was the best on the whole but there are some interesting things about the older one. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan.
4 Whether Shakespeare agreed with the snobbery of his patrician characters in Coriolanus is hard to say. The citizens are shown to be pathetically gullible and easily swayed. But when they’re not formed into a mob (“the beast with many heads”), their dialogue demonstrates that at least some of them can be reasonable and even insightful. In any case, John Logan’s script leans toward sympathizing with the common people but it doesn’t back away from their dark side.
5 His lack of people skills leads me to think he has Asperger’s Syndrome like myself.
6 By contrast, the acclaimed 1946 movie does a great job with the creepy aspects but not with the heartwarming.
7 The creepy character of Mr. Jaggers also ends up being softened but I don’t mind that much.
8 In the movie’s defense though, cutting a pointless scene of Pip and Herbert holding a housewarming party was the right decision and the movie has a great line from Joe Gargery that isn’t in the script and may have been an adlib.
9 To be fair, a movie set in England during the summer may inevitably be too drab looking.
10 Of course, I’m just a casual fan of Austen. The “real” fans are notoriously hard to please and could tell you more problems.
11 And I think he could easily have attracted fangirls anyway.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 4

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

I’ve made the claim that Dreamworks’s four hand-drawn animated films didn’t have a formula and I’ll stand by that, but it can be argued that they came in pairs. The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron are both serious dramas about people (or horses) wanting to be free which follow their protagonists from infancy to maturity and leadership. The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas are both comedy/adventures about criminals seeking treasure in unexplored regions. Of the four, I feel like Sinbad is the least well known. If you were to ask people of my generation about these movies, I feel like a large number of them would remember seeing commercials for Prince of Egypt, El Dorado and Spirit and have some idea what they’re about even if they haven’t watched them. Mentioning Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas will probably draw more blank stares. That’s kind of a shame since despite it leaning more into adventure than comedy, I find John Logan’s script for Sinbad to be much funnier than that of Road to El Dorado and it’s the only Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movie besides The Prince of Egypt to have a really strong story.

It begins with Sinbad the pirate (voiced by Brad Pitt) about to steal the Book of Peace, a mystical artifact (and blatant MacGuffin), for ransom. It turns out to be guarded by Prince Proteus of Syracuse (Joseph Fiennes)-who just happens to have been Sinbad’s best friend from childhood. But then a sea monster attacks Proteus’s ship in the first of the great action scenes that are the movie’s bread and butter. Sinbad proves instrumental in defeating the creature and ends up as Proteus’s guest at a royal banquet. That night the Book is stolen by Eris (Michelle Pfieffer), the goddess of discord[1]You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion. and Sinbad is blamed for the theft. He’s about to be executed when Proteus claims “the right of substitution.” Sinbad has ten days to retrieve the Book from Tartarus, Eris’s realm. If he doesn’t return by then, Proteus will die in his place.

You may have noticed that that summary has nothing to do with The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights. Two of the monsters that Sinbad encounters in the movie come from there but the rest come from Greek mythology and the basic premise owes more to the Legend of Damon and Pythias. Which isn’t to say the movie is very accurate to Greek mythology either.[2]For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm. While Syracuse and the other cities that get namedropped are real, the government of “the twelve cities” is fictional and the clothing and architecture we see don’t really scream Arabian or Greek.

I like that about the movie.

Whatever artistic license they take, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron all try to create the illusion of a real historical culture. There’s something weirdly refreshing about the relaxed approach to worldbuilding of Sinbad: Legend of the Seas.

You may remember that I found The Road to El Dorado‘s leads to be very unlikeable. Well, Sinbad is even more of a jerk-but I don’t mind since the movie knows he’s a jerk unlike in The Road to El Dorado where we’re supposed to just accept the main characters’ vices and immoral actions as part of the material. And Sinbad has much more interesting ideas about how to redeem its antihero. It also helps that there’s an entirely noble character, Proteus, whose life depends on Sinbad’s success, so however much we dislike him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.

Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who accompanies Sinbad on his journey, is a very generic leading lady for this kind of movie and her Han-and-Leia-esque relationship with Sinbad isn’t anything unique either. But once we grant that, I’d still rank her as the best female love interest in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated films[3]For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking. and Sinbad’s crew as the most fun supporting cast.

Eris is definitely the most memorable character. Michelle Pfieffer has a rare gift for creating an atmosphere with just her voice, one which was mostly thrown away on her character in The Prince of Egypt. Her vocal performance is the best in this movie which is no faint praise as the whole cast is excellent. The flowing, misty way she’s animated is also great, much more memorable than how the Greek gods were depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

There are no songs in this movie, and I applaud that. It’s not that I have anything against the musical format per se. I began this blog with a three-part series celebrating a musical film and removing the songs from The Prince of Egypt would be a huge loss to it. But the songs in The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron were more of a nuisance than anything and I don’t think American animated films should feel like they have to include musical numbers just because it’s tradition, especially when you seem to be trying to go after a target audience other than Disney’s as Dreamworks seemed to be doing. The soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams is very effective.

The middle section of the story is basically a series of action scenes, one after another. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s exactly what I expect of a story about a fantastical voyage like this. They’re all exhilarating to watch and great fun. The movie does a lot of things in them with which you could only get away in a cartoon. Actually, all the action scenes in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn movies do that but this might just be their tour de force in that area. Surprisingly though, the climax is not an action scene and it’s a risk that pays off.

The movie admittedly suffers, to an unusual extent for Dreamworks, from computer animated elements not blending in with the hand-drawn stuff. Once you get past that, the visuals are great.

The movie does write itself into a bit of a corner with the love triangle. Granted that he improves by the end, but Sinbad is still clearly Proteus’s moral inferior and the prospect of him getting the man’s fiancée in the end is not pleasant. The idea that Marina would just abandon her duties as an ambassadress to run off with a pirate is also pretty ridiculous. On the other hand, the main body of the film is about developing a relationship between Marina and Sinbad, not Proteus, so there’s no way for them not end up together without ending on a downbeat note. There may have been no perfectly satisfying way to resolve that part of the story but the rest of the movie satisfying enough to make it forgivable.

Concluding Thoughts

Even the more financially successful of Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated weren’t the hits they’d hoped them to be, and the low box office returns of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas were the nail in the coffin for this kind of animation at the studio. That’s pretty sad since The Prince of Egypt is a great movie, Sinbad at least a very good one, and as for The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, well, I don’t believe they’re that good myself, but I can understand why there are people out there who love them. They’re both more interesting, if not strictly speaking better, than the many anonymous computer-animated comedies about talking animals Dreamworks released in the 2000s.[4]I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you. And whatever the quality of any of these movies as overall viewing experiences, the hand-drawn animation in them is beautiful, aside from some minor quibbles. I can’t help but wonder what other films like this, good and bad, they might have made.

References

References
1 You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion.
2 For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm.
3 For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking.
4 I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 3

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Dreamworks’s third hand-drawn animated movie, which tells the story of a wild mustang in the yet to be tamed American West, presents me with one of the hardest challenges for a reviewer: something that doesn’t have a lot obviously wrong with it and even quite a bit good, but which I can’t really say I like.

I admire, well, respect the movie for committing to its difficult to market artistic vision, never giving dialogue to the horse characters, who dominate the story, except for the first-person voice over narration (supplied by a somewhat miscast Matt Damon, who delivers lines like “And so I grew from colt to stallion as wild and reckless as thunder over the land, racing with the eagle, soaring like the wind” with roughly the same passion of someone reporting traffic.) It relies almost entirely on the animators to personify the horses and while I hesitate to say they invest them with much in the way of specific personalities, they do give them a lot of emotion.

Even the human characters don’t really rely on dialogue much. For a Dreamworks movie, there’s a shocking lack of celebrities in the cast. And it’s also the least humorous film in their canon, even more so than The Prince of Egypt. (The fact that their last hand-drawn movie had been the almost purely comic Road to El Dorado reinforces my claim that they didn’t really have a formula for them the way that Disney did.) Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron aims for epic grandeur and raw emotional power. Sometimes it achieves it. The opening montage, for one, is pretty breathtaking.

Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook had worked on an impressive list of animated films prior to directing this one and it’s exciting to see what story artists and animators will do when they finally get put in the director’s seat.[1]Somewhat sadly, this would be the last time Cook sat there. All in all, they do a good job telling this story.

I just don’t think that story is very good.

The first half hour or so, showing Spirit’s[2]He’s only named at the very end, but I have to call him something. coming of age in the wilderness, his capture by the American cavalry, and his defiant resistance to being broken, works pretty well for me. But once he escapes only to be captured by the Lakota, the movie’s dramatic interest just kind of peters out. You see, the Lakota, unlike the cavalry, are supposed to be sympathetic but we’re not supposed to want Spirit to become contented living with them. We’re supposed to want him to be reunited with his herd. Theoretically, that makes this part of the story more interesting dramatically, as, in Spirit the narrator’s words, “for the first time, my heart was torn in two.” But, in practice, it’s just kind of boring. We’re not really rooting for anyone or rooting against them either. Before too long, the cavalry attacks the Lakota camp and there’s quite a bit of action in the final third, but I’d already lost interest in the characters by that point.

This is Spirit’s reaction to getting captured by new foes right after escaping his old ones. It’s pretty great.

Maybe it’s the music that lets the movie down. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine but not at all memorable. There are also some rock songs by Bryan Adams, about which I can’t think of a single thing to say. Movies whose main goal is to be emotionally resonant this way arguably live and die by their soundtracks.

In my opinion though, the real problem is the characters. I wrote before that the protagonist and the antagonist of The Prince of Egypt were complex and compelling but that the supporting characters were pretty shallow. (I wouldn’t say any of them were terrible characters per se, just not particularly interesting ones.) Well, Spirit has a protagonist that’s fine at best, a dull antagonist and supporting characters that are even shallower. All the relationships are developed perfunctorily. Maybe if the movie had been longer and slower paced, it could have made them more interesting. But what we see doesn’t intrigue me enough to make me wish for more of it. There’s also nothing like The Prince of Egypt‘s nuanced depiction of its Egyptian villains.[3]Well, the third act does briefly show a white guy who’s gentler with Spirit and less offputtingly macho than the rest. This technically adds a bit of nuance to the movie, but it doesn’t … Continue reading Every one of the cavalry’s horses that we see is a downtrodden miserable soul, who welcomes Spirit’s rebellion, while all of the Lakota’s horses seem content with their lives to the point of bliss. Realistically, wouldn’t some of them be still in the process of being broken and some of the cavalry’s horses resigned to domestication? The fact that I thought about this instead of enjoying the movie’s moral simplicity shows it wasn’t working for me.

I guess the aim was for an archetypal fairy tale quality and, hey, I love me some fairy tales. But not all fairy tales are created equal.

I have to give the movie credit for the character of the young Lakota brave, Little Crane (voiced by Daniel Studi), who bonds with Spirit, in that it’s very difficult to do a character of his nationality without being offensive and I haven’t heard of any Native people being offended by him.[4]If you’ve read any articles by some who are, feel free to send me a link. They’re probably more interesting than this blog post. Then again, if he were some kind of offensive stereotype, writing about him would be a lot more interesting. And I suppose I admire the movie for underplaying the character of the colonel (James Cromwell), who’s the main antagonist, and resisting the temptation to make him over the top. Then again, if he were a hammy cartoon baddie, he might be more memorable.

This quote from a review of a Disney animated film released the year before actually sums up my thoughts on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron quite well. “Midway through I found myself longing for a dancing gargoyle, a singing candlestick, a piece of toast wearing a diaper, anything to crack the classy sophisto-sheen that coats every frame — a little bit of tackiness would at least give (the movie) some life… It’s so swaddled in its own good taste that it sinks itself.” I began this post by praising Spirit for not pandering, but maybe the creators should have gotten off their high horse and pandered a little bit. Recently, Dreamworks released a computer animated sequel/loose remake called Spirit Untamed, which, judging by the trailer[5]I haven’t watched the film itself and am not in a hurry to do so., focuses more on the human characters, has more humor and action and is generally more kid/audience friendly. If I were a fan of the original, I’d be affronted. As it is, I wonder if it might be an improvement.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 Somewhat sadly, this would be the last time Cook sat there.
2 He’s only named at the very end, but I have to call him something.
3 Well, the third act does briefly show a white guy who’s gentler with Spirit and less offputtingly macho than the rest. This technically adds a bit of nuance to the movie, but it doesn’t make the man himself an interesting character.
4 If you’ve read any articles by some who are, feel free to send me a link. They’re probably more interesting than this blog post.
5 I haven’t watched the film itself and am not in a hurry to do so.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 2

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the screenwriters for Dreamworks’s second hand-drawn animated film, have had their hands in kicking off some highly successful movie franchises, such as Aladdin, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ve also written a number of movies that didn’t do well and of which you’ve probably never heard. The Road to El Dorado is probably somewhere in between. It begins in the year 1519 with two Spanish scoundrels, Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), winning a map to El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold in a game of dice. Through a series of entertainingly ridiculous events, they end up on board one of Hernan Cortes (Jim Cummings)’s ships bound for the “New World.” Through an even more ridiculous series of events, they end up getting there ahead of him in a longboat with a horse. They use the map to find El Dorado and are mistaken for gods by the populace (it has to do with them having a horse), a circumstance they are happy to exploit so they can carry off as much gold as possible.[1]If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.

Right there lies my problem with the movie. I just don’t find Miguel and Tulio that likeable. They begin the movie by cheating people out their money with loaded dice and they don’t get much better from there.[2]When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny. Watching the movie, I’m not really rooting for them to get found out and executed by the El Doradans, but I’m not really rooting for them to succeed in conning and exploiting all these innocent people, granted that they end up reforming the city’s corrupt religious system of human sacrifice, though I’m not sure if adherents of Postcolonialism are likely to warm to that aspect of the plot. (Those leery of White Savior narratives may want to sit this one out.) There’s not really much reason to care about what happens to them except morbid curiosity and once you’ve seen the movie, there’s not much reason to watch it again. In my last post, I commended Dreamworks for doing things Disney animation didn’t typically do, like have antiheroes as the leads. But watching Road to El Dorado, you can kind of see why Disney typically didn’t do antiheroes.[3]Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.

Of course, the movie is primarily a comedy and in comedy, funny sometimes counts for more than likeable. Miguel and Tulio are…well, they’re certainly not unfunny! Branagh and Kline are both awesome hams and they make the script about as fun as it could have been. Rosie Perez is also fun as Chel, the El Doradan con artist who helps them pull of their deception. The movie has enough good jokes in it, mainly visual ones, to keep it reasonably engaging. The nice thing about Dreamworks is that their animators have really good comedic timing, and this makes their comedies go down easier when the jokes aren’t actually funny.

The movie’s funny, but it’s not often hilarious. The dynamic between the cheerful, impetuous Miguel and the more pragmatic, long suffering Tulio is nothing new and the movie doesn’t do anything that interesting with it. According to the creators, the film was made in part as a reaction against movies where the protagonists pale in comparison to the more fun comedic supporting characters. Ironically, if Tulio and Miguel were supporting characters, they might well be the most entertaining part of a movie. But they just don’t have the depth to be the center of a narrative and Chel has even less. Despite the filmmakers’ goals, the animal sidesticks still end up largely stealing the show.

Considering what a megahit The Lion King (1994) was, it’s amazing that popstar/composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice weren’t invited to collaborate on more soundtracks for animated films. Amazing but not much of a loss. You see, they’re both artists who are capable of doing great work but can’t be relied upon to do great work regularly. It was a happy accident that The Lion King‘s soundtrack was of as consistently high quality as it was and probably owed as much to others, such as Hans Zimmer and Lebo M.[4]Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack. The best thing about The Road to El Dorado musically is The Trail We Blaze, a great little song that plays over the montage of Miguel and Tulio making their way through the jungle.[5]Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up. Actually, that’s not true. The best thing might be the ballad, Somewhere Out of the Blue, which plays over the end credits and has absolutely no connection to the movie, thematically or tonally.[6]Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song. If I concentrate really, really hard, I can hum the title phrase of It’s Tough to be a God and it gets credit for being the only song in this comedy to have humorous lyrics, something which can add to the comedy with some movies but here is a just an oddity. It’s rather odd though that it’s the only song to be sung by the characters rather than a singing narrator and it’s rather baffling that the singers are singing out loud that they’re conning the people around them and nobody notices. If the movie were a traditional musical throughout, I’d have an easier time accepting this as a convention. The rest of the songs are forgettable at best, cheesy and annoying at worst.

I once heard this movie criticized for being so relatively realistic in its character designs and not embracing cartooniness. Once I’d heard that, I couldn’t get it out of my head. This movie does so many things with which only a cartoon could get away, such as the incredible coincidence that allows Miguel and Tulio to “prove” their powers to the El Doradans or the bit where they cheat at a game by substituting a rolled-up armadillo for the ball. Why not have the visuals be a little sillier looking to really set the tone?[7]Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not … Continue reading Ironically, the character with the most cartoony design, of the humans anyway, is the ruler of El Dorado (Edward James Olmos)-who is actually one of the ones played for laughs the least.

This is another area where Dreamworks actually might have done better to copy more from Disney’s playbook. This definitely isn’t true of every decade, but formulaic though they were in the 1990s, Disney employed different visuals styles to suit the specific tones of their animated movies. (Just compare Pocahontas‘s character designs with those of Hercules.) And in the early 2000s, they would get even more experimental design-wise with The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. By contrast, while the four Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movies are very different from each other narratively, they all pretty much look the same. Still, as I wrote above, the quality of the character animation itself is great. The team of artists that worked on Tulio’s facial expressions are the movie’s MVPS for my money.[8]Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.

But the story just isn’t that good. (If you don’t want the plot spoiled, skip this paragraph.) In the third act, El Dorado’s human-sacrifice-happy high priest, Tzekel-khan (Armand Assante), discovers evidence that Miguel and Tulio are imposters. Instead of doing the obvious thing and sharing this with the people to turn them against the main characters, he conjures up a giant stone jaguar to attack them. This is rather jarring since the only indication that there’s been anything supernatural going on in this story has been a few brief magic tricks on Tzekel-khan’s part. Meanwhile, Tulio and Miguel have a really lame misunderstanding just so they can reconcile and give the movie some kind of heart. After the jaguar has been defeated, we get another less memorable action scene for the climax and the story ends with none of the main characters getting what they want. I suppose it’s inconsistent for me to first criticize the characters for being unlikeable and then criticize the climax which is supposed to be a redemptive sacrifice for them.[9]If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected. But it really doesn’t feel like the movie has been wanting us to root for these characters to redeem themselves. If anything, it feels like we’ve been supposed to be rooting for them to achieve their goals. The ending would only make sense if it were setting up a sequel. There wasn’t a sequel, and I don’t believe the movie deserved one.

I admit though I may just be biased against the movie since it has an atheistic message and I’m not an atheist. Both the villains, Cortes and Tzekel-khan have religious motivations, something I’ll freely acknowledge has a historical precedent, and the most moral character in the story is the explicitly atheistic/agnostic chief-maybe the only likeable character actually. On the flipside however, I imagine this gives The Road to El Dorado a special appeal for viewers who are atheists and don’t get to see their views represented in these kinds of movies that often. As I wrote in my last post, if you appeal to one group, you’ll usually alienate another and maybe the lesson Dreamworks learned from their first two hand-drawn animated films was not to involve religion at all, either positively or negatively.[10]I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier. What themes would they touch upon instead? Well…

Stay Tuned

This image has nothing to do with the preceding paragraph. I just realized I hadn’t given a really good look at the movie’s backgrounds, so I’m plunking this one down here.

References

References
1 If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.
2 When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny.
3 Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.
4 Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack.
5 Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up.
6 Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song.
7 Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not all that funny and they stick out like sore thumbs next to all the other characters who are drawn realistically.
8 Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.
9 If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected.
10 I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 1

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have guessed that I’m interested in the art of animation. This month rather than blogging about adaptations, I’m going to be blogging about a series of animated movies, some of which will be adaptations, some not. Since only my loyal family members read this blog, I trust they’ll be fine with me breaking the rules I set for myself.

Which animated movies should I do? Some would say that Studio Ghibli is the greatest animation studio out there, but while I’ve greatly enjoyed (dubbed versions of) some of their movies, as an American, I wouldn’t understand their cultural context the way I do the cultural context of the other things I’ve covered on this blog. Disney is probably the most influential American animation studio, but I’ve just finished a four-part series on movies produced by the Walt Disney company. So instead, I’m going to write about movies from their rival, Dreamworks Animation. However, their films are more notable for their quantity than their quality[1]That’s not to say all of them-or even any of them-are terrible. Just that they’re far from being consistently great. and the thought of sitting through every last one and coming up with a post for each fills me with dull dread, so I’m just going to look at their four hand-drawn animated movies.[2]Yes, I know they all use computers, but you know what I mean. By the way, I’m just going to count theatrically released hand-drawn movies. I won’t be writing about Joseph: King of Dreams … Continue reading

Whatever your opinion may be of their output, there’s something for which I think Dreamworks deserves credit. In the 1990s, Disney animated movies followed a strict narrative formula and other studios going after their fanbase followed it too.[3]If you’re a big fan of animated Disney movies from the 90s, please don’t take offense. Being formulaic isn’t the worst thing from my perspective, I consider the narrative formula … Continue reading With their hand-drawn animated movies, Dreamworks went places Disney wouldn’t with dark and violent themes, risqué humor and an emphasis on antiheroes and bittersweet endings. In a time when all American hand-drawn animated movies were rated G, or aimed for it at least, three out of four of Dreamworks’s were PG. And in their own ways, they all earn it, even the one that got a G arguably. The four of them don’t really have a formula in common and not one of them feels like it’s trying to be a Disney movie. Sheesh, you could argue that Dreamworks’s computer-animated Shrek, for all its anti-Disney posturing, dances to the Mouse’s tune more than any of their hand-drawn animated movies.[4]Sure, Shrek begins with a page from a fairy tale book being crumpled up and used for toilet paper (literally), but it ends by revealing that its story has become just such another storybook (also … Continue reading Having said that, the downside of not following a formula is that just because you like one of these movies, there’s no guarantee you’ll like any of others. And having given them credit for thinking outside the box, I have to add that it didn’t mean that the dark and violent themes were automatically compelling or the risqué humor automatically funny or the movies themselves automatically good…

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

You can’t criticize Dreamworks for a lack of ambition. Their first hand-drawn animated movie, The Prince of Egypt, takes as its inspiration the biblical book of Exodus. Its protagonist, Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer; singing voice Amick Byram), is born into slavery in Egypt and gets adopted by the royal family in his infancy through an extraordinary chain of circumstances. When he learns of his origins in adulthood, he cannot bear to live a life of privilege while his people, the Hebrews, are suffering and flees into the wilderness. Years later he is called upon by his people’s God to return to Egypt and demand their release. This pits him against Rameses II (Ralph Fiennes who does his own (minimal) singing), his former brother.

Since the story of Moses is part of three major religions and several minor ones, it has a great appeal for Hollywood. But it’s also a challenge since while those religions all revere Moses, they don’t agree on much else and it’s hard to do a movie about him without alienating one group or another. Hollywood also wants its movies to appeal to as many people as possible, so they’re going to want Secularists to enjoy their Moses movie too and that’s not even getting into the artists wanting to make something that reflects their own beliefs. It’s a very difficult balance and, if we’re being honest, probably better off not attempted. But The Prince of Egypt, with its vibe of The Ten Commandments (1956) meets The Lion King (1994), succeeds as well as it ever could and better than you might expect. It may not please everyone-what movie does? Some nonbelievers will find parts of it unrelatable and some believers will take offense at the artistic license it takes, but I do hear both atheists and Christians, the most vocal religious groups in my country[5]I know calling atheists a religious group is questionable, but you know what I mean., praise it and that can’t really be said of any recent film based on the Bible.[6]If you’re interested in which aspects of the adaptation are inspired by which religions, here’s my attempt at a list. As in Hebrew midrash, Moses’s sister predicts he will free his … Continue reading

The part of the Exodus story, at least the section covered by The Prince of Egypt, most likely to offend secularists and humanists is its portrayal of the Hebrews alone as God’s chosen and the horrifying punishments He rains down, not just on Pharaoh who has defied him, but on all the Egyptians.[7]Well, maybe proponents of Critical Race Theory will appreciate that. The movie emphasizes that the Egyptians as a whole are ordinary people, not villains to a man, which is actually less revisionist than you’d think. (The book of Exodus portrays Pharoah’s daughter as having compassion for the infant Moses and the Egyptians as being favorably disposed enough toward their former slaves to give them gold and jewelry as parting gifts.) It even refers to them as “innocents” who suffer for the fault of their ruler. It also scapegoats God, so to speak, and has Moses himself, who was raised Egyptian, be disturbed by the plagues. In theory, the last one strikes me as a lame cheat, but in practice, it actually makes for pretty great drama. [8]And for a prophet to hate the job he has to do is actually pretty consistent with Abrahamic faiths. The scene of God smiting the firstborn of Egypt, arguably the most disturbing plague, has no background music as if the filmmakers are declining to offer judgement on it, which works very well artistically.

God also has a more “positive” role in the story, preserving and empowering Moses and the Hebrew people. This is most obvious in the numinous scene of Moses encountering Him for the first time and in the climax at the Red Sea but is implied throughout right from the start. The aforementioned scene of God smiting the Egyptian firstborn also emphasizes how the pious Hebrews who obeyed divine commands are protected. The main theological points of the book of Exodus, God’s superiority to all other powers, temporal and spiritual, and His care for His people, are conveyed through the movie’s powerful visual storytelling.

In 2017, a stage musical adaptation of The Prince of Egypt premiered which, from what I understand, emphasized the heroism of the human characters even more and leaned harder into the God-as-villain interpretation. I don’t doubt that was more satisfying for writer Philip LaZebnik and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz to work on than the movie since it’s more enjoyable to make a work of art that reflects your own beliefs without having to cater to any particular group. But I’d argue those things actually make the musical less interesting and (ironically) more predictable than the movie was. Broadway musicals that subvert biblical accounts for their own Secular-Humanist purposes are fairly standard. Mainstream animated movies that try to do justice to the traditionally pious take on the Bible, or as much of it as can be reconciled to their own views, are something else.[9]Also the new songs for the stage musical, with a few exceptions, aren’t nearly as memorable as the themes from the original movie, but I digress.

Did I write something about powerful visual storytelling? Yes, I did.

This film’s visuals are technically equal or superior to anything Disney was doing at the time. For sheer eye candy, it may actually be the best thing Dreamworks has ever done. All of the miracles appear to maximum effect and even when nothing supernatural is happening, the movie has an awe-inspiring sense of scale.[10]The colossal monuments and palaces of Egypt are depicted as much larger than they would have been historically. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers to make the characters … Continue reading Equally great but less showy is the character animation, which rewards multiple viewings. Pay attention to subtle facial expressions and body language, such as Rameses’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reaction to the rather pathetic attempt of his priests (Martin Short and Steve Martin) to duplicate Moses’s miracle of turning the Nile to blood.

According to the movie’s novelization by Lynne Reid Banks, “Moses seemed to see the eye of his mind closing.”

Equally powerful and vital to the film are the Broadway-style musical numbers by Stephen Schwartz and score by Hans Zimmer. It’s a crime that so little of the latter is included on the official soundtrack. For its final scenes, the movie uses as little dialogue as possible, letting the music and visuals tell the story by themselves and giving what dialogue there is as much impact as possible. And it is awesome.

The part of the movie with which viewers for whom the source material is sacred are most likely to take issue is its portrayal of Moses’s brother, Aaron (Jeff Goldblum, whose character doesn’t do any singing), as a mostly negative, though not unsympathetic, character who only redeems himself at the end. While there is precedent for Aaron being weak in the Pentateuch, mainly the golden calf incident, he was delighted to be reunited with his brother and was arguably the second biggest hero of the Exodus after Moses. He was also the head of the Levitical line of priests, making him an important figure in Abrahamic religions. The Prince of Egypt‘s depiction is pretty offensive, though I can sympathize with the dramatic reasons behind the change.

The movie’s biggest shortcoming artistically is that while Moses and Rameses emerge as complex and compelling characters,[11]I haven’t given you a good idea of the movie at all by not writing more about their arcs, but to do so might spoil someone’s first-time viewing experience. everyone else’s characterization consists of one or two notes. This is happily more of a limitation than a drawback, but considering how much the camera focuses on Aaron, Moses’s sister, Miriam (Sandra Bullock; singing voice Sally Dworsky), and his wife, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfieffer,) during the final scene, it does seem like we’re supposed to be more invested in them than I think we actually are. I’m not sure how the movie could have developed anyone further though without sacrificing its effective pacing which packs a whole lot of storytelling into a short running time and feels neither slow nor rushed. And, of course, the story is supposed to be about a people, not about individuals. Considering that I’m more interested in stories about individuals than people groups, the fact that The Prince of Egypt works so well for me might just be one of its finest achievements.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 That’s not to say all of them-or even any of them-are terrible. Just that they’re far from being consistently great.
2 Yes, I know they all use computers, but you know what I mean. By the way, I’m just going to count theatrically released hand-drawn movies. I won’t be writing about Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) or the various Kung Fu Panda supplementals, but my memories of them are positive.
3 If you’re a big fan of animated Disney movies from the 90s, please don’t take offense. Being formulaic isn’t the worst thing from my perspective, I consider the narrative formula for 90s Disney animation to be very solid as far as narrative formulae go, and at least of their films from this decade, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, are favorites of mine. But I can see how people actually living through the decade, as opposed to people in the present looking back on it nostalgically, would find it tiresome.
4 Sure, Shrek begins with a page from a fairy tale book being crumpled up and used for toilet paper (literally), but it ends by revealing that its story has become just such another storybook (also literally.) And even the subverted storybook prologue serves to provide legitimate exposition.
5 I know calling atheists a religious group is questionable, but you know what I mean.
6 If you’re interested in which aspects of the adaptation are inspired by which religions, here’s my attempt at a list. As in Hebrew midrash, Moses’s sister predicts he will free his people from slavery long before it happens. God sharing a voice actor with Moses reflects the Jewish tradition that when anyone hears God, He sounds like their own voice. Moses’s motives for leaving Egypt are more in keeping with the New Testament book of Hebrews, which describes him as choosing “to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time,” rather than him running for his life as in the book of Exodus. (That probably also reflects Jewish tradition.) More debatably, the flames around the famous burning bush visually evoke the fire of Pentecost. As in Qur’an Surah, Pharoah’s wife (Helen Mirren) is portrayed as instrumental in the royal family adopting Moses (and his basket washes up on the shore rather than being left on the bank) and Pharoah threatens to kill the sons of Israel to spite Moses. (Ironically, in The Prince of Egypt, he does this right before God smites the Egyptian firstborn.) Of course, it’s probably an exaggeration to say any of these things were specifically inspired by any religious tradition. Many of them have obvious dramatic appeal and could easily be coincidental. But the movie did have Jewish, Christian and Muslim consultants so who knows?
7 Well, maybe proponents of Critical Race Theory will appreciate that.
8 And for a prophet to hate the job he has to do is actually pretty consistent with Abrahamic faiths.
9 Also the new songs for the stage musical, with a few exceptions, aren’t nearly as memorable as the themes from the original movie, but I digress.
10 The colossal monuments and palaces of Egypt are depicted as much larger than they would have been historically. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers to make the characters relatable to viewers familiar with modern skyscrapers.
11 I haven’t given you a good idea of the movie at all by not writing more about their arcs, but to do so might spoil someone’s first-time viewing experience.
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The Taming of the Shakespeare

As anyone familiar with Shakespeare should know, his early comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, is about two Paduan sisters. The younger one, Bianca, is sweet, demure and charming at least on the surface. The elder, Katharina, is shrewish, angry and violent (also on the surface?) Naturally, men are lining up to marry Bianca, but the girls’ wealthy father, Baptista Minola, either wants to keep Bianca to himself, feels sorry for Katharina or is just desperate to get her out of his house because he’s declared that the younger shall not marry before the elder. Bianca’s suitors are reduced to zany schemes to woo her behind her father’s back. Finally, a husband for Katharina comes along: Petruchio, who loves a challenge, seeks to marry into money and won’t take no for an answer.

In the average Shakespearean comedy, if there’s a battle of the sexes, the leading lady runs circles around the man.[1]cf. Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The battle arguably ends in a stalemate in Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare often had the heroine of his romantic comedy be the character most in control of her situation[2]cf. The Merchant of Venice or As You Like It. or at least have the widest understanding of what’s going on around her.[3]cf. Twelfth Night. For once, however, the male is victorious in The Taming of the Shrew and it ends, more or less, with the heroine declaring that it’s hopeless and unnatural for women to try to master men and they should just make the best of things. There’s reason to believe some found this play misogynistic even back in the day[4]John Fletcher wrote a deconstruction of it called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed. and even modern people who agree with the idea of wifely submission will look askance on some of Petruchio’s motives and methods. The idea that kindness and gentleness are the best ways to win over a woman is pretty thoroughly debunked by the Shrew. Even betting on your wife, as the husbands do in the last scene, is frowned upon now. Yet The Taming of the Shrew hasn’t been relegated to the same dustbin as such offensive Shakespeare plays as The Two Gentlemen of Verona or All’s Well That Ends Well, which are seldom performed now or if they are, it’s by professional Shakespeare companies with the resigned air of “it’s Shakespeare so it must be good for you.” People still keep putting on productions of this play, still keep paying to see it, still keep trying to find a way to reinterpret it be socially acceptable.

Why? Well, this play has a dirty little secret.

It’s funny. Really funny. Hilarious even.

It also has to do with the tone and I’m not just talking about the fact that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy and Shakespeare wasn’t recommending acting like Petruchio in real life.[5]Given his culture, what Shakespeare would have recommended might have been worse actually. While the story is ostensibly about Katharina having all the pugnacity drained out of her, her dialogue doesn’t make it sound like she’s losing her energy the more time she spends with Petruchio. If anything, it sounds like she’s exhilarated. Compare her generically shrewish lines in her first scenes with her battle of snappy insults with Petruchio on their meeting. In the later scenes of Petruchio blackmailing her into agreeing with him no matter what ridiculous thing he says, she doesn’t just mechanically repeat his absurd statements, a weary broken shell of a woman, but picks up and elaborates on his fantastical suggestions with some flair.[6]For a full analysis of Katharina’s character arc along these lines, read Alexander Leggatt’s excellent book, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. I’m not normally a fan of interpretations that posit all of a character’s clearly expressed opinions as lies on their part, but the idea that Katharina is attracted to Petruchio, on some level, from the start and that her protests are a subterfuge works so well in practice that I’m ready to declare it canon. Then again, I don’t think it’s good advice to stay in an abusive relationship for the thrills and many would object to the idea that if a woman initially rejects a man, it’s because she’s in denial. So maybe this play really is unsalvageable…

If you have an open mind about the material though, there’s a lot to love about director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 cinematic Taming of the Shrew[7]Keep in mind the person writing this has no experience with domestic abuse. If you or a loved one of yours has, your take may well be different., starting with the raucous local carnival during the opening credits that vividly establishes this isn’t going to be some lofty, philosophical Shakespeare movie. It’s going to be loud, boisterous and potentially rather offensive. The film brims with clever ideas for staging scenes in ways Shakespeare didn’t and in some cases couldn’t.

I love Bianca (Natasha Pyne)’s first sight of her love interest, Lucentio (Michael York), effectively tricking the viewer into thinking they rather than the less conventionally attractive Katharina (Elizabeth Taylor) and Petruchio (Richard Burton) will be the leads, and our first view of Katharina leaning out an upper story window and yelling like an anti-Juliet. The cast is all wonderful. I have to give special credit to Pyne, who despite having so many of her character’s lines from the play cut, manages to perfectly convey Bianca’s personality. And of course, there are Burton and Taylor’s crackling performances at the center.

Some critics have condemned the movie for focusing so much on elaborate slapstick set pieces and other forms of “lowbrow” comedy at the expense of sophisticated verbal wit. To this I can only reply…have those critics ever read the play at all?! It was never exactly meant to be highbrow. It’s admittedly true that the script by Zeffirelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Paul Dehn plays a bit fast and loose with Shakespeare’s text. It cuts much of the original dialogue and even goes so far as to add a few original non-Shakespearean lines. The language is occasionally updated, gaining clarity for modern audiences while sadly losing a bit of depth.[8]For example, Katharina accuses her father of trying to make “a whore of (her) among (his) mates” rather than a stale, rendering her meaning clear but losing the pun on stalemate. Some of the cuts have unfortunate side effects. Lucentio’s second sidekick, Biondello (Roy Holder)[9]Tranio (Alfred Lynch) is his first sidekick, lacks a proper character introduction and one of Bianca’s hapless suitors, Hortensio (Victor Spinetti), transferring his affections to a wealthy widow (Bice Valori) comes completely out of nowhere. But in general, the movie’s reimagining of the play is brilliant and perfectly true to its original, anarchic spirit.

The most interesting, though not necessarily the most successful, way this film adapts the play is how it seeks to add depth to the main characters.[10]Some would say they always had this depth, but I think that since Shakespeare later became famous for the psychological depth and nuance of his character, people sometimes read it into his early … Continue reading In Petruchio’s first scene, Hortensio’s expressions of friendship for him, which in the play seem to have been genuine, are here a complete form. He’s clearly irritated by Petruchio’s boorishness and can’t wait to get him out of his hair. Only when Petruchio announces his desire for a wealthy wife and Hortensio sees a way to marry off Katharina, clearing the way to Bianca, does he become sincerely welcoming. Thus, both Petruchio and Katharina are portrayed as having no friends, making it (at least potentially) more satisfying when they find love in each other. The movie and Burton also suggest that Petruchio’s swagger may be just that and he’s not as secure in his shrew-taming abilities as he pretends to be. In his soliloquy in Act II Scene I, in which he plans his strategy for wooing Katharina, he comes across as genuinely nervous. In the final scene, where he makes a bet with the other new husbands as to which of their wives will come when called, he briefly appears worried that his will let him down. And when she gives her speech on what wives owe their husbands, which she does of her own initiative in this version, rather than exulting in his power over her, he appears deeply moved to the point of speechlessness.

After her wedding, Zeffirelli starts to humanize Katharina too. (Arguably, so does Shakespeare.) Her humiliation at her wedding is too hilarious to be sad and even Petruchio dragging her off, kicking and screaming, to her honeymoon is entertaining in its sheer outrageousness, especially with Taylor’s invulnerable performance, daring anyone to pity her character. But between those two scenes, the movie creates a moment where Katharina sees her father give Petruchio his two thousand crowns for marrying her, and appears disappointed as if she’d hoped, despite her protests, to have found someone who really loved her.[11]In the Taming of the Shrew-inspired 1999 comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, this would become a major plot point. When Katharina, forced to ride through the icy rain, falls into a puddle and holds out a hand for her husband to help her, only for him to laugh and ride off, she becomes a genuinely pathetic figure.[12]As the play describes this moment, Petruchio didn’t help her but he didn’t laugh at her either. Instead he pretended to blame his servant, Grumio (Cyril Cusack in the movie), for the … Continue reading After this, she takes on a more positive role, making over Petruchio’s dirty, messy house and befriending his shabby servants.[13]There’s some precedent for the latter in the play as the servants express sympathy for Katharina in Act IV Scene I (“By this reckoning he is more shrew than she.”) and she defends … Continue reading This humanization of the character is a double edge sword. On the one hand, it makes her less of a misogynistic stereotype.[14]To be fair, all of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew are stereotypes, male and female. On the other hand, the more we see her as a real person, the harder it is to laugh at her treatment at Petruchio’s hands and to see her contentedly married to him as a satisfying ending. Her refusal to submit to him threatens to come across less like childish stubbornness and more like heroic resistance.

Much of Katharina’s character development in the movie’s second half is conveyed through wordless moments and facial expressions. It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what those indicate. This is the kind of movie that demands a director’s commentary and doesn’t have one. But when reading Shakespeare’s plays, I often feel like the characters have something go on in their heads that I don’t understand and wonder what motivates them to do what they do. In that sense, this movie may be one of the most accurate presentations of Shakespeare ever. When I try to analyze it, I’m not really sure that it works, but I keep returning to it and enjoying it just as I do the play, so apparently it does.

Some of this Taming of the Shrew‘s punches are pulled. Katharina explicitly isn’t forced to go along with the wedding by her father (Michael Horden.) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this version of Baptista being able to force his daughters to do anything. And Petruchio’s most potentially disturbing method of controlling Katharina, denying her food until she acquiesces to him, is dropped.[15]Though careful productions can still make that part funny. Katharina actually ends up getting the better of Petruchio when he blackmails her into kissing him in public in the bit from Act V Scene I, which has the benefit of making their kiss in the next scene a bigger moment. But a significant punch isn’t pulled or is pulled in a subtle way. (I guess the punching metaphor breaks down here.) According to Hollywood legend, the filmmakers expected Elizabeth Taylor, who was hardly know for submitting to the men in her life, to give an ironic reading of Katharina’s climactic speech on proper wifely behavior. I don’t know what thespian instinct made her give the stern and serious reading she did, but whatever might be said against the speech from a moral perspective, she was quite right from a dramatic standpoint. If Katharina is obviously bitter and sarcastic at the end of the story, just as she was at the beginning, then her whole character arc becomes meaningless.[16]The idea that she’s putting on a show for others’ benefit in this scene is more workable and in keeping with the play’s motifs of trickery and disguise. But it amounts to Katharina … Continue reading Only if she comes across as sincere can the story work. Of course, the movie doesn’t quite end there. After delivering his final lines, Petruchio turns around to find that his wife has run off and he must chase after her yet again, implying perhaps that, in the words of John Muirden’s Shakespeare Well-Versed, “despite the play’s name/Kate will never be tame.”

Bibliography

The Taming of the Shrew: Scene Index (shakespeare-navigators.com)

Shakespeare’s comedy of love : Leggatt, Alexander : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Shakespeare well-versed : a rhyming guide to all his plays : Muirden, James : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

References

References
1 cf. Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The battle arguably ends in a stalemate in Much Ado About Nothing.
2 cf. The Merchant of Venice or As You Like It.
3 cf. Twelfth Night.
4 John Fletcher wrote a deconstruction of it called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed.
5 Given his culture, what Shakespeare would have recommended might have been worse actually.
6 For a full analysis of Katharina’s character arc along these lines, read Alexander Leggatt’s excellent book, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love.
7 Keep in mind the person writing this has no experience with domestic abuse. If you or a loved one of yours has, your take may well be different.
8 For example, Katharina accuses her father of trying to make “a whore of (her) among (his) mates” rather than a stale, rendering her meaning clear but losing the pun on stalemate.
9 Tranio (Alfred Lynch) is his first sidekick
10 Some would say they always had this depth, but I think that since Shakespeare later became famous for the psychological depth and nuance of his character, people sometimes read it into his early plays, like The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, when it isn’t really there.
11 In the Taming of the Shrew-inspired 1999 comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, this would become a major plot point.
12 As the play describes this moment, Petruchio didn’t help her but he didn’t laugh at her either. Instead he pretended to blame his servant, Grumio (Cyril Cusack in the movie), for the accident and beat him while Katharina waded through the mire, so it was a deliberate decision on this adaptation’s part to make Petruchio more of a jerk and the situation less funny.
13 There’s some precedent for the latter in the play as the servants express sympathy for Katharina in Act IV Scene I (“By this reckoning he is more shrew than she.”) and she defends them from her husband. Act IV Scene III, however, implies that they are complicit in Petruchio’s plan to starve her into submission.
14 To be fair, all of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew are stereotypes, male and female.
15 Though careful productions can still make that part funny.
16 The idea that she’s putting on a show for others’ benefit in this scene is more workable and in keeping with the play’s motifs of trickery and disguise. But it amounts to Katharina just being a more competent version of Bianca. Is that what we’re supposed to want? The worst solution is to try to present the play as a tragedy about Man’s inhumanity to Woman. The writing style Shakespeare employed in it simply isn’t flexible enough for that.
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The Highs and Lows of Andrew Davies’s Les Misérables

One of the things for which I’m most grateful to the BBC Writers’ Room.com is their release of the shooting scripts for all six episodes of Andrew Davies’s 2018 miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables. Each script contains a host of lines and scenes that didn’t make the final cut, some of them regrettably, others fortunately. (It’s a great pity the closure for the character of Mme. Thenardier (who would be played by Olivia Colman) couldn’t have been kept.) They also indicate which details came from the mind of director Tom Shankland. Even more so than watching the miniseries, reading these scripts reveals Davies’s strengths and weaknesses as an adapter of classic literature. In fact, the scripts are such a treasure trove in this respect that this post is pretty much just going to be about them and not about any of the miniseries’ other aspects.[1]If you want my judgement on it as a whole, I’ll just say the casting for the older generations of characters, who dominate the first half, is wonderful and the casting for the younger … Continue reading

Les Misérables review – merci, Andrew Davies, c'est magnifique | Television  & radio | The Guardian

Davies is clearly up for the herculean task of making Victor Hugo’s epic 19th century novel accessible to modern television audiences. He does a great job of restructuring, rearranging and compressing the timeline. (If you don’t want to your adaptation of Les Misérables to consist largely of back-to-back montages, a little timeline compression is a necessity.) His decisions as to which of the book’s scenes to include and which of its many, many characters on which to focus are shrewd. (I do wish the highly suspenseful and very funny scene of how Jean Valjean manages to infiltrate the convent in the book could have been included, but I can see how it wouldn’t have fit in with the miniseries’ pacing.) He’s also clearly a fan of the source material, including dozens of little details from it in these scripts, many of which sadly had to be cut. To list all of them would take a whole blog post of its own, perhaps even a whole series of posts. He cites the text often and even quotes from it on occasion, most notably in the last episode, to convey the dramatic effect he desires.

But Davies also comes across as uncomfortable with, even embarrassed by Hugo’s writing style at times, most notably in scenes where characters are speaking facetiously. A good example comes in a scene adapted in Episode 1 where a group of sugar daddies are taking their mistresses out for a treat. (If your knowledge of Les Misérables comes from the musical and you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, one of the sugar daddies is the father of Cosette and one of the mistresses is Fantine.) Here’s the relevant banter in Hugo.

“What would you do, Favorite, if I should leave you?”

“Me!” cried Favorite. “Oh! do not say that, even in sport! If you should leave me, I would run after you, I would scratch you, I would pull your hair, I would throw water on you, I would have you arrested.”

Blacheville smiled with the effeminate foppery of a man whose self-love is tickled.

And here it is in the script.

BLACHEVELLE (Matthew Steer)
So do you love me, Favorite?

FAVORITE (Charlotte Dylan)
Of course I do, Blachevelle
darling. I adore you!

BLACHEVELLE
So what would you do if I stopped
loving you?

FAVORITE
Oh, no, don’t say that even as a
joke! I’d go crazy, I’d come after you
and scratch your eyes out, I’d have
you arrested!

BLACHEVELLE
Truly? You’d have me arrested?

FAVORITE
Well, I’d make a terrible fuss. (Emphasis added.)

Later, when the ladies are joking about what the surprise might be that their lovers are going to give them, one of them after suggesting gold necklaces, as in the book, follows it up with, “I don’t think!” Characters constantly feeling the need to explain that they’re joking gets irritating after a while and betrays a lack of trust in the jokes, the actors and the viewers. More justifiable is Fantine (Lily Collins, one of the cast’s biggest assets) saying that her lover, Felix Tholomyes (Johnny Flynn), doesn’t mean his speech urging women to be “unconfined” in their love affairs and for men to steal each other’s partners. That serves to underline how blind she is to his callowness. But, again, a good actress could have easily indicated this without the line. Fortunately, most of the joke explaining would ultimately be cut for time from the miniseries.

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Along similar lines, there’s a scene in Episode 5’s script, which was understandably but sadly cut, in which the elderly Jean Valjean (Dominic West) overpowers a younger robber/assassin, compassionately warns him of the horrors awaiting him in prison if he persists in a life of crime, and freely hands over his purse to him. It’s an awesome scene and the fact that he tried to include it is a point in Davies’s favor in my opinion. But he feels the need to have Valjean say, after describing a life of hard labor in the chain gang, “Believe me. I’ve been there.” No need to clarify that. It was already obvious.

There’s another way in which Davies seems uncomfortable with the source material. I like that in when dining with the bishop of Digne (Derek Jacobi), Valjean is as defensive and cynical as he is grateful, arguing that it’s easy for his host to be kind when he hasn’t suffered as his guest has. This dialogue isn’t from the book, but it gives us insight into Valjean’s mindset that we can’t get from the visual medium of television and helps render his initially ungrateful behavior understandable. But I wish the bishop would put up more of a counterargument. It’s true that the book stresses that he didn’t preach at Valjean…but he kind of did.

“Yes,” answered the bishop, “you have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred good men. If you are leaving that sorrowful place with hate and anger against men, you are worthy of compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness and peace, you are better than any of us.”

In the miniseries, the closest he comes to being so eloquent in that scene is, “you don’t think it’s possible that kindness and love can change a man?” It’s like the script itself doesn’t really believe in the bishop’s philosophy. To be fair, it’s a pretty challenging philosophy. I doubt Victor Hugo himself really believed in it. But if you’re going to do an adaptation of Les Misérables, you should at least be able to pretend you believe in it.

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In general, the miniseries does an excellent job of finding ways to visually communicate the internal drama that drives so much of the story. I wish Valjean could have been portrayed as angry less often and that more of his gentle side could have been shown. But I understand that viewers, casual ones anyway, wouldn’t have picked up on the potential for evil, as well good, in a more technically faithful portrayal of the character. In the book, Jean Valjean becomes something of a saint but at certain points he could easily turn into a villain. It’d be nice if the saint were more in evidence, but Valjean’s outbursts of temper in this version do make the potential for villainy clear which they have to be to achieve the right dramatic effect.

I also have to praise how Valjean’s nemesis, Javert (David Oyelowo, the cast’s other biggest asset), is adapted-with some caveats. Considering his reputation as an intimidating figure, it can be a surprise to read the book and see how many mistakes Javert makes in his pursuit of Valjean, and he’s hardly concerned with him at all in the story’s second half. Unfortunately, Davies’s attempts to make him more of a threat without changing the plot too much[2]I don’t mean that last part to sound like a complaint; I love that this adaptation stays close to the book’s plot., by having him be more specifically obsessed with Valjean, backfire and threaten to make him come across as pathetic and ridiculous. In Episode 5, when a violent insurrection is about to break out, Javert blames it on Valjean even though the only thing he did that could be described as political was referring to Napoleon as the emperor. It gets to the point that if they ran out of coffee at the police station, you’d expect Javert to say, “clearly our coffee was stolen by Jean Valjean!” Finding him actually becomes Javert’s whole motivation for trying to infiltrate the revolution. The script for Episode 1 had a line where Javert pegs Valjean as someone who has set himself against “all authority, all justice, all order, all virtue.” It’s very unfortunate that this was cut since it provided some justification for why Javert would assume Jean Valjean would be “at the very heart” of the rebellion.

I feel like this also muddies Javert’s character somewhat. He’s not supposed to be personally obsessed with Jean Valjean at least not to this extent. It’s never personal with Javert. His actions are driven by a fanatical devotion to the law. Thankfully, there’s enough of that in the dialogue that the take on Javert as being personally obsessed with Valjean isn’t too much of a problem. In fact, he’s probably one of most well written/adapted characters in the miniseries. His breakdown in the last episode is particularly well dramatized.

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I’ve written in the past that Andrew Davies has, to my mind, a juvenile preoccupation with sex and that this was much less of a problem when he was adapting Victor Hugo, who was much frank about sexuality than, say, Jane Austen, but it could still be a bit of one. A scene in Episode 1 of Fantine and Tholomyes in bed together post-coitus makes a certain amount of storytelling sense. After all, their affair is a major plot point, though I’ve no doubt viewers could have picked up on the fact that they were sleeping together from the dialogue and, you know, the fact that they had a kid.[3]As much as I admire the miniseries’ structure, I’m not sure that it pays off for so much of the first episode to focus on the “romance” between Tholomyes and Fantine. … Continue reading And a shot in Episode 2 of (a clothed) Fantine being roughly sodomized against a wall effectively makes her stint as a prostitute look brutal. While it’s not in the book, I don’t even object to Eponine (Erin Kellyman) trying to seduce Marius (Josh O’ Connor) through the peephole separating their apartments by doing a suggestive dance at night in Episode 4.[4]Though I question how she could do this without waking up the rest of her family who all sleep in the same room. That actually strikes me as a very Eponine thing to do.

What I do object to is the fact that Marius seems attracted to this in spite of himself. In the book, he explicitly finds Eponine ugly but feels compassion for her. Later in the episode, Marius, pining for the vanished Cosette, allows his friends to take him to a brothel in the desperate hope that he’ll see her there. This comes from a few sentences of the book but there’s no reason to devote so much time to it here except to get more sex in the story. All it tells us about the characters is that Marius is obsessed with Cosette and to a lesser extent Eponine and that he’s much more chaste than most of his friends, two things the series has already established through dialogue. Almost immediately afterwards, we get an erotic dream sequence of Marius’s about Cosette being in his bedroom and then turning into Eponine…yeah, there’s a lot of smutty padding in Episode 4. And the truly odd thing is that Marius shows no interest in Eponine at all in Episode 5. As a fan of the book, I’m grateful for this on some level as Marius only has eyes for Cosette there. But, on another level, I can’t help but wonder what the point was of all that buildup in Episode 4?

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Episode 2 also implies that Jean Valjean is attracted to Fantine, though this is portrayed more in romantic terms than sexual ones. It’s like the miniseries thinks that the only reason people can be interested in others is because they want to have sex with them.[5]In interviews, Davies has also described Javert’s obsession with Valjean as erotic. I don’t really feel that it registers that way in practice, except for maybe the scene in Episode 1 … Continue reading Oddly, they don’t depict Valjean’s obsessive love for Cosette as erotic, except for a brief bit where he accidentally gets a glimpse of her changing to his discomfiture, even though there actually would have been a slight-very slight-justification from the book for doing so.[6]According to Victor Hugo, “Jean Valjean did not, certainly, love Cosette otherwise than as a daughter; but…into this paternity the very bereavement of his life had introduced every love; … Continue reading

The script for Episode 1 also has a gross scene of Marius’s lecherous grandfather, Gillenormand (David Bradley), pressuring his maidservant, Nicolette (Emma Fielding), into sex and references to this pop up throughout their later scenes. There was no way the miniseries could pass this off as a harmless quirk in the wake of the MeToo movement and thankfully almost all traces of it were cut.[7]One that remains is Gillenormand boasting to his friends that Nicolette can’t bear to leave his side. To be fair, when I initially watched the first episode, I was disappointed that Gillenormand came across as simply crabby and lacked the randy personality that helped make him memorable in the book. I guess keeping the sexual relationship between him and Nicolette would technically have fixed that, but I can’t say I mourn its loss.[8]The book does a have a minor servant character, Magnon, who claims Gillenormand as the father of her two children. He cheerfully denies this but pays child support. Later, her children die and to … Continue reading

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The romance between Marius and Cosette is depicted less sensually, which on the one hand, I appreciate since they’re even more chaste in the book (Davies does have them engage in “passionate snogging”) and even their wedding night is described in a poetic, euphemistic way. But this means that Davies’s preoccupation with sex in this miniseries is largely with exploitive or otherwise unhealthy forms of sexuality. The scripts have a leering, smutty tone to them which, for all its grittiness and some gutter-minded supporting characters, was absent from the book. This is much less palpable when you just watch the series where it’s diluted by the voices of artists besides Davies, not to mention the time constraints of each episode.

Speaking of Cosette, she’s a notoriously difficult character to adapt-the older Cosette, that is. After her traumatic childhood, she ends up with the cushiest life of any of the main characters, taking no part in any action scenes, and is largely concerned with things like fashion and oblivious to the drama going on around her. This actually makes her scenes refreshing to read in the larger context of the book (for me anyway), but it also means she risks coming across as unsympathetic. Adaptations generally make her more mature and have her question her quiet life on the lam with Jean Valjean. Even the musical’s much maligned Cosette laments that he stills sees her as “a child who is lost in a wood.” The miniseries definitely takes this route. I personally wish more adaptations would try to stay true to the book’s character. Sure, she can be ditzy and even selfish at times, but it’s not like Marius and Valjean don’t have faults of their own. I can see however how she might require more adaptation than other characters to work in a different medium. And at least the miniseries’ more rebellious Cosette still has an arc rooted in the book, where she went from being uninterested in romance to being proud of her ability to attract men to being passionately in love with one man, unlike the Cosette of the 1998 movie who was just the default 90s heroine inserted into Les Misérables.

Much the same could be said of her relationship with Jean Valjean, which is much more tempestuous here than in the book. I wish the dynamic between them weren’t so unpleasant, but, again, I understand that the miniseries can’t give us direct access to Valjean’s thoughts and has to find some way to make the unhealthily possessive nature of his devotion to Cosette palpable. And, unlike in the 1998 movie where Valjean was described as Cosette’s “jailer” and he actually struck her in a fit of anger, I don’t feel like the miniseries is trying to make him the villain and her the victim. Because we’ve seen what happened to her mother in some detail, his accusation that Marius just wants to take advantage of Cosette seems reasonable enough, even though it’s not from the book and is another example of trying to cram sex in wherever possible. And considering Valjean’s past, he can’t be blamed for being angered by her complaint that living with him is like a prison. It’s a genuinely childish thing to say. Both of them are imperfect but sympathetic human beings as they are in the book. I wish some of the more heartwarming moments between them from the source material had been included, like Cosette coaxing Valjean into having a fire in his hermitage (she gets to be nice and warm in the big house) and having something good to eat, but Andrew Davies’s attempt at adapting their complex relationship is commendable, though flawed, and even admirable, considering the challenges involved.

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Actually, that’s a good summary of my opinion on this adaptation as a whole.

Bibliography

Hugo, Victor. (1992) Les Misérables (Charles E. Wilbourn, Trans.) Random House Inc.

Les Misérables – Writersroom (bbc.co.uk)

References

References
1 If you want my judgement on it as a whole, I’ll just say the casting for the older generations of characters, who dominate the first half, is wonderful and the casting for the younger characters, who dominate the second half, is disappointingly not.
2 I don’t mean that last part to sound like a complaint; I love that this adaptation stays close to the book’s plot.
3 As much as I admire the miniseries’ structure, I’m not sure that it pays off for so much of the first episode to focus on the “romance” between Tholomyes and Fantine. It’s so obvious to everyone else that he’s just using her that she risks coming across as simply stupid in her naivety. This is very true of the novel as well, but Victor Hugo was shrewd enough to only describe their last day together as a couple in detail. The miniseries tracks their relationship from start to finish.
4 Though I question how she could do this without waking up the rest of her family who all sleep in the same room.
5 In interviews, Davies has also described Javert’s obsession with Valjean as erotic. I don’t really feel that it registers that way in practice, except for maybe the scene in Episode 1 where Valjean has to change out of his prison uniform in front of Javert, so I didn’t think it worth mentioning in the main body of this post, but it still counts as an example. Javert in the book would be more accurately described as asexual than homosexual. Like I said, it’s never personal with his character.
6 According to Victor Hugo, “Jean Valjean did not, certainly, love Cosette otherwise than as a daughter; but…into this paternity the very bereavement of his life had introduced every love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and as he had never had sweetheart or wife, as nature is a creditor who accepts no protest, that sentiment also, the most indestructible of all, was mingled with the others…”
7 One that remains is Gillenormand boasting to his friends that Nicolette can’t bear to leave his side.
8 The book does a have a minor servant character, Magnon, who claims Gillenormand as the father of her two children. He cheerfully denies this but pays child support. Later, her children die and to keep getting money she replaces them with two unwanted children of the Thenardiers. They end up homeless and get taken under the wing of Gavroche, none of them realizing he’s their brother…let’s just say it’s a ridiculously complicated book.
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Cinderella (2015): My Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

This isn’t exactly the most controversial choice for the best of Disney’s recent (and seemingly unending) line of remakes and updates of old material. I believe it was one of the better received ones. But it’s not a totally safe movie to praise either. Feminist accusations against it range from that it fetishizes the hourglass figure to that its heroine’s personality just amounts to “nice” to that said heroine’s salvation comes from marrying a man.[1]I don’t get why Jane Austen usually gets a pass from feminists when most of her conflicts are resolved by the heroine getting married. I suppose it’s because at the point of the plot … Continue reading It’s true that Cinderella in this movie is a mostly passive figure. At one point even more so than in the 1950 animated movie. When she was locked in her room at the top of the house in that film’s climax and the mice trying to release her were being hindered by the cat, Cinderella had the idea of getting the dog to help. In 2015, Cinderella (Lily James) isn’t even aware that the glass slipper is waiting downstairs and that she needs to escape right away. How can I recommend such a female lead to impressionable kids?

Being rather passive myself, I’m tempted to snark that passive people are underrepresented by Hollywood and we need more role models. Don’t we deserve it? How many wars have passive people initiated?

Seriously though, I love a good empowerment fantasy, whether it’s for girls or boys, and I hope they don’t go away, but I’d question whether those fantasies are really any more practical than the one that a fairy godmother is going to appear out of nowhere and solve our problems for us. In real life, much of the time we aren’t powerful. Whether we’re men or women, there are going to be problems that we can’t just solve by ourselves. That’s life. There are plenty of modern movies teaching kids to stand up and fight for their beliefs. There aren’t many that teach them not to let themselves become embittered or stoop to the level of their persecutors. Restraining resentment is typically portrayed as a bad thing by modern Disney movies and arguably kids’ movies in general. The power that Cinderella represents may not seem useful or exciting at first glance but it’s one worth having and celebrating. Ideally perhaps, our heroes should be able to both lead a charge and survive a siege, but if Cinderella can’t do the former, a lot of the more feminist-friendly heroines of recent movies couldn’t do the latter. And while it’s not necessarily what I would have done if I were writing the script, I find it poetically appealing how in the 2015 movie’s climax, Cinderella saves herself not by trying to do anything but simply by being the person her beloved parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) raised her to be. It’s hard to say how all this will age when the feminists of my youth who criticized Cinderella for not taking control of her destiny and finding salvation through fancy clothes and shoes are now being criticized by more modern feminists for Blaming the Victim and not wanting Cinderella to enjoy her femininity. But I believe this film has timeless virtues that just might enable it to stand the test of history better than any other piece of recent Disney nostalgia bait. It’s the only one that doesn’t feel like it was specifically made for this day and age.

And, hey, it’s not like the filmmakers were totally oblivious to modern audiences. Cinderella may be passive in the climax, but she gets two scenes where she stands up to the stepmother (Cate Blanchett), one of them quite dramatic.[2]The 1950 movie did have a moment where Cinderella’s stepsisters ordered her to help them get dressed and she ignored them. This was too unconsciously done for it to count as her standing up to … Continue reading While the stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, both hilarious) have tacky wardrobes and hairdos, they’re explicitly supposed to be “ugly within” and “fair without,” so there’s no good-people-are-beautiful-bad-people-are-ugly dynamic.[3]This is not as revisionist as you’d think. The Charles Perrault version of Cinderella, upon which the Disney movies are largely based, never describes the stepsisters as ugly and the Brothers … Continue reading Cinderella’s motive for wanting to attend the royal ball is also explicitly not to meet the Prince (Richard Madden), so she’s not just a social climber.[4]The 1950 movie also had her fall in love with the Prince before knowing his identity but this was after she arrived at the ball, so presumably bagging him was still her motivation for going there.

But make no mistake. This is a very traditional feeling Cinderella, which brings us to the more fundamental criticism of it that everyone already knows the story and that it brings nothing new to the table. But I’d challenge those who scoff at the idea of yet another Cinderella to cite how many Cinderella movies were made recently and how many of them played the material straight. Just about every one of them was “not your grandmother’s Cinderella.” This actually is kind of your grandmother’s Cinderella-and that’s what I love about it. It’s refreshing to see a story that meant something to me as a kid treated as great in its own right and not just something that needs to be updated. It may sound trite to say that the movie’s twist is that there is no twist, but for me it works. This was the first Disney nostalgia bait movie to be an outright remake and I’m not sure if it gets enough credit for how many risks it took. Like Cinderella herself, the movie is both the obvious belle of the ball and an underdog. On the one hand, it has a very recognizable title/brand name, a huge budget and Disney’s omnipresent marketing to back it up. On the other hand, it’s slow paced, with a lot of emphasis on character development, no conventional message of female empowerment (though it does have an unconventional one), hardly any action scenes and not even that many fantasy elements, though when there is some action or some magic, well, let’s just say the movie makes the most of it. It’s honestly kind of breathtaking the way the filmmakers refuse to pander to viewers or apologize for the old-fashioned nature of their material. I’d call the movie defiantly oldfashioned, but it’s too relaxed and confident to be described as defiant.

Bother to scratch the movie’s surface and it’s a more original take on the story than first meets the eye.[5]The final third actually adds several new wrinkles while staying within the broad confines of the 1950 Cinderella‘s climax. And since the movie has conditioned us not to expect twists, unlike … Continue reading But more on that later.

In a film with a lot of valuable players, Lily James gets my vote for MVP. Beautiful actresses are a dime a dozen. Those that make their characters interesting are truly special. Just watch her face during the early scene where her father starts to explain that he’s going to remarry. You get that she knows where he’s going with this, she doesn’t like the idea but that she believes it’s the right thing to do and she’s going to be supportive no matter what it costs her. Clearly, it’s not easy being Cinderella. James elevates the script, bringing depth beyond what is written and an unprecedented dignity to her role. She might just be the only Cinderella whom I believe in as both the overlooked household drudge and the belle of the ball.

And it’s not as if the screenplay by Chris Weitz needed that much elevating. Parts of it are admittedly corny. (Count how often the mantra of “have courage and be kind” is repeated. Though I admire how non-feel good that message is. I’d have expected something more along the lines of “be true to yourself” or “follow your heart” from this kind of movie.) But it can also be quite witty and clever when it wants to be. The character of Master Phineus (Rob Brydon) the acerbic royal portrait painter is a real One Scene Wonder. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, the only member of the cast winking at the audience, not that I’m complaining; she’s great fun in the role) is also a fountain of great quotes. The bit about transforming the pumpkin is particularly entertaining.

One of the things that made Kenneth Branagh the perfect director for a movie like this is that he’s a rare director who can make love at first sight not just acceptable but delightful. (Disney animated movies at their best tend to make it acceptable.) In his 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, he made the notoriously hard to sell romance between Claudio and Hero a tearjerker (in a good way) and in his 2006 As You Like It, he sold one of the most arbitrary examples of Pair the Spares in Shakespeare.[6]For a counterexample, see the 2021 West Side Story, which in most ways is a dramatic improvement on the original stage play and the 1961 movie but comes across as embarrassed by the intense … Continue reading I love how in the scene, original to this version, where Cinderella and the Prince meet before the ball, when she objects to the royal stag hunt on the grounds that “just because it’s what done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done,” his reaction is less that his world has been rocked by an entirely foreign philosophy than that he’s thrilled to have finally found someone who shares his convictions. This makes it much more believable that they would be a good couple than if interacting with her inspired him to change his whole worldview within a few days.[7]Am I picking on Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)? No. Well, maybe. There are plenty of good reasons that movie is popular but the central romance probably isn’t one of them. It’s almost shocking how polite these lovers are to each other. Contrast it with the distinctly boorish male love interests of such modern fairy tales as Shrek and Frozen. There’s a value in that, sending the message that the one you love doesn’t necessarily have to be some perfect ideal. But maybe if there were more idealistic movies like Cinderella, we wouldn’t be living in the age of Twitter wars.

I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of Cate Blanchett’s stepmother at first. I liked how the animated stepmother of the 1950 movie was the only character besides Cinderella and the Prince to be totally realistic and not a caricature. It made her stand out. And it was interesting that she never had a monologue or anything about how much she hated Cinderella. Most of her dialogue would have sounded completely innocent taken out of context. More was unsaid than said with her character. Blanchett seemed much more gleeful and (ironically) cartoony in her villainy and, not to spoil anything, but eventually she does get a speech about why she hates Cinderella. But this stepmother grew on me. I admire the decision to have her be a tragic villain rather than the baddie you love to hate as the character is normally portrayed. And she’s just so good at being gleefully villainous! The characters of the stepsisters are played much more for laughs, but they also get a moment where the viewer is invited to pity them.

It’s typical for Cinderella movies, such as the original Disney animated one, to give the Prince an uneasy relationship with his royal parents, usually with them pressuring him to get married against his wishes. This one however has the Prince be very close with his loving father(Derek Jacobi.) Whether he will follow his inclinations and pursue Cinderella or make the politically advantageous marriage the king would prefer is a real question. This Cinderella never goes for the easy conflict while telling a story that is ordinarily all about easy conflicts.[8]Though the movie does add another antagonist who is given less sympathy than the stepmother or stepsisters. This makes him less interesting but he’s fine for what he is.

Most recent Disney nostalgia bait movies are trying on some level to be more mature, adult versions of their source material. Cinderella (2015) is one of the few that I think really succeeds at this.[9]Aladdin is my pick for the other but that’s controversial. I think it appeals more to adults since it focuses on the psychology of the characters and their relationships and makes them more interesting than they were in the 1950 animated movie which focused more on what would interest children, the comedic antics of Cinderella’s mice and her stepmother’s cat.[10]The flipside of that is that the brief and forgettable scenes between the mice and the cat in Cinderella (2015) are nowhere near as inventive and entertaining as those in the 1950 film. And I should … Continue reading That’s not to say to say that kids can’t enjoy the newer movie though or that adults can’t enjoy the older one. I have several times. And there’s no reason people have to choose between them. Disney is happy to sell both.

Some Final Thoughts on Disney Nostalgia Bait

Before I end this series, I’d like to address the opinion that if Disney absolutely has to make all these nostalgia bait movies, it’s better for them to be Type A ones, which at least try to put a fresh spin on the material. I disagree with this not because I have anything against fresh spins but because Disney’s attempts at fresh spins have usually been…not that fresh. Take Christopher Robin (2018), a generally well written, if heavy handed, and well-made movie about which I’ll have good things to say if I ever blog about it in more detail. But all the best parts of it are recreating classic Winnie-the-Pooh moments. (Pooh doing his “stoutness exercises” in front of the looking glass, Eeyore floating under the Pooh Sticks bridge, Tigger mistaking his reflection for another person, etc.) The “original” stuff consists of standard, if enjoyable, fish-out-of-water comedy and a generic family drama about a father who needs to focus on work less and spend more time with his family. It’s well done for what it is, but I doubt if I’d have gone out of my way to see it if not for the gimmick of using Pooh characters. Watching it, I kind of wish the filmmakers had just done a remake of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As a fan of the books by A. A. Milne, I can think of a few improvements they could have made to it.[11]Mainly, I’d like to reinstate Pooh actually coming up with how to save his friend, Piglet, from the flood. In the Many Adventures, Christopher Robin just mistakenly believes he has. And I’ve already blogged at some length about how Maleficent does a lot of posturing about how it’s not the story you remember when anyone familiar with these kinds of fractured fairy tales can see every twist it gives to Sleeping Beauty coming from a mile away.[12]I’m tempted to go into a rant about how the 2010 Alice in Wonderland preaches nonconformity while replacing the unconventional narrative of the original books with a generic story about a … Continue reading In my initial defense of Disney nostalgia bait movies, I dismissed The Lion King (2019) as the dullest and least creative of Type B remakes and I’ll stand by that assessment. Yet in a weird way I respect The Lion King in that, unlike Maleficent, it doesn’t pretend to be original when it really isn’t.

And you know what movie I respect a lot more? Cinderella (2015)

References

References
1 I don’t get why Jane Austen usually gets a pass from feminists when most of her conflicts are resolved by the heroine getting married. I suppose it’s because at the point of the plot where it looks like the heroine isn’t going to get the guy she wants, she’s always portrayed as making the best of it and moving on with her life rather than acting like the world has come to an end. For whatever it’s worth, according to the book, A Wish Your Heart Makes: From the Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel to Disney’s Cinderella, this was also the intention of the 2015 Cinderella’s filmmakers, however they might have failed at conveying it.
2 The 1950 movie did have a moment where Cinderella’s stepsisters ordered her to help them get dressed and she ignored them. This was too unconsciously done for it to count as her standing up to them but it was satisfying in its own way.
3 This is not as revisionist as you’d think. The Charles Perrault version of Cinderella, upon which the Disney movies are largely based, never describes the stepsisters as ugly and the Brothers Grimm version describes them as having “beautiful and fair features but nasty and wicked hearts.”
4 The 1950 movie also had her fall in love with the Prince before knowing his identity but this was after she arrived at the ball, so presumably bagging him was still her motivation for going there.
5 The final third actually adds several new wrinkles while staying within the broad confines of the 1950 Cinderella‘s climax. And since the movie has conditioned us not to expect twists, unlike Maleficent, these actually are surprising.
6 For a counterexample, see the 2021 West Side Story, which in most ways is a dramatic improvement on the original stage play and the 1961 movie but comes across as embarrassed by the intense love-at-first-sight romance at its center and suffers as a result.
7 Am I picking on Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)? No. Well, maybe. There are plenty of good reasons that movie is popular but the central romance probably isn’t one of them.
8 Though the movie does add another antagonist who is given less sympathy than the stepmother or stepsisters. This makes him less interesting but he’s fine for what he is.
9 Aladdin is my pick for the other but that’s controversial.
10 The flipside of that is that the brief and forgettable scenes between the mice and the cat in Cinderella (2015) are nowhere near as inventive and entertaining as those in the 1950 film. And I should stress that I do consider the animated Cinderella to be a well written and well-developed heroine. I just find the 2015 live action one more interesting.
11 Mainly, I’d like to reinstate Pooh actually coming up with how to save his friend, Piglet, from the flood. In the Many Adventures, Christopher Robin just mistakenly believes he has.
12 I’m tempted to go into a rant about how the 2010 Alice in Wonderland preaches nonconformity while replacing the unconventional narrative of the original books with a generic story about a prophesied hero slaying a monster, dethroning a tyrant and restoring a rightful monarch, but I already declared that that one wasn’t technically a Disney nostalgia bait movie. If I were to go on that rant though, I would have to acknowledge that the 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is a surprisingly big improvement on it with a more interesting, if imperfect, plot, much more quotable dialogue and a welcome bit of the spirit of Lewis Carroll. All in all, a fun popcorn flick.
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Aladdin (2019): My Second Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. I find Will Smith’s Genie funnier than Robin Williams’s Genie.

Note I said funnier, not more fun if I can make that distinction. Robin Williams’s Genie is probably more fun, but the only funny line of dialogue I remember from him is when Aladdin worries that Jasmine will laugh at him and he says, “A woman appreciates a man who can make her laugh.” Whenever he himself gets a laugh from me, usually when his jaw drops, it’s more because of the animation than Williams. It’s great fun to watch the animators’ keep up with his rapid-fire impersonations, but while he may be the most fun of the 1992 Aladdin‘s strong supporting cast of comedic characters, he’s probably the least funny.[1]My vote for the funniest supporting character probably goes to the sultan or Iago. Will Smith’s Genie makes me laugh a lot more. I also enjoy his relationship with the live action Aladdin (Mena Massoud) better than the relationship between the characters in the animated movie. Here the Genie starts out more condescending and resentful towards his latest master[2]Making him incidentally ever so slightly closer to a traditional djinn. so it has real emotional power when they bond.

I’ll admit that Mena Massoud is just blandly likeable in the lead role, but Scott Weinger was also just blandly likeable as Aladdin in the old movie. And the remake’s script by John August and Guy Ritchie, who also directs, makes the character more interesting than in the original.

There his main motivation for lying about his identity to Jasmine was that he feared she wouldn’t love him if she knew the truth and the main lesson that he needed to learn was to be more confident in himself. Since it was blatantly obvious to anyone watching that Jasmine fell for Aladdin back when he was a homeless pickpocket, this didn’t make for a very interesting character arc. The 2019 movie makes it much more about power being addictive. In 1992, when Aladdin promised the genie to use his third and final wish to free him, the Genie responded by momentarily turning into Pinocchio, indicating he believed Aladdin was lying. Here he cynically observes that the thing about people and wishes is “the more they have, the more they want.” The implication is that Aladdin may mean what he says now but will inevitably be corrupted by the lamp. This proves to be the case. Unlike the animated Aladdin, this one doesn’t even apologize in the scene where he reneges on his promise. The Genie, for his part, is less bothered by that, as he never expected the promise to be fulfilled, than saddened by the revelation that Aladdin now has no intention of ever telling Jasmine the truth about his identity. “You’d rather lie to someone you love than give all of this up,” he says. Some fans of the animated film may not approve of these changes to the characters, but I think they make for a far more interesting scene. Its equivalent in the original isn’t bad per se, but it’s the part of the movie that you have to sit through to get to its main attraction, the comedy and action. I’d say much same thing about the romantic comedy elements, which are much more engaging here than in the old movie where they were, again, not bad, just obligatory.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine is one of the best of the recent live action Disney Princesses. While Emma Watson and Elle Fanning did fine as Belle and Aurora respectively, they come across as girls-next-door despite their celebrity status in real life. Watching Scott in this movie, you really do feel like she’s a fairy tale princess.[3]It’s worth mentioning here that not all princesses in fairy tales are good characters. But even evil fairy tale princesses are typically beautiful and charismatic. She’s helped by the fact that the script’s attempts to make Jasmine more of a feminist character, by having her wish to become Sultan herself rather than just wanting to marry whomever she wants, really do serve to make her more interesting and don’t come across as simply obligatory. Admittedly, the movie is a bit hampered in these attempts by the fact that it’s a Type B Disney nostalgia bait movie, which means it sticks very close to the original movie’s story, which was driven by Aladdin’s actions and the climax of which hinged on his redeeming himself. It’s hard to have Jasmine be the big hero without ceasing to make dramatic sense. Aladdin (2019) gives her more to do by expanding on a moment in the original film’s last act where she refuses to bow down to the villain who has used the magic lamp to make himself Sultan. This is somewhat forced and makes Jasmine more competent at the expense of the other relevant characters, but I get invested enough in her character watching the movie and the speech she gives is well written enough that I enjoy it.[4]And if her accusation that Jafar claims to be seeking glory for his country when he really just wants it for himself was intended as political commentary, I’m impressed by how not preachy it … Continue reading

Jasmine gets the film’s big award bait song, Speechless.[5]There was another one, Desert Moon, which got cut. While the pacing reasons behind its deletion were excellent, it’s worth a listen. While the character is written differently enough, and Naomi Scott’s voice is great enough that she merited more than a duet with the hero[6]Actually, Lea Salonga, who provided Jasmine’s singing voice in the animated movie (Linda Larkin did her speaking) deserved more than that too., the new song sadly doesn’t mesh that well with the preexisting ones. And the staging is rather awkward as it comes near the end and is presented as a fantasy scene inside the singer’s head while all the musical numbers up to this point have been implied to be happening in real life. They’re a mixed bag in general with the Genie’s being the better.

The montage that introduces the movie’s world during Arabian Nights gets things off to a great start. Never Had a Friend Like Me is, if anything, even more fun to watch than its 1992 animated counterpart. Prince Ali isn’t but I can watch and enjoy it without thinking about that. Too many beats of One Jump Ahead though are just recreations of the original only less fun due to not being a cartoon. To be fair though, that number always felt like the choreography and possibly the music was done first and the lyrics afterwards (how else do you explain “one hit ahead of the flock?”), so perhaps there wasn’t much the remake could do. A Whole New World has its charms but is doomed by its realism[7]To the extent that a scene of people flying around on a magic carpet can have realism. to be less visually entertaining than the original scene in which Aladdin and Jasmine seemingly flew not only all over the world but throughout history and returned while the night was still young.[8]It’s a strange quirk of Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies that they do a better job at recreating the magic of the cartoony over-the-top production numbers, like Be Our Guest, than the more … Continue reading

At first glance, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar may also seem like a pale imitation of his cackling cartoon counterpart, so memorably voiced by Johnathan Freeman. But I’d argue that the relative blandness of this Jafar is precisely the point. There’s nothing unusual about his villainy. Envy and ruthless ambition can be found in all kinds of people, not just over-the-top bad guys. I like the way the script brings out the parallels between Jafar and Aladdin, inherent in the original, with both of them being willing to deceive and trample over anyone to claw their way to the top. This could have been a double standard with Aladdin and Jafar being condemned for seeking more power and Jasmine being praised for it, but the movie seems to be aware of this potential problem and frames Jasmine’s wish to be Sultan in terms of her wanting to help the people of her country rather than just herself. And I’m impressed that the film bothers to give Jafar a specific motive for seeking to invade his country’s ally when I’d have completely accepted him just wanting to do it because he’s the bad guy.

You’ve probably discerned by now that I don’t consider Aladdin (1992) to be a “great” movie in any profound sense of the term. I do consider it great in that it’s a highly entertaining piece of fluff and I’d say Aladdin (2019) lives up to that standard while being a bit more thoughtful and interesting. Now that’s not to say that everything about it is superior or even equal to the original movie. While I enjoy most of the leads more, the remake doesn’t have any original ideas for most of the supporting characters, like Abu the monkey and the magic carpet, and they just end up being less memorable, photorealistic versions of the animated ones. (Though the movie does partially compensate for this with the wonderful new supporting characters of Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) the handmaiden, who plays Nerissa to Jasmine’s Portia, and Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen), a hopeless suitor of Jasmine’s, the relative briefness of whose screentime is one the movie’s disappointments. And I like what the remake does with Jafar’s parrot familiar, Iago (Alan Tudyk), having him say the things aloud that Jafar thinks but conceals.) The action scenes are not as fun and there are parts, though fewer than in most Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies, that have a been-there-done-that-didn’t-want-the-t-shirt feel. And I miss hand drawn animation!

Objectively speaking, I’d say the two movies are about equal. The things which this Aladdin does better make me personally like it a bit more. It certainly retains a good deal of the 1992 film’s cartoony spirit, which distinguishes it from other recent Disney nostalgia bait just as it gave the original its own personality distinct from its Disney animated contemporaries. More than any other Disney nostalgia bait movie, this feels like it was fun to make. I imagine that feeling is an illusion, and it was actually a pain to make, considering all the stunts, dance numbers and special effects in it. But would I ever not be surprised to know that the people making it really were having fun!

References

References
1 My vote for the funniest supporting character probably goes to the sultan or Iago.
2 Making him incidentally ever so slightly closer to a traditional djinn.
3 It’s worth mentioning here that not all princesses in fairy tales are good characters. But even evil fairy tale princesses are typically beautiful and charismatic.
4 And if her accusation that Jafar claims to be seeking glory for his country when he really just wants it for himself was intended as political commentary, I’m impressed by how not preachy it is. I mean it’s preachy but not any more preachy than I’d expect a nonpolitical kids’ movie to be.
5 There was another one, Desert Moon, which got cut. While the pacing reasons behind its deletion were excellent, it’s worth a listen.
6 Actually, Lea Salonga, who provided Jasmine’s singing voice in the animated movie (Linda Larkin did her speaking) deserved more than that too.
7 To the extent that a scene of people flying around on a magic carpet can have realism.
8 It’s a strange quirk of Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies that they do a better job at recreating the magic of the cartoony over-the-top production numbers, like Be Our Guest, than the more emotional dramatic ones, like Beauty and the Beast. You’d think the latter would be easier to do in a photorealistic way.
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Mary Poppins Returns: My Third Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

I have a bit of a strange attitude towards sequel gaps. When a sequel is made to a popular movie that came out, say, ten or fifteen years ago, I’m skeptical that it can recapture its predecessor’s magic. But when it’s a sequel to a movie that came out fifty-four years ago, as in the case of Mary Poppins Returns (2018), and there are hardly any of the same people involved in the production, I’m actually mildly intrigued. The fact that it’s even less likely that the new movie will feel like it takes place in the same world as the old one counterintuitively frees me from the expectation that it will, leaving me more willing to appreciate whatever charms it may have.

Of course, for many people, Disney’s 1964 movie, Mary Poppins, is such a perfect movie that even a sequel made a year after would fall short. Growing up though, I was more of a fan of the books by P. L. Travers. That’s not to say I dislike the movie. In fact, I consider it a good, if imperfect, adaptation, a controversial statement given Travers’s famous unhappiness with it. I’ll go so far as to say I love the film’s first two thirds. The final third is a bit too sappy and preachy for my taste.[1]Incidentally, it’s also the section of the movie that has the least to do with the books. So I’m less scandalized by Disney daring to think they could do a worthy follow-up to the original movie and more pleased to have a fresh take on a character and a world that I love to analyze and enjoy.

Don’t let that give you the idea that Mary Poppins Returns is based more on the books than on the 1964 movie, because it’s obviously not. But it’s not not based on the books if you know what I mean. Most of the episodes in it are adapted from the book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, just as most of the episodes from the original were adapted from the first Mary Poppins book. And just like the original, it includes lines from and references to the other books in the series as well. The names it gives to two of the adult Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw)’s children, John (Nathanael Saleh) and Annabel (Pixie Davies), are the names of two of Jane and Michael’s younger siblings from the books. I wish the movie had been even closer to the books by having Annabel be named Barabara and making youngest child, George (Joel Dawson), a girl called Annabel, but since the character of Mr. Banks had such a big role in the Mary Poppins movie, I understand why the filmmakers felt that one of his grandchildren had to be named after him.

This scene is packed with references to the books-in more ways than one.

Now the easiest criticism to make about this sequel is that it’s highly formulaic. Pretty much every scene, or at least eight out of ten, corresponds to a scene from the original movie. Early on, the head of the Banks family throws away a piece of paper, inadvertently summoning Mary Poppins from the sky. She basically hires herself as a nursemaid, befuddling her ostensible employer. She turns a chore which the children dislike into a fun and magical experience. I could go on like this for the whole plot. The adult Michael takes on the role, more or less, of his father. Jane (Emily Morton) takes on her mother’s role as a foil for him. (Michael is a widower.) His kids take on Jane and Michael’s roles and there’s an obvious stand-in for Bert in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack. There’s a Spoonful of Sugar song, a Jolly Holiday song, a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious song, etc., etc. For some, this may tell against the movie, but I don’t mind since, as I wrote above, I’m a big fan of the Mary Poppins books which were just as formulaic. There were basically seven or eight story ideas, with a few unique to the series popping up (no pun intended) once in a while, and each book would contain a variation or two on each of them. For me, that was part of their appeal.[2]Though I’ll admit it’s kind of annoying that Jane and Michael never guess that the mysterious special guest at the various supernatural celebrations they end up attending is always going … Continue reading The world of Mary Poppins was always new and exciting and also always familiar and comforting. That was everything I wanted out of life as a kid. Come to think of it, it’s pretty much what I want out of life now. So, I consider it appropriate that the Mary Poppins movies should be the same way.

And it’s not like the little details are the same in the books or the movies. Often, they’re delightfully opposite. In the 1964 Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael just wanted to have fun. They needed someone to give them that and to teach them to be responsible, tidy up their nursery and stop running away from authority figures. John and Annabel, by contrast, are almost too adult and serious and need someone to teach them cut loose. Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins was jovial, quite content with his…gravitational disability, happy to see Mary Poppins and needed her to bring him back down to Earth. Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy in Mary Poppins Returns is glum, unhappy with her GD, has a sour relationship with Mary Poppins and needs her to get her out of the dumps. And I’m pleased to say that Michael’s character is not just a retread of his father’s as I feared it would be. While the senior Mr. Banks saw his job at the bank as almost a religious calling, Michael sees his as a necessary evil. He’s an artist at heart but there’s no money in that. Instead of being strict and all about precision, he can only just function as an adult. While he objects to Mary Poppins’s “stuff and nonsense”, he’s also quite warm and friendly towards his children, only getting angry with them in moments of great stress and apologizing immediately afterwards.

This is controversial but I like Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack better than I like Dick Van Dyke as Bert-and I don’t get the hype around Lin-Manuel Miranda![3]I’m not into rap or hip hop. I’m not a fan of the broad, mugging style of comedy[4]Though I make an exception for Donald O’ Connor’s performance as Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain so I consider Bert something more to be tolerated than enjoyed. The bits of Mary Poppins where he takes the spotlight, such as his dance with the penguins, are among the slower parts for me. He may not be the best thing about the movie but I wouldn’t say Jack is to be tolerated.

Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins, on the other hand, actually might be the best thing about the movie or at least about the cast. When I first saw it, I thought I preferred her to Julie Andrew’s Mary Poppins since she felt more like how I imagine the character from the books.[5]Though I’d argue the character from the original movie is closer to the literary one than her reputation gives her credit for being. She’s definitely warmer and kinder than the … Continue reading I admit though I find this controversial opinion harder to keep after watching Returns shortly after Mary Poppins. Part of what makes Julie Andrews’s performance so great is that she doesn’t seem like she’s trying to be funny, yet she is. Emily Blunt feels more like she’s trying-and succeeding. Maybe she’s not as great in the role as Julie Andrew but she’s still wonderful. Blunt’s dry, snobby line readings are hilarious. The air of self-possession and I-know-something-you-don’t-know she brings to the character are a delight and very appropriate for Mary Poppins. And she makes the most of her rare moments of vulnerability.

Emily Mortimer is cannily cast as an older version of Karen Dotrice’s Jane from the 1964 movie.[6]Dotrice gets a brief and regrettably contrived cameo in this one. Ben Whishaw doesn’t particularly evoke an older Matthew Garber, but who cares? It’s Ben Whishaw. Julie Walters is also well cast as an older version of Hermione Baddeley’s Ellen the maid. In general, this movie, like the original benefits from a supporting cast of great character actors who are having fun.

The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman of Hairspray are a slightly mixed bag, but I’d argue that the songs from the original movie by Richard and Robert Sherman were also a slightly mixed bag. Sure, everyone remembers A Spoonful of Sugar and A Jolly Holiday, but do they remember I Love to Laugh or Fidelity Fiduciary Bank? When they’re great, they’re great. I’ll even say I like Can You Imagine That? better than its equivalent from the old movie, A Spoonful of Sugar, not necessarily as a song but as a summary of Mary Poppins’s character. I don’t think anyone would associate finding the fun side of work with her if it weren’t for A Spoonful of Sugar. Dismissing imagination and fantasy while miracles are occurring all around as a response to her presence, on the other hand, perfectly captures the marvelous contradiction that is Mary Poppins.[7]Can You Imagine That? is also thematically reminiscent of the song, Impossible, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s usually good for a musical to remind me of Rodgers and … Continue reading One of my favorite memories of seeing this movie in theaters is seeing little kids spontaneously rise from their seats and dance in front of the screen to the end credits music. I can’t say I blamed them.

I can’t act like everything about this movie is as good or better than the original though. The comic relief supporting characters are not as consistently funny or well developed, though some of them are great.[8]I really wish more could have been done with the rules-obsessed park keeper (Steven Nicolson), who is a prominent figure in the books and a lot of fun. At least the Mary Poppins stage musical gives … Continue reading The script by David Magee is sometimes heavy handed, having the characters explicitly comment on how the messages of the songs relate to what’s happening to them rather than letting the viewer analyze it for themselves.[9]I realize that kids are this film’s audience and they’re not likely to pick up on that kind of thing right away. But I don’t think they need to pick up on it to enjoy the movie and … Continue reading There’s also some deadwood in the plot with a bland romance between Jack and Jane. Dialogue is less consistently quotable than in the original movie though that doesn’t mean it’s never quotable. The iconic character of Mary Poppins herself is highly so. Part of that is because she gets a lot of lines from the books, but she gets some great lines original to this film too. The script also does a great job capturing what personalities the young Jane and Michael had with Jane being perkier and Michael being more cynical.

While it does allow the sequel to chart its own course a bit, I don’t think it works to have death and mourning be a major theme of a Mary Poppins movie, at least not the way it’s done here. Michael’s climactic revelation that his wife lives on in his children strikes me as obvious and trite. (Aren’t they going to die someday too? How is that comforting?) It’s also pretty obvious from their first scene that he doesn’t need to worry about his children as they’re the ones taking care of him. Then again, I also consider Mr. Banks’s climactic revelation in the first movie that his children need him to lighten up and have fun with them to be trite and obvious from the beginning, though maybe it was less so to English parents in 1910 and American ones in 1964. So, again, this doesn’t strike me as a huge step down from the original film, though I guess that one deserves credit for not biting off more than it could chew thematically.[10]And to be fair, Mr. Banks’s climactic transformation in Mary Poppins was very similar to that of a character in Chapter 3 of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, The Cat That Looked at a King, which … Continue reading

This movie’s action climax is like nothing from the books or the first movie. It’s ridiculous, ethically questionable…and I love it! Seriously, if someone had described this climax to me before I’d seen Mary Poppins Returns, I’d have dismissed the whole thing as stupid. But watching it “unspoiled”, I find the whole thing entertainingly bonkers.

A problem that tends to plague Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies is that they’re playing to nostalgia for a genre that is still basically being made today.[11]In my next post though, I’m going to write about a piece of Type B Disney nostalgia bait that I love. The great thing about Mary Poppins Returns is that it really is a kind of movie that doesn’t get made today. Nowadays special effects in big budget releases are all about giant action scenes and explosions. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Here, director Rob Marshall perfectly captures the sense of fun and innocent wonderment that characterized the books by P. L. Travers, the 1964 film, and Disney’s initial attempt at duplicating its success, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. If you’re nostalgic for any of those, I can’t guarantee you’ll love Mary Poppins Returns, but I certainly recommend you check it out.

If this sequel had been released soon after the original, as Disney would have no doubt wished, I’d probably have been more cynical about its formulaicness. But there’s something fitting about the history of Mary Poppins on the big screen. She comes and goes when she pleases. P. L. Travers didn’t want her books to be adapted into a Disney movie, but adapted into one they were, as if even she couldn’t control her creation. After the movie was such a success, Disney would have loved to have made another one, but Travers wasn’t having that. Mary Poppins wouldn’t come back to cinemas until 2018, a stressful year in my personal life. She came when I needed her most.

References

References
1 Incidentally, it’s also the section of the movie that has the least to do with the books.
2 Though I’ll admit it’s kind of annoying that Jane and Michael never guess that the mysterious special guest at the various supernatural celebrations they end up attending is always going to be Mary Poppins. You’d think they’d figure it out eventually.
3 I’m not into rap or hip hop.
4 Though I make an exception for Donald O’ Connor’s performance as Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain
5 Though I’d argue the character from the original movie is closer to the literary one than her reputation gives her credit for being. She’s definitely warmer and kinder than the books’ Mary Poppins, whom the author apparently described as being like Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. (For those more familiar with Western culture, such dread goddesses as Hera, Athena and Artemis might be good points of comparison.) But she’s much more aloof and strict and less oppressively cheery than cultural osmosis remembers her as being. (Her line, “I am never cross” can be interpreted as a comedic lack of self awareness.) Although her goal is to brighten Jane and Michael’s lives with fun, magical experiences, she initially objects to all of them, only agreeing in a spirit of martyrdom, which is part of what makes her so interesting.

6 Dotrice gets a brief and regrettably contrived cameo in this one.
7 Can You Imagine That? is also thematically reminiscent of the song, Impossible, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It’s usually good for a musical to remind me of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
8 I really wish more could have been done with the rules-obsessed park keeper (Steven Nicolson), who is a prominent figure in the books and a lot of fun. At least the Mary Poppins stage musical gives him his due.
9 I realize that kids are this film’s audience and they’re not likely to pick up on that kind of thing right away. But I don’t think they need to pick up on it to enjoy the movie and having it be subtext creates a nice “eureka!” moment for them when they’re older.
10 And to be fair, Mr. Banks’s climactic transformation in Mary Poppins was very similar to that of a character in Chapter 3 of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, The Cat That Looked at a King, which the Disney company adapted into an animated short in 2004.
11 In my next post though, I’m going to write about a piece of Type B Disney nostalgia bait that I love.
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