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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off on Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 3

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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off on Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 2

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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 1

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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on The Taming of the Shakespeare

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.

Click to view full size image

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.

Click to view full size image

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.

Click to view full size image

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?

Click to view full size image

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. 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.[7]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

Click to view full size image

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.

Click to view full size image

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 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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Highs and Lows of Andrew Davies’s Les Misérables

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.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Cinderella (2015): My Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

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.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Aladdin (2019): My Second Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Mary Poppins Returns: My Third Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

A Mild Defense of Disney’s Recent Line of Nostalgia Bait

It’s no secret that the Walt Disney company has been relying on remakes of their more popular older movies a lot lately. 2019 saw not one, not two, but four of them! (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp.) These are typically referred to as live action remakes since the original movies being remade were animated, but considering how much CGI they use, it’s more accurate to describe them as photorealistic remakes. Actually, that’s not the best label either as many of the films that get lumped into discussions of this trend, reasonably so, aren’t so much remakes as spinoffs, sequels, prequels or Perspective Flips of old Disney properties. And at least one of them, Mary Poppins Returns (2018) is of a (mostly) live action movie. For my money, the best description of these films is nostalgia bait movies.[1]Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural … Continue reading

It’s also no secret that the internet is less than pleased with Disney’s recent line of nostalgia bait. Searching for Disney Remakes on YouTube gives you a long list of video essays proclaiming them all to be terrible. You don’t have to be a Disney hater or a Disney lover to hate Disney nostalgia bait. Ardent fans of the original movies tend to despise them for daring to even attempt improving on them and people who are indifferent or even hostile to the originals despise the trend out of an aversion to remakes in general. Both parties consider it pathetic that the Disney company has come to rely so much on repackaging old material again and again as an easy way to make money.

If you’re familiar with this Disney-produced movie, you’ll get the joke.

And that’s a very valid accusation to make. In the past seven years or so, I’ve made and laughed at my share of jokes about the death of originality at Disney. But having watched most of these nostalgia bait movies, I think all this criticism and cynicism deserves some pushback.[2]I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out. It’s certainly pathetic for a major studio to rely on nostalgia bait to this extent, and it’s a pain to always have to clarify what you mean now by Disney’s Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc, but that doesn’t mean everything about these films is pathetic. Not all of them are great, but plenty of talented artists had a hand in them, as well as bean counters, and they’re hardly the unending trainwreck the YouTube critic community would have you believe. You can probably guess from the fact that my blog is about adaptations that I don’t demand every piece of art I enjoy to be an original concept. Humanity has probably been retelling stories as long as it’s been telling them. It’s common knowledge that most of the old Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment were already based on something else. Whatever may be truly said against the producers who greenlit all of these remakes/spinoffs, for at least some of their directors the originals seem to have been a real inspiration. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re good of course.[3]For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad. But enough thought and effort went into enough of them that I think they deserve a little defense.[4]I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral … Continue reading

Firstly, the idea of photorealistic remakes of hand drawn animated movies is not without an appeal. Maybe it’s a dumb appeal, but it’s a real one. Usually, when people do a film entirely in animation, it’s because that film tells a story that could only be done that way. Isn’t it exciting that special effects have the reached the point where they can bring the fantastic imagery of old Disney animated movies to life in such a real-looking way? Try to put away your anti-remake bias and pretend there hasn’t been such a glut of Disney nostalgia bait lately. Doesn’t the idea sound cool? At least to the little kid inside you?

People tend to assume all Disney nostalgia bait movies are the same, but I divide them into four categories.[5]I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle … Continue reading

Type A. These are movies like Maleficent (2014) and its 2019 sequel, Mistress of Evil, Christopher Robin (2018)[6]Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to … Continue reading, Mary Poppins Returns and Cruella (2021.) They take familiar Disney characters and try to put some kind of a fresh twist on them, usually telling a story that takes place years after the original, or reconstructing the villain as a misunderstood antihero.[7]If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since … Continue reading

Type B. When people complain that Disney’s recent remakes are lazy reproductions of the originals, these are the ones they usually mean. They’re movies like Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), (surprisingly) Lady and the Tramp (2019)[8]Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other. and The Lion King (2019.) They rearrange a few scenes here or there but tend to stick very close to the original movies, including several lines of dialogue from them and most of their musical numbers. Even their scores reuse largely the same themes as the original soundtracks.[9]To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to … Continue reading When critiquing these, it’s easy to fall into the trap of criticizing them for mindlessly recreating what was done before, on the one hand, and then whenever they do something different from the original-as they all do at some point-criticizing the change for making them worse. That’s because all but one of them are remakes of movies from the 90s that hadn’t really aged badly enough yet to cry out for remakes. The main update all of them do is to try to be more feminist-friendly than the originals. Even The Lion King, the most boring and paint-by-numbers of recent Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies, takes a few uninteresting stabs in this direction.[10]I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds … Continue reading For all that can be said against them, there is an argument to be made that they benefit from inheriting strong stories, which can’t be said of every type of nostalgia bait movie.

Type C. These are The Jungle Book (2016) and Dumbo (2019.) They include most of the iconic scenes from the originals, but arguably tell their own stories, even being somewhat revisionist with their endings but nearly as much so as something like Maleficent. [11]Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving … Continue reading They include a few memorable lines from the originals (“They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him.”), but not as many as Type B remakes do. They also include a few of the songs, but they’re not really musicals. It usually comes across as the characters just singing songs for their own pleasure as people do sometimes in real life.[12]The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally … Continue reading It can be argued that these films represent the best balance between nostalgia and originality of any of the recent Disney nostalgia bait movies though neither is my favorite.[13]Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I … Continue reading

Type D. These include Cinderella (2o15) and Mulan (2020.) They feel more like new adaptations of the stories upon which the old Disney movies were based than remakes of those movies. The plot points they retain from them, like killing off Cinderella’s father and giving Mulan a love interest, tend to be the common changes made when adapting these stories. Their costumes are the least interested in evoking those from the original films, and they only use the songs from them in the end credits.[14]Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed. I wouldn’t classify them as remakes at all if it weren’t for little details like the names of Cinderella’s stepsisters or the mice that help her or the scene where Mulan’s comrades describe their ideal women to her disgust and discomfort or the phrases, “bibbiddi bobbiddi boo” or “honor to us all” or….OK, fine, they’re obviously remakes! But they suffer less from remake-itis than any of the other Disney nostalgia bait movies except for the Type A ones, which aren’t really remakes-and arguably they even suffer from it less than those!

If all these movies feel like they’re coming off an assembly line, they’re not all coming off quite the same assembly line. It’s interesting (to me anyway) to analyze whether a Disney nostalgia bait movie is an example of a Type A, Type B, Type C or Type D. And that’s not the only thing about them I enjoy analyzing.

Clearly with many of these movies the writers looked not only at the old Disney movies but also at the source material for them. Thus, we get things like Cinderella asking her father to give her the first branch he brushes against on his way home,[15]Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel … Continue reading Sleeping Beauty having an evil mother-in-law (in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Mulan not being an only child, and Cruella De Vil getting kicked out of school in her youth. As in the fairy tale, Beauty’s family now has a backstory where they have to leave the city to live in a rural area, she asks her father to get her a rose and he invokes the Beast’s wrath by plucking one from his garden. The most notable example of this is The Jungle Book which combines the broad plot, broad characterizations, and some of the comedy of the 1967 movie with the action-adventure elements and a good bit of the worldbuilding of the Rudyard Kipling stories. Considering how opposite the wacky (a detractor might say juvenile) cartoon and the solemn (a detractor might say pretentious) books were, this would seem doomed to failure. But the result is actually a nice happy medium that’s neither too juvenile nor too pretentious and seems to have been one of the more well-liked pieces of Disney nostalgia bait.

Another intriguing trend in these movies is the preoccupation with parents. Most of the original Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment had protagonists with at least one absent parent. Actually, stories in general tend to have protagonists with at least one absent parent. But these nostalgia bait movies seem to want to really explore the implications of this. The death of Jasmine’s mother matters in the 2019 Aladdin in a way it doesn’t in the original and Aladdin’s mother gets a mention, which isn’t much but more than she got in the original.[16]By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character. The death of Belle’s mother is dwelt on at some length. The Beast’s relationships with his parents are also implied to have shaped the person he’s become, though this addition to the plot is so underdeveloped I’m not sure why they bothered with it. Mowgli’s adopted wolf mother has a bigger role in the 2016 Jungle Book than she had in 1967 and his biological human father makes an appearance. Cinderella’s biological parents are the biggest example. Not only do they get multiple scenes at the beginning of the 2015 movie, but they remain an unseen presence throughout it. The prince’s parents and even the biological father of the stepsisters also play important, if sometimes offscreen, roles.

Neither of these trends automatically makes the movies good of course. But they demonstrate that either Disney executives are giving filmmakers bizarrely specific mandates or that some kind of thought and effort is going into the nostalgia bait.

Speaking of parents, I like the character of Maurice, Belle’s father, better in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast than in the 1991 one. While he’s less obviously comedic, I find him funnier and his relationship with his daughter, which is vital to the plot for both versions, to be more touching. I also think it made more sense in that movie to have Belle be borrowing her books from a learned man in her village rather than from a bookshop. (Having a bookshop in a town where being a bookworm makes you a pariah is really bad business move, especially when the local pariah can’t afford to actually buy the books.) And having her be an inventor makes it more believable that her neighbors would so vehemently dub her odd. (Loving books would certainly get a woman branded as lazy and impractical in that environment, but I doubt she would have really been considered crazy or unfeminine.)[17]Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither … Continue reading I appreciate that the 2017 Beast apologizes for his treatment of Maurice and he tells his household staff that he’s sorry his releasing Belle means they’ll never be free of the curse he brought upon them, so his redemption doesn’t just involve loving one person.[18]To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when … Continue reading And it’s nice that the movie tries to be more nuanced in its portrayal of the shallow and bigoted villagers, showing some of them resisting Gaston’s propaganda or becoming disillusioned with him.

Kevin Kline as Maurice

Does any of that mean I prefer Beauty and the Beast (2017) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) on the whole?

Bwa ha ha ha! No. That’s like a really, really big no.[19]I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are … Continue reading

But I’m not going to act like the artists that made the 1991 movie were perfect or that those that made the more recent one brought nothing good to the table.

As little as I blame critics for rolling their eyes and throwing up their hands over how the Disney company has come to rely on nostalgia bait for fans of their old hits, looking at recent box office history, I can’t blame Disney much either. So many of their original live action, non-Marvel films, such as John Carter, The Lone Ranger and The BFG, have underperformed at the box office lately.[20]Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either. And what’s more, they weren’t really beloved by critics any more than the Disney nostalgia bait movies. The choice before the higherups at the studio was between making movies that critics disliked and made no money and making ones that critics disliked but which made money. I can hear a lot of readers scoffing and objecting that I’m leaving out the obvious choice for Disney to make great original movies that draw crowds, but I’d like to challenge those readers to come up with a good original story at the drop of a hat. It’s not easy.[21]The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.

Maybe we should blame audiences for not taking more risks with their entertainment and financially supporting more non-nostalgia bait movies from Disney…but I’m not even going to do that. I’m not convinced mainstream audiences aren’t enjoying the nostalgia bait movies which they’re paying to see, at least not more than the original ones they’re not paying to see. And they have the right to pay to see what appeals to them. It pains me a bit to say this because I love Disney’s The BFG and I wish it could have been a gigantic hit.[22]I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once. But there are plenty of other viewers who didn’t love it. During my theatrical viewing, I noticed a lot of kids in the audience were restless in a way I don’t remembering sensing at any of the matinees for Disney nostalgia bait movies I’ve attended, and I doubt the kids who didn’t see it would have been less restless.

A concern I’ve heard about these photorealistic remakes, with which I really sympathize is that, with hand drawn animation becoming increasingly niche, today’s kids are just going to watch the new versions and not bother with the old ones into which so much work and talent went. You may be surprised by this, considering my first argument in Disney nostalgia bait’s favor was that it was cool to see photorealistic reimagining of iconic hand drawn images, but I love the medium of hand drawn animation. The magic trick of making a drawing come to life enchants me and it pains me to see it on life support. I’m gratified when I hear of a modern kid preferring a classic Disney animated movie over its recent remake. But I think movie fans need to resign themselves to the inevitable changing of audience tastes. Certainly, no one has to agree with the those changing tastes and many of the critics who prefer the originals to the remakes have valid points. But look at how the consensus on Disney animated movies has evolved over time and is still evolving. Critics of the old school tended to consider the first five of them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, to be masterpieces and all that came afterwards to be inferior, though some would make an exception for Beauty and the Beast. There are critics out there who still hold this view, but among YouTube critics who are Disney fans the consensus seems to be their animated movies from the 90s were the greatest with The Little Mermaid (1989) sometimes being counted as an honorary 90s movie. I, myself, take the third option that the 50s were the time period with the most consistently great Disney animated movies[23]I’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the … Continue reading and I imagine the rising generation will revere the ones from the 2010s the most. While it’s true that there might be more people watching the originals right now if it weren’t for the nostalgia bait, I’m not convinced those people would be loving them any more than they are now. Fans can write blog posts and make video essays explaining why they believe their preferred movies to be the best and good for them, but in the end, that’s all they can do.

I know this post hasn’t been up to my usual standards. That’s because I’m arguing that something isn’t particularly bad. It’s hard to make that interesting or convincing. Making a case that something is either great or terrible is easier. I really do believe that the recent line of Disney nostalgia bait has gotten a worse reputation than it deserves though. I just don’t feel nearly passionate enough about this to do analyses of every single entry in it. While that would be the most convincing way to make my case, it would also end up boring both me and my readers. You can only take so much, “it’s not the best thing ever, but it’s not the worst.” What I am going to do is write posts about each of my top three Disney nostalgia bait movies, in order from weakest to greatest, the ones I regard as superior, equal to or only slightly worse than the originals. These are the ones about which I believe people, once the dust has cleared and we can look back on this strange period of cinematic history with something like neutrality, will say, “yeah, those were really good.” (Well, OK, maybe not people in general but some will.) I thought it would be good to do this introductory post first to provide context for the discussion.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural nostalgia for the 1977 version for me to really consider it nostalgia bait.
2 I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out.
3 For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad.
4 I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral actions or policies on the part of the Disney company, like their infamous cooperation with and implicit endorsement of the CPC in the making of the 2020 Mulan. Stuff like that is above this blog’s paygrade.
5 I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) is actually more of a remake of the 1942 Korda brothers movie than the 1967 Disney one.
6 Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to make movies with “Christopher Robin” in the title.
7 If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since they’re based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, not Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Still, since the 1951 movie is the Alice in the public’s eyes (if any version can make that claim), it’s reasonable to say that the studio was testing the waters for Disney nostalgia bait with it.
8 Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other.
9 To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to be masterpieces and I can’t blame the movies for thinking they couldn’t be topped-which, of course, brings up the why-do-a-remake question.
10 I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds like a discount Robert Guillame. John Oliver sounds like a discount less funny Rowan Atkinson. Billy Eichner sounds like a discount more irritating Nathan Lane. Seth Rogan sounds like a discount Ernie Sabella. (Though, to be fair, Timon and Pumbaa’s banter is one of the more entertainingly written parts of the film.) Even James Earl Jones sounds like a discount James Earl Jones. To his credit, Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t sound like a discount Jeremy Irons, but he doesn’t sound that interesting in his role either.
11 Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving to the man village. (Modern Disney just hates civilization but they love making money off it.) Seriously, I understand the reasoning behind both changes, but I confess a fondness to the ending of the 1967 Jungle Book. It’s kind of nice to see a cartoon movie end with the stuffy adult characters being vindicated rather than the rebellious kid characters. Interestingly, the 2016 Jungle Book still emphasizes Mowgli needing to fight Shere Khan “like a man” rather than an animal and doesn’t have him officially become a member of the wolf pack as was his original wish. The position it seems to take is summed up by a character who opines that Mowgli should “be a man right here (in the jungle),” a character who is weirdly portrayed as less admirable than the characters who advocate him living in the village. Someone who disliked this movie might call it gutless. I enjoy it so I’ll go with “thematically complex,” though I suspect “gutless” is closer to the truth.
12 The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally nonmusical film, and it doesn’t even fit with the tone of the scene in this version. The use of it in the credits is fun though. Dumbo‘s Baby Mine works fine but not brilliantly. The main problem with its scene is that photorealistic elephants are never going to be as cuddly as the cartoon ones from the 1941 movie.
13 Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I should stress that I find it to be a flawed but enjoyable.
14 Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed.
15 Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel like this is worth pointing out since when rightfully describing Disney as sanitizing the stories they adapt, people will sometimes cite Cinderella as an example, which, for once, isn’t fair as Cendrillon already doesn’t feature the gory elements of Aschenputel. But I find it admirable that the makers of Cinderella (2015) looked at different versions of the fairy tale, not just the one they were officially using as source material.
16 By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character.
17 Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither did reading books in the 1991 classic, though it arguably had thematic significance that mechanics don’t in either film.
18 To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when they’re restored to their true forms in the last scene. If anything, he’s more enthusiastic about it than his own transformation.
19 I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are as inspired in their roles as the voice cast of the animated movie. The vocals (except for those of Audra Macdonald) and the choreography (except for maybe that of Be Our Guest) aren’t going to make anyone forget the original in a hurry either. Not all of the film’s idea, even the better ones, are executed well. The attempts to make Belle an even stronger heroine, always ready with an improvised weapon or a plan, makes her less relatable. And the portrayal of same-sex attraction and crossdressing (in a subplot) as both completely acceptable and inherently ridiculous might as well have been designed to alienate people on both sides of the issues.
20 Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either.
21 The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.
22 I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once.
23 I’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the arguable exception of Sleeping Beauty and maybe Lady and the Tramp at its darkest, and I’ll grant the second school of criticism that the ones from the 90s had the highest number of great soundtracks. But when it comes to Disney animated movies that I love to watch and rewatch, the 1950s had the most consistency. It was also the best decade for Chuck Jones cartoons.
Posted in Remakes | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on A Mild Defense of Disney’s Recent Line of Nostalgia Bait

Top 5 Screenplays Covered by the Adaptation Station and some Honorable Mentions

I’d like to celebrate the first anniversary of my blog by writing about something that interests me, scriptwriting. I’d better make some things clear about the following list.

These are the top 5 scripts from movies about which I’ve blogged, not my top 5 screenplays ever. They’re not even my top 5 screenplay adaptations.

These are the top 5 scripts from movies specifically about which I’ve blogged. I considered doing scripts from filmed plays and television too, but this seemed simpler.[1]If I had, the scripts for pretty much every episode of The Storyteller would have to be included, but I’m not sure about the libretto for the 2000 staging of Peter Pan. I love it more than the … Continue reading

These are the top 5 scripts about which I’ve blogged, not the top 5 movies. Sometimes a movie will have a great script, but it won’t have a great cast or a great soundtrack or a great visual style. If you want to know my opinions about any of these films as a whole, click on the links I’ve included and be aware that some of them are to posts about two movies, so you have to read carefully to find the one with the top script.

This was an interesting list to make. Previously I would have said that the best adaptations are those in which you can still hear the voice of the original author. But my favorites have turned out to be more like duets where both the original author’s voice and the screenwriter’s voice can be heard, complementing each other.

Honorable Mentions: Love and Friendship (2016) by Whit Stillman and Freaky Friday (1976) by Mary Rodgers

Of all the Jane Austen adaptations out there, Love and Friendship just might do the best job of capturing the tone and style of her writing, though it does suffer from being a bit repetitive. (Count how many times Sir James is described as being “no Solomon.”) It has too many dramatic problems for it to be one of my favorites, but it’s so quotable it had to be included on this list somehow.[2]In Stillman’s defense, the dramatic problems come from the source material, Lady Susan, though another adaptation might have worked around them better. In Austen’s defense, Lady Susan … Continue reading

I may have a number of adaptation issues with Freaky Friday, mainly involving the climax, but it perfectly captures the style of the book’s prose in a way no other adaptation does. Not that that’s a big achievement since they were written by the same person. If I didn’t include it however, this post would give the impression I only love hoity toity Classics with a capital C and while I don’t find this one as interesting as the others on this list, I do consider it great writing of its kind.

5. Peter Pan (2003) by P. J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg

Wait a minute. In my post about it, didn’t I write that this movie had a lot of problems as an adaptation and even as a piece of storytelling on its own terms? Well…I stand by that. But, like I said, this post is about my favorite screenplays for adaptations about which I’ve blogged, not my favorite screenplays ever. And there’s something about this one that makes me keep coming back to it and feel that it deserves more than just an honorable mention. It captures J. M. Barrie’s style of humor with its blend of childlike whimsy and adult cynicism (or perhaps childish heartlessness) better than any other adaptation I’ve seen. There’s both visual humor for children and verbal wit that adults and older children can appreciate. (“I must become a man that children fear and adults respect.” “If we kill them, they shall think themselves important.”) There’s even some sly social satire. (“Novelists are not highly thought of in good society and there is nothing so difficult to marry as a novelist.”) It’s true that it feels like a modern action movie but even that feels somewhat in the spirit of the original. J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan in part as an affectionate parody of adventure stories that his original audience would have been familiar, like Piratical swashbucklers and Leather stocking tales. Why shouldn’t a modern Hollywood Pan be a similarly tongue-in-cheek take on modern adventure movies? It also craftily updates the characters for today’s audiences, so that, for example, the Darling children are less accepting of the ideas of fairies or flying boys than they were originally. But it doesn’t come across as embarrassed by the datedness of its material. The young characters still get excited about Cinderella for example. Its old-fashioned subject matter of pirates, “Indians” and tiny fairies probably doomed it at the box office. But if you want a Peter Pan adaptation that has a contemporary sensibility yet remains niche and nostalgic, this gets the job done nicely.[3]You only have to watch Peter Pan Live (2o14) to see one that tries and fails to meet both goals.

Even some of the script’s flaws reflect its virtues. It takes one dramatic element of the story, Wendy’s doomed love for Peter, and inflates it at the expense of others, such as theme of abandonment.[4]Actually, most of the screenplays on this list can be accused of focusing on some themes and messages of their sources at the expense of others and putting a bit of their own spin on the messages. But at least this feels like P. J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg have a specific take on the material and aren’t just going through the motions. The same can be said about its much less ambiguous message, which makes it clear that Peter’s refusal to grow up is a tragedy and that Wendy’s acceptance of adulthood is to be applauded. Barrie arguably gave the impression that both were a tragedy or at least left the verdict of which one was up to readers and theatregoers. But then how many mainstream nonsubversive Peter Pan adaptations would even consider the possibility of not growing up being tragic? When I first heard Wendy’s accusation in the movie that Peter’s desire to always be a boy is his “biggest pretend,” I was sure this was Hogan and Goldenberg projecting their own views onto the material. Imagine my surprise to find the line comes straight from the play’s stage directions! This script was clearly written by screenwriters who read a lot of Barrie and put a lot of thought into his work.[5]The draft of the screenplay available for purchase from scriptfly.com even gives Hook some lines of dialogue from another of his plays, Dear Brutus. A crazy and misguided adaptation this certainly may be, but it’s neither a disrespectful nor a lazy one.

4. Little Women (2019) by Greta Gerwig

I sort of hesitate to praise this one too, though not as much as the last one. I don’t like to mention this on here, because it’s going to alienate some people, but I’m a conservative at heart. And Greta Gerwig is a liberal. Of course, pretty much all of scripts on this list were written by liberals, liberals dominating the arts world,[6]Some would say that’s because conservativism is contrary to the spirit of art. I have theories of my own, but they’re uncomplimentary to liberals and artists, so I won’t share them. but, from what I understand, she sees her screenwriting as vehicle to express her beliefs more than the other writers on this list do and attracts a fanbase to match. Part of me wishes to avoid coming across as a member of that fanbase. But another part of me believes in giving credit where it’s due. Gerwig’s script really did the best job of adapting Little Women for the cinema and it’s probably the least obnoxiously liberal movie she’s ever going to make. [7]There’s no Pro-Choice message in it for one thing. That’s because she only includes feminist messages when they fit in with the story or serve to develop the characters in some way. Clearly, she loves and respects the source material too much to do otherwise. She’s even stays true to it by including a few conservative sounding lines. (“I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.”) Maybe that’s because Gerwig’s not a completely braindead liberal just like I’m not a completely braindead conservative.[8]The flipside of that is that if you’re a liberal, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to love the script. Some have criticized Gerwig for being too “white” and not radical … Continue reading

Of course, having a lot of affection for the material is nothing uncommon for a Little Women movie. Pretty much all of them were written by people who had that. But this Little Women‘s affection isn’t limited to including a lot of little details from the book, though it certainly doesn’t neglect that. (A few such are Meg being interested in flowers, Beth having a doll called Joanna and Jo having to read Belsham to Aunt March.) It goes beyond them to trying, and largely succeeding, to capture all the nuances of the characters. In the other movies, Jo and, to a lesser extent, Beth are the only ones to be fully developed. Everyone else is just in the background, occasionally getting a random dramatic scene and then fading into the background again. I can’t totally blame them for this. Jo is easily my favorite of the heroines too and since Beth is the sister closest to her, you kind of need to focus on her if you’re going to focus on Jo. Watching the movie, you get the impression Jo is Gerwig’s favorite too. But she clearly loves all the heroines. In fact, she loves all the characters, including the male ones. She even kind of loves the conservative straw(wo)men characters and tries to give them reasonable points to make.[9]Of course, her idea of that is having even the ostensibly conservative characters voice liberal preconceptions (“No one makes their own way, not really” “The whole country benefited … Continue reading Everyone feels just as developed as they should be, everything has some kind of payoff and no one feels like they were included out of obligation.[10]It’s true that the script kind of drops the ball on Beth’s character in the scenes leading up to her death, cutting all the lines from the book about how she, herself, feels and reducing … Continue reading

As much as it loves the characters though, the script’s love is not an overindulgent love that glosses over their faults. It respects the characters enough to explore their dark sides and trusts that they’ll still be lovable. Even the saintly Beth and Marmee are shown as needing to “conquer themselves,” Beth by overcoming her fear of the Laurences and Marmee by controlling her anger over the sad state of the world. It sympathizes with all the characters and the reasons they have to be bitter, and it wants viewers to do so too. But it doesn’t give them leave to wallow in bitterness. Instead, it roots for them rise above it and expects the viewers to do that too.

For all its love and respect for the source material though, this adaptation is no cut and paste job. Gerwig makes shrewd decisions repackaging it for modern audiences. She moves the scenes of the Marches gathering around to read a letter from their absent father and giving away their Christmas breakfast to a poor family, which are in the book’s first two chapters, to later in the movie when sentimentality-averse audiences will (hopefully) be already engaged. But, as I wrote above about Peter Pan, once it has them, it doesn’t come across as embarrassed by potential corniness at all.[11]If anything, it makes the first moment more sentimental than in the book by placing it after the family has just received a Christmas feast from Mr. Laurence and showing that they’re far more … Continue reading The contrasts the cuts between the past and present create are much more thoughtful than the ones in the similarly nonlinear 2018 Little Women although I enjoy that movie more. (Remember this is favorite scripts, not favorite movies.) I may have criticized the subtext behind them in my original post about the movie, as well as the twist given to the ending, which I love in theory but not in practice, and I’ll stand by that criticism. But I can’t quite bring myself to regret their existence. In particular, the ending reflects Gerwig’s love for not only the book itself, but the author and the story behind the book. Some of the lines in the script are actually quotes from Louisa May Alcott’s other writing. (“I can’t afford to starve on praise.” “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”)

3 &2. Emma (1996) and Nicholas Nickleby (2002) by Douglas McGrath

I love both of these so much I can’t choose between them[12]If it were a matter of choosing between the books that inspired them, I’d go with Nicholas Nickleby, but the fact that I’m less attached to Emma makes me more forgiving of problems with … Continue reading and, despite the great differences between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, these two scripts from the same screenwriter share a similar spirit and much the same virtues, so it makes sense to praise them as one. It’s true that unlike some of the other adaptations on this list, they don’t even try to do justice to all the plotlines from their source materials. And some characters, such as John Knightley from Emma and Tilda Price from Nicholas Nickleby, lose pretty much all their personality. But this allows them to really give the central plots time to breathe and to really develop the leads. Neither movie feels like a giant story smushed into a short one. If I didn’t know they were based on thick books, I wouldn’t have guessed it from watching them.

It’s true that Douglas McGrath’s style isn’t a perfect fit for Austen or Dickens, being too warm for the former and not quite gritty enough for the latter. But he understands something about them that many other directors don’t.[13]I wouldn’t say screenwriters don’t get it, so arguably this is more about direction than writing. But it’s not unrelated to the script and since the director and screenwriter are … Continue reading They’re fun. More to the point, they’re funny. Too many of their adapters are too focused on Serious Social Critique to capture this vital quality. But these two scripts of McGrath’s are hilarious. They include plenty of the funniest lines from the books, trimming them when necessary, so they have maximum impact for modern audiences. (The best example of this is cutting the reference to Timour the Tartar in Mr. Crummles’s hilarious speech about his pony in Nicholas Nickleby.) They also manage to make them funny in a cinematic way as opposed to a literary way, using such devices as ironic cutaways, while always feeling grounded in the humor of the source material. (The best example of this is the montage of Emma waiting for an invitation from the Coles while maintaining that she’s not going to accept it.) Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Elton and the Squeers and Crummles families have seldom been funnier on the screen. I also love McGrath’s habit of cutting dialogue off midspeech and cutting to either the same character or another in midsentence as if they’re finishing the line from the previous scene. This makes it feel like the scripts are always moving forward. Energy is not something modern readers associate with Dickens or Austen, though their original readers did so. And despite what I wrote about the two scripts having a similar style and that style not being a perfect fit for either Austen or Dickens-perfection is such a high standard-they each feel funny in an Austenian and a Dickensian way respectively.[14]I’d say that Austenian comedy is based on people having to be polite to really annoying people they can’t stand. Few adaptations capture that as well as this Emma. Dickensian comedy is … Continue reading

And, hey, it’s not like being so funny kept the scripts from conveying the serious aspects of the books. Both do a great job of establishing what the protagonists’ problems are at the beginning and getting you invested in them right off the bat. And while both are full of laughs, and Nicholas Nickleby has a good bit of action and suspense too, the stories’ serious messages shine through.[15]Both admittedly put a bit of their own spin on the messages. Emma posits that the romantic leads’ flaws are what make them suited to each other and Nicholas Nickleby editorializes that the … Continue reading At their very best, they even improve on the books dramatically, Emma by having its antiheroine confess to others and not just to herself that she hasn’t been as kind to the Bates family as she’s been pretending to be and Nicholas Nickleby by giving its hero a scene where he proposes to his love interest. (In the book, only two conversations between them are actually recorded and one of them is an argument. All the arrangements for their marriage are done by go-betweens.) These scripts make the material accessible to modern audiences but they also boast some artsy features. I love the “framing devices” they use, a Victorian doll theater with dolls that correspond to characters of Nicholas Nickleby, foreshadowing the hero’s stint as an actor, and the painted globe with images of the places that are important in Emma’s small world, in keeping with the heroine being an amateur artist and suggesting the godlike power and authority she assumes for herself. Just like Austen and Dickens, McGrath achieves both artistic and entertainment value in these scripts.

1.Les Miserables (2012) by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer[16]I’m including Kretzmer since I assume he wrote the English lyrics that are original to this version. I know French lyricist Alain Boulbil worked on the original song, Suddenly, which I … Continue reading

One of my first blog posts was all about how I felt this script improved on the stage musical.[17]I gather that some fans of the musical feel that it was so clearly written for the stage that any attempt to reimagine for cinema feels awkward. That is certainly a valid position to take. For what … Continue reading But I hesitate a bit to list it so high since, judging by the screenplay that’s published online, a lot of the things I love about the movie, such as Fantine impulsively slapping her detestable overseer and then immediately begging for his pardon, were the ideas of the director and possibly the cast. However, the online script does seem like an earlier draft rather than the one used for shooting.[18]Its version of Lovely Ladies, in particular, feels highly experimental and the final movie did well to bring it closer to the stage version. It’s not unheard of for studios to put out drafts of the screenplays out for award consideration rather than the shooting scripts.[19]I don’t get why. Isn’t it like an admission that they were better than the final product? But I’m grateful for the insight these drafts given into the creative process. Even if the online version was used for shooting, many of the movie’s best ideas, such as Valjean lifting a fallen mast and flinging it defiantly in front of Javert in the first scene, the expanded role of the barmaid at Café Musain, and the friendship between Gavroche and Courfeyrac, are already in there. William Nicholson at least got the ball rolling in the right direction, even if others were responsible for the brilliant conclusion.[20]And there are some good things in the online screenplay that didn’t make the final cut like a brief but memorable moment early in the script, with some basis in the book, where Jean Valjean … Continue reading

In my original blog post, I praised the script for all the ways it brought the story and characters back to Victor Hugo’s original book,[21]I didn’t even mention fun little details it includes like the Thernardiers having a cat or Gavroche sleeping in a dilapidated elephant statue. and I’ll stand by that. But I fear I may have given the impression that I only considered the musical good in that it followed the book, which is far from the truth.[22]It’s also worth noting that there’s one way the stage musical is closer to the book than the movie. Part of Hugo’s tragic vision seems to have been a really interesting villain, … Continue reading In fact, if William Nicholson’s screenplay had been solely a literary adaptation and not bothered with the musical, it could not have been half as great. As much as I love how every scene furthers the plot without wasting a moment, it would have been far too fast paced to give us time to get inside the characters’ heads without such awe-inspiring songs as I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I?, Stars, On My Own or Bring Him Home. They convey in one scene what would normally take several. Most movie adaptations of Les Misérables, as opposed to miniseries, are able to focus on only a few of the many great characters, mostly Valjean and Javert. And even those adaptations often end with Javert’s suicide and Marius and Cosett’s union, completely cutting the book’s final dramatic section. The musical doesn’t include every scene from the book,[23]If it did, probably no one would want to watch it. but it gives a far better idea of the overall story than pretty much any other short adaptation. And while it doesn’t fully develop every major character, few of them feel underdeveloped as they sometimes do. Here the screenplay does the stage libretto one better by properly developing Marius, a character who did feel underdeveloped despite having a good amount of stage time.[24]He’s still not as rounded and interesting a character as in the book, but still definitely a step in the right direction. And while it may not develop Cosette herself more, it does develop her vital relationship with Jean Valjean.

Nicholson not only includes as many of the best parts of both the book and the stage play as he can, but he also brings great ideas of his own to the table, mainly original staging for the songs. Who can forget Jean Valjean kneeling before an altar in the bishop’s church during the first part of his Soliloquy [25]The final movie would make this even better by having him then angrily stride away from it, and then stop, stricken, perfectly reflecting the powerful struggle between guilt and resentment inside him. or Javert singing Stars from atop a building, overlooking Paris, believing himself to have the moral high ground? Then there’s Cosette having her bedroom window open during the first part of In My Life, Jean Valjean closing it during his part, symbolizing his desire to keep her to himself, and her then going outside by herself to meet Marius. And Javert riding past a group of beggars during the line “the righteous (used ironically) hurry past” and the following ominous verse about “a reckoning still to be reckoned,” foreshadowing the insurrection in the movie’s final act, being defiantly addressed to his back. Both of those would be hard to do on stage (In My Life/A Heart Full of Love traditionally takes place entirely in the garden), but they feel like they were always meant to be that way.

None of which is to say I consider either the book or the stage musical to be defunct now because of this adaptation. After all, I’m more of a fan of the literary medium than the cinematic medium. And while I wouldn’t say I’m more of a fan of theater than the cinema, it’s arguably more interesting. But if I had to choose between recommending the book, the play or the movie to someone who had never heard the story before, I’d go with the last one. And I’m not sure I can say that of any other adaptation on this list. The fact that it’s really an adaptation of two things that were already great makes the feat even more impressive.

Bibliography

love-and-friendship-2016.pdf (scriptslug.com)

little-women-2020-script-pdf.pdf

LM SCRIPT 13TH MARCH 2012.fdx (squarespace.com)

References

References
1 If I had, the scripts for pretty much every episode of The Storyteller would have to be included, but I’m not sure about the libretto for the 2000 staging of Peter Pan. I love it more than the Peter Pan adaptation I am including in this list, but mostly because it brings it closer to J. M. Barrie’s play and further away from the 1950s musical; it arguably doesn’t have a special quality of its own. The 1982 Nicholas Nickleby is one that I’d feel like I should include because it’s such a comprehensive and intelligent adaptation, but somehow I just don’t love it.
2 In Stillman’s defense, the dramatic problems come from the source material, Lady Susan, though another adaptation might have worked around them better. In Austen’s defense, Lady Susan appears to have been a rough draft she never intended to publish.
3 You only have to watch Peter Pan Live (2o14) to see one that tries and fails to meet both goals.
4 Actually, most of the screenplays on this list can be accused of focusing on some themes and messages of their sources at the expense of others and putting a bit of their own spin on the messages.
5 The draft of the screenplay available for purchase from scriptfly.com even gives Hook some lines of dialogue from another of his plays, Dear Brutus.
6 Some would say that’s because conservativism is contrary to the spirit of art. I have theories of my own, but they’re uncomplimentary to liberals and artists, so I won’t share them.
7 There’s no Pro-Choice message in it for one thing.
8 The flipside of that is that if you’re a liberal, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to love the script. Some have criticized Gerwig for being too “white” and not radical enough in her feminism. You’d think this would show her that the Left demands just as much rigid conformity as the Right does, but enough of my carping.
9 Of course, her idea of that is having even the ostensibly conservative characters voice liberal preconceptions (“No one makes their own way, not really” “The whole country benefited from the system”) but, oh well, I appreciate the thought.
10 It’s true that the script kind of drops the ball on Beth’s character in the scenes leading up to her death, cutting all the lines from the book about how she, herself, feels and reducing her to an object for the other characters to cry over. And it seems to have rather mixed feelings about Prof. Bhaer, emphasizing some elements of his character to the exclusion of others. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
11 If anything, it makes the first moment more sentimental than in the book by placing it after the family has just received a Christmas feast from Mr. Laurence and showing that they’re far more excited about the letter.
12 If it were a matter of choosing between the books that inspired them, I’d go with Nicholas Nickleby, but the fact that I’m less attached to Emma makes me more forgiving of problems with its adaptations
13 I wouldn’t say screenwriters don’t get it, so arguably this is more about direction than writing. But it’s not unrelated to the script and since the director and screenwriter are one and the same, I don’t feel as bad about bringing up the direction in this case.
14 I’d say that Austenian comedy is based on people having to be polite to really annoying people they can’t stand. Few adaptations capture that as well as this Emma. Dickensian comedy is trickier to define, but this Nicholas Nickleby definitely captures it.
15 Both admittedly put a bit of their own spin on the messages. Emma posits that the romantic leads’ flaws are what make them suited to each other and Nicholas Nickleby editorializes that the heroes learned that “family need not be defined merely as those with whom they share blood, but as those they would give blood for.” They’re still a lot of less spin heavy than Peter Pan or even Little Women.
16 I’m including Kretzmer since I assume he wrote the English lyrics that are original to this version. I know French lyricist Alain Boulbil worked on the original song, Suddenly, which I don’t undervalue, but crediting all three seemed too much.
17 I gather that some fans of the musical feel that it was so clearly written for the stage that any attempt to reimagine for cinema feels awkward. That is certainly a valid position to take. For what it’s worth though, I first heard the music long before the movie was being made and when I listened to it, I didn’t imagine a stage production. It always said “movie” to me.
18 Its version of Lovely Ladies, in particular, feels highly experimental and the final movie did well to bring it closer to the stage version.
19 I don’t get why. Isn’t it like an admission that they were better than the final product? But I’m grateful for the insight these drafts given into the creative process.
20 And there are some good things in the online screenplay that didn’t make the final cut like a brief but memorable moment early in the script, with some basis in the book, where Jean Valjean looks in on a peasant family in Digne. “A father at a table by lamplight, his young wife before him, his children on either side. Nothing special and yet everything he’s never had.”
21 I didn’t even mention fun little details it includes like the Thernardiers having a cat or Gavroche sleeping in a dilapidated elephant statue.
22 It’s also worth noting that there’s one way the stage musical is closer to the book than the movie. Part of Hugo’s tragic vision seems to have been a really interesting villain, like Javert or Frollo, will always die, but a regular run-of-the-mill monster, like Thenardier or Phoebus, will get off relatively scot-free. The Thernardiers’ final song in the musical, Beggar at the Feast, reflected this, but the movie version subverted it a little by having the singers be forcibly ejected from said feast. Even the end of the movie’s Master of the House had Thenardier receive a little comeuppance to his wife’s delight. As an admirer of Hugo, I have to acknowledge this, but I also have to admit enjoying it.
23 If it did, probably no one would want to watch it.
24 He’s still not as rounded and interesting a character as in the book, but still definitely a step in the right direction.
25 The final movie would make this even better by having him then angrily stride away from it, and then stop, stricken, perfectly reflecting the powerful struggle between guilt and resentment inside him.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment