Showing posts with label Movies. Disney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movies. Disney. Show all posts

Monday, April 25, 2011

All I Ever Really Needed to Know about Classical Music I Learned from TV and Movies

While heading out on a driving trip this weekend, my fiance and I thought it might be nice for a change of pace to listen to some classical music. In this misguided and clearly halfhearted attempt to feel more superficially cultured, I was surprised to find how many of the songs to which I could hum along with ease. When had I found the time to learn so many of these treasured pieces of classic music?

After reveling briefly in what I assumed must be my well-trained classical ear, I took a quick break from patting myself on the back to consider where exactly I had previously heard these tracks. Summer concerts in the park? Excursions to the community symphony? With all the reality TV watching and daytime napping that goes on at our place, these seemed to me like highly unlikely scenarios.

Suddenly, it occurred to me--childhood movies and TV! Of course. By mindlessly engaging in unspeakable amounts of passive entertainment as a child, I had accidentally gleaned a lifetime’s worth of classical music knowledge. Well, a lifetime for someone who knows nothing about classical music. But, I digress. I knew there must be others like me: others whose sole knowledge of classical music and opera stems from hours spent during our formative years parked in front of a glowing television screen.

This list is by no means comprehensive, nor is it completely exclusive to kids who grew up in the 90s. However, it is just pretty thorough for everything I could think of in a single sitting. As always, feel free to add your own favorites or bash my glaring omissions in the comments section.

Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King--Inspector Gadget Theme Song

Film nerds (and, let’s face it, regular nerds, too) may also recognize this music from its presence in last year’s acclaimed movie The Social Network. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” served as the basis for the music playing during crew rowing montage. While others left the film pondering the larger implications of social networking in our increasingly technological world, I was far more concerned with why the team was rowing frantically to the theme song from Inspector Gadget.

Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2--Donald and Daffy Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Now that I think about it, “Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2” has a more musical ring to it than “that dueling piano song played by popular cartoon ducks in a combo live-action/cartoon feature film.” I doubt that was Lizst’s runner-up title, yet it’s all I’ve ever known this piece to be.

Mouret’s Rondeau--Intro to Sesame Street’s Monsterpiece Theater

Some might argue it is also the theme to PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, but these regular installments of the Sesame Street versions are probably more memorable to those of who were children when it aired. Sesame Street does a lot of parodies that I can only assume are more for the benefit of parents forced to watch along. Just in case the children have a sliver of a chance of catching a reference, though, the parodies are always very literal--like in this case, creating an intro that looks almost exactly like the real Masterpiece Theater.

Largo al Factotum from Barber of Seville--Mrs. Doubtfire

The opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire captures Robin Williams’ voice talents and general craziness in a focused way: by allowing him to fittingly channel his cartoonishness into an actual cartoon. Williams provides the semi ad-libbed voice-over for the animated footage, beginning with the well-known “Largo al Factotum” (many of us think of it as the Figaro song) from Barber of Seville. His operatics leave something to be desired, but he makes up for it with enthusiasm.

Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever--”Be Kind to your Web-Footed Friends” as seen here in Wee Sing in Sillyville

Most of us are familiar with Stars and Stripes Forever on its own, but the second version it has the added bonus of hosting alternate, nonsensical kid-friendly lyrics. Those of you who were fans of the Wee Sing series may recognize the above clip from Purple Sillyville resident Pasha’s home.

If you have no idea what this means, I suggest you watch Wee Sing in Sillyville immediately. I would love to say you won’t regret it, but that’s not a lie I’m willing to put in writing. Let me say instead you might regret it, but if you can sit through the above clip, you could probably manage to sit through the full 58 vaguely racially-conscious minutes.

Tchaicovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies--Original Tetris Music Number 1

This one is more popular on a mainstream level, so it’s safer to venture some readers may also recognize “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from a family Christmas outing to see the Nutcracker ballet or at least a viewing or two of Disney’s 1940 hit Fantasia. However, if for some reason you managed to not encounter it in one of those areas, you probably know it as Music 1 from the NES version of Tetris.

Verdi’s Anvil Chorus--Tiny Toon Adventures

If the title alone doesn’t ring any bells, try watching the video to jog your latent Tiny Toon memories. The second I saw an anvil make hilarious yet undoubtedly painful contact with a cartoon child audience member, it all came back to me.

And for our cross-generational readers, you may also enjoy:

Barber of Seville--The Bunny of Seville

Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours--Fantasia’s Dancing Animals (Or, for the less cultured and summer camp joke-prone, Alan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”)

Cross generational runners-up: Rossini’s William Tell Overture (Lone Ranger Theme), Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney’s original Fantasia), and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (Looney Tunes’ “What’s Opera, Doc?”)

Friday, June 18, 2010

90s Disney Ballads

If you’re in the market for some new potentially embarrassing musical material to get you through a mind-numbingly dull road trip or your daily shower singing session, look no further than the 90s’ collection of powerful Disney ballads. These songs are just begging to be sung by warblingly off-key amateurs; sure, Disney ballads are impressive in their original form performed by respected industry favorites, but they’re that much more fun when butchered by passionate novices.At least that’s how I see it. My former roommates who had to endure those strained high notes emanating from our shared bathroom’s shower--well, they may not feel quite the same way. Sorry, guys.

So next time you’re looking to belt one out, consider partaking in one of these delightfully cheesy Disney power ballads from the 90s. It certainly won’t earn you any street credibility at the local karaoke bar, but it will leave you with a satisfying blend of nostalgia and sore vocal chords. If you’re ready to make that sort of sacrifice in the name of musical animated classics, here are Children of the 90s’ recommendations for either most inspiring or most painful--depending on your level of vocal expertise. Oh, and wherever available I stuck in some videos with lyrics to facilitate your sing-alongs. You’re welcome.

Whole New World (Aladdin)

What would Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride be without this catchy duet? It really makes the moment. I do sort of like that the Wikipedia entry on the song includes its translated titles in the foreign dubbed versions. For example, the mainland China version is called, “Meet by Chance.” In France it’s “This Blue Dream.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to my American ears. “This Bluuuuuuue Dreeeeeeeam....” Hmm. Not working for me.

Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)

I will admit, when I look at that stuff, I do find it to be awfully neat. In fact, the collection seems to be just about complete. It just screams, “Think that Ariel is a girl who has everything!” But then I must fight my instincts and realize that the human artifacts in Ariel’s undersea cave can never equal the glory of having human legs. She may rock the shell bra, but that’s not enough to get her out there walking on one of those--what do you call it? Streeeeets.

Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast)

There’s something uniquely charming about a ballad crooned by a kindly matronly teapot. It’s just that much better when you find out that teapot is actually Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote; she’s got serious cross-generational appeal. Grandparents, rejoice!

Reflection (Mulan)

You know you’re looking at a serious Disney ballad when the single version is performed by Christina Aguilera--she can really belt it out. “Reflection” has just the right balance of heartfelt emotion and grrrrl power. It’s like watching the Spice Girls rescue a puppy. Kind of. Okay, not really. You come up with a good comparison, then. Really, give it your best shot. Tough, huh?

You’ll Be In My Heart (Tarzan)

Just in case you ever wondered what it would sound like if the mastermind behind “Sussudio” recorded a heartwarming Disney ballad, here’s your opportunity to find out. Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart” charted well on the Billboard Top 100, rising to the 21st spot--not bad for a Disney song.

Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas)

Speaking of decently-charting Disney songs, Vanessa Williams’ end-credits version of this Pocahontas ballad peaked at #4 on the US charts. It’s undeniably cheesy, but at least it has an underlying message. Well, it does if you ignore the fact that Disney completely ignored all actual historical and/or cultural elements of the real Pocahontas story in their retelling. It’s a message, sure, but probably not a historically accurate one. Oh well--at least it’s catchy.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight? (The Lion King)

Well? Can you? The falling-in-love-with-an-old-platonic-friend-in-a-matter-of-minutes montage certainly helps move things along at a steady pace. With the aid of these handy visual, you will indeed feel the love. Tonight.

Runner Up: Circle of Life. Only you can memorize the words in the intro, though. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

Go The Distance (Hercules)

I’m not ashamed to tell you I kind of like the Michael Bolton version that plays out the credits. Well, not that ashamed. Perhaps I should be more ashamed to admit I have the Spanish version--performed by Ricky Martin, no less--on my iPod.

God Help the Outcasts (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

I felt compelled to include a song from all of the Disney musical animated films of the decade, but truthfully this one doesn’t pack quite the same punch as some of the others. Sorry, Esmeralda--you’re just not doing it for me here. There’s cheesy and then there’s over-the-top milking for emotional responses. Add in the Bette Midler version and it’s just too much to bear.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Fate of Disney Villains

It may seem counter-intuitive for an animation studio touting alleged moral messages and lessons learned, but Disney's animated films are pretty heavy on semi-violent karmic death. The lesson is far from nuanced; if you're a bad guy, you will undoubtedly fall to your painful but ultimately deserved death in a waterfall or from a jagged cliff. It's just the way it is. It may be a tough lesson for children--act out and you'll inevitably take a timely plunge off of a precariously unstable branch or railingless skyscraper--but it's an important one nonetheless. After all, without a terrifying threat of impending doom, what's to keep kids from acting out and going the ominous villain route? It's an airtight defense.

For the sake of simplicity and non-visible-from-a-distance blood splatters, a fall is by far the simplest means of eliminating a bad guy in the last ten minutes of a Disney animated film. The pain and suffering is implied without being explicit, though usually not administered in a particularly sadistic manner. In short, the punishment fits the crime while keeping in mind that a point-blank bullet to the face could probably be traumatizing to small children. This rule, of course, does not apply to the good guys, in which gun-induced trauma is not only acceptable but actually encouraged and played for tears. See Mom, Bambi's for more information and, probably, some uncontrollable sobbing.

In the cases of a semi-historical plot, it can be tougher to administer that climactic fall. While Disney movies are often pretty heavy on creative license in their adaptation of an existing story, there are existing premises in which a villain's fall to the death doesn't quite fit. Writers and animators may be forced to deliver a less crushing blow, such as Pocahontas' Ratcliffe's forced return to England to face high treason charges. It may not have the satisfying resonance of a villain's defeated wail growing progressively quieter as he crashes into the middle distance, but for some stories we may just have to settle.


Crime against mermanity: Takes advantage of innocent young mermaid in revealing shell bra; barters voice for human legs.

To be fair:
She does offer a loophole to Ariel in the form of True Love's Kiss. What kind of softy villain offers an escape clause? Maybe she's not so bad after all.

Then again:
If Ariel fails, she'll be Ursula's slave forever. Plus she has to hang out with those freaky eels. Yikes.

Means of death:
Animated heartthrob and all around good-haired hero Eric runs over her with a ship.

It's a little more malicious than the standard "Oh, oops, she fell off a cliff" out, but it's satisfying nonetheless.


Crimes against humanity: General deception, hypnotizes sultan, attempts to enslave whole of Arabian royalty.

Also: Owns irritating parrot. This may be the worst offense.

Means of death: Tricked by own greed and overconfidence into eternal imprisonment in the genie's lamp.

Verdict: Not quite a death, but a life sentence comes in as a near second in the Disney animated tropes for villain elimination.


Crimes against African wildlife population: Lies, betrayal, ruthless pursuit of throne, general disregard for Circle of Life.

Means of death: Falls on jagged cliffs. Okay, fine, that's not his death, it's a fakeout. Technically, falls on jagged cliffs and survives.

Add insult to injury: ...only to be eaten by his former allies the hyenas.

Totally brutal, and just a tiny bit sadistic. They couldn't have just killed him with the fall? No, no, he needed to doubly learn his lesson...and then be eaten alive by wild beasts. It's warranted.

Percival McLeach

Crimes against endangered species of the Australian Outback: Poaches rare eagles, cruelty and entrapment of animals, terrorizing of adorable mice.

Means of death: Narrowly escapes death by crocodiles; celebrates by falling into waterfall.

Verdict: Classic Disney villain demise. Clean, quick, and a little mean.


Crimes against French provincial townspeople and/or potentially dangerous but ultimately kindhearted monsters: Incredible hubris, undue beast hunting, smelly socks.

Means of death:
After the Beast makes a legitimate attempt to spare Gaston's undeserving life, Gaston goes and stabs the big guy in the back. Literally.

And then:
...trips and epically falls into the night.

Totally justified. That's what you get for bringing a lynch mob to the castle of a mysteriously furry recluse. He really should have known better.

Shan Yu

Crimes against East Asian warrior culture:
Leads the bloodthirsty Huns into China.

Means of death: Gets totally distracted by firework strapped to comic relief dragon; explodes.

Not quite the fall we may have been hoping for, though we can assume he did eventually plummet to his redundant death after exploding. Whatever, we'll take consolation wherever we can find it.


Crimes against persecuted Native American population:
Greed for gold, exploits land, unreasonably distrust of natives.

Means of death:
None. Trapped by settlers and shipped off to England to be tried for high treason.

Verdict: Lame. John Smith gets shot and Ratcliffe gets off with some treason charges? Granted, Smith lives and Ratcliffe's charges are for high treason, but really. How's a five-year old supposed to understand the karmic value in that outcome? "Oh, it's cool. He was sent back to his native country to be tried in a court of law for crimes against the state." They would have done better falling off a cliff and/or into a waterfall. It's a far more resonant visual.


Crimes against Notre Dame hunchback community:
Acts totally unjustly while serving as Minister of Justice. Go figure.

Means of death: Loses hold on stone gargoyle, plummets to death from atop Notre Dame cathedral.

As far as Disney villains go, Frollo is one of the downright slimiest. Here's a case where a more specifically violent visual may have been welcome.


Crimes against mythological Greek figures:
Though justifiably bitter about role as lord of the deceased in the underworld, Hades' quest to overthrow brother Zeus by knocking off Hercules is still pretty villainous.

Means of death:
Punched out by super strong Hercules, plummets into River Styx.

Also: Eaten by dead people's spirits.

Verdict: Awesome comeuppance with a real lesson: if you're gonna mess with Hercules, you're going to be smothered by the lingering souls of the dead. That's just the way it goes.


Crimes against tree-swinging contingency of jungle-dwelling humanity: Gorilla hunter and guilty of all-around bad guy-ness.

Means of death: Falls out of tree, strangled by vine, hanged.

A little graphic, but overall pretty fair. You don't go after gorillas n' friends. They'll get you.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The 90s' Favorite Canine Companions

Doug and Porkchop Pictures, Images and Photos

I was actually meaning to write a post about some of our favorite 90s pups two months back when we adopted our dog, but I've been too busy rescuing semi-chewed wallets from the inside of his death-trap jaws and picking up the inner stuffing of his over-loved toys off of the floor to bother. All these TV and movie dogs are always too busy going on Incredible Journeys, professing their love for Taco Bell in Spanish, or rising to fame as canine basketball stars to bother with day to day walking, feeding, and general well-meaning terrorizing of their owners. With this in mind, I was almost certain adopting a dog would be similar to the experiences I'd seen in the entertainment of my childhood. I knew to be prepared for lurking villainous dog fur poachers around every bend and to keep on the lookout for opportunities for my dog to take me on a humorous kid-friendly trip into the world of classic literature. Overall, it was a pretty exciting prospect.

As of yet, however, none of these outcomes have really panned out. I thought the dog was about to transform my living room Wishbone-style into a Shakespearean drama complete with period costumes, but it turned out he was just trying to catch a moth. I haven't given up hope though; it could still happen. I'll be prepared with my Elizabethan snood and pantaloons when it does.

These famous canines may not have given us a realistic depiction of dog ownership, but their general adorableness and lovability makes up for the resultant misconceptions about their magical and athletic abilities. If we overestiamte our own dogs' ability for greatness, it's only because these lovable pups set the bar so high with their hilarious and frequently heartwarming antics.

Chance and Shadow from Homeward Bound

If only we could all hear our dog's innermost thoughts narrated by Don Ameche and Michael J. Fox. They would be alternately wise and mischevious, with a touch of "Dogs rule and cats drool" thrown in for good measure.

101 Dalmatians

After the release of the 1996 live remake of the animated Disney classic 101 Dalmatians, the demand for Dalmatian puppies exploded. The movie created a breed boom, stocking housefuls of vulnerable children with adorable but admittedly rambunctious dalmatians. While the movie pupies were spared the cruel fate of becoming Cruella's fur coat, many of their real life counterparts were frequently abandoned or mishandled. Let the lesson be learned: highly trained Disney movie dogs may be enticing, but that's not what you're going to get at your local pet store or shelter.

Air Bud

Now here's a dog with some serious prospects. Not only was Air Bud an incredibly skilled basketball player, but he later went on to conquer football (Air Bud: Golden Receiver,) soccer (Air Bud: World Pup,) and baseball (Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch) among other pursuits, including Air Buddies puppy spinoffs. If nothing else, this series deserves major props for what may be the most groan-inducing puns to ever grace a movie poster.

All Dogs Go to Heaven

With names like Charlie B. Barkin and Itchy Itchiford, what's not to love? Plus, they're voiced by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, some pretty impressive big names during the movie's 1989 release. Everyone learns a lesson, it's sufficiently heartwarming, and all the dogs get to go to heaven. All in all, a pretty good deal.

Otis from Milo and Otis

This originally Japanese movie was dubbed in English for Western release, detailing the cute story of a kitten and a pug puppy who make their way through all sorts of adventures, evenutally settling down with a cat or dog mate of their own, respectively. The animals are adorable, especially Otis, so it's a bit disturbing to learn of the animal cruelty allegated filed against the Japanese filmmakers. I'm just going to hope for the sake of my childhood innocence that the Japanese Humane Society told the truth in the closing credits that no animals were harmed in the filming of this movie.


Here's a solid example of a canine character that bombed with critics but resonated well with enthusiastic and easily amused audiences. Movie reviewers may not have been kind, but the movie's eponymous St. Bernard proved popular enough to spawn a slew of theatrical and straight-to-video sequels. Though I haven't seen Beethoven's Seventh, I can only assume it's equal parts hilarious big dog antics and cutesy symphony title jokes.

The Beast from the Sandlot

Now here is an example of a seriously scary movie dog. To the kids of the Sandlot, this mastiff was their most feared nemesis of the summer. It's pretty safe to say that while it all turned out okay in the end with The Beast, I doubt the demand for mastiff puppies surged as a result of the movie.

Comet from Full House

Here's a revelation: Full House's lovable golden retriever went on to play the title role in the film Fluke. His fur was dyed and apparently restyled to give him a more mutt-like appearance for the film. Turns out by default this makes Comet's post-FH acting career more successful than Stephanie Tanner's or Kimmy Gibbler's. Who knew?

Spunky from Rocko's Modern Life

You've got to feel a little bad for the house pet in a TV show populated by anthropromorphic characters. They're all animals too, but the poor dog is the only one who can't seem to communicate effectively. Tough break, Spunky.

Porkchop from Doug

Porkchop may not have been able to talk, but this dog was awesome. He was forever getting Doug out of jams before going to chill in his igloo doghouse. Get it? Chill? Igloo? No? Okay, okay, fine.

Spike from Rugrats

To be fair to Tommy, as a toddler I always thought the pet food looked pretty tasty, too. I was always rooting for him when I saw the above episode "Fluffy vs. Spike." Fluffy was no match.


What, your Jack Russell terrier never takes you on educational adventures through historically relevant fiction? You're probably just not feeding him the right brand of food. I'd also recommend asking him, "What's the story?" It always worked for Wishbone. You might want to sing it, though.

Yo Quiero Taco Bell Chihuahua

This little guy did for chihuahuas what 101 Dalmatians did for dalmatians. The character was played by canine actress Gidget Chipperton, though she didn't provide her own hilarious Taco Bell-seeking vocals. If nothing else, this little guy did teach even the most unilingual among us a single Spanish phrase. If I ever get lost in a Spanish speaking country where I think there may be a Taco Bell present, I'll know how to find it.

I don't usually do this sort of thing, but I just couldn't resist. In case you were incredibly curious--and I'm sure you were!--here's a photo of my own little monster. He may not be quite as accomplished as these dog stars, but I think we'll keep him. Plus, if we build him an igloo in the backyard, I think he might start co-starring in my Quailman fantasy sequences. It's worth a try.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Did you know? 90s Disney Voice-Over Edition

Voice acting is a great gig. Compared to having a major role in a live-action feature film, working as a voice actor allows a far more relaxed and simple commitment. In other words? It's an easy gig. You provide the vocals, and some artsy animator types provide all the rest. Not too shabby.

To draw in audiences, animation studios will often seek out big-name actors whose names they can shamelessly splash across promotional posters. In the case of Disney, this sometimes meant they had to cast a second actor for the singing parts, but all in all, it was worth it to boast the headliner.

Early in animation history, voice actors were typically low-profile highly specialized individuals without existing careers in live action film or television. These skilled voice actors were capable of producing a range of voices, so studios often cut down on costs by hiring few actors to play several roles. As time went on, however, animation studios were eager to replace these multitalented no-names with a bunch of expensive live action actors who could only speak in their own street voices. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Love it or hate it, celebrity voice actors certainly help put butts in the theater seats. In the 90s, Disney pulled in a wealth of big-name stars to offer the voice tracks to their animated features. The quantity of celebrities who lent their voices to Disney films is far too abundant to fully catalog here, so let's take a look at a selected few of the most famous and/or surprising voice actor selections:

Timon: Nathan Lane

My favorite part of this clip is the line, "What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?" As if Nathan Lane dressing up in drag was a shocking revelation. I think we've all seen that before in The Birdcage...and, if we can be candid here, he looks way more like Margaret Thatcher than a hula aficionado.

Simba: Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Matthew Broderick

Disney offered us a great one-two punch with the child and adult versions of The Lion King's Simba: Randy from Home Improvement and Ferris Bueller. As a child, I was really excited about the prospect of JTT, but in retrospect Broderick is likely the bigger name. Neither actually provided the singing voices for the character, but they both lent their voices to create a believably lovable lion.

Aladdin: Scott Weinger

You know, Steve from Full House? DJ's endlessly food-consuming letter jacket-wearing boyfriend? He's not necessarily a huge name celebrity, but most of us children of the 90s are more than familiar with him.

Oliver: Joey Lawrence

Whoa! Who knew? Joey from Blossom is Oliver. I certainly had no idea. Now that I think of it, though, it's completely adorable.

Lumiere: Jerry Orbach

That's right, the man also known as Detective Briscoe from Law and Order and Baby's father from Dirty Dancing is the voice of our smooth-talking French candelabra. I may be being a bit facetious; Jerry Orbach has a long resume of stage, film, and television credentials that I'm totally overlooking here. That said, I'll always think of him as Dorothy's boyfriend Glen from Golden Girls.

Genie: Robin Williams

Ladies and gentlemen, Robin Williams as...Robin Williams. In fact, in most 90s movies Robin Williams played some version of himself, but possibly none quite as pronounced as this one.

Mrs Potts: Angela Lansbury

Jessica Lansbury from Murder, She Wrote as a singing teapot? No wonder old people love this song so much.

Esmerelda: Demi Moore

They sort of look alike, don't they? Demi Moore and Esmerelda have a certain resemblance, though their choice of mate varies pretty significantly. As far as I know, Quasimodo never punk'd anyone.

Mufasa: James Earl Jones

That's right, Mufasa is Darth Vader. They're not that different really; one's a masked intergalactic hero-fathering villain and the other's a pride-leading Lion who dies prematurely. Wait, where was I going with this? They're pretty damn different,

John Smith: Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson, wary of cultures other than his own? Never! It's a bit of a stretch, don't you think?

Thomas: Christian Bale

Yes, Batman is John Smith's settler friend. For some reason, even though all of these settlers are supposed to be English, only some of them actually sound British; Bale and Gibson have American accents. I guess they adapted quickly to life in the New World.

Woody and Buzz Lightyear: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen

In 1995, Toy Story impressed us with more than just its innovative computer animation technology; it also boasted two very big-name celebrity voice actors for its principal roles. Tom Hanks plays Woody, a displaced favorite cowboy whose moment in the toybox sun is waning. Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear, a new and flashier astronaut action figure who is completely unaware that he's a toy and not an actual intergalactic voyager. The two actors play well off of one another, sparring convincingly with strong comedic energy.

Hanks and Allen returned in 1999 for a sequel and again in the upcoming summer 2010 Toy Story 3. It's a rare event when a Disney film produces a theatrical sequel instead of a subpar straight-to-video installment, and even rarer to see a third theatrical feature. The return of the celebrity voice actors--Hanks, Allen, and the rest of the gang--is a testament to their faith in the quality of the film; in a lot of these sequels, the original actors want nothing to do with the sinking ship of a straight-to-DVD franchise. We've got high hopes for the final film in the trilogy. Hopefully our veteran voice actors will not disappoint.

Professional voice actors may have multifaceted skills that far exceed the capability of celebrity voice actors, but there is a certain appeal to attaching big name voices to your animated feature. If nothing else, it's fun to spend the movie trying to figure out where you've heard that voice before. These actors may not have the range of specialized cartoon voice actors, but they do have the power to amuse and entertain us. Plus, it makes for some entertaining behind-the-scenes with the voice actors DVD special features. Isn't that really what it's all about?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Beauty and the Beast

Disney's proven time and again that a tale as old as time is most attractive to children when stuffed with with stock anthropomorphic characters. Sure, we may like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid as stories, but to whom would we have turned for laughs save for Gus the mouse or Sebastian the crab? It's just not the same without musical numbers featuring animals or ordinarily inanimate objects singing and dancing their little hearts out. We may never have considered that a teacup could be adorably naive or a feather duster sexy, but Disney is always there to show us the way.

In the 90s Disney Animation Studios was at the peak of its renaissance period, churning out hit after hand-drawn hit on an annual basis. The films were of consistently high quality and offered much in the way of catchy music, stunning visuals, and much-needed kid-friendly comic relief. Kids and adults alike enjoyed these movies; adults for the quality and kids for the cuddly, easily merchandisable characters. It was an especially easy sell for young girls, banking on two magic words: Disney princesses. Put those girls in skimpy enough outfits (Jasmine, anyone?) and you'll have adolescent boys on board, too.

Compared to many other Disney animated features, Beauty and the Beast played it pretty safe in sticking with the original story. Beauty and the Beast is based on the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bete and follows the 18th century version fairly closely. Disney, though, has a charming way of Disney-fying everything in its path, meaning inserting the aforementioned anthropomorphic characters whenever deemed necessary. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, Disney dreams up a full menagerie of living decorative homegoods to entertain us, giving us a world filled with French-accented candelabras and wise, matronly teapots. They might not advance the plot any, but they are pretty damn cute.

Disney worked and reworked their version of the story many times, with the studio considering a Beauty and the Beast movie since its early days. Most critics agreed that it was indeed worth the wait; Beauty and the Beast remains one of the best-reviewed animated films of all time, not to mention the only one to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Their final product was a cinematic bouillabaisse of their various attempts at telling the story.

The movie opens on the Beast's backstory, depicting him as a cruel and selfish prince who is unkind to others. After he gives the boot to a sorceress in disguise as a beggar, she turns it back on him and turns him into some unholy cross between Chewbacca and a Minotaur. As a consolation, he gets a handy magic mirror (that serves little purpose other than to move the plot forward later in the movie) and a magic rose. The rose will die on his 21st birthday, leaving him a beast forever unless he can learn to love. That's kind of a downer, huh? Not exactly how I'd like to have spent my 21st birthday, if I remembered it. I'm pretty positive it didn't involve an eternal fate as a hideous monster, though.

We jump to Belle and her nutty inventor father, Maurice, an oddball family living in the French countryside. Belle is extraordinarily beautiful, loves to read, and has a sophisticated vocabulary that includes words like "provincial". The town's resident beefcake Gaston seeks her affection based on her looks, overlooking what the rest of the town perceives to be her strangeness. Belle, though, just isn't having it. As romantic as it sounds to have your home decorated in early big game hunting, I think I'd pass too.

Belle's father, Maurice, is on his way to some wacky inventors' fair when he takes a wrong turn and ends up at the Beast's secluded castle. I'm not sure if any of you ever saw the Disney on Ice version, but those bats he encounters in the woods were downright scarring. Clearly, I'm still not over it. Anyway, Maurice is pretty taken by the talking household objects, who are really the prince's faithful servants under the same curse. The Beast isn't going for the whole generous hospitality thing and locks Maurice in a cell. He agrees to trade his new prisoner for his daughter when the ever-goodly Belle offers to take his place.

The Beast tries to be hospitable, but it's obviously not really his thing. Belle denies his dinner invitation, so he tells his decorative servants not to feed her. In what may be the greatest act of defiance ever performed by a candelabra, smooth-talking Lumiere pulls out all the stops for her. He even throws in this incredibly entertaining song-and-dance routine:

Fast forward a little and we're at Belle's near-escape. She and her horse encounter some vicious wolves, the Beast steps in, Belle nurses him back to health. One thing leads to another and the two are friends. He gives her a library, you know, like you do to express your friendship. I suppose we should give him a break, he's a furry horn-sporting shut-in, it was a kind gesture. They have a little on-site date where she wears an enviable gold gown, the Beast tries his best to be gentlemanly, and Mrs. Potts provides the song:

Remember that magic mirror that served to set up a later plot point? Well here it is. Belle looks in the magic mirror and sees her father dying and insists she must rush to his side. The beast lets her go, despite the fact that his rose is nearly withered. Needless to say, his servants are pretty pissed. Sure, it was nice to let her go, but would you want to be an armoire forever?

No one back in town is buying Maurice's seemingly tall tale about a mysterious beast, so Belle proves it with the mirror. Gaston rounds up an angry, torch-wielding mob and goes after our now-gentle giant. Gaston calls for the townspeople to hunt and kill the beast, and they all seem to be pretty on board with it:

The Beast has no will to fight back, but he spots Belle and finds it within himself to shove Gaston off a cliff. Unfortunately, Gaston managed to stab the Beast before his demise. Beast is fading fast, till Belle utters, "I love you". Presto-Change-o, the Beast is a handsome prince, and we get to see all of our servant friends back in human form. Remarkably, they all look pretty much exactly the same. Who would've thought?

In true Disney fashion, it's a happy ending for all, at least until they can milk the franchise for more profits on a direct-to-video sequel. Lucky for all of you, I never saw those sequels (actually, midquels) and thus will not be subjecting you to a lengthy and snarky synopsis.. Instead, we can just let the story ends where it ends here: happily. The good guys prevail, the bad guy dies a retributive death, and the other sort-of-bad-guy with a secret heart of gold is reformed. The only question left to ponder is why Lumiere is the only guy with a French accent if this whole thing is taking place in France. Any takers on that one?

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