Classic Movies · Movies

From the DVR: The Wonderful World of Disney

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The Starz/Encore people have managed to acquire some feature film titles from Walt Disney Pictures of late, because I was afforded an opportunity to catch up with two of the studio’s animation releases that had eluded me for a good while: The Princess and the Frog (2009; I liked this one) and Frozen (2013; not terrible but I don’t know what all the fuss was about).  Here’s the thing about Disney: I can’t recall ever watching any of their recent cartoon features where I’ve remarked by the roll of the closing credits “Well, that was a non-productive use of my time”…and yet at the same time found a movie that I can truthfully assert I’d sit through it again.  Out of four recent flicks I had stashed on the DISH DVR, there was only one that filled me with enough joy to prompt a second look-see. 
 
alice-posterAlice in Wonderland (2010) – Okay, this is not an animated feature even if it looks like one.  Director Tim Burton and writer Linda Woolverton put a feminist slant on the classic Lewis Carroll tale, as an 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) tumbles down that familiar rabbit hole for another is-it-a-dream-or-is-it-real visit to a Wonderland admittedly more dark and sinister than the one depicted in Carroll’s books.  At the risk of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it finally dawns on Alice that she’s been here before as she gets reacquainted with many of her old Wonderland chums including The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).  Alice is sort of a “chosen one” who’ll have to defeat the whiffling-through-the-tulgey-wood Jabberwocky in order to dethrone the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restore the White monarch (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful rule in the kingdom. 
 
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tim Burton’s moviemaking talent but outside of Ed Wood (1994) I can’t honestly list many of his films that I’m truly cuckoo-banana pants about.  (I even think Ed Wood has its weak spots.)  Burton has a tremendous eye for breathtaking visuals but story-wise, the contents of his movies have difficulty keeping up (Wonderland starts out strong and then not only gets incoherent in its narrative it surrenders to much-too-much conventionality towards the end).  I won’t argue with success, however; Alice copped a pair of Academy Awards (Art Direction, Costume Design) and made The Mouse a ton of Camembert at the box office.  (It also brought about a sequel, 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass…which did not put as many people in theatre seats as its predecessor but one I’ll have to be on the lookout for because it apparently explains how Carter’s Red Queen got that ginormous head.)  

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Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, and Anne Hathaway in Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The enjoyment I got in this film was identifying the voice talent: Barbara Windsor is the Dormouse, Alan Rickman the Caterpillar, Stephen Fry the Cheshire Cat…and TDOY idol Christopher Lee the Jabberwocky,  (I also loved seeing Frances de la Tour—a familiar Britcom face from Rising Damp—as Alice’s Aunt Imogene.)  If you love Burton’s oeuvre—and you’re also a Johnny Depp fan (thanks to Mom, he’s persona au gratin in the House of Yesteryear)—this one will hold your interest. 
 
Frankenweenie (2012) – A full-length version of a 1984 short that Burton did for Disney while he was working for the studio in the 1980s, Frankenweenie tells the stop-motion animated tale of young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), an amateur scientist who brings his beloved dog Sparky (Frank Welker) back to life after the Sparkster is hit by a car.  Victor’s amazing feat is soon duplicated by his classmates, vying to win first prize in their school’s Science Fair.  But as the old movie lesson goes—there are some things man was not meant to know.  

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Frankenweenie (2012)

I think classic movie fans will get a kick of Frankenweenie because it’s crammed with in-jokes and references (in one scene, Victor’s parents [voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara] are watching House of Dracula [1958] on their television—allowing Burton to work Christopher Lee into the proceedings) but even though I loved all of that joshing and the voices (particularly Martin Landau as a substitute teacher who resembles Vincent Price) I thought the movie exhausting in its length (I haven’t seen the original short, but I suspect it plays better in its shorter version).  Again, Burton’s keen visual sense is the draw in a movie that might appeal more to the younger set than the previously mentioned Alice in Wonderland. 
 
Mars Needs Moms (2011) – A 3-D computer-animated motion-capture movie that earned notoriety for the Disney Studio as a colossal box office flop (they spent $150 million on a film that gave them a $39 million return), this sci-fi/fantasy tale is actually an entertaining little flick.  A young boy named Milo (Seth Dusky provided the voice while Seth Green did the “motion capture”) watches in horror as his mother (voiced by Joan Cusack) is abducted by Martians, who plan to use Mrs. Milo to program their “Nanny-bots”—cyborgs who take care of newborn Martian females.  Milo is able to stowaway on the Martian craft and with the help of a man-child named Gribble (Dan Fogler) and a sympathetic Martian in Ki (Elizabeth Harnois), attempts to rescue his ma before time runs out for her.  

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Mars Needs Moms (2011)

Mars Needs Moms was adapted from Berke Breathed’s (of Bloom County fame) book of the same name, which riffs on the classic AIP flick Mars Needs Women (1966).  It’s admittedly a little sticky with the sentiment (Milo has words with his mother that he later regrets when she’s taken prisoner by extraterrestrials…and he learns a valuable lesson by end) but it’s well-paced and some of the characters are most engaging (I liked Ki a lot, a Martian supervisor whose knowledge of Earthlings was gleaned from 70s TV clips dealing with the counterculture).  Brooks Barnes of The New York Times mused that one of the reasons Moms did so poorly was the subject matter: “What child wants to see a movie about his mom being taken away from him?”  (Dude…this hasn’t stopped people from going back to see Bambi [1942] time and time again.)  Moms has a 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—but I honestly think you should give it a chance if you haven’t seen it. 
 
Toy Story 3 (2010) – It doesn’t happen often in Movieland…but sometimes a sequel is better than the original, and that is indisputably the case with the third entry in Disney’s “Toy Story” franchise.  (I saw the first movie and I thought this third effort blew it out of the water…though I’ll freely admit I’ve not seen the one in-between.)  Andy, the child protagonist of the first two films, is all growed up and ready to attend college…and his beloved toys have resigned themselves to a dusty existence in the attic.  But a series of misunderstandings relocate the toys to a daycare center where at first glance it looks as if there’s going to be a whole passel of kids who’ll give toys what they desire most in life—to be played with.  Sadly, their daycare experience becomes a hellish existence (a rival group of toys at the center has turned the joint into a prison) and they must gather their wits to “bust out” of the joint and return to the safety of Andy’s before he takes off to matriculate. 

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Toy Story 3 (2010)

Normally, Toy Story 3 would not be an entry on my “must-see” list (particularly since I thought the first one was kinda meh) but my nephew Davis raved about 3 in that endearing fashion that only nine-year-olds can do (namely, recount the plot in a 20-minute rambling and incoherent monologue) and I thought that since it was playing on Encore I’d have a look at it.  It’s a great movie, skillfully blending comedy, pathos, and suspense (with a noticeable reduction in the interminable Randy Newman-musical numbers from Toy Storys past—though they humorously do a Spanish version of You’ve Got a Friend in Me at the end) and its wistful nostalgia message—the old doesn’t necessarily have to make room for the new if you bequeath the old to someone who’ll enjoy it—really hit home for your humble narrator.  More celebrity voices in this one than you can shake a stick at (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and many others reprise their roles from the first two films) and a lot of nice in-joke references ranging from Cool Hand Luke to The Shawshank Redemption.  (Laugh-out-loud moment for me: when Barbie [voiced by Jodi Benson} says defiantly: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from threat of force!” [riffing on a similar line uttered by Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail {1975)]) 

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