Wednesday, February 29, 2012

10 FAVORITES (53): Disney's More Delightful "Duds"

Thanks to a charming if (mostly) predictable Academy Awards this past Sunday, I am in a Disney kind of mood.  So I return to my beloved 10 FAVORITES, but this time with a little twist.  The House of Mouse has given us a plethora of movies that range from the phenomenally brilliant (see Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins or The Lion King) to the primarily average (see Cinderella or Peter Pan) to the awfully misguided (see Song of the South or even Pocahontas).  But among the many films, there are a few that get lost in the shuffle.  Some of them even get derided as below average or bad (by audiences, critics or by the studio itself!).  These Disney films listed below are among the ones that are ultimately good/decent films (despite a few flaws here or there), yet they are often regarded in the "Failure" category (be it commercially, critically or creatively).  So, here are:


The Princess and the Frog (2009)
This one is the "HM" because it is the most recent one on the list.  It hasn't had the time to gain the "Bad Rap" that it seems to be on the path to gaining.  Now, you might be saying to me: "But critics seemed to like this movie and I remember it making some decent money back in 2009!"  Yes critics liked it, but critical praise was not what the Disney Studio was going for here.  And yes it made money, but not as much as the studio wanted it to make considering the amount they spent on promoting it and highlighting their innovation of creating the first African-American Disney Princess.  And yes Princess Tiana has been integrated into the Princess franchise, but not to the prominent extent that say Mulan (who isn't even a Princess!) has been.  Despite all these "Yes...But"'s, the movie is one of the best traditional animated movies the Disney studio has made in the last decade with some memorable characters (like villain Dr. Facilier) and charming performances (especially leading lady, the always amazing Anika Noni Rose!).

The Fox and the Hound (1981)
This is one of Disney's most emotional ventures and one of its most taxing.  Why is it derided?  Well, the studio does not exactly have the happiest of back stories regarding the making of this film.  In the late '70s and early '80s, the Disney studio was in complete disarray.  Frustrated animators were exiting left and right (see Don Bluth!) and the creative department were turning down potentially lucrative projects in favor of what we would call "safe bets."  Despite all this, this film went through an arduous filmmaking process (squabbles over the rights to the novel, condensing said novel, finding animators to work on the film, etc.) and was released the same year as Don Bluth's innovative The Secret of NIMH.  Bluth's project was a critical and box office success, while Fox and the Hound did relatively well (box office-wise) and was liked by some critics (not all).  It just did not do well enough for a studio that felt like it had just been to hell and back making it.

Pete's Dragon (1977)
This one may not be as good as some of Disney's live-action musicals (certainly no Mary Poppins), but its pros outweigh its cons.  The songs (by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn), while not as charming as any of the Sherman Brothers' tunes, are for the most part delightful.  The character of Elliot the Dragon (voiced by comedy clown Charlie Callas) is a loving character that I certainly would like to have seen used more (say in Animated shorts or, as Disney loves to do, a direct-to-video sequel).  And the cast is actually a pretty good cast for the characters created.  Its an eclectic mix that includes pop-star Helen Reddy, screen legend Mickey Rooney, Oscar-winners Shelley Winters and Red Buttons, Mr. Magoo and Gilligan's Island star Jim Backus and Broadway powerhouse Jim Dale (brilliantly cast as the wicked Dr. Terminus).  The one major flaw I always find in the film is the character (and the casting!) of Pete, who just comes off as an irritating little brat as opposed to a kid beaten down by life that the audience should root for and understand.

Hercules (1997)
This is another one whose "Bad Rap" is due to lack of critical praise and its inadequate (at least in the studio's eyes) box office.  And I have talked with peers of mine about my liking for this film.  Some of them think I just have a love for Disney (which I kinda do!), but others I have been able to convince that this film is not as bad as say Pocahontas.  The Disney studio still was riding high from their successes (Aladdin, The Lion King, etc.) that they were just trying to churn out a potential money-maker.  True, they Disney-fied the Greek Myths and that doesn't sit well with a lot of the audience members (especially the college-age ones that study those Myths and some of the darker tidbits within them!).  But they don't do any more to the Myths than what they do to the Fairy Tales, and considering what they had to cut-out (for logic's sake!), they did pretty well.  The villain Hades (voiced perfectly by James Woods) is one of Disney's better villains.  And Alan Menken's score (with its gospel-influenced style) is toe-tapping and a nice throwback for Menken (who cut his "professional teeth" with the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors).

Newsies (1992)
I know that this may seem like a plug for the new Broadway version that will be opening this Spring, but I actually enjoyed this movie (despite it having some major problems).  It was originally supposed to be a live-action drama.  But after the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the powers-that-be decided that a musical would serve the story better (especially if it had a lot of Janet Jackson-style pop-and-lock routines!).  Now, the film was such a flop that some of the cast members wanted it removed from their resumes (I won't name names, but they both have Academy Awards!).  Despite that, the film has gained an underground (almost cultish) following.  The score (by Alan Menken and frequent Manillow collaborator Jack Feldman) is actually quite delightful and very Broadway in its style.  And the cast, despite their objections, is actually quite good with what they have to do (even if they are embarrassed to be doing it!).  The problems in this film lie in the sloppy script and the lack of character development (mostly for the supporting characters).  But the well-performed musical numbers and the charming cast make this movie an enjoyable watch.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
This is a "lost-in-the-shuffle" pick.  After the hard years at the beginning of the decade and the debacle that is known as The Black Cauldron, Disney combined its powers with Hollywood power broker Joel Silver and his production company Silver Screen Partners.  One of their first projects together was this charming adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street stories.  It eventually got overshadowed by the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Disney Musical Renaissance, but the movie is a great mix of adventure, mystery and even musical numbers.  The villain, Professor Ratigan, is brilliantly performed by Vincent Price and is clearly one of the film's strongest highlights.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
This makes the list because it never fully got the respect it deserved and it was mostly the Disney studio's fault.     After the death of Walt Disney, the studio clearly faltered.  And in the making of this film, which they wanted to be half as successful as Mary Poppins, they were extremely budget conscious.  They made severe cuts to the over 2 hour film (to put it under 2 hours) that made the film seem sloppy and unprofessional.  It wasn't until the 2001 DVD release (in which most of the cut scenes were restored to the film) that fans and detractors of the film realized how good the film could have been if the studio had allowed it in its original form.  Despite this, the film is an absolute delight and the always phenomenal Angela Lansbury (who shows off her Tony-winning musical talent) is a major reason for it.

Robin Hood (1973)
This one is another film that the studio just has bad memories of making.  Frustration among the Disney animators was growing and the studio was cutting budgets in almost every department.  So it is rare that this film gets a classic DVD or video release.  But most people I talk to only have really good memories of this movie.  I know I have always enjoyed it.  Though they do excise the classic characters of Will Scarlet and Guy of Gisbourne, the characters they do use are a mix of clever, funny and important to the Robin Hood tale.  I also love the brilliant cast that includes the always jazzy Phil Harris as Little John, country legend Roger Miller as minstrel Alan-a-Dale and (in the most amazing piece of voice casting) Sir Peter Ustinov stealing the movie as the spoiled and whiny Prince John.

Oliver and Company (1988)
Like Great Mouse Detective, this one also gets lost in the shuffle of the praise for the Disney Musical Renaissance.  This stylish modern (at least modern for the late '80s!) update of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is clever and thrilling.  Its soundtrack was a staple in my house when the movie came out and its pop-infused score was filled with good songs (from the Huey Lewis-sung opening "Once Upon a Time In New York City" to the Bette Midler diva number "Perfect Isn't Easy").  The highlight (for most people who remember this film) was the performance of Billy Joel as the doggy Dodger character with his bouncy theme "Why Should I Worry?"  With cheerful songs like these, why should we worry? Really?

A Bug's Life (1996)
This film also gets forgotten for the unfortunate reason that it was the Disney/PIXAR collaboration to follow the masterpiece that was Toy Story.  Most people should have known that no movie could follow Toy Story no matter what it was and this simple story has just become to pedestrian in the light of PIXAR's other great films (like The Incredibles, Up or Finding Nemo).  So when friends of mine list the best PIXAR films, they always tend to forget how charming this movie really was.  I liked it a lot more than Dreamworks' bug movie (Antz) and I thought it was really clever at the time.  I too fall victim to the overshadowing of PIXAR's more impressive fair.  But each time I go back to this film, I recall how much I enjoyed the witty writing, the clever cast (that included Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce and Denis Leary) and the Oscar-nominated score by PIXAR fave Randy Newman.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This film is a favorite of mine even though it does have some problems (Disney-fying Victor Hugo, quirky gargoyles, etc.).  The main problem it had was it had to follow Pocahontas, which the critics just hated (for good reasons).  Anything that followed a critical failure like that was going to have to impress on a major level and this film just did not impress them.  True, they Disney-fied a literary classic, but look at some of the stuff they left in the story (like the sexual perversion of the main villain, something you just don't see in a lot of kid films!).  And as far as musical scores go, this qualifies as Alan Menken's most ambitious one.  And the lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are mix of poignant, funny and beautiful.

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