Classic No. 31 Aladdin (1992)

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‘Disney, you’ve had a Best Picture nomination – what are you going to do next?!’

Aladdin is the film that follows not only Disney’s, but one of cinema’s major milestones – it follows the first animated feature film to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast. Could they top it? But more importantly, did they even want to top it?

Aladdin itself originates from ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. It was not originally part of ‘Nights’, but was edited into the collection by Antoine Galland, a French translator who claims that he heard the story, along with ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘The Seven Voyages of Sindbad’, from a Syrian storyteller in Aleppo. Ironically enough, despite being part of a Middle Eastern collection of tales, the Aladdin story is set predominantly in China.

(Special Note from Melissa: But perhaps that has all the authority of Shakespeare setting Measure for Measure in Vienna, when it is clearly London … and in fact any of his plays set in European cities)

Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast had very rocky beginnings. It was originally the dream-child of Howard Ashman, who had been in a local theatre production of Aladdin when he was a child, in the title role. Ashman wanted to write and direct the film; he pitched it in 1988 and wrote a 40-page treatment, writing songs with Alan Menken. He re-imagined the Aladdin story as a campy 1930s-style musical in a Hollywood-ised version of Baghdad, paying homage to the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road movie musicals. The story featured a villain named Wazir, his parrot sidekick Sindbad, and Aladdin had three pals called Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. Princess Jasmine was a shallow, spoiled brat that Aladdin falls for, all the while a girl-next-door tomboy inspired by Judy Garland would be his true love in the end. There were two genies; the ring genie sung Arabian Nights, while the genie of the lamp was an amalgamation of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

Both Ashman and Menken were super jazzed up about this project (we could tell as they sound very giddy in the demos). Unfortunately for the two of them, the studio dismissed Ashman’s treatment, and they were removed from Aladdin to rescue Beauty and the Beast, which at that point was in dire straits. Beauty and the Beast’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, took on Ashman’s treatment and incorporated some elements of The Thief of Baghdad into the screenplay (because Disney had purchased the remake rights …), adding a villain named Jafar, a thief named Abu and a handmaiden for Jasmine. It had no songs … that would have been tragic. It got tossed around to different screenwriters, but in the end, John Musker and Ron Clements picked it as their follow-up to The Little Mermaid. They had a choice between Aladdin, Swan Lake and King of the Jungle.

Well … they all happened … one even at another studio

Ashman was glad that Musker and Clements had revived his baby, and while only two of his songs from the original treatment ended up in the film, Arabian Nights and Friend Like Me, when the dynamic duo were brought on board, Ashman and Menken wrote two new songs, Prince Ali and Humiliate the Boy … we’ll come back to these in Music. Unfortunately, Ashman never saw Aladdin through; when he wrote those two songs, he was already extremely ill, and he died shortly after the first story reel presentation – he passed away in March 1991. Tim Rice was brought in to be Alan Menken’s new lyricist.

The infamous story reel presentation became known as Black Friday – another case of déjà vu from Beauty and the Beast, Katzenberg hated the reels and told them to start again … again – ‘Guys, I gotta tell you, I was so disengaged that all through the movie, I was working on the guest list for my wife’s surprise birthday party!’

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Nice

So, they had to start again, the mood was apparently ‘funereal’ and Katzenberg refused to change the release date of 25 November 1992. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were brought in to rework the screenplay, meaning that the four of them get screenwriting credits for the final film. From Black Friday, they had eight days to make a new outline. PRESSURE! Eight days later, Katzenberg accepted the new treatment, and the film got made … thankfully.

A lot changed from that original treatment from 1988; it very well could have been an incredibly different film. We’re happy with the way Aladdin turned out, but it is hard not to wonder what could have been … However, what did it end up being? Likely Disney’s most postmodern-esque, most self-aware film in the canon so far – this is the moment when the creators felt brave enough to challenge its own medium and style, and even poke tongue-in-cheek fun at both themselves and Disney itself.

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How did they do? Let’s find out!

But first … the let’s enter the Cave of Wonders … also known as Original Trailer Time.

  • Wait a minute! That’s not Aladdin music … did we put the right trailer on?
  • Hmm … 3 years ago … last year … what happened 2 years ago Original Trailer Man?Ah yes, using the glory of their previous recent hits, not including The Rescuers Down Under of courseit may as well be lifted out of the Renaissance altogether

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  • ‘A beautiful girl looked into the heart of a beast and found the man of her dreams’ … on the strength of that tagline, you may have avoided Beauty and the Beast altogether!
  • ‘Come with us and enter a whole new world’ … how clever
  • One of Robin Williams’s conditions was not to be heavily used in advertising … um about that …
  • Someone very crudely shoehorned in the title mid-sentence – so fast and shoddy it feels like subliminal messaging
  • ‘A whole new world of excitement’ … thanks we got it!
  • Poor Alan Menken – never gets named in these trailers!
  • They certainly give a lot away in this trailer – we even get a shot of the genie hugging everyone at the end of the film!
  • They’re really downplaying Abu and Iago in this trailer … hmm we wonder why? We don’t even hear a syllable from Gilbert Gottfried

Protagonist

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As a protagonist, Aladdin is breaking new ground in the canon, and yet at the same time, it is a very familiar character. At last, a handsome, young male is the film’s lead role, despite over 50 years of Disney animators desperately trying to avoid it. As we’ve discussed multiple times, Disney animators did not like animating ‘prince’ characters because from their point of view, they were ‘dull’ to animate, and no one wanted to be lumbered with that job. It is likely that because lead character animators over the years were nearly always heterosexual men, men would prefer to draw either interesting looking characters, from animals, to hybrid creatures, to comic characters, to villains, or characters that they could be attracted to like beautiful women. Drawing the beautiful man likely did not seem as appealing. If there had been more women on the team, would they have not taken umbrage with animating the attractive young male character, like the male animator would not mind drawing the attractive young female?

At this stage, star player, Glen Keane was assigned the role of Aladdin. While we may initially perceive this as a ‘give the job nobody wants to the star animator because he can make it fabulous’, it actually didn’t quite work out that way. Aladdin was initially pitched as a boy rather than a young man – perhaps more 12-14 rather than 17-18. He was designed more like a short, scrappy, scrawny little guy – looking more like a street urchin than a buff teenager. Here’s the thing – Disney love boy protagonists – Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Arthur, Mowgli, Taran, Cody and even boy animals like Bambi, Dumbo, Todd, Copper and Oliver. The team were excited by another boy character like Aladdin, and he was initially modelled on Michael J Fox, incredibly popular from the Back to the Future trilogy and Family Ties (especially at this point in the late 1980s early 1990s), and only 5 foot 4 inches in height. Aladdin could have been pitched like Marty McFly in the Middle East.

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On Black Friday, Katzenberg said that he did not buy the young, scrawny Aladdin, and thought that he was way out of Jasmine’s league, arguing that you wouldn’t pair Michael J Fox with Julia Roberts in Hollywood but you would match her with Tom Cruise – make him more Tom Cruise!

(Special Note from Melissa: Katzenberg didn’t think a Michael J Fox-like Aladdin had enough appeal to women … well … I can’t speak for the Michael J Fox-like Aladdin, but I do know that Michael J Fox from Back to the Future was my teenage crush …)

Although they did keep some McFly-isms in there

And because ‘Friend Like Me’ was one of the first sequences to be animated, petite, skinnier, younger Aladdin can still be seen in multiple shots:

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They did just that, but they were not initially happy about it, because like Andreas Deja being initially annoyed when told by Katzenberg that Gaston was not handsome enough, drawing Aladdin like Tom Cruise did not seem as fun a job. So, Keane did not end up with the project that he applied for in the first place, but putting the handsome young male in the hands of one of Disney’s most talented character animators at this point, really worked out, as Aladdin is one of the most expressive prince-like characters that we’ve had so far in the canon.

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Nine Old Men animators … it is completely fine for the leading man to make these kind of faces

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Besides Keane had fun creating Aladdin’s movement by watching MC Hammer music videos

Aladdin has lot in common with previous Disney princesses – he has his own Cinderella story like … well Cinderella, but he has most in common with the latest Disney ladies in Belle and Ariel. All three of these characters want more out of life – they are the archetypal 1980s aspirational young people (despite two of the films being released in the early 1990s).

‘I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty / I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore … but who cares / no big deal / I want more’

‘I want much more than this provincial life / I want adventure in the great wide somewhere / I want it more than I can tell / And for once it might be grand / To have someone understand / I want so much more than they’ve got planned’

‘Riff raff / street rat / I don’t buy that / If only they’d look closer … They’d find that / There’s so much more to me … Someday Abu things are going to change, we’ll be rich, we’ll live in a palace, and never have any problems at all’

(Special Note from Both: Aladdin, how do you plan on that happening? Getting rich and living in a palace? Being poor, you’d more likely be aiming for having any money or shelter at all)

Teen films of the time were all about the aspirational teenager:

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Including Marty McFly himself

There were a lot of rich girl/poor boy or rich boy/poor girl stories in 1980s and early 1990s cinema – Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty Woman, etc.

Although Aladdin gets by as a thieving, charming trickster, he aspires for more – he believes that he is beyond his status as a ‘worthless’ street rat. The first time we meet Aladdin, he’s running from the authorities after stealing a loaf of bread.

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What is it with authorities and BREAD?!

And yet we first see signs that he is a ‘diamond in the rough’ when he gives his bread that he risked his neck for, to two hungry children, and stands up for the kids when one of Jasmine’s suitors cracks a whip at them. Later he saves Jasmine from facing the ‘stealing penalty’ through his trickster means – by pretending that she is his mentally challenged sister – as terrible as that sounds, it does work.

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Sounds like a Zack Morris scheme

In early drafts of Aladdin, he was fully aware from the get go that Jasmine was a princess; this was changed because they didn’t want audiences to think that Aladdin was a gold-digger – he genuinely cares for her. In fact, despite Aladdin’s initial longing for wealth and living in the lap of luxury, when the Genie asks him what he wants, his first thought is ‘Well there’s this girl …’

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‘Wow … massive’

However, like Ariel’s desire to be human ideally matches up with her falling for Prince Eric, Aladdin’s desire to be wealthy matches up with him falling for Jasmine – his first wish, in order to be legally allowed to court Jasmine, is to become a Prince … and that naturally comes with a luxurious package.

His relationship with the Genie is a buddy comedy bromance that we haven’t really seen before in this form – the closest that we have had to this relationship is likely Baloo and Mowgli in The Jungle Book and perhaps even a little of Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio and Merlin and Arthur (perhaps it is no coincidence that like Merlin, the Genie is blue). Unlike Ariel, Aladdin is lucky because he has the fortune of a magical benefactor who is not trying to screw him over, but genuinely wants good things for him. The diamond in the rough that Aladdin is (or to be honest, just being a decent person), and unlike any master that the Genie has had before, Aladdin asks him what he would wish for, and concludes that he’ll use his third wish to set the Genie free.

While Aladdin appears confident, his insecurities flood out of him throughout the film. Despite him having chemistry with Jasmine in their first scenes, he is convinced that she will ‘laugh at him’ or that he’d lose her if she finds out that he is a poor boy, unaware that she was devastated when she thought that he was dead. He is terrified of being himself. Despite being a good trickster, Aladdin is not a great liar – his ‘isms’ comes out (‘Do you trust me?’), he falls into Jasmine’s trap as he starts talking about Abu when she leads him into it, and he puts on this bizarre ‘act’ as the ‘smooth, cool, confident’ Prince Ali even though he exuded natural confidence before. For example, he puts on a voice that funnily enough sounds like a woman putting on a man’s voice in a play with the over-emphasis on sounding ‘manly’.

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Noted … We’ll get to you soon

Aladdin’s insecurities nearly cause his downfall as he carries on lying – pretending that he is Prince Ali, even when he is given an ideal opportunity to tell the truth. He even gets cold feet when he realises that by marrying Jasmine, he by proxy will become the next Sultan of Agrabah … the dream is coming true, but becoming the Sultan feels like too much responsibility – remember he wished for wealth and luxury, not ruling a kingdom!

He may also be feeling guilt that, like the trickster he is, he has unintentionally ‘tricked’ his way into becoming the next Sultan. However, it means that he takes back setting the Genie free, afraid of losing that third wish – leading to Jafar causing havoc and Die Hard-ing his way through Agrabah with a Chernabog-like Genie …

Good job idiot … seriously what was Aladdin even going to do with that third wish?

Consequently rather than having the opportunity to tell the truth, Aladdin is exposed for the fraud that he is and is blasted to the ends of the earth. However, he is able to redeem himself by coming back and defeating Jafar, of course through the only way a trickster can, by outwitting him – at least he stays true to his character to the end! His trickster ways truly get him through the film, not only as a thief. He tricks Genie into getting them out of the cave without having to ‘waste’ a wish, and again, in the climax, he tricks Jafar into becoming a genie – it is the only way in which a smart trickster like Aladdin could defeat the most powerful sorcerer in the world.

Charming, yet insecure and with a good heart, Aladdin is an enjoyable character that we did get behind. He may be a 1980s-like aspirational teenager type with an air of Marty McFly and Zack Morris with Tom Cruise’s physique, but that was the popular norm of the time, and overall, his good heart sees him through – he sets the Genie free and expresses that he has to stop pretending to be something that he’s not. However, Aladdin’s selflessness and gumption leads to the Sultan changing the law, when he realises that a non-blue-blooded boy may just be the perfect Sultan and husband for his daughter (how Gilbert and Sullivan-ly convenient … probably would saved everyone a lot of trouble – ‘Oh wait a minute, I’m in charge I CAN ABOLISH LAWS! HAHA!’) – he gives Jasmine the right to choose her spouse, and of course, she chooses him. Aladdin, despite being a young Middle Eastern man, experiences the ‘American Dream’ in a rags-to-riches underdog story, and yet he discovers that being his raggedy self means a lot more than masquerading as Prince Ali. Aladdin could have been close to being too much of a product of his time, but luckily the film spares us from him using pop culture or contemporary vernacular that would have heavily dated the film.

Here’s looking at you Fern Gully

There is a huge loss to Aladdin’s character that is hard for us to ignore. While Aladdin is an orphan in the final film …

Which this ‘delightful’ woman takes pride in pointing out:

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Nice

About as much tact as Owen Wilson in Shanghai Knights:

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‘Yeah you ever heard of those, they’re parents. We have parents who love us. You don’t, ’cause you’re a little orphan’

In the original drafts, and in the infamous Black Friday storyboard presentation – Aladdin had a mother. A widowed single mother, she wanted better for Aladdin and didn’t approve of his thievery. Aladdin’s motivation in these original drafts and storyboards was to make his mother proud of him – as opposed to the more shallow-sounding ‘We’ll be rich and live in a palace one day’ goal. These feelings were presented in a song that is incredibly loved at Disney called Proud of Your Boy, which Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote together, and apparently was one of Ashman’s most personal songs. Katzenberg hated many things in that presentation, but more than anything, he wanted rid of the mother (‘She’s a zero!! Eighty-six the mom!’ … Katzenberg had such a charming way of phrasing himself) … so Proud of Your Boy and Aladdin’s goal to make his parent proud of him was out the window. Proud of Your Boy may have had an impact on Aladdin that Part of Your World has on our perception of Ariel. Without Part of Your World showing the ‘deepest and most desperate desires’ (thank you Dumbledore) of Ariel’s heart, for us, she may have seemed selfish, spoiled and awful. Having the opportunity to see these characters’ inner most desires (their own ‘Mirror of Erised’) through the ‘I Want’ song means a great deal. Without Aladdin’s desire to make his Mother proud, Aladdin himself doesn’t touch the heart as much as he could have done. The closest he gets to that is through his relationship with the Genie.

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‘It does not do to dwell on dreams Aladdin (especially concerning PARENTS!) … and forget to live (and BE RICH AND LIVE IN A PALACE)’

They had managed to figure out how to insert Proud of Your Boy back into Aladdin for the Broadway musical version without having to resurrect the mother character. Aladdin in the stage adaptation is still an orphan, but he wants to make his deceased parents, especially his mum, proud. It’s just a shame that the team did not figure this out sooner. It seems to be a pattern that the production teams during the Renaissance era would run into brick walls, unable to figure out a solution to a creative idea, and then working it out for the stage version years later, e.g. Human Again, Proud of Your Boy, Madness of King Scar, etc. Are the fast turnarounds causing serious problems for the creative teams, in which they don’t have time to problem solve and instead have to just bin fantastic possibilities?

Antagonist

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‘I think it’s time to say goodbye to Prince Abubu’

Jafar feels like an amalgamation of many previous Disney villains; there are traces of characters such as Maleficent (in fact Andreas Deja based Jafar on Marc Davis’s design for Maleficent … apparently other influences were Captain Hook, Conrad Veidt and … Nancy Reagan), Rattigan, Cruella De Vil, the Wicked Queen, Shere Khan and others running through his character, yet he simultaneously feels like something entirely new. Although he spends most of the film as a scheming manipulator, carefully planning his next move from behind closed doors – once he gets what he wants he revels in it, demonstrating extreme cruelty against those to whom he’s been feigning loyalty. Suave and psychotic, a delightful combination for a Disney villain, Jafar is one of the most entertaining and campy villains in the canon.

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(Special Note from Melissa: Quite possibly one of my favourite shots in the film)

Something that we both noticed upon re-watching the film was just how prominently featured Jafar is throughout; he might even be the most heavily featured villain to date. Quite often the villain will make intermittent appearances throughout the film, but Jafar is featured in just about every other scene: very like the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is one of the first characters that we see; we see him before Aladdin, and long before Jasmine, the Sultan and of course the Genie. The scenes cut back and forth mainly between Aladdin’s story and Jafar’s story. His hunger for power, particularly against the buffoonery of the Sultan, drives his motivation, from searching high and low for the magic lamp (even if it means the deaths of others) to going full-steam with his wishes when he is the master of the lamp – 1. Be Sultan, 2. Be the most powerful sorcerer in the world, 3. Be an all-powerful Genie – woah wait what?!

He also takes on a few forms, with a withered old beggar man, clearly alluding to the Wicked Queen’s old crone persona:

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As well as a GIANT SNAKE, a la Maleficent’s dragon:

Kathy Zielinski animated Jafar’s snake and old beggar forms. She was heavily pregnant during the process and went into labour immediately after handing in this scene above of Jafar ‘bursting’ into his snake form … 

Like some villains before him, he is not as clever as he thinks he is (probably as next to the Sultan he feels like a mastermind), and ultimately he ends up outsmarted; figuratively speaking he winds up with an ear full of cider and a gullet full. Not wanting to be ‘second-rate’ (pun completely intended) to the Genie, he wishes to be an all-powerful genie, and ends up eternally trapped in a tiny lamp with Gilbert Gottfried … forever … not your best move Jafar.

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I wish I’d thought this through

He also joins the ranks of villains that make themselves massive in the climax … seriously stop it Disney villains – you may feel like blowing yourselves up to the size of your egos, but it never works. Even his choice to assassinate ‘Prince Ali’ by ordering him thrown off a cliff and drowned is a terrible idea; at this point in the film, he has no idea that this mysterious prince is Aladdin – this prince’s hypothetical country would have been MAD that their prince visited Agrabah and never came back – it could have started a bloody WAR! What was he thinking??? He has no sense of the long term game and acts very impulsively … in fact, who does he remind us of?

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Jafar needs to get owned by Charles Dance:

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His not being as smart as he thinks he is makes him a flawed character and ultimately compelling as his machinations certainly are nasty. We are strangely amused that he is absolutely certain that he is not a diamond in the rough (but he isn’t exactly a risk-taker). He only considers marrying Jasmine when the magic lamp quest fails, re-writing laws, hypnotising the Sultan, expressing sexist behaviour towards her ironically while trying to flatter her and even requesting that his third wish be for Jasmine to fall ‘desperately’ in love with him – constantly misguided. But again, like him knowing that he could in no way be a diamond in the rough, it is hilarious when Jasmine pretends to be infatuated with Jafar, and he genuinely is flabbergasted for a few seconds.

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Eh?

(Special Note from Melissa: Again another one of my favourite shots! Viewers are generally looking at Genie during this shot, I caught myself looking at Jafar instead and split my sides laughing)

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A range of actors were considered for Jafar, including Tim Curry, Kelsey Grammer, John Hurt, Christopher Lloyd, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Stewart calls being unable to play Jafar one of his biggest acting regrets. Theatre performer, Jonathan Freeman voices Jafar and, much like Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price and Pat Carroll before him, he is clearly having an absolute blast playing the villain. Freeman’s vocal performance is often very low and calm (to contrast with the vocal bombast of Gilbert Gottfried) but when he lets loose there is such flamboyance in his delivery as Jafar’s evil machinations become more extreme. He delivers his lines with such infectious glee that it is impossible not to enjoy his scenes. Freeman claims that the voice for Jafar was a combination of Boris Karloff and funnily enough, Disney villain alumnus Price …

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Who also voiced the vizier villain in The Thief and the Cobbler … which came out the same year … and he recorded his lines in 1967 to 1973 … oh dear that poor film had problems

Freeman is an excellent performer and it is a shame that he only got a reprise song in the film (he performs it brilliantly, making the most of its brevity); they tried so hard for Jafar to have a solo but two songs ended up on the cutting room floor. Freeman became so attached to the role of Jafar that apparently no one else has ever voiced him on-screen, and he even originated the role on Broadway.

Overall he is a sinister, deliciously evil villain who is not as clever as he thinks he is, is campily performed and animated with gusto and he is a combination of classiness and vileness all at once.

Supporting Cast

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The film is more Aladdin’s story, so for once, the Disney princess plays more of a secondary role to the male protagonist, and yet at the same time, she has a lot of screen time. Jasmine is a princess who has similar desires to previous young women in the canon in that she wants adventure. The difference is that Jasmine is a princess by birth and has been aware of it all of her life. She has never wanted for anything in terms of possessions and living in luxury, but she feels isolated from the world and is lonely for company. She has no friends except for her pet tiger, and she has never been outside the palace walls. While Aladdin is more like a memento from the 1980s, Jasmine feels more like a representative of what’s to come in the 1990s – she’s the unhappy rich girl who wants friends and adventure.

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She discovers that she wants to live like common people, she wants to do whatever common people do …

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Wants to sleep with common people

As they discover later in their meet cute, both Jasmine and Aladdin feel ‘trapped’ in their current situations and openly acknowledge it. Other than physical attraction …

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… they find that they do have a connection and share chemistry.

A LOT of chemistry

Jasmine’s desire to see outside the palace walls is achieved through her first adventure when she runs away to wander through a souk, but her second adventure on the magic carpet is much more glamorous and fulfilling as she ‘sees the world’ … at least places that will feature in upcoming 1990s animated films.

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The Prince of Egypt

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Hercules

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Mulan

Aladdin (and the Magic Carpet … credit where credit’s due) helps to make her dream become a reality. They share quite a journey together – longer than the usual for Disney couples – and in the end, when the law is changed, Jasmine proposes to Aladdin, choosing him for her groom, making Aladdin’s dream of becoming rich and living in a palace a reality … Why does Aladdin’s dream always sound shallow when written down?

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‘Go – live your dream’

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‘I will’

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‘Your dream stinks … I was talking to her’

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Again, Jasmine was originally written like an unpleasant, manipulative brat who Aladdin would fall for, only for him to realise that he truly loved his childhood friend, a girl-next-door Judy Garland type. This changed over time because certain people didn’t like the idea of an unlikeable, heinous princess. Jasmine in the final cut isn’t shallow; she is never turned off Aladdin by his social status – she is only ever turned off when he behaves like a numpty. She makes it clear that she wants to marry for love and deliberately messes with her unlikeable suitors, and later tricks both Aladdin and Jafar. Jasmine could beat Aladdin at his own game in terms of fooling people; in all of her scenes, she normally has the upper hand.

Jasmine has a powerful presence – she demonstrates strength as she insists that the law is wrong, she commands herself excellently in front of the guards, and the same later when addressing Jafar in a range of scenes. One of her qualities that really stands out is that she frequently gets angry, much more than any of the previous leading ladies. Animators of the past have had the fear of making their leading ladies look unattractive if they are animated to look angry or annoyed.

They don’t hold back with Jasmine

Jasmine’s fury at the Sultan, Jafar and Aladdin talking about her like she’s a prize is very self-assured and strong in particular.

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Yes the three of you SHOULD feel awkward

She doesn’t take any of Aladdin’s crap during his ‘act’, calling him out on being a jerk and/or lying to her, even when she has had a romantic date with him – she didn’t let it cloud her judgement. She is defiant towards her father on multiple occasions but the film later reveals that she can cry on his shoulder, so it is not a completely cold relationship. A strong-willed young woman, she has the quality of an activist in her (particularly when she speaks up against Aladdin’s arrest and later his ‘death’); she’d likely be a better ruler than her father. She may have been completely clueless and naïve about handling money, but we blame her father more for that – she should have been taught! She’s an heiress to the throne – she should know about financial situations!

In a nutshell, she wasn’t very convincing as a common person, and hilariously after an emotional goodbye to Rajah, she ends up back home the next day. Word of advice to Jasmine:

There are some problems with Jasmine however that are hard to ignore. Why is a Middle Eastern princess dressed like a harem girl? She’s a princess! Were they burned out by how covered up Belle was? Apparently others involved in the project were not happy with Jasmine’s midriff showing – it didn’t seem appropriate or accurate. But they were outvoted …

Also when she pretends to be infatuated with Jafar in order for Aladdin to get the lamp, was using her sexuality as a tactic smart or degrading? Or both?

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What an image …

Jasmine does seem to have less agency in the finale which is a bit of a shame. Apparently, she was originally going to break out of the hourglass herself by using a jewel in her headpiece to smash through it. However, Aladdin needed to be in a position in which no one could help him out – with Jafar having ‘removed’ all of his possible assistants from the picture (with horrendous puns). Ultimately in the end, Jasmine is the one who proposes to Aladdin. The film concludes with Aladdin, not a prince but looking dapper in fancier clothes, and Jasmine, on another magic carpet ride. Jasmine wins her right to choose and she is allowed outside of the palace walls, while Aladdin … while he has money and status, remembers the value of his quality from the beginning (when he gave his bread to the children), to put others before his own wants, which he nearly lost sight of.

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It would be impossible to discuss Aladdin without talking about the Genie. The character is a real landmark, not just for Disney but for animated films in general. The closest thing that the studio has had to this type of character before is Merlin from The Sword in the Stone as the character makes reference to future events which transcend the era in which the story takes place, and is also capable of free-form metamorphosis and has magical powers. The Genie demonstrates the leaps and bounds that the studio has made since the 1960s, feeling much more magical and otherworldly – taking full advantage of the animation medium.

It is one of many roles which Robin Williams became synonymous with, especially due to his fast-talking, highly improvisational style – however, Howard Ashman’s original idea for the Genie was very different to the one we eventually got. Initially the character was going to be a Cab Calloway/Fats Waller-esque type, demonstrated in Ashman’s original demo of ‘Friend Like Me’.

(Special Note from Both: It’s awesome. We’ll discuss it later)

However, Ron Clements (among others at Disney we’re sure) was concerned of the backlash that the film could receive for presenting a character like the Genie as a Calloway/Waller type, due to connotations of slavery represented through an enslaved character with a black entertainer persona, meaning that this characterisation was lost in the end.

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It was one of the many reasons why critics were miffed by 1990s film genie Kazaam … one of many we’re sure

Although Martin Short, John Goodman, Albert Brooks, John Candy, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were all allegedly considered for the role, Clements and Musker developed an idea of a Robin Williams-esque Genie, re-writing the character with Williams in mind, and were delighted when he accepted the role. Ashman sort of came around to the idea, when they explained that the Genie, with Williams’s voice, would still have the showman characterisation. Williams accepted when Eric Goldberg animated the Genie doing several minutes of Williams’s stand-up routines – he was thrilled and accepted immediately. From Williams’s recording, he offered the crew around 16 hours of material to choose from – some from the original script and the rest ad-libbed.

We were concerned about something before re-watching Aladdin, which was whether the Genie would ‘hold up’ since we last watched it, or would it be jarring. Luckily, he does ‘hold up’ – it works as the Genie is a magical creature, divorced from the narrative place and time, meaning that his knowledge of pop culture does work – the writers did joke at what a ‘coincidence’ it was that the Genie’s ‘future’ knowledge is focused mainly on 20th century pop culture, most of all the 1960s, most of the animators’ time of youth. Some of the Genie’s references were even obscure back in 1992, children and even adults will not always ‘get’ the reference, and yet it is still enjoyable, because the Genie himself is a likeable character. The reason why the Genie works so wonderfully as a character and is such a success is a combination of the character animation, the writing, the editing (again Williams provided them with 16 HOURS of footage – they had to edit the best material for the film) and of course Williams’s performance. The reason why we have felt the need to point this out is that Williams tends to get the most praise, and it truly is a joint effort. Remember, Williams and voice acting did not always mean a successful result:

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Despite having seen this film many times, we were surprised that the Genie doesn’t really appear for the first time until over a third of the film has passed. He is such a bombast of energy when he does appear! It is indicated through the dialogue that all of the Genie’s previous masters have merely exploited his magical prowess, then allowed him to simply return to his imprisonment – but his relationship with Aladdin is different, and the two become very good friends. This friendship definitely goes beyond Aladdin’s promise to set the Genie free, as demonstrated by the Genie saving Aladdin from drowning.

Although the character is most frequently used for comic purposes, he also provides one of the film’s emotional anchors. There are some genuinely impactful moments in which Williams tones down the energy to deliver a few lines with heartfelt sincerity. The Genie’s release also becomes a significant plot point – which is quite a rarity for supporting characters in Disney films. It is such an earned ending.

One of the unsung heroes of the film is undoubtedly the magic carpet, who manages to save the lives of the protagonists on several occasions, alongside the Genie acts as one of Aladdin’s advisors, and also plays a significant role within Aladdin and Jasmine’s romantic escape. The carpet is heavily involved in the action of the film, and yet receives very little recognition from the other characters. Despite having no dialogue, no face nor any limbs or appendages, the carpet is incredibly expressive, and able to communicate wonderfully. The character is immediately likeable and sympathetic, and frequently proves its worth. Bravo Randy Cartwright!

(Special Note from Melissa: I adore the carpet – he very well may be my favourite character from the film)

(Special Note from David: Watching the film this time around, I actually found the carpet’s unravelling during the finale quite shocking)

The bumbling authority figure is an area where Disney have stumbled before, and it can often feel like a worn-out trope, so the dialogue and the vocal performance really have to make the character worthwhile. Fortunately, the Sultan manages to be an entertaining character in his own right, with several genuinely amusing lines, but his bumbling mannerisms are effectively played off against Jafar’s measured demeanour. Although really, it’s the equivalent of Maurice being left in charge of a kingdom – how has a coup not started sooner?

Iago, as a character really shouldn’t work, but completely does. Disney have faltered in the past by creating insufferable sidekicks to the main antagonist (i.e. Creeper from The Black Cauldron) although it generally seemed that with these characters we were supposed to find them entertaining, but the execution was way off. With Iago it seems that being intentionally annoying is a fundamental part of his character, and rather than half-heartedly going about this idea, the filmmakers fully committed to it, evidenced by the fact that Gilbert Gottfried was chosen to play the part.

(Special Note from Both: Gottfried does come across as being a good sport about this in interviews)

As a result, Iago is not only entertaining, he has several genuinely hilarious and snarky lines during the film.

Including an ad-lib which made Robin Williams burst out laughing:

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It is amazing that Jafar’s parrot was originally written as British, posh and very well-spoken – what a 180 degree turn! The final result makes for a better foil to the baritone notes of Jafar. In terms of character, Iago is actually an effective aide to Jafar, assisting with the villain’s plot on several occasions, including stealing the lamp from Aladdin and coming up with the marriage scheme. He also demonstrates a genuine mean streak in his abuse of the (temporarily former) Sultan once Jafar finds himself in the position of power.

Here is an interesting fact about Aladdin’s supporting cast background: Musker and Clements thought there were too many human characters in the previous scripts, from Ashman’s to Woolverton’s, and well … they just aren’t as fun to draw. So Abu the thief became Abu the thieving monkey, Jasmine’s handmaiden became a tiger named Rajah, and Aladdin’s three pals, Babkak, Omar and Kassim were … given the boot completely.

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Officially snubbed guys

Aladdin’s faithful monkey sidekick, Abu is his partner in crime. He regularly proves his usefulness to Aladdin whenever the going gets tough: creating distractions during escapes, or during a thieving operation. Nevertheless, Abu acts selfishly on various occasions – he initially takes exception to Jasmine, and later the carpet – as they seem to be getting between his and Aladdin’s friendship. Even the Genie becomes Aladdin’s new best bud and the bromance is about them, not Aladdin and Abu. Abu’s selfish behaviour and desire to maintain the status quo in his relationship with Aladdin, makes him feel like a throwback to Tinkerbell (although Abu never tries to get Jasmine killed). Abu’s greed and selfishness results in himself and Aladdin becoming trapped in the Cave of Wonders (argh!), but he is able to redeem himself by stealing the lamp away from Jafar during the crucial moment.

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You redeemed yourself … just

Plus the poor chap has to go through THIS trauma:

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Genie you monster!

The filmmakers said that whenever the film started getting too sentimental or romantic, the go-to move was … cut to the monkey. Risky … considering that monkeys were considered box office poison at one point. Only just a few years before, Back to the Future originally starred a pet monkey instead of a pet dog – the Universal executive’s response? No movie with a chimpanzee ever made money. Well … isn’t it lucky for Disney that Abu isn’t a chimpanzee? Although he is a capuchin, and the Friends creators were very quick to get rid of Ross’s capuchin, Marcel after barely half a season. So … watch out Abu.

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‘Hey remember when I had a monkey? Yeah, what was I thinking?’

Artwork and Imagery

At the beginning of this review, we asked whether Disney’s next move, post-Beauty and the Beast would be to follow in its footsteps … in many respects, they have chosen to go in a very different direction, making a bold move from an artistic standpoint. Remember when the animators in the early days wanted to go wild, cartoony and experimental, with pink elephants and Wonderland wackiness and madcap shorts and package film insanity (Three Caballeros we’re looking at YOU!), and were actually a little sad when the Disney style became the ‘Disney style’? It is as if the newer generation of animators were finally unleashed and able to do the cartoony, broader zany style that they’d been dreaming of doing. The animation in the film is noticeably more cartoony than its recent predecessors, and very purposely so. Characters are much more exaggerated in their movement, actions and expressions than what we have seen in a long time.

In an article from 1992 in the LA Times, Charles Soloman wrote: ‘Like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the contemporary Disney animated features “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” looked back to the richly detailed style of the great 19th- and early 20th-Century European storybook illustrators. But when Disney artists sought inspiration for their new feature “Aladdin,” they turned to a very different source: the elegantly minimal caricatures of Al Hirschfeld …’

Yes, the animators were inspired largely by the style of famed New Yorker caricaturist, Al Hirshfield. Production designer, Richard Vander Wende, felt that there were similarities between Hirshfield’s style and the swooping lines of Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy. The Genie was particularly inspired by Hirshfield, which makes perfect sense as the Genie is a master of impressions, and thus, a master of ‘caricaturing’ famous cultural figures. The design for the Genie is rather unique amongst the Disney canon, because although there have been several notable metamorphosing characters before (several villains have undergone iconic transformations) there has never been a character who changes shape so frequently and fluidly, allowing the opportunity for wonderful creative freedom for the animators, primarily lead animator, Eric Goldberg.

(Special Note from Both: The closest thing we’ve had is the wizard’s duel sequence in The Sword in the Stone but that was just a single scene, and also during the time when the studio was rather limited in their resources)

However, in contrast to the broader style of the characters, the designs of locations and backgrounds are very grand and impressive. The opening title sequence really exemplifies this stylistic approach: the design of the desert looks really vast and expansive, appearing to pay homage to classic movies, whilst the character making his way through the desert has a much more cartoony look about him. As we arrive in Agrabah, the backgrounds look visually stunning, whilst the characters noticeably pop out of those backdrops. It’s a combination of elegant and broad artistic styles fusing together.

Here are some particularly beautiful shots:

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Animator, Rasoul Azadani was the layout supervisor for Aladdin, and he modelled the fictional Agrabah on his native Iran, particularly his hometown of Isfahan, paying a visit there during production for inspiration and taking 2000 photographs. It truly pays off in the final film, as the Middle Eastern architecture gorgeously shines through.

The colour scheme is very bold throughout, much more than in previous films: shades of blue, red and gold dominate almost every frame of the film, reminding us very much of the 1950s Restoration/Romantic era films. The palette was allegedly inspired by old Persian miniatures and Victorian paintings of the Middle East.

CGI continues to be more and more integrated into Disney’s films, and it is becoming even more skilfully handled with the Cave of Wonders sequences and the Carpet in particular. In fact, what they do with the Carpet is incredibly masterful. Randy Cartwright would fold a piece of cloth to help him animate the Carpet, describing it as ‘sort of like acting by origami’, and once the animation was done, the patterned surface was digitally applied. It looks terrific! It’s hard not to notice some of the CGI in certain scenes, but it doesn’t feel very jarring … for now.

Music

The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical formula had built up quite a head of steam during their time at the studio, but due to Ashman’s untimely passing, this would be the final film to feature his lyrics, and even though he had written enough songs to fill the soundtrack, not all of his material was used. This film marks the debut appearance of lyricist Tim Rice; he had been working on The Lion King at the time for a few months (likely when it was still called King of the Jungle), and when Ashman passed away, Rice was asked to temporarily move over from the lion project to help Menken complete the Aladdin soundtrack.

Let’s begin with Menken’s underscore first. As usual, Menken employs some gorgeous themes, such as Aladdin’s theme (the ‘Riff Raff, Street Rat’ refrain), and the ‘Whole New World’ refrain (especially during the strings dominated kiss scene). The Arabian themes that run through the film’s underscore are what really sets it apart from previous scores, and they contribute greatly to the film’s atmosphere – glorious. The underscore during The Cave of Wonders sequence is excellent in how it builds and builds to point where it just evokes Classic Hollywood adventure. What’s wrong with the score then? Well … the Genie has a musical theme that runs through the whole film that isn’ t connected to a song, but it does have a generic ‘whimsical’ tune that feels like it could belong to any 90s family film rather than Aladdin, more specifically any whimsical 90s family Robin Williams film. Menken considered it as his point to be his most accomplished and complex score, and although we really like it, it’s not our favourite of the three.

Now on to songs!

When Ashman was working on the concept for Aladdin back in 1988, he and Menken wrote six songs, ‘Arabian Nights’ (along with many reprises), ‘Proud of Your Boy’, ‘Friend Like Me’, ‘Call Me a Princess’, ‘Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim’, and ‘High Adventure’. Later when the film’s direction and screenplay was in the hands of Ron Clements and John Musker, Ashman wrote two new songs for Aladdin, as story changes had been made, ‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Humiliate the Boy’. Three of Ashman and Menken’s songs were used, and three more were written by Menken and Rice, ‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘A Whole New World’, and ‘Prince Ali (Reprise)’ (‘Count On Me’ by Menken and ‘Why Me’ by Menken and Rice were written too, but not used).

The film opens spectacularly with ‘Arabian Nights’. The number immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film, embracing the Middle Eastern setting through the gorgeous instrumentation. The lyrics start out gently, introducing the story’s narrator in a mystical manner. As Agrabah is revealed, the song bursts into life with all the grandeur of a large scale Broadway musical. Unfortunately, the song comes to an end very quickly, as the narrator appears once the chorus dies down. Ashman’s witticisms are present in the lyrics, in particular the line ‘…more often than not, are hotter than hot, in a lot of good ways’ which is a line which is very much open to interpretation. Of course the infamous original lyric, ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’, faced criticism, especially from Arab-American groups, and it would be eventually replaced with ‘Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense’ – a better edit in our opinion.

(Special Note from Melissa: From years of living in the Middle East, 40-50 degree centigrade weather in Middle Eastern summers can feel ‘barbaric’ (‘but hey it’s home’) so it makes sense lyrically) 

To contrast with the soaring opener, ‘One Jump Ahead’ is a fast-paced, jazzy number interspersed with snippets of dialogue which establishes Aladdin’s character and situation. This song was inspired by one of the original songs written, ‘Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim’, which has a terrific jaunty melody, but was cut when Aladdin’s three friends bit the dust and got cut from the story. ‘One Jump Ahead’ is a very enjoyable number with plenty of humorous dialogue, and a lot of cartoonish visuals to keep up with the frenetic pace. The tune contains Aladdin’s musical motif, which is heard frequently throughout the soundtrack – and is later reprised to fulfil the role of Aladdin’s ‘I Want…’ song. The main song is an entertaining comic number, whilst the ‘One Jump Ahead’ reprise really shows that there’s more depth to Aladdin’s character than just being a sly confidence trickster – and Brad Kane really does a fantastic job with this beautiful but brief ballad.

So much brevity so far! Amazing songs, but too short.

‘Friend Like Me’ is a spectacular showcase number for the Genie’s character and his magical shapeshifting prowess – it also marks a significant turning point within the story. There is a lot of enjoyable wordplay within the lyrics, alluding to famous myths and fairy tales, whilst also taking advantage of the Genie’s character not belonging to a specific time period (a justification for his use of contemporary vernacular). Robin Williams was particularly nervous about singing, and instead went for a more spoken-word approach, whilst adopting a variety of different voices and accents throughout to help him feel more confident – as a result the song feels more like a fast-paced comedy skit. Initially Ashman intended for the song to be more of a Calloway/Waller style jazz number, and his original demo of the song can still be heard.

It sounds much seedier than the film version, less like the Las Vegas showman-style performance and more like an underground jazz club number, implying that Ashman’s version of the Genie might not have been entirely trustworthy. Perhaps it would be better suited to a more Faustian story, but that’s to be expected from the guy who brought us Little Shop of Horrors.

(Special Note from David: When I first heard Ashman’s version I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it grew on me very quickly, and it’s now my favourite version of ‘Friend Like Me’)

(Special Note from Melissa: It’s amazing! We also adore the way it’s performed in the Broadway production too … it just goes to show what a brilliant song it is!)

Similarly catchy and memorable is the next number: ‘Prince Ali’, also energetically performed by Williams, and once again demonstrating his use of multiple voices. Again, this was one of the final songs written by Ashman, intended to create a strong feeling of wealth and excess – lowly Aladdin has found himself instantaneously elevated to a much higher social standing, and gets rather carried away with the fabulosity of it all. The Genie – having plucked an entire backstory for Aladdin’s alter-ego out of nothing – runs down all Ali’s (entirely fictional) accolades and accomplishments – a list number up there with previous Menken/Ashman list songs like Gaston, Be Our Guest and Under the Sea, and all the usual randomness and witticisms thrown in – ‘Purple peacocks he’s got 53!’

(Special Note from David: I do find it amusing that none of the things described in the song are actually true … all popping out of existence once the song’s over)

(Special Note from Melissa: Those poor purple peacocks … only just beginning to live)

(Special Note from David: Where were those purple peacocks, Aladdin, when you got bound, gagged and thrown into the sea?!)

Perhaps the most recognisable song from the film is the multi-award winning ‘A Whole New World’, sung by Aladdin and Jasmine as they fly all over the world on the magic carpet. It is a beautiful, sweeping duet, sung brilliantly by musical theatre performers, Brad Kane and Lea Salonga. It’s interesting that they decided to have Aladdin and Jasmine’s voice actors be dubbed by other performers – is this a trend we are going to see more of, and if so why? Lyrically the song is more straightforward than the ones written by Ashman, but Rice might very well have been paying tribute through some of the cheekier and more suggestive lyrics (you know which ones we mean). In fact, this is likely the case as Menken had written dummy lyrics for a song he and Ashman had had in mind called ‘World at Your Feet’, and he had written it with the consciousness of ‘What would Howard write?’

(Special Note from Melissa: This reminds me of the dark days of ‘What would Walt do?’ for the grieving animators in the 1960s-1980s. Funny how it comes back around …)

Rice then took Menken’s dummy lyrics in the spirit of Ashman’s voice, played around with them and re-wrote it to make the song his own, and thus ‘A Whole New World’ was born – the film’s most successful song.

(Special Note from David: This might seem a bit petty, but because the biggest hit song from Aladdin was one of Rice’s numbers, it does often seem as though Ashman’s contributions to the film are overlooked – consider the fact that Ashman’s name is never mentioned in trailers, whilst Rice most certainly gets acknowledged by the time The Lion King comes around)

(Special Note from Melissa: Likely because he and Elton John were bigger names (marketing marketing marketing). Rice is really talented but the circumstances behind it all are sad. In fact this is something he said himself on the success that the score received: ‘The acceptance of these mementoes was bittersweet in that I knew perfectly well that Howard would, indeed should, have been there in my place’)

Let’s also not forget the ‘pop’ version of ‘A Whole New World’ that appears in the credits, which one critic amusingly described as sounding like ‘elevator music’. It’s the return of Peabo Bryson, not joined by Celine Dion this time, but instead, Regina Belle, complete with a hilariously dated music video. Again Bryson and Belle sound perfectly fine – they have great voices … it’s just that these ‘pop’ versions sound soulless and dated in comparison with the film version. It’s just there to sell records.

Strangely the final song in the film is the villain song, but rather than being its own entity it’s a reworked version of ‘Prince Ali’. While it is a shame to not have a whole new villain song to stand alongside its predecessors, ‘Prince Ali (Reprise)’ makes perfect sense contextually. Aladdin has been advised to tell Jasmine the truth about who he really is, and has also been presented with opportunities to do so, but he didn’t take them. He waited too long, and as a result it is left to the villain to expose the lies instead – using the glory song against him. Jafar takes great delight in stripping away Aladdin’s disguise, revealing that he is a fraud, and has misled everyone. Jonathan Freeman really excels here, revelling in Jafar’s moment of triumph, and using someone’s ‘victory’ song against them is incredibly cruel. They had tried very hard to create a villain song for Jafar (and consequently for musical theatre maestro Freeman), with Ashman and Menken creating ‘Humiliate the Boy’ and Rice and Menken later creating ‘Why Me’ – it just never seemed to click.

‘Humiliate the Boy’ in many respects is a painful song to listen to – Ashman was incredibly ill when he wrote both ‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Humiliate the Boy’ – he knew very well that he was dying from AIDS and his body was gradually shutting down and not working properly, all the while his mind remained sound. These two songs feel like a call and response to each other (which is ultimately why the ‘Prince Ali Reprise’ ends up making perfect sense), with ‘Prince Ali’ reflecting the glory days for Ashman and Menken – opportunities, dreams and awards falling into their laps, but like Aladdin’s fate, it is only a brief glorious period for Ashman – then this is followed by ‘Humiliate the Boy’ – the final song that Ashman wrote, all about reducing and degrading Aladdin to his lowest point – it feels painfully autobiographical. Read a few examples of these lyrics:

‘Seize the good times! / Too bad they never last … Ah, yes, these were the good times / Hope you liked them, little friend / ‘Cause here is where the good times / Most decidedly must end … Oh, it’s such fun / To see another fellow’s dreams / Turn into nightmares, one by one …  Once he was proud / Once he was fine … But such is fate … I guess he’ll have to learn the hard way / Rubbing lamps involves some risk … Oh, we’ll emasculate him slowly / All the better to enjoy / How delicious, to humiliate the boy’

(Special Note from Melissa: Good times ending and dreams turning into nightmares bitterly resonates … Just heart-breaking … it was considered too cruel, even for Jafar to sing … it likely felt too close to home … on top of it all, it has a horrible carnival-esque funhouse-gone-wrong tone)

(Special Note from David: Also it does have a bit of a bizarre ‘Hey Big Spender’ vibe musically speaking)

The songs throughout Aladdin maintain the established trend set by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in that all of the songs are memorable, and add something to the story, as well as the overall effect of the film. Before moving on, however, we need to address a particularly notable son cut from the film’s soundtrack, which we discussed in Protagonist: ‘Proud of Your Boy’ – one of Ashman’s final songs, and one of which had significant personal meaning to Ashman himself. We talked before about iconic songs which were almost cut from films entirely (such as ‘Over the Rainbow’ and more recently ‘Part of Your World’) but this is an example of when the studio executives have the final word on the matter, and the song is lost. Aladdin is still a great film, despite the absence of this song, but we can’t help but feel that if ‘Proud of Your Boy’ had remained, it would elevate the film in the eyes of critics and audiences when weighed up against the entirety of the canon. It gives Aladdin’s character much more depth, legitimately tugs at the heartstrings, and appeals to a universal theme: wishing that our parents would be proud of us.

Aladdin’s songs have been complicated to discuss in many ways due to how entangled they all are in the fact the man who pitched this idea in the first place died a year and a half before the film was even released. It is hard not to address the cultural significance of the Menken/Ashman team, and of course, how their unwanted break-up would change the musical dynamic. We love the songs in Aladdin – they are fantastic and so enjoyable to listen to and watch. It’s just that it’s a musical score that, like Beauty and the Beast, will always be shrouded with a degree of sadness – but they are wonderful songs. However, when his musical partner passed away, Menken really felt the need to step up and come out of his ‘shell’ more than ever, especially as Rice was looking to him for guidance – he did succeed here.

Story

The story of Aladdin is structured in a very similar way to Snow White insofar as the villain’s appearances drive the main narrative. In both films we meet the villain before the protagonist, and in order to ensure that the main drama of the plot doesn’t stray, the villain frequently reappears to keep the action moving forward. This particular similarity demonstrates just how much Disney’s approach to storytelling has changed over the years, as there are several subplots and character arcs within Aladdin which are given time to develop – whereas Snow White had a much more straightforward plot by comparison. The Renaissance era’s musical films have done an excellent job of structuring weaving storylines together, ultimately resulting in a collision of all of them – Aladdin is no exception – the film is dominated by Aladdin’s story, Jasmine’s story, Jafar’s story, and Genie’s story, and we felt invested in all of them. Aladdin and Jasmine’s stories weave fittingly, as the romantic leads share coming-of-age stories – they’re both limited by their social status and feel trapped with the desire to show that there is more to them than meets the eye. In fact, all four of the main characters feel trapped in their current situations and believe there is more to them than meets the eye! Ultimately these threads are what drive the plot forward, as Jafar lusts after power (while trapped as a lackey to a foolish master), Jasmine longs for autonomy (to see the world and not be a ‘prize to be won’ by men), Aladdin wishes to prove his worth, and the Genie wants to be his own master, literally not trapped in a lamp and not an eternal wishing machine.

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‘Do not take me for some conjuror of cheap tricks’

Overall, everyone is trapped in their own metaphorical lamp, not just the Genie.

Genie’s story does make Aladdin stand out from the rest of the canon – a supporting character’s goal (in Genie’s case to be free), despite not coming to the surface until half way through the film, drives the main plot, heightens the stakes and eventually becomes the film’s emotional anchor. It truly is an earned ending, revealing Aladdin as the diamond in the rough, as he puts Genie’s happiness above his own, even above his love for Jasmine and his initial desire for wealth and luxury. At its story’s heart, Aladdin is a buddy film, up there with The Jungle Book.

It’s interesting that Aladdin went through as many rewrites as it did, by so many different writers, and yet it fortunately still ended up with a positive result, with a tight narrative, when it easily could have been hodge-podge and all over the place. But Disney isn’t perfect, and Aladdin does have a few story issues. For example, they create a slight problem for themselves through the use of the pedlar as the film’s narrator, as he only appears at the start. This tied back to the fact that ‘Arabian Nights’ used to have multiple reprises and that at one point, the pedlar was going to be revealed as the Genie in the final shot, making complete sense as Robin Williams voiced both characters. But instead, he is revealed once – never to be seen again.

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There is a bit of a niggle in terms of story, and ultimately they made the right decision, but they should have addressed it with more finesse. Up to the Black Friday storyboard session, Aladdin had unlimited wishes, making complete sense as to why he was reluctant to not set the Genie free – there’d always be that feeling of just one more wish then I’ll set you free. In the final film, he says, ‘I can’t keep this up on my own … I can’t set you free’. But all he had left was one wish – once he used that, what then? How would one wish help him keep it up? In fact, in the context of three wishes, he’d have been better off setting the Genie free, and asking him to help him out as a friend, and not as a slave. Three wishes heighten the stakes and tighten the narrative, and we can put it down to the fact that Aladdin wasn’t thinking clearly at the time, but it still feels like a draft thread that never got fully resolved. The logic of the Genie’s magic and the wishing rules have a similar obstacle. The Genie emphasises that he can’t save a drowning Aladdin unless he makes a wish, and then makes it his second wish in order to save him – all the while the Genie spends the film making all kinds of magic happen, from purple peacocks appearing out of nowhere to Abu transforming into an elephant. The reason this has happened is because ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ were written when unlimited wishes were still in the story – the songs are still there, complete with all sorts of magic being thrust at us, and yet outside of the songs, three wishes are firmly emphasised as a done deal. In our opinion, releasing a film every year and having such tight deadlines, may be starting to show, as plot threads and logic are not as tight as they could be.

Connecting to that, perhaps relating to these tight deadlines, while Aladdin is pacey, when we first re-watched the film for The Disney Odyssey, we were stunned by how frantically fast it was, especially during the songs, to the extent of intensified continuity in terms of editing, like live action films of the time, and complementing the 90s MTV generation style.

(Special Note from Both: At moments, we thought ‘Seriously, who directed this? Baz Luhrmann?’)

We were initially harder on it, but softened when we watched it a second time (likely because we were expecting it), but still, at times, we wanted moments to have more breathing room, especially for the songs, which while fantastic, in some instances, felt too short or too rushed – we wanted more!

Overall, despite a few teething niggles, we felt invested in Aladdin’s story – the film features hilarious, dark and tender moments, the Renaissance style musical format is once again used very effectively, to set up atmosphere (‘Arabian Nights’), establish characters (‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘Friend Like Me’), develop relationships (‘A Whole New World’) and push the plot forward (‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Prince Ali Reprise’), and while a little too fast at times, we still love the story and the film. Much more polished and a much better film than Robin Hood, but Aladdin does have a similar vibe in its irreverence and cartoony-driven style, and that despite any story problems it has, it feels impossible not to like it. The story is enjoyable and engaging, essentially because we love these characters and we care about them.

David’s Verdict

During my childhood, while the Disney Renaissance was in full effect, Aladdin was probably the film I was most familiar with: I loved the Genie, and the songs, particularly ‘One Jump Ahead’ and ‘Prince Ali’.  I also owned the ridiculously difficult Aladdin Mega Drive game, which to this day I have never completed. I re-watched the film again years later (a couple of years prior to starting the Disney Odyssey) and really enjoyed it, picking up on a lot more of the jokes and references this time, although some of Robin Williams’ impressions continued to go completely over my head. Watching the film as part of the Disney Odyssey, it remains a very enjoyable film, made by the studio at their creative peak; this was also the first time either of us had watched Aladdin since Robin Williams passed away.

I think I was a little anxious about whether Williams’ performance as the Genie would have dated, as a result of the numerous pop culture references which were used throughout. Fortunately the performance holds up really well, and continues to be funny and entertaining – but Robin Williams also completely delivers when the film requires him to rein in his comic energy and deliver a moment of genuine poignancy at the end.

It feels necessary to mention Williams’ performance when retrospectively reviewing the film, but I feel that it does the film a disservice to solely draw attention to that one factor. The Genie – and Williams’ performance – aside, Aladdin is a really good film, with a fun story, entertaining characters and another fantastic soundtrack – adding more iconic songs to the studio’s rich legacy. It is a real shame to be well and truly saying goodbye to Howard Ashman this time, as this is the last time we’ll be hearing his songs in the Disney Odyssey – although this experience has led to the discovery of his original demo of “Friend Like Me” which is truly wonderful.

I absolutely love Jonathan Freeman’s performance as Jafar, and I was also surprised by how entertained I was by Gilbert Gottfried (who I was prepared to find unbearably annoying) as Jafar and Iago made for a highly enjoyable villainous pairing – the vocal performances are so enjoyable, they mask a lot of pun-riddled dialogue, which could very easily have been awful. I also really enjoy the relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine, particularly the way in which they’re animated: Jasmine’s expressions as she figures out who Aladdin is during “A Whole New World” is a real testament to how skilled animators can be at acting through their characters. My major gripe with Aladdin’s character, is that he would have been much more developed had “Proud of Your Boy” not been cut from the film – in fact that song could have elevated the film overall. I can say with confidence that this is amongst my favourite Disney films, and will be rated fairly highly when we reach the end of our Odyssey – but I feel that the absence of that song could be the thing that makes the film fall just short of my absolute favourites.

Melissa’s Verdict

I did watch Aladdin as a child very frequently – we had it on video (but strangely enough without the cover!). My sister and I had an Aladdin doll (complete with two different outfits), we had Abu and Rajah cuddly toys, matching Aladdin bedspreads and we saw Aladdin on Ice in the mid-1990s, leaving with a light-up sword and my mum’s friend’s kids leaving with Jafar’s snake staff with light-up eyes. It seems like between the ages of approx 0-8 when Disney films get released, that is when Disney marketing hits us the hardest! Watching Aladdin again as a teenager was a wonderful experience, not only in recognising the beautiful animation and music, but also in realising how many jokes and references there were that suddenly clicked as you get older. I spent some of my childhood and all of my adolescence living in the Middle East, and it made me even fonder of Aladdin when watching it again. When initially watching the film for The Disney Odyssey, I had a bit of a stunned response, especially as we’ve been watching these films in order, in that the film seemed to be going at breakneck Luhrmann speed. I felt like Aladdin, while pacey, was not allowing itself to breathe, and was rushing through its moments and song cues. However, I will say that when I watched it a second time, perhaps because I was expecting it, it did not bother me as much and I did appreciate its pace and how ‘full’ it felt in its 90 minute running time. I also say this because I think the material in Aladdin is excellent, and I did not want anything to get lost in the shuffle or rushed over.

Aladdin puts a smile on my face, as it really does bring me back to childhood. Nostalgia aside though, I still love all of the songs, the script is hilarious (including the improvs!) and the animation style is a breath of fresh air for the Renaissance team; it’s easy to see that they’re having a ball with the more ‘cartoony’ style to play around with and stretch themselves, and yet on the other side, the backgrounds are truly elegant and stunning. The voice acting is terrific as are the character designs, with Eric Goldberg and Robin Williams as a team in particular creating such an iconic and wonderful character in the Genie – a character perfect for animation. I love the relationship between Aladdin and Genie (with a genuinely moving conclusion), Jafar is up there as one of my top Disney villains, Carpet as one of my favourite supporting characters, and the romance between Jasmine and Aladdin, 1980s/1990s infused they may be, is still delightful, particularly as the team are taking greater risks in portraying a rockier romance, and emphasising that they are unafraid to make the young lovers appear anything other than ‘charming’, e.g. showing them getting angry, looking foolish and revealing even more sexual tension between them.  As David said in his verdict, I agree that ‘Proud of Your Boy’ is a real loss to Aladdin and would have pushed Aladdin’s motivation in life harder, giving him a greater emotional anchor. Other than my feeling of ‘slow down just a tad’ in certain moments and the loss of ‘Proud of Your Boy’, Aladdin is such a likeable film with great songs, script and characters, and saying goodbye to the Menken/Ashman era does make me feel really sad – what an amazing team they were, and I wish they could have done more projects together.

Legacy

Aladdin made $217,350,219 domestically and $504,050,219 worldwide – it was the number 1 box office film for 1992, both in the USA and worldwide, despite being released around the same time as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. How’s the Bluth company doing?

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While Aladdin was the number 1 film at the box office for 1992, Bluth’s Rock a Doodle was 86th … oh dear. Even Twentieth Century Fox’s Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest was 63rd.

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Critics loved Aladdin with Desson Howe of the Washington Post saying, ‘There’s a good chance you’re going to enjoy “Aladdin” more than the children. Keep it to yourself, though’, and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stating, ‘Disney’s worthy follow-up to Beauty, is so funny and scrappy you don’t need to drag a kid along. Even a work-in-progress print shows a wicked new playfulness (think Simpsons, not Snow White)’ … Besides the in jokes, the animation and the Alan Menken score (Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS, did most of the nimble lyrics) supply enough glorious entertainment to hold even brats and cynics in thrall.’ John Hartl from the Seattle Times described Aladdin as ‘more vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon stretched to feature length than a replay of what worked in the phenomenally successful “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid”.’ Jay Boyar from the Orlando Sentinel similarly referred to it as ‘not so different from those Warner Bros. cartoons’, saying that ‘This hilariously hip and thoroughly gorgeous motion picture is nothing less than the crowning achievement — so far — of Disney’s revitalized animation department … In co-directing Aladdin, John Musker and Ron Clements … have done what no one ever has: Visually and thematically, they’ve created an animated feature that deftly blends classical and contemporary approaches’. He continues that while Beauty and Mermaid were entertaining, ‘each was missing something the other had’, and Aladdin is not as ‘musty’ as the former.

Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News had similar feelings but was blunter about it: ‘The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were perfectly nice. That was their biggest problem. The formal, wholesome appeal of the new neo-classical Disney cartoons was starting to wear a little thin. Really, couldn’t they find anybody hipper for voice-overs than Angela Lansbury and Robbie Benson? Even the celebrated musical numbers were getting tired. Tale as old as time / Song as old as rhyme / Blah blah blah blah blah.’ … You could sense that the animators and writers at Disney were dying to cut loose, and they have with “Aladdin” – by far the liveliest, brightest and funniest cartoon to emerge from Disney’s revamped animation division’. … We did say blunt.

Other critics, while they may have liked it, they perceived it as not as good as Mermaid and Beauty, or as good as the ‘classics’. Janet Maslin of The New York Times said ‘If the makers of Aladdin had their own magic lamp, it’s easy to guess what they might wish for: another classic that crosses generational lines as successfully as Beauty and the Beast did, and moves as seamlessly from start to finish. Aladdin is not quite that, but it comes as close as may have been possible without a genie’s help. The fundamentals here go beyond first-rate: animation both gorgeous and thoughtful, several wonderful songs and a wealth of funny minor figures on the sidelines, practicing foolproof Disney tricks’. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote, ‘Although the film in no way measures up to the features made under Disney`s personal supervision, it does contain some far more imaginative and adept animation than the last several post-Walt titles … a genuine charmer, filled with wit, feeling and verve’. Variety stated ‘It may not equal the emotional wallop packed by Beauty, but Aladdin certainly rivals it in many other respects and proves a worthy successor to the standard the new generation of Disney animators has established.’ Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, ‘The genie is the best thing in the movie, which is good fun but not on a par with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and The Beast, the two films with which Disney essentially gave rebirth to feature-length animation …The bottom line is that Aladdin is good but not great, with the exception of the Robin Williams sequences.’

The Genie was generally perceived as the film’s show stealer by many of the critics of the time, with Travers calling him ‘a hip comic wonder — he might just wish himself up a cartoon Oscar’ … shame this was, and still isn’t, perceived as valid. Even Ralph Novak of People Magazine tried to be diplomatic but was still smitten: ‘Sweetly spirited, brightly funny and forthrightly romantic, this variation on the classic myth would rank among the most enjoyable Disney animated features even without Robin Williams’s contribution. But his voice characterization of the bottled-up genie liberated by Aladdin’s rubbing of the magic lamp is so active and inventive it sends the film onto a higher level of entertainment’

There is something that a few critics pointed out that is a little awkward, even though they are probably trying to sound politically correct: Thompson said ‘The movie probably could have been a little more sensitive in its characterizations – the sympathetic and heroic Arabs are drawn like westerners, while the evil Jafar looks like Khomeini with indigestion’, while Ebert said, ‘Most of the Arab characters have exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers. Wouldn’t it be reasonable that if all the characters in this movie come from the same genetic stock, they should resemble one another?’ While we agree that there are stereotypical portrayals, especially with the guards and a few background characters (which do feel like lazy and a little offensive caricatures at times), Jafar, like all Disney villains before, is drawn to look over-the-top. Also we take umbrage with the notion that they both said Aladdin and Jasmine and ‘good’ characters look like ‘westerners’ and ‘white’ … (Special Note from Melissa: As someone who lived in the Middle East for many years, with the exception of their outfits, Aladdin and Jasmine look like attractive young Arabs – dark wavy hair, dark eyebrows and eyes, tanned complexion). Saying that most of the characters have ‘hooked noses, glowering brows and thick lips’, then saying that the leads look white and American just feels … as we said … inadvertently awkward. The intention of the argument falls on its face a little.

Anyway, at the Academy Awards, Alan Menken won for ‘Best Music, Original Score’ and he and Tim Rice won ‘Best Music, Original Song’ for ‘A Whole New World’. Aladdin was also nominated for Best Sound, Best Effects (Sound Effects Editing) and for Best Music, Original Song for ‘Friend Like Me’ (a posthumous nomination for Howard Ashman). Apparently, because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many lines, it made Aladdin ineligible for a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Meh.

Aladdin was nominated for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Best Original Song (‘Friend Like Me’) and Best Original Song (‘Prince Ali) at the Golden Globes; Best Score and Best Special Effects at the BAFTAs, Best Music at the  Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film awards; Best Picture at the DFWFCA Awards; Best Song (‘Friend Like Me’) and Record of the Year (Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s ‘A Whole New World’); Best Dramatic Presentation at the Hugo Awards; and Best Movie and Best Movie Song (Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s ‘A Whole New World’) at the MTV Movie Awards.

The film won 3 Golden Globes for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (‘A Whole New World), including a Special Award for Robin Williams for his vocal work. It won 3 Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film, Best Supporting Actor for Robin Williams, and Best Performance by a Younger Actor for Scott Weinger. The film won 5 Grammy Awards, including Best Instrumental Composition, Best Song (‘A Whole New World’), Song of the Year (‘A Whole New World’), Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (‘A Whole New World’), and Best Musical Album for Children. It won the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature; an ASCAP Award for Top Box Office Film; a DFWFCA Award for Best Animated Film; Golden Screen Awards; a Blimp Award at the Kid’ Choice Awards for Favourite Movie; a BMI Film Music Award; an LAFCA Award for Best Animation; a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing; an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance (Robin Williams); a Maxwell Weinberg Award for Motion Picture; 3rd place at the SEFCA awards; and a Young Artist Award for Outstanding Family Entertainment of the Year.

Unfortunately, one of the legacies that the film left behind was the major controversy over Robin Williams’s involvement. He voiced the Genie for a small fee at union scale rate, on the condition that the Genie not take up more than 25 per cent of the space in marketing campaigns and that his name not be used for marketing the film. He was particularly concerned about this, as he had a film coming out around the same time called Toys. When Disney did not keep their word on this, to an almost ridiculous degree as it really ended up being one of the first Disney films to really market itself on the strength of the star (Oliver and Company was a sadder, more try-hard attempt at that), Williams withdrew his support for the film and Disney, refusing to return for The Return of Jafar. Dan Castellaneta took over the role for the sequel and the TV series. Michael Eisner apologised with the peace offering of an original Picasso … Williams refused and it was only when Katzenberg either left or was fired that Williams made up with Disney and agreed to voice the Genie for Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Castellaneta knew he had just been the official Rebound Genie, as Disney threw out his completed recording sessions … real classy.

One of the film’s biggest legacies is, as we said at the beginning, that it is the canon’s most postmodern and self-aware film to date, primarily manifested in the character of the Genie with pop cultural references and jokes for adults having more of a presence. But while this is handled, for the most part, very well in Aladdin, knowing what we know in hindsight, its success has created a monster, as the execs are going to assume that pop culture and modern day references, adult jokes and celebrities, will inevitably mean box office success, even if it completely lacks finesse. Oh dear.

Lastly Aladdin was made into a stage musical in 2011, which transferred to Broadway, and later the West End, and is now playing across the world. Alan Menken returned for music, while Chad Beguelin wrote extra lyrics and the book. ‘High Adventure’, ‘Babkak Omar Aladdin Kassim’ and most joyfully, ‘Proud of Your Boy’ were reinstated, and there are some lovely new songs as well. The Broadway show was nominated for 5 Tony awards, winning one for James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie, and 7 Drama Desk Awards, again winning for Iglehart. As we speak in 2016, the London show has been nominated for What’s On Stage Awards, and who knows maybe more. We saw it in London earlier this year. It was wonderful! However we had the hilarious misfortune of sitting next to a couple who only applauded when it was a song from the film. Charming.

We’ll leave you with that lovely readers 🙂 We’re sorry for such a gap – other than the obvious of work and life getting in the way – perhaps we’re sad to say goodbye to the Menken/Ashman era. We’ve truly loved it.

Posted in 1989-1999 Renaissance Era, Disney | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Classic No. 30 Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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It’s been a LONG time since we have posted a review. We’ve been insanely busy from March-August with one of our theatre productions, which took up nearly all of our time outside of work, meaning that the blog had to take a another step back, which is always hard to do, as we love writing it so much. But we’re very glad to be back writing, and here is our review on Beauty and the Beast. We hope you enjoy!

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Like The Little Mermaid, another beautiful poster

After the controversy of The Rescuers Down Under being pulled from the screens early (including its marketing), Disney needed a hit. Although there have normally been significant gaps between Disney releasing fairy-tale films (13 years, 9 years, and a whopping 30 years), the release gap between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast is a mere two years! Disney’s 30th animated classic from the canon, Beauty and the Beast, originates from the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and later abridged, rewritten, and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the 18th century. According to research, variants of the tale have been around for at least 4000 years. Like The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney attempted to adapt Beauty and the Beast during the Golden Age and again during the Restoration (Romantic) era. We imagine that there was a struggle to adapt this ‘beast’ because when it comes down to it, most of the fairy tale …

(Special Note from Melissa: In terms of the couple anyway, notwithstanding that half the plot is actually about Beauty’s father – But Daddy and the Beast has less of a ring to it somewhat)

… consists of the unlikely pair having dinner together, the beast proposes, the beauty says no, rinse and repeat, until the end – hardly the most scintillating plot for a film. There was also fear of having to compete with the French 1946 Jean Cocteau version – perceived by many as the definitive adaptation of the fairy-tale.

Fast-forward decades later, following the critical and box office success of The Little Mermaid they opted for another fairy tale (instead of waiting 30 years), and offered it to Who Framed Roger Rabbit director, Richard Williams. Williams turned it down to work on his long-term (30-year-long!) baby The Thief and the Cobbler, but suggested British director, Richard Purdum. It was originally conceived as a non-musical; the team relocated to London to work on it, and six months later they returned with the first rough 20 minutes of the film. After the presentation, they were told to bin the whole 20 minutes and start again.

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‘I’ve got to write the whole thing over again!’

Purdum resigned from the project. Ron Clements and John Musker were approached to direct but they were knackered from The Little Mermaid. They took a chance on two young first-time feature directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, appointing them as acting directors for a few months before officially giving them the job. Don Hahn stayed on to produce, and Linda Woolverton wrote the screenplay (with a very strong story team behind her). Throwing the non-musical concept out of the window, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were asked to provide their musical touch and help save this sinking ship. At that point, Ashman’s heart was in his pet project Aladdin, but he grew into the idea and both he and Menken jumped on board, casting the film in New York (rather than the usual LA casting) – and thus Beauty and the Beast became the second Broadway infused animated musical of the Renaissance. Despite its rocky beginnings, would it surpass the success of The Little Mermaid, and make up for the under-performance of The Rescuers Down Under? Let’s see! But first … ORIGINAL TRAILER TIME!

  • Walt Disney presents … Bambi?!
  • He was a lonely beast cursed by a mysterious spell’ … we’ve all been there!
  • She was the beautiful young girl who could set him and his kingdom free’ … so no pressure?
  • Also we have to point out, how 90s sounding is this trailer??? ‘He was a’/‘She was a’ – it sounds like a parody!
  • ‘Until something wonderful happened’ thanks for the spoiler Original Trailer Man! We may as well just start the film half way through
  • ‘It’s a story filled with fun’ – We don’t think having someone sneeze in your face is FUN!
  • Seriously how much of the climax are you showing?
  • Very little of Gaston in this trailer … surprised!
  • ‘From the Academy Award winning composer and lyricist of The Little Mermaid’ … whose names we won’t mention … nice
  • Credit where credit’s due – once Be Our Guest starts, the editing is top notch … are they getting better at this?

So on to the review!

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‘On your marks! Get set!’

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‘BAKE!’

(Special Note from Melissa: For so many years, my sister and I used to be in hysterics during this scene as it sounds like he’s saying ‘bake’ – ‘What does she want me to do? BAKE???!’)

Protagonist[s]

We’ve decided that here again is another film which features two protagonists – it is called Beauty AND the Beast after all! Before we start, we must point out that the creative team forgot to give the Beast a name … yes they forgot to give their protagonist a NAME!

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‘All you have to do tonight is come up with the name of your main character’

Couldn’t even do that …

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‘Some people would say that’s real sloppy’

The filmmakers openly admit that they blundered in the DVD commentary (and also offer the amusing suggestions of Tyrone, Bob and Steve as name possibilities). Somehow Adam has become common public knowledge as the Beast’s name, but we’re unsure as to where it initially popped up. However, we’ll still be calling him Beast … because we’re stubborn.

We’ll start with Belle!

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Belle is intelligent and quick-witted with a gentle and no-nonsense personality. She has the maturity and sharpness of a Cinderella, but the liveliness and curiosity of an Ariel.

And like Aurora, they both know how to bed flop sob:

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Belle was animated by Mark Henn (co-animator of Ariel) and young British animator James Baxter. The production team were inspired not only in her design but also in the voice casting of Paige O’Hara by Judy Garland (her blue and white dress is most certainly an allusion to Dorothy).

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It wasn’t the only Wizard of Oz reference

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Screenwriter, Linda Woolverton was inspired also by George Cukor’s Little Women, stressing that she incorporated a lot of Katherine Hepburn into Belle’s characterisation. To this day, Belle is the only brunette of the Disney princesses.

(Special Note from Melissa: Yes Rapunzel becomes a brunette, but to be honest hearing that when blonde hair is cut, it turns brown and all its magical properties cease to exist, hardly make brunettes feel fantastic … you can tell I’m a brunette. So hooray for Belle being a true fellow brunette!)

They were originally going to ask Jodi Benson to play Belle.

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‘… Very original’

However, Howard Ashman suggested O’Hara as her voice sounded more mature and ‘European’ … perhaps they could have cast a European actress? Although Belle had the same live-action model as Ariel, Sherri Stoner, a characteristic for Belle was specifically taken from O’Hara – hair falling in her face and tucking it behind her ear.

The town thinks that Belle’s odd, without really justifying why other than calling her ‘different’ (because she’s the only one who dares to wear blue?!), ‘dazed and distracted’, ‘never part of any crowd’, and that she reads.

(Special Note from Melissa: Having a main female character who reads meant a lot to me as a child – alongside Matilda, and a little later Hermione)

Not only does she read, but she walks and reads simultaneously, annoying the townspeople in the way that people who walk and text at the same time do – as she leaves destruction behind her (Ironically enough today the townspeople would all be walking and texting …). The funny thing is that this town acts amazed that she reads, and yet the book that she’s read twice (Why is a librarian/bookseller stunned that a person would read a book twice?) is seemingly a fairy tale book. She’s hardly reading Tolstoy. Plus, the book she returns is about a beanstalk … and an ogre.

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Never go back!

Her favourite book however, that sounds a little more interesting.

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‘Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake’

Actually is Belle reading The Princess Bride?

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Well that is how Beauty and the Beast ends …

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… it can only delay it for a while

Belle is a non-conformist within her town, and yet she would fit in in so many places. Her town is full of many two-faced, narrow-minded people. She’s surrounded by philistines who think that reading is weird and Gaston is awesome.

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Fellow UK-dwellers, Belle’s town would have voted leave

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This stupid sheep is a metaphor for this stupid town

They also emphasise that it’s a pity (and a sin) that she doesn’t fit in, simply because she’s beautiful – like her beauty is wasted on her.

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What the town thinks of Belle

It could seem like Belle has a superiority complex over her town and is perhaps patronising (‘little town full of little people’), but they turn out to be awful anyway (more on Belle’s relationship with the town’s biggest jerk, Gaston, in ‘Antagonist’!). Belle, like the Beast is isolated and lonely, with no one to converse with on a similar level – even the bookseller can’t wait to get her out of the shop! Her father is loving but not the sharpest tool in the box. Belle is relatable partly because her wants and desires are vague – a very twenty-something character, she wants ‘adventure in the great wide somewhere’ and feels certain that she wants more than ‘this provincial life’.

When she’s on the cusp of the end of Act One, she reaches the castle and her character reveals true strength and power, as she takes her imprisoned father’s place to save his life. It is a truly excellent scene, as she shows the Beast genuine compassion and sacrifice – an emotional moment. Her strength is not only in her sacrifice but also her response to it, as she pleads for her father, and then accepts her fate, but also in her emotional reaction.

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Now that we’re at this point in Belle’s journey, let’s talk about our other protagonist, the Beast. The Beast has a major character arc and journey. As a young Prince, he was transformed into a hideous beast because he was ‘spoiled, selfish and unkind’ and there was no love in his heart.

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This

He spent 10 years between the prologue and the film’s beginning, wallowing in self-pity, anger and bitterness. He essentially went through the nastiest puberty possible – hair everywhere, hormones going crazy, mood swings, rapid growth spurt and major insecurity. Somehow he was not missed by anyone (part of the enchantment?) and his parents are either absent or deceased – either prospect seems rather bleak! He let himself go over the years, and has forgotten how to live like a man. In the film’s first third, he seems more like the antagonist than the protagonist. He’s vicious and frightening in the first scene that we see him with Maurice, and it is only when Belle offers to take her father’s place that we see the true humanity in Beast for the first time. From this point on, he is less the animalistic predator, and more an impatient, insecure young man with a temper.

Laurence Fishburne, Val Kilmer, Tim Curry and Mandy Patinkin were considered for the role of the Beast. Robby Benson completely convinces in the role. It could have been very easy to cast an actor with a gruff or booming voice. Benson has a powerful voice, laced with vulnerability and sincerity – the cracks in his voice are what makes the performance – that moment when he says ‘It’s hopeless’ is one of the film’s most poignant moments.

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 His journey highlights the message that this is a film about regret and redemption – about how a stupid mistake that you make in your youth can ruin your life (and others’ lives too), unless you are able to redeem yourself. His relationship with Belle is his only chance to do that – he needs her. In fact, there is a role reversal from the usual in Beauty and the Beast. Although we do have a couple who rescue each other, in that the Beast saves Belle from being mauled by wolves and Belle rescues the Beast from a combination of death and eternal beast-dom, it is the male character who really is the prince in the tower that needs to be set free and rescued by a love interest, rather than the female. If the Beast were female, audiences would bang on about what a damsel in distress the character is. Drawn from his love for another, he gives up his will to fight and live, and yet when she comes back, he suddenly has the drive again as life now feels worth it.

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Yet there are no outcries of ‘Beast can’t do without a woman!’

All the while instead of critics focusing on that, Belle is frequently criticised (Disney’s ladies are always criticised … as we’ve realised over time!) for two factors in particular: Stockholm Syndrome and for being too perfect. Belle being Beast’s prisoner will always be problematic. How many times have we heard people bring up Stockholm Syndrome as if they’re the first person to come up with that idea? The Beast is humbled when Belle berates him, ‘You didn’t even let me say goodbye!’ – his first major turning point. He and the staff emphasise that she is a guest, not a prisoner. As we see, Belle could easily run out and leave (she does it!), but when the Beast saves her life, she chooses to stay … which is complicated, especially when later on, she says ‘If only I could see my father’ – as it reminds as that she is a prisoner. However, when he ‘releases’ her, she leaves – again SHE CHOOSES TO LEAVE.

(Special Note from Melissa: Wouldn’t it have been better if Belle had brought Maurice back to the castle? Wouldn’t he have been better cared for there? Especially with all of the staff looking after him? But then … we wouldn’t have the climax. Moving on!)

Belle isn’t perfect – she does make mistakes, her curiosity and stubbornness gets the better of her and later she accidentally sells out the Beast to save her father, setting the mob on him – ‘this is all my fault’ she says repeatedly. Also, she invades his privacy by going into the West Wing when he specifically told her she could go ANYWHERE except the West Wing – it’s like reading his diary – don’t do it! Curiosity gets the better of her and she deceives his trust. Furthermore, she could have destroyed the rose. Well done Belle you nearly destroyed the castle’s entire life support system.

(Special Note from Both. The more we say West Wing the more we think of this fictional exchange: BEAST: You’re free to watch any boxset you like. Except The West Wing.
BELLE: What’s
The West Wi-?
BEASTl I HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET!!!)

It’s interesting that Belle would prefer to invade on the Beast’s privacy than see a library … especially when you see how thrilled she is later when the Beast presents it to her as a gift. On that note, it is lovely that this is the gift that Beast gives Belle when he wants to give her something special – more meaningful.

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By the way we can’t stop laughing at the Beast’s face in that shot

Beast’s library sadly was recently bumped off the Most Marvellous Looking Library On Screen very recently:

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The library gift leads to Belle reading Romeo and Juliet to the Beast. Belle certainly upgraded her literary prowess from Jack and the Beanstalk … what did the bookshop in her town sell?! Her mind must have been blown by the ginormous library. She finishes the play complete with romantic sighing …

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Then Beast asks if she can read it again … did Belle seriously read the entire play? Complete with different voices for different characters? The filthy Shakespeare puns? The violence? It’s no feel-good love story worthy of these facial expressions:

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‘Ahhh ‘There rust and let me die’ – gives me that warm fuzzy feeling’

When Belle and Beast don’t get along in the beginning, the interaction between them is hilarious, particularly when their stubbornness is at the forefront, for example when Belle can only be heard through the door while they’re in ‘hate’ mode – it’s the stuff of screwball comedy:

Beast’s first mistake when not letting the ‘beggar woman’ in was that he lacked compassion and was too proud. Belle teaches him about compassion, but their conflict in the two of them not getting along is that the Beast is too proud to show his true vulnerability and humanity, while Belle cannot see the man behind the monster and ‘doesn’t want to get to know him’ even when the Beast ‘tries’. But if the Beast’s true sin is pride, and Belle’s is prejudice, we indeed have Jane Austen all over again! Well she is one of the queens of romantic comedy. Belle and Beast do have an Elizabeth and Darcy-like relationship. In fact, the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale may have inspired Jane Austen rather than the other way around! Belle, like Elizabeth Bennet, is lively, intelligent and witty, while Beast, like Darcy, struggles conversing with strangers and comes across as cold, proud and disagreeable. In the beginning, they dislike each other, but both Darcy and Beast fall for their respective lady (both whom are from a lower social standing to them), and consequently they become much better people in their love for another. It takes until the end of both stories for both ladies to admit their love for their respective man, letting go of their initial prejudices and seeing the gentleman beneath the ‘beast’ exterior.

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Shame these two didn’t do a Beauty and the Beast adaptation in the 1990s

Back to our couple again: The argument between Belle and Beast in the scene in which she is tending to his wounds is a strong contender for one of the film’s best scenes. It reveals that they are both as stubborn as each other, and also that they were both wrong in their respective situations – they can’t back up their actions – the Beast is right – Belle shouldn’t have gone into the West Wing, and Belle is right – the Beast needs to learn to control his temper. Belle is the first person to truly stand up to the Beast and not take any of his rubbish. He is accustomed to living with staff who were either afraid of him, walk on eggshells around him, indulge or pander to him. She calls him out on his terrible attitude and behaviour, but all the while she expresses gratitude for saving her life – a touching end to a fiery scene. Brenda Chapman led this sequence and she was inspired by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn films (curmudgeon and spitfire – both as stubborn as each other!). When she had to pitch it to Katzenberg, she said that she really struggled with pitching, but because Ashman adored the idea, he supported her and fought to keep it in the film, defending the scene to Katzenberg.

There’s such give and take between the characters – Beast struggles to eat with cutlery, but Belle compromises and makes it easier for him. He loosens up when she plays with him in the snow.

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Resulting in hilarity

She and the staff seem to be guiding him along to becoming a gentleman. The Beast’s arc from a beast to a gentleman means … Beauty and the Beast is a makeover movie.

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Fits right in

After the Beast has completed his My Fair Lady experience, that’s when he has to be the true man, as he lets Belle go, despite the fact that the rose is down to its last few petals. The decision to let Belle go is mature, selfless and a huge step forward for the Beast.

Beautifully animated (/acted)

He lets her go because he loves her, and yet afterwards (ironically) he responds immaturely to the situation. The castle is under attack, his staff are under threat, and when they come to him for help, he says ‘It doesn’t matter now. Just let them come’, leaving them to defend themselves.

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It certainly reveals the selfishness of rulers, and yet at the same time that he has reached his lowest point, and it’s devastating anyway. When he dies (and he truly does die! He is resurrected but for at least a minute he’s gone), it’s one of the canon’s most emotional moments, and tying back around to the theme of redemption and regret, Belle regrets her own actions and realises too late that she loved him – it is an earned reunion between these characters, as in their flaws and all of the mistakes they have made, they know that they love each other and that’s all that matters.

It really hangs on letting us think the worst

When the Prince behaved like a beast, he looked like a beast. But he ultimately became a true gentleman inside, earned the love and respect of another, and so he is rewarded with his former form, which seems fair after 10 years of living in a body that was not his own.

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Some people are not so lucky. But she’s not allowed to complain.

Antagonist

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Remember how infamous the hunter in Bambi is in that we never even saw his face? Or his gun? A bird is shot off screen and we see the body hit the floor in the background. Similarly, in The Fox in the Hound, birds are killed off-screen, with the only sign being a flump of feathers (how tasteful …). We really get an idea of Gaston when we openly see a bird shot mid-air, fall to the ground, and stuffed awkwardly in a bag by a sidekick – with Gaston standing as if he were posing for an artist – ‘You’re the greatest hunter in the whole world!’ / ‘I know’. ‘Man’ is no longer hiding in the shadows off camera or a hermit hunter with no friends but his dogs – he’s taking centre-stage – unashamed, cocky, and abrash with over-the-top masculine energy.

Gaston marks a departure from the conventional Disney antagonist, as he doesn’t become a fully-fledged villain until about half-way through the film. He begins as a humorous, egocentric jerk and ends the film as a murderous psychopath.

His ultimate goal, of wanting Belle to be his wife, feels rather small when compared to the goals of previous villains, but unlike his predecessors he already has power over his dominion – as everyone in town (with the exception of Belle) thinks that he’s great, he’s ‘everyone’s favourite guy’. He starts the film in a position of power, but his fatal flaw is an inability to accept anything other than absolute, uncontested love and admiration. He refuses to accept Belle’s rejection of him, and becomes more aggressive in his pursuit of her. This is particularly alarming as he doesn’t pursue Belle out of any romantic feelings, nor does he view her as another person: he merely wants her for a trophy wife.

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He could have wooed any young lady in the village and likely been successful – he didn’t need Belle! He had it all! That brings us to another point – Gaston is … MENTAL! Seriously, the ‘surprise’ proposal and wedding in one day is one of maddest situations in the canon so far. It’s a strangely hilarious and disturbing scene all at the same time.

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And everyone thought Prince Edward was mad – at least he said ‘in the morning’ and not right now! Along with other previous Disney Princes

He already shows that he is a little unhinged in the film’s beginning, especially in his aggressive and possessed response after Belle rejects him – alarm bells ringing! Through the character of Gaston, Beauty and the Beast tackles lad culture, everyday sexism and male sexual harassment. Belle and Gaston’s initial interactions are amusing, mainly in the juxtaposition between her wit and his idiocy – ‘Gaston you are positively primeval’ / ‘Why thank you Belle’. She clearly can’t stand him and thinks he’s rude and conceited, but we imagine that she never believed his character would take such a cruel turn and is later enraged by his behaviour. Belle never says yes to Gaston, even when he attempts to blackmail her in the final act. The more she says no, the more he harasses her, and she constantly holds her own – Belle is a fantastic role model for young women, and Gaston is a reminder to never give in to a man that treats you with such abuse and a lack of respect, all under the guise of ‘adoration’.

Even though Gaston is not an intelligent mastermind, he is ruthless enough and in a high enough position to get his way. The love and admiration that the villagers have for him also takes a more sinister turn, as they all willingly go along with his schemes, even as they become more extreme. Nobody speaks up on Maurice’s behalf when Gaston attempts to have him committed to the insane asylum (a truly awful scheme), instead they’re all standing by to see Maurice get taken away. Then, when the asylum plot is nullified, the villagers all rally behind Gaston with the intentions of killing the Beast (even though, moments earlier they weren’t even aware of his existence).

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Stupid town of sheep!

(Special Note from Both: This scene really strikes a chord, showing the effect that fear can have over people en masse – even if the fear is unfounded, there are those who will take advantage of the situation and exploit people’s fear … mark current politics)

Gaston lives in a town where everyone (par Belle) thinks that he is fabulous – he is an honorary sovereign in his own dominion. Beast and Gaston are two sides of the same coin – their paths have a degree of symmetry (scarily enough they both share traits of abusive behaviour – a more disturbing angle of the story). The Beast is the prince of his castle, and Gaston is the closest that the town has to a prince – while they both have an extent of ‘rule by fear’, the difference is that Gaston is popular and ‘likeable’, and the Beast is not.

(Special Note from Melissa: We’re back to Jane Austen again! It feels easy to compare the Beast to Darcy and Gaston to Wickham – the former who does not make a good first impression but turns out to have a heart of gold, the latter popular with the crowd and likeable on first impression, but truly is a despicable scoundrel. The difference is that Belle is not fooled nor charmed by Gaston, unlike her counterpart in Elizabeth Bennet … go Belle!)

Both Gaston and Beast threaten to hold Belle’s father captive, and the bargaining chip in both situations ends up being Belle herself – the difference is that Belle puts herself forward in the first instance (to the Beast’s surprise), while Gaston proposes the idea in the second. Belle would rather be a prisoner to a potentially dangerous Beast than marry Gaston – perspective.

(Special Note from Both: To quote our recent production of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a line from that resonated with us during rehearsal, thinking of Belle and Gaston: ‘Had I been seized by a hungry lion, / I would have been a breakfast to the beast, / Rather than have false Proteus rescue me’)

Something that speaks volumes about the difference between Gatson and Beast is that Gaston snubs Belle’s reading (‘It’s not right for a woman to read’), whereas the Beast gives Belle a whole library, and the two of them develop a bond through reading together – plus he loves to hear her read – he likes her the way she is already.

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Although he is a vain, self-centred character, Gaston is no coward – he demands the chance to fight the Beast himself, and he follows through on this. Despite his villainous nature, his willingness to lead the charge, and fight the Beast himself is a commendable trait. During the actual fight, Gaston utilises underhanded tactics to gain the advantage, but he still faces his opponent one-on-one.

(Special Note from David: For me the most inadvertently funny moment is when Gaston shoots the Beast in the back with an arrow)

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“AAAARRRRGGHH! Seriously, what the hell?!”

The fight between our two ‘beasts’ becomes vicious, and ultimately Gaston plays dirty – he stabs the Beast in the back, after the Beast nobly (through gritted teeth) lets him go.  However, paralleling with how he had everything and didn’t even need Belle, he didn’t need to stab the Beast, he could easily have walked away and gone back to a village where everyone adores him, but he just couldn’t let it GO – his fatal flaw. Ultimately he falls to his death immediately afterwards.

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Should have married one of the triplets

Perhaps he hit Lefou on the way down – for one last time.

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‘No one dies like Gaston, falls from heights like Gaston!’

Apparently an original draft for Gaston’s demise was supposed to be that the wolves would maul him after surviving his fall from the Beast’s castle with a broken leg …

(Special Note from David: Whereupon the wolves would get run off by a dog with the raggedy old voice of Pat Buttram)

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‘Been there my friend’

We must point out that Gaston, in spite of the sinister turn his character takes, is hilarious – he is one of the funniest villains in the canon, up there with Ursula, Ratigan, Shere Khan and Prince John. He’s so egocentric, it’s impossible not to laugh – the song, ‘Gaston’ alone is comic gold. The relationship between Gatson and Lefou is so enjoyable to watch – you could make a drinking game on how many times Lefou is walloped by Gaston.

A favourite exchange of ours:

There was constant backing and forthing between Andreas Deja and Jeffrey Katzenberg over Gaston’s appearance – handsomeness versus cartooniness. It was the age-old problem that the animators did not want to animate the handsome man and Deja openly acknowledges that he felt annoyed about animating what initially felt like a pretty-boy soap opera character. However, this debate paid off; the compromise was that Gaston had a crooked nose (likely broken), strong jaw and chin, and huge build, and Deja came to love animating the character, establishing the balance between a humorous and handsome design. Apparently, there was even a poll in the office on the appearance of Gaston’s chest hair – about 20 drawings were submitted.

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Before we move onto the next section, we’d like to discuss another antagonistic presence within the film: The Enchantress. Is she for good or for bad? It’s rather ambiguous in many ways. Isn’t enchantress just a happy, shiny word for witch? Not a great deal of explanation is given about why she cursed not just the Prince, but also the entire castle and all of its inhabitants, but it certainly comes across as a very villainous spell no matter how you choose to view it.  

The Enchantress coming by is like the equivalent of Supernanny coming round to sort out unruly children, but instead of disciplining him, she transforms the 11 year-old child prince into a beast … as you do. Basically someone that pops into a disruptive lifestyle to offer hard truths and ultimately improve the environment in the long run …

But Mary Poppins wouldn’t condone this:

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Seriously I’m reporting you

She disguised herself as an old beggar woman, offering him a rose in return for shelter. Hmm an elderly lady bearing a shiny red gift. Why does this sound familiar?

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Oh yes! And you know what? SNOW WHITE LET HER IN, ACCEPTED THE SHINY RED GIFT AND DIED!

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‘Seriously? No I’ve read about things like this. Get OUT!’

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‘You’ve got to be kidding!’

The Enchantress warned him not to be deceived by appearances, while deceiving him with her appearance. There are plenty of mixed messages in this prologue.

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‘You should be deceived at times, but not at other times’

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Unlike previous villains like Maleficent or Ursula who make their evil doings known, the Enchantress is a phantom presence. Is she like a darker version of the Blue Fairy? There to teach the protagonist a very hard lesson?

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Also concluding with death?! Perhaps the Blue Fairy and the Enchantress are more alike than we thought!

It just seems so cruel and violent a punishment. She curses a child … for a whole decade! He has spent his entire adolescence as a beast. It’s not like Jumanji, he doesn’t get a do-over – he is never getting those young years back! Who made her judge, jury and executioner? What right has she to come in and judge this young kid? Really, she could have handled this better!

Witness hilarious judging from Reginald D. Hunter

Also, were the staff punished to make the Beast feel the weight and guilt of his actions, or were they being punished for their crimes? Did they over-indulge the child prince to the extent that the kingdom could have had this on their hands:

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Perhaps

 

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Though if Lady Olenna were the Enchantress we’d be very pleased

We never see the Enchantress, but her influence has a significant bearing on the entire Castle storyline, and she manages to make her phantom presence felt when Belle intrudes upon the West Wing. Just as Belle is about to discover the Beast’s true identity, the enchanted rose glows brightly, drawing her attention away. This in-turn leads to the Beast frightening Belle, and her running away. Through one simple action, the Enchantress very nearly managed to prevent the curse from being broken. Like Ursula emerging from the waters to distract Eric from Ariel, Belle is distracted from the truth with the flash of the rose – cruel really.

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The only counter argument is that she could have been trying to prevent her from finding out as it would make her ‘ineligible’? Does the Beast become human again because the Enchantress’s curse was broken? Or because this is the result that she wanted anyway? A mystery!

Supporting Cast

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Some people call him the Space Cowboy

‘Crazy old Maurice – he’s always good for a laugh’ – says random, awful lads in the pub. Truth be told, Belle’s papa, Maurice is a bit mad and generally good for a laugh. While he does fall into the role of comic relief, like many Disney fathers before him, his compassion for Belle makes him more similar to scatter-brained Gepetto (also an inventor of sorts) than Disney Dads who are there to chew the scenery. In the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, the ‘beauty’s’ father has a much bigger role to play and half of the story is from his point-of-view. While his relationship with Belle is a huge part of the heart of the film, the team made a great decision to reduce the father’s role from the source material, so we get our protagonists together at a much faster pace. ‘Be Our Guest’ was originally sung to Maurice, in a bid to be closer to the original story (they also changed him from a merchant to a kooky inventor).

Maurice is a loving, but rather absent-minded parent; he cares a lot about Belle, but is generally inattentive towards her interests. When Belle attempts to talk to her father about how she feels as though she doesn’t fit in, he is too preoccupied with his own invention to pay her much attention. He also demonstrates a lack of understanding of his daughter’s interests when he suggests that Belle could talk to Gaston, a ‘handsome sort of fellow’.

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‘And why not talk to Biff Tannen? Or Regina George? Or that guy from Edward Scissorhands … whatever his name is? They’re all handsome people’

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Maurice is a rather bumbling, yet endearing character, and is consequently treated very cruelly throughout the film. Nevertheless, he is very well-meaning, and shows his love for his daughter when he pleads with her not to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner, stating that he has already lived his life and that she shouldn’t throw hers away.

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Unlike this awful human being

(Special Note from Both: Check out a review of this dreadful Beauty and the Beast adaptation … what a hilariously awful looking film! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWW4t8iv10Y)

Maurice does not have much of a character arc of his own, but he is very central to the plot’s actions: after getting lost in in the woods on the way to the inventors’ fair, Maurice ends up a prisoner in the Beast’s castle …

(Special Note from Melissa: Completely his own fault. As we’ve learned from Black Beauty, ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE HORSE! He completely ignores Philippe the horse’s suggestion of taking the prettier, safer looking route, and then later passive-aggressively asks ‘Where have you taken us Philippe?’ Ugh that was YOU Maurice!)

… after Belle takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner, he inadvertently trigger’s Gaston’s villainous plot, by raving to the townspeople about the Beast (truly not doing himself any favours); and after Belle and the Beast share a romantic evening together, concern for her father’s wellbeing draws Belle away from the castle – which could very easily have resulted in the entire household staff remaining cursed forever.

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Nice job idiot!

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Lefou is Gaston’s diminutive sidekick and lackey, who constantly sucks up to his ultra-macho companion. Constantly praising Gaston’s prowess as a hunter and an alpha male, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything in it for him – seemingly hoping that his credibility will improve if he’s seen to be hanging around with everyone’s hero.

(Special Note from David: There’s a definite ‘law of the playground’ feel about Lefou and Gaston’s friendship)

We’ve previously lamented the sidekicks to the main villains being too irritating, to the extent that they undermine the villain’s credibility. Fortunately, Lefou – though irritating by design – manages to be the right kind of annoying (a difficult balance to get right) and serves as an entertaining secondary character. There’s something very satisfying about seeing Lefou get punched, which is a satisfaction shared by the animators. A loyal spaniel to Gaston, Lefou even waits outside in the snow for God knows how long, for Belle and Maurice to return.

His design is noticeably cartoony when compared to all of the other human characters, and this is utilised to its fullest effect each time that Gaston clobbers him. For the bulk of the running time, he provides comic relief, but during the ‘Mob Song’ and the subsequent attack on the castle, he is briefly seen in a more outright villainous manner. His ultimate fate is unknown, but it’s unlikely that he’ll take Gaston’s place as the town’s hero.

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(Special Note from Melissa: Perhaps Gaston actually lived as landing on Lefou softened the blow …)

(Special Note from David: Absorbing the impact) 

Howard Ashman apparently came up with the idea that the staff were transformed into household objects, as opposed to the objects themselves being enchanted and non-speaking (this is evidenced in the original 20-minute opening). However, we assume that the objects in the castle are a combination of real human staff and lifeless objects that have been enchanted by the curse – Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee style:

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We wonder if they were inspired by Bedknobs and Broomsticks for the furniture fight the mob scene?

Otherwise, Beast would have a ridiculously large number of staff, and besides why would so many of them not have (or barely have) faces? But does that mean those ‘characters’ go back to being inanimate objects afterwards? It’s mind-boggling when you think deeply about it …

The main household staff could all very easily have fallen into formulaic, ‘safe’, character types: the womanising Frenchman, the stuffy Englishman, and the elderly English Tea lady. It is a real testament to the filmmakers, therefore, that the characters have become so beloved – the ways in which they are animated, written and performed really makes them stand out. Although like comic book super villains, their names are hilariously on the nose – how convenient it is that they were already called Mrs Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Chip – God help anyone in the castle whose name was Monsieur Flushington or Madame Toilette.

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This character, let’s call her Madame Fawcett, is a contender for the most miserable looking member of staff … doesn’t help that Mrs Potts jollily bobbles around her with the freedom of movement

Much like Maurice, none of the household staff go through character arcs of their own per se, but they all have their parts to play within the story. They are all affected by the curse (we assume that while the Beast does age, they don’t, so they could also be dealing with the conflict of immortality), and consequently they are invested in the romance between Belle and the Beast because so much is at stake. However, their interest is more for selfish reasons (justifiable, but selfish nonetheless). With the exception of the naïve young Chip, none of the household staff ever refer to Belle by her name, because to them she is simply a means to an end (they refer to Belle as ‘her’, ‘she’ ‘the girl’, etc) – ‘Someday the girl will come …’

While Beast does not have anyone as emotionally invested in him, this does change progressively when he mellows out and consequently there are some lovely moments when the staff are rooting for their master – when Mrs Potts gives him tough love, and when Lumiere gives him romantic advice. Although before that, when they have to walk on eggshells around him, they end up treating the Beast like he’s stupid sometimes.

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‘Uh, master. Have you thought that, perhaps, this girl could be the one to break the spell?’

(Special Note from Melissa: Seriously Lumiere, what did you think he was going to do, eat her?)

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Lumiere and Cogsworth are one of the best Disney comedy double-acts, and they have a very amusing repartee in their love-hate relationship. Delightfully enough, Nik Ranieri and Will Finn who animated the respective characters, had a very similar relationship to the bickering couple with similar personality traits, hence why they were assigned these roles. They even played up to this by acting out Lumiere and Cogsworth’s final scene as live action reference.

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Interestingly enough, Cogsworth was written with John Cleese in mind, but he turned it down to play the villain in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. David Ogden Stiers plays the role fantastically, with for the most part, a very solid accent, but we did hear the occasional slip (the way he says ‘process’ gives him away). The late Jerry Orbach delivers his role with superb energy – but not being French, we’re less likely to notice accent slips!

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Mrs Potts often acts as a kind-hearted – yet no-nonsense – voice of experience; offering advice to the Beast, and reassurance to the rest of the staff. Angela Lansbury plays the role incredibly well, seeming a natural fit for the character (she was one of Ashman’s only choices to play the part). It is very nice to have Lansbury return to Disney, twenty years after Bedknobs and Broomsticks, to be a part of such an iconic feature.

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We’ll never forget your positive moves

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Funnily enough though, Mrs Potts steamrolling Cogsworth to offer Maurice a cup of tea reminds us more of Irish hospitality than English hospitality. Actually had Beauty and the Beast been released later in the 1990s – how could this casting NOT have happened?

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Chip is an interesting little character. Originally, he was a one-line part, but apparently, Bradley Pierce’s vocal performance was so cute that they expanded his role.

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And consequently deleted this mute musical box character … BYE!

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As we have discussed before when chatting about child characters in Disney films, Chip could easily have been an annoying character, but he’s not; he genuinely is a sweet kid, and thankfully not overused (or using pop cultural or dated vernacular … shudder). Again, he is the only one of the household objects to refer to Belle by name and he actually plays a surprisingly significant role in the climax. However we must point out, is Mrs Potts actually Chip’s mother? He calls her ‘Mama’ but she does seem a little old to be his mother … Plus, who are Chip’s brothers and sisters? Does Mrs Potts have a favourite? Does Chip have a literal ‘chip’ on the side of his head? Did Mrs Potts give birth to all of the children or did she adopt them? Or are they just ‘enchanted’ – not actually real children (yikes!)? Or perhaps they’re a ring of Lumiere’s illegitimate offspring. We’ll never know.

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(Special Note from David: But then they’d all be little candles)

(Special Note from Melissa: Or little tealights)

When cornered by the mob they protect the castle by beating them up in a variety of comic and deadly ways (seriously deadly!), demonstrating the revolutionary spirit of the staff.

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Watch out Beast and Belle, Chip may work out that Maurice’s invention could be rather useful in an uprising  and tell everyone all about it …

Why do the knights with roving eyes not help out in the battle? Seriously they would have been useful, as shown (again) in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

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By the way, the Battle is a strange one … overall it has a slapstick comic style, and yet we have shots like this:

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Like the Beast transforming back into human form, it is surreal seeing the staff as themselves, as like the Beast, we are used to seeing them a certain way. We leave them with Lumiere realising that after years without certain ‘parts’, he can now get down to business with Babette after she grazes him with her actual feather duster (no metaphors here).

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‘It is not ok that I’m aroused by this?’

However, he ends up ‘clock-blocked’ by Cogsworth

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No matter Lumiere, Cogsworth will probably perish in a few days when he realises that all of his internal organs are either missing or in the wrong place – his cogs fall out a lot during the film.

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‘That’s gonna hurt if this spell ever gets broken’

They tease a possible romance between Mrs Potts and Maurice.

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‘I’d take tea over coffee any day’

Anyone we’ve missed? Yes! Despite featuring in only two scenes, Monsieur D’Arque makes such an impression with his sinister design …

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… and Tony Jay’s fantastic voice work (he called it his ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ voice). In fact he makes such an impression that Jay was offered a much larger (and influential) role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame – more to come on Jay. Madame de la Grande Bouche is a fun character and it’s a shame that she doesn’t feature more (and that we don’t see her human form at the end … what’s her story?). Also we’ll give a shout out to the footstool dog – a voiceless character that is cute … just for being a dog.

Artwork and Imagery

The film’s artwork is very striking, paying homage to the style of the Golden Age, and yet feeling entirely new, aided by the CAPS system. The main locations within the film are fully realised and contrast with one another effectively as the action switches back and forth, from Belle’s town to the Beast’s Castle. At the beginning, the village is seen in a golden, autumnal daylight; while the Beast’s castle is dark, cavernous and filled with mystery. As the action progresses, the castle becomes brighter and more accessible, while the village is painted in a more sinister light – the lighting in the village scenes gets darker, such as when Gaston speaks to Monsieur D’Arque in the very dimly-lit tavern. The two worlds collide during the finale, which brings the darkness back to the Castle, before the closing moments when the enchantment is lifted and the Castle is seen in total brightness. Lighting is excellent!

Here are some particularly beautiful shots:

The iconic ballroom sequence is noted for its innovative use of CGI (and other scenes too of course), especially as the camera sweeps around the characters. As the years have gone by, it’s hard not to notice the use of CGI but it doesn’t negatively impact the film.

The animation really stands out with some of the most memorable character designs to date. Special mention has to go to Glen Keane (as ever) for his work on Beast. It is another masterpiece! While Robbie Benson gives so much to the character through his vocal performance, some of the most outstanding moments for the character come through his changes in expression at key moments in the plot: when Belle offers to take her father’s place, and when he makes the decisions to let Belle go and later Gaston. Keane said that he had had enough of Beauty and the Beast beasts looking like they were alien creatures – he wanted the beast to look like something of our world. After extensive research (including many zoo visits and trips to the local taxidermy), the Beast became a hybrid creature formed of a gorilla’s brow, a bison’s head, a wolf’s legs, a lion’s mane and a bear’s body, and with the eyes of a human (into the soul of the Prince).

The Beast’s final design as a human is constantly a source of debate – the consensus seems to be that (ironically) most audiences preferred his look as a beast. Even critics were miffed:

Janet Maslin. The New York Times. ‘… the Beast is ultimately revealed to be a paragon of bland handsomeness beneath his glowering exterior’

Dave Kehr. The Chicago Tribune. ‘In a rush of uncertainly executed shooting stars, the Beast is reborn as a rubbery-faced Tom Cruise clone. The sense of anticlimax is overwhelming’.

John Hartl. The Seattle Times. ‘The major problem with Beauty and the Beast isn’t unique to the Disney animators, who have not quite managed to pull off the Beast’s inevitable transformation at film’s end (they’ve never had much luck with those bland Prince Charmings anyway). You may feel the way Greta Garbo did when she emerged from Jean Cocteau’s live-action 1946 version. “Give me back my Beast,” she is reported to have said’.

The filmmakers themselves even said that they knew that no design that they came up with would please everyone because audiences had fallen in love with the Beast (‘Who’s this guy???’ … ‘I want my bison!’), not … this:

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Perhaps darker hair might have felt closer to our Beast?

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We realised through capturing screenshots that he briefly has facial hair … and ginormous eyebrows

(Special Note from Melissa: It reminds me of the end of Grease when Sandy appears post-makeover. When I was little, it used to baffle me as it didn’t look anything like her and I missed the old Sandy!)

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‘Beast!’

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‘Tell me about it … stud!’

It’s also strange that the Beast, as a human, looks as ‘mature’ as he does in stained glass and in the portrait when, mathematically speaking, he was likely eleven when he was cursed. It was a major bone that Howard Ashman picked with the directors, as he felt that it was more tragic if it were a child who suffered at the hands of the enchantress – the directors imagined an Eddie Munster-like beast boy and thought it was silly – he was not impressed with their response, and apparently let them have it.

The trouble is they never quite made a final decision and in terms of story and character, he is clearly a young adolescent (which is visibly clear in the Work-in-Progress version), and yet in the final film he looks too mature. CHOOSE!

On another note, what a 90s looking kid on the left!

Another criticism we have in terms of the Beast’s imagery is that we feel like we see him too soon. When Belle says, ‘Come into the light’, we’ve already seen so much of Beast that it doesn’t seem like that much of a surprise. That early shot of him on all fours is marvellously primitive:

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We wonder if they should have kept the Beast looking as animalistic as possible until Belle’s sacrifice for her father, when his true humanity does begin to emerge.

The animation during “Be Our Guest”, another Busby Berkeley-influenced number in the canon, is bright, lively and filled with spectacle, the perfect blend of animation and a big-scale stage musical number. As the song progresses it becomes more and more like a sequence out of Fantasia, which feels like a very fitting homage to the studio’s Golden Age. There are so many visual allusions to previous Disney films, particularly (shockingly enough!) Pit of Despair age film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad – there seems to be a lot of inspiration there in the Brom/Gaston comparison, the similar-looking settings of the tavern and the village, and the rather dark tone. Even though it was added in years later, “Human Again” marks the return of Walt’s dancing brooms – another nod to the studio’s legacy. Because “Human Again” was inserted into the film a decade later, the animation does look somewhat different from the rest of the animation in the film, rather like when watching an episode of an animated series from one season and then, immediately afterwards, watching one from a much later season – it does jar a little.

For all of its triumphs, there are a few shortcomings in the animation: unfortunately, the ending to the film feels a little lifeless as it is simply a redressed version of the ending to Sleeping Beauty – try not to look to closely at the main character’s faces, and ignore the fact that none of the other characters move at all. Cut corners and time pressures are very clear in specific moments, particularly in background characters. Another noticeable hiccup occurs during the scenes between Belle and Maurice, when Belle’s face suddenly becomes huge – inconsistency between artists perhaps?

(Special Note from David: It’s very hard to ignore once you’ve seen it; I call it “Belle’s Big Weird Face”)

One of the film’s most striking moments in terms of artwork and imagery is the Beast’s transformation. We’ve had a multitude of these in Disney and they tend to all be amazing, from the Queen’s 1931 Jekyll-Hyde-inspired transformation into a hag, to Lampwick’s horrific metamorphosis into a donkey, to Cinderella’s rags morphing into a gorgeous ballgown (Walt’s favourite shot), to Ariel’s dangerous transition from mermaid into woman. Glen Keane did not want the transformation to be a ‘suddenly the Prince appears’ like it’s a magic trick – he wanted the audience to actually see the process. The transformation itself reminds us of an artistic representation of Jimmy Stewart’s romantic speech to Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life:

‘And the moonbeams will shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair’

Just beautiful.

Music

The soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast has become one of the most recognisable and iconic within the entire canon, but it might never have existed at all if the original plans for the film had gone ahead. A lot of this can be attributed to the success of The Little Mermaid, which proved that there was a lot of momentum in the animated musical genre, and the plans for Beauty to be a non-musical were scrapped. Ironically, at this point in the canon (and to be honest, likely to date!), it is the closest film in tone and style to a Broadway musical.

(Special Note from David: I don’t always agree with Jeffrey Katzenberg, but he had a big say in this decision, and consequently Beauty and the Beast ended up being a lot more like The Little Mermaid and less like The Rescuers Down Under, which has to be considered a good thing!)

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were brought in to weave their magic once more and sadly this would be the last full soundtrack that they would create together.

(Special Note from Both: The duo worked on Aladdin too, in conjunction with this, but many of Ashman’s songs would not be used in the final film – we’ll talk about that in more detail next time)

Menken’s score, marked specifically in the opening theme, is clearly inspired by ‘Aquarium’ from Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and we associate this theme with the Beast. Perhaps the choice of ‘Aquarium’ could be drawn from the notion that the Beast is in his own ‘aquarium’, stared at by others – a young man trapped in a beast’s body/aquarium, when he should be free. Belle’s theme is drawn from the ‘Isn’t this amazing’ strain from the opening song, ‘Belle’, as she steps into a world that’s the stuff of the books that she reads. They are both beautifully striking themes that run through the score, with the former evoking haunting vibes, and the latter peaceful and majestic all at once.

On the soundtrack, ‘Transformation’ and ‘The Beast Lets Belle Go’ are both exquisitely poignant, with the former taking us to such a low point in its tragedy, only to rise up to pure wonder and victory. The original track for the viola-led ‘Death of the Beast’ features on the soundtrack and we must point it out, as it is gorgeously tragic and beautiful. Perhaps it may have been perceived as too sad, reflecting the mood at Disney at that point. The ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme, like the ‘Part of Your World’ theme is the heart and centre of the film’s tone, and really does resonate – it sticks with you always. The first time we hear the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme is when Belle sees the rose interestingly enough. It is a beautiful score that truly captures the darkness and wonder of the film’s tone. Only Menken’s second score, he really entered the cinema’s music industry as a composer on a high – we have loved his first two scores.

“Belle” is written in the style of an Operetta – very Gilbert and Sullivan-esque – a number which frequently transitions between song and spoken dialogue. It is the closest that Disney has ever come to emulating the stage musical in the opening number. At just over five minutes in length, it covers a great deal of ground from a storytelling standpoint, introducing the film’s heroine, the townspeople, and the antagonist. We learn that Belle doesn’t fit in with the villagers, and that they in-turn misunderstand her for being non-conformist. Gaston is also introduced, along with his motivation of wanting to marry Belle – which will drive his actions throughout the narrative. In other words, it’s a delightfully put together exposition dump.

(Special Note from Both: In a quarter of the time more has been established than in Richard Purdum’s original 20-minute opening)

The tune is reprised slightly later on, except this time Belle is alone and is allowed to be the entire focus – it is the closest that she gets to having her own number – the ‘I Want’ song. She had previously mentioned her dissatisfaction with the life she was living, and this time she seems more determined to find something new – vague enough to reach twenty-somethings like us.

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The music swells and then doubles in scale as the entire orchestra are brought into play, and the visuals are reminiscent of the opening to The Sound of Music as Belle dances, open-armed, at the top of a hill.

“Gaston” is a bawdy drinking song with homoerotic flourishes, instigated by Lefou in order to cheer up Gaston following Belle’s rejection of his proposal, by telling him how great he is. Very quickly everyone in the tavern joins in, and Gaston is such an ego-maniac that he gets caught up in the number too – ‘As a specimen yes I’m intimidating’ – modest. It is surprisingly like a waltz, underlined with French themes, as if it could be titled ‘Waltz for Gaston’ or ‘Ode to Gaston’. Musically the tune begins with quite a melancholic strain, before giving way to a lively ‘oom-pah-pah’ rhythm, while the lyrics are filled with enjoyably comic witticisms that we have come to expect from Ashman’s writing style, as well as the occasional not-so-subtle innuendos.

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Could it be anymore euphemistic?

Just … these lyrics – these lyrics: ‘Every last inch of me’s covered with hair / ‘Then goes tromping around wearing boots like Gaston’ / ‘I use antlers in all of my decorating’ / ‘When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs every morning to help me get large’. HA! The lyrics are so ridiculous that it almost sounds like running out of ideas and just coming out with the silliest things possible – wonderful.

Sung fantastically by Jesse Corti and Richard White, this could be considered the film’s ‘Villain Song’ but for the most part it is rather light-hearted, goofy and comic. That said the Gaston Reprise marks the beginning of Gaston’s transition from blockheaded jerk into violently obsessive psychopath, still hilariously written – ‘No one plots like Gaston, takes cheap shots like Gaston, plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston’.

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 “Be Our Guest” could be considered a filler-number as far as the story is concerned (especially since the song was originally sung to Maurice – technically closer to the source material) but it does provide some exposition for the household staff – proving that there’s more people wound up in this plot than just Belle and the Beast. It is the most extravagant musical number in the entire film, and perhaps the most well-known song from the film’s soundtrack (with the possible exception of the title track). It is a number that allows the artists and animators to show off, decorated metaphorically with the indulgence of a wedding cake, which would not have been conceivable ten-years prior. If you do consider it to be filler, it compensates for it by being entertaining and incredibly catchy. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury sing with such glee and delight that it’s infectious, with the former laying on the young Maurice Chevalier in his performance. It offers a true sense of so much pent up repression and energy in the characters in their being allowed finally to break free of their mundanity and just do something – resulting in over-the-top service and ending appropriately with corks popping and fizz spilling – an orgasmic finish.

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Baz Luhrmann must have been inspired by both Be Our Guest and Gaston when he created this number

(Special Note from Melissa: Although there is something rather awkward about the notion of servants only living to serve … because clearly they have no other desires of their own)

We came across an amusing story on Howard Ashman’s website (please check it out – it’s a wonderful read). Animator, Nik Ranieri, went on a huge rant to Ashman one day about how he heard these demos for a new project, Beauty and the Beast, and that the songs were absolutely awful, nothing next to the brilliance of The Little Mermaid … slowly he realised that Ashman wrote the songs … yikes. Consequently, the song that he dissed the most, ‘Be Our Guest’, was ironically the song he would have most to do with as he was given Lumiere to animate. Careful what you say!

“Something There” was a late addition to the film (written to replace the deleted ‘Human Again’), but it feels entirely necessary as it skilfully illustrates the growing affections between Belle and Beast. We hear Robbie Benson’s normal non-Beast voice for the first time (sung internally within the Beast’s mind) as he starts to feel hopeful-yet-melancholic- his gentle tones remind us of the Prince inside. There is a reprisal of Belle’s musical motif – which was initially heard during the opening number as she sang about Prince Charming in the story she was reading – as she has now encountered a Prince Charming (of sorts) of her own. Her motif changes lyrically to ‘new and a bit alarming’ – one of Ashman’s final notes when he was very ill as he listened in over the phone from hospital was ‘Tell Paige … Streisand’ – they immediately got it – ‘New and a bit alarming’. The tune has a very childlike, Christmassy-feel to it, although this is a little problematic as it incorrectly gives the impression that months have passed by, when it has actually only been a couple of days.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a remarkable song, which immediately manages to solidify itself amongst the timeless songs from the canon. The tune sounds like a piece of classical music which feels like it has always existed (very much ‘as old as time’) and works effectively with or without the lyrics.  Lansbury’s performance of the song is akin to Cliff Edwards’ version of “When You Wish Upon A Star” – it will never be topped no matter who sings it. Initially Lansbury was reluctant, as the demo sounded too pop-like in Menken’s style, but Ashman acted out the song more like how a little English tea lady would sing it, sent her that demo, and she felt reassured. Lansbury got it in one take.

It is musically the heart and soul of the entire film – beautiful, elegant, intimate and yet soaring all at once – a burst of emotional musicality. So simple and yet so impactful, it is a song about true love. Lyrically, the song does not have Ashman’s usual wryness. Like when Shakespearean characters who usually speak in delightful, witty prose, suddenly change to verse, this is Ashman figuratively changing from prose to verse. It is as simply sincere as ever with no witty or ironic inserts. Something has changed, and it is beautiful and yet sad all at once.

Far more of a Villain Song than his earlier number, “Mob Song” fittingly demonstrates how much of a dangerous adversary Gaston has become over the course of the film. Upon discovering that Belle has feelings for the Beast, Gaston manages to rally the entire village together to hunt down the Beast and kill him. There is an impressive ominous pulse which builds in intensity throughout, as the villagers make their way from Belle’s house to the Beast’s castle. Ashman shows off his skill with lyrics and allusions, by throwing in references to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’) and also a 1920s Cole Porter musical (‘Fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong’) all the while creating a powerful sensation that something huge is about to happen. It is truly a dark horse number as it never seems to be anyone’s favourite, but it is fantastically executed in its intensity and power.

Finally, just a quick note on “Human Again” – a song which was originally cut from the film, but then added back in years later for the film’s re-release in IMAX and subsequent VHS and DVD releases – impressively all of the necessary cast members were able to reprise their roles. It begins as a gorgeous, intimate little waltz, complete with accordion for Lumiere, and develops into a full ensemble burst of exultation, as they tidy the castle up, Disney style:

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But they keep the animals OUT this time

The song does not add much to the story, but it once again reminds us that the fates of all the household staff are linked to that of the Beast. The tune is lively and upbeat, although tragedy runs through the lyrics, as they demonstrate everything that all of these characters have missed out on for more than a decade. It is the ensemble’s ‘I want’ song – and it is delightful to hear what they want to do afterwards. It is a ‘when the war is over’ song too, inevitably reminding us of conflict-driven France in the two World Wars – ‘I’ll be cooking again, be good looking again, with a mademoiselle on each arm’ could be straight from a soldier’s mouth. ‘When the world once more starts making sense’ … true indeed.

It is the first Disney animated feature to start a trend that is a pet peeve of ours … ending the film with a pop version of the film’s main song over the credits … argh. Lansbury’s version is so much lovelier, and while Celine Dion (who was a rising star at this stage) and Peabo Bryson are both talented singers … it’s just so sickly sweet and 90s power ballad to the max. Lansbury’s version is wonderful and stands the test of time (many critics agreed and much-preferred Lansbury’s version to the power ballad version). We understand that it is for financial and marketing reasons – after all it reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, but … argh we’re just not fans … and we’re aware that it will not go away for at least a few years. Gah.

Story

The Beauty and the Beast story is quite honestly a ‘tale as old as time’. As we said in the opening, while the fairy tale was written in the 18th century, the story in different forms has been around for approximately 4000 years. The original 20-minute opening that they presented was much closer to the 18th century source material – Belle is not an only child, Maurice is a merchant, and they become down on their luck financially and have to downsize. In 20 minutes, we do not see the Beast, and we see very little of Belle – already a huge problem, when animated films around that time were usually 70-80 minutes long on average. Gaston is a fop conspiring with a horrible auntie-figure that comes to live with the family for Belle to marry him because MONEY. While there is an incredibly moving moment involving a music box (check it out if you can – it resulted in a gasp from one of us), it is a very filler-heavy opening, and we’re glad that it was ultimately scrapped, especially since no songs were planned for that version. How sad the musical world would be without ‘I use antlers in all of my DECORATING’.

Disney offers yet another sharp, witty script with solid gags that becomes incredibly moving as the film progresses. Smart changes were made in the adaptation process, and clearly effort and thought went in: e.g. the symbolism of the rose (in the original story, the Beast was furious that the merchant took a rose from his garden); the origin story of the Beast (in the original, he was an innocent, cursed because an evil fairy was miffed that the Prince would not make love to her); the enchanted objects being cursed staff (very similar to the dwarfs having specific character traits, Disney put their own spin on a blank canvas of an idea and made it into something very compelling and memorable) …

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Hello Mr Sugar Bowl from The Sword in the Stone by the way

… ; Belle being a reader; the inclusion of a misogynistic yet ‘loved by all’ villain, and many more.

The story is a very mature one, up there with Lady and the Tramp. The film is a romantic drama/comedy that, in many ways, would not be out of place in a live action film or television series. While it is most certainly a romance, it is also a coming-of-age story for the Beast’s character (Disney loves those old Bildungsroman narratives don’t they?). In a way, it’s an allegory for coming out of the awful, hormonal adolescent years into level-headed maturity. It’s a make-over story too, as we giddily pointed out (Beast does go from walking on four legs, barely dressing and unable to eat with a spoon to Fred Astairing his way around the ballroom in a suit … also he successfully eats with a spoon – growth). The film also has an upstairs-downstairs vibe about it in that the servants’ dramas unfold in connection with the ‘masters’ (like Downton Abbey or er Upstairs Downstairs).

However, there are problems in terms of story in Beauty and the Beast. The film does have plot holes, particularly in its timeline. The weather is … extreme to the extent that audiences to this day are still confused on the timings of the film. At the beginning, it’s autumn, then it’s winter, then seemingly at the end it’s spring … all in the space of a few days.

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It seems like they didn’t always think things through, or they would start with an idea, and then forget about it, realise ‘oh no that doesn’t make sense’ and then go ‘oh well no one will notice it’s fine’. The crazy timeline is one of the reasons why ‘Human Again’ was originally cut as they discussed the lengthy passage of time in the lyrics. But there was a major problem – so Maurice is wandering around looking for Belle for weeks? So Lefou is sitting outside of their house for months? It didn’t make sense, so they cut the song (and fixed the song so it fit the timeline when it was re-inserted), but even now, it seems a little off, mainly due to the seasons … but then again, it could be the ‘enchantment’ of the castle that is causing mad weather.

Again, concerning time, this enchantment took place 10 years ago? 10 years is … a long time. 10 years ago, we were 16 and 17 – a LOT has changed since then! The Beast, as we said, was 11, and the condition was that he needed to find requited love before his 21st year … pressure. What have he and the staff been doing these past 10 years? How did no one pass by the castle in a decade? Is Maurice stopping by truly the first time they’d had a guest since the enchantment? Especially since ‘You’ve come to stare at the beast’ makes it sound like this has happened before. Where’s the food coming from? How do the villagers not remember that there was a Prince living in a castle nearby a mere 10 years ago?

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Are they in a JJ Abrams style ‘Lost’ bubble, where no one is able to see it until the enchantress conveniently decides to let someone through … because cheating?

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How were Gaston and the ‘fifty Frenchmen’ able to find the castle so speedily? There are a number of deus-ex-machinas in the film from Maurice’s invention to the magic mirror – we guess the magic mirror showed them the way?

The story is formed through a question – ‘Who could ever learn to love a beast?’ This is immediately followed by the title, so we assume it’s the ‘beauty’ who learns to love the ‘beast’. In fact, likely the young lady that we immediately see in the next shot.

Unless they were trying to tease that Gaston would be the beauty that would learn to love the beast.

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‘Here in town there’s only he who’s as beautiful as me’

David’s Verdict

I often find it difficult to talk about the really good Disney films, as it is much easier to critique a film’s failings than it is to heap on additional praise. I have approached every film in the canon with the intention of enjoying them, and some films have met those expectations, whilst others have disappointed. Beauty and the Beast is a film I had seen a few times before, and so I already knew that it was really good, and it is also a film which is generally accepted as one of the best Disney films. Therefore, there’s not much left to say in praise of it, which hasn’t been said before. When reviewing The Little Mermaid we both felt that there was a lot more to say about the film, defending the characters and plot-elements which often came under fire (as well as praising the overall quality), but since Beauty and the Beast doesn’t get as much criticism, there’s not as much to say.

To keep things relatively brief, then, I’ll say this: Beauty and the Beast is rightfully acknowledged as one of Disney’s best films, and the production team who created it really embody the idea of the ‘Perfect Storm’ with all of the right components in place at the right time. I really like the two leads, I think that Gaston is a great antagonist (being both hilarious and imposing in equal measure) I enjoy the whole supporting cast, and the soundtrack is one of the studio’s best ever.

One final point I’d like to make: working on this blog has really brought to my attention how much of a contribution Howard Ashman made to the Disney Renaissance (arguably the most successful period in the studio’s history). Obviously he wasn’t solely responsible for all of the success, but I really don’t think that he gets enough recognition for the contributions he made. In the space of a few years, Howard Ashman helped to create two of the most beloved, and enduring Disney Animated Classics in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and it’s heart-breaking to think that he never got to see Beauty and the Beast finished. It’s also upsetting to think of what he might have created had he not passed away so young. Disney movies are renowned for having iconic sad moments, from the Seven Dwarves weeping over Snow White’s dead body, to the death of Bambi’s mother, and many more still to come in the canon, but for me one of the saddest is the dedication to Howard at the end of the credits for Beauty and the Beast.

Melissa’s Verdict

Beauty and the Beast was a film that I did grow up with, but I never owned it on VHS (likely borrowed or rented). I was in a panto version of the fairy tale when I was 9 (it had practically nothing to do with the film … in the slightest) which got me thinking about the film again – a few years later I bought the platinum DVD (it was my first Disney DVD) and it had a huge impact on me at the time. At that stage, I’d gone off current Disney and felt disillusioned with what they were releasing. Watching Beauty and the Beast after not having seen it for many years, I was completely spellbound – it was the first time I truly grasped how amazing Disney animation was – the skill and artistry that went into these films began to sink in – in writing, artwork, characters and music. It made me want to revisit the old Disney classics again, so I’m always grateful to Beauty and the Beast for having that impact on me.

Watching it again for The Disney Odyssey, and seeing the films that came before it in date order, its impact has not diminished. I love the musical theatre feel of Beauty and the Beast – the songs are fantastic, the protagonists are engaging, the antagonist is simultaneously dark and hilarious, it looks visually stunning and the script is really strong. The story does have some plot holes here and there and background characters can look a little iffy from time to time, but they do feel minor in juxtaposition to what the film excels in. The voice acting and character designs complement each other wonderfully – Glen Keane, Mark Henn (and James Baxter!) and Andreas Deja particularly stand out for their work on Beast, Belle and Gatson – the ‘love’ triangle. The voice work for all of the characters are excellent, and I can’t even point anyone out specifically because they’re all brilliant – a true ensemble cast. The relationship between Belle and Beast is one of the more mature ones in the canon, and the film touches upon troubling and dark themes from everyday sexism in the Gaston plot to the sinister cruelty of the enchantment – more than I had ever realised! Alan Menken and Howard Ashman have triumphed again in their score and songs – it’s sad to think that this is the last film in which all of the songs are co-created by this amazing creative partnership (at least Aladdin has some!). As David said, doing The Disney Odyssey has reminded me of how important Ashman was in the creative drive of the Renaissance Era – and it was hard not to well up at the end of the credits. Beauty and the Beast is an excellent film, which made me laugh and feel moved all at once. Although I still wonder .. which do I prefer – Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid? Will have to think about that …

Legacy

Beauty and the Beast ultimately left behind a huge legacy – it was the first full-length animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it lost to The Silence of the Lambs), and to win Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) at the Golden Globes – what a triumph! It was also the first since Mary Poppins to be nominated for Best Picture from Walt Disney Pictures and the first musical since All That Jazz. Let’s not forget that Gregory Peck advocated for The Jungle Book to be nominated for Best Picture, leading him to resign from his position as President of the Academy when he was unsuccessful. Until Up and later Toy Story 3 were nominated, Beauty and the Beast was the only one (it still is the only one to be nominated in a selection of five films and the only hand-drawn film) … but an animated film has never won, likely not helped by the Best Animated Feature category, which was introduced in 2001.

Beauty and the Beast was nominated for four Academy Awards in total, Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Music, Original Song for ‘Belle’, and Best Music, Original Song for ‘Be Our Guest’. The film won Best Music, Original Song for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Best Music, Original Score. Beauty and the Beast was also nominated for BAFTAs, Saturn Awards, Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, Grammy Awards, Hugo Awards, and PGA Awards. It won Golden Globes for Original Score and Original Song, Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature and Outstanding Individual Achievement in the Field of Animation for Glen Keane (YES! YOU STAR!), an ASCAP Award, a BMI Film Music Award, DFWFCA Awards, a Golden Screen Award, Grammy Awards, a KCFCC Award, a LAFCA Award, a Golden Reel Award, a National Board of Review Award, a National Film Preservation Board Award, and a Young Artist Award … in a nutshell, they did rather well didn’t they?

Worldwide, the film made $451,421,625 at the box office … double what The Little Mermaid made. The film also received huge critical acclaim. It was even previewed at the New York Film Festival in September 1991 as a work-in-progress, with 70% of the film complete and 30% consisting of storyboard reels and pencil and computer tests – the first time Disney has ever made such a bold move – they presented an unfinished Disney film to an audience of adults. That audience gave the film a standing ovation. Wow.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, ‘Lightning has definitely struck twice. With Beauty and the Beast, a tender, seamless and even more ambitious film than its predecessor, Disney has done something no one has done before: combine the latest computer animation techniques with the best of Broadway … It is more darkly forbidding and at times more violent than the average animated children’s fable’. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times said that the film ‘like 1989’s The Little Mermaid, reflects a new energy and creativity from the Disney animation people … A lot of ‘children’s movies’ seem to expect people to buy tickets by default, because of what the movie doesn’t contain (no sex, vulgarity, etc.). Beauty and the Beast reaches back to an older and healthier Hollywood tradition in which the best writers, musicians and filmmakers are gathered for a project on the assumption that a family audience deserves great entertainment, too’. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune wrote, ‘More than just a terrific animated film for children, Beauty and the Beast revives the American movie musical, building on the success of the Oscar-winning The Little Mermaid … The beautiful title song, performed poignantly by the richly textured voice of Angela Lansbury, makes the case for all lovers to look past their partners` faults and into their hearts’. The Seattle Times’s John Hartl called it ‘a model of clear, precise storytelling, of state-of-the-art technique used to advance a story rather than show off’.

The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson called it ‘a delightfully satisfying modern fable, a near-masterpiece that draws on the sublime traditions of the past while remaining completely in sync with the sensibility of its time … For the first time in a Disney cartoon, you don’t feel as if you’ve slipped into a time warp … There’s even a kind of impudence in the comedy; you don’t feel clobbered with wholesomeness … The storytelling is brisk and engaging, the animation imaginative and deeply textured, the music and the production numbers sublime. Let’s not mince words — it’s great.’ Hinson however disliked the Beast, saying he cannot compare to the Jean Cocteau Beast: ‘This Beast …  seems completely lacking in poetry. He’s a lunk without either mystery or pathos … he’s precisely what the rest of the movie isn’t — dimensionless.’

There were also some more mixed reviews. Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel wrote ‘Considered together, the songs and the incidental music form an elaborate, affecting score in the later-Sondheim mode. Much as I like Beauty and the Beast, I think I would have preferred it if its dark parts had even been darker … But to give Beauty and the Beast an even harder edge might have been too big a commercial risk for Disney’. Michael Sragow of the New Yorker wrote, ‘It’s got storytelling vigour and clarity, bright, eclectic animation, and a frisky musical wit … Throughout, the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken score is clever and fluid in the best Lerner-and-Loewe manner, with flashes of oddball humour that keep everything light and bouncy. (Gaston’s theme song trumps ‘C’est Moi’, from Camelot) … There isn’t anything particularly haunting, and not all the script’s variations are fresh. But this is easily the zippiest Disney cartoon feature in the thirty-one years since 101 Dalmatians’.

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune’s review is one of the more negative reviews that we came across. He dismissed the frequency of Disney animated film releases: ‘The new Disney management, recognizing the perennial value of a “classic“ cartoon, has been encouraging their production at a breakneck pace, with uneven and sometimes slapdash results … several miles short of the genuine Disney classics of the `30s, `40s and `50s … the film has little of the technical facility, vivid characterization and emotional impact of Disney past’.

Beauty and the Beast, referred to by critics as the best Broadway show that wasn’t even on Broadway, inevitably became a Broadway show (starting a huge trend for Disney over the coming years … it also confirmed the Beast’s name for good). It opened at the Palace Theatre in 1994 and it ran until 2007 – the film was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical and it received mixed critical reviews. To date (2016), it is the ninth longest running Broadway show in history.

It was released in IMAX in 2002 (and on Platinum DVD), and ‘Human Again’ was inserted into the film after being such a success on Broadway – the creators were inspired by the edits made to the early Star Wars films to do the same for Beauty and the Beast!

Beauty and the Beast is No. 7 on the AFI’s list of Top 10 Animation films, No. 22 for Greatest Movie Musicals, No. 34 for 100 Passions and No. 62 in 100 Songs for ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In 2002, it was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.

A live-action film, as we speak now, is on its way in March 2017 (two years after Cinderella), starring Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as Beast, Luke Evans as Gaston, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere (now we like Ewan McGregor but oh God have you heard his accent in the teaser trailer? Even he said in an interview recently that his French accent, despite being married to a French woman, is dreadful), Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, Sir Ian McKellen as Cogsworth and Josh Gad as Lefou …

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Frozen crossover dreams come true for many we’re sure …

Beauty and the Beast, despite its enormous success, will always be  bittersweet and etched in sadness as it coincided with the death of Howard Ashman from AIDS at the age of 40. At the Academy Awards, Ashman received his Oscar posthumously – his partner, Bill Lauch, accepted it on his behalf. In multiple documentaries, it’s really moving when everyone that worked with him recounts their final days and weeks with him. 25 years have gone by since the release of the film and those who knew him still feel emotional when talking about him. We’ve experienced only two films in the canon that have been marked by his influence, and as of where we’re at right now, they are both currently in our Top 5s. Ashman was frequently referred to by those at Disney as another Walt – it is easy to see why. His loss was clearly felt, and we are sad that once we’ve finished Aladdin, that’ll be it for Ashman’s wonderful lyrics and his magical touch on Disney animated films. Ashman left behind a talented group of people at Disney who will go on to make amazing things (that we’re looking forward to reviewing!), but it’s still sad that he won’t be there. New York Times critic, Janet Maslin delighted in a sample of Be Our Guest lyrics and said ‘This demonstrates Mr. Ashman’s gifts as an outstandingly nimble lyricist. His death from AIDS in March at age 40 cut short a brilliant career, but the jubilant energy of his work will long live on’. Indeed it will.

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Posted in 1989-1999 Renaissance Era, Disney | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Classic No. 29 The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, are property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The authors’ claim no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the authors and are not to be viewed as factual documentation

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The Rescuers Down Under is a milestone in the canon – it is Disney’s first full-length animated sequel film; but, to be honest, the idea of a The Rescuers sequel has been hovering around ever since its release in 1977. They initially considered Oliver and Company as a possible sequel to The Rescuers (what with the whole Jenny/Penny and her ‘awful adopted parents’ debacle). Basil the Great Mouse Detective was on the shaky ground of not being greenlit because it was too similar to The Rescuers, and then on steady ground when they remembered that The Rescuers made a lot of money. The Rescuers is really the last Disney film that was purely in the hands of the older animators before they passed the torch in The Fox and the Hound. It is fascinating and remarkably symbolic that the newer animators, with a handful of canon films under their belt at this stage, chose to produce a sequel to that particular film.

At the time, Disney were referring to it as their first animated action-adventure film, with Jeffrey Katzenberg saying, ‘I wanted to do an action-adventure movie, which Disney’s never done’.

What Jeffrey? You mean THIS isn’t an action adventure?

The film was produced by theatre-man Thomas Schumacher. Schumacher is currently the President of Disney Theatrical Group and The Rescuers Down Under was his first project – the first of many! The screenplay was written by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson and Joe Ranft. Ranft was also the Story Supervisor. Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel directed The Rescuers Down Under. They were allegedly inspired by live-action films more than animated films with directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean as major visual influences. Gabriel saying, ‘We were inspired by great films, not great animation or great comics or great cartoons. We try to incorporate great film techniques to tell a cinematic story’.

Disney had set up an Animation unit in Florida in 1989 at Disney-MGM Studios, and The Rescuers Down Under was the first feature-length film in which they had contributed. They took on key scenes that lead to ten minutes of the final film. Mark Henn, who co-animated Ariel with Glen Keane, moved to Florida to base himself at this studio, and he was responsible for a few scenes that featured Bernard and Bianca, and McLeach. Henn had not worked on the original The Rescuers but saw the film six times: ‘Having a chance to do them [Bernard and Bianca] in a new film for a new generation was a real thrill, a real challenge. I just remembered the things I liked about those characters and put myself into it.’

While The Rescuers is probably one of the best candidates in the canon for a sequel (truly – we went through them all – for us The Rescuers, Alice in Wonderland and Basil are films in which a [good] sequel would make sense in their contexts), but the timing to do a sequel to this film does seem off. First of all, a child who watched The Rescuers in 1977 would, by 1990, be either in their late teens or early twenties – the youngest that a person would be who was alive in 1977 would be 13 years old in 1990 (and a kid wouldn’t even be that aware or focused between the ages of 0 and 3, so really the age would be 16!) – hardly your average Disney spectator – re-releases notwithstanding.

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Even Mike Gabriel seemed on the fence about whether it was a good idea – the DIRECTOR: Peter Schneider asked me if I’d ever consider directing and I said, “Well, after watching George [Scribner, director, Oliver & Company], it doesn’t look like it would be much fun.” It was sort of a non-committal reaction, but in a couple of months he called me into his office and asked if I’d direct Rescuers Down Under. And I thought to myself at the time, and I probably should have said it out loud, “Now there’s a movie everyone’s gonna want to see. How could you top the first one?” But I didn’t and I took the job and co-directed with Hendel [Butoy]’.

That fills us with confidence

Did everyone go and see it? Did they top the first one? Let’s find out!

But first, Original Trailer Time for an Original Sequel:

But first, Original Trailer Time for an Original Sequel:

  • A frantic and over-excited drum-beat tries to overpower the Original Trailer Man in volume
  • The music is really trying to convince us that it’s Indiana Jones we’ve come to see
  • ‘Australia’ – a solitary house and tree in the middle of a big field … that’s all there is
  • According to Original Trailer Man, Australia is ‘mysterious’ and ‘untamed’ … we’re sure it’s not to Australians!
  • ‘It was a world of amazing adventure and discovery until’ … they blew up?!
  • An ‘eagle’ trapper or ‘evil’ trapper?! We have no idea!
  • It makes it look like Cody’s just been hanging over the crocodiles this whole time …
  • ‘It’s the rescuers in the most dangerous mission ever’ … that’s a bold statement
  • Jake’s ‘army of misguided mates’ … you’d do better to refer to them as ‘a miscellaneous group of weirdos who are barely in the film’ … also … JAKE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW ANY OF THEM!
  • ‘Hey who killed the music?’ The trailer editor did!
  • ‘Throw another shrimp on the barbie sports fans’ … oh dear … the 90s have arrived

Protagonist[s]

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‘Uh Miss Bianca … it has been 13 years since we last appeared on screen together’

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‘Still superstitious nonsense’

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‘Also Miss Bianca where has my superstitious nature gone? David and Melissa felt the need to put that quip in for me because that part of my personality has vanished’

For the first time in the canon, main characters are returning for a sequel, but there is a problem: despite the insistence in the ‘Making Of’ documentary that it is a ‘film about them’, Bernard and Bianca do not appear until nearly 18 minutes in, and they do not engage with Cody until close to the hour mark. They did not interact with Penny until roughly the same time in The Rescuers but in that film we meet Bernard and Bianca very early in the running time. In the sequel we meet them approximately a quarter into the film, and on top of that, it keeps cutting back between them and any number of other character – meaning that their screen time is cut down even further. This creates a dilemma when naming them as the protagonists – even though, logically speaking, they are the obvious choices, but they feel much more like supporting cast this time.

Why did we get behind Bernard and Bianca in the first film? They were perceived as underdogs within their world. The Chairman questioned their ability to complete this mission – ‘You? Miss Bianca?’ (with the added patronising comment: ‘Dear lady, this is absolutely without precedent. I mean, it’s not like the old days, when it was a man’s world. However, I suppose there has to be a first time’) and of course, ‘A janitor and a lady? Good heavens. Bless my soul’. Not only were they underestimated for their gender and social status, they were underestimated for being mice. Rufus said, ‘Two little mice? What can you do?’, Bernard had self-doubt, and even Penny questioned whether they had brought someone ‘big’ with them. In the end however, they completed the rescue mission, despite mass scepticism, and this was the film’s through-line. In The Rescuers Down Under, they do not need to prove themselves anymore – time has passed, they clearly have cases under their belts, and they are perceived as the RAS’s top agents.

So where does the film decide to take returning protagonists? The film becomes bogged down in a subplot about Bernard attempting to propose to Bianca, only to be interrupted before he can pop the question. This is a writing trope for an episode of a sitcom, not a feature film.

(Special Note from David: I had not seen the film before, but as soon as the characters appeared I groaned out loud, because I knew exactly what was going to happen, saying: “please tell me this won’t be drawn out for the whole film”)

(Special Note from Melissa: And I responded by looking sheepish – ‘Um … yes’ … There are other ways in which they could have integrated the proposal subplot in, with more tension and emotional connection between the two characters. What if Bernard loses the ring in order to rescue another? What if Bernard proposes to Bianca during a dangerous moment in which they don’t know if they will survive?)

Here is something that we wrote in our review of The Rescuers that we feel is very relevant:

‘As individual protagonists they may not be dynamic enough to hold an entire film on their own, but together they work beautifully’

‘It is a co-dependent partnership as they both rescue and protect each other from danger. In other words, there is no incompetent male or damsel in distress in this male-female pairing – it refreshingly avoids that cliché’

What we praised about them, sadly, is very limited in The Rescuers Down Under. We loved Bernard and Bianca’s co-dependant partnership, but this is not something that is sustained in the sequel. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to make it Bernard’s story instead of Bernard and Bianca’s story – it is as if the 1970s original was a more pro-feminist film than the 1990s sequel. They are not as dynamic on their own, but as a team, they are appealing; there is not enough of them working as a team in the film. Furthermore with the addition of Jake, the dynamic duo has become a trio, and, unfortunately, a sort-of-but-not-really love triangle, which is where we lead to a flanderisation of Bernard.

Let’s consider a non-Disney sequel – Back to the Future Part II (a similar era after all). Back to the Future and The Rescuers have somewhat similar finales – after the adventure and its obstacles have taken place, the protagonists are back home, mission accomplished and all is well, until someone blasts in, with news of another mission that they need to immediately pursue. A sequel has to add further conflict to the ‘all is well’ tone of the previous film’s ending. In the case of Back to the Future Part II, Marty has suddenly gained a ‘tic’ that he didn’t have in the first film – he flips out when anyone calls him ‘a chicken’. It is incredibly goofy, but it is meant to be the source of his developmental arc, which is taken seriously. Despite previous character development, in The Rescuers Down Under, Bernard is even more insecure and feels threatened by other potential partners for Bianca, primarily Jake, although this extends out to the degree of insane implausibility:

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Bernard we are sure that Wilbur is not going to have a fling with your girlfriend. We are sure that it’s not possible. Can we get a second opinion? Professor Lupin, can an albatross have a relationship with a rodent?

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Thank you

Despite the development he had in the first film, they have to make this ‘love-triangle’ to give Bernard something to fight for, and this arc that he has to be tougher and more direct in order to succeed – even though he was tough and direct in the original’s climax so it feels redundant. Because Bernard’s point-of-view and arc are given more focus, Bianca has been shafted as she has been given a lot less to do. Eva Gabor still does a great job, and her character has not been flanderised (fortunately!), but she is pushed to the side and plays less of a part in the rescue. We never have any doubt that Bianca will choose to leave Bernard, and start a relationship with Jake – it is not even an issue. Jake flirts and Bernard is insecure, but Bianca treats everyone with her Bianca-esque charm and friendliness; we know she loves Bernard, and she is confident in her love for him. She stands up for him when Jake calls her faith in him a bluff. But the finale is all about Bernard proving his manliness – the climax music is titled ‘Bernard the Hero’ in the soundtrack – which really says it all. Top RAS agent, who underwent scepticism due to her gender, has now become ‘a girl worth fighting for’. It’s hard to say who of the two get the worse treatment – flanderisation or reduction?

In the original film, they are clearly the central characters, and we watch their relationship grow and develop throughout.  It could be argued that, since the characters (and their relationship) underwent a lot of development in the first film, there is not as much need to develop them further this time around. However, there still needs to be a better justification for bringing these characters back, than the one we get. Character interaction is much less nuanced, but whenever there is a fleeting moment of tender interaction between Bernard and Bianca, we really enjoyed it, because that is when they are their old selves. Their roles in this film are probably best summed up by this moment:

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A sweet and genuine moment, which harkens back to the first film

But then, almost immediately the moment is literally turned upside down (for a cheap laugh) and all the focus is put on one of the other characters:

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And the moment’s over

Antagonist

Bryan Brown, Clint Eastwood, Paul Hogan, John Mahoney, Jack Palance and Mandy Patinkin were considered for the role of McLeach.

(Special Note from Both: Consider for a moment the ‘could have been’ scenarios for this character…)

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‘Hello my name is Percival McLeach. You stole my eagle. Prepare to die’

Clearly the studio was aiming high with their expectations with the villain, looking at the calibre of actor they were considering. In the end the role went to George C. Scott, who does about as good a job as can be done with material that is far from stellar. After all we know that we’re well and truly in the nineties when the film’s villain is an evil poacher, who doesn’t really have much of a motive for his actions other than ‘just because’.

McLeach is a more realistic type of villain than many of his counterparts: there is nothing grand or theatrical about his plans or actions, he is simply a selfish poacher who wants to kill or capture rare animals. A problem with this is that he is not a very entertaining character to watch – and in many ways he could be seen as a forerunner to many of Pixar’s villains (often more realistic, but consequently less entertaining).

One of the biggest problems with McLeach as the film’s villain is that he is featured too prominently throughout the film. A great many villains within the canon often appear for short bursts at a time, but McLeach gets many lengthy scenes, during which not much is accomplished. Having just seen The Little Mermaid in which Ursula wastes little time in any scene in which she appears, always moving the plot along, it seems a bit counter-productive to have a villain be so uncertain about what his plan actually is. Moreover, McLeach spends quite some time musing out-loud to himself, as he tries to figure out how to outwit a young child.

Another significant issue with McLeach is that his status as a threatening villain is frequently undermined by the presence of a comic sidekick. McLeach is too prominently featured, and so is Joanna.

Nevertheless, he does have some genuinely impressive villainous moments, such as gleefully admitting to Cody that he killed Marahute’s mate; then capturing Cody and leading everyone else to believe that he was eaten by crocodiles.

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And only a TRULY EVIL person would do this

He also succeeds in capturing Marahute, and nearly triumphs during the film’s climax, were it not for the timely intervention of Bernard.

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“I would have gotten away with it too, had it not been for those pesky mice!”

He is not a particularly intelligent villain either, demonstrating a severe lack of logic when it comes to Marahute’s eggs (after all, why sell rare eagle eggs when you can just feed them to your pet?). His lack of education is something in which he takes a great deal of pride, bragging about having made it to the third grade.

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“If only I’d made it past the third graaaaaaaaaaaade!”

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Supporting Cast

Alongside Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart, the filmmakers wanted some of the original voice actors to return to reprise their roles.

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Not you

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Maybe you can appear in the TV series … or the third Rescuers film?

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Unfortunately, Jim Jordan, who played Orville, had passed away two years before the film’s release. Instead of replacing Orville with a new voice actor, they decided to create a new character called Wilbur, Orville’s brother and an allusion to the Wright Brothers. Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, and Steve Martin were considered but in the end the role went to John Candy.

John Candy is an incredibly likeable actor, and the filmmakers must have been delighted to have him be a part of the film – but his presence really affects the film in a negative way. The character of Wilbur is far too prominent throughout the film – especially when you consider how brief Orville’s involvement was in The Rescuers – and just about every scene he is involved in becomes centred around his character. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Bernard and Bianca were reduced to playing supporting roles in their own film, as soon as Wilbur arrives on the scene the film becomes ‘the John Candy show’. Worse still is the fact that his material is not funny, and instead seems to be purpose-built to test the audience’s patience. Entire scenes are dedicated to his character throughout the film, nearly all of which could be removed and it wouldn’t affect the plot in the slightest. He just goes on and on and on and ON!

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NO

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NO!

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When thinking about Cody, we truly wondered whether he was the film’s protagonist instead of Bernard and Bianca. The film could easily have been called The Boy and the Eagle and it still would make sense. While Penny never steals the spotlight, but instead is the emotional centre, Cody is a lot more featured. Cody, unlike Penny, could be included in the title as one of the ‘rescuers’ – after all, when we first meet him, he immediately answers a call from a digeridoo-playing kangaroo –

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Who forgets whether she’s doing an accent or not … is it English? Australian? American? What are you doing???

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– who tells him that the great eagle, Marahute is in danger and needs to be rescued. His prerogative throughout the film is making sure that Marahute and her eggs are safe, and that’s what gets him into trouble. Technically the reason as to why Cody was captured in the first place was because he tried to rescue a mouse caught in a trap. McLeach lets him out of the hole, tells him to run along home, and Joanna sees the mouse, attacks the bag, and that is how McLeach catches sight of the feather.

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‘So if you think about it, this is all … your fault’

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‘Yeah but don’t push it though’

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‘A stupid mouse!’

In a way the Cody/Penny comparison is going back to the argument that we made in terms of Disney princesses, they fall into the privileged and unprivileged categories – Penny is an unprivileged child while Cody is privileged, with the former being an orphan, and latter who has a loving mother. Furthermore, Penny was going about her business when she gets abducted – she wasn’t looking for trouble – while Cody actively puts himself in dangerous situations. A trope of the Disney Renaissance is ‘curiosity killed the cat’ – characters are either curious or bulldoze their ways into dangerous situations – even when told that it’s a trap.

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‘Why did you do that? … I was running towards you waving my arms yelling ‘Don’t do that!’’

He is nearly killed at the film’s beginning, firstly from climbing a huge cliff and then when he is knocked off the cliff after freeing Marahute.

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You’re free!

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Long live the kid!

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Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Luckily, Marahute rescues Cody from a nasty fall (see, she’s a rescuer too … they’re ALL rescuers!), and they go on a fantastic flying adventure.

Speaking of that, akin to The Sword in the Stone’s Arthur, Cody makes a series of scary faces:

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Yikes

Cody is almost killed multiple times in the film, which is probably why critics questioned the film’s darkness so frequently. In pursuing a selfless pursuit by rescuing animals from harm, he is, in a way, selfish and thoughtless as he is risking his life, shutting out his mother and making her worry – quite like our previous protagonist, Ariel! He is passionate, courageous and cares deeply about the animals’ welfare, however to the extent that he makes stupid decisions that get him in trouble, and consequently put the animals at risk too.

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He constantly insists that the Rangers will come and save him … but this doesn’t lead to anything … because they never show up.

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My rangers will come and save me

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Your rangers are dead. I killed them myself

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Then why is there fear in your eyes?

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They didn’t come

‘Cody stop trying to make the rangers happen. It’s not going to happen’

So where were the rangers all this time?

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It’s just … odd. We know from watching the film that the rangers found the bag and they assumed the worst, but why do they build up this notion from Cody that they will come and save him?

Cody doesn’t have an Australian accent, which admittedly is strange. Apparently, Joe Ranft wanted an Aborigine Australian child to voice Cody, but he was overridden with the decision to cast “a little white blonde kid.” Adam Ryan is Norwegian-American, and ended up voicing the character for the Norway dub as well. He does a good job: much better than some young male voice actors from Disney’s canon:

We’re talking to you

There was one thing that bothered us about Cody – the tone in which he speaks to Bernard.

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Don’t you dare be patronising towards Bernard! He is an agent and a grown man, not your hamster! Plus he just saved your life! Also go and see your mother! NOW!

OK … Cody’s Mother is an unusual situation. We both love how it is handled and yet simultaneously we feel puzzled. We never see her face:

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‘It really doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen her face!’

This is effective, particularly in specific scenes like hearing her calling his name as the camera pans away from her isolated home, and of course, the scene when a ranger knocks on the door and hands her Cody’s destroyed bag.

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It is incredibly sad and subtly handled, but it means that we really wanted a reunion between her and Cody. Even if we never see her face, but instead just being able to see her reunited and able to hug her child, knowing that he is alive – it felt like we were building up to that moment but it never happened. We really appreciated that the film seemed to be embracing the power of maternal love, paralleling Marahute’s love for her eggs with the Mother’s love for Cody – but the ending didn’t satisfy that feeling – even Marahute is not reunited with her eggs at the end. Instead, we get a dumb scene between Wilbur and the hatched eagles … that is only in voiceover.

(Special Note from Both: Bravo. You nearly got us with a strong emotional anchor and you blew it by not concluding it)

Jake –

(Special Note from Melissa: Or as I like to call him, Hugh Jake-Man the Kangaroo Mouse)

– is there to be the token Australian … in a film set in Australia. He is also there to be the Mark to Ross’s Rachel; in other words, Bernard sees him as a threat to his relationship with Bianca. He is forward and openly flirts with her, to the extent of even stealing Bernard’s move.

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Cocky, adventurous and self-confident, Jake is clearly inspired by Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee. He is an air traffic controller who, oddly enough, seems to leave his post in the name of rescue … and likely in the name of a possible fling with a European. While he is attracted to Bianca, he doesn’t think much of Bernard (the feeling the mutual), and is patronising towards him:

He even calls him Berno:

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‘What’s his name Berno?’

‘No it’s Bernard’

‘Whatever! Hahahaha!’

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‘You big tree!’

Jake does have a few snarky zingers up his sleeve:

Hahahahaha!

But with the occasional damp squib:

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He does teach Bernard a thing or two about wildlife in the Outback – having to look a potential predator in the eye:

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Plus he seems to be happy for Bernard and Bianca at the end – he gives him a thumbs up!

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‘You know Jake … You really are a good guy’

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‘I know … I hate that’

The supporting cast also features two non-speaking characters in prominent roles. Marahute the eagle, is saved by Cody, but becomes a rescuer herself when she saves Cody from nasty falls on multiple occasions. A mother and a widow, she is a very sympathetic character – aside from how stunning the flight sequences are, it is the nuanced details in close up shots that are special. The gesticulations are so realistic and the relationship between her and the boy is very sweet and touching.

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Our other non-speaking character, Joanna, is well-animated in terms of her movement. As a character, she has occasional funny moments in terms of slapstick, but while Marahute is featured too little (likely due to the complexity of animating her scenes), Joanna is featured a lot. She seems to be inspired by Disney cats from the past like Lucifer and the Siamese Cats. The scene with her trying to eat eggs is funny to watch:

So who have we missed out?

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Not you … but close

Instead of the Winnie the Pooh B Squad, we get the C Squad:

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‘The C Squad also known as the Odd Squad’

Winnie the Pooh’s Australian cousins – like the Care Bear Cousins. The film itself seems to know how inconsequential these characters are because McLeach says, ‘It’s the last you’ll ever see of them’ … and it is!

Unless Cody goes back to rescue them after the film is over, for all we know, they’re still there. At least the B Squad did something in the climax. It’s a pity, only because the Koala is probably the best character in the film, seeming rather self-aware that he has been shunted into the pointless scene:

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However, it is not a pity because the C Squad contains Frank, or, as we like to call him, “Iguirgi”.

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It is as if someone has taken Bill, Gurgi, Roger Rabbit and an iguana, thrown them into a blender, and thus Frank was created.

(Special Note from David: To sum up, he appears … is annoying … and then is gone)

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‘Will somebody shut him up?!’

But seriously there is this whole scene that goes on FOREVER in which Iguirgi has to get the keys to let them all out, and is so ANNOYING along the way … only for McLeach to come in, and take Cody away.

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‘It was a waste of ******* time’

The trouble is that in terms of supporting cast, with the exception of Cody and Marahute, they consist mainly of show offs trying to chew the scenery. There are too many characters packed into a short film, meaning that there is less focus on the more interesting characters for the sake of indulging too many ‘performers’ into one cast. The Little Mermaid had a big supporting cast but every character was either useful or entertaining, and if there was ever a chance that a character could have become annoying, they would not outstay their welcome.

Artwork and Imagery

The Rescuers Down Under is the beginning of a new era in animation as it was the first 100% digital animated feature film at Disney – CAPS, initially a development tool that has been integrated into all of the Passing the Torch era films is now running wild and flying high and painting the town red – Pixar has even appeared in the credits! The colouring, effects and final print were all digital. Production time was cut down by approximately six months. It is also the first Disney animated film to use fully-rendered CG backgrounds, with the shots of the UN building, the globe and the Sydney Opera House:

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Once Upon a Time in Sydney [City]

(Special Note from David: Retrospectively speaking, this shot does not look great!)

Multi plane shots through computer layering was much easier to do than manually producing the shots with multi plane cameras. The flying scenes with Marahute were allegedly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Glen Keane recalled, ‘We were told to pull out all the stops in the eagle sequences’ – he spent one year working on the Marahute scenes – only seven minutes of the film’s running time! His work on Marahute is magnificent – you’ve done it again Glen!  The Bear, Ratigan, Ariel, Marahute, what next?! We’re sure whatever it will be will be really –

… Keep working on it

It is much more polished, glossier and cleaner than the original film. Even returning characters look like they’ve been scrubbed up – they’ve had a good wash!

The landscape designs are very grand, creating a very strong sense of scale that the older art-styles would not allow. The close-ups of wildlife at the beginning look very distinctive. The zoom through the fields may have looked impressive … once … but now it feels jarring and odd – not as majestic an effect as one would hope for (particularly for the film’s opening). However, for the most part, it is a very good looking film – in fact, at times, it could be considered one of the most striking looking films in the canon so far – the artwork and imagery is the film’s best feature. Here are some particularly striking shots:

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The way in which animal characters are animated is pretty decent, but Marahute’s design, again, is the stand out. Animators went to the San Diego Zoo to observe Australian animals and the Peregine Fund in Idaho to observe birds of prey. Although the Florida team didn’t get any field trips, they did keep a few mice in their studio, which became their resident pets. A big plus in the film is that the non-speaking animal characters do not look ‘gendered’ – Marahute and Joanna are female, but they look like animals, rather than trying to make them look stereotypically female by giving them big eyelashes, lipstick or eyeshadow.

Music

It is the only film from the Renaissance era that is not a musical, and the second non-musical in the canon. Even The Rescuers had incidental ‘voice from the heavens’ music telling the characters that ‘tomorrow is another day’ or ‘to be brave’, or the inner dilemma of a bottle’s psyche. As well as a delightfully awful song that only Eva Gabor could made sound passable.

I’m fahhhbulous dahling

Bruce Broughton was initially signed to score Home Alone; technically he did the score and his name was even listed in some early adverts but he left the project to score The Rescuers Down Under.

(Special Note from Melissa: Funnily enough, when we were listening to the soundtrack, David remarked that it sounded like a Christmas film at times … I’d say this is not a coincidence)

The score has truly great moments in its swells, evoking the sense of drama and tension and beauty in the right places. But at this point, animation needed to be taken seriously, and this score is taking animation seriously, particularly in marvellous moments like ‘Cody’s Flight’. Bernard and Bianca’s theme that runs through the film is lovely. In fact anything that thematically connects musically to the Cody/Marahute pairing and the Bernard/Bianca pairing is when the score is its best – when there is an emotional anchor. When the underscore became quintessentially Australian, our ears pricked up as it really had its own character, particularly in the use of characteristically Australian instruments.

So what’s the problem? It is a grand and atmospheric score that truly would not be out of place in a big Hollywood movie – but there’s the rub – it is the score’s virtue and also its flaw. In the effort to treat it like a big Hollywood action adventure score, which is brilliant, it also runs the risk of becoming generic and losing the film’s identity. At times, it does feel generic, like it could belong in any film. If we consider recent scores from Disney, like Alan Menken’s score in The Little Mermaid, and Henry Mancini’s score in Basil the Great Mouse Detective, they felt purpose built for the film. The score varies from moments of brilliance to being good, fine, just ok or … odd. The score is very jumpy, erratic and sometimes jarring; when listening to the soundtrack, we frequently had to adjust the volume because it would, out of the blue, suddenly be super loud. Our opinion is that because the film cannot make its mind up about what it wants to be, the score can’t either.

Story

It is not uncommon for a sequel to take on a different tone to its predecessor, and in some cases a sequel may be a completely different genre altogether. While The Rescuers was more of a mystery, The Rescuers Down Under is an adventure movie. Perhaps this stark transition goes some way to explaining why there is some slightly inconsistent character development for the two leads.

While the film’s action set-pieces are visually striking, the plot itself is much weaker this time around. In the original, the villain’s plot was already in motion when the film began, and it drove the narrative right from the first frame, whereas this time a significant amount of the running time is spent on trying to decide exactly what the plot is.

‘I did it thirty-five minutes ago’

The film is also guilty of a lot of time-wasting, as there are numerous sub-plots which add little to the overall narrative, and don’t really end up going anywhere. Examples of this would be Cody getting locked in with the C-squad, Wilbur’s torture scenes and (to be completely honest) any scene involving Wilbur. The inclusion of these scenes is particularly frustrating when the main storylines lack a proper pay-off at the film’s conclusion: Cody doesn’t get reunited with his mother, and Marahute doesn’t get reunited with her eggs.

(Special Note from Both: The last time we can remember feeling cheated out of a satisfying mother/son reunion was in Dumbo which skipped their reunion, but at least showed them together again at the end)

Also, as we’ve previously mentioned, Bernard and Bianca’s ‘proposal’ sub-plot feels more like a stalling tactic, than an effective narrative device – it’s a sitcom plot, and while it works at sitcom-length, in a full-length film it drags on and on, as Bernard takes ages to pop the question, only to eventually be interrupted anyway – copy and paste, rinse and repeat.

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‘Uh Miss Bianca, uh I would be honoured if uh-‘

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‘Spit it out Bernard!’

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Finally!

Again, rather than it being Bernard and Bianca’s story, it is Bernard’s story and his journey, but even then, they take a back seat and Cody and McLeach are more in the spotlight … and Wilbur’s unnecessary plotlines.

Any time the talk turns to eggs, brace yourself for filler:

Ok that is not in The Rescuers Down Under … but it may as well be:

We’ve also somewhat avoided / side-stepped this throughout this review, but really … what … was … THIS?

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The pacing of the film is rather inconsistent, which is a shame because there are times when the film excels. The opening fifteen minutes involving the flight sequence and Cody’s kidnapping are paced very well, and the final fifteen minutes also play out very effectively.

(Special Note from David: The absolute damp squib of an ending notwithstanding)

Logic also goes out the window in terms of story – how is it possible that Bernard can bear the weight of a grown human boy … in a fast flowing current? Bernard is unrealistically too heroic to the extent of implausibility:

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A wizard did it

The Rescuers Down Under feels much more like what we now know as a Pixar film today, rather than Disney, which, we realised afterwards, makes sense as Joe Ranft was the Story Supervisor, and it was the most that Pixar had been involved in up to that point. The plot and narrative structure reminded us particularly of Up. The first fifteen minutes of both The Rescuers Down Under and Up stand out as marvellous moments in animation, but the story and structure become progressively more clunky further into the film – they peak too soon.

An important point that we must reiterate is that the context of film, storytelling and what audiences want, has changed between 1977 and 1990. The top films of 1977 were Star Wars, Annie Hall, Rocky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Julia and The Goodbye Girl, while the top films of 1990 were Home Alone, Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Pretty Woman, Rocky V and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Tastes have changed and The Rescuers Down Under has technically changed with it – and yet at the same time, due to the 13-year gap, it never quite fulfils either – it feels far from its predecessor tonally and stylistically, but because it’s a sequel, it could not have its own individual identity – it’s stuck in the middle between wanting to be a sequel and changing to another genre of film.

(Special Note from Melissa: Between 1977 and 1990, Rocky crammed in four sequels … we are not by any means praising that, but it goes to show how much time has passed)

The two Rescuers films tend to be very divisive in the eyes of fans, generally people will prefer one over the other. This is understandable since the two are so different tonally and aesthetically. We feel that we prefer The Rescuers’ story over The Rescuers Down Under because it is more cohesively put together, and more sure of what it’s trying to tell. However, we can completely understand how some people would prefer The Rescuers Down Under because it’s a more action-packed movie, and although it is still a dark film, the atmosphere is lighter than its predecessor.

Or we could look at it this way:

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‘We can agree to differ’

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‘No we won’t agree to differ because you’re very, very wrong’

David’s Verdict

I had not seen either Rescuers films before starting the Disney Odyssey, so I was able to approach each film with a fresh perspective. People either prefer one or the other, and I personally feel that The Rescuers is the superior film. It was not a masterpiece by any means, but it had better pacing, told a better story and was nicely centred around its two leads. My opinion is not swayed by nostalgia for either film, although I think another influential factor is which film you watched first. Because I watched the original first, I couldn’t help but make comparisons whilst watching The Rescuers Down Under and this is where many of my negative opinions on the film come from. As a separate entity the film is fine, but as a sequel I think it’s quite poor. I don’t feel that this is entirely fair, but because it is the only sequel in the canon at this point I can’t overlook it (I don’t consider The Three Caballerosto be a sequel to Saludos Amigos as neither are proper films per se).

Something that the film does have going for it are the scenes involving Marahute in flight, which are a great showcase for Glen Keane’s artwork as well as the new animation techniques which are now more readily at the studios disposal. It was also nice to have both Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart return to reprise their roles from the first film – but as soon as Bernard and Bianca made their first appearance I groaned because I could see the ‘attempted proposal’ sub-plot coming a mile away.

I don’t really have much else to say about the film. Perhaps if I had seen this film as a child – or if we’d watched this one first I might be less hard on it, but then again maybe not. I can understand why some people prefer this film over the original, but I feel that the plot is very uneven in its pacing, there is too much time-wasting, the dialogue isn’t memorable and the humour falls flat most of the time (although Jake’s “Nice bluff Miss B” line was genuinely funny – probably my favourite line from the film). I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I won’t be in a hurry to put it on again.

Melissa’s Verdict

While I owned The Rescuers on VHS as a child, I didn’t own The Rescuers Down Under, but I definitely watched it a few times  (and was most definitely so afraid of Cody’s scary faces and falling off a cliff that it gave me nightmares) and my strong memory of it came from this old trailer from my The Little Mermaid VHS copy, which promoted The Rescuers Down Under alongside The Prince and the Pauper. I also remember a kid from school saying that he had the film (when at that point I hadn’t seen it in ages), and he said that he would lend it to me … he never did … I think this same kid was convinced that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was made into a film, and also said that he would lend it to me … it wasn’t and he never did. You can see this pattern.

So! I did feel excited to see this film again. Unfortunately I was disappointed. But I’ll start with the good stuff. The film has striking visuals throughout in terms of backdrops and the flying sequences are fantastic. Any scene with Marahute is memorable and wonderfully animated, and I do love the scenes between her and Cody – it feels like the heart of the film, and again the make-up of Cody’s flight works brilliantly – the animation, the meaning and the score are perfectly balanced to create a stand-out scene. Whenever Bernard and Bianca get a sweet moment together (the little that they do get together), I enjoyed those scenes too, and having an already established relationship is a good move for Disney – they don’t do that often at all and I’m glad that Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor returned to voice the characters again. I also appreciated a few moments of slapstick, primarily in Joanna’s amusing expressions and movements. I was genuinely moved by Cody’s mother, even though we never saw her face, primarily due to the scene in which she receives his destroyed backpack. I was genuinely sad that I didn’t get to see them reunite.

However, there really are a lot of problems with this film. Aside from being impressed by a few dark moments, I wasn’t entertained by the villain. The character felt very homogenous and by-the-numbers, and perhaps in an attempt to be more realistic, akin to Oliver and Company’s Sykes, it lost that sense of pizazz and razzle dazzle that I associate with many of my favourite Disney villains. I think it’s a real shame that Bernard and Bianca have had to take a back seat in this film, considering what a strong presence they were in the original film. I really loved their growing relationship and co-dependent partnership as a pair of underdogs, and it is a pity that it had to become a ‘Bernard finding his manhood’ story, and consequently shift Bianca to the side. The score is hit and miss, the characters’ screen time are not fairly distributed at all (due to too many characters with little substance like the C Squad), and the narrative structure is a mess, on account of indulging too many ‘time-wasting’ filler scenes. John Candy was such a loveable actor, but I really don’t like the material that he has in this film. Nearly all of Wilbur’s scenes felt pointless and expendable, and in the case of the medical torture scenes … I just don’t know what they were thinking at Disney.

I agree with David that I’m glad I’ve seen it, but if I had to choose between The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, it would be the former hands down. I just prefer the quieter nature of the original, its melancholic, dark tone, its emotional voice, its allusions to mystery and film noir, and the intimate, nuanced relationships between characters, especially between Bernard and Bianca. That film has issues too – neither film is perfect, but it is still my favourite of the two. Overall The Rescuers Down Under has striking animation and a touching (brief) relationship between a boy and his eagle, but it misses the mark in narrative structure with its too many superfluous characters, certain characters being given way too much screen time (including the villain and comic relief), and in its attempt to be too much like a live action Hollywood film, it loses that sense of Disney magic.

Legacy

On its initial release, The Rescuers Down Under was preceded by The Prince and the Pauper, a Mickey Mouse short – the second Mickey Mouse short since the 1950s (Mickey’s Christmas Carol accompanied the 1983 re-release of The Rescuers)

The Rescuers Down Under won every award that it was nominated for, including a Genesis Award for ‘Feature Film – Family’; a Golden Screen Award, the Animation Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards; Best Sound Editing for an Animated Feature at the Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards; and ‘Most Entertaining Family Youth Motion Picture – Animation’ at the Young Artist Awards.

Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars: ‘After a few uncertain years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Disney animators (assisted now by computers) are back in top form’. Although, Ebert made a comment that surprised us because of how random it seemed – ‘There’s one reservation I have about the movie. Why does the villain have to be so noticeably dark-complexioned compared to all of the other characters? Is Disney aware of the racially coded message it is sending? When I made that point to another critic, he argued that McLeach wasn’t dark-skinned – he was simply always seen in shadow. Those are shadows are cast by insensitivity to negative racial stereotyping’. Variety called it a ‘sort-of-sequel’ that ‘boasts reasonably solid production values and fine character voices. Too bad they’re set against such a mediocre story that adults may duck’. Gene Siskel referred to it as ‘A bold, rousing but sometimes needlessly intense Disney animated feature’

Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised the film for its ‘first-rate’ animation, ‘spectacularly inventive’ direction and that it has ‘distinct debts to the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones films, not to mention “Crocodile Dundee’. However she called the plot ‘a trifle dark and un involving for very small children [leading the film] into a strange melange of styles … The mice themselves are enjoyably dowdy, comfortable throwbacks to a time before earth-shattering conquests were the sine qua non of children’s entertainment. The film’s action sequences, on the other hand, provide the dizzying heights and spectacular exploits to which live-action audiences are by now well accustomed, and they seem derivative despite the ingenuity of the animators’. It seems like musical numbers were missed: ‘This film’s slightly more grown-up, adventurous approach may be the reason it does not include the expected musical interludes, but they would have been welcome’.

However read what Maslin wrote here: ‘Wilbur gets into one of the story’s more lighthearted scrapes when he is imprisoned by tiny mice dressed in hospital uniforms, attempting to work on him with an “epidermal tissue disrupter,” which turns out to be a chain saw’. Maslin put ‘lighthearted’, ‘imprisoned’ and ‘chainsaw’ in the same sentence.

The financial failure of The Rescuers Down Under put Disney off releasing animated sequels to canon films in cinemas, and in terms of box office, it was the least successful of all of the films from the Renaissance era films. However, the box office ‘failure’ was influenced strongly by major film competition the weekend that it opened – Home Alone was released that same weekend. Home Alone grossed more than 10 times what The Rescuers Down Under made. Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered that all marketing for the film be pulled.

Although we prefer the original film, it is unfair that marketing for The Rescuers Down Under was pulled – it really didn’t deserve that. It’s as if Katzenberg realised after the success of The Little Mermaid, that making an animated film with a live action adventure movie sensibility (and no songs) did not seem so appealing (profitable), and wanted everyone at Disney to stay on the animated musical path … essentially to not allow The Rescuers Down Under to succeed, as it may pull the animators off that goldmine path. Was it a greater good moment?  A canon sequel would not be made again until Fantasia 2000 (1999) and Winnie the Pooh (2011) – they certainly leave mighty gaps between canon sequels.

(Special Note from Melissa: But that didn’t stop them making a hideous range of direct-to-video/DVD monstrosities known as ‘Disney sequels’)

However, the film leaves another form of legacy. The 1990s in cinema is strongly associated with the rise in films with a strong environmentalist or conservation-based message. With The Rescuers Down Under being right at the beginning in 1990 – the first environmentalist Disney animated film since Bambi, we can say that it formed part of that trend and perhaps even inspired more to come.

Posted in 1989-1999 Renaissance Era | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

Passing the Torch Era Overview

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, are property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The authors’ claim no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the authors and are not to be viewed as factual documentation

The 1980s were a turbulent decade for Disney; many of the older animators retired and the young artists took over; the studio was taken over by new management and the animators were moved from their beloved studio in Burbank to warehouses in Glendale; former Disney animator Don Bluth founded his own studio, and went head to head with his former employers – enjoying a respectable amount of success; and on several occasions there were very frightening possibilities of the animation department being shut down altogether. It is hardly surprising therefore, that during such a chaotic and unpredictable time, the animated films that were released were of varying quality.

The decade started promisingly enough: The Fox and the Hound felt like a real throwback to the Disney films of old, with a similar aesthetic and tone to Bambi as well as a willingness to go to darker places story-wise for strong dramatic effect. The film also proved that the young animators were more than capable of taking over the mantle from their predecessors. But it still revealed, due to its similarity in tone to Golden Age films, that they were still walking in the shadows of the older animators. They needed to find their own identity.

However, this was followed by The Black Cauldron, a cinematic disaster whose failings cannot be understated. The film was substantially over budget, spent more than a decade in production, was sliced to pieces in the editing room (losing entire scenes and most of the finale) and when it was released, the animation studio was on incredibly shaky territory. When we watched the film for the first time we were really hoping we would see an underrated classic, but instead what we got was a confused mess of a film. The most disappointing thing about The Black Cauldron is that during its production, artists and animators had hopes that this would be the studio’s crowning achievement – its own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Things picked up shortly thereafter with Basil the Great Mouse Detective – one of the studio’s smartest, wittiest and most consistently entertaining films to date. Stellar voice acting, memorable characters, and a great story – all key components, combined by a team of artists whose love for the project shone through in the artwork (which was made on a greatly reduced budget). Basil the Great Mouse Detective showed that even though the studio were down, they were certainly not out.

Unfortunately, this was then followed with Oliver and Company a film that embodied the notion of the marketing department winning out over the artists and creatives. The film feels incredibly hollow, being largely comprised of songs that serve no purpose to the story, but were crammed into the film in the hope of producing a hit (off the back of which the album sales would skyrocket). There was not a great deal of substance to the film, and retrospectively it does not hold up too well, although at the time it was released the film was a financial success (proving that the marketing department can be right … sometimes).

David’s Verdict

This era has been a struggle to get through, and we’ve taken our time getting there. As we have arrived in a more recent time-period there are a lot more documentaries and interviews, there’s plenty of archival footage and there is also the fascinating Waking Sleeping Beauty film which chronicles the studio from 1984 (when the animation department was under threat of closure) to 1994 (when The Lion King was released). Our output has slowed down, but we have learned a great deal about the studio, particularly interesting are interviews and retrospectives about the creative process for The Black Cauldron as it is a film the studio don’t really like to talk about.

I have a lot of praise to give to The Fox and the Hound for its bleak tone, complex themes, dealing with social class systems and prejudice, and particularly for the ending which didn’t reunite the two leads at the end (a rarity for the studio). The Black Cauldron was terrible, a really disappointing film in so many ways (WatchMojo recently named it as the most underrated Disney film of all time, although they didn’t really pose much of an argument as to why, other than the fact that it has developed a fan-base over time). Basil the Great Mouse Detective however is a strong contender for my favourite Disney film (although I will have to wait until I’ve seen the rest before I can say that for certain). Then Oliver and Company is a film that I thought was okay when I first watched it, but I grew to like it less and less over the course of writing the blog entry.

This has been an era which has fluctuated in quality rather dramatically, from good to bad, back to good and then back to bad again. It seems as though the studio was struggling to gain some proper momentum. However, this would all change very soon

Melissa’s Verdict

This era took us ages to get through, but I must say to its credit, no one can accuse it of not being an eclectic era at Disney, as the newer animators were clearly determined to find their niche, their identity and command of creative control at Disney. For me, Basil the Great Mouse Detective is the best film that Disney animation gave us during this era, and truly a candidate (at the moment) for one of the strongest films in the canon. Ron Clements and John Musker proved themselves as a strong partnership, and knowing that they would create more films together, with Basil being their debut as a team, is very exciting indeed. Basil has a fantastic protagonist and villain, with a witty script, and genuine threat in the final act – a stellar film. I would call The Fox and the Hound the second best of the Passing the Torch era quartet, as I enjoyed its melancholic, quiet nature, and the emotional levels that it goes to, particularly in its bittersweet ending. However, it is still a problematic film, with an unnecessary filler subplot and the mistake of not killing off a supporting role when they really should have done. Also The Fox and the Hound hasn’t quite got the stamp that I am starting to associate with the films of the new generation of animators, because it was the literal ‘passing the torch’ moment.

I had high(ish) hopes for The Black Cauldron, knowing that it was a cult film and perhaps was unfairly treated, but no … it was in fact a bad film. It was dull and irritating (with a horrible supporting character with the name of Gurgi), but had potential to have been much better, considering its source material. Oliver and Company is also a bad film, but a different kind of ‘bad’ to The Black Cauldron. While they were both messy films, Oliver and Company just has ‘marketing’ all over it, and feels embarrassing in how it tries so hard to be ‘cool’ – it also seemed to get worse the more we watched it.

So overall, it is a 50-50 era for me – I enjoyed two of the films, but disliked the other two. We could have called it the Coin Toss era! That’s hindsight for you. Or the Finding their Feet era? They really were finding their feet at Disney, and I must say, through the good and the bad, I have enjoyed seeing them find their way throughout this era – it was like watching them go through the misery of puberty – with moments of awfulness and embarrassment mixed with genuine wonder of they were capable of creating as they grew in confidence. As David said, watching the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty was a real eye-opener for me, as it revealed that yet again, Disney animation was on such rocky territory, and needed to stay on the creative tightrope or face falling for good. All of the Passing the Torch quartet of films had something great about them that I believe will stand them in good stead for the next era – The Fox and the Hound’s emotion, The Black Cauldron’s risk-taking, Basil the Great Mouse Detective’s strong script and characters, and Oliver and Company’s awareness that a hit song can go a long way. Put them together, and you may have a recipe for the film that marked the beginning of The Renaissance Era: The Little Mermaid.

Posted in Updates & Overviews | 6 Comments

Classic No. 28 The Little Mermaid (1989)

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, are property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The authors’ claim no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the authors and are not to be viewed as factual documentation

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First of all, SURPRISE! We had said in our Oliver and Company post that we were going to review Who Framed Roger Rabbit next … However, we were so thrilled to have finally reached this film that we really wanted to get our thoughts out here. Don’t worry there will be a review of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the future. Secondly, we (again!) apologise for this mad delay between posts and all we can say is … life happens. One of us went to visit family straight after finishing Oliver and Company, then we both went away to our families for Christmas. Plus in between all that – jobs, projects, eating, sleeping, etc. But we must implore that we love writing this blog – it’s such a fantastic journey for the two of us watching these films and getting the chance to explore them – we wish we could just write all the time! But alas. Hopefully the wait will have been worthwhile as we basically have here below a short ‘book’ for you. Thank you for your patience (throughout our blogging history!), we love reading your lovely comments, and we hope that you enjoy this one.

The Little Mermaid – the beginning of Disney animation’s Renaissance Era, and the era that took place in our lifetimes … this is a big one for us! So where are we at Disney now? Basil the Great Mouse Detective had been a critical success, Oliver and Company turned out to be a big financial hit and Who Framed Roger Rabbit a major financial and critical triumph. However when The Little Mermaid first went into development, these films had not been released yet – the Disney animators were still in the deepest, darkest frame of mind – The Black Cauldron was an expensive flop, management had changed dramatically, they were facing the troubling experience of being shafted out of Burbank and into Glendale, and animation was hanging by a thread. Change needed to happen …

Ron Clements initially pitched the film after coming across Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid at a bookshop and finding it to be a very cinematic story. Before pitching the idea, he wondered why Disney had not attempted Hans Christian Andersen’s story before, only to find out later that they had done. It was in development during the late 1930s and early 1940s as a short that likely would have been part of lo-and-behold … a package film.

It could have been part of the Pit of Despair era

However the planned package film would have been a series of Hans Christian Andersen shorts, and major developments took place on The Little Mermaid short. Storyboards, watercolour and charcoal drawings, script and story planing sessions with Walt, all took place. It was shelved due to the impact of the USA joining WWII, and remained in the archives until the 1980s. However when Ron Clements pitched it, The Little Mermaid was ‘gonged’ at the infamous gong show meetings, as it was considered to be too close to Splash and Splash 2 was in development. However a few days later, Jeffrey Katzenberg said that he and Michael Eisner had changed their minds and that they would love to put it into development. Splash 2 was never made (sorry Splash fans). After being such a successful writing partnership for Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Ron Clements teamed up with John Musker to write the script for The Little Mermaid and later they were assigned as directors. Then Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came on board, and a brilliant creative quartet was formed.

Peter Schneider had worked with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken on their off-Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors (a very cartoony musical – practically like a live action cartoon) and producer of the film version, David Geffen, highly recommend Howard Ashman to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Howard Ashman was given options of what projects he could pursue, and he chose The Little Mermaid: the only animated film in the list of choice projects. He was incredibly excited about the idea of working in animation, and embraced the possibilities that animation offers to storytelling through music. Howard Ashman not only wrote the lyrics but he co-produced the film with John Musker, and had a major impact on the production process and final film. Roy E. Disney referred to Howard Ashman as ‘another Walt’ to the new generation of animators and staff at Disney – there are almost no words to describe what he did for Disney at this point and for the future of animation and musical theatre. We recommend that you watch Howard Ashman’s lecture to the animators from 1987 … it is marvellous. We could spend our whole review quoting from it (but it would take a long time … and our reviews are long enough!).

This creative quartet wanted to make an animated film that could sit on the shelf with the ‘classics’ and the effort that would go into the process of making this film was phenomenal. Howard Ashman in his lecture emphasised that there is a very strong connection and application between musical theatre and animation, and that if you look back at the timeline of Disney’s films, its connection (musically speaking) to what was going on in theatre at the time were similar and would overlap. But at this stage in the 1980s, we have not had a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense at Disney since The Jungle Book (more than five songs that are not ‘performances’ or a ‘voice from the heavens’ within the film) – basically since the days of Walt, and even musical films were in a difficult spot at this point. Howard Ashman pointed out that audiences do find it hard to accept live action musicals, because ultimately they expect more realism from live action. Audiences are more willing to suspend their disbelief in the theatre, and Howard believed that animation has a similar impact – audiences know that there are actors in front of them performing and audiences know that what they are seeing on screen are drawings – the animated musical must return! Disney had an enthusiastic team who are determined to reignite the fire of the animated musical. Were they successful?

Original Trailer Time!

  • For the first time ever, Original Trailer Man’s opening salvo makes sense and is actually well-phrased (what is this madness?!)
  • Arial’s aria is hauntingly in sync with the logo
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty are perceived as Disney’s only classics …  hmm wonder why The Black Cauldron never makes it into these throw-backs?
  • ‘Exploring the mysteries of her strange new world’ … first of all you were doing so well, and second of all … what???
  • ‘Fantastic adventure above the waves’: a ship blowing up … must be for the alleged ‘boys’ in the audience according to ‘market research’
  • Trailer stop giving away the FARM! Seriously, there are so many spoilers here! So much content squashed into a short period of time
  • Apparently Chef Louis lives under the sea – what a twist!

Protagonist

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The last time that the canon featured a princess as the protagonist was thirty years ago with Aurora in Sleeping Beauty ­– it has certainly been a long time coming! However there is a strange reversal in thought when it comes to Ariel. Many have criticised the first trio of Disney Princesses, Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, for being passive, dull and thus not good role models for girls. In our reviews, we disagreed with this school of thought, admiring Snow White for her kindness and resilience in spite of her troubled life, and Cinderella for her maturity and level-headedness in response to her despicable step-family, meaning that when we see Snow White poisoned and Cinderella break down, it is heart-breaking to watch. Aurora is a trickier one as her role is much smaller than Snow White and Cinderella, with the three fairies (her guardians) as the true leads, but she is still a pawn in a horrible game. In fact, so far Disney princesses have fallen into two categories: either the unfortunate young women who suffer at the hands of family abuse (Snow White and Cinderella), or the privileged young women who become pawns in games  that are much bigger than them (Aurora and Ariel).

When The Little Mermaid came out, critics praised Ariel for being different from previous Disney princesses because she is active and when she wants something she doesn’t wait for it but goes out and gets it. These are also admirable traits for a leading character. It seems as if viewers complain when female protagonists are ‘passive’ and also when they are ‘active’, when they are ‘kind’ and when they are ‘rebellious’. If protagonists are female, from critical point of view, they are always under scrutiny. It is annoying. Why can’t a character just be what it is … a character?! Characters who have virtues and vices, positive and negative qualities, etc.

So … who is Ariel, what is she? Ariel is a teenage mermaid with a secret desire and curiosity for objects from the human world, and a yearning to be part of it. She saves a human prince from drowning, falls in love with him, and after a major argument with her father, King Triton, over her controversial desires, she strikes a deal with Sea Witch Ursula, to become human. The generational conflict between her and her father sparks an interesting and identifiable dynamic. She is more willing to see the good in the humanity, while he insists that they are their enemy – the open-minded younger generation in conflict with the conservative ‘set in their ways’ older generation. Ariel’s curiosity is a virtue and a flaw – her fatal flaw and yet ultimately the making of her.

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‘What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word? Burn?!’

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You had to ask didn’t you?

Ariel, as a character, has received a lot of criticism, primarily on account of being interpreted by many as an anti-feminist character. The ‘selling’ of her voice can be interpreted as the silencing of women – the chaste, silent, obedient model. But bear in mind, it is the villain who takes her voice away – a female villain at that, who is bombastic and not at all quiet – Ursula does not believe what she is preaching – she is spinning a line. In terms of Ariel’s voice, it revolves around the idea of sacrifice – to give up something so precious in order to experience her dream – it is a huge deal for her. When she loses her voice and gains legs, she is no demure figure, she is very expressive and active. From the perspective of others, she is eccentric as she combs her hair with a fork and blasts a pipe, completely lacking in ‘ladylike’ grace. Eric takes her on a tour of the kingdom and as opposed to being lead by him, Ariel is eagerly leading Eric around, excited by all of the wonders around her. In fact, she is so excited at being able to fulfil her dream of experiencing the human world that she seems to forget that she must kiss Eric or everything will go awry. It goes to show that her dream of experience comes before her desire for Eric.

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Besides, what is wrong with Ariel wanting to become a human woman? She is fascinated by the human world and we discover this from the first few minutes of her character’s introduction; she is a collector with a desire for knowledge. She does not sell her voice and gain legs and a vagina for a man. Ariel has been dreaming of life up above for a long time, long before meeting Eric (her collection must have taken years to build!) – it’s not as if she was singing about how spectacular it is being a mermaid, and then suddenly she meets Eric and BOOM she wants to get some cool legs to wrap around him. No. She dreams of being part of that world before meeting Eric. She is fascinated first by objects and customs, then by the beauty of man. It is only when she gets a crush on a young prince that the lyric changes from part of that world to your world. The idea of not only experiencing the world that she yearns for, but sharing it with someone, is even more exciting.

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‘Maybe if you had someone to share it with … someone you love’

Even after she has developed a crush on Eric, these shots alone reveal that her temptation to do the deal with Ursula is because she wants to be human, and not ‘get her man’:

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Look how anxious she looks about the ‘true love’ clause … it’s something that she is less sure about at this point

Ariel’s desire to experience the world is what draws us to her character. However, we must also point out: since when has falling in love become ‘anti-feminist’? We are feminists and we would say that love is a wonderful thing! Do you hate Bernard for falling in love with Bianca? Or Bambi with Faline? Besides, Ariel and Eric risk their lives for each other. Ariel saves Eric from drowning, Eric saves Ariel from giant drag-queen sea monster who is trying to kill her, and in between they protect each other from dangerous situations. Why is this not acknowledged more? They are a co-dependent partnership.

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Furthermore their relationship is very sweet and, despite the magical elements, there is a lot of familiarity in the way in which they respond to each other – for example, the animators capture the moment when you’re attracted to someone very well:

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CWO1S67VAAUHD09
vlcsnap-2016-02-01-23h29m45s889In connection to the representation of young love, the animators also portray emotional heartbreak masterfully too:

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(Special Note from Melissa: If this film had been made today, it is less likely that Ariel and Eric would get married. Would they be together? Yes. On the other hand, it does work as it means the two kingdoms have been united by love. However for me, the ideal happy ending would be that after the wedding, she and Eric go travelling and see the world together, as that was Ariel’s dream to begin with … well they do sail away on a ship – I can imagine that’s what they do afterwards!)

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And not this

(Special Note from David: Why is there even an assumption that they do get married straight away? Ever heard of a little thing called ‘passage of time’? It happens in films … a lot)

(Special Note from Melissa: One jump ahead of the plotline / One swing ahead of the tale / Sometimes audiences DON’T THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX!)

Writer, Graham Linehan made a comment [we’re paraphrasing here] that for a long time in television comedy, female characters were not allowed to be the butt of the jokes as often as male characters – more often than not, female characters would only be given ‘reacting’ material, rolling their eyes or sighing at the men and their comedy antics – not allowed to be goofballs themselves– ‘I make a special effort to write comically interesting female characters. I never want women in my shows to just be commenting on how silly the men are being. They also have to have negative characteristics to make it funny’. Ariel is a goofball – she creates some of the funniest scenes in the film, and it is so refreshing! And as Linehan said, characters have to have negative characteristics to be amusing.

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Ariel is criticised for being bratty and being stupid choices. Yes – she does behave like a brat and she does make stupid choices – we are not going to argue with that point. In fact, we were mightily miffed that she doesn’t turn up to her own performance, embarrassing and letting everyone down – not cool.

(Special Note from Both: For us as performers, this ticked us off even more than her putting the ocean in jeopardy … we have priorities!)

However, she is very young and is still learning. 16 is a tough age – we’ve been there!

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‘Ohhhhhh I want to go to the surface!’

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Watching this film, we were suddenly reminded of Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister in a family of five daughters. Because Pride and Prejudice is angled more from Elizabeth’s (the second eldest) point of view, readers are more prone to dislike Lydia. Lydia, spoiled and selfish, runs away with a man who has no intention of marrying her (and an imprudent match besides!); it causes a major scandal and nearly ruins her family’s reputation. Luckily for Ariel, Eric is no Mr. Wickham and is actually a decent fellow. Although in Triton’s eyes, Eric and Ariel would make a very imprudent match indeed! Being underdeveloped characters, it is easy to imagine Ariel’s sisters as the other Bennet sisters and impose their personalities on to them.

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‘O! Thoughtless, thoughtless Ariel!’

Akin to the Bennets, it is the youngest sister who marries before them all at 16. It must be why Triton was so keen on the news that Ariel was in love.

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‘Finally! One of my daughters will be married!’

We are not convinced by Triton’s merry mood – what father would be this happy? Happy that is until he finds out that it is a human ‘scoundrel’.

(Special Note from Melissa: But don’t worry Triton, eldest sister Attina will soon marry a wealthy, kind-hearted merman named Bingley, and 2nd sister Alana an even wealthier, brooding merman named Darcy)

It really puts that lake scene in a new light … another story for another day … ‘I wanna be where the mermaids are’

Speaking of Ariel’s sisters, do Disney princesses not tend to have female confidantes (at least up to this point in the canon)? Ariel’s friend is a boy (Flounder), she seeks advice from a male kook (Scuttle) and her chaperone is male (Sebastian), and yet she has no engagement with her six sisters. There could have been a great opportunity for a ‘sisters bonding’ scene when they realise that Ariel is in love – perhaps in the vein of West Side Story’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ scene. Her sisters are named Attina, Alana (initially misheard by David as Banana), Aquata, Adrina, Arista, Aquata and Adela (the wickedly talented one).

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If Ariel were here, they would make up all the colours of the rainbow … bravo Ariel

(Special Note from Melissa: I’m from now on insisting that the family name for Triton and his daughters is Dazeem … oh dear the sisters are so inconsequential that we’re talking about them in Protagonist rather than Supporting Cast … by the way ‘great father who loved us and named us well’ ??? It is as if Triton looked through a Babies Names book and got bored so he would never get any further than the As … every time)

All of the sisters’ names have significant definitions, and the name, Ariel, originates from Hebrew meaning ‘lion of God’. We really noted comparison between Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and our protagonist in The Little Mermaid. Shakespeare’s Ariel is an air spirit who desires liberty from his/her authoritarian master, as Disney’s Ariel desires freedom from the chains of her own fins and ultimately from her father’s rule. The Shakespeare connection is possibly not a coincidence – after all the name is a creation of the filmmakers – Hans Christian Andersen did not give his protagonist a name.

(Later: No, apparently it was a coincidence … they may have actually been more inspired by Footloose than Shakespeare)

Ariel is prone to rash and hot-headed decisions. She may be a bit of a Lydia – spoiled, self-centred, impulsive, and thoughtless, but she also has an element of Lizzy about her – stubborn, unconventional, energetic and playful. It means that Ariel is a well-rounded character, complete with virtues and flaws. Her actions make sense for who her character is – she is privileged yet restless, she has a dream that she knows cannot happen, and she is vulnerable when manipulated by an older and wiser villain. Ariel, as you often can be as a teenager, does not realise that her actions will have such an effect. She believes that she is adult enough to make her own decisions and mistakes. We imagine that she had no idea that if she had failed in her deal that her father would take her place.

(Special Note from Melissa: It reminds me of something that my Mum says – for the most part, a child will never love their parent as much as the parent loves their child. This makes complete sense in The Little Mermaid. As an adolescent, you don’t realise how much your parents will come through for you when you are in trouble, or how others can be impacted by your actions. Ariel probably thought that no one else would have to get involved)

Ariel is not a perfect protagonist – her inadvisable actions stem from foolishness, rebellion, and the follies of youth, but she is also driven by passion, energy and zest for life – that is what makes her a role model in a more positive way. But regardless of that isn’t it more important to have a character who feels real rather than a picture perfect role model for children? We do not see Ariel as an anti-feminist character – we see her as a character. She does suffer and her foolish actions can teach children about gullibility, trust and ultimately stranger danger. Her actions do result in suffering – it is the consequence of being manipulated and getting screwed over. The film teaches an important lesson: don’t sign contracts. Or at least read the small print. Or give it a few days to think it over. Otherwise, it’s a bad idea.

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Imperfect – yes. Interesting – also yes. Some have argued that Ariel didn’t learn anything from her experience. We disagree – she has gone on a massive journey. Words do not need to be said. A telling moment in her character is when Eric is washed up on the beach for a second time, and on this occasion, Ariel does not go to his side. She sits on a rock, distancing herself, grieving for her lost freedom, love and guilty for her actions, and it is such a melancholic image – it is very similar to the ending of The Fox and the Hound at this point. However when Triton gives her legs (and a glittery 1980s dress), her father is not giving her a prize for her foolishly stupid actions and bad behaviour. Triton realises that all this needn’t have happened had he been more understanding in the first place and communicated with his daughter. He knows that he has played a part in this calamity too. Triton letting her go also resonates profoundly with audiences – suddenly it becomes so identifiable – every parent has to let their child go.

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Lastly, Glen Keane and Mark Henn’s animation for Ariel is some of the best character animation that we have seen so far, particularly during the Part of Your World scene and when she is unable to express herself vocally. However, Jodi Benson’s voice work also contributes to the character’s appeal, bringing passion, strength and sincerity to her performance.

Oh yes, one more point … What did Ariel do on that third day??? Seriously, she wakes up, sees Eric saying that he wishes to marry Vanessa at sunset, runs away, and then BAM … cutaway and it’s nearly sunset. What did she do all day? Is this a plothole?

(Special Note from David: As far as I can judge, there are only three possible options: 1. Upon noticing that Eric was going to marry someone else, she went to her room and cried all day. 2. Knowing she had only one day left to be a human, she painted the town red and boogied the day away. 3. Starred in a midquel)

(Special Note from Melissa: Or she slept in, late into the afternoon … because she’s a numpty)

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‘Wha- wha- what time is it?’

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‘Three o’clock in the afternoon, your highness’

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‘Oh, thank God for that, I thought I’d overslept’

Antagonist

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Ursula is so terrifying that most characters do not speak her name: the Sea Witch, the Demon, the Monster, etc. Modelled on drag queen Divine, voiced by Pat Carroll and animated by Ruben Aquino, Ursula is one hell of a villain. She is fabulous dahling – an old school diva with pizazz.

(Special Note from Melissa: Ursula makes putting on lipstick seem like the best thing ever)

The script had been written with Bea Arthur in mind, but her agent turned the role down. However initially Elaine Stritch was cast as Ursula but her style of working clashed with Howard Ashman’s so she left the project and was replaced by Pat Carroll. Carroll has terrific inflections – she is eating those lines. She asked Howard to deliver Ursula’s lines because he had fantastic inflections, deliveries and ad-libs for the character, and when she asked if she could borrow from him – he said ‘I was hoping you would’.

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Oh Howard, you scamp!

This inflection came straight from Howard Ashman (we’ll come back to this in Music)

It is impossible not to consider Little Shop of Horrors when thinking of The Little Mermaid – after all, Ursula and Audrey II are both tentacled sassy villains who manipulate the vulnerable protagonist that dreams of something more, by bribing them with the object of their affection under the motivation of a world dominating scheme.

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Her squid/drag design is very inventive – animator, Matt O’ Callaghan apparently came up with the squid idea after many different sea creatures had been tried and tested by different animators. The animators thought that the fatter designs always looked more interesting than skinny ones. Ursula is hilarious and yet she is incredibly threatening. She is an intelligent villain, using weakness, espionage and vulnerability to manipulate and exploit her victims.

(Special Note from Melissa: Regina George from Mean Girls must have taken a leaf out of her book – tactical, slow manipulation – the fighting has to be sly in ‘girl world’ and she is one sly fighter. Clever villains can be only vanquished (according to Disney … and Tina Fey) through moves that don’t give the villain time to think their way out of it)

Whether it be impaled by a ship

Stabbed by a magic sword

Or hit by a bus

A word of advice to Disney villains: Do not make yourself huge. It only makes things worse:

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The gigantic Ursula was not actually the original ending. In the original ending, closer to Sleeping Beauty, Eric throws the trident and stabs her – hoisted by her own petard.  However this was changed on account of a note from Jeffrey Katzenberg – ‘Can you make it more Die Hard?’ So instead Eric steers the ship and stabs her in the belly. Eric has gone a step above Prince Phillip – no magic helping him out!

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In the original script, Ursula is Triton’s sister, which can be interpreted as an interesting jewel of subtext. Was Ursula originally a mermaid, but was punished for her crimes by banishment and being transformed into an ugly squid? How Greek. After all, she says that she used to live in the palace. If so what did she do?

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If they are brother and sister, this shot is rather … suggestive

Ursula is a master manipulator as she brilliantly exploits Ariel. She knows that this will work because a parent will sacrifice themselves for a child – as she describes it, she is ‘the key to Triton’s undoing’. Ursula is completely right and she succeeds. She exploits Ariel by getting her on her side – by being ‘nice’ to her she is perceived as the magical benefactor, which is perfectly timed after the huge row between Ariel and Triton – see how her minions immediately swoop in – Ursula likely witnessed the whole event. The fact that Ariel falls in love with a human boy is the icing on the cake for Ursula – ‘It’s too easy!’

Ursula’s ‘little garden’ of former mermen and mermaids offers horrific implications and grotesque imagery:

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Yikes! Worse than the fate of the Pleasure Island boys?

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How did ‘Beanpole and Fatass’ not pay the price? Discuss

Alongside her garden of horrors, she has two minions called Flotsam and Jetsam – eels with slippery voices and a glowing eye each, through which Ursula is able to observe and carry out her evil plans.