Overlooked Disney Movies

I think it’s safe to say that Disney is the gold standard for animated movies these days. From “Snow White” in 1937 through “Monster’s University” in 2013, Disney (via its parent company PIXAR), Disney has been delighting kids and adults for decades. And yet, there are still some Disney movies that seem to get overlooked. For this week’s blog post I have put together a list of ten Disney movies you probably have not seen but should. Now, I have not included any PIXAR movies because that’s a topic for another day. Whether you’re a kid or an adult who’s a kid at heart, here are a few animated titles worth checking out.

10. The Rescuers (1977)

“The  Rescuers” tells the story of two mice named Bernard and Bianca. They are members of an organization of mice called the Rescue Aid Society. Together they set off on a journey to rescue an orphaned girl who is being exploited by an unscroupulous treasure hunter. It turns out the girl is in Devil’s Bayou. The story is simple but very enjoyable. The movie also has a few good songs and colorful supporting characters along the way.

9. The Black Cauldron (1985)

Here’s one for those of you that like Disney and have a penchant for dungeons and dragons. “The Black Cauldron” is about a young boy and a ragtag group of friends who set out on a quest to find a black cauldron. The cauldron is said to be the embodiment of evil. The group must find it before a tyrant can. If he finds it first he will become even more evil. Disney does a lot of retelling of classic tales and myths. The animation is beautiful as always, especially the scenes of magic where they fill the screen with detailed images of smoke and fire. And, as a bonus: the movie has a character that is a psychic pig.

8. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

“The Emperor’s New Groove” is one of the most original Disney movies in terms of story. In the movie, a vain emperor wants to build a water park in his kingdom just for himself on his birthday. Unfortunately, it will destroy one of the villages in his kingdom. The plot twist comes early on when he is poisoned by an administrator whom he recently fired. However, the administrator botches the assassination attempt and the emperor is turned in a llama rather than killed. The emperor then teams up with a llama herder to straighten things out. But the herder will only do this if the emperor promises to move the location of the water park (he lives in the villages that would be destroyed by it). Disney movies always have a lot of humor in them but this is one of the funniest.

7. Hercules (1997)

Part of the reason I love “Hercules” is that I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. Besides telling the story of Hercules, one of the most famous myths, this movie has some really good songs and great celebrity voices for the characters. My favorite is James Woods who has a lot of fun doing the voice of Hades. The story is straightforward enough. Hercules, the son of Zeus, is stripped of his powers as a child. In order the regain them he must become a true hero. There are some great songs along the way, including “Go the Distance” and “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” This is a great way to introduce people to Greek mythology and enjoy the magic of Disney.

6. 101 Dalmatians

I will freely admit to being more of a cat person, but dogs are cool too. And “101 Dalmations” is a delight! In the movie a litter of dalmatian puppies are stolen by the evil Cruella de Vil. She wants the puppies for their fur so she can make a coat. The parents of the puppies set out to rescue them. The dogs have lots of interesting adventures along the way and there are genuinely tense scenes of the dogs attempting to escape. In one of my favorite scenes the parents enlist the help of the “twilight bark.” It’s kind of MORSE code for dogs to help other dogs. This movie is fun and funny. It also has one of the best villain songs in Disney history.

5. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

“The Great Mouse Detective” was one of the first Disney movies I saw as a kid. Decades later I still love it and can’t understand why it hasn’t found a wider audience. As always the animation is sharp. The music here is done by the great Henry Mancini. There are some great songs, especially “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.” The story tells the story of the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes (he even lives in Sherlock’s house!). He is Basil of Baker Street. He helps a mouse named Olivia find her missing toy maker father. He has been kidnapped by Fidget, a bat who is a henchmen of the evil Ratigan. The villain forces Olivia’s father to make a life-size robot version of the Queen of England (the mouse version of course). Ratigan plans to dispose of the Queen and at a ceremony have the robot Queen abdicate power to him. So Ratigan is one of those classic villains that wants world domination. I love the way this movie introduces us to the basics of Sherlock Holmes in such a creative way, the animation, and the voice over performance by the great Vincent Price as Ratigan. A lot of celebrities just do voice overs for the money. Vincent Price has a lot of fun with this and it comes through with the animation. The climactic scene inside Big Ben is great to look at and thoroughly exciting.

4. Fantasia (1940)

“Fantasia” may seem like an odd choice to some on this list. After all, it is regarded as a classic. But I still don’t feel like it has gotten the appreciation it deserves from the general public. Part of that may have to do with the fact that there really isn’t a story here. It’s Disney animation set to some of classical music’s standards. Some of the pieces include Dance of the Hours, Ave Maria, Rite of Spring, and, most famously, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Whenever I get asked to pick my favorite Disney movie this is my selection. “Fantasia” sparked my love of classical music and my appreciation for the artistry of Disney. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence with Mickey Mouse is one of my favorite scenes in the history of cinema. Then there’s that wonderful sequence showing the extinction of the dinosaurs set to Rite of Spring. “Fantasia” introduces you to great animation and some of the greatest classical music. It’s really worth a look!

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” fell through the cracks I think partially because it’s one of Disney’s darker movies. That’s really a shame because it’s one of the richest Disney movies in terms of animation style. Just look at how the animators vividly create Notre Dame Cathedral. The story is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name It tells the tale of Quasimodo, the odd-looking but gentle bell-ringer of Notre Dame. He lives in the cathedral under the watchful eye of Claude Frollo, the Minister of Justice. Quasimodo yearns to get out of the confines of Notre Dame and see what’s on the outside. There he meets and befriends the gypsy Esmerelda. Frollo wants to rid Paris of the gypsies and Quasimodo wants to save Esmerelda. Tolerance is the central theme of this movie and its done in a way that seems real and not manipulative. The score was done by the great Alan Menken (if you don’t know that name you should turn in your Disney viewing card) and the lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz (you may be familiar with his work for a little musical called “Wicked”). Some of the musical highlights include “Bells of Notre Dame,” “Out There,” and “God Help the Outcasts.” This is a beautiful film that deserves more recognition.

2. Mulan

Most young women want to be Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. I’d rather be Mulan. “Mulan” is about a Chinese girl named Mulan who disguises herself as a young man to take her father’s place in the Chinese army when the Huns attack and the country’s men are drafted into service. Mulan’s father is old and frail and she doesn’t want to see him die in battle. The girl pretending to be a man leads to some pretty effective comic scenes. Along the way Mulan is aided by a dragon named Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy). What really sets the movie apart aside from the animation is the music and the themes in the story. Mulan is a very relatable character. She’s an outcast who has trouble living up to the expectations of her family and she doesn’t fit in with China’s definition of femininity. It’s great that Mushu is an outcast too and the two of them are both out on a quest for redemption. In addition to all this there’s music by the great Jerry Goldsmith. My favorite song in the movie is “Reflection.” It’s one of the most heartbreaking and honest songs in any Disney movie. If you need inspiration put that song on your iPod. Mulan is inspiring and a lot of fun.

1. Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001)/Titan, A.E. (2000)

I’m kind of cheating here at the end. But the reason I have these movies in a tie is because I think they were overlooked for the same reasons. They were both Disney movies without song and dance numbers, they were straight up science fiction films, and the visuals were radical departures for Disney.

“Atlantis: the Lost Empire” is about a young adventurer named Milo Thatch. His mission in life is to find the lost city of Atlantis. He is approached by an eccentric millionaire who has a team all put together to do just that. Milo sets out on a hi-tech submarine (likely an homage to the Disney live-Action classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to find Atlantis. Milo and his crew do find it, but then Milo finds out one of the crew members in it only for the money and would rather wipe out Atlantis and its people so he can get rich. The visuals in “Atlantis” are the closest Disney has come to Japanese anime. The look of the film was inspired largely by Mike Mignola, the comic book artist behind Hellboy. The result is a visual striking masterpiece. It’s one of the most exciting Disney movies to be sure.

The best way to describe “Titan, A.E.” is that it’s Disney animation meets the Joss Whedon series “Firefly.” The movie is set in 3028. Earth is under attack by an alien race called the Drej. The Drej destroy Earth with an energy beam just as Earth is evacuating the last of mankind. After Earth is destroyed, humans are exiled to space and submitted to ridicule and exploitation by other alien races throughout the galaxy. It turns out that one of the survivors named Cale carries a ring that will lead him to a ship named Titan which contains a device that will create a new Earth where humanity can unite and thrive again. The Drej set out to find the Titan first to prevent humans from becoming a powerful race again. “Titan, A.E.” is a red-blooded adventure movie and a great science fiction movie. It’s done with a lot of style and wit. Give this one a chance. You won’t regret it!

That’s my list. What Disney movies do you think are underrated? Go to the comment section and discuss!

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5 Zombie Movies to See Before “World War Z”

This week the movie “World War Z” opens. Before you rush off to the multiplex to see it, I recommend seeing the following movies. The zombie genre has been going strong for a while now, and with the popularity of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” the genre is surely here to stay. All of that being said, here are five movies to get you into the genre.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Any conversation about zombie films starts and ends with George A. Romero. While there had been some zombie movies released prior to “Night of the Living Dead,” it was really the movie that defined the genre. Shot in black and white and on a shoestring budget, it remains a terrifying classic to this day. It starts off as kind of a goofy movie with people running around in a graveyard. Once the zombies show up though it gets crazy/scary in a hurry. It’s really interesting to see they way people react when faced with a zombie apocalypse. Look at what happens when the main characters end up having to barricade themselves in the basement. You see people’s true colors in the worst of situations. George A. Romero ended up doing a series of zombie movies, but this is the one that started it all. If you want to check out another one in the series I highly recommend “Dawn of the Dead.” It’s equal part zombie movie and consumerism satire. While Romero’s films may be regarded as just zombie movies, they usually have something to say about society as well.

2. Evil Dead (1981)

There have been a lot of cabin in the woods zombie movies, but this is really the standard. Sam Raimi’s low-budget shocker tells the story of a bunch of kids who go to a cabin in the woods and get turned into zombies. When they arrive at the cabin one of them reads a book that was left there. In reading the Necronomicon, or “book of the dead,” out loud, the reader unleashes the demons that lurk in the forest. There’s a particularly terrifying scene of one of the characters literally getting attacked by the trees in the forest. Add the creepiness of claymation zombies, lots of fake blood, and some of the best killer point of view shots, and you have a very effective zombie film. Two other movies followed in what became the Evil Dead trilogy: “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” and “Army of Darkness.” All of them are worth a look for the scare factor as well as the genius of actor Bruce Campbell.

3. Zombie (1979)

If foreign films are a little more up your alley, then you owe it to yourself to see Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie.” In the film the zombie plague comes by way of boat. A boat washes up in the Italian harbor with a zombie on it. The zombie proceeds to eat the Coast Guard members and a zombie outbreak ensues. There’s a plot line about a girl trying to find her father (he owned the boat the zombie sailed in on), but that’s really not the point. The real draw here is the opportunity to see how the Italians interpret zombies. They hold nothing back. It’s full-on gore, but it’s done in an artistic and beautiful way. It’s one of the best-looking films in the genre.

4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

At least one zombie comedy has to be on the list, right? In a tight race that came down to this and “Zombieland,” “Shaun of the Dead” was the winner. If you want some idea of what to expect just imagine a cross between “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Night of the Living Dead.” The movie is about an average Joe named Shaun, played brilliantly by Simon Pegg, who decides to turn his life around while dealing with a zombie apocalypse that happens in his neighborhood. In between dealing with his humdrum job, fixing things with his girlfriend, dealing with the insanity of his own family, he has to deal with fighting zombies as well. One of my favorite scenes involves Shaun and his friend trying to decapitate zombies by throwing records at them. The dialogue, especially in that scene, is just brilliant! This is a good one for those that want zombies and some good British humor.

5. Dead Alive (1993)

Before becoming world-famous for directing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson did a lot of low-budget horror films. The best of them is “Dead Alive.” The plot? I’ll let the Internet Movie Database give you the straight dope. “A young man’s mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. She gets sick and dies, at which time she comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors.” It sounds like a terrible story, but it’s very inventive along the way. I especially like the scene where the protagonist literally starts taking zombies down with a lawnmower. “Dead Alive” is gory, but in more of a cartoonish than grotesque way. Many of Hollywood’s brightest stars got their start in the horror genre. It’s no surprise that Peter Jackson was one of them.

Five Film Moments Made by Music

This week I would like to bring your attention to the importance of the film composer. As important as acting, directing, and special effects are, often it’s the film score that adds just the right impact to make a film resonate with an audience. Here are five moments in film history that would not be possible without the film’s score.

1. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial

If you know one name in film composing, it should be John Williams. There are so many examples of his music enhancing a movie it was hard to narrow it down. At some point I fully expect to do a feature on this blog about just him and his importance in film history. That being said, I went with his music from E.T. This movie has so many great things going for it: it was directed by Steven Spielberg, it had a story that appealed to kids as well as adults, great performances (especially from the child actors), etc. But I truly believe it would not be half the movie it is without the beautiful score by John Williams. Imagine the iconic scene of E.T. soaring over the moon on a bike without the music. You can’t! It just doesn’t have the same impact. This moment sends chills down my spine every time I see it. Then consider the last act of the movie where E.T. and Elliott say goodbye. The music adds an operatic feel to the end of the story.

2. Back to the Future

For my money one of the most underrated film composers is Alan Silvestri. It’s shocking that he’s not more respected considering his resume: The Polar Express, Cast Away. Back to the Future, and, recently, The Avengers. For the purpose of this week’s topic I am going with his score from Back to the Future. Back to the Future is one of those rare movies that I find to be absolutely perfect. It had a brilliant screenplay, great performances from Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and some great music by Huey Lewis and the News. But Silvestri’s score adds a lot to the story. While Back to the Future is mostly a comedy, it’s also a science fiction/adventure movie. The moment that I want to focus on is when Marty finally heads back to 1985. There’s so much going on in this scene: Marty pushing the DeLorean to 88 miles per hour, Doc Brown making sure all the things are in place for lighting to get channeled into the flux capacitor to send Marty home, and the crazy weather. The music really helps build us up to the moment of Marty successfully going back to his own time. It’s exciting and beautiful all at the same time.

3. Dr. No

John Barry gave us so much over the course of his storied career. But he will forever be known as the composer of the iconic James Bond theme. The Bond franchise recently turned fifty, and even today Barry’s original theme is ever-present. There may be different actors playing Bond, different people directing the films, and even different composers for the films. But from the iconic opening gun barrel sequence to the closing credits, the iconic theme is still there. There’s something about the simple theme just screams action, adventure, and just plain cool! So, for your consideration , I offer the opening title sequence from Dr. No. It set the stage for a franchise that would be entertaining us fifty years later. The name’s Bond. James Bond.

4. Psycho

Perhaps the only director/composer team as famous as Steven Spielberg and John Williams is Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herman. This was another case where I really struggled with narrowing down which example to use. In the end, is there really a more iconic scene than the shower scene in Psycho? It’s one of the most terrifying and brilliant moments in the amazing career of Alfred Hitchcock. On a personal note, this was the first horror film I ever saw. I was terrified of my shower after seeing this! It’s scary enough seeing someone murdered in a shower, but add violins that sound like knives and you have the recipe for one of the scariest scenes in cinema. Do not watch the clip if you plan on showering tonight or are just faint of heart!

5. Saturday Night Fever

My final example involves disco. Seriously. Now, I’m not a fan of disco per say. Most of it sucks. But the Bee Gees are an exception. Their music was one of the major reasons for the success of Saturday Night Fever, the film that launched John Travolta’s career. Saturday Night Fever may be dated today, but it’s still a landmark film. The opening sequence with Staying Alive in the background as John Travolta struts through the streets of Brooklyn is one of the best entrances any actor has ever made. There are also all the great scenes of dancing to disco music, including a dance competition that’s a major part of the plot. Just a fair warning: Bee Gees music does tend to get stuck in your head. But at least it’s great music!

Essentials by Genre: Documentaries

This week will be the first installment of an ongoing series where I highlight essential movies by genre. The genre of the week is documentaries. Documentaries are great for several reasons. My favorite thing about them is that they can be about virtually any topic: politics, art, history, etc. If you have never watched a documentary you are really missing out! Here are five documentaries I consider to be the essentials for introducing you to the genre.

 

1. Murderball

My favorite documentary is actually a fairly recent one: Murderball.” This documentary introduced me to a sport that I had no idea existed: wheelchair rugby. The 2005 documentary shows how quadriplegic athletes play the sport and gives us insight into the rivalry between the USA and Canada at the Paralympics. It’s fascinating to learn about the sport and it’s incredibly moving to listen to these athletes tell their stories. If you rent the DVD make sure to check out the bonus feature that shows an interview with a few of the athletes on Larry King Live.

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2. Fahrenheit  9/11

Now we go from the inspirational to the political. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the highest grossing documentary ever. It certainly rubbed some people the wrong way politically. Whether you love or hate Michael Moore, you have to give him credit for making going out to the theater to see documentaries mainstream. Even if you completely disagree with everything in this documentary, it is a great way to start a political dialogue. “Fahrenheit 9/11” takes a critical look at the War on Terror and the presidency of George W. Bush. Watch it and make your own conclusions.

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3. The Thin Blue Line

It’s impossible to study documentaries without Errol Morris. There are so many documentaries of his worth checking out. Perhaps his best one is “The Thin Blue Line” from 1988. The documentary is about the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976 and the court case that followed. Morris uses interviews to create a  Rashomon-style telling of the case. Morris takes apart the case piece by piece and it even led to an innocent man getting exonerated. If that does illustrate the power of film I don’t know what will.

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4. The Times of Harvey Milk

Here’s a documentary that is especially timely in our modern political climate. “The Times of Harvey Milk” is an Oscar-winning documentary about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor of San Francisco. The documentary chronicles his rise from grassroots organizer, to supervisor, to martyr. The documentary does a great job detailing his significance as a gay rights activist and also brilliantly dissects the aftermath of his assassination. With DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions due from the Supreme Court soon, this one is all the more relevant.

Image5. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

The last documentary on my list is actually a documentary about film-making itself. “Hearts of Darkness” is an in-depth look at the making of the classic film “Apocalypse Now.” It uses behind the scenes footage to show us all the struggles it took for Francis Ford Coppola to make his landmark Vietnam War film. This documentary highlights some of the issues of the the production. Some included battling weather, dealing with health problems of the actors, and the film going over budget. It’s a great documentary if you’re interested in what it’s like to make a film or if you’re looking to make one yourself and want to know what you’re getting into. It’s essential viewing for anyone interested in film and film history.

That’s my list! What are your favorite documentaries and why? Discuss in the comment section below!

Overlooked Film Spotlight: The Terminal

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For this week’s blog entry I would like to shine a light on “The Terminal.” It’s hard to imagine any film that stars Tom Hanks and is directed by Steven Spielberg being underrated, but this film is! For whatever reason it didn’t do well at the box office. Maybe it’s because the taste level of film audiences has dropped in recent years, as evidenced by the cinematic garbage that rakes in big money every week. But rather than getting on my soapbox about that, I will focus on what makes “The Terminal” a winner and why if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.

“The Terminal” tells the tale of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks). Navorski lands in New York City as a man without a country. While he was in the air there was a military coup in his country (Krakozhia, a fictional country). Navorski’s passport and visa are no good because the United States does not recognize his country. He can’t go home or enter the United States. In the meantime he is forced to live in the international transit lounge of JFK airport. At this point a lesser movie would have gone for cheap airport jokes. But “The Terminal” is better than that.

The humor in “The Terminal” derives from the interaction of characters. Navorski makes friends with several airport workers. Among them is a luggage sorter named Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna), a janitor named Gupta (Kumar Pallana), an immigration officer named Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana), and a flight attendant named Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones). These characters are all developed thoroughly through brilliant dialogue. The supporting cast is not just there for comic relief to support Hanks. One of my favorite subplots involves Viktor getting Enrique and Dolores together in a romantic relationship by figuring out what Dolores is interested in when he sees her every day at the immigration office. I smiled and laughed when it was revealed Dolores was a Trekkie. This joke is even more funny now that Saldana is playing Uhura in the new Star Trek films. There’s also a romantic relationship of sorts that develops between Viktor and Amelia. It’s fascinating how the two of them help each other through their problems with humor and understanding

Along with all these great characters there is a villain who is more than you might expect. His name is Frank Dixon, the head of immigration and customs at JFK. He’s played by the brilliant and criminally-underrated Stanley Tucci. Dixon isn’t a one-note bad guy. Dixon is simply a man who wants control and has a tough job. While we identify with and root for Viktor, we see Dixon’s side and realize more than anything he’s a man who wants control. It’s an amazingly subtle performance by Tucci.

What else makes “The Terminal” a standout film? Well, there’s the fact that even though this film takes place in an airport terminal it was filmed on sets. Believe it or not, the filmmakers didn’t shut down an airport terminal to get their shots. Alex McDowell and his production design team really did a marvelous job. It has to be seen to be believed! There’s also the score by frequent Spielberg collaborator and film composing legend John Williams.

Above all, what sells this movie and makes it a joy to watch is the beautiful performance by Hanks. His Viktor is an incredibly sympathetic character. What makes Viktor lovable isn’t just his situation or his accent (which, I might add, Hanks pulls off beautifully without it becoming a gimmick). It’s the character’s humanity and how he rubs off on the supporting cast. The interaction between Viktor and the airport workers is totally believable and engaging. Then there’s the Viktor/Dixon dynamic. Hanks and Tucci are perfect foils for one another and it’s a joy to watch! At the end of the film, when we find out why Viktor has come to New York City, it’s one of the most moving moments in any recent film! I won’t reveal it here because I want you to experience it yourself.

“The Terminal” has the humanity and optimism of some of Frank Capra’s best pictures. It’s magic comes about through characters and dialogue. Those things are hard to find in films these days. This is a movie for people sick of 3D, CGI, and other cheap cinematic tricks. Do yourself a favor and see “The Terminal!”