Sunday, August 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #33-34: Pocahontas,Hunchback.

Part 3 of my August reviews.

From the moment it begins, it's clear that the Disney company had a lot of hopes resting on Pocahontas. Being produced at roughly the same time as The Lion King, many of the most talented artists decided to jump on board the more seemingly prestigious film, with then CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and other executives wanting the story to be restructured, and to push for a more adult story and animation style. So confident was the studio that they were convinced the film would earn a Best Picture nomination like Beauty and the Beast did. Obviously, those hopes never turned into reality, gaining a very mixed response from both critics and general audiences.

When watching Pocahontas, It certainly doesn't become hard to see why it didn't hit the same sweet spot. What has particularly rubbed analysts the wrong way ever since its release are the great liberties Disney took with the story, and reimagining history to suit the dramatized narrative. Be that as it may, I'm going to state for the record that none of this is going to equate into my final grade. The way I see it, while it's in no way suitable as educational watching, accuracy is not always the same thing as quality, so I've never felt an overall film should be judged solely on that level of creative license.

With that said, what really irritates me in regards to the story is simply how flat it is. A very tired retread of Romeo & Juliet (which the film is only one mutual suicide by the romantic leads away from), so much of what fuels the emotional power of the narrative is how fondly you're able to connect to the characters, and I sadly can't manage to do so. Pocahontas herself is a decent character, and her very headstrong yet wise beyond her years directness and actions provide some effective moments, but when it comes to actual personality, there's not much else to her beyond those headstrong and wise tendencies. Still, that's more engagement than can be had with John Smith, who isn't much more beyond his initial introduction as a smooth talking adventurer, and even the charisma of Mel Gibson isn't enough to elevate that. Many of the other characters have their moments, and make great use out of their selected voice actors (with an early Christian Bale being among them), but they mostly fall into easily identifiable one-note archetypes, with even Radcliffe not proving that fearsome or humorous a villain.

All in all, the film feels made more as an exercise of beautiful cosmetics over good storytelling. But oh my goodness, is the film beautiful. I know there's only so many ways I can praise and compliment Disney's film animation before I start sounding repetitive and stale, but once again, every cent of their hard work is on the screen, and despite the more adult story not hitting the marks, those same marks were more than made up for by the realistically designed characters and environments, and fabulous and dazzling colors and effects work. The film also has an amazing soundtrack, with Alan Menken's orchestral score being one of his greatest efforts, and the songs he wrote alongside new lyricist Stephen Schwartz - of Rags and Children of Eden fame - are majestic and enrapturing tunes that make the movie far more enjoyable.

I'm conflicted. On the one hand, the story is a very poorly defined mess that doesn't hold a candle to its other contemporary predecessors, but at the same time, there's still enough greatness within the film that I can in no way call it a bad one. It's misguided, but still fairly enjoyable thanks to the excellent cosmetic touches, but not much more engaging beyond that.

*** / *****

The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
After their mega-successful family hits in the early 90's, in 1996, Disney decided to take on darker and more adult material and experimentation, with Beauty and the Beast directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale helming The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It wasn't a broadly appealing move, however, as Victor Hugo's original novel was quite a dark and sinister source material, and any changes that had to be made wouldn't have been looked kindly upon by purists. Still, they did it, and while gaining mixed to positive word at the time, the movie soon found a very devoted following.

In fact, between Les Miserables and The Hunchback, I think musicals are becoming the ideal format for Hugo's novels. I can't wait to see the musical adaptation of Toilers of the Sea. Of course, changes were no doubt going to be plentiful in order to fit the Mouse House's traditional family mold, but despite elements being simplified, lightened, or otherwise removed, to give credit to Disney, they were still true to Hugo's original themes and dark tone, and didn't talk down to the viewer... Mostly. While sticking true to the Disney formula, it still feels very gutsy for the studio to have delivered on those great ambitions, superbly meditating on issues of acceptance, cruelty, prejudice, as well as contemplation over who is more worthy of godly love and salvation over another, and why.

The darkest, and without doubt the best quality about the movie is the villain, Frollo, who best comes to represent Hugo's darker themes. It's often said that in serving God to address wrongdoing, one must take a step away from him, which comes to define Frollo all throughout. Under the guise of, and abusing his religious beliefs to twist his will over others, the man commits unspeakable acts of murder, torture, imprisonment, arson and genocide in the most sadistic and horrid fashion, always excusing it, and genuinely believing his own lies. Even when grappling with his mortality, and driven to madness by his mindless lust for Esmeralda (showcased in the standout song "Hellfire"), he still refuses to take any actual blame for himself, driven to progressively egomaniacal and violent lengths that would make Sister Aloysius look meek by comparison.

So the other characters are far less devious by comparison, and while simpler compared to their villainous foil, the main heroes are each fantastic and complexly realized nevertheless... all except for three. Even fans of the film will fully admit that the weakest element of the film are Quasimodo's gargoyle sidekicks, as their antics frequently upset or undermine the weighty and dramatic tone of the movie, and seem built purely to engage the children. Truth be told, I don't even hate them that badly, as they do get a few decent chuckles despite their annoyance factor. What I really hate is their song sequence. Not because the song itself is bad (it really isn't), but because of its placement after Frollo's vengeful quest to find Esmeralda, burning homes in Paris in the meantime. This sequence *completely* stops the movie dead in its tracks and pulls a hard tonal shift that undermines the tightly wound tension both before and after it plays. To be fair, they do make a quick joke acknowledging the devastation in the city, but that doesn't excuse sporadically jumping between tones like whiplash, so merely by association of this glaring flaw, they are such weak inclusions.

But to make up for that, Wise and Trousdale's direction are as top notch as their previous film, and - as always- the animation in the film is astounding. The haunting, epic, Gothic production design is magnificent stuff to witness, and seeing the streets and the squares of Paris populated by so many unique and eye-catching figures is deeply immersive stuff. The dark tone also allows Disney mainstay Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz great inspiration in the film's musical score. The most "musical-esque" film to come from the Renaissance, the film weaves and paces between its many songs one after the other in (near) seamless fashion, and while the two do follow into a certain formula for a few notable compositions, they also stretch themselves when creating some of the most atypical Disney songs in the studio's history, with "The Bells of Notre Dame" and "Hellfire" standing out as some of the most inspired and technically well accomplished songs in their library.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is admittedly a bit of an uneven film, but no amount of jarring comedic gags can damage the pure, sweeping power of the film, or rob the expertly built dramatic gravity of its impact. In fact, I'd say it's become far more enjoyable and engaging as I've grown older, and out of all the Disney movies getting live-action remakes today, I'd love to see this one get a similar treatment (though it would sadly be without my original dream casting for Frollo, Alan Rickman). Still, the movie has more than enough greatness that it deserves to be seen. To this day, I consider it Disney's most underrated film.

****1/2 / *****

And with today's rundown concluded, I'm announcing another quick schedule change. In order to catch up to my original plan to end my Disney reviews with Moana in November, I'll be posting new editions to the retrospective every ten days starting September 10th. So until then, I hope you've enjoyed reading my thoughts, and I'll see you next time when we conclude the Disney Renaissance...

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