Saturday, September 10, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #35-37: Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan.

My rundown of the Disney Renaissance finally concludes in this edition...

As a kid, one of my favorite Disney movies was Hercules. I'm not really even sure why, but every time I watched it, I always had such a blast. Now that I'm older, while I still quite enjoy the movie fine, I feel as if it hasn't aged nearly as gracefully as other Renaissance features. In fact, in more of an unfair match-up, I often find its Renaissance imitation competitor from that same year, Don Bluth's Anastasia, to be a superior film in many areas, feeling closer to a Disney film than this one does.

The fourth film to be directed by the double-act of John Musker and Ron Clements, I suppose what made me love the film as much as I did as a child is - ironically enough - perhaps my biggest issue with the film. Throughout the entire film, it's all too apparent that the duo are attempting to recreate the success of Aladdin, with a similarly satirical comedic vibe, infused with numerous references to pop culture, and throwing out a great deal of oddball artistic choices that seem uncooperative on paper. Sadly, the results don't translate quite as well, as the film unfairly carries a shadow of inferiority compared to Aladdin, and it's eclectic story and artistic elements wind up becoming so disparate that they don't connect as well. It's very hard to have Gospel musical accompaniment, Gerald Scarfe supervised Greek mythology, and fast-talking James Woods come together in a coherent manner.

Lacking in unity though it may be, Hercules is quite fun to watch even still, despite its slightness in storytelling. Essentially a mix between Superman and Rocky, the film falls back into a number of sports and superhero movie cliches, sometimes quite well for comedic effect, but with a few hitches along the way. Hercules ends up becoming the least interesting character in his own movie, all too obviously borrowing from Clark Kent, and only rarely showing real shades of complexity. The supporting characters all turn in far more entertaining work, with Susan Egan's  Lois Lane-esque Meg becoming an atypically cynical, as well as inspired love interest for the studio to create, and Danny DeVito doing his best Mickey Goldmill as Herc's snarky trainer.

But if the movie has anything great to its credit, Hades, as voiced by James Woods, is far and away the high point of the film; One of the very best villains to come from the studio, and without doubt its funniest. Unlike most Disney villains defined by their calm and reserved behavior and schemes, Hades is something of a total antithesis to all of this; A smooth-talking, but temperamental and impatient rapid-fire manipulator who wears his sarcastic cockiness and center of attention attitude like a badge. Even Woods' voice feels delightfully bizarre when applied to the character, speaking less like a sinister master of evil, and more like an LA lawyer, and the mile a minute improvisation and angry fits lead to much of the best laughs in the movie.

Technically speaking, the film is also quite fun. Despite appearing to be a downgrade when compared to the prior Hunchback of Notre Dame, the oddball design work of Scarfe translate a wholly unique visual style for the film, even allowing for inspired meshing of 3D and 2D. One such instance is the Hydra battle, easily the best sequence in the entire film, allowing the movie to strip itself down to basics, and give the movie a needed shot of intensity to combat the heavy pop culture and modernized gags in the rest of the movie. That said, the songs fare less better, as Disney mainstay Alan Menken hits creative burnout when forming the musical narrative, and for his standards are notably generic, and surprisingly sound cheaply synthed at times. This isn't helped by new lyricist David Zippel's mediocre contributions, lacking much of the wit that made previous Disney musicals so much fun, aside from the musical highlight, the inspired anti-love song number "I Won't Say I'm in Love".

The positives outweigh the negatives to be sure, and Hercules is quite enjoyable and funny to watch, but next to Pocahontas, it has aged the least well out of the ten Renaissance era efforts. Out of all the Musker/Clements movies, it is my least favorite.

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

A truly interesting inclusion to Disney's roster, Mulan was a late addition to the Disney Renaissance, and after some mild disappointment following Hercules, it's modest, but very good success with audiences and critics was a nice turnaround. In the years since, it has also gained a strong response from all kinds of viewers, if not for the film itself being one of the Disney greats, then because it's hero was one of the Disney greats.

And yes, Mulan is a fantastic character, an impressive heroine for Disney's films thanks to the pure strength of her. She's particularly remembered for her fierce determination, her headstrong but brave actions, her capability in combat and her quick-witted thinking, and she's also the first Disney hero to rack up a massive body count. In other words, she's awesome, but that's not the only thing that makes her an interesting character. She may be strong, bold, and intelligent, but what makes her so engaging is, in spite of those things, her vulnerability as a result of personal uncertainty. With much of the film focusing on the theme of honor and legacy, Mulan's intentions of enlisting in army training in place of her father are indeed noble, but it's her desire to prove herself to others, and how she grapples over which intention was her real driving force, that make her stand out and feel fully developed. Hers is a very yin-and-yang character, where her strength is offset perfectly by her fragility, and at every crucial plot development, the film more and more makes us feel compelled to root for her.

It helps to have her surrounded by a fun and lively batch of supporting characters. Some of them used in quite a dramatic fashion, such as her fierce commanding officer Shang, and her ailing father. Others serve for some effective comic relief, such as Mulan's three closest fellow warriors, or character actor James Hong as a highly scrutinizing counsel to the Emperor, but the most prominent belongs to Eddie Murphy's rapid-fire, high-energy dragon sidekick Mushu, another attempt by the studio to replicate the same success they'd experienced with the Genie and Timon and Pumbaa. While the character's antics occasionally feel distractingly modernized and overplayed, Murphy still manages to elicit some good laughs and moments of clever improvisation. And just like any other Disney movie, all good heroes need a good villain... unfortunately, the villain of this film, Shan-Yu, can hardly be called good, built in as one-note and forgettable a mold as any villain would ever dread to reach. Even despite being built up as a vicious threat and an imposing terror, because of the lack of any real personality or presence, his villainy and cruelty can't even be enjoyed in the most superficial of ways.

Craft-wise, Disney once again delivers, with the animation being a fabulous exercise in culture specific new styles, utilizing a wide array of colorful and beautiful effects artistry, and projecting a great sense of scale to the film. The animation is put to greater use when it comes to establishing the ambiance of the film, with moments of pure silence and minimal dialogue featuring prominently, and allowing for remarkable subtlety in the storytelling. The songs, on the other hand, aren't up to the usual standards of Disney's history, with only one ("I'll Make a Man Out of You") being of any real note, while the rest are otherwise bland or less inspired, often paling (perhaps unfairly) in comparison to Jerry Goldsmith's excellent orchestral score.

So while Mulan is not a great movie, it is nevertheless a welcome addition to the Disney Classics banner, and if only for giving us one of the finest Disney protagonists to date, is always a very enjoyable movie to revisit.

**** / *****

Often deemed the official end of the Disney Renaissance, it came as no surprise that Disney was next set to release a movie based on Tarzan. Given great attention by media thanks to its marketing campaign, and proving a good hit with audiences, Tarzan also has some personal connection for me, as it's the first Disney movie I ever saw theatrically. While in some ways proving a product of its time, it's nevertheless a much deserved last hurrah for Disney's legendary 11 year run, as well as a worthy benchmark to judge all future animated Tarzan films.

At the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated feature that Disney had ever taken on, tallied to a total of $130 million. A large reason for this rise in budget is no doubt due to the new lengths Disney had gone to in perfecting their animation skills. No doubt inspired by the work of their computerized cousins at Pixar, Tarzan made greater use of merging new 3D techniques and camera movements with their signature hand-drawn abilities. You can particularly see the effect this has when put into the sequences of Tarzan leaping and swinging through the trees, as the environments move at such fast and furious pace, with a wide depth of field that give the scenes an almost vertigo-inducing sense of scale, especially during the film's intense set-pieces. The animation on characters are just as impressive, particularly for delivering on Tarzan's life-like animal movements and primal ticks. While moments of him playing Tony Hawk on the branches border on 90's EXTREME, the fantastic effort of the design team cannot be understated.

At the same time, a great factor to Tarzan's success is owed to a surprising level of maturity in the storytelling... for the most part. The film goes to great lengths to translate the movie's dramatic focus of Tarzan's sense of unbelonging and tear between ape and human, with the influence of Chris Buck (who would later make a name for himself with Frozen) proving particularly useful in subtle and physical storytelling, especially in making thoughtful observation in regards to modern families and adopted children of different backgrounds being drawn together. Not only that, but the romance of the film is also played well, due largely to the stellar support from and treatment of Jane, particularly thanks to Minnie Driver's enthusiastic and utterly charming voice work. Minor comic details, some attributed to Rosie O'Donnell's comic relief sidekick, do tend to slightly upset the more serious-minded storytelling, but generally any intrusions are few and far between, and most welcome.

Also a departure for Disney was the decision to omit most musical numbers from the film (with only one accoustic piece qualifying as such), instead enlisting Phil Collins of Genesis fame to provide musical narration throughout the film. To be fair, it is admittedly a jarring switch to get used to at first, but once the film truly settles into its groove, the music also finds its footing, and Collins' heavy light-rock influence and style of songwriting proves to fit the film like a glove. The music may have become a bit infamous, especially with Collins - hilariously - having been the butt of many jokes by the creators of South Park (In a bit of revenge for their movie's song losing the Academy Award to him), but I still have a very soft spot for the film's soundtrack... But yes, South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut was a better movie with a stronger soundtrack.

Certainly not a game changer by any means, but as a cap off to a string of great successes to come from the studio, it still proves highly entertaining. At the very least, it's better than that motion-capture garbage with Kellan Lutz.

**** / *****

With that, we finally reach the end of Disney's best era for films. But where to go now? Join me again on September 20th when we'll begin exploring the post-Renaissance successes and failures as Disney enters its Transitional Era...

No comments:

Post a Comment