The true voice of the 2000s

Last week, the BBC revealed the results of a poll they commissioned to find the best films since the year 2000. The poll canvassed the opinions of some 177 critics and produced a pretty solid (if somewhat predictable) list, which can be viewed here.

Arty film at the top? Check. Foreign fare sprinkled liberally throughout? Check. A few blockbusters and populist offerings here and there to avoid seeming pretentious? Triple check.

Facetiousness aside, it’s really not a bad list, but it seemed like the kind of list produced by exactly the kind of critics who normally fill out these polls. Middle aged folks who have been working as critics throughout the period they’re being polled about.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it struck me that a more worthwhile activity when discussing what can be dubbed Millennial film-making is to actually ask Millennials. The last 16 years have seen unprecedented change: in society, in technology, in popular culture. Things have shifted fundamentally and, from a filmic point of view, we’ve changed the way we both create and consume our entertainment.

It seems important to canvas the opinions of the people who have spent their formative years during this period of change, so it’s over to you. If you’re under – let’s say- 25, let me know your favourite films since the year 2000. As a starter, here are mine (in no particular order). (I’m 32 by the way, and therefore super old).

Lincoln
Frozen
Spider-Man 2
The Artist
Spirited Away
Inside Out
Tomorrowland
Lost in Translation
The BFG
Hugo

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Top 5 Musicals

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Two things today got me thinking about about one of my cinematic passions: musicals. The first was the release of the new poster for forthcoming Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone musical La La Land. It’s lovely, and beautiful, and wonderful, and makes me detest romance and my perennial lack of it.

The second was Spike Jonze’s new advert for the latest perfume from Kenzo World (no, never heard of them either). It stars Margaret Qualley and sees her do a mental nutso dance at a posh gala. If you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favour and check it out.

So I figured I’d put together a quick list of my favourite movie musicals (excluding Disney musicals as, frankly, I’ve banged on about them way too much recently).

  1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
    It’s French, every single line of dialogue in it is sung, and it features the most beautiful shot petrol station in cinema history. Plus Catherine Deneuve. Oooh la la.
  2. West Side Story
    Ok, right, yes, I know. The accents are awful and the very not-Puerto Rican Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican character is a bit dodgy to say the least. But the passion seeps from every frame, note, and bodily contortion, making West Side Story a brilliant mix of beauty and brutality that’s not yet been matched within the genre.
  3. The Wizard of Oz
    It’d be in here for ‘Over the Rainbow’ alone: a simply perfect piece of music that aches with melancholy (and is also brilliantly used in Baz Luhrmann’s overlooked Australia). That there’s also so much joy to be found elsewhere only further cements its place.
  4. Singin’ in the Rain
    Hardly an original choice, but if you’ve seen a better expression of joy than the bit where Gene Kelly splashes about in that puddle then, well, I’d quite like to watch it actually, as that’d be very impressive.
  5. Gigi
    Vincente Minelli was a genius, and while Gigi isn’t his masterpiece (hello to you, An American in Paris), it’s full of the wonderful music, set design, costumes, and choreography that makes his films so special.

What are your favourite musicals? Let me know in the comments.

Scene and Heard: Star Trek Into Darkness – Michael Giacchino

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In Kids Riding Bicycles’ regular series, Scene and Heard, I take a look at great moments in movie music. This feature isn’t just about the particular scene or the music underscoring it, but how the two come together to form a complete whole. First up, is the moment in Star Trek Into Darkness where Spock catches up to Khan high above the streets of San Francisco to bring justice to the maniacal felon.

It’s a fantastic scene for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a beautifully orchestrated action sequence, with the two leaping across flying vehicles in a fight to the death. Secondly, it’s a tremendous character moment for Spock: a scene that’s been teased since the first film where all control goes out of the window and he confronts his emotion head on.

And finally, there’s Michael Giacchino’s music.

Be under no illusions here, I love Michael Giacchino. Since first hearing his work in the 2009 Trek, and utterly falling in love with the powerful, epic ‘Enterprising Young Men’ theme, I’ve eagerly awaited each and every Giacchino release and snapped it up as soon as it hit shelves. Star Trek Into Darkness was no exception, and I remember hearing a preview of the score on American radio before the film came out.

The preview included the incredible ‘Ode to Harrison’, the theme Giacchino gave to Khan and which (bafflingly) wasn’t released in full until an expanded version of the score came out long after the film. It’s a brilliant piece music, the like of which Giacchino excels at: rich, complex, and focused on driving forward the story and characters. Fittingly for the manic, but somewhat tragic Khan, ‘Ode to Harrison’ is both dark and innocent, a menacing piece laced with the knowledge that the character is as much sinned against as he is sinner.

It plays a critical part in this chase too, but is put to very different use. As I explain in my analysis of the film, Star Trek Into Darkness explores the nature of good and evil, showing that the concepts are universal and can’t be eradicated. As the chase becomes more frenzied and Spock finally catches up with Khan, ‘Ode to Harrison’ comes to dominate the soundtrack, not just showing Khan’s evil (as we’d expect), but also tapping into the latent anger within Spock.

So essentially, ‘Ode to Harrison’ becomes ‘Ode to Spock’ too, with Giacchino’s theme working to finalise what the film has been saying throughout. Good and evil exist within all of us: we must control our darker impulses and seek to bring out only what’s good.

What do you think of this moment and Michael Giacchino’s score for the film? Let me know in the comments.

Greetings and Salutations

Hello to you. This is a pretty new blog, so I thought I’d be all nice and polite and introduce myself. So, hello. My name is Paul. I’m 32 years old, and enjoy films, science fiction, animation, film soundtracks, comic books, books, and more than anything else, the films of the Walt Disney Studio and Steven Spielberg. I even have an entirely different blog about the latter.

My favourite films ever ever ever include The Apartment, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sleeping Beauty, It’s A Wonderful Life, and little-seen space documentary The Star Wars. In recent years, I have enjoyed the likes of Star Trek Into Darkness, Tomorrowland (both hideously misunderstood) and am currently utterly in love with Spielberg’s The BFG. You can tell because I wrote 3,000 words about it.

I’m a big history fan, and love watching history documentaries. This fascination ties into my pop culture passions: I see my Spielberg site as something of an online museum (I’m also incredibly pretentious!) and one of the things I adore about Disney is their heritage. I could spend hours reading about the Parks (despite, sadly, only ever being to the Paris one) and poring through concept art from their films.

I’m a very very shy person and struggle to talk to people verbally, so this blog is as much about trying to build my confidence as it is about expressing my love for the things I enjoy. Hopefully it won’t come off as too indulgent.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy what I put out 🙂

The Mouse House Movie Club #1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Canine Casanova, in which Pluto attempts to get his rocks off with a saucy lady dog.
Feature Presentation: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Disney tackles classic French literature with maturity, heart, and really bloody good songs.

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Canine Casanova
I’m a huge fan of Pluto, so when the random generator I use to select each short film plucked out Canine Casanova, I was delighted (doubly so because I watched it on National Dog Day and that made my shambolic approach to life seem carefully considered and beautifully planned). Sadly, Canine Casanova is only mid-level Pluto.

The best Pluto films are those where he gets to run through the whole gamut of emotion. He’s one of the great silent movie stars, and silent stars work best when they’re being plunged from one extreme emotion to the next. Look, for example, at A Gentleman’s Gentleman, Mickey and the Seal, or Pluto’s Christmas Tree. In all three, our canine chum goes through the emotional wringer, and that allows animators and writers to bring genuine comedy gold out of him.

Canine Casanova begins as a silly love story and segues fairly awkwardly into an action story involving a local dog pound. It’s not bad by any means, but the scenario simply doesn’t play to Pluto’s strengths. Shame. Happy National Dog Day anyway, boy.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
It took me a little while to fall in love with Hunchback. I’d always sorta respected the film more than loved it, but re-watching it for the first time in a long time last year awakened me to its virtues. Giving it another look for this project only enhanced that admiration.

Topsy turvy, upsy daysy
The first thing to note about Hunchback is how unusual it is in comparison with its fellow Renaissance films. There are no princesses here and no cute animals. We get some sidekicks in the shape of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends, but they’re pretty marginal in comparison to Sebastian, Abu, or Timon and Pumba. This is a respectful, mature, and often very dark take on a classic of French literature.

Where it does trade of Disney tropes, it actually subverts them. Gender roles are flipped here, with Quasimodo playing the lost and longing Princess striving to get out into the world (he even has the ‘I Want’ song, the stirring ‘Out There’) and Esmeralda possessing most of the agency (until, sadly, the end where she becomes a bit of a damsel in distress).

It’s a clever reversal, and one that adds to the film’s sense of maturity and the characters’ richness. In the same way that Frozen would impress audiences by flipping our expectations on their heads, Hunchback throws convention out the window, delivering a refreshing angle and characters who feel much more than mere cliches. The Renaissance was seven years old by the time Hunchback came out, so that feat is not only pretty impressive but vital in keeping the momentum going.

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You know I am a righteous man
This convention-flipping doesn’t just apply to the heroes; it is perhaps more apt for our villain, the thoroughly nasty (but unsettlingly human) Frollo. Whereas most other Disney villains are driven by vanity, power, or simple brutality, Frollo’s evil is driven by a war within himself.

He speaks of being free of sin and spreading purity by ridding the Parisian streets of sinners, yet he himself is riddled with evil, killing Quasimodo’s mother and enslaving Quasimodo himself. He refuses to acknowledge either of these actions as morally wrong, and later in the film, refuses to accept both that Esmeralda will not love him and that he has any lustful feelings for her at all.

Hellfire, one of the most striking and complex musical numbers in Disney history, outlines the torment in Frollo’s heart perfectly. He demands answers, wanting to know why he lusts after Esmeralda so. None of course are forthcoming, and unable to reconcile his feelings, he vilifies Esmeralda, telling us he’ll either own her (in the way he owns Quasimodo) or destroy her.

It’s a chilling sequence for a number of reasons. Firstly, while other Disney villains outline their evil with like a theatrical soliloquy that we can distance ourselves from or by boasting to their minions, Hellfire plays out like a deeply personal confession. We shouldn’t be hearing this. It’s a person of public repute alone and spilling his secrets and lustful, murderous desires. We can do nothing to prevent ourselves from being party to them and nothing to stop him enacting them. There’s a voyeurism at play here that’s very unique territory for Disney to play in.

Secondly, and even worse, the sequence generates sympathy for this monster. It’s very difficult to relate to The Evil Queen, the Wicked Stepmother, Ursula and Scar’s motivations. They’re bad people seeking power – perfect fantasy villains. But who hasn’t felt conflicted like Frollo? Who hasn’t been confronted by their own baser instincts and wanted to run away from them, or shift the responsibility for them on to someone else?

He may be an extreme example, but Frollo is one of us and his actions, no matter how vile, are things we’re all capable of. Who is the monster and who is the man, the film asks. The line between them isn’t quite as clear as we’d hope.

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I dare to dream that she might even care for me
By 1996, audiences had become accustomed to the Renaissance formula. There’s a boy, there’s a girl, they meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Hunchback doesn’t necessarily buck that trend (Esmerelda does, of course, end up in a relationship), but it does twist it, giving us a new take on the meaning of love, just as Frozen would several years later.

In ‘Heaven’s Light’, Quasimodo sings of being in love in the way we’ve come to expect – the honeyed words of cold towers seeming bright and being bathed in warm and loving glows. But just as Frollo’s battle is one against himself, so too is Quasimodo’s. Certainly he needs to escape Frollo’s clutches, but to venture “out there” he must believe that he can be accepted, that he is worthy of the love he sings of.

That’s a process that involves shedding the wooden world he crafts within his tower, taking a risk, and going outside. When he does that, he sees that the crowd accepts him (even if they do later turn on him at Frollo’s behest) and that Esmeralda looks beyond his appearance and cares for him. Not – critically – as a romantic partner, but as a human being.

By rejecting a romance between the two, The Hunchback of Notre Dame emerges as a true love story that – even though I love these films – feels so much more real, so much more impactful than The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Love, the film says, isn’t just about singing birds and soft light; it’s about putting another person ahead of yourself and doing anything to make them happy.

Yes, I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to you
The lack of a romance with Quasimodo also allows Esmeralda a chance to breath and become so much more than the questing romantic (nothing wrong with that of course, but that’s Quasimodo’s role). Instead, she’s a warrior, a fighter who sees injustice and can’t do anything about it, no matter how much she tries.

Her treatment at the hands of Frollo is, sadly, even more relevant now than it was back in 1996, and her big moment (‘God Help the Outcasts’) allows her to escape a connection with any of the male characters, and stand on her own two feet. The song is a surprisingly damning tale of abandonment both by God and by those who are supposed to stand up for justice, and it’s direction furthers the sense of outrage.

When Esmeralda pleads with the almighty to help her and her people, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise fill the screen with the vast empty halls of Notre Dame. It turns the song into something of a duet between Esmeralda and God, but God’s too busy doing a jig at the Festival of Fools to perform his bits. She sings into nothing, asking for justice for all but being heard by no-one.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film of epic scale and grand songs, but it’s in such silences that it truly excels.

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The Bells of Notre Dame
The box office was kind of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but history hasn’t been. It lacks of iconography of The Lion King, the timelessness of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and the groundbreaking representation of Mulan and Pocahontas. Like Tarzan a few years later, it’s generally regarded as a solid but unspectacular Renaissance offering: that we’re now 20 years on from its release and no talk of an anniversary has emerged sadly confirms that. Hopefully its reputation will pick up though and come 2026, we’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of this glorious and quietly groundbreaking film with all the enthusiasm of the Festival of Fools.

Next up in The Disney Review, direct to DVD shenanigans with Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue. This will be preceded by 1951 Donald Duck short Corn Chips.

What do you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Let me know in the comments and let’s get a Disney conversation flowing!

Terrarium Time

One of the wonderful things about the internet is the way it’s allowed people to show off their hobbies and crafting skills. I have very little talent for crafting, but have always loved people who can build wonderful creations out of some toilet rolls, pipe cleaners, and a bit of tin foil.

Something I particularly love are nerdy terrariums. A terrarium, for those who don’t know, is a little environment filled with succulent plants. They’re perfect for homes that aren’t suited to full on plants or those without a garden, and even more perfect for nerds who like to add their own little twists, such as can be seen in these wonderful creations.

I’ve got plenty of little nerdy trinkets lying around and have wanted to try a terrarium for ages, so I took my Disney Fairies figurines, found a big ol’ jar, some soil, stones, and plants, and got to work.

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First, I filled the big ol’ jar around a quarter full of soil, which it turns out, was my first mistake. The problem with doing this is that from the outside looking in, the focus doesn’t really fall on the lovely arrangement of plants and figures at the top of the soil mound – it falls on the soil mound itself. I really should have bought more rocks or a smaller jar and made the build up of soil more decorative. Sadly, I only realised that once I’d finished.

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Once I’d messed up sorted the soil, I then added the plants and some grit and stones to create a little environment. This proved harder than expected. Even in a jar this big, I was working in a pretty small space, so organising everything and making sure none of the grit and soil got on the plants and that the white stones stayed as clean as they possibly could was a real challenge, and not one I was able to entirely meet.

Still, I pushed on, and managed to craft enough of an organised environment to start adding the fairies. The figurines came from Kinder Eggs a couple of years ago, so not only are they a great size, but they also have their own little bases. Making sure they stood up proved pretty simple then. The only problem was – again – finding the necessary room to fit all of them in without it seeming messy and cramped. Again, I didn’t entirely meet the challenge.

Still, I finished things off, and despite really glaring errors, I’m fairly happy with how it’s turned out.

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I’ve got some similarly sized Disney Princess figurines and will be trying the same again with those. I’ll just have to be sure to a) Get a smaller jar and b) not just dump the soil in.

The Great Disney Viewing Fest… Thingy

That title’s a work in progress, but it puts across the main elements of this (probably ridiculous) idea. There’s Disney, there’s viewing, it’s a fest, and it’s great. (It’s also a thingy).

So, what is this thingy exactly? Well, I’m going to watch Disney films and blog about them.

Yeah, I know, really original, right? Well, sure, it’s not particularly unique, but as a big Disney fan who’s never really written about Disney with the kind of regular dedication I’ve given to my other cinematic passion, Steven Spielberg, I’m keen to do an ongoing thing, and this seems like the best way to do it.

So, what are the details?

Well, firstly this isn’t just about the Disney animated films. Along with the cartoons, I’ll also be watching some of the live action films to mix things up a bit. So expect a few Davy Crocketts and Swiss Family Robinsons in with your Pinocchios and Snow Whites. *

Also, I’m going to watch a short film before I start the feature length film. A sort of warm-up to the main attraction to give it a true cinematic feel.

These pairings will be chosen at random, so I could end up watching Flowers and Trees before The Black Cauldron, and I won’t be going in order. I’ll just watch whichever film I feel like. That should give the series a nice spontaneous feel.

I’ll announce which film I’m watching beforehand, so if you want to watch it too and write about it on your blog or discuss it in the comments section, feel free to. This is very much about participation, so I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

The first Great Disney Viewing Fest… Thingy will be: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, preceded by the 1945 Pluto short Canine Casanova, which can be found on YouTube here.

Let me know your thoughts!

*Pixar films will not be included. It’s not that I don’t like Pixar, I’m just keen to keep this to films produced within the Disney studio rather than those owned by Disney.