Why Disney sequels and remakes matter

It’s pretty good, y’know. You should check it out!

With Beauty and the Beast hitting cinemas earlier in the year, and footage from The Lion King being shown at D23, the focus for Disney fans at the moment is very much on the company’s repeated revisiting of its history. Opinion, of course, ranges from utter outrage to gleeful celebration, and as a fan of both Disney and creative remixing, I fall very much into the latter category. After all, what’s wrong with re-telling these ‘tales as old as time’ when they come from an oral tradition that enabled each storyteller to craft their version of the story in their own specific way. Surely that’s the point of (and one of the joys of) fairy tales.

Much of the criticism of Disney seems to revolve around a perceived lack of originality, and that’s a fair point. When you think of Disney’s output you probably don’t think much about sequels and remakes. That’s because out of the 56 films that constitute their core offering (their Animated Classics), only one is a sequel: The Rescuers Down Under. Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 will follow before this decade is out, and after their critical and commercial successes last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zootopia and Moana get spin-offs as well. But until recently, sequels and remakes have been a well that Disney has rarely wished into.

Sort of.

Buried away in the Disney filmography is a string of sequels that the studio released during the 90s and early 00s. Spinning off everything from Mulan and Pocahontas to Peter Pan and Cinderella, these films are often dismissed by fans and critics alike and were quickly stopped once John Lasseter took control in the mid Noughties. They were released direct to video (later DVD) and were produced by Disney’s TV animation wing, DisneyToons Studio, which opened its doors in 1990 with Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and has also produced the Planes and (really rather brilliant) Tinkerbell series.

It’s easy to be sniffy about these releases. The animation is often inferior to the Animated Classics, and the scripts are pretty tenuous because, in many cases, the stories don’t strictly need to be told. After all, is there really a need for Bambi 2, a midquel that focuses on the Great Prince of the Forest’s mentoring of his new charge? Do we absolutely have to have The Jungle Book 2, in which Baloo is suspected of having taken Mowgli back to the jungle? And who the heck asked for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, which finds Cinders (I kid you not) travelling through time?

Some of these films (Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Lion King 1 ½, (which – again, not joking here – riffs on ‘Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ in the way the original riffed on ‘Hamlet’) are pretty good and well worth checking out if you liked the first films. But vital necessities? Not really. At least not in terms of telling stories that have to be told. But maybe, when considering these films, we’re approaching them in the wrong way. Instead of thinking if we need them, we should instead think about whether they’re needed by their core audience: kids. And in that case, I’d argue the answer is an overwhelming yes.

When I was young, I watched my favourite films over and over again. The Goonies, Superman, various Disneys, and various Spielbergs all went through the cycle at my house as me, my sister, and my brother learned every bit of dialogue and memorised every beat. I suspect you were the same if you had a film, or films, that you were truly passionate about. When you really love a movie (or a TV show, or a book) as a child, you don’t want it to end, so when you do get to those closing credits, you rewind and rewatch, knowing deep down that everything will happen in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as the other 7,984 times you’ve watched it, but still watching it anyway.

Films are windows into lives that kids haven’t yet experienced. They help them understand emotions they could be struggling with and get to grips with empathy, associating so firmly with certain characters that they don’t want to let go of them. It’s why fan fiction and fan art have become so significant as mediums for self-exploration in recent years, and why the pressure is greater than ever for film-makers to be more inclusive. In a world that’s as divisive and fraught as ours is, the safety of fiction offers a comforting arena where anyone can be anything without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Giving kids further adventures with their fictional heroes is therefore not simply a money-making venture, but something of genuine worth. I know I wish I’d had further adventures with the likes of Elliott and Chunk to enjoy when I was a kid. And I suspect the kids of today are lapping up the wonderful Frozen comic books produced by Joe Books and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing weekly stories from the worlds of Tangled and Big Hero 6They represent a very real, very important map through the chaos of growing up and that, surely, is more significant than star ratings and rankings on Rotten Tomatoes.

So when we think of these sequels and remakes like Beauty and the Beast, it’s wise to remove ourselves from the equation, regardless of how artistically significant we see the original, or financially motivated we view the new stories. Art, in whatever medium it comes, is not static and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists, and needs to evolve, in order to illuminate, engage and inform, as well as simply to entertain and stand as great work. That illumination shines in different ways to different people and if illuminating the lives of younger audiences requires a few sequels or remakes of variable quality, I’d say that’s a fair trade.  

Mouse House Movie Club #12: Beauty and the Beasts (1991 and 2017)

Super-big spoilers. Beware.

Disney’s live action remake cycle continues apace with Beauty and the Beast, so of course, I popped along to see it, rose in hand and ‘Be Our Guest’ in my heart. It’s a very enjoyable film with some standout moments and glorious production design, but it’s comfortably the weakest of this run of remakes and certainly the one that compares most unfavourably with its predecessor. So rather than a simple review, I figured the best approach to Beauty and the Beast 2017 is to compare it to Beauty and the Beast 1991, because there’s a lot to be learned about both films, and the process of remaking stories, by doing so.

“For who could ever learn to love a Beast…”
Beauty and the Beast 2017 (henceforth known as B&TB17 to save my achy fingers) is largely a very faithful adaption, with only a couple of new songs and fleshed-out backstories offered by way of major additions. However, there are some subtle alterations dotted throughout and while they’re only small, they have a pretty significant impact on the story’s focus and meaning.

The first is the prologue. In B&TB91, Prince’s Adam’s descent into Beast is told by a male narrator who plays no part in the rest of the film, and plays out through stained glass windows. However, in B&TB17, the narration is given by Emma Thompson (who voices Mrs Potts), lasts a good couple of minutes longer, and is played out by the flesh-and-blood actors.

It’s a very minor change, and a legitimate choice on the part of screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and director Bill Condon, but it shifts the focus of the film dramatically. The masterstroke of playing this story out on stained glass windows is it builds no connection between the audience and The Beast. It positions this element of the story as what it is: backstory and exposition. We’re being told what we need to know without getting an insight into just how horrifying Adam’s metamorphosis into Beast is.

This changes in B&TB17. Adam’s story is no longer exposition, it’s fully fleshed-out tragedy. It gets the film off to entirely the wrong start, building up the emotional connection with Beast before we’ve met Belle. With the film later giving us an insight into how he became so selfish and cruel (a dead mother and nasty father) and an entirely new song (the powerful ‘Evermore’), B&TB17 seems more his story than Belle’s: a story of redemption for a flawed man rather than empowerment for a lost woman.

It’s important to state here that I’m not suggesting anyone involved in B&TB17 has intentionally shifted the focus. Belle is still a strong woman, she still gets all her defining moments, and like Beast, she too has a new backstory. Indeed, at times, this film enhances the feminism of the original by showing Belle inventing a proto-washing machine, and teaching a young girl to read. There is, however, a notable difference and it’s hard not to notice who the screenwriters are here.

B&TB91 was written by Linda Woolverton (who also penned Maleficent), while the new version is written by two men: Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos. Woolverton’s take doesn’t entirely sideline Beast and nor does the new version entirely sideline Belle, but it’s difficult – if not impossible – for a film to perfectly balance out two leads: there’ll always be one who subtly takes the limelight. By making the aforementioned subtle changes, and by making him less sympathetic when he first meets Belle (in the animated film, he offers Belle a room rather than keeping her in the dungeon; here it’s Lumiere, much to Beast’s anger), B&TB17 becomes Beast’s redemption story because, I assume, that’s what sings most clearly to the male writers.

This switch in focus underlines why it’s so important to get more women into significant roles in Hollywood. No matter the intentions or skill of male creative talents, they can’t bring the same insight into their female characters as women can, and that does play out in the final product. Would Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph have featured the kind of compelling female characters they do without Jennifer Lee? Would Moana have made the decisive switch from focusing on Maui to focusing on Moana without producer Osnat Shurer? Would Maleficent have been a more straightforward Sleeping Beauty remake without Woolverton’s script? They wouldn’t have been sexist, I’m sure, and nor is B&TB17, but that’s not the point.

Without a woman in a strong and significant position, those films would be very different in subtle ways, and could potentially have meant less to the female audience members who have related to them. I’d be interested to hear what young girls who’ve never seen the original Beauty and the Beast but have now gone to watch the remake think. Do they come out feeling like they can do anything and be anyone, like Belle can? Or do they come out feeling sympathy for Beast and his story of redemption? Unlike the original, I have a feeling it’s the latter.

“Little town…”
The film’s depiction of Belle herself also plays into this. To my mind, two moments define Belle’s character: the song ‘Belle’ (of course) and ‘Be Our Guest’. The first establishes her yearning, while the second shows us how she reacts to getting what she yearns for. You can nail one but not the other and still succeed, but if both don’t work, your character’s in real trouble, and sadly that’s what happens with B&TB17 .

A core part of the problem is Emma Watson. A tremendous ambassador and justifiably vaunted hero for millions of young women, Watson is nevertheless a limited actor. Give her pure and straightforward emotions to play, and she soars. So in the reprise of ‘Belle’, when all she has to convey is disgust turning into joyous ambition she’s fine. Likewise in ‘Something There’, when all she has to convey is a growing sense of affection, she’s great too. But Belle’s a complex character, and the two core moments I’ve mentioned feature complicated emotions that Watson can’t quite tap in to.

Let’s take ‘Belle’ first. On paper, this is a pretty insulting song. Belle journeys through her “little town” passing judgement on its “little people” who go about their boring business “like always”. A bit stuck up for sure, but a vital part of success here is complexity. Belle has to seen bored, but she can’t seem boring. She has to seem cut off, but she can’t seem distant. She has to want more, but she can’t dismiss the villagers as being less. In B&TB91, Paige O’Hara’s beautifully warm voice and the energy of the character animation combine to convey this. She seems to regard the villagers with genuine affection, and while she’s disconnected from them, it’s because she’s dreaming up an adventure. She’s bored, but by no means boring. Yearning but not critical.

Watson simply doesn’t have the range to convey this delicacy.  She plods through the scene, rather than bounding through it, and when she gets wrapped up in her book (“It’s my favourite part, you’ll see…”) she looks like she’s reading the back of a cereal box rather than an exciting bit of a beloved novel. This may have been a conscious choice on Watson’s part (Belle does need to convey some boredom here), but it’s undoubtedly the wrong choice. More than any other ‘I Want’ Song, ‘Belle’ dictates the character for the rest of the film. It’s not only our defining insight into her hopes and dreams, but it’s the first impression we get of her. It needs to be a good one, and Watson’s performance sadly isn’t.

She’s not helped by a small but significant change to the script that redefines Belle’s journey. In the original, Belle’s asked about the book she’s returning to the library, which here is noticeably smaller and contains just a handful of books to make the town seem even worse and its people even stupider. She replies with a description of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a masterstroke from lyricist Howard Ashman, highlighting her desire to escape the “little town” into something bigger (a giant’s world) and emphasising her desire for adventure. She wants to go to the kind of ‘big’ place Jack goes to.

In B&TB17, however, the book is changed, with Belle saying it’s about “two lovers in fair Verona”.  Obviously this is Romeo and Juliet, and it’s referenced again later when Belle tells Beast that it’s “my favourite play”. If we take that book to be a symbol of Belle’s hopes and dreams, this change is pretty disastrous, as it entirely reshapes her motivation. She’s no longer wanting adventure, she’s wanting romance. She’s no longer looking for something independent from other people, she’s looking to be one half of a partnership. It strips away a certain amount of her agency.

Of course, Belle references love in B&TB91’s rendition too (“here’s where she meets Prince Charming…”), but it’s almost incidental. The love she’s describing here is a result of the adventure she yearns for – it’s something she encounters after discovering herself through adventure, and therefore much more empowering. By giving Romeo and Juliet such prominence, the writers have again conveyed a truth more relevant to Beast than to Belle. The reference is there to represent a transformative tale about love crossing even the biggest of barriers, and heighten the sense of redemption Beast feels as the story progresses.

“Try the grey stuff…”
‘Be Our Guest’ acts as a semi-official reprise of ‘Belle’ in so much as it’s the character encountering the “adventure in the great wide somewhere” that she longs for. It comes at a critical point in the film, with Belle having been treated appallingly by Beast and refused dinner. Any normal person in that situation would try to escape, and indeed that’s exactly what the Belle of B&TB17 tries to do. What keeps her in the castle is ‘Be Our Guest’, where she realises two things: (1) Lumiere and co are pretty damn decent and need her, and (2) she’s finally found what she’s looking for.

Again, Watson is confronted with a complex emotional scene, and again she can’t convey its full breadth. This is, in part, because she struggles with non-verbal reaction, and as Belle’s silent throughout the song, that’s a pretty big problem. There’s clear decision-making here on Watson’s part. In B&TB91, Belle is very animated (no pun intended): she laughs, sings, and claps along with the song, and Watson seems to have made a conscious choice to underplay it for fear of being seen to overact. But instead, she seems bored, doing nothing but smile with coy admiration at Lumiere and co.

Where’s the enjoyment? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sense that Belle’s heart’s desire has finally come into fruition? Sadly, Watson simply can’t convey those things and admiration and sympathy for her new friends, and so Belle’s decision to stay – previously made because she realised she could achieve her dreams in the castle – switches to being about helping Lumiere et al. Like her relationship with Beast, Belle’s growth has become most relevant to us through how it reflects on other characters rather than herself. That may not be how it was intended, but sadly that’s how it plays out. Watson sadly doesn’t have the range to equally convey both sides the emotional equation of this scene.

“My what a guy…”
Beyond Belle and the Beast, Gaston is the film’s third most significant character, and in the animation, he’s one of the most unique villains in the Disney canon. Possessing a specific kind of evil, he’s a hateful misogynist who embodies the most corrupt of patriarchal values. He’s “the best” man in town because he’s the strongest and the most handsome. Because of this, he deserves the best woman, and that’s the most attractive one: Belle, whose name, of course, literally means beauty. When she refuses his advances, he attempts to corner her with a proposal and later hatches a plan to have her father Maurice committed so he can blackmail her into marrying him.

This is Gaston ’91’s defining act of evil, and it’s an inherently misogynistic one, but it’s removed from the new film. Instead of trying to have Maurice sent to the asylum (which would have been more difficult here as B&TB17’s Maurice is less obviously eccentric), he offers to help him find Belle. He and LeFou travel with him through the woods in search of Beast’s castle before the endless journey and Maurice’s uncertainty about the castle’s location get too much for Gaston. He abandons the plan and confesses that he only joined Maurice because he wants to marry Belle. When Maurice tells him that this will never happen, Gaston punches him, ties him to a tree and leaves him to the wolves.

Again, this is a very minor change, but it’s a significant one. No longer is Gaston a hateful misogynist whose defining act of evil is to try to own a woman, but a more generic kind of evil: an attempted murderer.  This fundamentally shifts Gaston’s dramatic purpose. In 1991, he was the personification of everything Belle is fighting against: the cage she must fly from to live the life she wants. In 2017, he’s the mirror image of the Beast: the man who’s a monster contrasting with the monster who’s a man.  As a result, the story again feels more geared around Beast’s journey than Belle’s and the final conflict is less about Gaston’s outrage at having been rejected in favour of a hideous beast and more about a masculine battle of wits: the good man v the bad man.

Why the change? It’s pure speculation, but Gaston is a real money spinner for Disney. Since 1991, he’s become a mainstay at the theme parks, indeed one of the most popular meet and greet figures the parks have because of his entertainment value. He’s a dumb lunk who says and does idiotic things that we can all laugh at. Releasing a new film where he’s unequivocally a misogynist represents a threat to that. It’s kinda like showing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark walking out of a concentration camp. Suddenly, the pantomime bad guy has become a little too real, the evil a little too tangible. The laughs we experience at the parks would seem hollow if we’re reminded too clearly of Gaston’s misogyny, and that would hit profitability, so it’s not a surprise that the character’s been tweaked. It’s just a shame that those tweaks, as so many of them here do, come at the expense of Belle.

“Tale as old as time…”
Over 2,500 words into this blog I’ll admit that there’s a certain redundancy in comparing the two films (sorry!). They were made at very different times and, obviously, in two different forms: like-for-like comparison is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly important. B&TB17 is a charming, sweet, and sometimes very moving adaptation of the classic story. I’ve seen it twice now and will undoubtedly pick it up when it’s released on Blu-Ray. I may have spent this entire piece critiquing it, but I can still highlight Tobias Schliessler’s sumptuous cinematography, Alan Menken’s soaring score, and Bill Condon’s expressive direction as wonderful elements of a lovely film.

As an adaptation of an era-defining Disney masterpiece, however, it’s severely lacking. The remakes Disney is currently engaged with are interesting and worthwhile, with some reinventing the original without necessarily improving it (Maleficent and Cinderella), and others transforming the flawed source into something incredible (Pete’s Dragon). Beauty and the Beast does neither and so sits as an awkward companion piece. It highlights the advances the art of cinema has taken in the quarter of a decade since the original, but sadly, serves mostly to show how impressive that first outing truly is. Some enchanted roses, it seems, will never wither.

Love and Paper Aeroplanes

paperman-disneyscreencaps-com-83Last week, I wrote about Valentine’s Day and how, now more than ever, we shouldn’t judge it as a simple romantic holiday but an occasion to highlight the importance of love in all its many and varied forms. In this blog, however, I’m going to focus squarely on romantic love, because that’s important too and at this time of year, it seems to come under attack from people who aren’t in a relationship. Understandable, but still a little silly in my opinion.

How am I going to explore romantic love, I hear you ask? Through the medium of Disney’s short masterpiece, Paperman. Because I haven’t mentioned it before. Like ever. No seriously.

Paperman is about a lonely nobody called George who lives and works in a vaguely 1930s-esque metropolis. One day he encounters the girl of his dreams (Meg) and resorts to using paper aeroplanes to capture her attention when they’re parted. Our hero has no luck via this route, but eventually the fates take over and literally sweep the two young lovers up for a reunion on the train platform at which they first met. Awwwwww.

It’s absolutely goddamn lovely and were it possible, I’m pretty sure I’d propose to it. You want to do the same no doubt, but I’ve already bought the ring, so BACK OFF, ok.

I honestly believe that at the centre of Paperman is the essence of romance itself. I appreciate that’s a slightly grandiose statement and if you’re feeling cynical about love at the moment, you’re probably scoffing (or vomiting) at having read it. But I don’t care. It’s true, and if I (a pathetically lonely creature who at the age of 32 has never so much as held hands with a woman, never mind kissed or been in a relationship with one) can write it, you can sure as heck read it.

What makes Paperman so glorious is the way it juxtaposes the banal and the magical. George and Meg are pretty normal people making their way through a normal day, loaded with tedious paperwork and stuffed briefcases. They get the train, they make their way to a job they’d probably rather not be at, and they likely go home at night ready to do the exact same thing the next day. Had they never met, their lives would have continued as such, just as it did the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. These are not the Princesses and Princes we’re used to seeing in Disney romances.

Director John Kahrs’ decision to make the film black-and-white adds to this sense of everyday banality. George and Meg live their lives in monotone and with its giant skyscrapers, speeding trains and uniform office environments (all beautifully captured by Kahrs’ camerawork), their world becomes a cage they stand little chance of escaping from. Until, of course, the fates take over and the wind blows a little piece of paper (of magic, of colour, of love) into their world.


Meg stifles a laugh, George joins in after working out the joke, and with one tiny quirk of the weather, their lives are changed. But that’s not the end of it. Had George and Meg been separated and gone through a series of similarly serendipitous events before meeting again and forming a relationship, Paperman would be an enjoyable but rather unremarkable piece of film-making no different from the multitude of other romances out there. Love is lovely, it’d say, and that’s fine, because yes, of course, it is. But it’s also difficult and painful and all about the delicate decisions we have to take to make love happen. Paperman reflects that.

George’s delicate decision revolves around his job. He’s an office drone surrounded by men who look like they’ve forgotten how to spell love, never mind feel it. George is no doubt going the same way, but now, in Meg, he’s found a spark he wants to turn into a fire. Can he though? Can he really risk his livelihood for a girl he’s never spoken to just because he’s meet-cuted with her? It’s the kind of choice we all face: the choice between the practical and the romantic, the reality and the dream, the life we need to live in order to survive and the life we want to live in order to be happy.

Of course, George chooses love (Paperman would be pretty depressing if he ignored Meg), but he has to work for it. Every aeroplane he throws to win Meg’s attention fails: falling just short, straying just wide, or hitting a pigeon just as it’s about to sail through the window to its intended target. It’s almost like he’s being tested. The world wants to see his breaking point, to see just how much he wants to turn that spark into a fire. Every plane thrown, every despairing grunt, every frustrated moan is George’s fight against the fates – and eventually the fates reward his endeavour.

In a film about the meeting of, rather than the relationship between, George and Meg, the final act is the closest we get to seeing the rush of their love. This fantastical flurry of paper is the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of and it produces some of Paperman‘s most iconic imagery: the bounce of the failed planes as they slowly creep into life, the blur of the windows as Meg follows her aeroplane through the train, the thrill of George being dragged across the road by the aeroplanes, his pursuit literally putting his life in danger. It’s intoxicating and it allows the audience to feel the excitement and fear of the love the characters are chasing, and which we hope we’ll feel ourselves.

It all leads, of course, back to the train station. The film calms, the music slows, and George and Meg are finally reunited. And yes, I know it’s predictable. And yes, I know it’s all very mushy. And yes, I know that real life doesn’t happen in such perfect little romantic and fantastical episodes.

But I don’t care.

Last year, I fell in love with someone, and she seemed to like me back. Paperman was my go-to film for the warm fuzzies during that time. After years of nothing, it maintained my hope that this might finally be the time, that she might finally be the one. It wasn’t. And she wasn’t. And now, we haven’t spoken for months. But I still think of her, and I still care about her because I adored her as a friend before anything else. She was, and I expect still is, an incredible woman and she struggled with love as much as I did. She’s happy with someone else now, and I’m delighted for her. How could I not be? Nobody deserves a flurry of paper aeroplanes like she does.

As for me, I’m still alone, but Paperman remains my go-to film for the warm fuzzies. Because after years of nothing, it maintains my hope that eventually, there might finally be the time, and there might finally be the one. That’s what makes it so special. It reflects both the love you have, if you have it, and the love you hope you have, if you don’t have it. It keeps you going in all those giant grey offices where life seems to eek out its existence in the thin spaces between pieces of piled up paper. It keeps your head up even as you kick the street in frustration, feeling like the chance is gone forever. It keeps you believing that your very own train station is out there and some day, some way, some how you’ll meet that special someone.

It gives you hope and reminds you to keep hoping.

Because sometimes your paper aeroplane flies straight and true, and sometimes it strays just wide. The latter doesn’t mean you should give up hope that the former will ever happen. It just means that you need to make more paper aeroplanes.



Mouse House Movie Club #11: Mulan


This is the first Mouse House Movie Club I’ve put together in a little while. I apologise for not keeping the feature going over the last few weeks, but, well, I’ve not been in the mood for cute animals and funny sidekicks of late. With everything that’s going on in the world, Disney can feel a little pointless. After all, there are no wicked witches as evil as Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump is a misogynist so vile he makes Gaston look like a chivalrous prince.

That said, while Disney’s version of the world can seem a little disconnected from reality, it’s an important escape. When terrible things happen, you must sit up and take notice, but you’ve also got to give yourself time to breathe, otherwise the sheer horror of what that gigantic orange blob is doing becomes too much to bear. So, I decided to load up a classic and write another feature. I enjoyed doing so and hope you enjoy reading it.

There was only ever one classic in mind for this edition, and that’s Mulan. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. 1) Disney’s art sellers Cyclops Print Works released a glorious and badass Mulan print this week that captures her grace and strength with wonderful simplicity. 2) A film about a brave and strong woman seems appropriate a week on from the Women’s March. 3) It’s Chinese New Year, an important time for a different culture that’s well worth acknowledging as Trump tries to stamp out anything that doesn’t fit within his minuscule world view.

Also, Mulan is good. Like, seriously good. So before deep-diving into the more social and political elements of the film, it’s worth discussing it on its filmic merits.

Mulan: Like, seriously good.
Here are four frames from Mulan. They’re taken from random and very different moments in the film, and come courtesy of the always awesome Disney Screengrabs.

Look at how different each shot is from the others. Not just in the camera angle and the way the moment is being captured, but also in terms of the colours. The rich reds, the muddy dark blues, the cold gray-whites, the muted greens. No two scenes are the same in Mulan, and that’s great for animation nerds such as myself, who revel in such detail and diversity, but also great for the film. Mulan is an epic and a classic heroes’ journey, and by giving each stage in her journey a distinct look, it feels more even grander, at times rivalling even some of the great live action epics of Hollywood history.

This is some serious David Lean jazz going on here…

More significantly, it lends a sense of scale to Mulan’s achievement. While lesser films would resort to having characters tell us how arduous the trip is, Mulan is smart enough to show us. Thanks to the range of the colour palate, the film makes each scene seem fresh and each challenge feel genuinely new and unnerving for our hero. We all know what it’s like to feel lost or overwhelmed in environments we don’t know or can’t understand, and that’s how we feel when watching Mulan. We empathise because the film visually gives us an emotion to empathise with.

It’s why films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indeed most Zack Snyder films, don’t work (apologies fans of he and the film. I appreciate both have taken a huge pummelling of late, but, well, they’re terrible). If we’re seeing the same kind of visuals from scene to scene, the film has no ebb and flow, it turns into a long monotonous hum, instead of a song. Mulan is the Bohemian Rhapsody of Disney films, flinging you from one distinct style to the next and making for a heckuva journey while doing so.

Speaking of music, there’s also great joy to be found in Jerry Goldsmith’s subtle and sensitive score, which manages to feel authentically Chinese without ever descending into cliche. One of cinema’s great musical innovators, Goldsmith plays it fairly straight on Mulan and is careful to ensure that his music never overpowers the film, instead working in tandem with the visuals to heighten the epic scale and intimate emotion. Ditto the songs, almost all of which come at the start of the film. As such, it doesn’t actually feel like a musical, certainly not in the same way The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast do. As I’ve said here before, songs in Disney films are like soliloquys in Shakespeare plays: they’re moments where the characters confess their innermost thoughts to the audience.

Mulan expresses that better than any other Disney musical. It’s a Shakespearean history play, where intimate emotions are painted across an epic canvas with glorious colours and beautiful songs.


When will my reflection show/Who I am inside?
Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Reflection’. In a bold move, Disney went in a different direction for the film’s I Want Song. ‘Reflection’ isn’t a stirring power ballad, or empowering statement of intent. It’s a rather sad and introspective number where we see a downtrodden Mulan lamenting the fact that she can’t be her true self and can’t live up to the demands of her family or the society around her. Christina Aguilera sang the ‘pop song’ version, and while it’s pretty enough, it fails to communicate the nuance and tragedy of the film version. It’s simply not a pop song. It’s something different and remarkable.

It’s worth examining the song’s lyrics in more detail, because it (and Mulan as a whole) was well ahead of its time.

Look at me,
I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

That’s the first verse, and it speaks more clearly to modern day identity politics than many modern films that are trying to directly address those issues. I can’t speak for women or LGBTQ people, I can only try to understand their experiences through the people I have the great honour to know, but I imagine this first verse covers it pretty neatly. The struggle to be perfect, the sense of playing a role, the desperation not to hurt those you love by simply being who you are. It’s all there. The pain Mulan is communicating must be tangibly real to anyone who doesn’t fit in with society’s increasingly harsh strictures, and ‘Reflection’ communicates it beautifully, perhaps better than any other Renaissance film, which were all aiming to achieve similar commentary.

It’s why I’m excited for the live action remake of the film that’ll be hitting screens next year. Mulan feels a little lost in the Renaissance mix, lacking the iconic status of The Lion King, the romantic sweep of Beauty and the Beast, and the enduring tunes of The Little Mermaid. As it’ll be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, Disney could give it a big birthday push: a new Blu Ray, a theatrical re-release, a huge merchandise onslaught. But no matter how much they promote it, it’ll simply never garner as much attention as a live action film. Fans of the original will hang on every casting announcement and trailer, and the new generation of teenagers, with their awareness of and interest in diversity, will also be keen to know who’s starring and how the story will play out. That will no doubt lead them to watching the original and discovering what a truly wonderful film it is.

That may seem a little naive on my part, but ‘Reflection’ alone will chime with thousands of people, and as the recent protests against Trump have shown, fictional heroes have more power than we may think. If a new film means Mulan gets seen by more people, then so be it. The film’s message is significant, its main character is an avatar for everyone who can relate to her, and ‘Reflection’ is an anthem for them to get behind. May it ring out clearly and may everyone who sees themselves in it feel strong enough to join in.


A Girl Worth Fighting For
Beyond Mulan herself, one of the most compelling things about the film is how it extends its feminism beyond the main character – and in pretty subtle ways. Beauty and the Beast communicated its feminism through Gaston as well as Belle, showing him as the enemy of everything feminism stands for. It’s very direct, very broad, and very on the nose. Nothing wrong with that of course, but Mulan tries a different approach, showing threats to feminism as something a little more subtle and insidious, something that even good guys – and worse, comic sidekicks – can inadvertently succumb to.

Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are our sidekicks here, and great ones they are too, generating the necessary laughs and silliness to ensure things don’t become too serious. But they treat Mulan poorly at first, and even when they’ve come to accept her (albeit in her disguise as Ping) they still display signs of sexism, most notably through their song ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’, in which they get through the trials of war by fantasising about their perfect wives. Here’s a sample of the lyrics…

I want her paler than the
moon with eyes that
shine like stars
My girl will marvel at
my strength, adore my
battle scars
I couldn’t care less what she’ll
wear or what she looks like
It all depends on what
she cooks like
Beef, pork, chicken
Bet the local girls thought
you were quite the charmer
And I’ll bet the ladies love
a man in armor
This is wonderfully sophisticated and delicate storytelling. As I’ve said, these guys aren’t Gaston – they’re the comic sidekicks. We like them. But they’re perpetrating the same toxic viewpoints that Mulan is struggling against. That in itself is pretty sophisticated, but the context adds extra eloquence. It’s difficult to judge these characters for dreaming like this – they’re at war and they’re under incredible stress. We can forgive them a little fantasy, so the film doesn’t ask that we condemn them, and it certainly doesn’t condemn the women who do have “eyes that shine like stars” even if it frames such standards as dangerous and difficult to meet. It simply makes the point that by ascribing these roles to women, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are hurting women like Mulan who don’t fit into those categories, even if they don’t really mean to.

Moments like this add layers to the film’s message, but again underline just how hard Mulan has it. Not only is she fighting a vast society that refuses her the right to be who she is, she’s also fighting well-meaning friends who are sleepwalking into that self-same oppression. It’ll be a wake-up call to many men and young boys who may do the same. None of us are perfect, and Mulan has the sophistication to point that out, and instead of condemning show a way for us to better ourselves and be more understanding of the needs and struggles of others.

Be a Man
Indeed, as well as having some vital things to say about women, Mulan also has some significant points to make about men. Mulan’s battle is as much one against patriarchy as it is against Huns, and the film sheds some light on how that damages men as well. ‘Be A Man’ is perhaps the film’s most well-known song, certainly the one that lingers in the mind the most. But it’s darker than its jaunty tune would suggest: a dehumanising number in which we’re told that Li-Shang’s recruits are “a spineless, pale, pathetic lot” who represent “the saddest bunch I ever met”.

As the song goes on, it reveals that the men of this army are subject to similar societal pressures as Mulan is. Here’s another lyrical sample:

[men] WE ARE MEN
We must be swift as a coursing river
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the force of a great typhoon
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the strength of a raging fire

Patriarchy (and this is what so many Men’s Rights Activists simply don’t understand) is devastating for everyone. Mulan is expected to be the perfect daughter: to be poised and graceful and elegant, and if she’s not then she’s somehow a lesser woman, a lesser human being. Men suffer in a similar way. The expectations on them may be focused on strength rather than passivity, but they’re still unrealistic and those who don’t meet them are dismissed as being spineless, pale, and pathetic.

The great victory at the end of the film is that Li-Shang, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po break free from these pressures, just as Mulan does: Li-Shang accepting that Mulan has a great plan and taking her lead, the sidekicks dressing as women and playing their part in the scheme as distractions. Sadly, not all men have such moments of revelation and stay stuck in the patriarchal expectations imposed on them. It’s why suicide rates among young men are so high (certainly in the UK) and why a particularly toxic brand of misogyny has risen up of late. Men are told that they have to be strong and in charge: the idea of listening to women is a threat to that and therefore a threat to their very humanity. So feminism is fought against – vehemently – and they remain fixed in their destructive societal norms, dragging women along with them. It’s a tragedy; one Mulan communicates – as it does everything else – with incredible intelligence and great conscience.


Mulan should be required viewing at school. It’s simply that important. This has been an ineloquent piece that doesn’t cover even half of what makes the film so significant and I feel a bit uncomfortable for having dedicated a portion of a piece about an incredible woman to the film’s men. But maybe that’s why Mulan is so good. It’s a call for unity and understanding that shows how we all play parts in each other’s oppression, even if we’re not always aware of it. That sounds depressing, I know, but it also shows how simple respect and empathy means we can help each other out of that oppression.

In these dark and disturbing times, Mulan speaks clearly to who are, who we should be, and who we could be. It’s about time we started listening.

Mouse House Movie Club #11: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

the-many-adventures-of-winnie-the-pooh-posterIn 1973, Warner Brothers released a film of such unremitting horror that it caused outrage across the world. Directed by William Friedkin and adapted from his own novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist depicted the possession of a 12-year-old girl by the demon Pazuzu and subsequent attempts at an exorcism by two Catholic priests. Featuring some of the most shocking sights ever seen on screen, the film was condemned by many prominent figures in society and its terrifying nature even led some to believe that the very celluloid the film was printed on was somehow possessed.

Yet, Friedkin’s masterpiece of terror pales in comparison to the soul-chilling, bone-trembling evil of Disney’s 22nd animated classic, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie the Pooh and the Childhood Memories
The mind is a strange and confusing thing. We can endure some of the most life-altering events imaginable and forget everything but the major bullet points, but go through some of the most disposable, inconsequential things and have them stick like flies on fly paper. What’s more, while those memories may be of ostensibly happy and wonderful things, they can somehow get mashed up in our heads into being something uncanny or scary. Such is the case with The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

When I was a kid, I had the film on VHS recorded off the television. As kids do, I watched it over and over and over again with my sister, alongside the likes of The Goonies and a handful of Donald Duck cartoons. This, I believe, is a critical part of a child’s development. The desire to rewatch a film is a desire to re-experience and understand emotions and, perhaps more significantly, a display of empathy for characters: by rewatching films, kids aren’t just interested in reliving the plot, but spending more time with the people in the film, even if those people are doing exactly the same thing they’ve already done before. (It’s why I passionately defend Disney’s direct-to-video sequels in the 90s. Even the weakest examples allow kids to develop stronger bonds with characters they love, but now following them through new and different adventures).

The problem with rewatching films in your youth (aside from driving your parents mad) is that they become lodged in your head in really strange ways. One of the Donald cartoons I remember watching is 1939’s Sea Scouts, in which Donald and the nephews set out to sea (obviously) and come across a shark. Donald – because he’s a dick – wear’s an admiral’s hat, denoting his clear superiority over his nephews and Poseidon himself (probably). Obviously he comes a cropper and his hat gets wet in the process. I watched the short a few months ago for the first time in years and what stuck with me isn’t the narrative or any of the jokes, but the sight of Donald’s hat, wet and deflated, as he struggles against the shark.

Perhaps as a kid I had a preternatural understanding of Freudian imagery and recognised Donald’s hat as an unmistakably phallic symbol, associating it with my own burgeoning manhood in some sort of weird moment of primal acknowledgement.

Or maybe the shark just really scared me.

Either way, that moment has stuck with me, and so too has The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Impressionable minds are there to be shaped and Pooh (much more than Trainspotting or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, both of which I was banned from watching by my parents) shaped mine.


Winnie the Pooh and the Extreme Weather Warning
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh consists of three shorts and a brief epilogue. The first (Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree) finds Pooh seeking out honey, winding up at Rabbit’s house, feeding his habit, and getting stuck in Rabbit’s door because he’s too fat to fit through it. The third (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too) brings Tigger into the mix and sees Rabbit trying to ditch his hyperactive friend before the poor sap ends up bouncing all the way up to the top of a very tall tree and struggling to get down. Both are very charming stories told with beautiful painterly animation, lovely Sherman Brothers songs, and a pleasingly silly sense of humour.


In the middle of these two delightful tales is a story of Edgar Allan Poe-esque horror. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day may sound like an easy watch, but don’t let the title fool you. In reality, it’s a horrifyingly gritty tale of lost homes, the unremitting brutality of Mother Nature, and the worst hallucination in cinematic history. (Except maybe ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’, but there’s no need to bring that into it. I can only deal with one childhood trauma at a time thanks very much.)

Blustery Day details a terrible storm in The Hundred Acre Wood. It blows over Owl’s house, leading Eeyore to hunt down a new abode for the feathered gasbag. As day turns to night the winds turn to rain, creating a torrent that floods most of the wood and Pooh’s house in particular. Piglet gets caught in the flood water, meaning Pooh needs to save him from almost certain death. Terrifying, right? And then at the end, just when you thought the horror was over, Eeyore misreads a sign at Piglet’s house, believing it to say ‘Owl’. This, therefore, must be Owl’s house, so Piglet’s turfed out and is forced to live with notorious addict Pooh in a life of almost certain honey-induced squalor and degradation.

I was a nervy kid when I was young (and remain a nervy adult now) and once got terribly upset when my Dad momentarily lost his way on a family outing. We were lost, my anxiety-riddled brain told me, and were never going to get home. As someone who’s always seen my home as my centre, the one place I could flee when times got tough, this prospect really terrified me, and that’s probably why Blustery Day gets to me so much. The idea that the weather – something no-one on Earth can protect you from – could take your home away was genuinely horrifying, and remains so to me now. Owl’s house swaying from side-to-side in the wind still puts me on the edge of my seat and when Piglet drifts through the flood water, I’m about ready to hide behind my sofa. Come on Christopher Robin, nobody needs this shit bother.


Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalumps of Terror
But that’s not the only pulse-pounding, nerve-shredding, sweat-inducing horror that Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day delivers in its effort to warp the minds of children the world over. Oh no, no, no.

May I introduce you to Heffalumps and Woozles.

These demons of the night appear to Pooh in a dream. Tigger has just been round and warned his honey-obssessed chum of the dangers they represent. Naturally Pooh doesn’t really listen until their interest in honey is mentioned, then he gets really terrified that he’ll lose his stash and decides to go on guard duty, marching up and down his little house to make sure that none of the honey-thieving bastards appear and spirit his supply away.

Naturally, being a willy-nilly-silly old bear, Pooh falls asleep and hallucinates about Heffalumps and Woozles. A gigantic mistake, because if these fuckers actually existed and invaded Pooh’s home wearing Donald Trump masks and armed with AK-47s and a mobile phone that opens only Breitbart News they’d still be less scary than what Pooh dreams up.

Here, in full and in glorious 1080p definition, is the most terrifying thing in cinematic history…

You may think I’m being silly. That I’m somehow exaggerating for comic effect. Firstly: how dare you, this is my blog, and I don’t accept civil criticism. Secondly, let’s rundown exactly what happens in this 3 minutes 40 seconds of gruelling terror, and then see if you think I’m over-reacting.

  • The sky is without end or form. There are no clouds, there’s no horizon. It’s just an infinite haze of blues, blacks, and whites from which we will never escape.
  • The people singing sound like they’re from a Dr Seuss book, if those people happened to be the devil himself.
  • “They come in ones and twozles,” we’re told. Okay, fine. I can take one or two Heffalumps. “But if they so choozles, before your eyes you’ll see them multiply-ply-ply-ply.” What?! They can just multiply endlessly? And quite randomly too – just, if they so choozle? Just like that?! First of all, choozle is not a word. Second of all, at least there was only one Pazuzu. There’s an infinite supply of Heffalumps and Woozles.
  • “Because they guzzle up the thing you prize.” Hey, you leave my Ghostbusters House with Real Slime and Working Fireman’s Pole alone, you bastard Heffalumps!
  • These things can morph themselves into anything they so wish, changing colour, shape, and form. They can be square if they like! They could be that square. Or that sofa! Or that dustbin! They could be anywhere and anything!
  • The laughing honey pot really scares me and I don’t know why.
  • A Heffalump is disguised as a gigantic bee. A gigantic bee, everybody. A gigantic bee sent from the depths of hell itself.
  • Jack in the Boxes. They come in Jack in the Boxes as well. As if both Heffalumps and Jack in the Boxes weren’t terrifying enough already.
  • The dancing Heffalump in the tux never blinks and never looks at anything. It just stares at the camera, through the screen, and into my very soul.
  • As a kid, I thought the Heffalump that uses honey to create a harp with her trunk actually, biologically had a trunk/harp. It was body horror for children. If David Cronenberg made cartoons, this would be what he would come up with.
  • How does Pooh turn so small he can fit into the snake-charmer’s honey pot? What demon magic is this?
  • How is that Heffalump doubling up as a cannon? Why does the Woozle light his fuse? Why does he blow up?!
  • WHAT THE FUUUUUUUUUCK…?freegifmaker-me_2a3yn

None of this makes sense! You may be thinking: Yes, but Paul, it doesn’t have to make sense. This is just a dream and dreams don’t make sense and, for that fact, are frequently scary. I accept that, but counter it with the fact that Tigger said Heffelumps and Woozles exist, and therefore that’s the truth. Tigger wouldn’t lie. These bastards are out there and they must be stopped. In fact, wait…








The Mouse House Movie Club will return next time. Maybe…

Mouse House Movie Club #10: The Enchanted Christmas

“Then somebody bends… unexpectedly.” Yes folks, this is the quality of humour you can expect here. Sorry

Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! Mouse House Movie Club’s gone AWOL for a few weeks, but that’s just because I’ve been super busy and stuff like that. It’ll be back properly in the New Year and is here now with a bit of a Christmas Special. Because all great things have Christmas Specials, and you’re not seriously going to tell me that Mouse House Movie Club isn’t a great thing. Are you? Are you!?

Disney have done a few different festive-themed films over the years and having caught Mickey’s Twice Upon A Christmas on TV over the weekend, I was considering writing this entry on that. It’s actually pretty good, and features a great Mickey and Pluto story. Dogs and Christmas? Is there anything better? No, chums. No there is not.

However, while wrapping presents, I put in the Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special, The Enchanted Christmas, and was hugely impressed by it. It’s a surprisingly dark, genuinely worthwhile, and very charming film that takes place in the middle of the original movie, and significantly alters the way you perceive it. What I’m saying is that it’s the Rogue One of the Beauty and the Beast universe. And I’m entirely, 100% per cent sincere about that.

You'll catch cold like that, Belle
You’ll catch cold like that, Belle

Yeah, but aren’t Disney sequels terrible?
Well, no not really. During the Renaissance (and for a little while after it), Disney put their classics and modern releases into the sequel churner, pushing out spin-offs and TV series to the likes of Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Made by Disney’s television animation wing, and often telling stories that frankly didn’t need to be told, these films are not great pieces of art and, even as an avid defender of them, I’ll admit that some are downright awful and/or baffling (the time-travel based Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time).

Sadly, fandom being fandom, all the films have been tarred by the same brush, so even the good one (Cinderella II, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Peter Pan: Return to Neverland) are seen as poor. The Enchanted Christmas has largely escaped the sharper end of fan anger, mostly because it’s a Christmas film, and, well, it’s bloody Christmas, innit, come on! But it still gets lumped into that homogeneous mass of Disney direct-to-video mediocrity, and its position is made worse because it’s a midquel, a sequel subset so ludicrous nobody could come up with a proper word to describe it so they just cobbled some letters together and hoped for the best.

PARENTHESES! If you don’t know what a midquel is, it’s a story that takes place during a gap in a previously established story. It’s a nonsense word, but amazingly, it’s not even the most nonsensical word out there. There are also sidequels (stories which take place alongside existing stories), pseudosequels (sequels which have little in common with their predecessors but are still judged to be sequels) and most laughably at all macroquels (sequels which cover events before, during, and after the previously existing story). I am not making this up! This is an actual type of spin-off, and according to Wikipedia, 300: The Rise of an Empire is one of them.  2016, man: is there no insanity too insane for it?

Still with me? Good. Ok, so The Enchanted Christmas is a midquel, and it takes place directly after the moment in the original when Beast saves Belle from the wolves. It’s Christmas (because, y’know, it’s a Christmas film and it’s hardly likely to be set in May, is it?!) and Belle really wants to throw a Christmas party. The Beast, on the other hand, does not. (It’s called dramatic tension, folks. Come on, keep up.)

Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ
Tim Curry dressed as a villainous organ

You’re a mean one, Mr Beast
Of course, that in itself isn’t a particularly sensational revelation. At this point in the original film, Beast isn’t in the best of moods, and the idea of celebrating Christmas probably wouldn’t appeal much – especially as he was struck with the Enchantress’s curse during the festive season. By all rights, The Enchanted Christmas should be a pretty standard story then, and it could well have turned out to be just that had the script run with the original concept of making Gaston’s vengeful brother the villain. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s just a bit of a mediocre one (though admittedly it worked pretty well for Die Hard With A Vengeance two years earlier. Y’know, I’d say Vengeance is as good to the original, even though most deem the original to be an unimpeachable classic. I mean, it’s good and all, but Vengeance has Frozone and Scar in it, and I’m still not exactly sure how they solved that puzzle with the water. I hate maths. It sucks.)

But anyways, I digress.

Ultimately, the brother plot was abandoned and instead a villainous organ was introduced. Yes… a villainous organ. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. But a villainous organ voiced by Tim Curry, making this villainous organ at least 35% more delicious than any other villainous organs you may be acquainted with. His name is Forte and before being turned into a villainous organ, he was the disconcertingly grey-faced palace musician who enjoyed scowling, sucking up to the Prince, and playing… an organ! Dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!

Forte was ignored by Prince Adam when he was a human, but has now won a measure of respect and influence in his new giant organ form. He’s the Prince’s confidante, hearing all his concerns and frustrations from the confines of a dark room high in a secluded part of the castle. He’s chained to the wall so can’t do much beyond sitting around and waiting for Adam to come vent to him, but that doesn’t seem to bother him much (for some reason). He’s just desperate for Beast not to turn back into a human so he can continue to hang around with him. Hey, even deliciously evil giant organs need a buddy.

Wrong Prince Adam
Wrong Prince Adam

So what you have in The Enchanted Christmas is a villain who, despite being static throughout the entire film and despite being part of a tale whose outcome is beyond doubt, is surprisingly threatening. Part of that’s down to Curry being thoroughly delicious, part of it’s down to Beast being as angry as he is at this stage in the original, and part of it’s down to Forte being rendered with the same dodgy CG that the Hydra from Hercules is (weird). But more than anything, it’s because Beast seems genuinely vulnerable here, Forte representing his inner monologue and everything he hates about himself. If you’ve ever been alone with your dark inner thoughts, you’ll know exactly how scary that can be.

I think it’s perhaps going a little too far to liken The Enchanted Christmas to the complex emotional landscape Elsa inhabits in Frozen, but there are similarities. Like Elsa, Beast hides himself away from the world, convincing himself he’s happy in the state of loneliness he’s built for himself because that’s what he needs to tell himself to get by. Fighting against it is so much more difficult and so much more unpredictable than simply giving in. Accepting your fate is easier and safer. Better the devil you know, and all that.

In light of all this, Beast’s anger and frustration (here and in the original) becomes much more understandable. Being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast is fine and all. You could be less of a dick, but hey, we get it. Being a Beast is bad. But being a dick because you’ve been turned into a beast and have Tim Curry dressed as a poorly CG’d giant organ whispering nasty stuff in your ear every time you feel down? Well, if that happened to me, I think I’d be pretty down too. I getcha Beasty boy.

Top-level punning
Top-level punning

Jingle Belle
The Enchanted Christmas also brings fresh insight into Belle, who seems even more heroic in light of the film’s events. In the original, Beast’s anger is a plot point: a feature of the narrative that needed to be established and overcome. It’s like the Ark of the Covenent or the Death Star plans: a MacGuffin that’s there to reflect, primarily, Belle’s character and the tenacity with which she goes about getting what she wants from life. Here, however, it’s a real character point; indeed a real character – Forte. So while Beauty and the Beast‘s main threat was a moron (a very very very very very manly moron, but still a moron), The Enchanted Christmas‘s is anger, depression, and frustration.  There’s absolutely nothing funny or charming about Forte like there is about Gaston.

Listen to his song. While Gaston got to brag about his manliness and expectorating prowess, Forte tells Beast not to fall in love in a fantastic villain song that even manages to nod to the original’s classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Here’s a cut of the lyrics.

As soon as your heart rules your head
Your life is not your own
It’s hell when someone’s always there
It’s bliss to be alone
And love of any kind is bad
A dog, a child, a cat
They take up so much precious time
Now where’s the sense in that?

Love takes the wildest heart and makes it tame
If you’re turned on, then just turn off
Emotions are a thing all great men overcame
Please, don’t make this grande catastrophe
Don’t get attached to anyone or anything
There’s nothing worse than things that cling

Pretty brutal, pretty scary (and more than a little reminiscent of Elsa’s ‘conceal, don’t feel’ mantra). Yet Belle’s kindness perseveres: she never takes her eye off her goal, and never lets Beast’s Forte-driven depression set her off her path. She represents kindness, love, and compassion in the face of Forte’s sheer hatred and misery, and she mounts a fierce opposition, despite the fact she never really faces off against him. Indeed, her lack of interaction with Forte may make her faith in the Beast and love as a whole even more heroic: she doesn’t have the luxury of knowing where his misery is coming from like we do.

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…
I know what you’re thinking: Paul, for a post that opened with a GIF of a dog doing Yoga, this has been awfully depressing. And yes, you’re right. But then, The Enchanted Christmas isn’t an entirely happy-go-lucky film, and indeed many of the best Christmas things aren’t. Look at It’s A Wonderful Life or listen to ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (from Meet Me In St Louis) if you want proof. Both are, of course, about the magic of the season and how festive goodwill can turn around even the darkest of days, but for that to work, the day has to be dark: George Bailey has to be standing on that bridge ready to jump in the water. Festive? Not really. Dramatically important? Yes!

The Enchanted Christmas sits alongside films like It’s A Wonderful Life (in theme more than quality) because it’s all about finding the goodwill amongst the bad, the light in the dark, the hope in the despair. It’s a little naive and certainly not as emotionally complex as more recent Disney films that have taken on the theme (Frozen and Inside Out in particular), but it’s a hell of a good effort for a 1997 direct-to-video feature and deserves respect for that alone. Add in to it the fact that it genuinely enhances the original and has Tim Curry as a deliciously evil organ and you’re on to a winner.  A big old festive, slightly depressing, weirdly CG’d winner.

Until next year folks, Happy Holidays! Have a lovely time whatever you’re celebrating and however you’re celebrating it.


Mouse House Movie Club Goes Festive #2: Donald’s Snow Fight

Not from this cartoon, but this is indeed an actual GIF from an actual Donald short!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love Donald Duck. He’s a dickhead. A terrible, terrible dickhead. And I think that’s worth celebrating, because unlike other famous Donalds, Donald Duck is a dickhead in a charming, ridiculous kinda way. (Rather than, y’know, the terrible, oppressive, gonna-blow-up-the-world kinda way.) He’s the kinda dickhed who, instead of helping his young nephews build a snowman like any normal anthropomorphic duck would, jumps on a sled and rides straight through the thing cackling like a maniac.

Somewhere, there’s an excellent Donald Duck/Frozen crossover waiting to happen.

Released in 1942, Donald’s Snow Fight is one of the very finest Donald Duck cartoons, and probably the finest Donald Duck Christmas cartoon. Like all Donald’s best efforts, the set-up is brilliantly simple. It’s Christmas, Donald goes out for a stroll in the snow, finds his nephews building a snowman, and decides to wage war on them. Y’know. Like you do.

Right from the off, Donald’s Snow Fight crams in gags at Gatling gun pace. In the first couple of minutes alone we get Donald’s absurdly huge snow jacket, the sight of his beak growing a little frost mustache, and the sound of him quacking half the words to Jingle Bells before finishing off by ringing himself like a bell. This may be the only recorded instance of a testicle joke in Disney history.

(Do ducks have testicles? What the hell else is ringing!?!)

Anyways, Donald’s out in the snow and suddenly spots his nephews having fun and building a snowman. This simply won’t do, of course, so Donald attacks, destroying the snowman and escalating the whole situation into all out war. He even wears a cute little Admiral’s hat to underline his battle-readiness. Because Donald Duck is both totally adorable and utterly psychotic. Also: massive dickhead.

Somehow though, he retains our sympathy. Both here and in other shorts. Fights between Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie are a reoccurring trope in Donald cartoons, and while they get comically out of hand, there’s never any sense of viciousness. It’s a little like watching early episodes of The Simpsons where they’d fight and call each other names. There’s frustration there, sure, but there’s always love. Donald just shows that love the only way he can: with pointless anger.

It’s why Donald’s such an icon. In all his arrogance, obnoxiousness, and ultimate love for those around him, he’s the closest thing Disney has to a great everyman (don’t let anyone tell you it’s Mickey! Donald all the way). Like my favourite actor ever, Jack Lemmon, Donald is just an ordinary schmuck with no great sense of nobility simply going through life trying to make ends meet. And sometimes, everybody, that means you have to freak out and destroy some snowmens.

So celebrate the festive season with some classic Donald and go out and destroy some snowmen yourself. (Don’t do this. Please. It’s just mean.)

Mouse House Movie Club Goes Festive #1: Once Upon A Wintertime

Just as I did at Halloween, I figured I’d roll out a couple of Mouse House Movie Clubs for Christmas that focus – obviously – on Christmas-themed Disney. One will be a Donald Duck cartoon, because he’s Donald Duck and if you don’t think that’s a good enough reason to write a blog post then you obviously haven’t seen this GIF.


The first is the rather wonderful Once Upon A Wintertime, which was originally released in 1948 as part of the package film Melody Time but is so damn good Disney put it out again as a standalone short in 1954. So why’s it so good, I hear you ask. Good question, I respond quite pleased you asked as it allows me to segue neatly into my next paragraph. Well done you.

Once Upon A Wintertime is an early example of Disney having a little fun with itself. It focuses on two lovers, Joe and Jenny, as they enjoy a romantic day out on the ice. They’re dressed up snuggly, ride around in a horse and carriage, make googly eyes at one another, and do it all to the lovely sounds of Frances Langford titular song. Rabbits and birds join them on their lovers’ jaunt and they prance around on the ice in such perfect harmony that the bird make a heart for them out of snow.

I would implore you to LOOK AT THE SICKENING ROMANCE OF IT ALL, but I really rather love this nonsense and have spent much of the last few days listening to the La La Land score, so, y’know, this short saw me coming. Even in 1948. Several decades before I was born.

Screw you, reality

So far, so Disney, right? Well, halfway through Once Upon A Wintertime, Joe takes things a little too far in his bid to romance Jenny, shows off to her, and pisses her right off. She storms off in a huff and rebuffs Joe’s attempts at reconciliation. This, in turns, grinds his gears and the two fall out. As do the pair of comedy bunnies who are mimicking their human counterparts beat for beat.

The short then changes gear entirely and becomes something more akin to an action film. The ice cracks and Jenny is cut adrift on a small pane of ice that’s heading straight for a waterfall. Joe tries to come to her rescue, but it isn’t until he strikes upon the idea of using the horses and a rope to pull Jenny to safety that the day is saved. The pair return to their horse drawn carriage and enjoy the romance of the season once more. Awwww.

The satire of Once Upon A Wintertime may not be especially cutting, but it is remarkable considering it was made after the difficult war years. It shows that even when simply making money was the imperative, Disney still had a playful side and still sought to go against the grain and find something new to say. That it does all that while remaining a genuinely lovely and romantic piece of film-making simply speaks to the quality the studio had in-house at the time. It’s pretty much impossible not to be charmed by the sweetness of it all.

Check out Once Upon A Wintertime below. Sadly, YouTube doesn’t have an English language version, but here’s the French translation, and as French is the language of lurve, it seems pretty appropriate. Stop complaining. Jeez, it’s Christmas.

The Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea: Moana, Disney Princesses, and the Journey to Identity


This essay contains spoilers throughout. Do not read until you’ve seen the film.

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” arrogant Demigod Maui tells teenage adventurer Moana in Disney’s latest animated masterpiece. “You’re a Princess!” It’s a neat little line that parodies Disney Princess heritage without mocking it too derisively, but there’s much more than mere humour going on with this line. While Moana may protest at Maui’s definition, she is, by sheer force of the Disney marketing machine at least, a Princess, and as such you’ll likely hear critics rhapsodise over how different she is from her predecessors when they come to write their reviews of this film. There’s certainly truth in that, but though the external shell may be that of a rough and ready warrior, Moana is, heart and soul, a very traditional Disney Princess. And as I’ll explore in this essay, that’s a very good thing.

An Innocent Warrior
Let’s deal with that shell first of all, because at its core, Moana is about the multi-faceted nature of identity: the diversity of the human race as a whole, the changing roles we, as individuals, play in our cultures, and the parts we play in order to do that. Moana is, absolutely, a character of agency and physical strength. She defeats creepy coconut guys (the adorably nasty mini-pirates, the Kakamora), outwits a giant crab (the superficial and delightfully self-indulgent Tamatao), and escapes a humongous lava monster (the beautifully animated Te Ka). She doesn’t need a prince to come and save her and is never shy about attempting a physically intimidating task, be that scaling a steep cliff or swinging onto the Kakamora ship to rescue her idiotic chicken friend Hei Hei. Moana is Disney-Princess-as-action hero, and it’s wonderful that a generation of young women have another ass-kicking Mulan-style heroine to look up to.

But just as there was more to Mulan than dressing as a guy and joining the army, so too is there more to Moana. The title of this section refers the second song we hear in the film. ‘An Innocent Warrior’ is played during a sequence where toddler Moana ventures to the beach and encounters a baby turtle that’s trying to make its way across the sand, beyond the birds hoping to gobble it up, and towards the safety of the sea. Compassionate enough to understand the animal’s struggles, Moana leaves the ocean that had piqued her interest enough to bring her down to the beach in the first place and rips a large leaf off the branch of a tree. Using it to shield the turtle from the birds, she ushers her new friend down to the water and bids it farewell as it swims off. An innocent warrior from the very start, Moana here displays the courage and strength of a fighter and the faith, pure compassion, and maybe even naivety of an innocent. In other words, she’s defined as much by her emotional strength as her physical strength.

Moana‘s adventurous story allows directors Ron Clements and John Musker to draw this out in more detail. Moana is a fighter, and a very determined and capable one at that, but she’s not able to do everything. She fails in her initial attempts to go beyond the reef, injuring herself in the process; she makes a potentially fatal mistake when closing on her goal, much to the chargin of Maui; and she can’t even muster the necessary strength to remove a Kakamora arrow from her boat’s mast. Maui, meanwhile, plucks it out like an apple from a tree. (1) Perhaps her most significant failure is in her first meeting with Maui, when she allows the visual and lyrical fun of ‘You’re Welcome’ to blind her to the demigod’s true purpose: stealing her boat so he can escape the island he’s marooned on. Only some quick thinking saves her from being marooned herself.

Time and again, the film shows our hero as a work in progress, a young woman as capable of naivety and impetuousness as great feats of heroics. This is key to the film’s story and the character’s development. Moana’s strength isn’t innate; she has to develop it and battling a harsh and unforgiving ocean (and the even more harsh and unforgiving beasties within it) never comes easily. Mistakes are made and, as I’ll return to later, the film explicitly positions this as a positive in ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)’, a rousing duet between Moana and her grandmother Gramma Tala in which the virtues of emotional intelligence and learning from weakness are extolled. (2) Indeed, her ability to learn is shown to be one of Moana’s most significant skills, whether it’s in the ingenuity of her rescue of the turtle, her escape from the cave that Maui traps her in, or the way she solves the problems laid out by her people when she’s training under her father to become Chief. She watches, she analyses, she learns, and she masters the skills needs, ultimately mastering her most prized skill: Wayfinding.


Who needs a new song?
While the Wayfinding and warrior nature of Moana is unique to the film, the concept of failing, learning, trying again, and ultimately succeeding runs through all Disney Princess films, even as far back as Cinderella. The motif kicked into a new gear with the Renaissance, where characters were built on their sense of failure – failure to fit in, failure to be understood, failure to meet society’s required standards. This failure is why the ‘I Want Song’ has become such a staple of the Princess film’s make up. These are not just pretty little ditties about wish fulfilment and magic; they’re insights into our heroes’ hopes, desires, and needs, they’re how they process their failures and set their sights on their successes. Ariel feels she can’t fit in in Atlantica, but knows she could in the human world; Belle feels she’ll never be understood or satisfied in her quiet provincial town, so seeks adventure; Rapunzel feels she’ll let down Mother Gothel if she ventures outside, but knows she must anyway. Princesses start off as failures and seek the courage to become successes. While we shouldn’t diminish the physical strength Princesses can show, nor should we suggest it’s the only strength they can show.

In Moana, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda exacerbates our hero’s sense of failure by basing a song around the world she wants to escape. ‘Where You Are’ owes a debt of gratitude to The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ in the sense that it focuses on a character (Sebastian the Crab in Mermaid, Moana’s father, Chief Tui, here) strong arming – with the best of intentions – our hero into staying put. He tells Moana of her duty to the island, reminding her that her place in the natural order of things is on Motunui and nowhere else. “The island gives us what we need,” Moana is told, before recognising with a certain sadness that this means “no-one leaves.” She matures during the course of the song, and by the end of it (unlike ‘Under the Sea’) it’s had its desired effect. “So here I’ll stay,” present day Moana sings. “My home, my people/Beside me/And when I think of tomorrow…” “There we are…” say the villagers, completing her sentence.

And indeed there they are. Moana settles, becoming the chief-in-training her father expects her to be and that her people need her to be. She’s aware of the responsibility she holds, and willing to accept it, but the desire to change her life remains: she can’t quite shake off the voice within her that tells her she needs to move on. It’s the emotional intelligence and inner strength that all the Princesses have. She knows there’s something wrong and she needs to do something about it, and her challenge through the film is to achieve that something.

This struggle is brilliantly brought to life through Miranda’s association of Moana with the ocean and the natural world. In the I Want Song ‘How Far I’ll Go’, she sings of being drawn to the “line where the sky meets the sea” and likens her motivation for exploring to “the wind in my sail on the sea”.  By having her describe herself like this, Miranda allows Moana to appreciate her core difference to her family and community. Both she and her people value the land, but while they’re happy to stay where they are and live off the land, Moana knows that life isn’t just about surviving and being given “all we need”, but about flourishing, giving back to the natural world, being a part of it, and forging togetherness through the connections the natural world affords.

It’s a concept learned by Clements and Musker on their research trips to the Oceania region. Recounting their experiences in the book ‘The Art of Moana’, the directors describe meetings with island natives where they were told how the ocean isn’t viewed as a great divider of the region’s islands, but as a connector, something that brings all the small and disparate locations together. So Moana’s strength, and her solution to her failure to feel at peace with her community, is to connect not just with her own emotions, but those of all of Oceania, and forge a new identity for her people, one built on a changing relationship with the world. This idea of shifting identities is a theme Disney has returned to time and time again of late and therefore one that merits further investigation.


Just an ordinary demi-guy!
From The Princess and the Frog onwards, Disney has played with concepts of identity: the roles we play to get along in life, the way elements of our being dictate who we are, and the way our entire sense of self can be deconstructed or transformed. We see this most explicitly in the villains the Modern Era of Disney has produced. From Tangled through to Zootopia, Disney has portrayed evil as a slippery force willing to shift its identity in order to get what it wants or needs. Sometimes this villainy is immediately apparent to everyone but the hero (Tangled‘s Mother Gothel), but mostly it’s played as a twist: Hans turns out to be anything but a handsome prince; kindly mentor Callaghan turns out to be the supervillain Yokai; King Candy reveals himself to be game-hopping Turbo; and shy and retiring Bellwether emerges as the mastermind behind the plan to pit herbivores against carnivores.

Such schemes stand in stark contrast to the heroes, who are no less split in their personalities, but are largely unaware of that fact, or at least unable to do anything about it. Rapunzel, for example, doesn’t know she’s a Princess just that she feels curiously connected to the floating lights in the sky. Ralph is a bad guy who longs to be a good guy so he can live a better life, while Vanellope, like Rapunzel, has been denied an identity that’s rightfully her’s and instead is convinced that she’s a glitch. Judy Hopps is an ambitious young policebunny thwarted by her unsuitably cute identity and Nick Wilde is a good guy who feels he needs to play the part of the bad guy because that’s what everyone expects. And, of course, Elsa is fighting against herself in order to save Anna, while Anna herself plays the part of a swooning Princess because she thinks it’ll get her the love she craves.

Big Hero 6, one of the more overlooked modern Disney films, is arguably the studio’s most fascinating deconstruction of identity, if for no other reason than the long history of identity crises in the superhero genre. In the film, Hiro creates superhero alter egos for he and his friends not to serve a higher good, but to serve his own desire to understand his brother’s death and potentially exact revenge upon whoever was responsible for it. In other words, he’s dangerously close to using identity in the same way modern Disney villains do, and in one of the film’s key sequences, he does just that, changing Baymax’s programming to turn him into a killing machine with his sights set firmly on the newly-exposed Callaghan. The rest of the group tear Hiro and Baymax away just in time, but it’s not until the film’s conclusion that Hiro’s identity crisis fully resolves itself, and the Big Hero 6 become a force for good and not just for their leader’s personal vendettas.

Moana never ventures into places so dark, but the film surpasses even Big Hero 6‘s exploration of identity because almost every character in the film is suffering through some form of identity crisis. Alongside our heroine, the film is comprised of four main characters, though intriguingly none can claim to be a core villain. Instead, we have three threats and an ambiguous anti-hero (Maui, who with his ability to shapeshift is a literal identity crisis as well as an emotional one). The three threats are Te Ka (the closest we get to an overall villain, who I’ll touch on in greater detail a little later), the Kakamora and Tamatoa. Though the latter two aren’t on screen for a particularly long time, they shift identities to serve their own ends, just like any other Disney villain. The Kakamora are described as “cute” by Moana when she first sees them, and indeed they are; until they smear on war paint, brandish weaponry, and wage war on Moana and Maui. Never judge a book by its cover, or a monster by its adorable coconut exterior.

Later we encounter Tamatoa, a gigantic crab with a love for everything gold, glittery, and Bowie-esque. It’s Tamatoa who has the honour of contributing to the long line of excellent Disney villain songs with his number ‘Shiny’, and it’s through this that Miranda zeroes in on identity again. Tamatoa begins by lamenting how he “hasn’t always been this glam,” telling us he was “a drab little crab once”. He brags to Moana – disguised as a crustacean in an attempt to sneak up on her foe – of his joy at being so superficial and delights in telling her how Gramma Tala’s advice that she listen to what’s inside is wrong. It’s all about surface with this guy; he’d rather dazzle on the outside because that’s what drives fish to his lair and gives him the food to live a simple, hassle-free life. (3)

As the song progresses, Tamatoa discovers Maui and his plan to retrieve his lost fish hook, which has now found a home on the crab’s shell. Suddenly, the song shifts focus. No longer just a boast of Tamatoa’s external prowess, ‘Shiny’ becomes an attack on Maui as we learn more about the demigod and his tragic history. As Maui explains in greater detail later in the film, he’s been abandoned by his creators and forced to go through life alone. He creates the sky, sea, and land that he boasted about so much in ‘You’re Welcome’ not simply to prove how brilliant he is, but as a gift to humans who, as Tamatoa points out with glee, have since abandoned him too. He sings:

Send your armies but they’ll never be enough
My shell’s too tough, Maui man

You could try, try, try
But you can’t expect a demigod
To beat a decapod, give it up,
You will die, die, die
Now it’s time for me to take apart
Your aching heart

Far from the ones who abandoned you
Chasing the love of
These humans who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough

It’s a tremendous feat of songwriting from Miranda and it shines a new light on ‘You’re Welcome’, which like ‘Let It Go’ before it (4), becomes an act of self-deception. Maui’s boasts are a shell, a false identity built to distract people from his true self. (5) He and Tamatoa are essentially the same: monoliths who have shifted from one static identity to the other and got stuck, both emotionally and literally. Before meeting Moana, Maui was no less able to move from his position than Tamatoa is, and while his fish hook may grant him magical powers to shift forms, it’s as much a gift as a curse (6). He’s come to rely on its power as much as Tamatoa has come to rely on his shiny shell, and when the fish hook is lost or broken, Maui loses his sense of identity.

It’s fitting that when we last see these characters (Maui in the film’s final scene, Tamatoa in an amusing post-credit sting) the two are in very different positions. His power (and more importantly, connection to his inner self) restored, Maui is flying high, able once again to shapeshift into an eagle and come and go as he pleases. Tamatoa, meanwhile, is stuck on his back at the bottom of the ocean, his shininess dulled, his chances of getting back on his feet almost non-existent. While Maui has learned from Moana and come to understand the importance of listening to one’s heart and exploring the world around you, Tamatoa hasn’t had the benefit of her emotional intelligence. Only those who listen to Moana’s inner strength can succeed, and that idea sets up the remarkable final act in which our heroine finally confronts Te Ka the lava monster, and achieves her I Want Song goal.


I am everything I’ve learned and more
Before battle commences, we get something I can’t ever recall seeing in a Disney Princess film before: a second, entirely unique reprise of the I Want Song: an ‘I Nearly Have’ Song, if you will. Having fallen out with Maui, Moana is at her lowest ebb and ready to give up when Gramma Tala returns in spirit form to duet with her grand-daughter on ‘I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors’). It acts as a reassertion of Moana’s determination, but also a reminder of the multitudinous aspects of her identity: her family, her island, the ocean, and the natural world as a whole. Tala begins by telling Moana about failure and how no successes can be achieved without it. “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are,” she tells her grandaughter, asserting that “the things you have learned will guide you.” Again, like all Princesses, Moana is the sum of her failures and the lessons she’s learned from them.

They’re sentiments Moana heeds. She takes over the song in its second half and begins by reaffirming the split elements of her identity, saying she’s “the girl who loves my island… the girl who loves the sea”. Again, she’s speaking of her own wants versus the wants of her father, something she touches on as the song progresses, adding that she remains “the daughter of the village chief” but also insisting that “we are descended from voyagers”. Echoing Tala’s thoughts, she says that she’s “everything I’ve learned and more”, and what she’s learned is that her and her father’s wants are one and the same: a love of her island is a love of the sea, being the village chief’s daughter requires her to be a voyager. While other Princesses have shunned their societies to fulfil their needs,  Moana’s simply changed the rules, flowed like the sea and created a new identity (and new I  Want Song) based on change and the fluxing nature of identity, heritage, and family. Bringing the song to an end, she sings:

“The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!”

This themes turn into literal truth in the film’s finale as Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti not by destroying Te Ka in the action packed set piece we’ve been set up to expect, but by having maturity, morality, and emotional intelligence enough to understand that Te Ka is Te Fiti. The island lives and after Maui took its heart from her, she turned into a monster whose warped identity comes to infect the entire world. (7)

Again, it’s Miranda’s songwriting that illuminates the moment by having Moana sing another new song (‘Know Who You Are’) that’s based on one we’ve previously heard (‘An Innocent Warrior’). As she parts the sea and confronts Te Ka, she tells the monster that though “they have stolen the heart from inside you” this absence “does not define you/This is not who you are/You know who you are.” Truly Moana has become the innocent warrior, a young woman possessing a warrior’s courage and an innocent’s clarity, intelligence, and faith in goodness. She returns the heart, and Te Ka, in one of the most remarkable moments of animation in this most beautiful of films, becomes Te Fiti once more, a lush green island of life and warmth. The threat over, Moana and Maui stand on Te Fiti’s hills and look out across the ocean to a world given a second chance.

Moana’s saved the day, and saved the world by connecting herself to it, opening herself to the opportunity of it changing her, and finding a way to change it, rather than simply feeding off what it provides. Identities change, they ebb and slow like oceans. Only by understanding that can you understand who you are.


We know who we are
To round up this piece, I want to return to Princesses as a whole because while Moana has a unique identity of her own, Maui is right with that jokey line about dresses and sidekicks: she is, at her heart, a Princess.

We must always hold Disney to account on their presentation of these characters, both on screen and in merchandising, but we must also commend them when they get it as right as they have with Moana and other recent Princess films. We must also acknowledge that ‘Princess’ is not a dirty word. Moana is a compassionate, intelligent, sensitive, courageous young woman, as the other Princesses are, as many of the films’ audience is. To dismiss Princesses is to dismiss scores of smart, wonderful young women who find something valuable in these films.

Strength isn’t just about physicality. As we’re seeing in society every day, strength is about possessing the emotional intelligence to understand who you are, the flexibility to change with it, and the courage to express it, whether that identity be a result of your culture, race, sexuality, or gender. Moana is a perfect film for our times because that’s what it expresses. That’s what Frozen expressed. And Tangled. And Mulan. And The Little Mermaid… Name a Princess film, and you’ll find that concept shouted out loud and clear. We just seem to struggle to see past the dresses and glitter and magical fantasy of it all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and when thinking about Disney Princesses, I find The Switch Sisters’ comments about finding feminist messages in these films particularly compelling.

Although we women-types have a long way to go in this and all other forms of media (as well as in real life), it’s important to seek out positive feminist messages in the things that girls actually like. Not that all girls like princesses. But when we do, maybe take us seriously. Why do we like them? What do we like about them? Why does dressing up as princesses give girls so much empowerment? Why do girls get so much joy from singing I Want Songs?

In lieu of the magical qualities the earth and sea have in Moana, the emphasis is on us to be each other’s “wind in the sail on the sea” and drive each other to the line on the horizon that Moana pines for. It’s a journey that begins, as Moana’s does, with listening to the call: the call of the world, the call inside ourselves, and more than anything else, the call inside others.


  1. It’ll be interesting to see how Moana is viewed through a feminist lens. When Anna struggled to get to climb a mountain in Frozen, the film attracted criticism for mocking her strength and making her look stupid. Moana offers its hero many more opportunities to display her physical strength and adventuring aptitude, and grants her the opportunity to succeed, but it’s not afraid to show her struggling like Anna and play such moments for laughs. Is Moana an improvement on Frozen in this regard?
  2. Tala sings: “Sometimes the world seems against you/The journey may leave a scar/
    But scars can heal and reveal just/Where you are/The people you love will change you/The things you have learned will guide you”
  3. While the film stops short of associating Tamatoa with Moana’s island, there’s not a huge difference between the isolationist policies of Montenui and Tamatoa. Both use what they’ve been provided with to stay put; living off the land, rather than giving back to it.
  4. Check out three’s fantastic post about ‘Let It Go’ as a song of empowerment for a good rebuttal of my own piece.
  5. Dwayne Johnson continues to be one of the most interesting, and important, male screen presences in modern Hollywood. He has an exceptional eye for picking his roles, understanding his celebrity persona and often subverting it. His last film, Central Intelligence, found him playing a rogue CIA agent with a love for effeminate pop songs and dancing. Maui’s struggles here speak to the concept of masculinity in crisis, struggling with emotional problems but being unable to speak about them. Having been open about his own difficulties with depression, you suspect Johnson related to Maui’s journey through Moana, and I hope it connects with young men in the audience the way Elsa’s difficulties connected with young women.
  6. For more on modern Disney’s depiction of magic, check out my essay ‘No Magic’.
  7. There’s a nice evolution from Frozen here. If Elsa had a frozen heart that threw Arendelle into an eternal winter, Te Fiti has an absent heart that throws the world into a potentially eternal darkness.

Moana: First, Spoiler-Free Thoughts

I had the pleasure of seeing Moana at a special preview at the National Film Theatre in London earlier today, and it was a wonderful experience. Not only was the film great, but there was a (sadly very short as they had prior commitments) Q&A with Ron Clements, John Musker, producer Osnat Shurer, and Moana herself Auli’i Cravalho.I also met lovely new people, which was a big step forwards for me. 

No Disney film passes my eyes without an extended pretentious blog, and Moana will definitely be getting that. But as the film isn’t out yet, I wanted to get some brief, non-spoilery thoughts down first. So here they are.

– The film is terrific. Funny, exciting, and deeply moving, it has something to offer everyone and should do huge business over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period.

– Moana herself is a tremendous character, and you’ll likely hear in reviews how different she is from other Princess characters. She is, in a sense, but as I’ll explain in my longer post, what’s important in Princess characters is their inner strength, and that’s what defines Moana as much as, if not more than, her action heroics.

– That said, it’s a joy to see a Princess character fight creepy coconut dudes, battle giant crabs, and dodge poison tipped blow darts. Moana’s a fighter and I’m excited by the prospect of young girls and women being inspired by that.

– Auli’i Cravalho gives a performance of remarkable confidence. She’s just 15 years old and has never acted before, but carries the film beautifully, sings with incredble passion, and has fantastic comic chemistry with Dwayne Johnson. Much of Moana‘s success is down to her.

– Johnson treads a very fine line with Maui, who comes off as the demigod of mansplaining early in the film. He’s an arrogant character, not a million miles away from Gaston, but can’t be too arrogant as he’s not the villain and develops in some pretty profound ways as the film progresses. It’s a tough balance, but Johnson nails it. Got a great voice too.

– One of the truly great achievements of the film is its visuals. The naturalistic CG animation sparkles, but we also get some wonderful stylised work and some lovely 2D thanks to Eric Goldberg’s animation of Maui’s tattoos. It’s a true feast for the eyes.

– As this is a Ron and John film there are clear links to The Little Mermaid, but there’s also a bit of Hercules, Tangled, Frozen, and Mulan in there too. It makes for a wonderful mixture.

– Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken voiced by Alan Tudyk, is the hero we didn’t know we needed. He wins the biggest laugh (a gag of extended nonsense that gets funnier as it goes on) and has a moment late on that’s surprisingly emotional. 

Moana touches on many things (storytelling, the natural world, coming of age) but perhaps its most important theme is identity: not just knowing who you are in your culture, but knowing how your culture fits into the world. 

– It’s tempting to read everything through a post-Trump lens now, but while Moana certainly wasn’t influenced by his campaign, it feels like a perfect antidote to it. There’s more to life than what you know: get out there and discover what you don’t.