Mouse House Movie Club #11: Mulan

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Mmm
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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.

However…

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.

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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…

Is that one now? OH MY GOD, THERE’S ONE HERE. THERE’S A HEFFALUMP IN THE HOUSE.

SEND HEL…–=DA

DDCSDPMDSFDFFLSMDldmlemfes

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sdlf

efewf]ewf

../././lm;/………………….

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

Mouse House Movie Club #10: The Enchanted Christmas

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mouse House Movie Club #9: Tomorrowland

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

This week’s film: Tomorrowland, in which a brilliant woman saves the planet from a fear-mongering idiot. Sadly, life isn’t like the movies.

SPOILER ALERT: As this is a recent film (from 2015), here’s a spoiler warning. I will discuss Tomorrowland in depth from start to finish. So, if you haven’t seen the film and want to remain unspoiled, don’t read on.

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There are two wolves and they’re always fighting…
Tomorrowland is a confrontational film, which isn’t something that can be very often said about Disney movies. But Brad Bird is a take-no-prisoners kind of film-maker, as anyone who’s seen the documentary on the recently-released blu-ray of The Iron Giant can attest. His films always have something to say, and often say it firmly and without shame. This has led him into some trouble in the past, most notably on The Incredibles, which some commentators (incorrectly in my opinion) maintain has Ayn Randian/Objectivist philosophies at its core. Tomorrowland has been criticised from that angle as well and I’ll return to that later, but first I want to address the confrontational aspects of the film, because understanding them is key to understanding the film as a whole.

Tomorrowland opens with George Clooney talking direct into camera. He plays Frank, a jaded middle-aged man who can’t see anything in the future but darkness and despair. This attitude informs his opening line: “This is a story about the future. And the future can be scary.” He proceeds to list all the reasons why, yes indeed, the future is scary: famine, disorder, collapsing governments. It’s a pretty intense way to come out of the lovely, comforting sight of the Disney castle logo, but it doesn’t last long because suddenly another voice comes on the soundtrack, a female voice, chiding Frank for being so pessimistic. This voice belongs to our hero Casey Newton, a brilliant young woman with a love for science and discovery. She demands more positivity and eventually takes the telling of this tale away from Frank. She’s better equipped to tell it, she says. Why? “Because I am an optimist.” An angry, determined, purposeful form of optimism is the driving force of Tomorrowland.

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One is darkness and despair…
Before this week, I had planned on dedicating this edition of Mouse House Movie Club to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I’ve spent a lot of time on modern Disney recently, and wanted to take on something a little older. Also, I wanted to discuss Heffelumps and Woozles, because it terrified me as a kid and I find children’s reactions to scary things fascinating. That was going to be the crux of the article: Disney, childhood, and scary monsters. Then Fuckface von Clownstick was elected President of the United States, and my mind changed. It’s not much fun to talk about scary fiction when real life is much more terrifying.

As I wrote about the election in the wake of Trump’s win (A Blog and What Just Happened?), and talked about it with North American friends I’ve had the privilege to get to know through the internet, I quickly became convinced I needed to watch Tomorrowland. It captures so much of my post-election mood and some of the attitudes that have led us into this dark and depressing situation. Because Frank is wrong at the start of the movie. Tomorrowland isn’t just a story about the future and the future isn’t scary, not necessarily. It’s a story about the present and how the way we act and the fictions we create and consume in the present shape the future. If you create and consume only scariness, scariness is all you’ll get.

When the film was released, it took a bit of a beating for that attitude. It was seen as naive and a little obnoxious, maybe even socially irresponsible. Should we ignore all the bad in the world to exist in a perpetually happy state, some critics asked. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. At no point do Bird or screenwriter Damon Lindelof ever dismiss the horrors of the world. In fact, humanity’s propensity for stupidity, destruction, and evil forms the heart of one of the film’s best moments. David Nix, the overseer of the utopian parallel world that gives the film its title, explains that the city has been planting visions of destruction into humanity’s minds in a bid to scare us toward common sense. But instead of instilling fear in us, we’ve “gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair.”  “They didn’t fear their demise,” he says of humans, “they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.”

There’s goodness in Nix’s intentions, but they’ve become corrupted just as the utopian ideals of Tomorrowland itself have. The city was set up by Plus Ultra, a secret society that counted the likes of Einstein, Tesla, Earhart, and (in a sadly deleted scene) Walt Disney amongst its ranks. This element of the story is where accusations of Rand politics and Objectivism come from. Bird has always been fascinated by exceptional people and how outside forces can destroy them, be that the cruelty of the human world against Remy in Ratatouille, the anti-superhero sentiment that resigns Bob to an office cubicle in The Incredibles, or IMF being disbanded in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Plus Ultra is essentially IMF for smart people rather than action heroes, and if you take that to its logical conclusion then the film is espousing the idea that there are only a select few intellects who can save us, and those people deserve to be placed on a pedestal above all else. They should be able to escape from the humdrum world and humdrum people and essentially do as they please. There’s an air of Objectivism to this, no doubt, and as much as I loathe Rand and love Bird, it lingers in most of his films (it’s worth reading this Slate piece and this Atlantic piece for more on why it just lingers rather than dominates them). But there’s a critical point of difference between Tomorrowland and Rand: Plus Ultra failed.

Our first sight of Tomorrowland is when the city’s at its peak: a glittering utopia of wonder and scientific advancement. But in the present day, it’s a mess. The experiment has failed, the city is abandoned, and the only thing it’s achieving now is to send to Earth visions of our doom. Nix is an arrogant and egotistical man who’s the very embodiment of Rand: he sees himself and the Tomorrowland concept as being above everyone else. He refuses to open the doors to the city because he believes that in doing so he’d only be enabling the human race to do to Tomorrowland what they’ve done to Earth. Indeed, he sends androids to earth in an attempt to kill anyone who may stumble across his precious city.

The utopia has become a dystopia that absolves itself of its evil by casting its eye to humanity and saying: well, at least we’re not as bad as them. But they are, and they’re infected by the same fear and paranoia as humanity is. But gladly, one person is beyond it all.

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The other is light and hope…
If Nix comes to represent the dark and despairing wolf, Casey is the light and hopeful one. Relentless in her quest for knowledge, she is, like Nix, a huge intellect, but unlike Nix, there’s no arrogance, no sense that she’ll ever believe she knows everything she needs to know. This inspires her to ask questions and in a scene early in the film, we find her at school. A montage shows teachers lecturing her classes about the world’s ills, and on each occasion, Casey thrusts her hand up, desperate to ask a question. Finally, she gets her chance. “I know things are bad,” she says. “But what are we going to do to fix them?”

Luckily for the teacher, he doesn’t have to answer as the bell goes and class ends. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, but then… neither did Casey. Which is pretty much the point. On purely filmic (rather than political) grounds, Tomorrowland was criticised for weak pacing and showing too little of the city itself. Both are fair points; Tomorrowland is not without its flaws, and if you’re looking for a thrill-a-minute ride about a sci-fi city you’re not going to get it here. And nor should you. Tomorrowland represents the perfect world, but perfect worlds aren’t easy to build. You have to work, you have to fight, you have to ask questions before you can find the answers. You have to keep going, and humanity’s refusal to do so is exactly what so exasperates Nix, who rants:

“In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because *that* future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up!”

Casey and Nix are similar in their disdain for giving up, but she maintains a love for humanity that shows that she, unlike him, hasn’t given up on our future. This is what makes her the film’s hero (and honestly, a true hero of mine. I adore this character!). In a tremendous scene near the end of the film, she’s given a vision of the Earth’s destruction, which will arrive just 57 days into the future. It’s one of the most moving moments Tomorrowland has to offer and that’s because Casey seems genuinely distraught about the end of the world. There’s no nihilism, no Batman v Superman esque stylisation of the darkness. Hatred, death, and destruction are coming, and Casey is devastated, so devastated that even this most optimistic of women (and how wonderful is it that our optimistic saviour is a brilliant woman of science!) nearly gives up. She almost falls to Nix’s self-fulfilling prophecy. But she cares too much, much more than Nix does, much more than Rand ever did. When you care that much, giving up simply isn’t an option.

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The question is: which wolf wins?
And we can all care that much, if we choose to. Tomorrowland‘s thesis is that darkness is a choice not our fate: if we believe annihilation is an inevitability then it will be. If we accept that there’s nothing but darkness out there, there really will be nothing but darkness. The images of destruction that Tomorrowland started pumping out were so convincing that we all decided we couldn’t do anything about it. The problem’s too big, so why fight it? It’s a sentiment that feels very real after this week. So many voted for Trump and he’s now so powerful… what can one person do? Isn’t it easier to just accept that he’s in that position for the next four years and get on with it?

Casey wouldn’t because she knows the answer to the wolf question. She knows that the winner is whichever wolf you feed, whichever one you pay most attention to. And she’s adamant that no matter what happens, no matter how dark and desperate things get, she will feed the right one: hope and light. Because those things can win. Even if it’s just on a small scale for a fleeting time, even if you’re just saying hello to someone who seems a bit down, offering to help someone who seems like they need it, complementing someone on something cool, or nice, or good they did. It all counts. It’s all valid. And more importantly, it’s all achievable.

Will that save the planet? No, maybe not. Not right away anyway. But it sets the Doomsday Clock back just a second, and every act, every moment, every person who believes that there is and can be a great big beautiful tomorrow can help. The world is scary, and we’ve made it scary. But we can make it unscary again, each and every one of us, if we continue to believe that we can. So keep on believing, keep on dreaming, and go out and find others who dream too. Because dreamers need to stick together, and Tomorrowland shows us that as long as we do, anything is possible.

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Mouse House Movie Club #8: The Black Cauldron

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

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Somewhere, in the dark depths of the 1980s, Disney had a great idea. “I know,” the studio, suddenly developing the power of anthropomorphism and probably wearing a pinstripe suit and a dubious mullet, said to itself, “let’s ignore decades of warm, family friendly entertainment and go dark. Really, really, super dark. It’ll be fun, y’know. The kids’ll love it.”

So was born The Black Cauldron. And, the kids did not love it. Nobody did.

My Cauldron born…

The Black Cauldron was a bold idea and one that fit in well with what Disney as a whole (both animated and live action) was doing at the time. With George Lucas and Steven Spielberg essentially doing Disney better than Disney, the Mouse House spent the late 70s and early 80s trying to modernise with films like Watcher in the Woods and The Black Hole, their most direct answer to Star Wars. This would have been cool and all, except for one thing: they’re ludicrously scary. Seriously, [SPOILER ALERT] The Black Hole culminates with the villain getting trapped inside a psychotic robot and sent into the depths of hell.

Yes, this actually happened. In a Disney film.

Anyways, Disney animation largely escaped this period unscathed. There had been movements in a darker direction in the sad denouement of The Fox and the Hound, the unsettlingly real villainy of Madame Medusa from The Rescuers, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’s chilling Heffelumps and Woozles segment. But nothing had been out-and-out terrifying. At no point did a Heffelump or Woozle get cast into hell, despite so obviously deserving it.

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you..."
“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you…”

Then The Black Cauldron happened. Based on the Chronicles of Prydain series by Welsh author Alexander Lloyd, the film is sorta Lord of the Rings for kids, right down to the Gollum-esque creature Gurgi. On page, the series is a pretty epic tale of high adventure and grand Welsh mythology (particularly the Mabinogion, which is amazing if you haven’t read it); on film, it’s… not. Short and lightweight, the story seems to stop before it really gets started, and considering the ultimate, world-consuming evil our heroes face here, it’s bizarre how empty everything feels. There are no stakes, there’s no sense of journey. It’s like Lord of the Rings but only if Frodo had been taking the ring down the road to the nearest jewellery shop to get it fixed.

It’s not for lack of trying. Where the narrative fails to build a suitable threat through careful pacing and delicate writing, the visuals and design do too good a job. This is a surprisingly oppressive film that takes place either in witches’ lairs, foreboding mountains, or the castle of the villainous Horned King (voiced by the ever-excellent John Hurt; honestly the film’s worth watching just to hear him say the words: “oracular pig”). The Black Cauldron isn’t exactly a ‘fun’ film; it’s kinda like watching a Presidential debate: dark, depressing, and ultimately doomed to disaster, but somehow, you just can’t look away.

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Girl? GIRL?!
And that’s because beneath the obvious flaws, there’s an awful lot of really great stuff happening with The Black Cauldron. The first thing is Eilonwy, the film’s female lead and Disney’s first Princess since Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora. Sadly, the company doesn’t include her in the Princess line-up because the film bombed at the box office, and that’s a huge frustration. She may be in a weaker Disney film, but she anticipates many of the Princesses we’d see during the Renaissance thanks to her sense of agency and adventure, and is therefore worthy of study for that alone.

The first time we’re introduced to her, Eilonwy is looking for a way out of the Horned King’s castle. She’s been locked up, just as Taran has at this point, but rather than feeling sorry for herself, as Taran does, she’s battling to find a way out and stumbles into his cell. They quickly bond over a shared interest in proving themselves and you really get a sense not just of chemistry, but exactly why these two characters have feelings for one another. They bring out the best in each other, and the relationship seems balanced and mutually beneficial.

The problem is you can’t help but feel you’d rather see more of Eilonwy. Taran’s a fine leading man, but he’s rather like Luke Skywalker: a nice fella, but just a little bit boring. And hey, wouldn’t we rather spend more time with Leia anyway? Eilonwy is The Black Cauldron‘s Leia: fun, punchy, a little unpredictable and slightly dangerous because of that. It would have been a pretty revolutionary concept at the time, but making her the lead would have worked beautifully, and it’d be interesting to see how Eilonwy would be crafted were the film made today. Would she be the lead? Would the film be a musical? Would it actually achieve success this time round?

Watch it just for Gurgi
Watch it just for Gurgi

Munchings and Crunchings
I’d say it would be. While The Black Cauldron certainly has its flaws, and they would remain no matter when it was released, the film’s darkness is likely to have been better received these days. Following Lord of the Rings, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the later Harry Potters, we no longer expect family/universal entertainment to fit within the same boundaries we did when The Black Cauldron was released. The Disney brand is slightly more confined within those boundaries, but they have more leeway to push at them than they did thirty years ago. We’re actually expecting Disney films to be more mature these days than they’ve ever been before.

While no Disney animated film since has been as frequently dark as The Black Cauldron is, there are certainly great moments of darkness in many of their recent films, mostly revolving around revelations about the villains, who have all been shown to be trusted people in the heroes’ lives (Hans in Frozen, Callaghan in Big Hero 6). That concept is positively terrifying: the idea that an authority figure, a parental surrogate, or a potential boyfriend will turn out to be the one who tries to kill you is nightmarish, but it’s what Disney is regularly showing kids at the moment.

As I’ve said in a previous edition of Mouse House Movie Club, the role of villains in modern Disney films merits a discussion of its own, but it’s interesting that while The Black Cauldron looks dark, it’s really not in comparison to modern films. They key difference is distance. We can distance ourselves from The Horned King because he’s just a vaguely satanic dude with a creepy voice who wants power. A cinematic construct in a blood red cloak. Hans, however, is something tangible and real. A manipulator who wants power no less than The Horned King, but who looks and acts like he’s the good guy. We see this kind of guy every day. One of them’s running for President. It’s real and genuinely chilling.

The Horned King kinda pales in comparison to The Horny King.

Conclusion

Whatever the flaws and missed possibilities of The Black Cauldron, it remains one of my favourite Disney films, and certainly one of the most interesting in the studio’s history. Creative talents are as fascinating for their failures as their triumphs, and you can certainly learn a lot about 80s Disney and everything that’s come since by looking at what went right and what went wrong here. Indeed, it may even be the studio’s most important film, representing a total breakdown of their identity that they simply couldn’t fail to respond to.

Sometimes you’ve got to break everything down to rebuild something, and The Black Cauldron was Disney’s wrecking ball. Their next film, Basil The Great Mouse Detective, would be a return to something resembling normality, and as the 80s turned into the 90s, Disney finally returned to its most reliable identifier. The Princess. Y’know, an actual Princess, in the actual line. Poor Eilonwy. Come on Disney, sort it out!

Mouse House Movie Club #7: Enchanted

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

Short Film: The Art of Skiing, in which Goofy hits the slopes. Like, literally. He literally goes smash bang.

Feature Presentation: Enchanted, in which your dear writer gets on his high horse about Princesses. Again.

The Art of Skiing
Goofy’s a pretty unique character among Disney’s classic set. While the likes of Donald and Mickey have largely stayed the same through their decades-long careers, Goofy has undergone a number of changes. He’s been a single father (in The Goofy Movie and the Goof Troop TV series), a loving suburban family man (during the 50s), and most brilliantly of all, the star of a series of instructional films. Once such film is The Art of Skiing, and while it’s not the absolute best of this somewhat strange series (hello to you How to Play Football), it’s still a work of genius.

Reportedly created to help Disney cope with the departure of Goofy voice artist Pinto Colvig (who had a falling out with Walt), the How To series almost entirely removes Goofy’s need to speak (beyond a few howls and laughs) by giving all the dialogue to a honey-toned narrator. It’s a clever solution to the core problem, but it’s also a frankly ingenious concept because it doesn’t really matter what you have Goofy do, the very idea of an idiot like him offering instructions on how to do something is very very funny.

Yet, there’s more to this series, and this short, than simple laughs. Goofy’s so inept and yet so loveable you can’t help but will him on. As he shambles from one disaster to the next, he seems to become more innocent and the whole concept a little crueller. It’s almost like the narrator is a vengeful God, tormenting our hero and doing nothing to help him out despite his utter incompetence. Theological philosophy in a 1940s Disney short?!…

Well, ok ok…

Yes, that may be taking it a bit too far, but the juxtaposition of the narrator’s calm and Goofy’s anarchy undoubtedly adds to what makes these shorts so special. Watch The Art of Skiing, and if you like it, do check out the others. They’re so brilliant that Disney even briefly revived the format in 2007 with the short How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre. Predictably, Goofy finds it even tougher than most.

And now, our feature presentation…

enchantedOnce Upon A Time…
With Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel so prominent nowadays, it’s easy to forget that just a decade ago, the Disney Princess film seemed deader than Hans’ hopes of being King. Shrek did such a comprehensive hit job on the concept that it was not just unpopular to be a Disney Princess, but deemed to be something genuinely dangerous. Princesses were weak and they perpetuated an image of women as passive, wide-eyed innocents who only developed a sense of agency when they found their ‘one true love’. Worse, by portraying Fiona’s Princess form as nothing more than a cover for her true ogre self, Shrek subtly positioned the Princess as a falsehood that no real young girl could possibly live up to.

It’s little wonder then that Disney as a studio was struggling in the early 2000s. Every peak in Disney history has been powered by Princesses, be that the early days with Snow White, the post-war resurgence with Cinderella, the Renaissance with Ariel and Belle, or the modern era with Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa. Every downturn, on the other hand, has been marked by their absence, most notably the 80s and the post-Renaissance period, where the only sniff of a Princess was dear old Eilonwy in The Black Cauldron. I’ve been vocal about how these periods are, artistically speaking, not as bad as many claim, but it’s beyond doubt that they lack direction, and that’s because of the lack of Princesses.

Princesses, in short, get shit done.

As the 2000s wore on, Disney needed to bring the Princess back, acknowledge the damage done by Shrek, and yet at the same time, highlight everything great about Cinderella, Belle, Ariel et al. Their answer was Enchanted, a parody that somehow seems to transcend parody and be as sincere and sweet as Snow White singing to some rabbits in a sunlit meadow. It turned out to be a smash hit, and it opened the studio up to a whole new world (sorry)…

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Sword of humour, fly swift and sure
Self-deprecation is a significant weapon. It’s why Donald Trump will never posses any power, no matter how much wealth and fame he accrues: he can’t laugh at himself, and will doggedly pursue anyone who tries with lawsuit clasped in those teeny tiny hands of his. Disney’s a wiser company than many give it credit for, and they knew that the only way to turn the tide against Shrek was to join in the joke. “Hey, y’know what, we get it: we can laugh at ourselves too. Here look…”

Any moron can laugh at themselves though (even Trump let Fallon ruffle his hair). Disney couldn’t simply mock itself, otherwise it’d seem disingenuous. There’s too much riding on Disney’s heritage and they’re too proud of it (rightly so) to mock it with the gleeful abandon that Shrek did. So Enchanted engages in a little bit of light banter: a visual reference here, a sly lyric there. It’s parody, but it’s very very soft, and it wasn’t until I rewatched the film (for the first time in a long time) that I realised the humour doesn’t bit all that much.

Look at ‘Happy Working Song’, for example. Here we have Giselle helping out her adopted family by cleaning their apartment the only way she know how: by calling on her animal friends. You can go very dark with this kind of material; Shrek had Fiona engage in a singing battle with a cute bird where the notes got so high the bird implodes. Enchanted simply replaces fuzzy wuzzy rabbits and owls with dirty wirty rats and cockroaches. This joke has been done many times before and since, and it’s really very tame. But here it works.

Part of the reason for this is that it comes from Disney. It’s like when the President mocks himself at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. A comedian making those jokes is a little bland because that comedian is able to do so much more than what they’re delivering. When the President makes them, however, it pushes the envelope of what we expect and what’s permissible, and so it feels more dangerous and more exciting. “Did he really say that?!” “Did Disney really just show rats cleaning a toilet with toothbrushes!?”

The other reason it works is because all that humour is covering up something more: a Trojan Horse of a film that’s mocking Princesses while at the same time defending them with much greater force.

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Hey! Keep trying!
Princess songs are critical to the characters’ make-up, so it’s worth diving deeper into Enchanted‘s roster of ditties because they’re at the heart of the sleight of hand the film performs. As I discussed in my Frozen piece, ‘Let It Go’ exists in two contradictory states: both celebrating Elsa’s freedom and lamenting her isolation. The music is triumphant, but the lyrics speak of sadness. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz achieve a similar thing here, Menken’s music playing up the pastiche, Schwartz’s lyrics exposing the sincerity.

In ‘Happy Working Song’, we laugh at the ridiculousness of the set up and that ridiculousness is emphasised by Menken, whose music hits the well-worn beats that have become cliches. Schwartz’s lyrics are funny too, but they’re also sincere and somewhat sad. At this stage in the film, Giselle is looking for something to cling to, a ray of reliability in a world she doesn’t understand. Singing is her way of doing that, and she tells us this in the song: “We’ll keep singing without fail otherwise we’d spoil it,” she says at one point. “I guess a new experience could be worth trying,” she later adds with resolve, “Hey! Keep trying!”

Here, in this most ridiculous and parodical of scenes, is the very heart of the Disney Princess: kindness, endeavour, optimism, and openness. Everything about Giselle’s life has been turned upside down – her very being has changed. And yet rather than weeping for what she’s lost, she looks ahead to what she might enjoy. The same is true beyond the songs. When Robert suggests she move out and go her own way, she doesn’t whine or beg to stay with him. Despite her confusion and desperation for a friend, she thanks him for his kindness and goes on with her life, taking the same attitude that if she just “keeps trying” she’ll succeed.

We can dismiss this kind of faith as childishly naive, and the film acknowledges that by having Giselle immediately give the money Robert donates to her away to a stranger. But it’s also inspiring and in ‘That’s How You Know’, Giselle’s optimism inspires all of New York to drop what they’re doing and join in her sense of wonder. Like ‘Happy Working Song’, it’s a sequence that’s superficially rather shallow: Robert’s baffled by the fact that people know the song and he refuses to sing and dance along. Obvious jokes with obvious punchlines.

But the joke’s on everyone who’d mock this kind of sequence in a typical Disney Princess film, because ‘That’s How You Know’ specifically and Enchanted as a whole aren’t really laughing at anything. ‘That’s How You Know’ repeatedly tells us to keep trying – keep being positive, keep being optimistic, keep being kind, keep showing the people you love that you love them. And by the end of it, Giselle’s amassed an army of cynical New Yorkers to dance and sing along in scenes that could easily come from Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. The audience does the same, because how could you not? Look at it. Look at how awesome this is…

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It’s Enchanted‘s greatest victory. The film turns the detractors’ weapon against them by reconfiguring a parody song into something that seems like it’s making fun, but is actually defending everything the Princess films have always been about. Many a true word has indeed been spoken in jest…

It fits…
Yet a bigger question remains. Enchanted needed to do more than simply shake off the derision that Shrek had incited; it needed to evolve the relevance of the Princess film by going beyond self-reflexity and touching on social relevance. It achieves this beautifully not only through where it takes Giselle, but also how it plays with the characters of Edward, Robert’s girlfriend Nancy, and Queen Narissa’s henchman Nathaniel.

Nathaniel may be the most proactive bad guy for most of the film, but he’s only evil because he labours under the misapprehension that Narissa will one day love him. His revelation that he simply doesn’t like himself very much plays into this and is one of the many little moments of deep, sincere meaning that Enchanted has to offer: we all do bad things because we think they’re going to eventually make us happy. In many ways, his journey plays like a mirror image of Giselle’s. He’s looking for a happy ending too, he just goes about it in an underhand way.

The same is true of Nancy and Edward, who end up together in a finale that ties together a little too neatly, but is still critical to the film’s overarching message and social significance. Neither character ever breaks out of their fairy tale mindsets, always believing that true love’s kiss is just around the corner. Are they wrong for taking this view? Of course not. One of the many wonderful things about Enchanted is that it never once laughs at its characters for their desires, never ones accuses them of being stupid. It simply accepts them and shows why the characters might need them.

This attitude contributes to one of my favourite scenes in the film. Having taken a bite from Narissa’s poisoned apple, Giselle is knocked out and needs true love’s kiss to bring her to. The film attempts no mockery of this moment, and doesn’t try to invert it as Maleficent or Frozen did (with great success). It plays it sincerely, and uses it to draw its characters into finally admitting their feelings: Robert and Giselle love each other. What follows is pure kindness: confronted with a moment that will end their hopes of cementing their relationships with their respective partners, Nancy and Edward don’t feel bitter or angry and they don’t jealously try to split the couple up. They encourage Robert to kiss Giselle because they know it’s true love, and they care about that, Giselle, and doing the right thing. Edward, the massive optimistic dope, is even beaming with delight as Robert goes in for the all-important smooch.

It’s the film in microcosm. Confronted with a moment that could have been subverted, Enchanted ignores sarcasm and plays it straight, smiling not a smile of derision, but of sheer joy. It’s kind, it’s warm, it’s… nice. It tells us that Princesses  – whether actual Princesses or just those who aspire to be Princesses – are heroes because they accept people and never once try to diminish them.

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That’s powerful stuff and it both shames the satirists and teaches a valuable lesson to kids. “Hey,” it says, “there’s nothing wrong with being a Princess, there’s nothing wrong with not being a Princess. Do what brings you joy, respect what brings others joy, and may you all find your happily ever after.”

What a lovely idea, and Enchanted shows us that maybe it doesn’t just exist in storybooks.

Next week: it’s Halloween, so time to get spooky (or spoopy as ‘the youth’ call it) with The Black Cauldron.