Wednesday, 15 November 2017

After Walt's Era: Top Fives

I just can't let it go! Having discussed "Life After Walt" in the closing chapter of Walt's Era and touched on it in my conclusion, which included a "Top Five", I'm going to carry on in a fashion. I have no inclination whatsoever to go systematically through every Disney film made from 1968 to today. Please God no. But I can offer up my top five films, animated and live-action, from each of the company's major eras.

First would, of course, be the era of Card Walker and Ron Miller, from 1968 to 1984. This was the era immediately after Walt's passing, when the company tried in fits and starts to find its way without its founder. That came to an end in 1984 with chaos on the board of directors, several takeover attempts, and finally the introduction of Michael Eisner. It was this era I actually grew up in, incidentally. It's easy to be negative about Eisner from the controversial final years of his reign, but for an entire generation, Eisner was the only face of Disney they really knew. When I sat down on Sunday nights to watch Wonderful World of Disney, it was not Walt Disney who greeted me, but Michael Eisner. Finally it is the era of Bob Iger, who took charge of the company after Eisner was escorted out. Though originally slated to end this year, the loss of Iger's heir apparent, Tom Staggs, forced him to stay on for at least a few more years, with preparations to stay on even longer if necessary.

My reaction to each of these eras is a little different. Having reached the end of Walt's era and having studied Walt Disney World's history a bit more, I have a greater appreciation for what Walker and Miller tried and accomplished during their time. They were up against incredible challenges, and even though their experimentation didn't often work, at least they tried. Eisner's era was the Disney Renaissance, phenomenal in the beginning, a little more questionable towards the end. As a fan of classic Disney, I'm growing less and less enchanted with Iger's transformation of the company into a high-end IP management firm, of which "Disney" is merely one brand, easily discarded as the needs of marketing demand. I recently saw a comment that jokingly, but accurately, described Iger's reign as the Anything-But-Disney Decade. Keep in mind that as I rank these top fives from each era, I'm only counting Disney and none of Iger's acquisitions.

The Walker-Miller Era (1968-1984):

Top Five Animated Feature Films
  1. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - The Winnie the Pooh shorts produced up to this time were linked with new animation forming the best, most enduring animated film of this period. In feature film form, Pooh has managed to retain its charm inherited from Walt's own guidance, way back on his first short.  
  2. The Rescuers - This is actually one of Ashley's favourite Disney films, and I can understand why. It's got some nice charm and atmosphere. I would have loved to have seen Cruella De Vil the villain, as was the original intent, but we can't have everything I suppose. 
  3. The Aristocats - It's really just Lady and the Tramp, isn't it? It's not bad, just too on the nose as a remake but without the real heart.
  4. Robin Hood - What I find most odd about Robin Hood is that it's not really a story. I mean, it has a story, and that story touches on some of the famous parts of the Robin Hood legend, like the archery competition, but there is no overarching narrative like in most cinematic renditions of Robin Hood. Even Disney's first crack at it back in the Fifties featured his entire story arc, from beginning of his career to its end. This is just an odd little episode from it. It's an interesting exercise and still a decent film.  
  5. The Fox and the Hound - Sure I guess? Why not? I haven't actually seen this film since I was a child, but there aren't a lot of animated films to choose from in this period.
Top Five Live Action Feature Films
  1. Blackbeard's Ghost - I'm legitimately torn over which is my favourite Disney pirate movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or Blackbeard's Ghost. Lost to obscurity now, this is actually a very funny film. Peter Ustinov does a hilarious job as the ghost of Blackbeard, cursed to do good deeds to deliver himself from purgatory. Dean Jones plays his usual straight man with aplomb. I might even say that this is my favourite film of his too. It's got college pratfalls ala The Absent-Minded Professor and some really spooky stuff, including a wonderfully designed/matte-painted inn.  
  2. The Love Bug - If Blackbeard's Ghost is maybe the best Dean Jones Disney film, this is certainly his most well-known. Besides Winnie the Pooh, who got his start during Walt's era, Herbie is Disney's most recognizable... perhaps even only... classic character to come out of this era. I don't know, maybe Elliot too? Herbie's status is deserved, as The Love Bug is also a very good, very funny film. 
  3. The Best of Disney's True-Life Adventures - Cheater! Yes, okay, one of my favourite Disney films from this time period is a clip-show from some of the best Disney films of Walt's era. Que sera, sera. What makes this particularly good though is that it's as much a documentary about the True-Life Adventures as a clip anthology from them. It talks very lovingly about Walt Disney's nature documentary and conservation legacy. 
  4. The Island at the Top of the World - Sometimes a film is a guilty pleasure, and I know that. The Island at the Top of the World was one of them. This retro Victorian-Edwardian Sci-Fi adventure story was produced against a renewed interest in the genre in Disney's studio household. Had it been a commercial success, a ride based on it would have served as the anchor for a new land for Disneyland dubbed "Discovery Bay." Designed by Tony Baxter, it would have featured this ride, a Nautilus-themed restaurant, a few other interesting attractions, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, all in a 1850's San Francisco wharf setting roughly where the entrance to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge now lies. The movie flopped and only Big Thunder was completed. Plans were for a much more ambitious film that would have rivaled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Disney got cold feet, pulled back, and left behind a quirky little film that never quite reaches its full potential.   
  5. Tron - I get what Tron was trying to do, both as an artistic and a corporate enterprise. It was one of the first to really attempt to explore what this newfangled computer technology could do for film, and did so in a surprisingly intelligent, self-referential way, using a messianic story about the subjective inner world of computers and their relationship with the users. A disingenuous sequel 30 years later only succeeded in making Tron look more admirable. That said, "admirable" is not the same as blindingly good. It does drag at times, and on its release, Disney stock took a 2.5 point dive.  

The Eisner Era (1985-2005):

Top Five Animated Feature Films
  1. Beauty and the Beast - The only Disney animated feature to get a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Beauty and the Beast is a serious contender for one of the best Disney films of all time if historical concerns are taken out of the mix. Walt Disney Animation, freshly empowered by The Little Mermaid's success and emboldened by Howard Ashman (who died during production), gave it their all and it shows. It has exactly everything it needed in characters, setting, themes, and quality to make it succeed.  
  2. Treasure Planet - My tastes are out of synch with most of society, and I know that. But there are times when I cannot for the life of me figure out how a movie gets so maligned. Treasure Planet is one of those cases. It's certainly not any worse than any other Disney film, from the Eisner era or otherwise. It's quite a bit better than a lot of the films coming out during the late Eisner era. And even if it is merely an average Disney film, the retro-futuristic designs, its 70%-30% mix of old and new, is inventive and beautiful. It's one of the first films to present a neo-romantic view of space, overcoming the drab void of Stanley Kubric to depict the vividness of the Hubble Age. I don't get why people stayed away in droves. 
  3. The Little Mermaid - After the dry period of the late Sixties and Seventies, The Little Mermaid heralded the return of Disney. Disney being Disney. Classic Disney... The Disney fairy tale film. It's quality of animation is surprisingly low-budget compared to films of Walt's Era or later films in the Disney Renaissance, but the story and characters cut through it to deliver something wonderful.
  4. Atlantis: The Lost Empire - I like Atlantis a lot, but this time I do understand why it didn't do well. Disney consciously attempted to replicate the subject matter, themes, and look of Mike Mignola, the comic book writer/artist who created Hellboy. The thing is, his work is an homage to pulpy, old fashioned, occultic "weird fiction," particularly in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft. It's great if you're into that stuff... Which most people aren't. But I am.  
  5. Aladdin - The third film of the real Disney Renaissance, before it sort of simultaneously peaked and went off the rails with The Lion King, definitely shows the marks of Howard Ashman's passing. Ashman was not unjustifiably heralded as Walt Disney's effective reincarnation: a brilliant storyteller who understood the potentials of the animated musical and could push animators to deliver the best in their craft. He was the main force guiding The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to excellence. Aladdin almost feels like a Jungle Book, a film made with the scraps of what the creative visionary left behind. It's still a fantastic film, just slightly off of what the previous two films had accomplished.  

Top Five Live Action Feature Films
  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - Ignoring the diminishing returns of the Pirates sequels (we literally didn't realize Pirates 5 came out, and then duly forgot to see it until it was in the sole cheap theatre in town), and giving up anger over how the film franchise has corrupted the rides it was based on (not to mention Tom Sawyer Island and Fantasmic), Curse of the Black Pearl is a phenomenal movie. It's at least the best Disney live-action film since Mary Poppins, if not 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The writers deliberately scripted it like a grand adventure film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, carefully setting up a great interweaving of compelling duos - Will and Elizabeth, Will and Jack, Jack and Barbossa, Will and Norrington, Norrington and Jack, Elizabeth and Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, Murtog and Mullroy - and pulling some of the best imagery from the ride to create an excellent and very satisfying tale of swashbuckling and the supernatural.    
  2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - I imagine that it would be more of a feat to make a bad movie that involved Disney and Amblin, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, above all, a love letter to the Golden Age of animation and of Hollywood, with a great, but not overwhelming, L.A. Noire feel. Being fond of that era, I'm fond of this film too. 
  3. The Rocketeer - Keeping on the Golden Age theme, The Rocketeer was a game attempt at an old fashioned, Nazi-smashing, two-fisted Pulp adventure film. Brisk, enjoyable, and with great costumes and set pieces. I wonder if they're going to remake this or do a disingenuous 30-year later sequelboot. 
  4. The Three Musketeers - The Three Musketeers starring Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Tim Curry is another film in the "game attempt" category, this time trying its hand at swashbuckling adventure in the vein of Flynn and Fairbanks. It's a bit obscure today, but looks that much better compared to more recent film and television versions.
  5. Return to Oz - This film terrified me as a child, and still does to a certain degree. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Disney often went dark, and this loose adaptation of the later Oz novels was no exception. Even the protagonists are grotesque, let alone the villains. But I like it, and not just because of my credentials as an old Goth. I want to like the classic 1939 Wizard of Oz because it is a classic, but I genuinely find it overstimulating and oversaturated to the point of being obnoxious. The muted Gothness of Return to Oz is actually more appealing to me, even as it is terrifying.  

The Iger Era (2005-Present):

Top Five Animated Feature Films
  1. The Princess and the Frog - Boy did The Princess and the Frog play it safe, sometimes almost insultingly so. Disney had a lot riding on the film, not the least of which was the rebirth of traditional animation, which Eisner had previously shuttered. It ended up being more of a deathrattle. Nevertheless, it's the animated film of Iger's era that I like the most, for its characters, setting, art, and themes. 
  2. Frozen - I would have rather seen a straight adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, but Frozen was still alright. It definitely has its flaws - I was disappointed in Hans being just another villain, and "Oh, love" is a running joke between Ashley and I (representing any flippant answer to a major crisis or psychological problem) - yet the overall quality of it is enough to look past them. Overall in Disney's oeuvre I would place Frozen on the same tier as a Great Mouse Detective or Robin Hood, not unenjoyable but not a masterpiece. It's second here because, let's face it, the Iger Era is slim pickings for good original films in general. 
  3. Tangled - This is a batshit crazy movie. Rapunzel has a chameleon, because why not? And her hero is actually a theif guy obsessed with his nose, sure? And his arch-nemesis is a horse, who he fights with a frying pan, because f**k it? And then there's the Snuggly Duckling... On it's own it's a fun movie. In context, I have to resent it a little for starting the trend at Disney of "funny" reimaginings of fairy tales given adjectival titles. 
  4. Moana - Honestly, I should like Moana more than I do. I love Tiki, and have been researching Polynesian cultures, and all of that. That should give me the background for really liking this film... but... but... I don't know. It's just sorta' there. I enjoyed it, but it didn't leave a deep, lasting mark. 
  5. Frankenweenie - I need five for a top five, so I guess I'll put this here. Honestly, Tim Burton's original live-action short is better, if for no other reason than it's brevity and being made by Tim Burton rolling into the height of his creative expression in the Eighties and Nineties rather than on the downslide of his career in the Two Thousands. The feature animated version was okay.  
Top Five Live Action Feature Films
  1. The Lone Ranger - Another case of me not understanding why people didn't like a film... I'm almost offended that people didn't like this, as though they have any right not to like this after propelling brainless dreck like The Avengers into being one of the highest-grossing films of all time. The only sympathy I can muster is that you get the most out of The Lone Ranger if you have a working understanding of Western North American history and Western movies as a genre. It's a much smarter film than it is given credit for being. 
  2. John Carter - Please revisit my complaints re: The Lone Ranger, Treasure PlanetJohn Carter is also one of those films that I really liked and didn't see as being, at least, any worse than the stuff people do like. What really pisses me right off about how this bombed at the box office (including Disney throwing it under the bus before it even opened) is that I've read the first trilogy of John Carter novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I have a pretty fair idea of how the rest of this trilogy should have gone. But I'll never get to see it. Thanks guys. Thanks. 
  3. The Jungle Book - Disney's fetish for live-action remakes of classic animated films has uneven results. Maleficent was just plain awful, as were Tim Burton's Alice films. Did anyone even see Pete's Dragon? But The Jungle Book, of all things, showed what can and should be done. Working with source material that was only really "okay" to begin with, it went back to Kipling's original stories to build a film from the ground up that had an actual plot and heart that exceeds the animated original. 
  4. Beauty and the Beast - Whereas Jungle Book was good for how it found the diamond in the rough of its source material, this live-action remake is good because it is, beat for beat, a remake of good source material. Often where it diverges from the source material, it only calls attention to how good that source material is (like the Gaston number). The Beast's showstopping solo nearly made me lose it, though. I'm just rubbing my eye because it's itchy, okay?! Hold it together Cory, hold it together...
  5. Cinderella - This live-action remake is a bit too visually intense for my unreserved liking, but I did appreciate how it added more depth to the characters (including turning the prince into one!). I also want to like it for it's message of "have courage and be kind" that abuse was, inexplicably, heaped upon by the intelligentsia. 

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