Tag Archives | Walt Disney Studios

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

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Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.


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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana plunges back into water-themed animation courtesy of the same directors of the studio’s 1989 masterpiece The Little Mermaid. This time, Ron Clements and John Musker are saddled with more of everything, including a cluster of co-writers and co-directors and non-essential agenda items such as multiculturalist directives, but the result is an enjoyable movie that’s more cohesive than—and superior to—Frozen if not as human as mermaid Ariel’s tale.

MoanaPosterMythically-driven music booms, setting the tone of the Pacific Ocean-based adventure. The child Moana (Auli’i Cravalho’s voice in most of the movie) is touched by the gods, guided by the ocean and, most effectively, chosen by her grandmother (Rachel House’s voice) to carry the family legacy and restore vitality to Pacific islands, aided by the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), a character the filmmakers do not fully develop as either comic relief or redemptive enhancement.

Lack of character development proves to be a persistent problem in Moana, which sells its best characters short by cramming in too much and doing it too unevenly. Moana is alternately too slow or too fast—it’s usually too fast—and, though the title character is sufficiently set up as fearless and intelligent, she acquires skills and ability too quickly and without a proper sense of context and proportion. Moana is like a superheroine when she needs to be a girl and vice versa. The most adorable character, a happy and carefree little piglet that reminds me of my dog, is jettisoned early in the action (and traded for a pointless and stupid chicken character) and never really seen again.

But the lush, tropical look, the wonder of most of the cleverly composed and rhymed melodies, especially “You’re Welcome”, and several neatly seeded themes in the plot make Moana a warm and entertaining family motion picture.

Among the ideas are lessons in self-reliance, self-education and Moana’s consistently steady use of reason as her guide to life. This girl likes to fix things that are broken and solve problems and the animators really revel in showing that, however briefly. Cravalho fits the role and character, which is beautifully animated down to the natural hair, eyebrows and walk in sync with the music (think teenaged Simba in The Lion King), though it would have been nice to give her a prospective love interest like Disney’s young male characters get in coming of age tales (even Bambi had a crush) to furnish higher values for which to journey far.

Travel Moana does, with voyaging as a key if somewhat remote theme, and having courage to go forth like a pioneer toward a new frontier is part of what anchors Moana and gives it buoyancy.

As Moana and Maui seek to take back an island for good, a fiery, devilish climax taps Disney’s current fascination with villains that are more complex than they may first appear. The dialogue is too rapid and jokey at times. A tune sung by a crab tries too hard to sound like David Bowie or The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula. A pirate battle should have been deleted to reduce the overlong running time. Moana is too matriarchal—though Grandma Tala steals the movie—and, while voyaging steers the plot, it’s rooted in a subtler notion that earth is a supernatural female being and man must humble himself before Her. But if this idea of Gaia or Mother Earth eludes you, complete with a parting of the waters for the Chosen Child, you can easily float on Moana‘s deep blue aquatic beauty, melodic music, written by a team that includes Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and deistic mythology (“no need to pray”, goes one of the songs) and walk out singing one of its cheerful ditties.

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe-poster-2Directed by Mira Nair, Disney’s reality-based Queen of Katwe—based on an article by Tim Crothers for a Disney-owned ESPN publication and written by William Wheeler (The Hoax)—moves through layers to unfold an incredible if familiar story of a poor child who becomes a champion.

The competition centers on the board game chess. Compressed into a five-year time frame, with David Oyelowo (Selma) as the coach, the occasionally generic movie about winning with good character is elevated by two actresses; one playing the child and the other as her mother.

The kid is portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, whose strong cheekbones and determined manner give her the stone face of a champ in training. But Nair directs her to act with her face and the result is a wider arc for her glory. The mother, a Christian widow who sells vegetables in a poor village in Uganda, Africa, to support her four children, is powerfully portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave). Oyelowo and cast are fine as well.

The screenplay is fine, too, with good lines, especially for the coach, who decides to teach chess to poor kids in Katwe while considering better paying work to support his family. Queen of Katwe holds that money is a means to an end and that living in poverty is not a virtue. For example, toward the end, when an endeavor for which one of the main characters ought to earn a reward becomes known, someone asks: “Was she paid?”

So, don’t confuse Queen of Katwe with Fox Searchlight’s Beasts of the Southern Wild or Slumdog Millionaire, which this sometimes resembles, for putting forth suffering as a virtue. This is a subtly but conclusively pro-capitalist movie.

To that point, Nair struggles to inject religion into the plot, but it doesn’t really fit and it drags the movie, which takes too long to gain momentum. Queen of Katwe thrives when engaging its conviction that a child must be loved, nourished, taught and given the tools to hold herself as the highest value. In this way, Akeelah and the Bee, the South Central Los Angeles teacher-student drama financed by Starbucks, came to mind.

Nair provides an immersion in African life, with soccer, dancing, bargaining and various multicultural, including Islamic, influences through a predictably colorful crew that the coach assembles. Katwe’s chess team competes among children of Africa’s status quo, granting jabs at cronyism and the Islamic dictatorship Sudan.

Queen of Katwe gets distracted and tries too hard to demonstrate multiculturalism. But chess-playing Phiona’s 2007-2011 journey from illiterate villager to chess champ reading Garry Kasparov’s Test of Time is earned, if pre-ordained, through hardship, loss of innocence and, finally and fully, happiness. Nalwanga is best in scenes of concentration, in which the girl plays chess (chess players may want more focus on the game). Nalwanga’s Phiona shows the strenuous effort to purge self-doubt and emerge with the choice to induce thoughts, strength and pride. Lupita Nyong’o cultivates this theme with her parenting portrayal, which shifts the plot from gamesmanship to family as a wellspring to success, though it’s Oyelowo’s coach who delivers the explicit theme that students should use their minds. As in Akeelah and the Bee, the rational child is portrayed as virtuous for her rationality.

This, more than the game and its pieces and moves, makes Queen of Katwe a good family film.

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)


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With movies such as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and the harmonious hit Zootopia, Disney demonstrates that taking risks pays off with imaginative themes, scripts and storytelling. This summer’s animated/live action picture Pete’s Dragon, directed and co-written by the relatively new director David Lowery, is another good, wholesome family movie with warmth, intelligence and imagination. The reboot of a 1977 Disney movie with Shelley Winters, Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney of the same name debuts in theaters on August 12.

Pete’s Dragon is not without flaws, risks and odd moments. A character played by Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games, Lovelace) is underdeveloped. An old wood carver played by Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life, Captain America 2) is underdeployed. Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, Terminator Salvation, Spider-Man 3) as the Redford character’s forest ranger daughter is more natural than usual but still overacts. Family relationships are unclear. The setting’s place and timeframe are also a problem. But the gentle blend of fantasy with realism allows Pete’s Dragon to be quiet, still and breathtaking. The picture, shot in New Zealand, is produced by Jim Whitaker (The Finest Hours).

In one of those classic Disney twists, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone and parentless in the deep woods following a tragic car crash, rendering the whole story sort of a reverse Bambi except that it’s the beast, not man, that’s in the forest (notice how a deer figures into the plot, too). Pete is a young boy when this happens, equipped only with abiding love, an ability to read a story, his father’s sense of adventure and affirmation from his mother of his bravery as a virtue.

Aren’t these all a boy needs to be prepared to live?

Of course not, but they’re a good start, especially for an adventure story of a boy and his dragon and, lest you think Disney’s attempting to cash in on DreamWorks’ Dragon movie success, this one’s entirely different. Casting credit goes to Debra Zane who thankfully has an eye for casting un-precocious kids such as Fegley as the lost boy and the local girl, Natalie (Oona Laurence), who discovers Pete’s primitive existence.

Natalie’s dad (Bentley) owns a lumber mill, her uncle (Karl Urban, Bones in Star Trek Beyond) is a greedy lumberjack who hunts and Howard’s forest ranger, who lives with Natalie’s dad, predictably tilts left on ecology. If it sounds like an environmentalist cliche waiting to get tree-spiked, it isn’t. One of the nicest things about Pete’s Dragon is a more balanced approach (this it has in common with Zootopia) to politics, though Urban’s character borders on caricature.

Another nice thing is the girl’s relationship to the boy. See it and judge for yourself. It’s plain and simple. The two kids climb trees. They get hurt, angry, sullen and competitive and they have fun and keep secrets from adults. How refreshing. In that sense, Lowery and company keep the movie in a mid-1970s spirit, complete with acoustic guitar-driven tunes, classic cars and station wagons and a leisurely pace. Pete’s Dragon evokes Seventies’ solitude in nature works such as My Side of the Mountain and Jeremiah Johnson.

There’s not much to say about the 24-foot dragon, a green-haired, big-jawed snaggletooth Pete names Elliot for a dog in his favorite children’s book. Elliot feels ripped from the Seventies, too, as he’s a mild-mannered, innocent like the kid and the two romp, snuggle and take flight like a boy and his big dog. But there’s more to Elliot than being just another animated figure. His instincts are evident in his eyes. He senses danger. He has an ability to make himself invisible and he’s curious like Pete, too. That his heart beats loud enough when he’s filled with confused, raging desire to connect with his friend Pete sort of sneaks up on the audience. By all outward appearance, Elliot, beautifully animated in his gestures, eyes and flaring, breathing nostrils, loves his friend and his life.

When both are endangered, Pete’s Dragon gets worked up and twists with surprise and conjures the best boys’ friendship movies, from Disney’s Old Yeller and So Dear to My Heart to Steven Spielberg’s ET. It’s almost of that caliber at times, though it’s too imprecise in time, relationships and location and, lacking a defined timeframe, it’s impossible to block out one’s knowledge of global positioning technology and drones. Themes of loss and what makes a family are tenderly depicted. With mountain woods mythology and the sense of a real friend whose majesty can lift you up and take you away from everything wrong with the world—if only for a time—Pete’s Dragon earns and generates emotional power; moreover, it does this with an ending which deposits a boyhood lesson that the best things in life are earned, kept private and ought not to be shared. This subversive idea is in the title if you think about it—Elliot belongs by mutual consent to Pete—and it plays across this magical, intimate movie with a childlike sense of abandon.