Thursday, November 17, 2011

Disney's The Rescuers Down Under

"By nature I'm an experimenter. To this day, I don't believe in sequels. I can't follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things" -Walt Disney

Perhaps Walt was turning in his cryogenically frozen pod when the Disney team finally developed a sequel for The Rescuers. As you can tell by the quote, Disney didn't very much like sequels and one can hardly blame him. In animation and in live action movies there seems to be a drop off point in quality after the original movie. There are rare exceptions like The Dark Knight and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but for the most part there are stink burgers like Oceans 12, Spiderman III, and Grease II. Hollywood attempts to ruin perfectly good movies by adding unnecessary episodes to them, but was it this way with Disney? In my opinion, Disney has done this many times, with only a few exceptions. The three canon sequels, The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, and Winnie the Pooh are all great. Disney knows which ones to release on video only and which ones to release in theaters. Though they have strayed away from releasing many sequels on the big screen, Disney has released a ton on video. Thirty-seven to be exact. I'll admit that I've only seen a few of these video sequels, but the ones I did see weren't terrible. Granted, they were the two Aladdin sequels and the sequel to Lion King. Lion King II was alright. Not up to par with the first one of course, but it was entertaining. Aladdin II and III were awesome films if I'm remembering them correctly. They were the first ones to be released as video sequels and it seemed that everyone had seen them. Since then however, Disney has released a sequel for basically every movie it's ever made. Since I haven't seen them, I cannot say that I know they are terrible, but from a general consensus and the number of petitions that people have started to ask Disney to stop making sequels makes me think they might be crummy. So Walt Disney may of had a point when he said numerous times that he wouldn't do sequels as long as he was alive. Some movies just work better on their own.

As evidenced by Oliver & Company, this wasn't the first time that Disney had tried to make a sequel out of The Rescuers. The movie had made a lot of money for the studio and they were convinced that people would come in droves to see the continuing adventures of Bernard and Bianca. When the Oliver & Company idea didn't work, they put the sequel idea away for a few years. After the amazing success of The Little Mermaid, perhaps the Disney head honchos felt they could afford to take a gamble and finally make a sequel. So they already had the main characters figured out, but what scenario would excite audiences? Anyone will tell you that one of the most important parts of the story is the setting. The setting determines a lot of what will happen in the story just for the fact that different environments cause different things to happen. So what setting should this Rescuers movie be in? They already did the South, and the city motif was rejected earlier. Then Disney remembered that a short time earlier, America had went through a love affair with all things Australia. After the release of Crocodile Dundee, America couldn't get enough of Australian culture. Disney didn't bother to check and see if the love was still there and determined that if the setting was in Australia, people would come and see it.

Since the technology wasn't up to par for The Little Mermaid, Disney couldn't release a film that was completely made digitally until this movie. The CAPS process, or Computer Animation Production System, made hand painted cels obsolete by digitally inking and painting cels. "The animators' drawings and the background paintings were scanned into computer systems instead, where the animation drawings are inked and painted by digital artists, and later combined with the scanned backgrounds in software that allows for camera positioning, camera movements, multiplane effects, and other techniques." This made production time a lot less. Disney could now churn out a movie a year like they wanted to since they had the technology. CGI was also present in the film, such as the opening field sequence, McLeach's truck, and the high flying sequences with Cody and Marahute, the golden eagle. In other words, this film looks awesome. The eagle scenes are incredible on the small screen, but I imagine they would be even better on the big screen. I honestly cannot remember if I saw this one in theaters. Even if I did go I doubt I paid much attention to how cool the animation looked. It was probably all, "Oooh! Big birdy!" and "Kangamaroos!" One thing that distinguishes this movie from the rest of the Disney Renaissance is the fact that it has no songs. I can't really blame Disney on this one, as I can't see where they would of fit them in.

The movie brings back the pair of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. It's fun to see them again in a movie, especially since that was Eva's last performance before she died in 1995. Helping Bernard and Bianca throughout the film is Jake the kangaroo rat, voiced by Australian native Tristan Rogers, and Wilber the albatross, voiced by the hilarious John Candy. In what I think is one of the best casting calls that Disney has ever made, they had the villain McLeach voiced by the gravelly voiced George C. Scott, best known for playing Patton in the eponymous movie. Scott was a hugely talented actor and he wasn't a slouch as a voice actor either. Though McLeach is not one of the more popular or well known Disney villains, he still steals the show throughout the movie. Here is a disclaimer for the rest of Disney movies that I will cover: Frank Welker does all the animal voices. By that I mean that any animal that is present and doesn't actually talk is voiced by Welker. I've mentioned him before but this man is the animal voice person. Any cartoon show or movie with animals in it that make a lot of noises, chances are that he's doing the sounds. He's been in everything. Seriously, check out his wikipedia page or imdb. He is probably best known for voicing Freddy on Scooby Doo, something he has done since the premiere in 1969. Welker does Marahute and Joanna the egg hungry goanna in this film. I watched the film the other day to refresh my memory on some of the storyline and realized that the nursemice sound an awful lot like Minnie Mouse. Turns out I was right, as they were voiced by Russi Taylor, the long time voice of Minnie Mouse and spouse of Wayne Allwine, who voiced Micky until his death in 2009. So yes, Mickey and Minnie were married in real life.

The Rescuers Down Under was released in fall of 1990 to an opening weekend box office earning of $3.5 million. That was way below expectations so Katzenberg decided to pull all advertising for the movie. While he probably saved some money by not paying for additional advertising, I can't help but wonder if the movie would have done better in the long run had he kept them. Without advertisment after it's release, the movie only went on to gross a measly $27 million with an additional $47 million from overseas. Nothing to sneeze at, but it ended up being the least profitable animated movie Disney released in the 1990's. Critics found the movie to be so-so. Roger Ebert found the movie to be fun to watch, especially the eagle flying scenes. Many critics hailed it as great animation and beautifully drawn. Others found the setting to be a little bit lame. As it turned out, America was done with the whole Australia craze by the time 1990 came around. Some critics argued that the story could have taken place anywhere and the Australian setting wasn't all that important to the underlying plot. Others claimed that the Rescuers were not in it enough, not coming in until a third of the way through the film and not doing anything to help the boy until the very end. This is all nitpicking and sour grapes if you ask me. I like the movie a lot and I got a lot of joy out of seeing it again. Wilbur is great comic relief throughout the movie and I found the love triangle to be fun to watch. Watch it again if you haven't seen it in awhile and you too will realize that not only is it a great movie, but also that Bernard technically kills McLeach in the end. That's right.....a mouse kills a dangerous poacher.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Disney's The Little Mermaid

Thanks to the commercial success of Oliver & Company and the Disney/Amblin film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Disney was able to do what they proposed and start pumping out an animated film every year. Their first movie after Oliver & Company would be one that Disney had proposed very early on: The Little Mermaid. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had wrapped, Disney was looking to make a package film that involved several of Hans Christian Anderson's tales. The Little Mermaid was to be one of them. This idea was eventually shelved for one reason or another and it collected dust until 1985. The Great Mouse Detective's co-director Ron Clements happened to be browsing a bookstore when he discovered a book of Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales. This gave Clements an idea and he promptly wrote up a two page draft for The Little Mermaid. He presented it to CEO Michael Eisner and Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg at a idea suggestion meeting. Eisner and Katzenberg passed on it, feeling the mermaid tale was too close to the sequel they were working on for the sequel to Splash. (Splash, Too did actually get made, but as a TV movie.) Katzenberg must have thought it over, as he greenlit the idea, along with Oliver & Company the very next day.

The staff started writing drafts of the story, making a few changes here and there and adding characters, when they stumbled on the original story ideas from the late 1930's by Kay Nielson. Incidentally, the changes the group from the 80's had made to the story were almost identical to the changes from the 30's script. Ron Clements and John Musker turned the two page story into a twenty pager, though had to set the thing down for a while, as the studio wanted to focus more on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company, two movies that were happening in the nearer future. When production of the two films were complete, the two set out to find out exactly what kind of musical this was going to be. They turned to songwriter Howard Ashman, who had wrote the songs for Oliver & Company. Ashman, among other things, had Clarence, the English-butler crab turned into a Rastafarian Jamaican crab and shifted the music in the film to reflect this. In other words, you have Ashman to thank for "Under the Sea." At the same time, Katzenberg, Clements, Musker, and Ashman revised the story format to make it more like a broadway musical story structure, making the musical numbers the tent poles of the story. Ashman teamed up with Alan Menken, both of whom had written the music for the off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors together, to write the entire score for The Little Mermaid.

Disney poured a ton of money into this movie. I think they knew they had something special on their hands. Besides the main animation studio in California, Disney had a satellite studio built inside of MGM Studios in Walt Disney World (Keep in mind that MGM Studios opened its doors to the public in 1989). This group of animators were tasked with animating the Roger Rabbit short that came before the movie and helping out with the ink and paint for the movie's animation. This was the last Disney film to use hand painted cels and analog camera and film work. In all there were over a million drawings done for the movie. The movie was to be the first to be completely digitally processed but the technology wasn't quite ready yet. The honor instead goes to Disney's next film, The Rescuers Down Under.

Ariel was based off Alyssa Milano, who at the time was on Who's The Boss? Something that had been gone since Walt Disney's leadership was the use of live-action references. Sherri Lynn Stoner was used for the live reference though less animators were privy on using live action references, insisting on using their own creativity. One animator was so dead set against it that he left the studio. A fun fact about Ariel's design is that the studio decided to make her a redhead so people wouldn't confuse her for Darryl Hannah's mermaid from Splash. For Ariel's voice they found Broadway actress Jodie Benson. Benson is now synonymous with Ariel, even voicing her for the video game series Kingdom Hearts. Benson also voiced Barbie in Toy Story 2 and 3. Ursula in turn was based on drag performer Divine. My younger audience and even my peers may not know who that is, but check out the movie Pink Flamingos if you're really curious. Pat Carrol ended up doing the voice for Ursula, but wasn't Clement's and Musker's first choice. The script was specifically written with Bea Arthur in mind for Ursula. Bea Arthur's TV show, The Golden Girls was owned by Disney, so Clements and Musker figured they could get her easy. She wasn't interested. Several other actresses were considered for the part, even Roseanne Barr. Ursula's personality in general was based off of Madame Medusa from The Rescuers. The Little Mermaid was not exactly thick with recognizable names. The most recognizable to me even now is Buddy Hackett, who voiced Scuttle the seagull. One funny thing about the voice actors is the fact that the Disney team hired Ben Wright to voice Prince Eric's butler but had no idea that he was a veteran of Disney films. Wright had to remind the people working on the film that he had voiced Roger in 101 Dalmatians. Other notable voice actors who did additional voices for the movie included Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, and Nancy Cartwright (she does the voice of Bart on The Simpsons).

Hans Christian Anderson's version of The Little Mermaid is just a bit different from Disney's. In Anderson's, the little mermaid is the youngest of the King's daughters but is basically looked after by her grandmother. When she turns 15, the little mermaid (she isn't called Ariel in the original story) is allowed to go up to see the land above the sea. While she is admiring the upper land from the sea she notices a prince on a boat from afar and instantly falls in love. A storm rolls up and sinks the boat however and the little mermaid saves him, pushing him on shore and watching over him until a girl happens upon him. The Prince incidentally does not see the little mermaid. After this episode, the little mermaid asks her grandmother about humans and if they live forever if they don't drown. Her grandmother responds that they live much shorter lives than merfolk (around 300 years) but human's live on through their souls which go up to heaven, whereas merfolk just turn into foam. Tough break for the merfolk. The little mermaid desires the prince and an eternal soul so she goes and visits the local Sea Witch. The Sea Witch gives her legs but in return, she takes her tongue, for the little mermaid had the most intoxicating voice in the world. The Sea Witch also warns that if she drinks the potion, she will never be able to go back to the sea and walking on her legs will feel like walking on sharp swords. In addition, she only gets a soul if she is able to get true love's first kiss and the Prince marries her, thus sharing his soul with her. However, if the Prince marries someone else, at dawn of that day, the little mermaid will die brokenhearted and turn into foam.

I know what you're all thinking: "How dumb could this girl be? There is no way she'll agree to that!" She does. Apparently having her true love is more important than being banished, stepping on invisible swords, and potentially turning into foam. Remember that she hasn't even interacted with him when he was conscious, so how does she even know that she is in love with him? I have a feeling this isn't going to turn out well. She drinks the potion and gains legs, quickly finding the Prince who is amazed at her beauty and is seemingly attracted to her though she cannot talk. The Prince likes most of all to see this mysterious new girl dance for him. The little mermaid dances for him, even though she feels as if she is dancing on daggers. Now that is commitment! The Prince's father tells him one day that he must marry the Princess from the neighboring kingdom, though the Prince confides in the little mermaid that he doesn't love the princess. He tells the little mermaid that the only one that he could marry would be the girl that saved him on the beach that day of the storm. we go. So, in a funny twist of fate, the girl that saved the Prince was actually the Princess who was in the area going to school at the temple near the beach. They arrange to be married, much to the little mermaid's chagrin. She realizes that this will be the end of her and she waits to turn into foam. Right before dawn however, one of her sisters gives her a knife that was given to her by Ursula in exchange for her long hair. She explains to the little mermaid that if she slays the Prince with the knife and has the blood drip on her legs, she will turn back into a mermaid and will avoid death. The little mermaid cannot bring herself to do it however and throws herself into the sea at dawn, becoming foam. Now, in the original ending, that's all that happens. The little mermaid dies and everyone learns a valuable lesson on making deals with Sea Witches. In the revised ending, the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air, a kind of spirit after she dies. The other daughters of the air tell her that because she strove to get a soul, she is getting the chance to earn one. All she has to do is do good deeds for three hundred years and she'll be allowed in heaven. Can't tell which ending is worse? I can't either. Many criticized Anderson's changed ending and thought it too much of a "better do the right thing or you're going to hell" story that was meant to scare children into behaving. I personally like the movie much better.

As you know, Ariel doesn't die in the end of the movie, but wins Prince Eric's heart and with Eric, defeats Ursula. A much better ending in my opinion, but most fairy tales had weird depressing endings. The Little Mermaid is probably one of the most beloved Disney movies of my generation. Sure it's more directed towards girls, but I've always liked it and I know plenty of other guys that like the movie too. It doesn't matter who the lead role is, as long as the story and songs are really good. And this movie has some really good and catchy songs. Heck, "Under the Sea" won the Oscar for Best Song, so you know at least that song was fantastic. "Part Of Your World" was almost cut because Katzenberg thought it was too boring! The movie wouldn't be the same without it! There isn't much to hate about this movie. It's got a strong lead, a Jamaican crab and a flounder fish named....Flounder as sidekicks, a bird that doesn't know what a fork is, a menacing octopus with two really freaky eels, and a love interest that will run a boat into said menacing octopus for love. Seriously though, how did Ursula not see that huge boat coming at her! It was like slow motion and she still gets stabbed with the mast! Oh, and the whole sequence with Sebastian and the French Chef is basically my favorite scene in the movie. Anyway, it's a great film and the official mark of the Disney Renaissance. I thought we'd never get here!

Jeffrey Katzenberg warned the directors ahead of time that since this was a "girl's movie," it would probably make less than Oliver & Company, which had been the studio's biggest hit of the decade. As time went on though, Katzenberg realized that this movie could really be a big hit and may be the first to hit over $100 million, thus being a blockbuster. The Little Mermaid did do better than Oliver & Company, but didn't hit the $100 million mark. It would gross a little more than $84 million in its initial run, earning 67% more than Oliver. With the 1997 re-issue, the film earned an additional $27 million, plus another $99.8 million from outside North American continent. This brings the grand total to $211 million dollars, so I think Katzenberg had his blockbuster. Critics praised the film for not only its story, but for the main character, Ariel. Many found her independent and rebellious nature refreshing, as most Disney Princesses had not taken a very proactive role in their films. Disney finally had their major hit, and they planned on keeping the rate going. Not only had the movie been a smash hit, but it established the animation department as the main money making branch of Disney. In years past it had been the theme parks, live action movies, and TV shows that made the studio profitable, but now animation was once again the key to Disney's success.

I almost forgot about all the nasty rumors about the movie! Everybody seems to know about the tower on the castle that looks a little bit different, and the priest at the end of the movie who seems to be a little too excited about officiating. Turns out that the tower that supposedly looked like a certain male part, was done on accident and the animators claimed it couldn't be helped since all the towers were phallic looking to begin with. People still claim that the priest rumor is true however, though Disney has claimed that its just the man's knee. Disney since has removed both the tower and the bulge as to keep people from sending them nasty letters.