Tangled (2010, Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno) English 8

Voices of Mandy Moore, Donna Murphy, Zachary Levi, Ron Perlman, Richard Kiel, Brad Garrett

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(8-Exceptional Film)

 Elegant. Joyous. Fantastic.

Expanding the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the young princess is kidnapped as a baby by the vain witch Mother Gothel. Raising Rapunzel as her own, Mother Gothel uses the girl’s magical powers to stay forever young and keeps her locked up in a hidden tower. Then one day a thief finds Rapunzel, and the lost princess enlists his help to see the world she’s always been too afraid to explore. Upper-tier Disney animation with excellent characters, exciting adventure, and beautiful imagery. Mother Gothel finds her place in Disney’s sterling canon of female villains.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Thumbelina (1994, Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman) English 3

Voices of Jodi Benson, Carol Channing, Gilbert Gottfried, Charo, John Hurt, Joe Lynch

(3-Horrible Film)

Derivative. Third-rate. Unwatchable.

Walt Disney cast the mold over seventy years ago when he premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full length animated feature. In front of an audience that included Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, and Marlene Dietrich among others, feature film animation was born, the model was set, the benchmark placed. From that point on, no American animated film veered from the path forged by Disney and his team until 1995’s Toy Story. We know the fundamentals: musical numbers, hand-drawn animation, cute animal sidekicks, villains, missing parents, and occasionally a nice princess story. These familiar trappings have been mined and will continue being mined as long as they yield the kind of results we saw as recently as 2013’s Frozen ($1.2 Billion earned). There are not many boring animated princess movies, but I am afraid Thumbelina proves an exception. Looking at the man responsible for this travesty, Don Bluth, a man whose credits include The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, and Anastasia, offers very little insight into what went wrong. He once worked for Disney. He ought to have a pretty solid understanding of how to put together a good animated flick. This film beggars the mind.

The plot maybe had potential. A thumb-sized princess torn from her beloved fairy prince must traverse a harsh environment to make it back home. I could see a nice adventure springing from that setup, but I am using my imagination and not my memory because this film does nothing with it but meander. She gets help from a bird with a French accent named Jacquimo, and trouble from a beetle named Berkely Beetle (rolling my eyes) voiced by the same person who voiced Iago in Aladdin. Eventually, the fairy prince tracks her down, they get married, she gets wings, and they live happily ever after; cue the bad music.

Let’s go down the Disney checklist. Perhaps the Bluth team missed a step: bright and colorful animation (check), a fairy tale princess story (check, courtesy of Hans Christian Anderson), cute animals (check, this film has several), musical numbers (check-minus, the songs are horrible courtesy of Barry Manilow). So the concept at least has all the essentials of a Disney classic, but what’s missing is any discernible charm or magic associated with the best princess stories. Think of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and of course Snow White. You can even think of Bluth’s next stab at the animated princess story, Anastasia, which is vastly superior to this one. Thumbelina may not be the worst animated film ever-that distinction belongs to Troll in Central Park-but it’s a photo-finish.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Directed by Brian De Palma) English 8

Starring Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Archie Hahn, Gerrit Graham

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Outrageous. Insane. Dazzling.

A nobody composer, Winslow Leach (Williams), has his work, what was to be his magnum opus, stolen by a ruthless record producer who runs a night club called the Paradise. A heinous plot against Winslow leads to disfigurement, and so he stalks The Paradise looking to exact his revenge. There are touches of Faustus and The Picture of Dorian Gray in addition to the obvious Phantom of the Opera inspiration in this movie, and what a trip it all is. The Phantom of the Paradise is completely nuts. The eye-popping colors, Brian De Palma’s technical wizardry, the excess. It’s incredibly silly at times, but often clever and satirical. “Beef” will forever live on in my mind, but you’d have to see the film to know what I mean. Hilarious and the music is fantastic. Easily my favorite adaptation of Phantom of the Opera.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Bells Are Ringing (1960, Directed by Vincente Minnelli) English 5

Starring Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, Jean Stapleton, Fred Clark, Eddie Foy Jr.

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(5-Okay Film)

Stagey. Slight. Mediocre.

A small company called Susanswerphone acts as a telephone answering service for its customers (remember, this is before answering machines). One of its employees, Ella Peterson (Holliday), goes above and beyond, perhaps too far, by getting involved in the customers’ lives when she can tell by their messages that they need help. One especially desperate customer, a playwright named Jeffrey Moss (Martin), can’t seem to pull himself up off the mat after his partner ditches him. Ella sets out to help him and finds herself in love with him. Adapted from a stage musical, the film never actually tries to escape its stage trappings. That’s mostly fine since Minnelli is a master at stage design and mis-en-scene. More problematic is the lack of early dramatic tension, as, for me, the film only picked up in the second act once Holliday and Martin meet. This musical is best seen as a vehicle for Holliday’s enormous talent, and a super smooth Martin is always fun to watch. A couple of funny satirical elements also make an impression (there’s an actor molded after Brando and an amusing song about name dropping).

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Hercules (1997, Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) English 7

Voices Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Rip Torn, Susan Egan

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(7-Very Good Film)

Fun. Vibrant. Unique.

After a plot by the scheming Hades (Woods) goes astray, Hercules (Donovan), son of Zeus (Torn), winds up mortal and raised by adoptive parents. Not fitting in due to his immense strength, Hercules sets out on a quest and learns of his true lineage, but in order to reclaim his position as a god, he’ll have to prove himself worthy. Working from a diverse array of Greek and Roman mythology, Hercules is a fast-paced, funny, surprisingly light (despite its dark humor at times) animated comedy with great characters and music. The gospel choir as the Greek chorus was an inspired idea, as was DeVito as the Satyr/coach, and James Woods as the bad guy. Not as substantial as some of the other films Disney released during their Renaissance, but a fantastic film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Mulan (1998, Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook) English 9

Voices of Ming-Na Wen, B.D Wong, Eddie Murphy, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, Pat Morita, James Hong, George Takei

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(9-Great Film)

Grand. Rousing. Unique.

Spectacular animated adventure derived from an ancient Chinese legend, Mulan makes an excellent addition to Disney’s tradition of female protagonists. She impersonates a male warrior fighting against the Huns in order to spare her crippled father. Themes of identity, self-empowerment, and feminism give the film its weight, and Eddie Murphy as the underwhelming dragon Mushu makes sure there is always enough comic relief, also a number of fantastic songs.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Sleeping Beauty (1959, Directed by Clyde Geronimi) English 5

Voices of Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Taylor Holmes

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Slight. Uninspired. Mediocre.

Cursed by the bitter fairy, Maleficent, Princess Aurora is destined to die at the age of sixteen from being pricked by a spindle. Her fairy godmothers alter the curse as best they can so that instead of death she will be put in eternal sleep. That’s where a prince comes in. Oddly blasé work from pretty good source material by the Disney people, this classic is not especially thrilling, funny, romantic, musical, or scary. Perfectly mediocre.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-