Ranking the Disney Canon – 34: Brother Bear

“This year, I watched my Mom in a life and death struggle against all odds, battling possibly the most fiercest creature on the face of the earth. Okay, who’s next? “ – Koda

Brother Bear, released in 2003, was originally scheduled to be the final Traditionally Animated film in the Disney Canon. However, due to problems in the Home on the Range production, Brother Bear was moved up to become the second to last. It was also the third and final film to be completely animated at then Disney-MGM Studios before the animation department was once again unified in California. Brother Bear takes inspiration from ancient North American tribes in both its setting and story, and joins the list of Disney films that deal with a natural setting.

Brother Bear relates the story of Kenai, a young tribesman who begins the film awaiting his receiving of his spirit totem. He receives the Bear of Love, much to his disappointment. When a bear steals all of the tribe’s freshly caught fish, Kenai goes after it in order to prove his manhood, and his two brothers, Denhai and Sitka, chase after him. In this hunt, Sitka perishes while attempting to save his brothers. Now feeling the need to prove himself a man even more than before, Kenai goes after the bear again, and this time kills it. The spirits punish this act by transforming Kenai into a bear. He is told by the tribe’s Shaman Grandmother that he needs to find the northern lights into order to have a chance to become human again. Along the way, he tags along with Koda, a young, chatty bear who has lost his mother, and Rutt and Tuke, moose brothers who constantly bicker, and they come together as they make their way to where “The Lights Touch the Earth.” They also must run from Denhai, who believes that Kenai is the bear that killed both of his brothers.

STRENGTHS

As with all of the most other Disney films dealing with nature, Brother Bear is gorgeous in setting. This beauty certainly is enhanced due to the film’s unique setting and its road trip type plot. With the characters having a ton of ground to cover in their journey, there are a lot of places to see, and with this northern mountain setting, there are points where it looks absolutely stunning. The film features a lot more geographical areas than the traditional forest of other Disney films. I love what animation can do with set pieces, and Brother Bear is certainly no slouch in that department.

Brother Bear does a great job in establishing its setting and its world. The film’s opening goes a long way in setting a tone for the film in both of these aspects. The opening of the film is one of the strongest parts, and it does wonders in establishing the culture of the tribe, the relationship between the three brothers, and the North American Setting. I really have to commend the film for how it builds the family relationship. For as little time the film is allowed to show the brothers together, I really feel the banter between them, and the emotions they share both with and about each other. It also helps build the entire rest of the film. This is a great example of why building a relationship matters in making a film good. Without that relationship, the film loses so much.

Of course, even with this strong relationship, the film would fail if its most important relationship, Kenai and Koda, failed. Luckily, the relationship works, for the most part. The two have personalities and goals that play off of each other really well for conflict, yet the fact that they have the ability to bond is very believable. It could be better, and I’ll mention how in a second, but it succeeds enough to make the film enjoyable and work.

I also have to commend the film in how it contrasts the pre-transformation world and the post-transformation world. The film begins with a more down-to-earth, realistic style in every aspect. As soon as Kenai transforms, however, the film gets more cartoony and brighter. It’s a very good and effective contrast. One of my favorite contrasts in the film is that the bears have black eyes until Kenai transforms, when they gain human looking eyes. I think that is an extremely cool detail.

Rutt and Tuke, the two moose, are the best source of comedy in the film, and are a very good duo. They have some funny moments, and I like how they actually end up effecting Koda and Kenai. They are one of the classic Disney Duos of the the past decade

Finally, while Phil Collins’s soundtrack for Brother Bear isn’t as strong as his Tarzan soundtrack, it still has plenty of good songs. Something about his style of music just works with the sequences throughout the film. His voice is especially suited for some of the film’s songs, though I like the fact that the singers are changed up for different songs.

WEAKNESSES

I praised the contrast the film presents, but as good as it is, it also becomes a weakness by going a bit overboard with it. When the film turns cartoony, the film’s tone also shifts to a more cartoony style, which ultimately hurts the film. The film is much too comedy heavy in the second half, and the designs keep getting sillier and sillier, cumulative in the Salmon Run sequence, where the other bears take design cues from other Disney bears such as The Country Bears, Humphrey the Bear, and Bongo. It is way too overboard, and lessens the serious potential of the film. There are also many unnecessary sources of comedy, such as an extremely pointless sequence involving two Rams. I wanted the film to retain a bit of the realism and drama that defined the first act. This would have pushed the film into the classic category, rather than making it just great.

I also mentioned above how the Koda-Kenai relationship was mostly good. Where it trips up is in the middle of the film, where the relationship jumps between “Constantly at Odds” mode and “Brotherly Relationship” mode. While these scenes are good, it can be a bit jarring when one day Koda and Kenai can have a heartfelt discussion, and the morning after they explode at each other. The progression of the relationship has this out-of-order feeling, and gets muddled in the middle. The beginning and end of the relationship are, thankfully, much stronger.

And while I also like Koda, he does contribute a bit to the film’s shift to the over the top. He is a great contrast to Kenai, as mentioned above. However, I feel he is a little bit too chatty, too “annoying.” He certainly never becomes unlikable, but he does border on being a gimmick that you become a little too tired of. If he would have been toned down just a little bit, the character would have been more consistently enjoyable.

There is one moment where I dislike the placing of a song in the soundtrack. The song “No Way Out” begins during the dramatic scene in which Kenai reveals to Koda the truth about his mother, rather than start completely after. I feel this weakens the scene and cheapens the moment, when the song could have easily started a minute later, and the conversation could have included and actual, emotional conversation and true realization by Kenai.

The final fault I have with the film is that I feel that it glosses over a couple of key moments and ideas. I can somewhat forgive that the idea of spirits and its universality is a bit underexplored, as what we are given is just enough, but I do wish that the film featured a bit more of Kenai accepting his bearhood, both at the beginning when he first is transformed, and when he truly discovers Bear Society. The second one is the one I wanted to see most. I think there really needed to be more than just one song exploring Kenai accepting himself into this society, as it would be something that would help the last section of the film.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

Out of all of the Phil Collins songs in the film, the one that resonates with me the most is “On My Way” a travel song. As it is presented in the film, it works very well with the sequence, and is a fun song.

The film’s best scene is Kenai’s second battle with the bear, and his tranformation. The bear battles in this film are strong, but this one takes the cake due mostly to what happens after the fight is over.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Ultimately, Brother Bear falls into the same category that Dinosaur did all the way back at 45. I like the film, and it does a lot right, but 34 is just the place it happens to fall. It has the strong relationships, great animation, and entertaining story to push it above many other films. However, it does feature some mistakes in having a too comedic tone and some slip ups in the pacing of relationships, that make it weaker than the films we have yet to talk about. I would have been more satisfied (though still upset) if this had actually been the last of the 2D films, and that is an accomplishment.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 35: Hercules

“Oh Yes! Hades RULES!” – Hades

We passed the bad Disney films all the way back at 48, and we’ve seen a ton of good Disney films with a variety of faults. Now, however, we are past the point of good and rapidly approach the point of great Disney films. It is striking that we’ve already hit this point and we are only at 35. There are so many films that I wish I could put in the top 25, but I can’t. Even the next couple rankings were extremely hard to put together. Know that I constantly debated the position of the next 6 films. They were extremely close in ranking, and it took me a very long time to come up with the concrete list.

Anyways, let’s get on with Film 35, shall we? Hercules is another directing effort of the Ron and John duo, and was released in 1997. The film is loosely based on the stories of Greek Mythology, and uses the Greek names and locations rather than the Roman versions.

The film begins with the birth of Hercules and the celebration of his birth by the Gods, including the lord of the underworld, Hades, who is jealous of the rest of the Gods. When he returns to the Underworld, The Fates tell him that in 18 years we will have the opportunity to take over Olympus using the Titans, but if Hercules lives, the plan will fail. Hades sends his two minions Pain and Panic to make Hercules mortal, but they fail, and Hercules ends up being adopted by a mortal family. 18 years later, Hercules, searching for his place in the world, discovers his true heritage and is challenged to become a true hero. Hercules enlists the help of hero trainer Phil and flying horse Pegasus, and through his interactions with Hades and the lovely Meg, he learns what it means to be a true hero.

STRENGTHS

This is another film where the best and most memorable element of it is a character, that character being Hades. This is a true example of the voice actor creating the role. James Wood’s audition impressed the crew so much that they completely rewrote the character to fit the fast talking style James Woods tried. In the end, Woods still improvised most of his dialogue. Hades has most of the film’s laugh, is an extremely unique version of the character, and is a character you wish there was much more of. Also, I love the film uses fire in conjunction to Hades. It is a very good design and good function of the design. And through all of this, Hades still feels like a threat due to his quick thinking ability, which makes him an even better villain than he already is.

Hercules’s journey from zero to hero is extremely strong. Though some may find it to be cliché, the film does a good job at building his view of being a hero at the beginning of his journey in contrast to his view at the end. The arc makes sense, it is presented well, and the events that push the development are good and sensible.

I also like the relationship between Hercules and Meg, though I’ll be the first to admit that there could have been a little bit more between them. Besides that, the pairing and the way they fall in love feels natural and not forced, and the two of them are important in altering each other’s lives, which is especially true for Meg. While I won’t call it a classic Disney Romance, I do think overall it is a good romance.

Overall, character relationships are very strong. Even though I may like certain characters or personas, I really do feel that each character has a strong connection to the other, in both the good and bad relationships. Another relationship I feel is especially strong is the one that occurs between Hades and Meg. Even with Hades’s humorous style, one can feel the tension between the two in every scene they are in. Excellent work in this regard.

Finally, as a Latin student with great familiarity with the old Greek stories, I was happy to see many short references to those stories, especially the very quick ones to the Trials of Hercules stories. Also, Hades has one fantastic line that is hilarious to the knowledgable Greek Scholar.

WEAKNESSES

And as that Latin/Greek by association scholar, It is very hard for me to talk about this film without mentioning that Hercules has absolutely nothing to do with its source material. The story is not close to anything from mythology, the characters have completely different personalities, and the only recognizable aspect of them is the most basic element of their character is present. It is not necessarily a weakness, but it does bother me. It’s the most drastic change from any Disney adaption ever. Normally, the changes Disney makes doesn’t bother me, but since this is such a drastic altering, I dislike it.

In some cases, though, being closer to the source material would have helped the characters. This is true for Zeus for than anybody else. While Disney doesn’t have to go through with the full “Woman Chaser” aspect of the character, the somewhat mischievous personality of Zeus (one that comes out in the Fantasia version of the character) could have made a very fun character. And while the story is not bad as it is, I do wonder sometimes if a slightly altered, but more closely adapted version of an actual Greek tale would have made for a better film. I can’t say for sure, but I do think it would have made the film feel more focused.

The film puts a ton of comedic elements into the characters and stories, and honestly, the humor is 50/50 for me. Most of Hades stuff works, but Phil is much more hit and miss, his running gags getting old pretty quick, and the film does overboard on the modern-day references to the point that it gets distracting. Much of the time, the humor takes away from the momentum of the dramatic moments. Right when Hercules is having a heartfelt moment asking Zeus to help him discover himself, Zeus comes in and acts over the top. Right when Hercules and Meg have their moment, Phil comes in and acts over the top. Right when we have the great moment where the Titans start their destruction, Hades has a hilarious yet momentum killing moment. Hercules needed to have some emotional scenes that purely exist on their own.

What this film really lacks is a good straight man to reign in the insanity, which is something that other Disney Comedies do extremely well. Just as Aladdin reigns in The Genie and Pacha reigns in Kuzco, the film needed a character to reign in Phil, Hades, and the other crazy characters. Hercules is set up to fulfill this role, but I don’t believe he is the right choice, since the cocky nature of his young character requires him to have his over the top moments. He is the closest the film gets to what is needed, but as I begin to wonder again, I wonder what would have happened if Phil would have been toned down and made the straight man.

Finally, I really don’t like this soundtrack. Having the Muses be a gospel choir makes very little sense to me, and I just dislike that style for this movie and for the songs. “The Gospel Truth” is not a very good opening number. “Go the Distance” is the only song in Disney history where not only do I like the short reprise better, but I also like the credits version better. And while I like the visuals in “One Last Hope” and “Zero to Hero” the songs never really click for me.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

There is one song in the movie I do enjoy. and it is “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” I feel that it is the only song in the film that uses the Muses effectively, and I like how it is different from that traditional Disney Love song.

The best moment to me is the Hydra fight. There is no other moment I remember better from this film, and no other moment I think is as iconic. Though I notice Hercules was unable to GET UP ON THE HYDRA’S BACK. (Cookie if you get that reference.)

CLOSING COMMENTS

As I mentioned at the beginning, the rankings for these next couple of films changed many times during this process. Indeed, Hercules was close to getting a higher rating, due to some genuinely funny moments, characters, and some great arcs and relationships. However, it does have a weak soundtrack and some momentum killing moments, which ultimately puts it in the 35 spot.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 36: Bolt

“The real world hurts, doesn’t it? But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” – Mittens

Bolt, Disney’s 2008 release, has a bit of an interesting history behind it. Started well before the Pixar-Disney merger, it was film that went under a ton of changes after John Lasseter became the head of Disney Animation. The director was fired, the script was rewritten, the designs and characters were changed, and all of the animation done for the film was scrapped and redone within 18 months, a short amount of time to animate a film. Suffice to say, it’s hard to even describe the amount of work that was put into making this film work.

Bolt is the story of a dog named Bolt, who has enhanced powers that allow him to help his owner, Penny, save her father from the evil Green Eyed Man and his cats. Or, at least that what he thinks. In truth, Bolt is part of a TV show, and has grown up his whole life believing the show is real. Though Penny wants to take him home, the director won’t allow Bolt to see the real world. In response to a storyline where Penny is kidnapped, Bolt escapes, and through a series of events, accidentally ends up in New York. He finds a stray cat named Mittens, and demands that she take him back to Penny. Mittens figures out that Bolt is from California, and is unfortunately taken along for the ride. Along the way, they meet Rhino the Hamster, a super fan of Bolt’s show, and Bolt discovers the truth about his life.

STRENGTHS

Let’s talk about the absolute best thing about this film: Rhino the Hamster. This guy is going to join Jose Carioca, Panchito, Mr. Toad, and Basil on the list of “Great Disney Characters that Get Forgotten or are Underused.” He absolutely hits comedy gold with every line he says, and is extremely memorable in voice, in design, and in character. Plus, he isn’t just some throwaway side character. He actually is very important in helping the arcs of both Bolt and Mittens progress, and he is epic in both accounts. A truly classic character that will unfortunately be forgotten.

I also enjoy Bolt’s TV Show fueled personality. John Travolta’s voice work is perfect for the character. I feel that it is extremely fun to discover Bolt’s problems with not being in the TV show and the way he explains these issues to himself. It’s built very effectively that his action hero life is the only life he had ever known. It’s a character personality that really lends itself to comedy, which is the intension of the film, it works very well. Even though the character ends up feeling similar to Buzz Lightyear, Bolt has enough of his own quirks to make him interesting.

Speaking of the TV show, I love it’s presentation, and while there is no conceivable way I can think of to expand its presence in the film, I wish there was more of it. The opening sequence is so full of over the top goodness that you can’t help but to crack a smile. Where it really works is in the behind the scenes aspect. The passion of the director, the careful precision of the crew, and they way they fool Bolt into believing in this world is reality. And the last we see of it at the end of the film, and how they explain a change in actor, is absolutely brilliant. Sometimes I wish there was a mini spinoff exploring this aspect of the film a little more.

I enjoy the banter between Bolt and Mittens, and in the structure of the film, the building of their relationship is entertaining and well done. I don’t know if I would call Mittens as a character by herself amazing, but she works very well when playing against Bolt and Rhino. I think we get just enough of her back story where we understand her and care for her. She’s most effective in playing what she sees as straight against Bolt and Rhino.

WEAKNESSES

This is another film that suffers from having a much stronger first half than a second half, though it doesn’t suffer as much as other films with this problem such as Oliver and Company. To me, while the Bolt and Mittens arcs and stories are still watchable and interesting in a sense, Rhino is what carries the film’s second half, which is unfortunate. Again, it isn’t that the other aspects of the film are bad, but they just aren’t as good.

Bolt’s arc suffers in the second half, and a helpful comparison to help me illustrate this point is Buzz Lightyear’s arc in the first Toy Story. In Toy Story, Buzz’s discovery of his reality comes pretty late in the film, and is a grand moment of self failure and self discovery. It’s a really heartbreaking moment for both the character and the audience. Bolt lacks that moment. His failure is very quick, very small, and very iffy as an event that would wake him up. It also happens much too early. The change in Bolt happens halfway through the film. This is part of what weakens the film’s second half. Bolt’s arc is over by that point, and there isn’t much else for the character to really do or expand upon.

Bolt’s “woken up” personality just isn’t as strong as his false one, and I feel a reason for this is the focus of his change. The montage the film presents features Bolt learning how to be a dog, and while that’s fine, and while Bolt is characterized as uptight, I feel that the focus is a bit off. Much of the issues that Bolt faces in the first half of the film is about not knowing pain, not knowing hunger, not knowing how to function in the real world. I think the dog stuff is important, but it needed some of that real world lessons, which would especially help lead up to the schism between Mittens and Bolt that occurs later, if Mittens had shown Bolt some survival tips.

The second half of the film depends a lot on the relationship between Penny and Bolt, and Bolt’s drive to see her. In the end, it is good when it needed to be great. Part of the issue is that Bolt is too focused in the opening moments of the film. We see Penny’s care for Bolt, but never really the other way around. While I believe Bolt wants to be with Penny even after he knows the truth, it never feels like a strong enough desire. In fact, Bolt’s feelings on his relationship with Penny is very little explored. The beginning feels like more duty than love, and after the truth is out, Bolt’s feelings almost disappear.

Also, I’m just not a fan of Miley Cyrus’s acting. I defended her during the first two seasons of Hannah Montana, but she never grew out of that beginning actor phase for me. Her emotional scenes feel very forced, and it comes out in Bolt, which is bad considering that many of Penny’s scenes are emotional in nature. It’s annoying and distracting. The original choice for the part, Chole Mortez (AKA Hit Girl) would have been a much better choice.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

Neither of the two songs in Bolt are particularly strong, but “Barking at the Moon,” which plays during the montage sequence, is better than Miley’s and Travolta’s duet in the credits.

The best moment of the film, I feel, is the first meeting with Rhino. I think it shows the strength of all three of our main characters, and is a great introduction to a great character.

CLOSING COMMENTS

I really love Bolt. I think the work done to improve the film was ultimately a success, and it has strong characters that help to make the film entertaining. However, in comparison to what is coming up, Bolt just isn’t as strong and has a weaker second half of the film. Bolt is a film you should check out, but on this list, it fits into the 36 spot.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 37: Make Mine Music

“Willie is still singing, in a hundred voices, each more golden than before, and he’ll go on singing in a voice so cheery forever.” –Narrator of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”

And here we go onto our 2nd Package Film! There’s not much to say in terms of introduction other than this was the first package film released after the two Government Mandated South American films, and that it is in the same style, the “Fantasia Cousin” style, as the other package film we’ve looked at, Melody Time. I should mention that this is one of the few Disney films to have a major portion edited out of it. The opening segment, “The Martins and the Coys,” was edited out of the film for many video releases due to the heavy gun usage in the short. We, of course, will be looking at the original 1946 version.

As opposed to the 7 segments from Melody Time, Make Mine Music has 10 segments.These segments are “The Martins and the Coys,” a comic country tale of two feuding families, “Blue Bayou,” a musical look at the swamps of New Orleans, “All the Cats Join In,” a look at teenagers and their love for contemporary music, “Without You,” a sad segment about lost love, “Casey at the Bat,” a musical retelling of the classic Baseball poem, “Two Silhouettes,” a ballet segment featuring two live dancers, “Peter and the Wolf,” a version of the classic Russian composition, “After You’ve Gone,” which features the musical adventures of four instruments, “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” the story of two hats who fall in love only to be taken away from each other, and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” the tragic tale of an opera singing whale.

STRENGTHS

To get this out of the way, since it was the major complaint of the Melody Time, I want to say that this package film has some very good pacing. There’s a great mix of the good, faster segments with the slower segments, and there’s never two bad segments in a row, which is a very good thing. Starting out with “The Martins and the Coys” was a great choice, as it has some good comedy and is a great fast paced way to start the film.

In terms of the content, Make Mine Music is full of classic and memorable segments. The three best are easily “All the Cats Join In,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”. These segments are entertaining all the way through, are engaging, entertaining, and fun. “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” and “When You’ve Gone” are also fun segments.

Another thing worth noting is the fact that this film does feature a lot of interesting animation, even if the segments they go along with aren’t exactly interesting. The two that come to mind immediately are “All the Cats Join In,” and “Two Silhouettes.” The animation on both of these sections are neat, and unique enough to enhance the first and save the second.

Finally, we have to take note that this is the second Sterling Holloway appearance on the countdown! In Make Mine Music, Holloway narrates the “Peter and the Wolf” segment in his signature voice and style. STERLING HOLLOWAY COUNT: 2

WEAKNESSES

A common thread that runs through Make Mine Music is that the segments tend to have very strong beginnings that lead to much weaker endings. This is most apparent in “The Martins and the Coys” where the first half comedy is killer, as opposed to the second half, which drags on with a square dance segment, and then just ends very quickly after that. It turns a very promising segment into one that is just OK.

I said this was a common thread throughout the film, and indeed, this sort of downgrade happens to many of the film’s segments, including “Peter and the Wolf,” “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet,” and “After You’ve Gone.” None of these segments are bad, but their weaker second halves to weaken the segments and the film. In fact, I think the only two segments that are completely free of this weakening are “Casey at the Bat” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” Even “All the Cats Join In” flatlines by the end.

Even though the pacing is good, I still don’t feel that the slower segments are particularly strong. The common thread between these sections is that nothing really happens during them. In comparison to the much more story and character driven segments that surround them, “Blue Bayou,” “Without You,” and” Two Silhouettes” all feel boring. The best you can say is that they can be interesting to look at, which personally for me, doesn’t cut it. These segments are pretty unmemorable and unsubstantial, and are easily skippable.

Also, out of all the package films, this has the worst connections between the sections, because there are no connections between each sections. All that is presented is a title card with the singer. No narration, no introduction, nothing. It is the only package film to lack any sort of true connection, and it really hurts the film, making it feel less like a cohesive film and more like a very simple collection of shorts. It is important to make the films seem seamless, and Make Mine Music doesn’t pull this off.

Finally, it’s got the weakest title song of all the package films. It certainly isn’t the best song of the film. It’s not even close. It’s not memorable, and is almost forgotten by the time the first short starts.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

Personally, I feel the strongest segment overall is “Casey at the Bat.” It’s entertaining all the way through, which is a success for this sort of film.

The best song? Well, it has to be the opera selections from “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” While this may be our longest best moment yet, it has some very classical and recognizable music.

CLOSING COMMENTS

While Make Mine Music is better than Melody Time, and is certainly more watchable and enjoyable, it ranks lower than other four package films because at times these films feel unfocused. They have many great moments, and in the case of Make Mine Music, good pacing, but even compared to its cousin Fantasia, it isn’t as fantastic. The package films from here on out are very strong, but Make Mine Music just doesn’t make the cut.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 38: Pocahontas

” Look, don’t do this. Savage is just a word, uh, you know. A term for people who are uncivilized.” – John Smith

(A quick note here: This will be the first time that I talk about a film that has been extended or changed since its original release. For the purpose of this list, I am going to consider the original version of the film when ranking said film.)

1995’s Pocahontas is the film right in the middle of the Renaissance era. Coming off the heels of that famous string of successes, Pocahontas was an attempt at a turning point, in which Disney would start to attempt to repeat Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture Nomination. There was somewhat of a shift towards more dramatic films, though the humorous films still would exist in the years to come.

Pocahontas is based on the true tale and legends of our title character, who lives with her tribe in what the English would call Virginia. Said English are just arriving in the New World, led by John Smith, a great adventurer, and Governor John Ratcliff, who is obsessed with finding gold and gaining fame. Encouraged by a dream and by her spirit guild, a tree known as Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas follows John Smith around, curious about these new people. The two eventually meet and connect, but when both sides’ distrust of the other leads to Smith’s capture and the brink of war, Pocahontas must find a way to prevent the bloodshed and save John Smith.

STRENGTHS

Like most Disney films dealing with nature, the world of Pocahontas is just beautiful. The sweeping views of the forest and the river are breathtaking in a lot of ways, and it follows in the great tradition that films like Bambi first presented. The animation in general is beautiful. Pocahontas’s animation is so subtle, and so real, in a way. She is most certainly one of the best animated women of the 90s.

Pocahontas herself is a classic protagonist, in my eyes. I think she is effectively built up, and is a soul of her own, and a character we want to care for. She is that classic, curious Disney protagonist, and I think one of the strongest parts of the film.

I do love the progression of the film’s second and third acts, especially the lead up into the climax. For a film that cannot have a huge battle for the climax, for the purpose of the story, it does a good job keeping the climax exciting and interesting. The lead up to this climax is also greatly exciting, thanks in large part to the song “Savages,” which is an intense number. I don’t want to say its edge of your seat, but it’s a great, engaging, moment that keeps you interested.

Overall, for all of the faults it has, the film has a strong story, one that is great to follow and is enhanced by its second half. In terms of the story, there is a proper build all the way through, and it is one that I don’t mind revisiting every once in a while. Not every other day, mind you, but it certainly has its share of memorable moments that stick with you.

I’m going to mention the soundtrack in the weaknesses section, but it does have its strong moments. “Just Around The Riverbend” is a personal favorite of mine, “Colors of the Wind” is the film’s signature song, and as mentioned above, “Savages” is pretty fantastic, especially the second part of it. This is another classic Alan Menken musical.

WEAKNESSES

As mentioned above, Pocahontas is a film that tries to be a very serious one. One of the faults I have with it is that it tries to hard to be this grand, epic story with this powerful message. It’s a well-known fact that many of the people in the Disney Studio at the time decided to work on Pocahontas over The Lion King because they all though it was going to be this great Best Picture film. In trying so hard to be this film, however, it lacks that pop, that magic, that the films before it had. It lacks humor (outside of the Meeko-Percy rivalry, which gets old pretty fast) and lacks that one fun, upbeat song. In its attempts to be serious, it also tends not be very subtle about what it’s trying to do, in both script and song. The message feels forced on the audience, rather than coming naturally through the characters. It is very much doing everything other than flash the words directly on the screen to tell you exactly what it wants to say.

John Smith is not a strong character, and has a very, very quick arc. In the beginning of the film, he is very, VERY clear on how he was defeated many “savages” before and will do it again. Yet, as soon as he sees Pocahontas, he drops this notion and connects with her. Why, because Pocahontas is a woman? What the film needed was for Pocahontas to do something that would surprise John Smith and interest him. Instead Pocahontas just stands there, and John Smith is instantly enchanted. While I think their connection and relationship becomes strong, it hurts the film’s desired message in the long run. John Smith needed a slower change to make the message more powerful, and also not as in your face.

When you based an animated film on real world events and legends, you walk a very thin line with the content, and I don’t think that Pocahontas does a very good job with it. I’ll admit that I don’t know a ton about Native American culture, but I’m not exactly sure the presentation of them that Pocahontas gives is an especially good one. I can’t even say the English Colony is 100% great either.

For a story that needs to be realistic, there are a lot on unrealistic elements to the story. I can forgive the Grandmother Willow addition, as it is as much Disney Magic as this film gets. What really turns me off, though, is the fact that John Smith and Pocahontas actually have conversations in English, and there is no hesitation or need to explain. It seems like they perfectly understand each other, which is a huge mistake, and totally takes me out of the film’s realistic tone. There is absolutely no realistic way that they would have the conversations they have without some sort of issue. While they tried too hard to be serious, I also feel they were playing it way too safe here.This is a film that should have been heavy on Body Language, and should have used animation to the fullest. To make the film work, they really needed to push the animation and lack of dialogue to the limit, in the way that WALL-E would eventually do many years later. It may have been impossible to do, but when you want to present a story of two different cultures meeting for the first time, that’s what you need to do. Or at least make it more clear that there isn’t a perfect understanding of the other.

And now my minor gripe with the soundtrack: I dislike how songs are split up by scenes. Savages is a good example of this. The song would have been much better off if the scene with Pocahontas and Grandmother Willow could have happened before the song, which would have made the song better as a whole. In fact, every song is split up by scenes except both of Pocahontas’s songs. There are not that many songs when you think about it, but there is annoying amount when you consider each spilt up an actual reprise.

What the soundtrack is really missing is a true love song between John Smith and Pocahontas, and in fact, a song was nearly fully animated before being cut, called “If I Never Knew You.” Not only does this some really help their relationship, but it also does more for the film’s message than any other section of the film. The animation for this segment was finished for the DVD release, and improves the film immensely. One simple song can change so much.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best moment of the film, for me, is the second half Savages, leading right up into the climatic final confrontation between Pocahontas and her father. Mind you, I would have preferred saying the entirety of Savages, but just the second half is still good.

I debated for a long time between “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” for Best Song. I go with my heart here, and choose “Just Around the Riverbend.” I just love the song’s pace with both the music and the lyrics.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Pocahontas has great visuals, a great protagonist, and a strong consistent story, which is enough to watch the story. It is hard to ignore the film’s almost self-aware sense of being serious, and the undermining of the film’s realistic tone by cheating on the communication aspect. I truly think Disney was pushing their luck in choosing Pocahontas as a subject of film. The film has its moments, but to really be that classic film, it would have had to taken a lot more chances. It’s still good in many respects, and that’s why it is 38.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 39: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

“Hey, look, I made a bridge. It only took me like, what? Ten seconds? Eleven, tops.” – Vinny

Let’s take a look at another modern Disney film with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, released in 2001. It is an important film because it was the first real confirmation to the public that Disney was taking this new direction, away from the musical stylings and fairy tale settings that defined the 90s, and more towards these non-musical films, and delving into the realm of Science Fiction and in some cases, more real settings. Sure, The Emperor’s New Groove also had this new direction, but as we’ll talk about in the future, The Emperor’s New Groove is one of oddest, most different films in the entire canon. Atlantis was better proof of this direction.

Set in the 1910s, the story of Atlantis follows Milo Thatch, the grandson of a brilliant explorer, who desperately wants to convince the world that Atlantis exists. He gets that opportunity when a friend of his grandfather gives him The Shepard’s Journal, the key to finding Atlantis. With the funding for this grand expedition and a very eccentric crew, they set off into the depths of the ocean. After a long struggle, they find the city, and its inhabitants, including the curious Kida, the daughter of the king. Milo and Kida explore each other’s cultures, but when a betrayal occurs, Milo must save the citizens of the Lost Empire.

STRENGTHS

The first thing I think of when I think of Atlantis, even before I rewatched it for this project, is the Characters. Atlantis has memorable and fun characters, even if it just the concept or on the superficial level. They have a lot of funny moments, especially Mole, the crazy french digger, and my personal favorite, Vinny, the awesome Italian Demolition Man and Flower Shop Owner. If there is anything you take with you from Atlantis, it will be remembering these characters.

I enjoy Milo as the protagonist, even if there is a tiny problem with his progression in the final act. Michael J. Fox brings a lot to the character, and I love how much he cares about the discovery in comparison to the rest of the crew. His status quo is great, and I think that the opening scenes, even if they go a little long, do a lot for his character.

I also love Atlantis, for the most part. The bits we get about the culture and the world of Atlantis are fascinating to me. It’s got a great design, the blue crystal theme and the “ancient South American Culture” influences are appealing and make Atlantis a unique and wonderful place. When the film explores Atlantis, it reaches its potential.

Finally, like Treasure Planet after it, the action sequences are well paced, well choreographed, and well done. It was a good idea to have all of the action involve the Atlantis technology or connecting to Atlantis in some way. They are fun and are pretty cool.

WEAKNESSES

The faults of Atlantis are a bit weird, because they all connect with the strengths in some way. The best way I can describe the main fault of Atlantis is that it always leaves you wanting more, and not in that good way, Everything feels superficial, just glossed over, and just when things get interesting, they just become relegated to the background, forgotten about without being expanded upon. The film flies at a frantic pace, and never slows down enough to give you what you want.

The characters a big example of that. In rewatching the film, I was surprised at how the characters I remembered so fondly were barely on-screen in reality. The film only gives us a single bonding sequence with them and Milo, and then they just disappear, only popping up for the occasional joke and their eventual betrayal. These a fun characters, but they just become there, having nothing more than their surface personalities. You watch because you hope that they do a lot more, but they never really do, even in the ending. We should see more of their bonding with Milo, after we constantly see them shun him before their one sequence. This would not only help the characters, but it would make their betrayal much more effective. Partly, though, it is also because there are so many characters that its hard to give them all ample screen time, but I still think it could have been done.

The city of Atlantis itself also suffers from this glossing over attitude. This is a chance to create an entirely new culture, and the mythology of Atlantis that is presented to us is interesting, and a great device to help build the relationship of Milo and Kida. However, the film barely gives us anything on Atlantis. This film is about Atlantis. This is something that should be explored more, not pushed to the side. As OK as Kida’s and Milo’s relationship is, having Milo explore more of Atlantean technology instead of just one or two things, and having Kida ask about the surface culture, which is teased, but only used for a very unfunny joke, would have done a lot. This is a culture lost in time. There should be a lot to see. Instead we get very little, and it actually becomes frustrating. It actually would help the final battle if they explained the mythology behind the Deus Ex Machina force field in the ending.

I think if there were going to be places in the film to cut, It would all be in the first act. The opening depicting the fall of Atlantis is not necessary. The audience should discover the city along with the cast, not know of its existence nearly 40 minutes before it actually is discovered. There is also a bit too much set up before the true search for Atlantis begins, meaning when they are in the caves that lead to Atlantis. There’s a ton of fluff here that really could be used later in the film for a number of purposes. Also, the fire fly action sequence is a little unnecessary. I feel that the lead up to Atlantis could have had a smaller scale sequence, possibly involving the Atlantean people, would have taken less time and have been just as effective.

Atlantis features another weak Disney villain. Lyle Rourke, ever the villainous name if there was one, really doesn’t do anything until the third act. It is partly the nature of the film, but it is also the fact that Lyle does not have much of a presence in the first hour or so of the film. He’s actually a forgettable character for most of the time. There needed to be more lead up, more reason to not trust the guy.  As much as I don’t like to compare films directly, Treasure Planet did it well with John Silver. Even though we liked the guy, the film gave us enough where his turn was hinted at and made sense. Atlantis never really does this. In fact, it would have been more interesting if Lyle was power hungry rather than money hungry. His Atlantean form is one of the most interesting part of the final battle, and if he had it more, it could have made him more interesting.

Finally, three smaller points: I find it a bit hard to believe that the people of Atlantis know English and French. If they knew about these languages, wouldn’t the legend of Atlantis be apparent in more cultures other than Greece? While Milo’s progression from outcast to leader make sense, I feel that he needed more leader like qualities earlier, to make the transition easier. Finally, while I don’t normally complain about animation, the comic book influenced design of the film can sometimes make the film look more like Saturday Morning Cartoon than Feature Animated Film.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

Atlantis is not a musical. However, it does feature a pretty decent score.

My personal favorite moment of the film is the initial discovery of Atlantis. I think it is a pretty fun sequence, and would be much more fun if we didn’t know what it looked like.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Atlantis frustrates me, because it is a film with so much potential. It’s a film I enjoy, but one that I want to be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of groundwork laid that presents it as a unique, interesting, different Disney film. However. It barely scratches the surface of what it could be, with its characters and with Atlantis. As we continue to approach the higher films, the good that this surface scratching presents just doesn’t cut it. Atlantis is 39, as much as I don’t want it to be here.

Ranking the Disney Canon – 40: Treasure Planet

“I’m fluent in “flatula”, Jim. Took two years of it in high school.” – Dilbert Doppler

Treasure Planet seems like is should be just another film in Disney history, but it actually has a lot of importance if you take a look at it.  A personal project of directors Ron Clements and John Musker (directors of such films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), the idea had its first incarnation around the time of The Black Cauldron, but continued to be pushed back in favor of other projects. The film, obviously, did end up being made, and was released in 2002. It became one of the biggest financial losses in Disney Animation History, and was one of the main causes for the announcement that the traditionally animated films would soon be phased out.

Treasure Planet is the classic story of Treasure Island, transplanted into a science fiction setting. A young but bright troublemaker named Jim Hawkins longs to seek out adventure, much to the chagrin of his mother and family friend Dr. Delbert Doppler. He gets that opportunity when a pirate crash lands on the planet, and hands them the map to Treasure Planet, also warning Jim to “Beware the Cyborg” before he passes on. Through Delbert, a crew is secured, including Captain Amelia and First Mate Mr. Arrow. Jim is assigned to the position of Cabin Boy, and is mentored by cook and cyborg John Silver. The two grow closer as the crew battles exploding stars and asteroids on their way. However, when a mutiny splits the crew, finding the treasure of Treasure Planet becomes a race to the finish.

STRENGTHS

The visual design in this movie is awesome. There’s just no other way to put it. There is a lot that can go wrong when melding a old pirate tale and the vast technological world of science fiction, but Treasure Planet does it beautifully, and perfectly. The merging of pirates with aliens, spaceships with pirate ships, and ocean storms with exploding stars just works. In the animation and design, nothing ever feels out of place or sticks out sorely. While the design tilts a bit toward the traditional pirate side, neither side ever feels like it is overtaking the other, which is an extremely positive strength. I find it an extremely creative adaptation of the work, and the visual design alone is enough to watch this movie.

When watching Treasure Planet, you can tell that a lot of effort was put into building the relationship between John Silver and Jim Hawkins, and it payed off for them. You can really feel Jim’s desire for a father figure and John’s seeing of himself in Jim, and the two characters play off each other extremely well. A lot of credit should be given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brian Murphy for great and emotional voice acting performances.

Even on their own terms, Jim Hawkins and John Silver are effective and good characters. It is important for the film to build some sympathy for John Silver, and they do a good job at that, making him likable enough so that even after his mutiny, you want him to go back to Jim. Adding a layer of depth to Jim’s character, making him more than just a brilliant young mind, also helps his characters, and makes him a great protagonist.

This film also has one of the strongest mixings of traditional and computer animation in the entire Disney canon. John Silver’s cyborg parts are all computer generated, and work extremely well. Much of the film is enhanced by these mixings, and one of the reasons it works is that it very much fits with the story’s design and tone.

Finally, the action sequences are memorable and exciting. Making full use of both parts of the influence, these sections are wonderfully choreographed and engaging. The “storm” and the escape from Treasure Planet are the highlights of the action. These sequences are extremely rewatchable and even suspenseful at times.

WEAKNESSES

While the visual design does such a fantastic job at mixing the old pirate world with science fiction, the script unfortunately undermines this. The film works best when the script works with the visual design to create a timeless feel (the storm sequence being the first to come to mind), but too often the film’s humor moves into a more modern tone that not only fails to fit within the film, but also actually takes me out of the world of the story. I mean, there is an entire character whose entire joke is that fact that his alien language sounds like flatulence. Seriously. And he even is a recurring character! Things like that just don’t mesh with the film, and it can be hard to get into the story when this modernist feeling gets into it.

This feeling of not fitting in also spills over onto some of the characters, the most painfully obvious being B.E.N., a robot found on Treasure Planet. This character is adapted from the book, and is necessary for the story, but the loud mouth, stupid, Martin Short-voiced characterization of B.E.N. is neither what the film needs at that point nor what the film should have. B.E.N. just seems out-of-place when he is with the rest of the case, especially Jim and John, and feels like one of those characters where the writers were trying so hard to make a character funny that he ends up being not so funny at all. It’s fine that B.E.N. is a robot, but he needed to be written more in tune with the rest of the cast. His antics are a nuisance to the film’s second half.

The feeling of out-of-place humor also spills into the character of Dilbert Doppler, and I would argue that it hurts the character more than it hurts B.E.N. because Dilbert actually has some moments of fitting in. The character is built in this mixture manner that the film has so well to start, but these flashes of flatulence jokes and hip hop referencing are so out-of-character that it can completely take him out of the world of the story, which is a problem considering he is a main character.

Dilbert claims one half of the film’s romantic relationship, the other half of it belonging to Captain Amelia. I will admit that the relationship is logical for the film, and has a good beginning and end, but it just happens without any real lead up. It feels like there is a scene missing in the middle where the two of them have their first moment of respecting each other. It’s so close to rounding up the film’s relationships as all-around good, but it just happens to quickly.

Also, we get it, Treasure Planet, Dilbert’s design is influenced by dogs and Amelia’s by cats. We get the joke. You don’t need to push it in our faces by giving them random traits of these animals. Seriously, we get it.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

I think the film’s stongest moment is in fact the Exploding Star Storm sequence in the middle of the film. I think that it is a great example of the film’s two style mixings, and is a very memorable sequence.

The best song is “I’m Still Here,” written by Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik. It plays over the bonding of John Silver and Jim Hawkins, and it certainly doesn’t hinder the sequence.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Treasure Planet is a beautiful film, and is a creative and interesting retelling of the classic tale in a completely new way. It is worth checking out for its visual design and its two main characters, which are nailed out of the ballpark. However, don’t be surprised when you see those moments and characters that seem just a bit out of place in this world. Taking us out of the world of the film is enough to push this film into the 40 spot.