This a very badly disguised midpoint movie roundup, but given that all the movies I’ve watched in the last two weeks were on Disney+ I haven’t used the usual title. There are a few spoilers below, so beware. I’ll put the movies in order of release date rather than the order in which I watched them. Don’t ask me why.
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) seems like a bit of a rip off The Last Airbender cartoon series especially when Raya is rolling around on her dog/armadillo type pet creature. She’s on a mission to find bits of crystal that can give power to the titular dragon who can fight the misty blobs that are rampaging this fantasy world turning everyone into stone figures. A lot of the film feels like a bunch of cut scenes from a PS4 game I wouldn’t mind having a bash at and the style of character animation is quite simple compared to the obvious efforts that have been put into rendering the landscapes, flora and fauna, and especially the water. The water is just amazing. But I guess it had to be given that the dragon is mostly water-based.
In fact much of the adventure is water-based since the bad guy misty blob things are scared of water. So there’s some fun on boats and cities on stilts and it’s all very similar to East Asian in terms of the made up cultures and topographies. The sort of place James Bond might go to visit a casino perhaps. The action is very kinetic with some nice fight sequences and there’s a good dollop of humour in the story too. The story is okay if you don’t pick too hard at the loose corners and there’s the usual moral message in there somewhere about trusting people and disparate races coming together as one to fight a common enemy. Climate change? Maybe.
Dumbo (2019) is a film that’s been languishing on my watchlist along with most of the others in this list as I’ve found Disney’s remakes to be a bit mixed. I thought Aladdin was a lot of fun but not so much the rest of them. So my expectations were quite low for this film despite it being directed by Tim Burton. I’m a big fan, but lately he seems to have gone off the boil a bit – not enough edge to his work recently. It’s an okay film with no great surprises, which I am sure kids would enjoy immensely.
The animation of the elephants and various other animals is pretty good (and certainly not creepy like in Lady and the Tramp – see below) and while the comedy aspects are quite low-key it’s quite fun to watch. As you’d expect of a film about mutant animals and freak shows it has a message to impart about diversity and acceptance as well as the evils of capitalism that sees Burton’s version of Disneyland burning to the ground in the final scenes – quite how he got that under the noses of the movies execs I don’t know.
Old time Burton collaborators Danny DeVito (Batman Returns) and Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns) face off as the old-school and new-school circus owners, along with Colin Farrel (who coincidentally will be The Penguin in The Batman when it finally appears) playing a one-armed war veteran and more recent Burton star Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) as a French acrobat Colette Marchant. Her accent sounds weird given that I’m used to her posh English tones, but she is French after all, so more my problem than hers in this case.
Lady and the Tramp (2019) is a disconcerting remake of the 1995 animated classic. Its heart is in the right place but the technical execution of the blending between real dogs and CG dogs is quite dreadful in most places. The facial movement and body movement of the CG dogs is so creepy that it distracts entirely from a relatively decent retelling of this paring from different canine social strata.
It was interesting to see how to writers fell back to a classic Welsh legend in part of the film where Lady’s owners think the street dog (let’s call him Tramp, although he goes by many names) has attacked their baby, when in fact he was defending it from a rat. The legend of Gelert the dog is one of the best known and well loved folk tales from Wales, and you can read more about it here: The Legend of Gelert the Dog. Apart from that there’s not much to say about this film, apart from that it’s perhaps the least enjoyable one in this list.
Coco (2017) is an original story made before Disney really hopped onto the remake bandwagon. It tells the story of a boy whose family are shoemakers (rather inconsequential) and have a ban on all forms of music in their household. Coco is actually the name of the boy’s wizened grandmother and she misses the boy’s grandfather a lot although he walked out on the family years ago. The boy accidentally enters the world of the dead and goes on a hunt for his dead grandfather who might be the only one of his ghostly relatives who is willing to send him back to the world of the living without him promising never to play music again.
There’s some fun Mariachi band based japes, good action sequences and a few easily guessable twists in the plot to get the kids excited. What I enjoyed the most about this film was the portrayal of various customs not often represented on screen and a glimpse into the world beyond Europe and North America which dominates cinema. The animation is excellent as you’d expect from a film produced by Pixar.
Pete’s Dragon (2016) is a remake of a 1977 film I remember seeing at the cinema. That’s the same year as Star Wars, but for some reason no-one took me to see that… humph… I do however also remember seeing the quite violent Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and so I’m still a bit confused as to why I had to wait for Star Wars to be shown on TV before I saw it for the first time. Anyway, I can’t remember a bloody thing about the original Pete’s Dragon apart from there being a kid called Pete and he had a big animated dragon as a friend, and no-one believed him or something, and there might have been a lighthouse involved somewhere along the way..? Anyway, I got the feeling that the new film made a few changes to the script.
Pete is now a modern-day orphaned boy who grows up Tarzan-style in an American forest with only his dragon to read him bedtime stories. He calls the dragon Elliott after the name of a dog in a book that survived the car crash that killed his parents. He’s ten when he runs into a forest ranger in the form of Bryce Dallas Howard, cast perhaps based on her previous experience acting alongside huge imaginary lizards in the Jurassic Park reboots.
Howard puts in a solid performance adding some gravity to the rather lightweight story and Robert Redford puts in a good stint as her father and the only other person who has seen the dragon before. The animation on the dragon itself along with the special effects required to insert it into real life are very good. We’ve come a long way from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However the film holds no great surprises, seems to copy story beats from E. T. The Extraterrestrial and the dragon, perhaps in a long tradition of cartoon horses acting like dogs, although certainly not a horse acts very much like a dog in a lot of scenes. Of course being Disney the movie’s message as ever is that family is everything.
Pochahontas (1995) was my antidote to all the unnecessary remakes. I didn’t see the film on release which is unusual for me because around that time I think I did go and see every Disney animation that came out from The Little Mermaid in 1989 (at least twice; I loved the songs); I skipped Beauty and the Beast because it really didn’t appeal to me; Aladdin in 1992 which I remember thoroughly enjoying; The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 (although that was stop-motion) which remains one of my favourite films; to The Lion King in 1994. Pochahontas wasn’t a story I was familiar with and I wasn’t intrigued enough to find out more.
While the animation is quite stylish and colourful it seems like a backward step when compared to the likes of Aladdin and The Lion King. Also, as we all now know, the film is famous for being as historically inaccurate as Mel Gibson’s other 1995 film Braveheart. Also I was rather surprised by the ending that sees the English invaders agree not to fight the native tribes and Gibson’s character John Smith taken back to England with a gunshot wound leaving Pochahontas behind. I’m thought she was buried somewhere in the UK, so I was confused. But again, not enough to read up on the subject.
The highlight of the film comes in the form of the comedy sidekicks in the tradition of a certain owl I will come to below and that classic pairing of Pumbaa & Timon in The Lion King. In Pochahontas we get a greedy raccoon, a hummingbird and in the English camp a snooty little dog who is pampered by the lacky of Governer Ratcliffe. They get into some comedy capers along the way and provide a bit of light relief from all the singing.
The Sword in the Stone (1963) is a lot older than I thought. I thought it came out around the same time as The Black Cauldron in the 1980s, but no, it’s decades older and it shows in the animation. Not that it’s a problem – I really enjoyed being able to see the pen or pencil strokes of the animators from time to time and some of the action is a lot more cartoony, more akin to Goofy and Donald Duck shorts than a full movie-length production. Like The Black Cauldron the movie is based on a book, this time the first of an Arthurian trilogy by T. H. White I read a long time ago but remember very fondly.
Merlin helps a young Arthur learn some valuable life lessons before he pulls the titular sword from the stone (or anvil actually in the movie, despite the title). It’s only in the closing stages of the film that this happens which leaves plenty of room for much magical shenanigans in which Arthur gets turned into a series of woodland creatures, has a run in with a funny witch and gets involved in some Magician’s Nephew style washing up, oh and there’s some jaunty songs along the way. It’s one of the most enjoyable films on this list.
Oh and Merlin is a bit of a scatter-brained inventor who has travelled to the future and back, and has a pet owl called Archimedes – remind anyone of a certain Doc Brown and his dog Einstein? There’s also a cheeky animated sugar bowl who was an obvious precursor to the same kind of thing in Beauty & The Beast. And lots of evil purple smoke which is in pretty much every Disney or Marvel show of late.