Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

There are some movies that you see as a child that you don't appreciate at that time, either because the real greatness and depth of them goes right over your young head or because they're so mature and complex, your young, hyperactive mind isn't interested in them. In my case, one of those movies is Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was nine years old when the movie was released in the summer of 1996 and my mom and I went to see it at the theater when we were on vacation in Destin, Florida (which was a summer tradition when I was young). I remember liking it alright but it wasn't one of my personal favorite Disney films at the time. I didn't rent it at all when I was a kid and the only other time I saw it during my childhood was when it was shown on ABC one Sunday night. As with most Disney movies, I didn't see or think about it again until I got back into Disney when I was in high school. I saw bits of it here and there but when I really got interested in it was when I was in college. That's when I realized that, for a Disney movie, this is a pretty dark and mature film. As I read up on it more and saw it all the way through a couple of more times, I became very enthusiastic about it and it started to become of more favorite Disney flicks. Now, I can safely say that, in my humble opinion, it's one of the best films produced during Disney's animation renaissance period.

Taking in Paris in the 1400's, the film begins with Clopin, a gypsy puppeteer, telling a group of children the story of the hunchback, saying that it is the tale of a man and a monster. A group of gypsies try to sneak into Paris but are trapped by the cold and cruel Judge Claude Frollo, who has devoted his life to stomping the gypsies out of existence because, to him, they practice witchcraft. A gypsy woman tries to flee with a bundle that Frollo takes to be stolen goods but when he chases her and grabs the bundle from her, accidentally killing her when he causes her to fall backwards and break her neck, it discovers it to be a deformed baby. Believing it to be a demon, he attempts to drop the baby down a well but is stopped by the archdeacon, who tells him that, to atone for his sin of shedding innocent blood, he must raise the child as his own. Frollo reluctantly agrees and twenty years later, the boy has grown up to the titular hunchback, Quasimodo, who stays within the walls of Notre Dame and works as the bell-ringer. Being isolated within the cathedral has made Quasimodo long for just one day out in society and, against Frollo's wishes, he sneaks out to take part in the annual Festival of Fools. There, he meets the beautiful and kind gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo develops a lusting attraction to. After Quasimodo is a made cruel spectacle of when he is found out and Esmeralda helps him, he returns to the cathedral while Frollo, with the help of his new captain of the guard Phoebus, who secretly does not approve of Frollo's cruel methods, trap Esmeralda in there as well. When Esmeralda befriends Quasimodo, he begins to doubt all that Frollo has told him over the years about himself, gypsies, and the world in general, while Frollo becomes determined to have for Esmeralda for himself or kill her if she refuses.

The movie was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the same directing team who did Disney's Beauty and the Beast and would go on to direct Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Both of them had had extensive involvement in animation; both of them had been storymen on The Lion King and Oliver & Company (which Wise also worked as part of the animation department on), as well as storyboard artists on The Rescuers Down Under, and the 1990 Mickey Mouse short The Prince and the Pauper. Trousdale was also a storyboard artist on The Little Mermaid and Wise had worked in the animation department on The Great Mouse Detective and The Brave Little Toaster. Trousdale hasn't directed anything spectacular since Atlantis: The Lost Empire, directing mainly short spin-offs from films like Madagascar and Shrek. Wise hasn't directed anything since that film and in recent years, has only produced the Disneynature documentary Oceans and acted as a dialogue director for the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. I think it's a shame because I feel that they proved with this film and Beauty and the Beast that they are a proficient animation directing team.

It was really gutsy for Disney to adapt The Hunchback of Notre Dame into an animated film. Even though I've never read it, I am aware that Victor Hugo's original novel is a very dark story, dealing with deformity, religious taboos and hypocrisy, lust, determinism, social revolution and strife, and class issues. Some may feel that Disney, in an attempt to keep the story as family-friendly as they possibly could, wimped out on certain things but I think they did a pretty good job of keeping a lot of the mature aspects of the story in there. In fact, it's crazy that this film got a G-rating because, especially in the stuff dealing with Frollo, it is a very dark and adult movie. To me, this movie really should have been rated PG at least due its content. I know Disney said that they wanted another G-rating because they wanted to market it as much to kids as well as adults but I think they could have still pulled that off with a PG-rating (and yet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, directed by the same team, does get a PG so go figure). While I do jeer at Disney for putting those gargoyle characters in the film (I'll get to them presently), on the whole, I applaud the studio for tackling some dark material and making the film as mature as they could while not going overboard with it and losing their family audience.

Tom Hulce gives a very sympathetic voice performance as Quasimodo. Despite being raised by someone as cruel as Frollo, Quasimodo is a gentle, kind person. His situation makes him a very pitiable character. Ever since he was a baby, he's been dominated by this evil man who forces him to stay within the dark walls of Notre Dame where his only friends are the gargoyles. Frollo tells him that he is a monster and that the world is a cruel place, especially to people who are as deformed as he is. Frollo has also told him that gypsies are evil, using his long-dead mother as an example by telling him that she abandoned him as a baby because of how he looks. You can tell that Quasimodo is deeply fearful of Frollo, slouching and talking very meekly whenever he's around. Despite what Frollo has told him, Quasimodo can't help but long for just one day out in the real world. Unfortunately, Frollo's warnings about the world's cruelty are momentarily proven to be true to Quasimodo when he is treated horribly at the Festival of Fools after his hideous visage is revealed to the crowd. (Some may find the crowd celebrating him one minute and then turning on him the next to be really sporadic but I see it as an example of mob mentality that happened when one of Frollo's soldiers humiliated him first by throwing a tomato at him.) One bit of good does come out of the situation though. Quasimodo makes friends with the gypsy Esmeralda and when they later meet up again at Notre Dame, she tells him that he is not a monster and that he has a good soul. That, coupled with Esmeralda's kindness in general, begins to make Quasimodo doubt what Frollo has told him. He becomes determined to help her escape from Notre Dame and he also develops a crush on her but he's initially shattered when he learns that Esmeralda loves Phoebus, which makes him think that Frollo was right about her. This makes him reluctant to warn Esmeralda that Frollo supposedly knows where the gypsy hideout, the Court of Miracles, is, saying that she already has her knight in shining armor and it's not him. But Quasimodo can't stop thinking about how kind she was to him and so, he decides to help Phoebus warn her. He becomes very despondent when he ends up unintentionally leading Frollo to the Court of Miracles and Frollo refuses him when he begs his master to spare Esmeralda's life. He's at first so depressed about the situation that he doesn't even try to stop Frollo from burning Esmeralda at the stake but he eventually gets the will to fight back against his former master (although I wish he had found the will himself instead of getting it on the part of those gargoyles but we'll talk about that later).

Quasimodo is also very strong despite his small size and hunched over posture, able to lift Phoebus up by one hand and able to easily overpower Frollo once he gets the gumption to do so. That latter part is a great moment when he confronts Frollo after he believes that Esmeralda is dead and he says, "All my life you've told me how the world is a dark, cruel place but now I see that all that's dark and cruel about it is people like you!" I do like how he's at first not too fond of Phoebus, even more so when he discovers that he's become romantically linked with Esmeralda but the two of them eventually become comrades and by the end, he has accepted Esmeralda and Phoebus' romance, placing one's hand in that of the other. It shows that Quasimodo has matured and learned that just because Esmeralda doesn't have romantic feelings for him doesn't mean that she's an evil, manipulative person. The final section of the movie where Quasimodo steps out of the cathedral and a little girl comes up to him and hugs him is a very touching moment. It's the very antithesis of what happened the first time he did so. He's treated not as a monster but as a hero and, more importantly, as a human being, finally being accepted into Paris' society.

I also liked Demi Moore's performance as Esmeralda. Those who criticize Disney princesses should admire Esmeralda because she's not like that. Although she is very beautiful and is a kind person, feeling bad for unintentionally causing Quasimodo to be treated horribly by the townspeople when she reveals his face to them, she's a street-smart, feisty woman, able to run circles around Frollo's guards. She's very independent-minded and not at all swooned by men. Even though they become romantically involved later in the film, the relationship between her and Phoebus is downright antagonistic at first, with the two of them having a bit of a skirmish in the church. I like when Phoebus says, "You fight as well as a man" and she responds, "Funny, I was about to say the same thing about you." Phoebus says, "That's hitting just a little bit below the belt, isn't it?" She says, "No, this is" and actually goes for a literal example of said hit. Now, some may accuse her of being something of a slut because of the provocative dancing she does but at one point, she says that she only does because she has to in order to receive money. Above everything else, she hates the way that Frollo treats her people just because of their different viewpoint and is determined to seek justice for them. That's also part of the reason why she becomes so close to Quasimodo. She hates that he was treated so terribly because of how he looks and is even more disgusted that Frollo orders her arrested and traps her inside Notre Dame simply because she helped him. From then on, she is ever loyal to Quasimodo, showing him that what Frollo is doing is wrong and encouraging him to stop his evil master, bringing justice to the city of Paris.

The best part of the movie by far is the villain, Judge Claude Frollo. This guy is one of the greatest villains that Disney has ever created. Tony Jay, God rest his soul, was an awesome voice actor and this was, without question, his best character. His deep, commanding voice gives Frollo such an overwhelming presence of menace and power and you can tell that Jay was giving the role his all, basing his performance on Sir Cedric Hardwicke's turn as the character in the 1939 adaptation of the story. The fact that they made Frollo a judge in this film instead of a priest as he was in the original novel may make some think that Disney wimped out on that score but he's still very religious here so I think it works. Also, whereas Frollo was characterized as an antihero in the novel, he's represented here as the very embodiment of religious hypocrisy. He's a cruel, ruthless man who rules Paris with an iron fist and because of his position, is above whatever laws the city has. He's also shown to be quite sadistic, giving a guard of his directions about how to whip a prisoner in order to make him feel the pain of every lash and letting Quasimodo suffer at the hands of the crowd at the Festival of Fools in order to teach him a lesson. He has a seething hatred of gypsies, seeing them as unclean, witches who live outside the established order of the city. He does so many horrible things to rid the world of gypsies that it's unreal: he kills a gypsy mother who tries to flee with her baby, thinking that the bundle she's carrying is stolen goods; when he discovers the deformed baby Quasimodo, he tries to drop him down a well because he sees him as a demon who must be sent back to hell; if any of his guards disobeys him, he has them executed (he tries to do so to Phoebus and you can imagine that he did the same to the captain he had before Phoebus); locks up several families of gypsies when they won't tell him the whereabouts of Esmeralda and even orders Phoebus to burn down one small house when he believes that the occupants have been harboring gypsies. Frollo does all these horrible things and yet, he makes the excuse that he does it all under God's will. Even though the archdeacon strongly disapproves of Frollo's methods, Frollo doesn't see any evil in what he does because he feels that he's doing it all to purge the world of sin.

Despite how cold and sadistic that he is, there is an underlying hint of tragedy to Frollo. When Clopin sings during the prologue that shows how Frollo came to be Quasimodo's guardian, he says that Frollo saw corruption everywhere except within himself. He has such a narrow view and an overwhelming feeling of self-righteousness that he can't see the evil in what he's doing and that he is the one who is corrupted. It's a lesson to be careful in your beliefs because if you let it, it will drive you crazy and turn you into someone that you don't want to be. It's only when the archdeacon warns him that he will be damned for doing something so horrible as to kill an innocent woman on the steps of Notre Dame that Frollo has a moment of realization about his actions. You can see the terror in his eyes as at he looks at the statues on the cathedral, who do look like they're judging him. That's when he is told that he must raise Quasimodo in order to attone for his sin and he reluctantly agrees, hoping that one day the child could prove useful to him. Another aspect of Frollo's character that Disney didn't sidestep around is his lust for Esmeralda. The scene where he sniffs her hair while holding her hands behind her back is extremely mature for a Disney film and so is the exchange between the two of them afterward: "What are you doing?" "I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck." "I know what you were imagining!" Frollo then accuses her of twisting the truth around in order to taint it and a person's mind. Even keeping it as subtle as that, Disney was still taking a huge risk by making that part of the film. That leads to the most controversial and amazing part of the film, the Hellfire song, which I will go into detail about when I talk about the songs themselves. Frollo's lust for Esmeralda drives him crazy and he decides that she will either be his or burn at the stake. He gives her that choice right before he burns her, to which she responds by spitting in his face. Frollo tells the crowd that was a sign that Esmeralda refused to recant and proceeds to attempt to burn her but she is saved by Quasimodo. Frollo has really lost his mind by this point and he has his men break down the door of Notre Dame, throws the archdeacon down the stairs when he attempts to stop him, and tries to kill both Esmeralda and Quasimodo. To the end, he thinks he's doing God's good work. Just as he's about to stab Esmeralda, he yells, "And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!" He's ultimately killed when the gargoyle he's standing on top of breaks off and he falls to his death in the molten lead that is now surrounding Notre Dame. The lead and fire is clearly meant to symbolize that he has fallen into the fires of hell for what he's done. My only complaint is that I wish that Quasimodo was the one who dealt the fatal blow and that Frollo didn't die just because the gargoyle came loose. Also, I'm not exactly sure why the gargoyle snarled at Frollo right before he fell. Did that really happen or was it in Frollo's mind? Maybe it was meant to be a sign of divine punishment for his actions, which was foretold in the prologue when the statues of Notre Dame seemed to be judging him. As you can probably tell, Frollo is one of my favorite Disney villains and for good reason. He's unapologetic in his evil, complex, and the ballsiest character that the studio has ever created. In short, he's awesome.

A big problem that Disney has always had with their animated features is that the romantic interests of the lead females, the princes, if you will, tend to be the blandest, most uninteresting characters in the film. Disney did something interesting with that here by making the character that would be the typical handsome leading man in other features a supporting character and actually giving him a personality. I like what they did with the character of Phoebus, voiced by Kevin Kline. They make him a wise-cracking and yet, very honorable soldier. He only becomes the captain of Frollo's men because he's ordered to and from the start, he does not approve of Frollo's cruel, inhumane methods. When Quasimodo is being tortured at the Festival of Fools, he asks Frollo's permission to stop what's going on (although he didn't reprimand the member of his guard who started the riot) but Frollo tells him not to stop it just yet because Quasimodo needs to be taught a lesson. Knowing full well that Esmeralda did nothing wrong and Frollo's reason for wanting her arrested has no good basis, Phoebus "traps" Esmeralda inside of Notre Dame because it's the only way that Frollo can't get her (he tries to but the archdeacon stops him). When Frollo orders Phoebus to burn down the house of an innocent family because Frollo suspects them of having harbored gypsies, Phoebus decides he's had enough of this, saying, "I wasn't trained to murder the innocent." Frollo tries to have him executed for his insubordination but with the help of Esmeralda, Phoebus manages to escape, although he's gravely injured in the process. If I do have a problem with Phoebus, it's that, while I appreciate Disney giving him a personality, I didn't find his romance with Esmeralda to be that interesting. Granted, they didn't fall in love from the moment they first met (they did see each other here and there before that scene) and Esmeralda isn't that sure if she trusts him after he forces her to stay inside of Notre Dame, but after she saves him from Frollo, that's when they fall in love. Now, there is a build-up to it when she is suturing his wound and you could argue that she loves him now because she knows how honorable he is but still, being this is only their second dialogue scene together, it felt a little contrived. But that's a minor nitpick. I like Phoebus for the rest of the movie as he tries to warn the gypsies that Frollo seems to know where their hideout is, leads the people of Paris to revolt against Frollo after Quasimodo saves Esmeralda, and ultimately saves Quasimodo from certain death at the end of the film. Plus, he's a funny guy with dry humor, constantly telling his horse, Achilles, to sit on the guards' heads, and Esmeralda is forced to pour wine on his wound, he says that particular wine isn't of a good year. Some may find Phoebus to be as bland as most of Disney's handsome leading men but I like him much more than the majority of them.

As for Clopin (voiced by Paul Kandel), the mischievous gypsy puppeteer, I kind of like him but I don't really have an opinion on him. I like his introduction of the film and the story of Quasimodo as well as his singing of the Bells of Notre Dame but as for the rest of his antics throughout the film... I just don't know. I wasn't that amused by his silly use of hand-puppets, particularly in the opening of the movie when he first talks about Quasimodo, or by his other songs. I don't hate his other songs or scenes, I just wasn't that into them. Don't know what else I can say about that.

Oh, boy, now we have to discuss the gargoyles: Victor (voiced by Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (ha, ha, it's not funny) (voiced by Jason Alexander), and Laverne (voiced by the late Mary Wickes). It's ironic that in the making of documentary that was made at the time of the film's release, Alexander said that the gargoyles would become three of Disney's most beloved characters. I know he was paid to say that and probably wasn't serious but I just smirk at that because the characters are universally hated by almost everyone, including hardcore fans of the movie. While I won't say I despise the gargoyles, I do agree with the criticisms people put forward about them: they're distracting and don't need to be in the movie. Some may feel that they needed to give Quasimodo some characters to interact with other than Frollo before he meets Esmeralda but I felt that being completely isolated would have given him more incentive to go out into the real world and therefore, making him meeting Esmeralda more meaningful. And if they wanted to give Quasimodo some supportive friends, they should have done them better. I think we know why the gargoyles were created the way they were: because every Disney movie has to have some goofy sidekicks or comic relief characters that will appeal to kids. But when you're working with such dark source material, that is going to be jarring when compared to everything else. I think Jason Alexander is a funny guy but the schtick they give him as Hugo (the obnoxious, loud wise-cracking, sight gags, and his infatuation with Esmeralda's goat, despite the fact the goat is male which must mean that Hugo is gay!) is so intrusive to the proceedings. It really hurts the dramatic climax of the movie where Quasimodo is trying to stave off Frollo's attack on Notre Dame for Hugo to chew up a bunch of rocks, fly around while imitating a bomber, and spit the rocks at the guards like a machine gun. For that matter, it's also demeaning to it for Victor to delicately drop a brick on a guy's head and apologize for it, or for Laverne sending a bunch of pigeons out to help with the battle while acting like the Wicked Witch by saying, "Fly, fly my pretties!" and then cackling like her on top of it. Speaking of the other gargoyles, while I don't think Victor is as jarring as Hugo, he's such a stereotype (the refined, sophisticated, yet meek in the face of conflict type of character) that it is distracting when something serious is going on. The one gargoyle I felt was kind of nice was Laverne because she really cared about Quasimodo and tried to do what's best for him but her shtick of being a slightly grouchy old lady who has to put up with pigeons constantly nesting on her wasn't needed. Phoebus' dry wit and Clopin's antics were enough comic relief. The film didn't need this stuff, particularly in the midst of dramatic moments. Moreover, that musical number that they do stops the film cold and doesn't add anything at all to it (again, I'll go into greater detail on that later).

I agree with what Doug Walker said about the gargoyles: it would have been great if they had made it unclear whether they were real or just in Quasimodo's mind. For a lot of the movie, it does feel that they could be just figments of his imagination and perhaps different sides to his personality because no one else sees them. That would have been an awesome concept because it would have shown the effect that Quasimodo's isolation had had on his mind. But, they drop the ball because Hugo making a kissing face at Esmeralda's goat (again, what the hell, Disney?) and the goat responding to it and the gargoyles taking part in the climactic final battle does indicate that they are real. That also poses the question about how they are real and where did their souls come from. That also ties in with the aforementioned gargoyle that comes to life and snarls at Frollo right before he falls to his death. If that was meant to be a sign of real spirits in the cathedral and not something that was simply in Frollo's unhinged, overly religious psyche, then why are the three main gargoyles such goofy characters? Did they just decide to get to know Quasimodo while the others wanted no part of him? I know I'm looking into this too deeply but it does bug me. Also, some could say that the gargoyles were important because they're the ones who gave Quasimodo the confidence to break his shackles and save Esmeralda from Frollo. Like I said earlier, I would find it to be much more inspiring if Quasimodo is at first depressed about the situation and finds the will to do so himself. If they had been all in his mind, that would have worked but they weren't, so there it is. To sum up my thoughts on the gargoyles, while I don't out and out hate them, I do agree that they're distracting, unneeded, shoehorned in, and hurt the film's far more serious aspirations.

One last character I have to mention is the archdeacon (voiced by David Ogden Stiers). While he's not in the film much, when you think about it, he's the basis for why Frollo is eventually overthrown because he stops him from dropping the infant Quasimodo down the well. If he hadn't intervened, Quasimodo wouldn't have existed and Frollo would have ruled Paris with an iron fist much longer than he did. On top of that, he is the exact opposite of Frollo and you could see them as two sides of the same coin. Whereas Frollo represents religious hypocrisy with his cruelty despite his insistence that he's doing it in the name of God, the archdeacon is the true embodiment of the church. He is kind and accepting of those who are different, including Esmeralda, whom he comforts when Frollo traps her inside of Notre Dame. He strongly disapproves of Frollo's methods and knows that what he is doing is wrong but the church is the only place where he has authority over him. He can't do anything to stop Frollo out in the rest of the city. Because of that, he tells Esmeralda that she can't stop Frollo by herself and encourages her to put her trust in God. Frollo despises the restraints the archdeacon places upon him in the church and by the climax of the movie, he has become so determined to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda that he defies the archdeacon's authority and shoves him down a flight of stairs, saying that he will not interfere with the business between him and Quasimodo this time. That's the last time you see the archdeacon. You know he wasn't killed because you can see him starting to get up. I kind of wish he was in the movie after that, congratulating everyone for ending Frollo's tyranny. Moreover, I wish there were scenes between him and Quasimodo period, with him telling Quasimodo that Frollo isn't right about everything (although, Frollo could have probably overruled him on that score because he is Quasimodo's legal guardian). Again, I'm just nitpicking but I really liked the archdeacon and the dichotomy between him and Frollo.

In my humble opinion, this is the most beautiful looking film that Disney made in the 90's. Everything just pops. The colors are magnificent, particularly during the climax where there is a red glow engulfing everything. You would think that it would be due to the molten steel that Quasimodo pours around Notre Dame but it's there even before that happens so I guess you could say that it's coming from the fire that's being prepared to burn Esmeralda at the stake or from the fact Frollo had gone mad and had torched a good portion of Paris in order to find Esmeralda. Or, as Disney tends to do, it could just be colored that way to represent the emotions of the scene. Whatever it is meant to be, it looks gorgeous. The scene with Quasimodo and Esmeralda on the roof of Notre Dame with the orange from the setting sun and the purple color of the growing darkness is also a knockout. Everything is used to give a mood to the scenes. Besides the colors, there are the lighting effects. The overcast look with rain pouring down as Quasimodo retreats back into the church after being humiliated at the Festival of Fools works perfectly in bringing out the somber feeling of the scene. A great moment of shadow-work is when Frollo is about to stab Quasimodo near the end of the movie and you see his shadow as he raises the knife. That looks just unreal. The movie is very well designed as well. The buildings, both large and small, look authentic to the time period and so do the clothes the people wear. Notre Dame itself is a knockout. It looks exactly like the real Notre Dame, albeit remodeled to look 15th century, and the inside of it especially looks like a real church, with its stain-glass windows, the candles, the beautiful, golden bells (all of which Quasimodo has named), the wood-carvings, and so on. Quasimodo's actual living quarters in the cathedral look good and the roof, with all the gargoyles, columns, rails with water running through them, also looks great. In short, you can't say that Disney doesn't do their homework. On top of that, the scope of the film is just huge and has some amazing set-pieces. The very opening of the movie is a breathtaking spectacle that starts in the clouds as the camera pans toward Notre Dame, comes down through the clouds, and moves throughout the village. My favorite set-piece though is when Quasimodo breaks free of his chains, grabs a rope, swings around the side of Notre Dame, over the enormous crowd (which in itself looks amazing), saves Esmeralda, carries her up to the cathedral, and yells, "Sanctuary!", with the crowd cheering every time he does so. That is freaking awesome! The closing scene of Quasimodo being treated as a hero and carried away by the crowd as the camera pulls back past Notre Dame and back up into the sky where it started is such an effectively uplifting way to end the movie. In short, if you don't find The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be at least a visual feast, I don't know what to say to you.

Disney is a family company, of course, and they are well known for putting a lot of slapstick silly humor in their films that would appeal to little kids. That's fine most of the time but like I said earlier, when you're doing a story as dark as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you need to be careful about how much silliness and humor you put in there because you could hurt some of your loftier aspirations. As much as I love this film, I do think that Disney did succumb to that in some ways. I've already talked about the gargoyles and how they're the most distracting, unnecessary obnoxious aspects of the movie but there are others. In my opinion, Phoebus' dry wit and Clopin's antics would have been enough humor. Phoebus ordering Achilles to sit on the heads of some of the guards may seem a little childish and immature but I felt it wouldn't have mattered if that was the extent of how slapsticky and immature the film's humor got. But on top of that, you've got this running joke that centers around an old man who's being held prisoner for some reason, is released through some silly circumstance, says, "I'm free! I'm free!" and ends up stumbling into something else that traps him and he says, "Dang it!" I guess that was funny but was there any point to it? No. And that happens again during climactic battle at Notre Dame where the guy falls down a manhole and there's even a sign that reads Mon Sewer. That's too much. In fact, the climactic battle has a lot of antics that undermine its seriousness. I've already mentioned how the gargoyles bog it down but there's other stuff like the Goofy scream being heard at one point when some guards are knocked off a ladder and a closeup of guard's teeth getting knocked out in a humorous way. Granted, there was some slapstick when Esmeralda ran from Frollo's men at the Festival of Fools but there was so much silly stuff at that festival to begin with that Esmeralda's antics fit with it. Plus, I feel that it showed how much of a sarcastic, fun, streetwise woman she can be. I even think the banter between her and Phoebus when they have a little duel inside the church was appropriate at that moment, mainly because Kevin Kline's acting could pull it off well. But a very serious climax where a lot is at stake is not the place for silly stuff such as what I've mentioned. There is a moment at the very end with Laverne interrupting the joyousness of it by having to yell at the pigeons to get off of her one last time but by that point, I'm so uplifted that it doesn't bug me (however, Hugo yelling, "Good night, everybody!" after the credits does irritate me slightly because it's the very last thing you see). Bottom line, I know Disney likes to put in humor to keep the kiddies entertained as much as the adults but here, they should have been much more careful and subdued with it.

In his Disneycember video on this film, Doug Walker brought up something rather interesting: this movie's depiction of gypsies is rather confusing. Frollo sees the gypsies as evil people who live outside of the established order and has vowed to wipe them out completely. Also, the people of Paris don't seem to trust them either because there's a moment when you first see Esmeralda where a woman tells her kid to stay away from the gypsies. And yet despite this, there is the Festival of Fools, which seems to celebrate them. At first, I didn't think anything about it and just thought it was an annual celebration that the city of Paris itself puts on but after I heard what Doug said, I realized that he may be right. Even if it's not entirely a gypsy festival, Clopin and Esmeralda are very prominent during it (in fact, Clopin acts like showman of the entire thing) and Frollo himself even attends it! Moreover, Esmeralda tells Quasimodo that not all of the gypsies are untrustworthy thieves and yet, when you see the Court of Miracles, they seem to have a lot of stolen stuff down there. I always thought the wagons, parchments, clothes, and everything else you see down there were stuff that belonged to the gypsies but maybe it was stolen. Now that I think about it, I do agree that that is a very unclear part of the screenplay and could well be a big plothole. It doesn't completely destroy the movie but it is puzzling.

As with most Disney films made around that time, the score is composed by Alan Menken and man, does it make an already spectacular film ever more amazing! The film's scope and visuals are enormous to begin with but the music just makes everything feel all the more grand. The scale of that opening shot I described earlier is elevated even more so by the incredible main theme, whose melody actually forms the skeleton for several of the film's songs. The score is also often accompanied by a choir singing in Latin which, I can't explain why, but it helps the actual music in making everything feel big and epic. The drama of the flashback where we see Frollo pursue Quasimodo's mother is elevated tenfold by both the music and that choir, as is the moment when Frollo is about to drop the baby Quasimodo down the well. Another such moment is when Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from being burned at the stake. The chanting choir helps make that scene as unforgettable as it is. It does the same for the final battle with Frollo where he's trying to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda as they jump across the ledges on the side of Notre Dame. It's hard to describe how this music works but you'd understand perfectly if you heard it, trust me. Besides the dramatic stuff, Menken's score works well with the sad moments, like after the main title when Quasimodo watches the baby bird he's been caring for fly away and he wishes he could be free like him or when he walks through the crowd back to Notre Dame after being disgraced; the soft moments such as the scenes between Quasimodo and Esmeralda; and the silly moments. To sum up, like most of Menken's Disney scores, the music goes with the visuals perfectly.

There are a lot of unforgettable songs in this movie. The opening song, The Bells of Notre Dame, which is sung mainly by Paul Kandel as Clopin but there are bits that are sung by David Ogden Stiers and Tony Jay as their respective characters. It bookends the movie, as it helps to tell the story of Quasimodo at the beginning and it is sung briefly again at the end as Quasimodo is hailed as a hero. It really is an amazing and beautiful song, which, as do most of the songs in the movie, does exactly what a song in a musical should do: tell a part of the story through song and thereby, advance it instead of bringing it to a halt. It also has a message for the kids, which is, in referring to Quasimodo and Frollo, "Who is the monster and who is the man?" The meaning behind it is obvious from the moment you hear it: don't judge someone due to their outward. Quasimodo may seem like the more monstrous one of the two but from their actions, it's clear that he is the man due to his kindness whereas Frollo is undeniably the monster. When I was a little kid, even I figured that out the minute I heard it. It may be obvious but it still thought the message was conveyed well during the song.

There are two songs sung by both Quasimodo and Frollo which feature each of them singing differently about the same thing. The first is Out There, which begins with Frollo warning Quasimodo that the world is a cruel, dark place and that if he goes out in public, he will be reviled because of the way he looks. A little duet that the two of them have is really heartbreaking due to what's being said: Frollo sings, "You are deformed" which Quasimodo repeats "I am deformed" and Frollo says, "And you are ugly", to which Quasimodo says, "And I am ugly." Frollo tells him, "And these are crimes for which the world has little pity." As this first part of the song ends, Frollo makes his point clear to Quasimodo: stay within the bell-tower. He even sings, "Stay in here," which is a contrast to the very title of the song and what the rest of it ends up being about. Quasimodo, out of song, apologizes to Frollo for thinking of going to the Festival of Fools, to which Frollo says, "You are forgiven. But remember, Quasimodo, this is your sanctuary." Once Frollo leaves, both the song and the scene itself become much brighter, as Quasimodo sings about his dream to leave the cathedral and live as part of society. Tom Hulce has a pretty good singing voice in my opinion and the way he sings the song is so joyous, sincere, and full of hope that it's beautiful. It really makes you hope that he does get his wish and therefore, makes the heartbreak he endures at the Festival of Fools all the more tragic.

The first comedic song, Topsy Turvy, sung by Clopin, is a very wild, bouncy song that takes place during the Festival of Fools. It's meant to be nothing more than out and out silly as Clopin describes what goes on during the festival, where everyone is encouraged to let loose and act crazy. Not much else to say about this one. It's not the best song in the movie by far but it serves its purpose. Since I talked about that, I might as well go ahead and mention the other comedic songs as well. The worst song in the entire movie in my opinion is A Guy Like You, sung by the gargoyles. It's their attempt to reassure Quasimodo that Esmeralda loves him as much as he does her and it's essentially this movie's version of the song A Friend Like Me from Aladdin, because, like that song, there are a lot of moments and references to stuff that wouldn't exist for centuries in relation to the film's setting. It's also the song that comes after Frollo's Hellfire (which I'll save for last) so it's also meant to give the audience a sense of relaxation after such an intense and dark song as that. I get that. But this song is way too over the top and comedic. It also stops the movie dead in its tracks. I'm aware that some people may have a problem with the Genie making so many references during A Friend Like Me (or during that entire film and franchise, in general) but I bought the pseudo-explanation that he's able to do that because he's an all-powerful being who can travel from one time period to another. In a movie like The Hunchback of Notre Dame whose story is very dependent on the time period that it takes place in, that just doesn't work and it undermines the film. Bottom line, this song did not need to be in here (although it was interesting to find out that Jason Alexander has a nice singing voice). The final comedic song is The Court of Miracles, sung by Clopin and the gypsies after they capture Quasimodo and Phoebus and, thinking they are acting as Frollo's spies, set them up to hanged. This one is based on black humor, with lyrics like, "It's a miracle if you get out alive" and the like. The main action of the song is Clopin setting up a mock trial for the boys, changing costumes rapidly, including putting on Frollo's judge suit, and preparing to hang them. I think it's a nice attempt at black humor in a Disney song but it's not one of my preferred songs from the film.

God Help the Outcasts is a song sung by Esmeralda (Heidi Mollenhauer instead of Demi Moore) when she is trapped inside of Notre Dame by Frollo. It has a beautiful sound to it, as Esmeralda sings about how she wishes God would help her people as well as anybody who's shunned because of their social status, which I think says something about Esmeralda's character. There's also a chorus that backs it up with random people in the church singing about what they hope for from God. Not one of my favorites but a nice song nonetheless. It actually replaced a song called Someday that supposed to be sung during this scene. A pop version of that song performed by All-4-One plays over the ending credits. Some may think that I would object to a modern pop song playing in a movie like this but since it's not actually in the movie and its lyrics do fit with it, I don't mind. For some reason, modern pop songs never bug me as long as they are played over the ending credits of a film.

Finally, we have the two songs by Quasimodo and Frollo where they each sing about how they feel towards Esmeralda. Quasimodo's song Heaven's Light happens after he has helped Esmeralda escape from Notre Dame. It's a quiet, gentle song with him wondering if she cares about him the same way that he does her. It's a sweet song that starts out sad because he says that he's always felt that no one as hideous as he is would ever be loved but then it becomes lovely and hopeful when he starts singing about Esmeralda and how she was the first person to not be repulsed by his appearance. It draws to a close with Quasimodo ringing the church's bell and it soon leads into the song Hellfire. The first, sad part of the song is reprised in Quasimodo's mind when he sees that Esmeralda has fallen for Phoebus and he is absolutely devastated by it. His hope in the latter part of the song juxtaposed with his seeing the two of them kiss and remembering the sad beginning of the song makes it all the more heartbreaking.

In his Nostalgia Critic video of The Top 11 Villain Songs, Doug Walker put Frollo's song Hellfire as number 1 and I'm not inclined to disagree with him. It was really ballsy for Disney to leave in Frollo's lust for Esmeralda and even more so for them to make it the focus of a song. The end result is unquestionably the best scene in the film and one of the darkest songs the studio has ever produced, if not the darkest. The very lyrics are so sexual in nature that it's amazing. Frollo says that he is "so much purer than the common vulgar, weak, licentious crowd" and goes on to sing that he sees her dancing and that "her smoldering eyes still scorch my soul. I feel her, I see her, the sun caught in her raven hair is blazing in me out of all control." Where it becomes very adult is when he says, "this fire in my skin", takes out the scarf he got from her at the Festival of Fools, and rubs his face against it while singing, "This burning desire is turning me to sin." Since the stuff went over my head when I was a kid, when I watched this movie again years later, I was like, "Oh, my God!" I couldn't believe the blatant sexuality on display here. My mom doesn't get or rather, is in denial about, the notion of any sexuality in a Disney film (yeah, like Ariel wasn't sexy at all) and when I let her hear the lyrics of the song, I said, "What do you think he's talking about?!" This is when the song becomes visual and they match what Frollo is feeling perfectly. He sees a curvaceous, dancing image of Esmeralda as he sings and after that last lyric I described, this vision of these red, hooded figures suddenly pop up around him. I have no clue what these figures are or what they represent but they chant the Latin words, Mea culpa, which means my fault. Their purpose is probably meant to symbolize Frollo's internal struggle with his lust, how, deep down, he senses that it is coming from him and him alone but he, feeling that he couldn't have such vulgar thoughts on his own because of his "purity", is blaming it on Esmeralda, saying that she cast some black magic on him. He even hints that she could be of satanic origin, singing, "He made the Devil so much stronger than a man!" Those figures then become flames, envelop Frollo, and then swerve back into the fireplace, as if dragging him into Hell (which could be a foreshadow to his eventual fate which does look like he fell into Hell).

Frollo sings for the Virgin Mary to protect him from Esmeralda's spell, saying that she must either be destroyed or be his prisoner, when he can do with her what he pleases. The image of Esmeralda during the song perfectly symbolizes both sides of his decision. When he says, "Let her taste the fires of Hell", the image of her in the fire changes from a provocative dance to her screaming in pain as she is burned alive (implied, mind you) and when he sings, "Or else let her be mine and mine alone", a smokey image of her comes out of the fireplace and Frollo attempts to passionately embrace her. The song is then interrupted by a guard entering the room to inform Frollo that Esmeralda has escaped from the cathedral. It might just be my dirty mind but I know I've heard some other people suggest this as well: when the song is interrupted and Frollo swings around at the sound of the door opening, he looks like somebody who's been caught masturbating. I'm just saying. After telling the guard to leave, Frollo becomes determined to find Esmeralda, even if he has to burn down Paris in order to do it. He continues singing by saying, "Now gypsy, it's your turn. Choose me or your pier, be mine or you will burn!" This finale of the song is the most incredible part of it to me. Frollo throws Esmeralda's scarf into the fire and we see the flames consume it with a sound like a muffled explosion. He then backs against the wall, singing, "God have mercy on her. God have mercy on me," as shadows of figures holding crucifixes stream across the wall and the music and Latin chanting builds and builds, with him finally declaring, "But she will be mine or she... will... burn!" After that powerfully charged final moment, Frollo passes out on the floor, with his body forming the shape of a crucifix. I can't encourage anyone who thinks that Disney is all kids' stuff to check this movie and this song, in particular, out more. This song is an absolute work of visual and auditory art, from the visuals, the mature subject matter, Tony Jay's excellent singing, and because of it, I'm doubly ashamed of what Disney has become nowadays because I know that they're better than that.

If there was any Disney movie that didn't need a sequel (though some would argue that about all of them), it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Everything is wrapped up nicely at the end: Quasimodo is accepted into Paris' society, Esmeralda and Phoebus are together, and Frollo's tyranny is ended with his death. You didn't need to say anything else about these characters and this story. But, as Disney had a habit of doing around that time, they just couldn't leave it alone and so the direct to DVD sequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, was released in 2002. I have never seen this movie and I don't ever intend to so I might as well briefly mention it here. Looking at clips of it, the animation is dreadful. I know I shouldn't expect good animation from a direct to video film but when compared to the amazing animation on display in the original, this is a HUGE step down. The story sounds so contrived: Quasimodo finally gets something of a girlfriend. Just couldn't keep it as perfectly resolved as it was, could you, Disney? Also, the villain just sounds lame. No villain was going to be able to live up to the awesomeness that was Frollo and this guy, who looks at himself in the mirror and says, "I could kiss myself" certainly doesn't. Amazingly, save for Tony Jay and Mary Wickes (the original voice of Laverne who died during the production of the first movie), all of the original voice actors return, including Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, and Kevin Kline. That just blows my mind, man. Why would they do this bottom-of-the-barrel movie?! Bottom line, this movie does not exist in my opinion. The first movie is one of Disney's finest 90's films, a sequel wasn't needed or wanted, and I will NEVER watch that movie.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame may not have been what audiences wanted from Disney (even though it was the fifth highest grossing movie of 1996) and it may not have been the best movie to do in order to bounce back from the disappointing box-office of Pocahontas but in my opinion, the risk that Disney took paid off artistically. Despite its flaws (the unnecessary gargoyle characters, the inappropriate humor, the confusing depiction of the gypsies), I find it to be one of the studio's finest. It's a well-constructed, surprisingly mature movie with complex characters, dark subject matter, one of Disney's greatest villains, unforgettable songs and music, and incredible animation and production design. Even though I still feel that it deserved a PG-rating, I don't think it went too far with the mature themes it deals with and it did them well enough that a family can watch the movie. If you haven't seen this movie or even if you're not that big of a Disney fan, I would still recommend it if you like good animation or good movies period. It truly is a mature work of cinematic art to me.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Disney/Stuff I Grew Up With: A Goofy Movie (1995)

The reason I put this film in the section of Stuff I Grew Up With was because this came out in 1995 when I was seven years old and watched it many times from then up to the end of elementary school. I can't really remember how I first saw it though. I didn't see it in the theater and, while I rented it many times after I first saw it, that's not how I actually first saw it. It was probably one of two things. They might have had us watch it at school at one time, which happened quite a bit when the teachers had forgotten to plan out the lessons for the day or they just want to teach. The other possibility was that a cousin of mine had the VHS and he may have shown it to me. Whatever the case, I loved it as a kid and when I rediscovered it after I got back into Disney, I still thought it was a great flick. I agree with Doug Walker in that I was surprised that some wanted him to bash it in a Nostalgia Critic episode because it is a well-made little movie. Granted, it is one of the more dated films Disney has ever produced in any capacity since the fads, styles, and music are very 90's but I think the story still holds up.

After having a nightmare where he finally gets with Roxanne, the girl of his dreams, only to turn into a monstrous version of his father, Goofy's son, Max, heads off to the last day of school in order to impress Roxanne and prove to her that he's not a loser with an over the top stunt. Although he gets in trouble with the principal for it, Roxanne, along with all the students in the school, was blown away by the stunt and this gives Max the confidence to ask her out to a big party to celebrate the end of the school year as well as to watch a pay-per-view concert featuring a popular singer named Powerline. Unknown to Max, though, the principal has called Goofy and tells him that Max is heading for trouble if he doesn't do something about it. Worried about his son, Goofy decides to take Max on a fishing trip with him across the country, unwittingly derailing Max's date. Max isn't happy about it at all but when he tries to tell Roxanne that the date is off, he doesn't want to lose her as a potential girlfriend and tells her that Goofy is taking him to L.A. to see the concert and to join Powerline onstage. It doesn't take Max long to reveal how much of a mess he's gotten himself into and as he tries to cope with his dad's well-meaning but embarrassing antics during the trip, he has to figure out how he's going to pull himself out of it and not lose Roxanne.

This was the first film to be directed by Kevin Lima, who had worked in the animation and art department on other Disney and non-Disney animated films and he would go on to direct Disney's Tarzan, 102 Dalmatians (his weakest film by far), and Enchanted, as well as two TV movies based on the character Eloise. I think Lima proves to be a capable director with this movie and by this point, should have directed more movies than he has. Also, this movie isn't technically part of Walt Disney Pictures' official animated feature canon since it was also produced by Walt Disney Television Animation and its Australian animation department. You can tell as well. The animation and design are much better than the direct to video films the Australian department usually made but it's still not quite up to par with Disney's usual feature standards.

Lima said that his intention with this movie was to make Goofy a three-dimensional, multi-faceted character and while some may not find that to be feasible, he and the crew actually did a good job in doing so. This movie enforces something that I'm sure everybody has already known about Goofy (voiced by Bill Farmer): he's a good-natured, well-meaning guy who tries to make things right but his clumsiness and lack of intelligence causes him to mess things up. He loves his son, Max, dearly, tries to be a good father to him and make him happy as best as he can but everything he does just frustrates Max even more. He wants to be part of Max's life and have the same close relationship with him that he did with his own father and there are moments where he remembers the good times he had with Max when he was younger. However, he just can't get it through his head that Max is at that point where he wants to have his own life. The good thing is that the two of them do have a reconciliation and Goofy seems to learn that he can be a part of Max's life but he's also going to have to back off a little bit as well. Above anything else though, Goofy is always an understanding father. By the end of the movie, Goofy learns about the dilemma that Max has gotten himself in and becomes determined to help him out by getting him onstage with Powerline. One thing that's not different about Goofy, though, is his clumsiness. He's still one of the most uncoordinated and unintentionally destructive characters ever and the filmmakers taking that into account as well as giving him more emotional depth is a big part of the joy of this film.

Since A Goofy Movie is a sequel to the show Goof Troop, there are a bunch of characters from that show that are present here, the most notable, of course, being Max Goof. It's funny, when I was a kid, I was used to Dana Hill's performance as Max on Goof Troop and, since I was only seven or eight at the time, didn't understand why Max's voice was different here. Mom had to explain to me that it was because Max was in upper high school in this film and was much older. In any case, Max (voiced by Jason Marsden) is starting to look a lot like teenage version of his dad, which is exactly what he's afraid of. Heck, the film starts with him having a nightmare about turning into Goofy, much to Roxanne's horror. On top of that, when he accidentally does Goofy's "hyuk" laugh in front of Roxanne, he's absolutely mortified. He absolutely does not want to be a carbon copy of his dad, which builds upon one of the plot elements from Goof Troop where he wished that his dad would be more normal than he is (in fact, this issue of Max being like his dad was discussed in the show). You get the feeling that deep down, Max does love his father but just wishes he would let him have his independence and not embarrass him so much. It's funny because when I was a kid, I actually thought that Max was really mean to Goofy, although even then I kind of understood it. Now, I don't blame either of them. While Goofy was only trying to get closer to his son, Max had every right to get really mad at him at points because some of the stuff he put him through was very embarrassing. Max did tell Goofy part of the reason why he didn't want to go on the road trip and therefore, it is a little frustrating that Goofy still made him go, even though you know why he did. You could say that Max should have told Goofy the truth from the start but that's not the stuff a teenager would normally talk about with his dad, particularly when your dad is Goofy. So all in all, Max is a little mean to Goofy here but you do understand it and I like him here (I did think he wasn't as likable in An Extremely Goofy Movie but that's a story for another day).

You couldn't have a movie based on Goof Troop without Pete and P.J. (voiced by Jim Cummings and Rob Paulsen respectively, as it was in that show), although I have to wonder what happened to Pete's wife and daughter from the show? Did Peg divorce Pete and take Pistol with her or something? For that matter, in this movie, Pete works with Goofy at the mall as baby photographers. Did the used car business he had in Goof Troop go under? In any case, Pete's his usual abrasive self in this movie but never to the point where he's absolutely hateful. He thinks he knows everything about parenting and tries to give Goofy advice, such as saying that you got to be firm with your kid, "keep 'em under your thumb" and "they'll never wind up in the gutter" as he says. Basically, this means being a bully to your kid, which is how he treats P.J and this makes for a great dichotomy between the two pairs of father and son. I always felt so bad for P.J. since he has just an obnoxious jerk for a dad who makes him feel like crap most of the time. In any case, I've always liked P.J. as a character because he's that one true buddy who always has your back and never lets you down, although he's not the most optimistic person in the world. Going back to Pete, he's also kind of a rat in this movie because he feels that Max is a bad kid from the start and goes as far to tell Goofy that Max messed with their map so they would head to L.A. Yes, Max did change the map and he shouldn't have done that but honestly, he and Goofy were having a really good time up to that point and they may have headed to Lake Destiny, Goofy's intended destination, after the concert, but Pete had to go and spoil it. It looks like Pete takes some enjoyment out of telling Goofy this, even though he claims he hates to be the bearer of bad news. Look at the devilish grin he makes when he overhears Max and P.J. talking about the map situation. It's like he's thinking, "I've got you now, Max." In fact, even in Goof Troop, it felt like Pete had something against Max. In any case, my favorite scene in this movie between Goofy and Pete is when he tells Goofy what he heard Max say about the map while they're relaxing in a jacuzzi (by the way, Pete in a speedo? Gag!) Goofy refuses to believe Pete and when he tells him to check his map, Goofy says, "I trust my son. You know, maybe Max isn't all the things you think a son should be but... he loves me." Pete says, "Hey, my son respects me." Goofy just says, "Yeah." I like that because it subtly reminds us that Goofy has seen how Pete treats his own son and he does not want his relationship with Max to go that way. You wouldn't think there would be this much depth in a movie about Goofy, let alone in a scene between Goofy and Pete, but it's there, which is why I'm disappointed that this movie doesn't get more credit than it does.

One character from this movie that I'm sad never appeared in anything else save for an episode of House of Mouse is Max's eventual girlfriend, Roxanne (voiced by Kellie Martin). She comes across as a very sweet, nice girl who, despite her beauty (and she is very pretty for an anthropomorphic dog), is just as awkward around Max as he is around her and that's why she never said anything to him before he fell off the bleachers at the football field and she asked him if he was okay. At the end of the movie when Max admits to her that he lied about his going to the Powerline concert and that Goofy doesn't know Powerline as he originally told her, she is completely understanding. Even more shocking to him is that the thing that embarrassed him in front of her, the "hyuk" laugh, was something that she found cute and that she liked him as soon as she heard it. Roxanne isn't in a lot of the movie but she comes across as so sweet and so cute that I really wish that Disney had done more with her. I like her dad too, who is this hulking, intimidating bulldog who is not fond of Max at all and never says anything either except for some low growling. The way he freaks Max out just makes me smirk. I also have to mention Roxanne's friend, Stacy (voiced by Jenna von Oy). She's the exact opposite of the shy Roxanne: she's a fast-talking, outgoing young lady who seems to be the class rep (I always chuckle when she's talking in the auditorium and this geek in the audience is saying, "Yo, Stacy! Take to me, take to me, baby!" much to her annoyance). She's also a good friend to Roxanne in that she encourages her to talk to Max, knowing that she likes him, and even gets rid of a girl who tries to hit on Max after school is over. I wish she was in the movie more because she was a hoot. Finally, I have to mention Max's other friend besides P.J., Bobby. He's voiced by Pauly Shore and just like everyone else in existence, I'm glad that Shore has dropped off the face of the Earth. He's not even credited in the movie, saying to me that even Disney knew that his involvement could hurt the movie. But, I have to be honest, I did think Bobby was a funny character. He's not in the movie much but when he was, I was smiling whenever he talked, putting "age" at the end of a lot of words, like "slurpage" and "smokage." When Max gets excited that Roxanne agreed to go out with him and begins dancing with the principal's assistant, I just love how Bobby is encouraging it, saying, "Yeah, dance with her! Groove with her!" So, yeah, I normally think that Pauly Shore is a blight on comedies or movies in general for that matter but I did like him here.

This movie is very episodic and the songs are tied into those episodes so I'm going to go through each of them. The first song is After Today, where Max and all of the students sing about what they're going to be doing after the last day of school. Max, of course, is assuming that Roxanne will be his girlfriend but I like what everybody else is singing about, like these Goth chicks on a school bus who sing, "No more pep rallies to catch, bleh!" and after the kids get off the bus, the driver sings, "I'm gonna sit on my butt." While it's not my favorite song in the movie, it is catchy and the stuff happening around Max during the sequence is memorable. After that is when Max puts his plan into motion to create an impromptu concert during the principal's speech to the students in the auditorium where he dresses up like Powerline and lip-syncs to his song Stand Out (all of Powerline's songs are sung by Tevin Campbell). It's supposed to just be shown like a music video on a screen that they put up at the beginning but while Max is performing, things go awry when he slips and falls right through the screen, exposing himself to the students. Max decides to go with it and attempts to finish the song but before he can, he's stopped by the principal. This part is okay and so is the song but it's not one of my favorite parts of the movie. I like the reprise of it after school better because it's much like the After Today sequence with Max singing while stuff is happening around him. The part of it that is the most striking to me now because it's something I didn't understand as a kid is when Max skateboards through this house and inadvertently stops this baby from sticking a fork into this power socket. You think about it, if Max hadn't done that, that baby would have been electrocuted! When I watched this movie again when I was old enough to understand it, I was kind of horrified!

One of my favorite scenes in the entire movie is when Goofy and Max set out on their trip. It starts with poor Goofy once again doing his best to cheer Max up, not realizing that he's a big part of the reason why he's so glum. He tries to play games with Max like 20 Questions and when Max turns on the radio to listen to rock music, Goofy tries to get him to sing with him by putting in a cassette of the song High Hopes. That does go over well because the two of them fight over it, changing between the radio and the cassette until the radio breaks. It's after that the song On the Open Road begins. I like this section a lot because of the sequence around the song. It's an interesting duet too because Goofy is singing happily about the joys of being on the open road whereas Max is singing about how pissed off he is and how he'd rather be anywhere else but there. Max is frightened that Goofy's insane driving is going to get them killed, with lyrics like, "The old man drives like such a klutz that I'm about to hurl my guts upon the open road" and "Roxanne please don't forget me, I will return some day," and then sees Goofy heading for a construction roadblock and says, "But I may be in traction when I do!" Soon, all the other drivers on the road join in the song, like these female country singers who ask if that's the way to Nashville (which, being in Tennessee, makes me smile) but the funniest is when Goofy sees this prisoner in the back of a police transport vehicle singing about how he's going to prison. Still thinking that Max may be heading that way, he quickly drives away from that car. There's other stuff like this little guy whose wife is a big, fat woman with a voice like a man, an old woman who drives like a maniac on the road with her cats that are in the car with her looking like nervous wrecks, a corpse who gets out of his coffin in a hearse and starts dancing on the roof (!), and even Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck hitchhiking. It's a memorable sequence in my opinion and I also like the little moment afterward where Goofy is too busy looking at the map and not paying attention to the road, forcing Max to swerve the car out of the way of an incoming truck. Max's facial expressions where he starts out still mad, sees the truck coming, and panics while he steers the car is funny as hell.

After that is when Goofy takes Max to this tourist trap that his dad took him took him to when he was young: an opossum-based theme park. They see this really bad show with animatronic possums which has corny singing, an emcee who is so old that he looks like he's about to keel over any second, and animatronics which short-circuit badly. I think anybody can relate to this kind of situation because if you've ever been on a road trip with your family, you've more than likely encountered those really bad, worn-down attractions that small-town locals try to put on. When Max sees that mother dragging her less than enthusiastic kid into the park, I can totally relate to what he's thinking because I've seen more than my fair share of that. I'm also sure most can relate to their parents putting humiliating hats on them at these types of parks, like when Goofy puts that possum hat on Max. You can probably also relate to those people who wear costumes at those parks who come up to you when you're really not in the mood, although I hope none of you have every smacked the mask around like how Max does to this loser dressed up as a possum. Finally, even though it is painful to watch, Max's explosion at Goofy at the end of the scene is totally understandable to me. It had been building to that point ever since Goofy forced him to go on the trip and humiliating him in front of all those people by twirling him around despite his protests was the last straw. On the same token, you do feel bad for Goofy due to the fact that you know he just wanted to have some fun and with reconnect with his son. His hurt expression says it all.

After that is when the two of them camp beside this small lake in the woods and Goofy tries to give Max fishing lessons but Max is still acting distant towards him. That's when Pete shows up with this ridiculous RV that has everything: a hot tub, a big swimming pool, a basketball court, a little bowling alley, retractable saw-blades that slice down trees in order to make room, and a satellite dish on top of it. You also get to see P.J. singing along with another Powerline song while cleaning his room. It's a really funny image because he can't sing as well as Max but he's not at all embarrassed because he tells Max, "You're just jealous, man, because you ain't got the moves!" At the same time, that's when Pete gives Goofy that bad "keep 'em under your thumb" parental advice, and therefore, he forces Max to go fishing with him. The moment before that when Pete forces P.J. to kick down one bowling pin left standing is where I really feel bad for P.J. It's made even worse when Pete says, "High five, son" but when P.J. attempts to do so, Pete pulls away his hand, yells, "Psych!" and laughs at P.J. What an asshole of a father Pete is. Anyway, while showing Max the Perfect Cast that his father taught him, Goofy accidentally hooks a slab of steak that Pete is barbecuing and ends up getting the attention of Bigfoot (voiced by Frank Welker), who tries to get the steak but is reeled in by Goofy after he bites into it. He then attacks them and chases them back to the campsite, where Pete promptly runs off with P.J. in the RV. Goofy and Max manage to make it to their car and Bigfoot, while still trying to attack them, becomes curious and distracted by shifting through a box of their supplies near the car. The movie becomes like Cujo here where Goofy and Max are trapped in the car all night by Bigfoot, who's thrown the keys away and attacks whenever they try to get out, like when Goofy tries to get a can of soup that Bigfoot threw onto the hood of the car. At one point, Bigfoot ends up with headphones on and hears the Bee-Gees singing Stayin' Alive, to which he promptly disco-dances to.

While all this is going on, two important things happen while Goofy and Max are stuck in the car. While waiting for the car's cigarette lighter to heat up the soup, Goofy reminds Max of Hi, Dad soup, something that Max used to do when he was a little kid where he would spell words out using the letters in the alphabet soup. This is where you get a sense that Max begins to understand his dad, that Goofy remembers all the stuff he used to do with his father and just wants to share that with him. One part that's really touching is when Max, after finishing the soup, uses the remaining letters to spell out Hi, Dad and gives it to Goofy, who almost tears up when he sees it. I know Max is a dick through most of the movie but you have to admit that was nice of him. The other important thing that occurs is Max, unable to sleep due to Goofy and Bigfoot's combined snoring, writes an intended note to Roxanne, first keeping up the lie of going to the Powerline concert and then admitting to it. While lamenting on how hopeless his situation is, he accidentally jostles the map loose from the glove compartment and that's when he changes the route to from Lake Destiny to L.A. He knows he shouldn't and that he's breaking his dad's trust but it is a way for him to get out of the mess he's in. There's a suspenseful part where Goofy starts to wake up and Max, having broken the pencil he was using, quickly uses the point to finish changing the route and puts the map up. The tension is relieved by Goofy, half-asleep, saying, "How many cups of sugar does it take to get to the moon?" Max says, "Uh, three and a half?" Goofy then promptly falls back asleep. After that, Max rips up the note to Roxanne and lets the wind carry the pieces away, with the bit that says, "I lied" getting a closeup in the frame when it gets snagged on a twig. I kind of feel that it's supposed to mean that he not only lied to Roxanne but he's just lied to his dad as well.

It's ironic that Max messed with the map because the very next day, after they somehow managed to get away from Bigfoot, Goofy decides to make Max the navigator of the trip and that he can pick all the stops on the way to Lake Destiny. Before Goofy announces that, you can see that Max is possibly regretting doing that but he decides to go along with since he's the navigator and Goofy would never know. What follows is a montage of all the places they went to, like a beach where Goofy nearly wrecks on a jet ski; an amusement park where Goofy gets sick on the roller-coaster and Max inadvertently makes him sick again afterward; the two of them constantly having to change tires on the car; going to a cave and ending up getting chased out of it by a bunch of bats; and so on, ending with them stopping at the motel where they're again joined by Pete and P.J. This is where that awesome scene between Goofy and Pete that I mentioned earlier happens and when Goofy learns that Max did, indeed, mess with the map. This section is where you can see an emotional arc in Goofy's disappointment. First, he's genuinely hurt by what Max did and the following day when they're heading to the junction that will take them to either Los Angeles or Lake Destiny, he decides to see which direction Max will ask him to take. At the last minute, Max tells him to take the left fork to Los Angeles. This is when Goofy goes from being hurt to downright angry, which is a way we've never seen him before. He angrily swerves the car onto the side of the road, storms out in anger, and walks to an overlook. Max tries to make up with him but Goofy will have none of it, feeling that Max thinks he's just an idiot who can't understand anything. That's when Max accidentally causes the car to skid down the road and the two of them have to chase after it, arguing the entire way. I've never seen this done before where two characters are in the middle of an action and they're arguing and eventually come to a realization. In this case, it's when Goofy and Max fall down into a river with the car, and they argue about what's been happening between them during the film. It ends with Goofy telling Max that he'll always be his son no matter how old he gets.

It's while they're floating down the river on the car that the two of them sing the song Nobody Else But You, which leads to them reconciling. I have to say that song is my least favorite of them all. I don't hate it and it is the point where Goofy and Max understand each other but it's just not a catchy song in my opinion. After it, Max finally tells Goofy about the situation he's gotten himself in and Goofy decides to help him get onstage with Powerline. That's when they realize that the car is heading towards a waterfall and the two of them become separated. Goofy gets Max to grab onto his fishing pole in an attempt to pull him up but Max ends up having to save him when he gets flung off his perch and the car gets a tarp tangled onto it which acts like a parachute that gently takes them down the waterfall. Goofy slips off the pole and Max has to use the Perfect Cast technique to save his father. The moment where Max reels Goofy up and the two share a loving embrace after having nearly lost each other is quite touching.

The scene at the concert in L.A., which is the next to last scene in the movie, is my favorite part of the film by far. Goofy and Max sneak into the backstage area and attempt to get onstage but they become separated. This is where we're finally introduced to Powerline himself, who is an intended combination of Prince and Michael Jackson. I thought Powerline was cool when I was a kid and even though his image and style is dated now, I still like him quite a bit (although his waist is almost non-existent). I love the antics leading up to Goofy and Max getting onstage, with Goofy accidentally walking in on this big woman dancer in her dressing room (Goofy's reaction is hilarious), getting thrown into a special effect meant for the show which promptly electrocutes him and blows him onto the stage, and Max getting chased around backstage onto the lights before landing in-between Goofy and Powerline. In my opinion, the scene of the three of them dancing onstage is just epic and the song I2I that Powerline sings is my favorite part of the entire movie. I don't care if it's dated or what, that song has such a fun, catchy beat to it that when I rented the movie as a kid and watched it half-way through in the morning before I went to school on the last day I was supposed to have it, I tried to find a way to keep it longer just so I could watch the movie to the end in order to hear that song again. It was that awesome to me as a kid and it still is as an adult. The lyrics even fit with the situation between Goofy and Max very, very well. By that point in the movie, they have learned to see things eye to eye, just like the song says.

As I said earlier, you can tell that this movie isn't one of Disney's main animated features. It just has that look to it where it does feel more like a feature-length episode of one of Disney's animated TV shows. That said, though, this movie is very pleasing to the eye. It's bright and colorful, (the opening dream scene that Max has is quite impressive with its flowing field of grain and how dark it gets when Max turns into Goofy), and it's also interesting to, for once, see a Disney movie that takes place in modern day America, albeit with anthropomorphic dogs as the inhabitants. Due to its being set in America in the year it was made, it does end up becoming one of the more dated films Disney has ever produced. Besides the music and the presence of a character played by Pauly Shore, there's also the styles (the baggy pants and the mohawks that Bobby and some other characters have), the skateboards, some of the slang used, the outdated technology (the cassette that Goofy puts into the player in his car), Powerline himself, and so on. I know people tend to cringe at dated stuff and I do too sometimes but in this case, since I grew up in that time period, it's all nostalgic for me and I do enjoy some of it (but, even though I liked his character, Pauly Shore? I still shiver at that).

The movie has a nice sense of humor about it. Some if it is actually fairly mature and downright naughty. The first real scene is Max trying to get dressed for school and Goofy coming in on him when he's in his underwear! In fact, why does Goofy have a towel around his body and on his head as if he's a woman who just got out of the shower? At one point at the mall where Goofy and Pete work, the little girl who's getting her picture taken by Pete runs around the store without her diaper and you get a clear view of her little butt. And let's not forget that aforementioned gag at the Powerline concert where Goofy walks in on that half-naked woman in her dressing room! There's also this slutty-looking girl who tries to hit on Max after he becomes popular. She's the one who Stacy tells to back off because Max is now Roxanne's boyfriend. You could sort think of Bobby as a stoner-type character. The last time you see Pete, he does a spit take but if you take a second look, he's drinking beer! Speaking of which, during the song Nobody Else But You, Max, when referring to Goofy, sings, "Though he seems intoxicated, he's just extremely animated." The best of humor is when the movie actually makes fun of Disney itself. That possum park is clearly meant to be a run-down, tourist trap version of Disneyland and you can't tell me that show Goofy and Max see isn't making fun of the Country Bears attraction. There's a lot more humor in the film, subtle and fast bits that pop up both in the songs and in the actual story, but those are the instances that stuck out to me.

Besides the songs, the movie has a pretty good score by, of all people, Carter Burwell, who usually works with the Coen Brothers. It's a pretty good score that actually has a lot more serious moments than funny moments, although those are in there. It has themes for both Goofy and Max as well as Max and Roxanne, somber music for the moments where Max is depressed about his situation and when he hurts Goofy's feelings when they're leaving the possum park, a funny western-sounding bit of music that plays when Goofy and Max are chasing the car that turns serious when they fall into the river and then goes to touching when Goofy tells Max that he'll always be his son, and a well-done suspense score for when Goofy and Max are heading for the waterfall. The best part of that is that there's a lull in the music when it seems like Max has saved Goofy but it gets serious again when Goofy slips off the fishing pole and screams for Max as he falls. The music that plays when they embrace after Max reels Goofy back up with the rod is very touching as well. Not matter if the movie is live-action or animated, when you've got a good composer, you're going to get good results and this is no exception.

In my opinion, it's shame that A Goofy Movie is so overlooked because it's an awesome movie. It has a new, three-dimensional portrayal of a beloved character as well as other likable characters, a great emotional core with the relationship between Goofy and Max, surprisingly mature dramatic moments, good humor, colorful animation and setting, and some great songs and music. It's simply an underrated gem that tends to go unnoticed even by most diehard Disney lovers because it's not an official part of the studio's line of animated features. If you've never seen it for that very reason, I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you're a fan of Goofy. To me, it's the best feature film debut for Goofy that you could ask for.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Disney: Bambi II (2006)

The 2005 Platinum Edition DVD of Bambi that I got in order to see that film had a sneak peak at this upcoming follow-up to the film, which, at that time, was titled Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest. I was interested in seeing it from the preview that was shown but at that point, I hadn't become aware of just how bad Disney's direct to video and DVD sequels could be. If I had experienced that at the time, I would have brushed this movie off immediately. I've mentioned Disney's direct to video sequels before. I feel that they're unnecessary, unwanted, cheap cash-ins on the name of the classic original. Save for the sequels to Aladdin and The Lion King, that is generally the case. However, in my humble opinion, Bambi II is another one of those rare exceptions to the rule. It does have flaws, don't get me wrong, but you do get a sense that the filmmakers' heart was in the right place and for the most part, it is a well made, sincere companion piece to the original.

I wish they had stuck with the original title instead of simply calling this movie Bambi II because this is not a sequel in the traditional sense but rather a new type of film called a "midquel." It begins with the aftermath of the death of Bambi's mother when he runs into his father, the Great Prince of the forest. The Great Prince takes Bambi back to his den and there, meets up with Friend Owl. The Great Prince asks him to find a doe that can raise Bambi but Friend Owl says that with food being scarce during the harshness of the winter, the does are barely able to care for themselves and he won't be able to find a foster mother for Bambi until spring. The Great Prince reluctantly agrees to look after Bambi until that time. As the winter draws to a close, the Great Prince tries to teach Bambi how to be a proper heir to the throne but is frustrated with his son's lack of progress. At the same time, Bambi tries to get his imposing father to warm up to him by impressing him and showing him that he can be a prince. Over time, the two of them do become close, as Bambi learns to be brave, to not fall for man's tricks, and how to "feel" the forest as the Great Prince is able to. But when Friend Owl manages to find a foster mother for Bambi after all, the Great Prince must chose whether to go along with his original intent or not.

The director of Bambi II is Brian Pimental and so far, this is his only directing credit. He's mainly a writer for the Disney studio, having written the story for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the actual screenplay for as as well as been a story supervisor on A Goofy Movie, a story supervisor on Tarzan, and additional story material on Brother Bear and Home on the Range (the latter of which isn't exactly a glowing sign of talent). He also did come up with the story for this film. He's been part of the animation department on an An American Tail and has done so at Disney for Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, Enchanted, and most recently, Rio, as well as having been part of the art department for Return to Neverland. So while this has so far been his only directing credit, I felt he did a capable job here for the most part.

The major complaint I always hear about Bambi II is that there's dialogue galore, unlike the more visual and fairly pantomime original. I found that it worked well in some aspects but other times, not so much. There are sections of this story that could have been done with less dialogue than there was. I will say that I thought that Alexander Gould, who had voiced Nemo in Finding Nemo, was quite good as the much more talkative and developed Bambi in this film. I like how the film opens with Bambi calling for his mother and running into the Great Prince as it happened in the original movie (although I wonder why they seemed to use Gould's voice there but when the Great Prince spoke, it was Fred Shields' voice from the original) and it does a good job at making you feel that you're back in the world of the original film. I, for one, really felt for Bambi in this film. He's just lost his mother and is now being looked after by his father, whom he's only met once before and is still an imposing figure to him. due to his father's uptight and kind of cold attitude, Bambi wonders if he really does care about him or if he's just looking after him because he has no choice. His lack of knowledge about how to be a prince really frustrates his father as well and eventually, he decides that he wants to show him that he can be a prince. You can see how happy he is when he first sees actual pride in his father's face after he makes a jump across a ridge that the Great Prince admits he didn't make until he was much older than Bambi. After that is when Bambi, after encouragement from Thumper, asks the Great Prince why he stands still in the middle of the forest so much and when he tells him about it being part of a prince's duties, a bond starts to form between them. It really is heartwarming to see the father and son become close to each other and even though Bambi's feelings are shattered for a brief section when he finds out that his father has been trying to find a foster mother for him, he is soon reassured that his father really does love him. Even before that, Bambi has learned that he must man up (so to speak) and when he's being taken to his new home, he sucks it in and attempts to be brave, although he does say a silent goodbye to his father. I felt that it meant that even if he and his father hadn't been reunited, Bambi, though initially depressed about the situation, would have been strong enough at that point that he would have been okay.

You also really feel for Bambi due to how much he misses his mother. It's clear at the beginning when he's taken to the den of his father and looks at him before he falls asleep, clearly shattered by the dark turn his life has taken. It's also painful for him to see Faline run to her own mother and nuzzle her. The scene that really punctuates it is this heart-tugging dream that Bambi has about his mother (voiced by Carolyn Hennesy). It's effectively touching because we saw how close Bambi was to his mother in the original and therefore, his telling her that he misses her so much is just heartbreaking. I liked the way she comforted him and reassured him that everything was going to be alright and when he asks her why she's no longer with him, she simply says, "Everything in the forest has its season. Where one thing falls, another grows. Maybe not what was there before, but something new and wonderful all the same" It's genuinely moving. The situation is made even sadder by what happens when Bambi wakes up, where he thinks he hears his mother's voice but it turns out to be a trick of man, namely a deer-call. That's what I like about this movie is that they decided not to sugarcoat that aspect of the story. It's after his father saves him from being shot by the hunter using that deer call that he realizes that he will never see his mother again. Bambi says to his father, "She's never coming back, is she?" After pausing for a bit, the Great Prince sadly says, "No." That's when Bambi knows that he must move on. It's a very sad scene but I think it does help build Bambi's character, both for the audience and for himself, and it reinforces the coming of age motif. I know I'm sounding really sentimental and mushy with this but it's how I feel about it.

As for the Great Prince, I do agree that they perhaps humanized him a bit too much here. In the original film, he was a silent, imposing figure who seemed to appear when you least expected it like a ghost. Here, I do think that they showed him and had him speak more than was necessary. With this story, they probably couldn't avoid showing him more but during instances such as when he tells Bambi that a prince does not, "Woo-hoo" and the like, they could have easily done that with little to no dialogue. They also could have kept his imposing factor up by not having him speak much to Bambi for the first part of the movie and only do so more when they start to become close. So, I do agree with those criticisms but on the whole, I felt that Patrick Stewart was a great choice to play him and I thought he did a capable job, giving the Great Prince a strength and dignity with his deep voice. I also thought the character was solid as well. Even though he's reluctant to be a parent to Bambi because, as he says, "Princes look after the herd, does look after the young", you can see that he does indeed love his son and knows that what has happened is hard for him. You also get a sense that he really did love Bambi's mother as well. (But, I did feel that they dropped the ball at the end when he shows Bambi where he met his mother. That was fine but it didn't make sense when he said that he was Bambi's age when he met her because in the original, Bambi's mother said that he had lived longer than any deer in the forest, suggesting that he was much older than her.) He's a bad-ass as well, beating up these hunting dogs that attack Bambi. He eventually does become close to his son, having fun with him as well as teaching him, and he begins to have second thoughts about sending him to a foster mother. He is hurt when Bambi is upset when he finds out about it but he resolves that what he's been doing is not a prince's duty. However, circumstance brings them even closer together and he does decide to raise Bambi himself. Some may not agree but I felt that this did match up with his appearance in the original film when Bambi had become an adult because by that point, Bambi wouldn't have needed him any more as a parent and it makes sense, to me anyway, that we would have simply tried to sternly encourage Bambi then because he was a buck now. Plus, you saw them together briefly at the very end of the original so they might still be very close off-camera. So, even though he wasn't as mysterious in this movie, I thought that the Great Prince was treated decently as a character here.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't like Thumper (voiced by Brendon Baerg) more here than in the original movie. I know he had been a very popular character before this movie but I didn't get why because there wasn't much to his personality in the original film. Here, he has a lot more scenes and is more of a character, being Bambi's best friend and trying to help him impress his father. A lot of people probably found him to be annoying and overly cutesy here but I just didn't. I will say that I didn't get why they put in that subplot of him being constantly followed and irritated by his sisters. It didn't bug me but it didn't go anywhere either. So, yes, I liked Thumper here. Sue me. However, I felt the other characters were only put in here just because they were in the original. Flower (voiced by Nicky Jones) has no purpose being here. He's still cute and loveable but the only noteworthy thing he does here is fart skunk gas. That is a problem I have with this movie. That was not necessary and really drags the movie down a notch in terms of respectability. Keith Ferguson was fine as the voice of Friend Owl but I don't think he kept the same spirit that Will Wright did. He gets the respectable part of the character down but doesn't come across as cranky or crotchety as Wright did. The character that does nothing at all is Faline (voiced by Andrea Bowen). In order to make it match up with the latter half of the original, they couldn't have her and Bambi become all that close but that's just my point. She shouldn't have been in here at all because she does absolutely nothing. Introduced here as an actual character is Ronno (voiced by Anthony Ghannam), a bullying young deer who, it turns out, will grow up to be that buck that Bambi has to battle for Faline in the latter part of the original movie. He didn't need to be here either because his rivalry with Bambi amounts to nothing more than a little scuffle before the climax of the movie. Also, I can't help but be slightly annoyed at the way they characterized him here. When he appears briefly in the original movie, he's an intimidating and ferocious buck. Here, they made him a bratty little punk who is actually a whiny mama's boy and a coward. Basically, he's like Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. As a result, the character suffers from the same problem: it's rather disconcerting to learn that an intensely menacing character started out as a whiny brat. Yes, they weren't trying to do a story about a good person turning evil like in the Star Wars prequels but it would have been better if they had, preferably, not included Ronno at all or at least given a hint of the menacing character he would become.

The section where the movie really suffers is when Thumper and Flower try to help Bambi to be brave so he can impress his father. It's funny, I said that I like Thumper more as a character in this movie but this very section where he's the most prevalent is by far one of the movie's weakest spots. It's much too cutesy and slapsticky. This is where Flower first farts skunk gas but this is also where the three of them try to work on growling back at whatever is scaring them and all Bambi can do is let out the baa-like noise that a deer generally makes. They walk through the forest in single-file, with Bambi making that noise, Thumper just going, "Roar!", and Flower going, "Rrrr!" and trying to act like a turtle because he says, "Turtles are so scary." There's also this running joke that develops here where they growl at two tadpoles in a pond and one of the tadpoles starts chasing and growling at the other. You even see them later when they've become frogs and they're still doing that. It's cute but it doesn't need to be here. That's when the three of them try to cross a log over a stream that's guarded by a grouchy porcupine (voiced by the director, Brian Pimental) and Bambi decides that this is his chance to show his father that he can be brave. It ends in disaster with Bambi being chased all over the log by the porcupine (who is characterized as the typical old grouch who doesn't like young whippersnappers trespassing on his property) and eventually get a bunch of spines in his rear end, which Thumper has to pull out later on (Thumper even says, "I ain't gonna lie to you, it ain't pretty" and I'll admit, I snickered at how he said that). This does eventually lead to Bambi jumping that large gap and impressing the Great Prince but the lead up to it could have been done so much better and in a more dignified way. For as much good things I've said about Thumper, it really wasn't necessary for him or Flower to be present here. They could have just had Bambi trying to figure out how to impress his father on his own. They could have left the porcupine in but have him be much more menacing and when Bambi gets injured by him, he has to pull them out by himself or better yet, have his father do so, which would have made Bambi jumping the gap an even bigger payoff since it happened after that humiliating scene. I know Disney would have been capable of that but because they wanted to market this movie to young kids who probably can't comprehend the maturity of the original, they didn't do it.

Another pointless scene in the movie happens before that section and is, in fact, one of the first big scenes. Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and the rest of the young forest animals go to see the groundhog since it's time for him to come out and decide whether winter is going to continue or not by seeing his shadow. This groundhog character is also voiced by Brian Pimental and he's another overtly silly character, terrified of seeing his shadow (why, in this context, he is terrified of his shadow is never explained) and when he doesn't see it, he happily announces that spring is here and he starts dancing around and singing Let's Sing a Gay Little Spring Song from the original. It doesn't last though because this is where we're introduced to Ronno, who scares the groundhog back into his burrow. That whole section makes me cringe because it's entirely unnecessary, far too cutesy, and that groundhog dancing around kind of craps on the realistic animal animation that Walt Disney had his animators strive so hard to accomplish in the original film. And not only could they have made Ronno a better character as I mentioned earlier but they also could have had a better way to introduce him. Really pointless scene.

Now it's time for me to start complimenting the movie again. As far as the look goes, it's absolutely gorgeous. Most of Disney's direct to video titles look really cheap and you can see the low budget but this genuinely looks like there was care put into it. It's a shame that hand-drawn animation has become so scarce in recent years because this movie is a testament as to how good it can look with today's technology. The colors are vibrant and beautiful and the film does look like it takes place in the same forest world that the original did. Some of the actual background paintings by Ty Wong from the original movie were scanned and used in the film along with the backgrounds that were created specifically for this movie using computer paint programs, so you get that same recognizable look and, like the original, it does feel like you're in nature. While the movie is perhaps a bit too sunny and you don't see that haze that the original had, the scenes that take in the snowy winter are atmospheric and do carry a feeling of downbeat dreariness in regards to what has happened to Bambi's life. The film even recycles those dramatic changes in color whenever an intense scene happens that occurred in the original. The character animation is also really good. Save for those embarrassing groundhog and porcupine characters, the realistic animal animation from the original is kept intact for this film. They do, however, take some minor liberties with it but again, none as bad as those aforementioned characters that the director voiced. Some may find that the characters are far too cutesy in their facial designs, especially Bambi and Thumper but I thought they were charming and looked great. The Great Prince himself looked really great, as strong as he was in the original, and the designs of the other characters do match up well. To sum up, Bambi II is a beautiful film to look at and its design is a nice compliment to the original.

Another aspect of the original that is treated with great respect is man. While man isn't as foreboding a force here as he was originally, he's still treated as such. They could have just gone balls out by actually showing man and even making some of the hunters ridiculous, comic relief characters (like the idiotic Don Knotts-esque dogcatcher in Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure, and I just shuddered while remembering him) but fortunately, they didn't. Man is still treated as a force rather than actual character. You still don't see the hunters, not even a shadow, and all that signals their presence is gunshots and a glint of light meant to be coming from the barrel of a rifle. There is weird thing that happens when Bambi is trapped in a field by a hunter. The light on Bambi suddenly gets really bright and I can't tell if that light is supposed to be a creation of man, such as headlights from a truck (deer in the headlights, yeah), or if it's meant to be for dramatic purposes. I'm going to lean towards the latter since those dramatic colors do occur when the Great Prince rescues Bambi from the hunting dogs. Either way, it's an interesting visual touch. I also like how they expanded on the concept of the hunters without going overboard. Ronno explains to Bambi and Faline that man has a stick that can make him sound like them; in other words, a deer call. They scoff at it but Bambi himself is lured into the field because he hears a voice that sounds like his mother saying, "I'm here" and "Hello?" That's actually fairly genius, characterizing how deer perceive artificial deer calls, and the way it sounds is quite eerie. You also see an old fashioned trap when Bambi's would-be foster mother tries to break up a fight between him and Ronno and she steps into a rope tied to a tree with a bell, meant to signal hunters. While not as creepy as the deer call, I thought that was done well too. Unfortunately, for all I've complimented this film's treatment of man, they did do some things wrong. Whenever the birds in the forest become aware of hunters' presence, they fly away while yelling, "Man! Man!" That wasn't necessary because in the original, it was much more effective for Bambi or the Great Prince to see these frightened birds flying around crazily from the treetops. They, and also, you, knew what they were scared of. Didn't need to say anything more. But the worst is the treatment of the hunting dogs. Those dogs still look ferocious but their ferocity is diminished considerably because they get mixed up in slapstick involving that porcupine and Flower passing gas right in one's face. Should not have done that.

The climax isn't much to write home about. All it is Bambi being chased by hunting dogs by a rocky hillside and, with the help Thumper and Flower as well as unwittingly from that porcupine, he manages to defeat them and he also succeeds in sending one falling off that cliff. I guess it's meant to be a precursor to Bambi fighting off the hunting dogs as an adult but it wasn't as intense or spectacular. Bambi also falls off the ledge and is apparently killed. You know he's not dead, of course, which does detract from any real drama they were trying to get out of this moment. Still, it is touching to see the Great Prince shed a silent tear for his son and after Bambi regains consciousness, they share a poignant moment. That was heartwarming, even if you knew it was coming. The actual ending for the movie does make up for that lackluster climax in my opinion. You see Bambi with his antlers starting to grow and he and his father visit the spot where the Great Prince first met Bambi's mother. I find it to be a nice, final moment to the movie and it sort of compliments the coming of age aspect of the original. Throughout this movie, you've seen Bambi come to terms with the death of his mother and by this point, it's clear that he'll always remember her but he has been able to move on, which fits in with how he is in the second half of the original.

The soundtrack to this movie is also well done. The songs, and save for that groundhog, the songs aren't sung by any of the actual characters but by omnipotent singers like in the original, do fit with the tone and story of the film. The opening and closing song There Is Life by Alison Krauss is really what this movie about, because it talks about coming out of the darkness of despair and moving on from the bad things that life throws at you, just as spring comes out of the harshness of winter. It's sort of a reassurance to Bambi himself that his life may seem dark and alone at the beginning of the movie but he's going to be alright, a song version of what his mother tells him in that dream sequence. It comes full circle when a brief reprise of it is played at the end with Bambi and his father visiting that special spot. The song Through Your Eyes by Martina McBride does compliment the bond between Bambi and the Great Prince and there's no secret as to what The Healing of a Heart by Anthony Callea symbolizes. So, the songs in this movie are great. As for the music score by Bruce Broughton, while I can't say I remember the melodies off the top of my head, I will say that they do their job very well and bring out the emotion for their specific scenes, like the sad scene that opens the film, the touching dream with Bambi's mother, the bonding scenes between Bambi and his father, and the funny scenes, even though I still the think the latter were unnecessary. Supposedly, there are also some instrumental reprises of songs from the original but the only one I caught was the most obvious: Let's Sing a Gay Little Spring Song. Not a bad score but not the most memorable either.

While Bambi II does have its fair share of flaws, mainly the overtly cutesy and slapstick scenes as well as perhaps demystifying the Great Prince a bit too much, I don't think there's any argument that it is one of the better direct to video sequels that Disney has ever produced. It does feel heartfelt and genuine for the most part, the characters are still likable, it's beautifully drawn and animated, the drama from the original is present, albeit nowhere near as hard-hitting, man is still treated as a force and not as an actual character, and Bambi growing close to his father as well as learning to move on from his mother's death is touching. If you avoided it because of the less than stellar reputation that Disney's direct to video sequels have, I'd say give it a watch. It may just surprise you.