Monday, July 17, 2017

War For the Planet of the Apes


SYNOPSIS: There have been two years of fighting between the apes and the surviving US military who were called in at the end of the last movie. When the humans finally locate Caesar, the apes are forced to relocate and Caesar is thrust into battle with a personal stake in the fighting against a seemingly unstable military leader known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). But even as things change for the apes, an unforeseen threat has come to the humans as well.

That's all I'm going to say in the synopsis, as this movie has just been released and I would like to avoid spoilers for readers who haven't seen it yet. As you can guess from some of the imagery in the poster and some of the details in the synopsis, this new film has overtones of the Vietnam War. The recent Kong: Skull Island did as well, but War For the Planet of the Apes also draws from broader inspiration, touching on war atrocities of various kinds and being at one moment Apocalypse Now and at the next the story of Moses and the exodus. It's very smartly handled in that it never becomes one single obvious metaphor or allegory. Like its predecessor, it touches on bigger themes, but keeps them to the personal story of the narrative.

One thing I like about these movies is the way they open. Rise opened with apes in the jungle being hunted by man. Then Dawn opened with the apes in the jungle as the hunters (of deer in this case). They had become that which had hunted them in a way. Now War sees the humans and apes on somewhat equal ground as it opens with the army hunting out Caesar's base and meeting an ape ambush. The variations on this theme have been very cleverly handled across the trilogy, and that's a tribute to both the writing and the direction.

Caesar's growth as a character continues here. At the end of the last film, he had to acknowledge that apes like Koba had hatred that couldn't be overcome and they couldn't be prioritized over relations with the humans. But in this movie, Caesar is brought to face his own demons, and is he really so different from Koba after all? He's haunted by the image of Koba, a personal mental threat of what he can become if he succumbs to his own emotion. Meanwhile, the audience comes to hate The Colonel, but when we finally meet him there comes a moment where his instability comes from a seemingly rational place, if extreme. So as bad as it all seems, the actions on both sides are understandable. There is no easy solution to the conflict. War is messy.

We are introduced to new characters in this movie, both ape and human. There's an albino gorilla named Winter, who makes for a striking visual. We meet Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, a skittish chimpanzee who provides some of the film's lighter moments. He's not a member of Caesar's group, which makes the implication of his presence that much more important to the series at large, a glimpse of what's going on in other parts of the country and the world. There's also a human girl brought into the fold, who Maurice takes under his orangutan arm. This could easily be played for cliche, but she serves to introduce a plot point and play on the emotions of the group. 

As the last film in what has become a trilogy of prequel films, War For the Planet of the Apes is a satisfying conclusion that still hints at things to come. I am on the fence as to exactly where it ranks among the three. It's similar to the second movie, but doesn't drag as that film does a little for me near the end. However, I should say I saw this movie at a trilogy screening and I was tired by the end and started nodding off here and there in the middle. I don't think that's the fault of this movie. It is certainly a strong third chapter. There is possibility of the series continuing as there is more to come until we catch up with the original film, but whether another film comes or not, this one is the closing of a chapter. If you enjoyed the second movie especially, I think you will like this one.

At this point, I'm going to get into a little bit of spoiler territory, so if you wish not to know specific details, read not further!

One element of the original Planet of the Apes that I had completely forgotten about was that the humans were mute, and far more animalistic. And so this movie begins that as part of its story. The Simian Flu virus that killed so many humans has somehow mutated, and the infected humans lose their ability to speak. The girl we meet is one of these, and she is named Nova. This is a nod to the Nova character in the original, but I'm fairly certain we can't take it to be the same character. Then again, Caesar's new son is named Cornelius, so it's possible. I'm amused that the name Nova comes from the Chevy Nova. The Colonel's whole purpose then is to stop the spread of this virus that is making his men animals. He fears for the end of human civilization. So as extreme and heartless as his actions may appear, he is not just a Colonel Kurtz figure; he's obsessed with the survival of his race. This makes him much more interesting that he at first appears, and gives the film added complexity. His compound has a cult-like atmosphere, but the germ of his motivation is understandable, even if it's too much.

Another new wrinkle introduced in the film is that there are ape defectors who now work for the humans. The humans brand them and call them "donkeys" (nods to Donkey Kong?). This makes for fascinating new dynamics of espionage and loyalty. It's no longer apes vs humans. The distinctions are not so clearly defined. 

The movie ends with Caesar as a Moses figure, leading his people out of bondage and into a new home across the desert. The future is still uncertain, but there is hope for the apes that things will be better. It's an interesting way to close out Caesar's story. He began the first movie raised by humans, who ultimately become an enemy. There's even a moment where he kills another ape (something no ape had done until Koba), that reminded me of when Moses kills the Egyptian. 

War For the Planet of the Apes is a smart sequel that knows its source material and what came before it. Matt Reeves has really found his niche with these films (he directed the previous one). While a lot of the movie is dark, taking place at night, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the beautiful cinematography. There's another nod to the original with shots of apes on horseback riding along the beach. These are gorgeously filmed, with the sky reflecting in pools of water, and it looks very good in 3D. You don't have to see the movie in 3D, but it does the 3D pretty well. The new mountain environments give this movie a distinct feel from the other two. Overall, if you liked the other movies, you should take the time to see this one in a theater. It deserves the returns for being a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that no one could have predicted would end up as good as it did.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


SYNOPSIS: The worldwide viral pandemic seen spreading at the end of the last movie has decimated the human population, leading to quarantine zones and outbreaks of violence. Ten years later, power plants have shut down and humanity is struggling, while Caesar and his apes have built a civilization in the California woods. But when humans stumble into their domain in hopes of restarting a hydroelectric power plant, tensions arise between the groups. Koba, ever distrustful of humans, initiates a coup and a battle agains the humans. Though Koba's immediate threat is ultimately neutralized, it's not before the humans call in for reinforcement. Even as a new day dawns, the threat of war is coming.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good sequel. The story could have just been left there to linger and eventually pick up in the classic continuity. Instead, we jump ahead roughly ten years (likely a little more, but it's been "ten winters" since the apes have seen any humans). The effects work, which was a little bit dodgier in the first film, has improved in only three years' time. The movie essentially opens and closes on close-up of Caesar's face and it's much more believable than even in the first movie. While I'd still like something tangible onscreen again, I didn't feel as strongly the uncanny valley problem.

This is good because this movie is really about the apes and far less about the humans. That is both its strength and its weakness. The first movie rose on the strength of relating to Caesar on an emotional level, but was still grounded in human characters and situations. In this movie, the human characters are somewhat ill-defined; they are simply the outside threat. They are an Other, and while there are good ones and bad ones, they are more memorable as plot functions than as people. I do not remember any of their names. This is a movie from the ape perspective. While that is good thematically, it makes the film a little more inaccessible for a viewer, particularly as we have to fill in the missing history. The human needs are broad (more power for a city), and not nearly as personal. So while this movie does what it does very well, I can understand why some would prefer the prior movie.

It's interesting to see the development of ape civilization now. They have their own little Ewok village and have taken to using tools. It's a bit like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey in that the apes have begun their shift toward being more humanoid. There are classrooms teaching apes to read, and teaching moral concepts about ape society. Caesar is now a family man with a grown son and a newborn. In another nod to the original film, the apes have now begun riding horses (never mind asking where the horses came from or what effect the Simian Flu has on them, if any). They haven't quite gotten to the level of clothing yet (Caesar's loss of clothing in the first film was a paradigm shift from his life in the human world to embracing his ape-ness), but some are adorned with handmade accessories of wood.

What we essentially have then is the clash of civilizations, which gets to the heart of the film's themes. Rise was a sci-fi meditation on animal rights and treatment of those weaker than us. Dawn is essentially a dystopian Western in which the apes play the role of the American Indians. It's a lot like a Dances With Wolves sort of story, in which the outside oppressors come for help and eventually earn trust but there is still war brewing. But it is handled in a way that never feels derivative or redundant. It's not like Avatar just rehashing whole plot points. Rather, it has application to other situations, but its actual story beats are grounded in the universe of the film. Like Pocahontas, it's a movie about prejudice on both sides. And when we think the antagonist is the humans, the ultimate villain comes from within the ape camp. Koba has been so harmed by the humans that he has nothing but hatred, and he is blinded by that (both literally and figuratively, as one eye was damaged in human testing). Caesar must come to the realization that just as he can eventually trust some humans again, he must learn to distrust some apes that are threats. A message of the film is that one cannot base allegiances solely on one's race or culture.  Koba undermined Caesar, and ultimately attempted to assassinate him and blame it on the humans. When Caesar tells him finally "you are no ape", we understand the difficulty for Caesar to come to that conclusion. It's easy to hate broadly; but it's better to trust cautiously.

Once again the cast does a good job. As the apes become more vocal the ape cast gets more opportunity to perform. The new additions serve the film well and it's always good to see people like Keri Russell (who I have loved since she was on the Mickey Mouse Club back in the '90s). The animation of the apes has improved, and there are great moments of simian behavior that still come through. There's a wonderful sequence where Koba feigns ignorance to scout among the humans about their weapons. He goes full circus monkey mode, and it totally disarms the humans before he shifts and actually disarms them. The animation work here is splendid; you can tell they really studied actual chimp behavior. The marriage of human motion capture and animation makes for some wonderful character moments.

What of the title? Part of me thinks it's sort of a nothing title, more reminscent of Dawn of the Dead than an ape film. But it works on several levels. First is the literal dawn at the end of the movie, for those wondering where the title came in. But I think it is also meant to call back to that "Dawn of Man" idea. The apes are no longer mere animals, even if hyperintelligent. They have dawned into a people, a civilization.

The nature of the movie, and its length, make me appreciate it but I don't quite enjoy it in the same way I did the first one. It's certainly an improvement on a technical level. But I do feel there's a kind of distance there because I'm meant to identify more with the apes than with the humans. There's something a little bit flat about the movie because once the conflicts are laid out, nothing really changes.  They just play out along those lines until the main storylines are wrapped up. So in that regard, it's maybe lacking a little, and knowing that it's leading into another film it may be suffering from "middle chapter syndrome". And yet what it does, and where it's going thematically, works well on its own terms. So while I don't think I'd be quick to revisit this one as often, I consider it a good movie and am interested in where the next film will go.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

With the release of the newest Planet of the Apes movie, I thought I would take the time to review each film in the series. Of course, if you've scrolled through any previous posts on this blog, I've said that before and never kept up with it. So we'll see. I have trouble finishing things. We'll begin with the prequel trilogy, so today's post is on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

SYNOPSIS: James Franco plays a scientist hard at work on engineering a treatment for Alzheimer's in hopes of curing his ailing father. The project proceeds to trials on chimpanzees, but is shut down when one of the promising subjects, uh, goes ape. When it is discovered she had recently given birth and was only protecting her child, Franco adopts the ape and takes him home secretly. This young chimp shows the same mental improvement that its mother did, suggesting the drug works. Franco continues the work at home, names the ape Cesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), and tests the drug on his father. It works initially, but eventually the man's body fights it off as the compound is in fact a neurogenic virus designed to rebuild brain pathways. Franco discovers that his father's antibodies are fighting off the infection, but he believes a stronger version of the treatment will work. Unfortunately, a horrible incident in the neighborhood leads to Cesar being sent to a zoo where he is mistreated while Franco begins new clinical trials and tries to get his ape son back. But Cesar is emotionally wounded, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, the new viral strain turns out to be very effective on apes, but deadly to humans. Cesar leads an ape uprising releasing all of his compatriots from the zoo, after making them super-intelligent as well, and they flee into the California woods. But as the film ends, the virus has accidentally begun to spread globally. Oh, and we learn in passing of the launch of the first manned mission to Mars, which seems to be lost in space...

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that shouldn't work in a franchise that was dead, and yet it mostly does. It came at an opportune time, a conflux of cultural elements. The fight against Alzheimer's had been growing steadily. There were recent news stories about ape attacks, particularly of someone who had a pet chimpanzee that bit her face off. And Andy Serkis, after making a splash in Lord of the Rings had become the go-to name in motion-capture work, just recently portraying the titular gorilla in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. So it was no surprise that he was cast to play yet another ape, in a role designed to bridge the gap between animal and man. All of these elements lead up to an interesting way to get an audience invested in a film series that had long since been dead, particularly after Tim Burton's failed reboot. A prequel seemed a bit audacious, at a time when films like Terminator Salvation weren't doing well going that route.

I confess, I didn't see the film upon its initial release because I wanted to watch the original 1968 film first, and never got around to it back then. I soon saw the Tim Burton remake (which I have since forgotten almost everything about), but as that movie is not in this continuity, it was irrelevant. I finally bit the bullet and watched the classic film when it was screened theatrically last year. I was now ready to go back to the prequels, and so I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes just a few hours ago. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. While it's totally possible to view the film on its own as an introduction to this series, I would not suggest it. I think it's better to take the original film on its own terms first, especially if you are young and haven't had any of its plot points spoiled for you. Sadly, the film is so old, that the ending reveal is referenced incessantly by other works, so it's harder to go into it cold. If you already know the major reveals, you can start with Rise.

It is impossible to review this movie without a discussion of the effects work. On the whole, it holds up, even today, though not as well as it could. The apes are all entirely computer-generated. This certainly makes sense from a production standpoint, for safety and ethics reasons, and for the story points of making Cesar the link to the more humanoid sapients of the later films. The visuals are better than something like Jumanji, but there is still that uncanny valley territory where you know you are looking at something artificial. Part of this comes in the mannerisms of the apes, who appear to stand upright a little too much. With Cesar I suspect it was intentional; he walks nearly upright and holds himself like a human. But other apes are just apes, and sometimes it seems to me they aren't quite animal enough. I'm no expert, and haven't seen real chimpanzee footage in a while, but something about it seemed a little off to me, and I think that comes from it being humans performing the actions. I also note that these cartoon apes lack visible genitals (and while I know that some apes have tiny genitals, it feels like real animals have been neutered for film decency) and that takes just a tiny bit of reality away from the proceedings.

If you liked hating Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, you'll enjoy watching Tom Felton playing basically the same character; an abusive keeper at the ape enclosure. The cast is very good, including David Oyelowo before he became a name, and Frieda Pinto fresh off Slumdog Millionaire. John Lithgow is effecting in his limited screen time as Franco's father. But of course what everyone talks about is Andy Serkis. There are moments you can tell it's Serkis; here and there a facial feature crept in, and ultimately he gets some vocalization in. But there's enough ape in there that Cesar becomes a distinct character design, a half-way point between Gollum and Kong. How much of what appears onscreen is Serkis and how much is the animators I don't know, but I wouldn't want to slight either of them. There's been a lot of talk in recent years of nominating Serkis for acting awards, with the argument made he's giving the full performance, no different from an actor in makeup. But there is a difference, and some of the WETA animators have spoken up on feeling slighted (especially regarding Lord of the Rings, when this technology was less advanced). I prefer to see it as more analogous to sophisticated puppetry.

And speaking of puppetry, that is something I couldn't help feeling was missing. While I fully appreciate the visual effects we got and the performances that accompanied them, there's still something about having a tangible object on set that feels different. I would have liked a little bit of classic puppet work mixed in, just to lend something tactile to the apes. The Stan Winston or Jim Henson creature shops could have worked up something. A film like Jurassic Park still holds up because it used both techniques (and some of its fully CG work has aged badly). Actually The Lost World has even better blended practical and digital effects. Certainly if you want to feel the expression on Cesar's face, go with the mo-cap. But a shot here or there of Franco touching a tangible chimpanzee hand instead of a digital one would have sold the illusion better, I think. The nature of visual effects is they tend to look dated fairly quickly as time passes and techniques improve.

I liked the little nods to the original film, particularly in the way they casually tease the Mars mission in background elements like TV broadcasts and newspapers. However, it went just a little too far for me in quoting the now infamous line, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" It makes total sense in the moment, and it leads to a huge turning point in the film, but something about directly quoting like that made me bristle. It took me out of the film for a minute.

What's most unique about this movie is its pacing. It's got elements of the more deliberate pace of the original, but moves at just the right speed for the plot. So much of the film is done without dialogue; which makes sense when one of your lead characters can only communicate in sign. It was refreshing for a big studio franchise movie to tell its story visually. This is not the kind of movie you can just put on and not pay attention to. It demands to be watched. There are a number of wordless moments that communicate a great deal. And that's where it is most effective, communicating through action and situation the drama, using words when necessary. It's nice that people still know how to make movies like that.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an unexpectedly smart jumpstart to an ailing franchise. If I have complaints beyond aging effects work, they are concerned more with themes as they relate to the original film. I'll delve into those more when (if?) I cover that movie. Rise is concerned with themes of animal rights, and it's generally effective, while still working as a prequel that's not too prequel-y. I'm curious why the film was set in the San Francisco area, rather than the East Coast. But it's a script that makes sense, and a film that's directed well by Rupert Wyatt. Part of me wishes it had a different title though. While it signals the franchise, the title rather spoils things for the future, and part of me wishes it had just been called Rise of the Apes instead. But this is a minor complaint. I'm sure Fox wanted to let people know what the film was so that it would make money. I applaud them for succeeding in also making a pretty good movie.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Hello readers. I am here again after a long absence. I just have very little to say, so it amazes me if anyone is even reading this. But it's that time of year again when I look at the best movies I saw in 2016. Now, I was not able to see several films I wanted to, so some of the more acclaimed films of the year I did not see and thus could not make this list. That Scorsese's Silence was only out here for like a week and a half was so unfair.

10. The Witch: A New-England Folktale
I wrestled with whether or not to include this movie in my top ten, because I am very split on it. It is a horror film set in 17th Century New England. I was intrigued enough by the trailer to see the film early this year. It's about a family banished from their town (we know not why), who settle on the edge of the woods. But there's a witch in the woods, and when bad things start happening to the family, it may be that one of them has invoked the devil and brought it upon them. This is absolutely not a movie for everyone. Even horror fans have sometimes found it too slow or hard to understand because all the dialogue is spoken in period-accurate dialect. And I loved that aspect of it. The sense of the world was really strongly realized, and the lead actress is lovely. Unfortunately, I despise the ending. I won't spoil it, but for me it completely ruined the movie. I grow very tired of horror movies that are just bad stuff happens to everyone until they all die, essentially. But mainly, I disliked what it did to the lead character. For its sense of setting and atmosphere I have to applaud it, though, and that's why ultimately it made the list. It was one of the most unique things I saw all year.

9. Rules Don't Apply
Warren Beatty's latest project is kind of a mess and it shouldn't work. And some of it doesn't. But I found walking out of it that I more enjoyed it than not. This is a story about old Hollywood, Howard Hughes, and a young naive actress who comes to LA to chase a dream. It's a bloated sort of movie, with meandering plots, trying to be a character study and a weird love triangle of sorts.  But the charm for me rests primarily on Lily Collins who I find absolutely adorable and would watch in anything. Once again, there's a turn at a certain point in the film that I dislike for the character. But that's a whole subject in itself that would digress into a discussion of the treatment of sexuality in film. This movie has a wry sense of humor that helps it avoid too much melodrama and makes it more enjoyable, including one of my favorite lines of dialogue this year. Matthew Broderick's character says: "You know why Baptists are against sex, don't you? Because it might lead to dancing!"

8. Fences
Denzel Washington directs himself and a great cast in this film adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. It's an intimate movie mostly set in small locations and is very dialogue-driven so it could easily be stagey. It's a problem with many stage-to-film adaptations. And yet I found the camerawork very smartly handled, and Denzel was able to make the film intimate without ever being claustrophobic. That is a remarkable feat these days, where filmmakers raised on television rely too heavily on tight close-ups that don't feel right on the big screen. All the performances are good (the cast came right from  the stage), but I want to single out Stephen Henderson. Denzel's doing his Denzel thing and Viola Davis has her excellent emotional moments as always, but Henderson was so very real to me in a solid supporting role. I was really hoping it would earn him a nomination.

7. Queen of Katwe
This is a Disney release that you probably never heard of. Of all the Disney movies this year (Jungle Book, Zootopia, Moana, etc.), this was the one I wanted to praise here. It's a solid sort-of sports movie. Based on a true story, it follows a poor girl in Africa as she becomes a chess champion. It would probably pair nicely with Searching For Bobby Fischer. If you like those old inspirational Disney sports movies or you like chess, this is a well-made movie that you should seek out.

6. Swiss Army Man
I mentioned earlier that The Witch was among the most unique films I saw all year. I think I spoke too soon, because nothing can prepare you for Swiss Army Man. A quirky film reminiscent of Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson, it follows the unlikely friendship of a suicidal man stranded on an island and a magical corpse. If bodily functions offend you, avoid it. But among the weirdness is an examination of the human condition with some great music and design work. Unfortunately the ending doesn't work enough for me, as if the film doesn't know how to bring this thing to a satisfactory close. But it tries, and almost gets there. The clash of the whismy and the real world don't quite sort themselves out enough for me.

5. Arrival
I'm gonna be saying this a lot, but the ending just about ruined this movie for me. I was really enjoying this movie until a certain point came and I had to just roll my eyes and deduct points. But Amy Adams is still very good and there are enough smart thoughts and moments to this movie to recommend it. When alien ships arrive all over the world, a linguist is recruited to try to communicate with them. All these early parts of the film about language are the best for me. I loved them, and wanted more of that. Instead, the film takes a hard turn into science fantasy from the more grounded science fiction it had been, and this resolution is so absurd to me and introduces new themes to me that I wanted to shake the movie and scream, "No! Give me the movie you started as!" There are some great concepts at play here, and moments like the gravity shift inside the ship that play with our perception. Unfortunately, the big twist soured me on the movie overall, and it just couldn't live up to the hype. I don't regret seeing it, and there are scenes in that first half I love, but as a whole, it's not one I would tell people to rush out and see.

4. The Meddler
A sleeper movie that nobody saw, this was one of my favorites from the first half of the year. Susan Sarandon plays an overbearing mother who follows her daughter to Los Angeles after the death of her husband. It's a funny and emotional character study, based on the writer's actual mother, and Sarandon is great in it. The supporting is solid too. If you like a kind of gentle comedy with very little to offend, I recommend it.

3. Manchester By the Sea
I want to be so careful here because the worst thing for this movie is hype. You should see it just as I did, not knowing much about it and with lowish expectations. Just know that it's good. Normally, I dislike stories that just meander about characters but nothing happens. It's why I hate Virginia Woolf. So on that level, I should dislike this movie, in which very little actually happens. But it got to me. It's a very real character study about grief. There are moments that are very moving, and a truly heartbreaking reveal midway through. For me, it meanders a little too much toward the end and starts to feel its length. It could have been tightened a little more. But I want to applaud it for its sense of place and depth of feeling. The thing I loved best about it is the locations feel like real locations (I suspect they probably were). I can admire a great set, but ultimately it feels like a set, lived in in a sort of movie way. But Manchester By the Sea is real. I have never seen guys hanging out in a basement that looks like real guys really hanging out in a real basement. The houses feel like real houses. The conversations feel like real conversations. There's a phone call where characters talk over each other and don't know when to hang up. These little elements give it a unique reality that you don't often see outside indie cinema. Be warned, this isn't a fun movie. It's an emotional roller coaster ride. But I admired it so much.

2. Loving
Jeff Nichols released two films this year. The first, Midnight Special, I highly anticipated and while I liked it, I was a tad let down. But the other was a film that didn't get the release or the buzz that it should have, and that's Loving, the true story of the interracial marriage that ultimately broke down miscegenation laws in the U.S. Going into it, I was afraid it was going to be a soapbox movie. I worried that it was no coincidence the film came out so soon after the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage. But had I known Jeff Nichols was behind it, I wouldn't have worried. His film Take Shelter made my list several years ago. In his capable hands, Loving stays a simple and intimate story about simple people who just want to live a normal life. Nichols keeps it personal, and Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring life to their roles with a sincerity and simplicity.

1. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson has finally returned, and it's with another religious-themed violent movie. And yet, it's more restrained than some of his prior works. The movie follows the true story of a Seventh-Day Adventist who enlists during World War II as a medic but will not carry a weapon, and ends up saving many lives in the pacific theater. Some might consider the movie jingoistic or cheesy, but I think it dodges most of the cliches that could so easily derail it. Andrew Garfield, who I don't generally like as an actor, is very good here. The climb up Hacksaw Ridge and the ensuing battle is like a horror movie; a descent into a haunted castle or something. It's expertly done (it even "rains blood"at one point), bringing home the horrors of war, but only because Garfield's character has been warned the whole time of its horror and that he will be defenseless without a gun. It's a very human story, an inspirational story; a film with religious themes that is never hokey, and themes of personal liberty that are never too flag-wavey. I saw so many movies this year that disappointed me or left me underwhelmed, and films that were done in by their endings. But I had nothing but good feelings about Hacksaw Ridge.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Gotta Get This Off My Chest

I am very angry right now at what I consider another example of the exploitative television media who pounce on any tragedy.

I live in Massachusetts. Tonight the lead news story on the nightly news was about a school bus accident in Tennessee. A bus full of grade-school kids wrapped around a tree and six kids died. Now, obviously this is horrible, especially for the little kids who will have to deal with watching their friends die. But it's not national news. I fully expect it to be the lead story in Chattanooga. but why am I getting this in Boston?

Forgive me if it seems insensitive, but it's like the media just pounce on any story they can exploit. One anchor says, "we don't yet know the identitites of the dead." Well, why do we need to know the identities of the dead? We don't know these people. Isn't it bad enough this happened without parading their identities before the nation?

With a story like this, it's just tragic. But they use the same tactic when there is a shooting somehwere and immediately the whole nation has to broadcast, exploit, and politicize. It contributes to the copycat nature of horrible crimes bound to get exposure.

I cynically note that the students on the bus seem to be mostly minorities (at least what I saw in the footage). I wonder if the story would be broadcast were they white. At least, I wonder if that fact influenced the move to air it here or will color the coverage (no pun intended) as it goes on. The incident is already being politicized as at least one station immediately segued into states that have seat belt laws for school buses. So it's bad enough that kids are dead and it's being dragged out in front of us in another state, but that it's smugly being used to say "would this happen if school buses had seat belts?" is truly repugnant to me.

The actions of the mainstream media in situations like this reflect poorly on everyone. They are vultures and should be called out on it. I am disgusted.

The parents and children in Hamilton County, Tennessee have my prayers. The local new media however have only my contempt.

"I don't think it's right to put us on TV when we're feeling so bad." - Punky Brewster

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Disney Remakes

If you've paid any attention to Disney's releases recently, you'll notice a growing trend of doing live-action remakes of their popular animated films. Cinderella and The Jungle Book have both been released recently, with Beauty and the Beast on the way, not to mention Pete's Dragon a couple weeks ago. The studio also has Aladdin, The Sword in the Stone, and The Little Mermaid in production. This has disheartened many movie fans, and I can't entirely disagree. These big "unnecessary" remakes seem a pointless cash grab, an annoying trend, and overshadow other wonderful small releases that Disney puts out with little fanfare. They have one such film coming next month called Queen of Katwe that I am very interested in. I encourage you to seek it out and urge Disney with your dollars to make more variety. Still, one thing that gets lost in all of this hand-wringing about soulless remakes is how myopic it is: the Disney studio has been remaking itself since the beginning.

Often these remakes tend to go in cycles or phases, just as there was a period when Disney made a bunch of movies with cats and dogs, or that time in the 1990s when they did live-action versions of old TV shows. No one much liked that trend either (though George of the Jungle did well), but it continued for a solid few years (with Underdog a final gasp a few years later). My intention here is to highlight some of the many times Disney has gone back to the well and remade its own content. This list is by no means exhaustive, as I'm sure there will be some I forget. And of course there are many cases where, while not a true remake, major elements were reused in a later film. For example, while technically different stories, the two Mickey Mouse cartoons "Giantland" and "Brave Little Tailor" have many identical gags in how Mickey interacts with and defeats the giant. I also didn't comprehensively look through all their television output. But without further ado, here is a trip through Disney's history of remakes.


While there were a few other shorts that were sort of remade (I'll get to them below), the first major remake was of the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Orphan's Benefit". This cartoon is notable for being the first appearance in a Mickey Mouse short of Donald Duck, who had first appeared in a Silly Symphony called "The Wise Little Hen". The 1941 is a shameless remake that is literally the entire cartoon shot-for-shot but done in color and with the more contemporary designs of Donald and Goofy. All the animation is the same. So for those who complain (as do I) about all the re-used animation in films of the 1970s, the company had been doing it before. While all the jokes still work, and it's nice to see in color, it doesn't have quite the same life for me as the 1933 version. The old-fasioned animation gags feel a little out of place at times when it lacks the old "rubber hose" style. Funny when people talk about unnecessary shot-for-shot remakes, they never mention this. I think it was done because simply re-releasing it might have been difficult with Donald's design having changed so much.

2. THE FOX HUNT (1931/1938)
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Another series of shorts, this time the basic premise is going on a fox hunt. The original was a Silly Symphony, and I could have sworn there was a third cartoon with Mickey Mouse, but I couldn't find it in my notes. The 1938 version is one of several popular Donald and Goofy pairings. The cartoons are mostly rather different beyond the basic premise, and this is one case where the later is actually superior in a number of ways. Goofy's business with his horse is delightful (and prefigures the later short "How to Ride a Horse"), and Donald with his pack of dogs is fun too. Both cartoons end with the same gag, the finding of the "fox", only to learn it was a skunk.

3. THE UGLY DUCKLING (1931/1939)
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It's a stretch to even call this a remake; more like similar shorts with the same title. The latter is a straight adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and is truly a masterpiece. If you've seen one of these, odds are it's that one. The Oscar-winning cartoon was also referenced in Lilo & Stitch. The 1931 cartoon is not about a swan born to a family of ducks, and shares only cursory connections to the Anderson tale. In this story, it really is a duckling, and it really is ugly (hilariously goofy-looking). This duckling hatches among a hen and her chicks on a farm. The mother hen tries to shoo it away. But then a flood comes and washes her chicks down the river, and the ugly duck (because he can swim), saves them all and is no longer ostracized. While the later short focuses on finding the right place you belong and someone that loves you, the earlier film focuses on seeing the good in people even though they are different. It's a funny cartoon, and well worth seeing. The later one may have more emotional weight, but I recommend seeking out the earlier.

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This also isn't exactly remake territory, but more a case of returning to the well of a well-known story. The 1933 Silly Symphony is a pretty straightforward musical telling of the story of Noah. The company has gone on to tell the Noah story multiple times. In the late '50s and early '60s a couple of artists at the studio, Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio (commonly credited as X) paired up with a very distinctive style, and designed a directed some shorts you might know, like "A Cowboy Needs a Horse". But they were also interested in stop-motion, and indulged their side interest by doing the opening credits to The Parent Trap, sequences for "A Symposium on Popular Songs", and a pet project, "Noah's Ark." Their version is also musical, but it is a much longer short subject and focuses more on time in the ark. All of the characters are cleverly composed of pipe-cleaners, pencils, and random craft supplies. It looks very much like a Sunday School production. The major theme of this film is learning to love each other, with a side story about the animals on the ark not getting along, and Noah helping marital relations between hippos (no, not in THAT way, you pervert). More recently, Noah's story was mined for the Pomp and Circumstance sequence in Fantasia 2000, starring Donald and Daisy Duck.
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5. MICKEY'S PAL PLUTO (1933)/LEND A PAW (1941)

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Many people are familiar with the 1941 Academy Award-winning remake in which Pluto is first antagonistic to a kitten Mickey takes in, but later saves it from drowning in a well. The cartoon works well, and its use of color definitely adds to its appeal. But many may not realize that this story was actually a remake of a prior Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1933. The black-and-white original differs in several ways, particularly in that it is not one but an entire bag of kittens that Mickey rescues and takes in. Minnie is also present in this cartoon. The sheer number of kittens crawling all over the house getting into Pluto's things makes his exasperation and anger much more understandable. And I don't know for certain, but I think this cartoon may be the origin of the trope of a character's conscience being represented by an angel and devil on each shoulder.

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With Donald Duck's popularity on the rise and Mickey Mouse's waning in the 1940s, the studio seemed to find it difficult to make new Mickey cartoons. Far fewer Mickey shorts were produced in the 1940s, and three of those were remakes. In this one, Mickey's friends surprise him with a birthday party. They sing and dance while Goofy struggles with the cake. While the remake maybe lacks a certain something (returning to the style of the prior decade, there's very little story which differs strongly from the other things Disney was putting out), it does have some charm and some very memorable animated moments. Most memorable for me is the sequence of Mickey dancing with his hat and cane. They seem to have learned their lesson from "Orphan's Benefit"; at least this remake has a bit of fun on its own terms.

7. CHICKEN LITTLE (1943/2005)
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Disney's first all computer-generated feature produced by the studio was Chicken Little. (Technically Dinosaur is now counted in the official canon but at the time it was made by a separate arm of the studio that was later folded in, and it also features live-action backgrounds. So it doesn't count.) This feature involves a star-studded cast and space aliens and I hate it. I think it's an awful movie, and I remember thinking "you shut down hand-drawn movies for this?" But my personal feelings aside, it's clear that it bears only rough relation to the original story. A more traditional take on the tale was made way back during World War II. This short is lighter on comedy and has a morose ending (everyone dies!). There are no space aliens. Instead, it was used as an allegory for the happenings in Nazi Germany and a message to Americans about being easily manipulated.

8. ROBIN HOOD (1952/1973)

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We're all familiar with the 1973 animated Robin Hood in which all the roles are played by animals. While that films does reuse a lot of animation throughout, that's not why it's on this list. That wasn't the first time the Disney studio had done the Robin Hood story. In 1952, Disney released The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men. If you haven't seen it, I'm not surprised. I haven't either. The image in most people's mind tends to be the classic 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood. But Leonard Maltin still speaks highly of the Disney version.

9. POLLYANNA (1960)/POLLY (1989)

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The Disney studio's remake machine was quiet for decades, and then the 1990s began to roll around. We come into the late 1980s and the era of Michael Eisner, and our first television remake. Disney's Pollyanna starred Hayley Mills in an adaptation of the book, and people still remember that version. But I grew up on Polly, a version of the story told with a black cast set in the 1950s made for The Magical World of Disney anthology series. Polly is a musical, starring Keshia Knight Pulliam and Phylicia Rashad from The Cosby Show. It's one of those times an all-black version (apart from Ms. Snow who guess what? is white) really succeeds in being just as good. It was so popular they even made a sequel, Polly Comin' Home, the following year.

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Walt Disney's goofy science fiction story about a scientist who creates a mysterious "flying rubber" and uses it to make is car fly and help the high school cheat at basketball (yes, that's the plot), is an amusing yarn that gave us the word "flubber". I grew up on this movie, both in its black and white form and the colorized version, which told us that flubber was green. Green flubber was front and center in the big Robin Williams-led remake Flubber, which was even goofier than the original if that's possible. Many people might remember that '90s remake, but many would also be surprised to learn it was not the first. It was actually the fifth film to feature the gooey substance. Walt's original film spawned a sequel, Son of Flubber. (Another post exploring Disney sequels might be in order.) But there were another two movies made for the Magical World of Disney television program in the late 1980s. Starring Harry Anderson as the titular teacher, 1988's Absent-Minded Professor was a point-by-point remake of the original, but also a kind of sequel. Like the current in-continuity reboots of our day (such as the JJ Abrams Star Trek), this movie existed in a universe where the first movie had happened. The professor discovers the formula for flubber from the previous professor's notes, and the story plays out just as it did before. This reboot was successful enough that they produced a follow-up film, The Absent-Minded Professor: Trading Places. I remember liking the sequel even more. It's a real shame these two movies are not easily available. They are both better than Flubber.

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To a certain generation, Homeward Bound is better known than the original book adaptation that Walt Disney made thirty years prior. Homeward Bound was very successful and a sequel was made a few years later. Thankfully, even though the animals talk in this these later films, it was before Babe popularized computer-generated lip sync.

12. THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967/2016)/RUDYARD KIPLING'S THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994)   Image result for disney jungle book 2016

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This year's successful Jon Favreau-helmed 3D take on the animated Jungle Book has made people forget that twenty years ago there was another live action take on Mowgli. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was a very different story, featuring a more adult Mowgli now out of the jungle. Elements of this story originate in a treatment Bill Pete had done for the animated version back in 1967 before Walt basically told them to throw the book away. I haven't watched the '94 film in years, but I like it for being different. It's also a solid action-adventure movie, and scary at times. I remember reviews sour on it for not being more like the original. This year's version got rave reviews, so I guess the studio gave them what they wanted. The 1994 film spawned a direct-to-video prequel movie, The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (being more the adventures of young Mowgli that people might expect). These combined with the truly awful animated sequel to the original add up to five films from this property.

And now we come to 1995, the year of the TV remakes.


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The studio got into something of a groove in 1995. For their Sunday night Magical World of Disney program, as they had several times in the 1980s, the studio decided to remake some classic films of the 1970s era after Walt had died. This was the age of Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell, which spawned three '95 remakes.

The first of these is arguably the best. The Kurt Russell teen sci-fi romp about a kid who gains super intelligence, was remade starring Kirk Cameron. Fresh off Growing Pains but before becoming a growing pain in preachy Christian movies, Cameron is a great choice for the lead. He was young and charismatic, and the movie reflects a nice kind of charm. I enjoyed this movie a lot, and there are lines I still remember to this day. It was this movie that taught me who shot President McKinley ("That is just what they want you to think! Czolgosz was a patsy. Read the facts, Alan! Read the facts!"). Neither film is a great work of art, but the remake is a solid film for a newer audience and well worth checking out if you can find it.

14. FREAKY FRIDAY (1977/1995/2003)

The classic Jodie Foster body-swap movie was remade twice. The story of a mom and daughter who realize how tough the other has it, was re-imagined in the popular version that starred Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. This wasn't Lindsay's first foray into Disney remakes. But neither was it the first attempt to retell this story. Not ten years earlier there was a version for television which starred Shelley Long as the mom and Gaby Hoffmann as her daughter. This version is very much of its time. The most memorable thing about it to me is the image of Shelly Long rollerblading down the street. It's amazing looking back at the mid-1990s and seeing what a fad rollerblades were.


The Witch Mountain saga is a long and complicated one, so I'll try to take it slowly.
In 1968, Alexander Key wrote the novel Escape to Witch Mountain about two orphan children, Tony and Tia, with strange telekinetic abilities who are drawn to Witch Mountain. The Walt Disney studio adapted this book to film in 1975. Much of it is rather faithful to the book with two major exceptions: they befriend a man named Mr. O'Day in the movie, whose book counterpart is a priest, Father O'Day. Secondly, in the book, Tia cannot speak and so she writes on little pieces of paper she keeps in a box. The star-box remains in the film, but Tia is no longer mute.,_film_poster.jpg

Several years later, Disney produced a sequel, Return to Witch Mountain. Alexander Key adapted this film into a book sequel to his original novel. Tia in the book now speaks, as the plot depends on it.

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In 1982, Disney goes back to the well again with Beyond Witch Mountain, a television movie intended to be the pilot for a new series which was never made. This movie is a sort-of sequel to the original, but with the kids recast (Tia is played by Kirk Cameron's future Growing Pains co-star Tracy Gold). For those of you who like me who have vague memories of this movie, no you did not imagine it.

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Then in 1995, a new Escape to Witch Mountain was made for television. It is Witch Mountain in name only. While the original has a twist ending that I won't spoil (even though contemporary cover art does), this film takes it in a completely different direction. It has almost nothing to do with any of the elements of the prior films, and is terrible. In this movie, Tony and Tia actually have identical twins in a parallel universe or something crazy like that. I saw it as a kid and hated it for what they did to the story. Avoid this version.

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Finally, a modern take on the story was made in 2009, Race to Witch Mountain. After the huge disappointment that was the 1995 version, I never saw this one. But it stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson if that interests you.

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Disney struck gold again with a live-action remake of a classic animated property. Since Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was very different, we might say this is the first true live-action remake of one of their animated films. It's not a new phenomenon. And this one, starring Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, was hugely successful that holiday season. It was very slapstick, from a script by John Hughes in his Home Alone phase, but featured a great cast (including Jeff Daniels and Hugh Laurie). They also wisely decided not to make the dogs talk. Both films are nice compliments to each other. The cartoon ends up being a little more grounded, but the cartoonish elements of the live-action film are tempered by the more natural dog action. The movie spawned a bit of a resurgence in dalmatian fever, with a live action sequel, 102 Dalmatians, following, as well as a Saturday morning cartoon series.

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The first entirely live-action feature that Walt Disney made was Treasure Island. It remains one of the classic Disney films. Disney even produced a sequel miniseries, Return to Treasure Island, in 1986. As it's also a work of classic literature, it's no surprise the studio would try adapting it again. The first of these new adaptations starred the Muppets. After Jim Henson's Muppets came under the Disney umbrella in the 1990s they made the hugely successful Muppet Christmas Carol. When that was a success, it seemed only natural to follow it with another classic English literary adaptation. While not as strong a film, Muppet Treasure Island is a lot of fun. Finally, the animation studio tried a fresh take on the novel by setting it in space and calling it Treasure Planet. This movie is wildly ambitious and while it doesn't all work as well as it could, it has some standout moments and visual ideas. Treasure Planet was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

18. That Darn Cat! (1965/1997)
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Now it's time for a little story. Back in 1997, there was a major theatrical re-release of a little film you may have heard of called Star Wars. I was so excited to go see the Special Edition on the big screen. So one Saturday I talked my mom into dropping me off. I was there an hour early, and it was sold out. I was devastated. But I had to see something because everyone else was off at Chuck E. Cheese for the next few hours. So instead of seeing Star Wars, I went to see the remake of That Darn Cat! starring Christina Ricci. Not exactly a loss, because I had a huge crush on Ricci at the time. It's easy to forget the original with Dean Jones and Haley Mills, as well  as the remake, in which Jones also appears. It's weird how many movies Disney made about cats and dogs in the 1960s. Anyway, there you have it, there was a remake of That Darn Cat!

And I never did get to see Star Wars on the big screen until last year.

19. THE PARENT TRAP (1961/1998)
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Well, if one Haley Mills remake could be moderately successful (two if we count Pollyanna), why not remake her most famous movie in which she played opposite herself? The Parent Trap had already spawned three television sequels with Mills reprising her role(s), but perhaps it was time to update the property. Enter Lindsay Lohan. With new motion control camera technology, Lohan burst on the scene in a well-received remake that tweaked just enough of the original. For example, the stuffy Boston of 1961 was transposed to London, England for the remake. I personally think the original has enough charm on its own, but the Lohan version remains one of the standout Disney remakes that actually works. And it reminds us of a time when Lindsay Lohan was young and innocent.

20. THE SHAGGY DOG (1959/2006)
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Another bizarre movie from the Walt era about a boy cursed to turn into a dog, The Shaggy Dog is somehow one of those movies that sticks in the memory. So it is no surprise that the studio would eventually try their luck with it again utilizing modern visual effects technology. The new film starred Tim Allen as the guy who becomes a dog, already a change from the original. However, this idea of an adult turning into a dog does not originate with the remake. Disney in fact had made two sequels to the original film, both of which contradict each other. In the 1970s, Dean Jones portrayed an adult Wilby, now married, in The Shaggy D.A. In 1987, The Magical World of Disney aired the original film, and then followed it up with a new television sequel, The Return of the Shaggy Dog. This sequel ignored the earlier one, as Wilby is only just getting married in this one. I have still not seen the Tim Allen version.

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It's really not exactly a remake, but it's worth mentioning the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie. This film is a very different sort of take on the Lewis Carroll stories, as Alice is grown up. It's more Alice by way of Return to Oz. And yet it should also be noted that the 1951 version is not the first attempt the studio made at adapting Carroll's work. In 1938, they used many elements from the books in "Thru the Mirror", a Mickey Mouse cartoon that paid tribute to the Alice stories. Walt Disney in fact had built a name for himself making short subjects about a live action girl in animated scenarios in the 1920s. These were dubbed the Alice comedies, with the pilot film, Alice's Wonderland, making explicit the homage to Carroll behind the idea. In the 1990s, the notion of Alice and Wonderland was re-imagined in an attempt to make a hip, cool, educational program for children, Adventures in Wonderland. You can tell it was made in the '90s because Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are rappers in parachute pants and the White Rabbit goes around on rollerblades (there's those blades again!). With all of these trips to Wonderland (including the recent sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass), it's perhaps surprising that Walt hated the 1951 film, believing that it was a lot of craziness that had no real story behind it.

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Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney movie of all time. So when a quasi-remake was announced telling the story from Maleficent's point-of-view, I wanted no part of it. It was rumored after the success of Alice in Wonderland, and finally became a reality in 2014. It's not exactly a remake, as it's telling things from a totally different perspective, but it also really cemented the current trend toward remaking the animated canon. I still have never seen it.

23. PETE'S DRAGON (1977/2016)
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This year's Pete's Dragon bears little resemblance to the film that inspired it. All it retained were a boy named Pete, a magical dragon named Elliot, and a woman that befriends them. This year's film has a certain charm of its own, but it's a very different movie. As wacky as the original is, there's still something I prefer about it. Between the two of them, you're bound to find one that suits your taste.

24. CINDERELLA (1950/2015)
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Which brings us to Cinderella. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things about last year's remake. I went in truly expecting to hate it. In fact, the only reason I paid to see it was that the short "Frozen Fever" was screening before it. And while the animated film remains a masterpiece, the remake is not terrible. The worst parts are when it tries to draw direct connections to the animated version instead of standing on its own. There's no need to give the same names to the mice (though Jaq gets a sex change in the new one), or to have a cat named Lucifer. And Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother was a total misfire. But so much of what remains is a lovely retelling of a classic story and I recommend seeing it. I still consider the animated film one of the smartest adaptations (making the story turn on the fact that Cinderella not only fits the shoe, but has the other one). Pay attention and you'll see they pepper in how Cinderella has a habit of losing shoes on stairs. This makes the dramatic moment at midnight not just a story contrivance, but totally in character.

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But I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out a third Cinderella that Disney made, and once again it was made for television. This was the 1997 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, starring Brandy and a multiracial cast. Where this worked in Polly, I never felt it worked as well here. I think it's the weakest of the three R & H Cinderella productions for a number of reasons. But that leads me to another thing interesting about this movie: it's a remake of a non-Disney film. And it's not the only one. So before we go, let's take a look at some other times Disney remade something they didn't originate.

This effects-laden sports film was actually remade from a 1951 movie of the same name.

Tim Allen's follow-up to the hugely successful The Santa Clause was an English-language remake of a French movie called Un Indien Dans La Ville. I actually remember that a dub of the original had a very short theatrical run State-side in 1994 under the title Little Indian, Big City. Somewhere I have a tape with one of the TV spots for it.

This King Kong follow up of the 1940s was done by Disney with modern effects in 1998 starring Charlize Theron. As a kid, I noticed the obvious parallels to Kong, but never knew that it was a remake of a film in its own right.

Finally, one of our most recent Disney remakes is Adventures in Babysitting. This Disney Channel Original Movie is not so original at all, as it's a remake of the classic 1987 film starring Elisabeth Shue.

So I hope you've appreciated this little trip through Disney film history. Disney remakes are nothing new. All we can do is hope that those to come won't be too bad, and we'll ride out this wave until the next one comes along.