The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Prince of Egypt” (1998)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,

The Prince of Egypt, the first traditionally-animated film that Dreamworks released, really feels like competition for Disney. While The Swan Princess and Anastasia feel like studios trying to replicate a Disney formula, The Prince of Egypt feels fresh and original. The Prince of Egypt is what The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been.

This is a film that does not feel confined to being a children’s film; it is an animated film. While The Prince of Egypt makes the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites more accessible to children than The Ten Commandments, it is a large, epic film.

The story of Moses and the plot of the film starts off with the massacre of the babies of the Hebrew slaves as ordered by Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart). Yocheved (Ofra Haza) sees this and decides to save her newborn baby by placing him in a basket in the river. The basket, which is followed by the baby’s sister, Miriam (Eden Riegel as a child, Sandra Bullock as an adult), flows to the Pharaoh’s palace and is found by the Queen (Helen Mirren). She takes the baby, named Moses now, and adopts him as the Hebrew slaves continue to suffer.

Several years later, Moses (Val Kilmer) and his adoptive brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes) have bonded and spend the days having fun, racing chariots, which destroys a temple, much to Seti’s disdain. Ramses gets blamed, even though Moses takes responsibility. When Ramses is named the Prince Regent and Moses the Royal Chief Architect, a Midian girl, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), is given to Moses as a concubine/possible wife by the high priests Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short). Tzipporah runs away and Moses ensures of this, but he chases after her, only to run into Miriam and his brother, Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). When Miriam informs him that he is really a Hebrew and not the son of the Pharaoh, he panics and runs to the palace, only to discover the truth about the slaughter of the newborn Hebrew children years before. Feeling a bit of conflicted feelings and guilt, he goes to the recently destroyed temple, which Ramses wants to restore and make better than ever. While there, an Egyptian slave driver is whipping an old man. Moses commands him to stop and pushes him to his death. Ashamed, Moses runs away, to the desert and ends up in Midian, where he is reunited with Tzipporah, who realizes that he really isn’t a “spoiled palace brat.”

Jethro (Danny Glover) is delighted by the presence of Moses and marries him and Tzipporah, who is his daughter. While Moses is out tending the sheep one day, he encounters a burning bush, wherein the spirit of God tells him to go to Egypt and convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Although this comes with the warning that Pharaoh will not listen to Moses, which must make Moses feel great. Moses and Tzipporah travel to Egypt, which is now ruled by Ramses. Moses turns his staff into a snake, but Hotep and Huy can do the same by invoking the Egyptian gods. Ramses refuses to let Moses’ people go and doubles the workload. Moses then goes and turns the water into blood, but Hotep and Huy can still do the same by invoking the Egyptian gods. Moses then sends The Plagues and warns Ramses that if he does not give up, he will lose what he holds dear.

Enter the death of the firstborn, which kills Ramses’ son. Distraught, Ramses lets the Hebrew slaves go, but not before chasing after them and catching up at the Red Sea. The Pillar of Fire holds them off, and the Red Sea is parted. The Hebrews cross and after the pillar goes away, the Egyptians start to catch up and the Red Sea goes back to its usual state, killing several Egyptians as Ramses yells for his adoptive brother. The film ends with Moses bringing down the Ten Commandments.

At the start of the film, there is a disclaimer about there being artistic liberties being taken with the story. These include the Queen rescuing Moses from the river as opposed to Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses not burying the body of the man he kills, and throughout the film, Moses being significantly younger when he returns to Egypt than he was in the Bible. But the disclaimer also states that they feel as though they stayed true to the spirit of the story. The film portrays the struggles of the Hebrews and the joy of them being set free after their prayers to God.

After watching the film, I wondered if Dreamworks would be as big of a movie studio if their second film and their first traditionally animated film wasn’t as good as The Prince of Egypt happens to be. There is really nothing better to say about The Prince of Egypt than that it is a good, no, great, film. It does not fill the film with anything to make it a “Children’s movie.” The film is an animated film that is family-friendly and can be watched by children, although it is dark. (But not as dark as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

The character designs are great, and every scene is richly detailed. And scenes that use special effects that are computer-generated end up looking awesome, rather than obviously computer-generated. From Moses being overtaken by a sandstorm to the Red Sea, the computer-generated images are simply breathtaking and amazing to see. You have to sit there and wonder if there were any details that the animators didn’t come up with since you can even see water being blown off of the Red Sea.

But the film isn’t just strong because of the amazing animation; the story also helps a lot. Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer’s screenplay for the film gives depth to the characters. In the film, it is well established how close Moses and Ramses are as brothers, which makes the struggle the two have later in the film—one having to do God’s bidding, the other having to deny the request of his brother—much more interesting. And while Ramses isn’t a terrifying villain, or even a villain, he’s one of the more interesting antagonists because of the internal struggle the audience is allowed to see. He’s not inherently evil like most of the other antagonists seen. He is simply causing the dramatic conflict to occur.

And where most animated films would maybe let Steve Martin and Martin Short be as goofy as possible with the voices of Hotep and Huy, they are really acting. It’s not until the credits, or if you look it up on IMDB during the film, do you realize that it’s them voicing sly, slightly creepy high priests. Sure, there are film and music stars voicing the characters, but they are acting when they are voicing the characters that is what helps elevate this film to be a film and not a “children’s movie.”

While the film is lacking a Cute Little Animal Character, a common element of the films examined in this series, the film has a magnificent score and music. With a score by Hans Zimmer that is very hummable and uses reedy sounds at various moments in the film and songs by Stephen Schwartz, the film is brought together. The songs, of which there is not a single weak one, help move the story along and make it even stronger. The opening number, “Deliver Us,” serves as exposition while setting up the story for us by showing the struggle of the Hebrew slaves as they sing:

Elohim, God on high, can you hear your people cry?
Help us now, this dark hour…
Deliver us, hear our call, deliver us, Lord of all!
Remember us, here in the burning sand!
Deliver us, there’s a land you promised us!
Deliver us to the promised land!

The Prince of Egypt has a “I Want” song with “All I Ever Wanted,” which Moses sings after being told that he’s really the son of a Hebrew slave. There’s the uplifting “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” which Jethro sings to inform Moses that he does fit into the grand scheme of things, the grandiose choral “The Plagues,” and the simple “Playing With the Big Boys.”

But the best known song from the film, the Academy Award-winning “When You Believe,” is uplifting, inspirational, and tear-inducing. It’s a beautifully written song that celebrates what has happened because the people that have been enslaved for so long believed in their god.

If anything, it’s hard to find a criticism of The Prince of Egypt, other than that it deviates from the source material and someone that is familiar with the Bible would be able to point it out. But the film proves that if you put a lot of effort into a film and don’t compromise it to appeal to a certain audience you can create an amazing work of art.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Hercules” (1997)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hercules is about the famed mythological hero Ἡρακλῆς, or Heracles, as his name was in the Greek myth. Hercules was his name in the Roman myth, but the film is set in Ancient Greece, as evidenced by his father being Zeus and Hera and them living on Mount Olympus. Although in the myth, Heracles is the son of Zeus and Alcmene, but I don’t think that Disney would imply that Zeus slept around. So, instead we have Zeus and Hera, the happy monogamous couple.

The film starts off with a narrator (Charlton Heston) who doesn’t invoke the Muses, but is mostly interrupted by them. They tell us about how the world was in chaos because of titans and Zeus came along and locked the titans up. We then go to Mount Olympus, where Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera (Samantha Eggar) are celebrating the birth of Hercules. Hades (James Woods) shows up and shows how unhappy he is that Zeus has another son. Hades was given the underworld in Disney’s film, while in mythology, Hades chose the underworld when him, Zeus, and Posidon drew for their realms. Hades returns to the underworld to learn from the Fates (Amanda Plummer, Carole Shelley, Paddi Edwards) that in 18 years, the cosmos will align to show him where the titans are hidden. If the titans are released, he’ll be able to overthrow Zeus. But if Hercules fights, he won’t be able to succeed. Hades then sends Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) to kill Hercules. They kidnap him and take him to Earth where they fail to kill him and only turn him mortal. He is then discovered by Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook) and Alcmene (Barbara Barrie), who raise him as their own.

Fast forward several years and Hercules is now a teenager (Josh Keaton, singing voice by Roger Bart) that is viewed as a freak because of his god-like strength. Tired of being an outcast, he sets out for the Oracle at Delphi local temple of Zeus, where he prays and finds out that he is the son of Zeus and Hera. He is then reunited with Pegasus and told to find Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), who is not son of King Poeas and is a satyr living by himself on an island. Phil reluctantly agrees to train Hercules in order for him to become a hero and hopefully gain his place amongst the gods. After the training completes, Phil, Pegasus, and Hercules (now voiced by Tate Donovan) head towards Thebes, which Phil says has “a million troubles”*, but they first make a detour when they hear a woman shrieking. They go to land where they find Megara (Susan Egan) in the clutches of Nessus (Jim Cummings).

In the myth, Megara was Heracles’ first wife, the daughter of King Creon of Thebes, but not the King Creon of Thebes whose sister married her son. In Euripedes’ Heracles, the titular character later goes and kills his children and Megara after Hera strikes him with madness. The film having Megara in the clutches of Nessus is closer to Heracles killing Nessus, who attempted to rape his third rife, Deianira, after offering to help her across a river. (This incident later sets up Heracles death, but we won’t get into that.) Hercules defeats Nessus, is smitten with Megara, nicknamed “Meg,” and then leaves for Thebes. The viewer then sees that Megara is working with Hades and was trying to get Nessus on his side for the “uprising.” This is also when Hades finds out that Pain and Panic were not successful in killing Hercules as a child.

Upon entering Thebes, a city in need of a hero, he is dismissed for not having done anything heroic before. Then some children are trapped and he saves them, only to bring about the Hydra, which was the second of his labours, done to repay for his crime of killing his children. He defeats the Hydra and the crowd goes crazy. Hercules is a celebrity. Women are fawning over him while there’s a suspicious lack of men going gaga and wanting to tear his clothes in this film. One day, he decides to take a break and hang out with Megara, which is part of Hades plot to bring Hercules down. After the two are separated by Phil and Pegasus, Megara admits that she loves him and Hades decides to use this continue his evil plot. He uses her as a bartering chip to get Hercules to give up his strength for a day in order for him to not get in the way. The stars/planets are aligned and the titans are released†. While Hercules is being tossed around by a cyclops, Megara and Phil come, only she is injured when a column falls on her. His strength returns and he goes to Mount Olympus to save the gods. After defeating the titans, he goes to return to Meg, who is dead. He goes to the Underworld to save her and becomes a god while in what is either Lethe or Styx. He sends Hades down to Lethe/Styx and returns Meg’s soul to her body, and goes up to Olympus where he is welcomed, but decides to not be a god so he can stay with Megara.

Hercules is a very silly and unabashedly anachronistic film. While Hunchback of Notre Dame had anachronisms provided by the gargoyles and Pocahontas didn’t have that many anachronisms, Hercules is filled with them. (AirHercs, anyone?) In addition to these anachronisms, the characters make comments that would fit if the film was set in Ancient Rome rather than Ancient Greece, such as the children trapped under the large rock yelling, “Someone call IXII,” which is still clever, although not appropriate for Ancient Greece since those are Roman numerals. Rather than tell this sad, sweeping story like Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas set out to do, Hercules feels like the guy that just wants to have fun.

Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules is heavily cleaned up to make the film family-friendly. We don’t have characters cheating on their wives, killing their children, or marrying more than once. We don’t even see any men fawning over Hercules and in Plutarch’s Eroticos it’s implied that Heracles male lovers were so abundant that it’s impossible to list them all. But if Hercules had the elements that make it a bit more authentic, it would never be family-friendly.

And as it is, Hercules is a lot of fun. While it has inaccuracies that a person familiar with Ancient Greece and its mythology would recognize, it doesn’t bring down the film. The benefit that Hercules has is that it is filled with so many anachronisms for the sake of pop culture references and gags that it feels like a lighter film than Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It manages to have a wise-cracking villain that still manages to have a menacing aspect to himself. Hades manages to provide comic relief and have a lot of the funnier lines in the film, but he can still be taken seriously as a villain. The character comments about throwing everything he has at Hercules because his minions goofed up and we witness this. He is not below using other characters in an attempt to finally get his evil plan to work. Hades isn’t as menacing as some other Disney villains because of his wise-cracking, somewhat laid-back attitude, but his constant pursuit of his goal does help make him a bit terrifying.

But one of the benefits of Hercules‘ fun, silly tone is that the Cute Little Animal Characters don’t detract from the film. In fact, Pegasus and possibly Phil serve as the Cute Little Animal Characters in the film and the film as it is written would simply not work without them. They’re characters that I don’t roll my eyes at because of their essential nature to the film.

Alan Menken and David Zippel haven’t created an amazing score and songs for this film, but they’re memorable. I even find them popping into my head at odd moments. And the parts of the score that riff off of the film’s theme, “Go the Distance,” work perfectly as Hercules either is triumphant or is making an important decision.

So while Hercules is a very flawed film, it’s a fun, enjoyable film that only seems to be just that. And even the errors in the film are able to be overlooked because everything in the world of the film makes sense. If anything Hercules is a flawed film that embraces its flaws to make it work.

*Oh, those Thebans and their curses, incest, self-mutilation, suicide, murder…
Note: No Kraken were seen.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996)

The Swan Princess,

Oh, Disney. You really bastardized the hell out of the source material for this film. But somehow, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale managed to make a terrific, beautiful movie.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is based (or inspired, as the sleeve from Netflix says) on the novel by Victor Hugo. But Disney went and simplified a lot of the plot lines, cut out characters, made the characters much nicer, changed Frollo to a judge instead of being the archdeacon, and kept Quasimodo and Esmeralda alive at the end because Disney doesn’t make a habit of killing off their heroes. Disney also went and added three talking gargoyles to the film (more on that later), which really does change the tone of the film and is significantly different from the novel.

In spite of these differences, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is quite possibly the darkest film Disney has ever made, right up there with The Black Cauldron. The film can be enjoyed by children; I loved it when I was little. But because of the content of the film, an adult can find a greater appreciation for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although the film is much lighter than the novel, it still deals with the concepts of religious hypocrisy, lust, murder, prejudice, justice and injustice, sin, Hell, and mob mentality. Oh, and the word “damnation” is used twice in a religious context. But the complexities of the film and the fact that the characters, except the gargoyles, actually have depth is what makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame a movie that still is good watching it 14 years after its release.

The film follows Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), who is the adopted of child of Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) after Frollo killed his mother outside of Notre Dame and does it as a penitence. Quasimodo lives in the bell tower, where he rings the bells everyday, and has conversations with his gargoyle friends Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes), who might be a part of his imagination, but aid him in a climactic battle, so this is debatable. Quasimodo yearns to ventures outside of the bell tower, even though Frollo forbids him from leaving because, in his mind, the safest place is the cathedral. Meanwhile, out in the streets of Paris, Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) is returning to become captain of the guard for Frollo. He comes across the gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and is instantly taken with her.

When Quasimodo ventures down to the Festival of Fools, he is crowned the King of Fools for having the ugliest face in Paris, but Frollo is in attendance. Frollo’s guards then throw vegetables at Quasimodo, who is publicly humiliated while Frollo does nothing, before Esmeralda rescues him and calls Frollo out on his actions. For defying Frollo, running away, and performing some illusions, she is a fugitive and seeks sanctuary in the cathedral. Her and Phoebus fight before bonding, Frollo comes on strongly to her, and she gets to speak to Quasimodo and know him better. He helps her escape and he admits that he’s smitten with her. Meanwhile, Frollo sings about how he’s lusting for Esmeralda, knows that it’s wrong and a sin, blames it on Esmeralda’s “witchcraft,” and vows that “She will be mine, or she will burn.” This then causes Frollo to go on a hunt for Esmeralda, where he burns down the house of an innocent family while they are inside. Phoebus goes into the burning house, saves the family, and is deemed a criminal for defying Frollo’s orders. Phoebus is shot with an arrow, but Esmeralda saves him. Quasimodo helps the two and realizes their feelings for each other, but still helps Phoebus try to save Esmeralda and the gypsies, but Frollo is a step ahead of them and decides to burn Esmeralda at the stake in front of the cathedral.

The film is undeniably dark and while Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz wrote a rather unremarkable score for Pocahontas, the Gothic score of Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to send chills down my spine with the Latin chants set to the score. While Pocahontas has a, at best, hummable score and songs, the songs and score of this film sticks in your head, even with the lesser songs, “A Guy Like You” and “God Help the Outcasts.” And in the case of “God Help the Outcasts,” it feels more like a very lovely song in the film, but does ask, from Esmeralda, “I thought we all were the children of God.” In the film, we are presented with two characters that are outcasts from society because of their ethnicity and appearances, but are kind, good people as opposed to the self-righteous, God-fearing Frollo.

One of the finest numbers in the film is “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire,” which has a light, reflective number for Quasimodo, singing about the joy of the kindness that Esmeralda has shown him. It climaxes to jingling bells, a motif first heard in the opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame.” Then there are the chants of monks and the archdeacon in the cathedral, and we’re at the Palace of Justice where Frollo is praying about his lustful feelings for Esmeralda. As the song progresses, the orchestration becomes more complex and darker. In the film, as he prays, we see the figure of Esmeralda in the flames of his fireplace. Then, the red figures of monks appear around him as he becomes agitated and explains that it is not his fault that he feels this way and the chorus sings, “Mea culpa/Mea Culpa/Mea Maxima Culpa.” It is an incredibly dark sequence that ranks up there with “Night on Bald Mountain” in Fantasia and “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster. The song bares the emotions of Frollo showing his instability as a character, desire to have everything, be in control, and still be viewed to himself as a pious man. After all, he is praying to the Virgin Mary during this number.

Frollo is also, quite possibly, the most terrifying villain I can think of that comes from any animated film released in the 1990’s. His kindness only seems to be done to serve himself, such as him taking Quasimodo in as an infant being done to make up for him killing Quasimodo’s mother outside of the cathedral. He has a narrow face, wears dark clothing, and has twisted facial expressions that are reminiscent of the evil stepmother in Cinderella and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. And although a child or a teenager might not get the concept of lust versus love, the film makes it very clear that Frollo does not love Esmeralda, while Phoebus and Quasimodo do. The simplest way of showing this is that Phoebus and Quasimodo are willing to risk their lives to save Esmeralda’s, while Frollo has the attitude that if he can’t have her, no one can.

And while Shan-Yu and the Hun army burns a village down and kill several Imperial troops in Mulan, Frollo singlehandedly kills an innocent mother he suspects of stealing, almost kills a child because he believes that it is a demon, and locks a family in their house while setting it on fire.

Even with the deviations from the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been a perfect example of animation being used to make a film decidedly not for children. But then there’s the element that makes the film kid-friendly: the gargoyles. In this film, they serve as the Cute Little Animal Characters instead of Djali, Esmeralda’s goat, because he really is there to do goat stuff. The gargoyles make jokes and have anachronistic remarks. They have the song that feels the most out of place on the soundtrack, “A Guy Like You.” It seems as though they only exist in the mind of Quasimodo, like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes, but we see them fighting off the guards when they are attacking Notre Dame. (Although this might still be them serving a Hobbes-like role.) The scenes with them aren’t really that special and they actually seem to bring the film down. But without the characters of the gargoyles, the film would have been much darker than it is and probably would have received a PG rating.*

At the beginning of the film, Clopin, who sets up the story for us, asks “Who is the monster and who is the man?” While Pocahontas asks us what makes someone a savage in a horribly preachy way, The Hunchback of Notre Dame explores this question by simply telling the story. The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t quite reach its potential by trying to still be a “children’s movie,” the film is still worth a watch because of its complexity, darkness, and beauty.

*I spent a good portion of time trying to figure out how Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to not get a PG rating.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Pocahontas” (1995)

Can YOU paint with all the colors of the wind?

The Swan Princess

Technically, I should have watched The Lion King, but Netflix doesn’t have it. Period. So, if you want to watch people humping trash on instant or watch The Lion King, you are out of luck.

Pocahontas is Disney’s very politically correct, preachy 1995 release directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg that asks who is a savage and what makes a man a savage.

The film heavily fictionalizes the story of Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a nickname given to her that means “the naughty one.” In this film, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) comes to the New World with the Virginia Company, which was specifically the London Company, on a ship with Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Steirs), who might be a fictionalization of John Ratcliffe, a captain of a ship that sailed to Jamestown to find a colony. As the crew members set sail for gold (and tobacco, but that’s never mentioned), we see the prosperous Powahatan people, led by Chief Powahatan (Russel Means). His daughter, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) is intended to marry the brave warrior Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). Pocahontas does not want to marry Kocoum because “he’s so serious.” In the mean time, the settlers land and begin to dig up the earth in search of gold. Smith, while out looking for “savages” meets Pocahontas and almost shoots her, but he finds her beautiful. She then teaches him about her culture and he teaches her about his. When he mentions “savages” and “uncivilized people,” Pocahontas questions him, by way of the song “Colors of the Wind,” about his beliefs about what makes a person a person and whether or not he can paint with all the colors of the wind.

Meanwhile, back at the fort settlement, the Powahatan warriors go to the camp to see what the white men, warned to be dangerous, are up to. Ratcliffe sees the warriors and everyone starts shooting, which results in a warrior being injured. The Powahatans, having physical evidence of the destruction of the settlers, forbid the people from going near the settlers. In the mean time, Pocahontas and John Smith are still seen going around, being taught about their different cultures. They decide to meet later that day at Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), which requires Smith sneaking out of the camp. Ratcliffe sees him sneaking out and sends Thomas (Christian Bale) after him. In the meantime, Pocahontas’ friend, Nakoma (Michelle St. John), tells Kocoum, who cares about Pocahontas’ safety, about the danger the titular character is in. At Grandmother WIllow, Pocahontas and John decide that he should meet her father to convince her that the settlers aren’t evil. Excited, the two kiss, but Kocoum attacks Smith. Thomas, seeing the 1). a native and 2). a native attacking a kinsman, shoots Kocoum, killing him. Smith sends him away and the other Powahatans see the dead Kocoum and capture Smith because Pocahontas doesn’t say, “Hey, it was this red head, not this guy” and the warriors have no reason to think that Smith didn’t kill Kocoum. Thomas reveals that Smith has been captured, but not that he shot a native. THIS MEANS WAR. Also, John Smith gets to be clubbed to death at sunrise for his crimes. Pocahontas saves him from the clubbing because she loves him. The people decide to not fight and Ratcliffe shoots Smith, injures him, and is arrested and to be tried for treason. Smith goes back to England because his chances of surviving a gunshot wound are so much better on a ship in the 1600s than if he says in the New World. Pocahontas, on the other hand, stays, but she still loves him.

In the real version of the story of Pocahontas, she would have been ten when she would have saved John Smith from a clubbing, which might have taken place. It’s debatable. (For more info, please see this information from the Powahatan Nation, written by Chief Roy Crazy Horse.) When Pocahontas was a young woman, which is how old she is in the film, she was captured by the settlers and later married to John Rolfe, who baptized her as Rebecca. She died in 1617 from either smallpox or tuberculosis. More importantly, there was no romance between her and John Smith. John Ratcliffe was not the greedy man that we see in Governor Ratcliffe. A majority of the key plot elements are invented and those key plot elements make Pocahontas a ridiculous movie.

Okay, maybe Pocahontas is ridiculous to me because I’m an adult and I paid attention in school, which does ruin the film for me. But the film is ridiculous on the same level I find Romeo and Juliet to be ridiculous. Two star-crossed lovers meet and within the course of a few days, they’re madly in love and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. Except Romeo and Juliet covers more time and shows the tragedy of young infatuation. In Pocahontas, the only consequence carried out for the two characters’ constant disobedience of the instructions they are given is that Kocoum is killed, which is indirect. My biggest problem with Pocahontas as a film itself is that Pocahontas declares that she loves John Smith and is willing to die to protect him after knowing him for less than a week.

The villain in this film, Governor Ratcliffe, is slightly more terrifying than Rothbart in The Swan Princess. Ratcliffe is fueled by greed and just wants some gold. He will have the other settlers keep digging until they find gold and if any natives get in his way, he’ll kill them. That’s really his sole mindset for the entire film and the most he does is bellow directions and orders to his men. Yes, he shoots John Smith, but he was aiming to shoot Chief Powahatan. Ratcliffe gets the shaft in this film because he’s going back to England to be tried for treason, but Ratcliffe doesn’t do anything in this film that seems like treason.

(Oh, and by the way, King James I would have just been King James. They would have not said “King James the First.”)

The reason why I didn’t mention the Cute Little Animal Characters was because they only provide a subplot in this film that is completely unnecessary. Meeko, Pocahontas’ pet raccoon, runs into Ratcliffe’s pug Percy when he gets onto the ship because the ship has food and Meeko loves eating. This results in Percy chasing Meeko around while Flit, a hummingbird, is very serious like Kocoum. The film could still easily function without the Cute Little Animal Characters. In fact, the Cute Little Animal Characters in Pocahontas don’t even help in key plot situations, like the Cute Little Animal Characters in other films I’ve looked at. They’re just there to serve as sidekicks and have some fun animal creature in the film. But, honestly, watching Percy chase Meeko is a lot more interesting than pretty much anything else that happens in the film.

As for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s songs, they have mostly unmemorable lyrics. I can remember the melodies for the songs, but try singing all of “Just Around the Riverbend” or “Colors of the Wind.” And the song “Savages” tries to convey a point that I think is better made in these lyrics of “The Mob Song” by Menken and Howard Ashman in Beauty and the Beast:

“We don’t like
What we don’t
Understand, in fact it scares us,
And this monster is mysterious at least.”

As for the question of what makes a person a savage, the film has us side with the Powahatans for not being the savages. They retaliate after being attacked and their violence is justified. They’re the only people in this film that have any soldiers killed. They have every reason for doing what they do. Even when Kocoum attacks John Smith, it is justifiable. He has no clue what John Smith might be doing to Pocahontas and he’s seen John Smith’s people severely wound one of his men.

But Disney, in an attempt to be politically correct, has characters lacking depth to try to get us to learn that maybe we’d be better off if we just learned to understand our differences. But this point is best conveyed not by the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, but by Percy and Meeko stopping their pursuit after being yelled at by Grandmother Willow and, at the end of the film, being dressed in each other’s “native” garb, having reconciled their differences. Pocahontas proves that a well-meaning film can be a mess (MCBAIN) when it lacks depth or has ridiculous situations*.

*See also: McBain

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Swan Princess” (1994)

Previously: Mulan

The Swan Princess is one of the films released in the 90’s that was a sort of competition to Disney, because up until the release of Toy Story, which was distributed by Disney and made by a company later bought by Disney, and The Prince of Egypt, Disney really seemed like the only king in animated films.

The Swan Princess is directed by Richard Rich, who once worked for Disney, his final project being the incredibly dark and unsuccessful The Black Cauldron. Richard Rich is also responsible for bringing us the terrible animated version of The King and I, which failed to really make a connection to me as a child, while the epic 2+ hour-long Anna and the King did.

The Swan Princess is based off of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which means that the name of Princess Odette comes from the character in the Ballet, not Odette in Remembrance of Things Past. In The Swan Princess, we see Odette (Michelle Nicastro) and Prince Derek (Howard McGillan) growing up together due to a scheme their parents, King William (Dakin Matthews) and Queen Uberta (Sandy Duncan) respectively, have come up with. The two despise each other, but later grow closer. But after Derek announces his intention to marry Odette for her beauty, he is questioned on why he doesn’t want to marry her for deeper reasons. Odette and William leave, only to be ambushed by a Great Animal, who is really the evil sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance), who kidnaps Odette and apparently kills King William. This is really only ever implied because we see no blood but hear a lot of gasping for air and when Derek arrives, he is too busy wondering where Odette is to clarify to us if William just died. He’s also never seen again in the film, so I’m assuming he died.

Rothbart’s “evil plan” is that he will marry Odette to have control of the kingdom. So even though he just killed the king, he would rather try to get Odette to marry him than just assume control. In the meantime, Odette is stuck as a swan on a lake, but transforms into a human while she is on the lake and the moon hits the water. She is joined by Jean-Bob (John Cleese), a delusional frog that thinks he’s a frog prince; Lorenzo Trudge-Along (Steven Wright), an Eeyore-esque turtle; and Puffin (Steve Vinovich), a Scottish puffin. While Odette is presumed to be able to speak because she’s an enchanted human, the other characters can just speak. In the meantime, Derek obsesses over the disappearance of Odette and what the Great Animal might be, although he almost shoots Odette in Swan Form multiple times because the Great Animal is a winged creature.

There are many differences between Swan Lake and The Swan Princess. Instead of Prince Siegfried, we have Prince Derek, and in this version, Derek and Odette are childhood friends, while in the ballet, Siegfried meets Odette when he goes to shoot a swan. The swan-maidens have been replaced by Jean-Bob, Lorenzo Trudge-Along, and Puffin. Instead of Odile, Rothbart’s daughter, being disguised as Odette, we have The Hag (Bess Hopper) being transformed into Odette. We have a Great Animal that’s a giant dragon-like creature instead of Rothbart just turning himself into an owl. Oh, and only the bad guy and possibly King William die in the film.

I’m not huge on ballet and prefer modern dance, but The Swan Princess is the most boring animated film I have watched in a long time and has the least terrifying animated villain I can think of.

The animation in The Swan Princess is not of the same caliber and beauty as that in a Disney film and seems too drawn out. The Swan Princess might have been a better film if wasn’t 89 minutes long because it has lengthy sequences involving Derek’s training to defeat the Great Animal, the entire ending seems too drawn out, and musical numbers by Lex de Azevedo and David Zippel that are unmemorable.

Rothbart fails to be a terrifying villain because he doesn’t have the “I will stop at nothing to get what I want” attitude of other cartoon villains. If Odette doesn’t want to marry him one night, he’ll come back again. Only does he really seem to take command when Derek shows up and he catches wind of the plot. And then it’s an “I’m going to transform The Hag into Odette.” Sure, he kidnaps Odette and kills the king’s guard in a way that reminds me of Oedipus the King, except that Oedipus didn’t have to transform himself into a giant animal for this to happen. But his plan for seizing control of the kingdom is just to have Odette marry him. It’s not like Rasputin in the animated version of Anastasia who sells his soul and incites the Russian Revolution and overthrow of Tzar Nicholas to get his revenge (more on that when I discuss Anastasia) or Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective, who kidnaps a toymaker and later the daughter of the toy maker to have a decoy of the Mouse Queen built to declare him the royal consort while the real Queen is about to be thrown to a cat.

The Swan Princess lacks momentum and dramatic tension; there’s no real danger for any of the characters until the last 20 minutes of the film. None of the characters are really that interesting, although Derek’s sudden change of heart for Odette and her desire to stay with Derek is interesting to me. As for the Cute Little Animal Characters in this film, Jean-Bob, Lorenzo, and Puffin, they serve the purpose of being Odette’s friends and helping out in some situations, but they feel completely unnecessary. (Sorry, John Cleese) We can best assume that Jean-Bob and Lorenzo are denizens of the lake and just never left. Puffin falls from the sky and Odette removes an arrow from his wing and he seems compelled to help Odette leave the clutches of Rothbart. That’s not to say that Jean-Bob* and Lorenzo aren’t compelled to help Odette; Puffin seems to have the motivation of “You saved my life, I must save yours.”

The strong divergence of The Swan Princess from its source material causes it to not be a good film. The ballet has higher stakes for the characters and had the film been more faithful to its source material, it might have been better.

*I honestly had no clue his name was “Jean-Bob” until the end credits. I thought it was “Jean-Claude”

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Mulan” (1998)

(Thank you, Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, I would like to admit that the 1998 Disney film Mulan is one of my favorite films. As a result, I am a bit biased because I love this film, but then I’m biased towards Pocahontas and Anastasia, because I really would like to try to like those films.

(Because I’m not sure how many people have seen the film, I don’t go into too many details in the summary.)

Anyway, Mulan is based off of the legend of Hua Mulan, a woman who went off to fight in an all-male Chinese army in the place of her father. In the Disney film, Mulan is now Fa Mulan and she has a wise cracking dragon sidekick named Mushu, voiced by Eddy Murphy.

The film sets up the story by letting us know that the Huns, led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), have invaded China by crossing the Great Wall. To help protect China and defeat the Huns, the Emperor (Pat Morita), orders that one man from every family will join up with the army. Go from the Imperial City to the tranquil farm of the Fa family, where we meet the tomboyish Mulan (Ming-Na), whose tendencies to be herself and speak her mind cause her to be viewed as a disgrace to her family. When her father, who is known for his service to the Imperial Army (and might have been injured in his prior service, but that is never made clear in the film), is called up to serve in the army, Mulan protests and is chastised by her father for not knowing her place. After her family falls asleep, she prays to the ancestors, cuts her hair, takes her father’s armor and orders to serve in the army, and runs away to serve in her father’s place in a scene set to some great synthesizer music.

This awakens the ancestors, whose gong-ringer is a dragon named Mushu. Mushu, unable to waken the Great Stone Dragon, decides to go protect Mulan, masquerading as the Great Stone Dragon to the ancestors to make them think he did his job. Mushu meets up with Mulan and rechristens her Ping so she has a name as she trains in a troop led by Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong), that also has the colorful characters of Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe), and Chen-Po (Jerry Tondo). After a training sequence that features what is quite possibly the best Disney song ever, Mushu forges orders for the soldiers to get moving to fight the Huns.

Mulan is a very strong film that not only has a strong girl-power message (that I will discuss later), but also tells a good story that doesn’t seem too far fetched in an attempt to have a happy ending and doesn’t focus on the romantic relationship between the titular character and their romantic interest. It features the use of humorous dialogue to lighten the situation and severity of the consequences of the situation the characters are in. What makes Mulan work is that it is very possible that Mulan could be killed for crossdressing and joining the army and that almost happens. The Emperor could be killed by Shan Yu and the Huns could take control of China. Yes, we cheer for the good guys and hope they win, but this film does not skirt the severity of the situations the characters find themselves in.

In this film, Mushu serves as the Cute Little Animal Sidekick, although the same could be said about Cri-Kee or Khan, Mulan’s horse, who feels a bit similar to Philippe, Belle’s horse in Beauty and the Beast. Mushu serves in many instances as the comic relief, but so do Yao, Ling, Chen-Po, and Chi-Fu, the Emperor’s right hand man. Mushu’s main purpose seems to be a bit of a foil to Mulan. Both of them want to restore their respect among their circles and bring honor to the Fa Family. However, Mulan tries to achieve this goal by working hard in training and using her wit and knowledge. Mushu repeatedly tries to cut corners to keep Mulan’s identity as a woman a secret and get her out into the battlefield to make her a war hero. After watching Mulan, I was left wondering if Mushu is really a necessary character, other than that he’s a handy source of fire.

Mulan features music by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, who also wrote the lyrics for the film Hercules and the musical City of Angels. The songs are catchy and further the plot and character development, which is better than some musicals that are out there. Although Mulan has the distinction of having this song, which I would argue for being the best song in a Disney film:

Mulan is in every way a good animated film; it tells a story well and it is beautifully animated. The film also pokes fun at gender roles, particularly in the time period the film takes place in. Mulan is a woman and should be a good wife and do a nice job of pouring tea. But the outfits she’s put in when visiting the matchmaker are too tight for her, which shows her own discomfort with the roles for the women. The character does her best in armor using a sword and kicking ass. Notably kicking Hun ass. Similarly, men are supposed to be manly, but near the end of the film, Yao, Ling, and Chen-Po take on feminine roles in order to try to defeat the Huns. Oddly enough, the most misogynistic character in Mulan, Chi-Fu, is also the most effeminate character in the film. In the end, Mulan is able to cast off the strict gender roles of her time and save China, earn the respect of the Emperor, and restore honor to her family. The film ultimately tells girls that they can be whom they are most comfortable as and still be awesome.
So for the first film, we have a film that manages to not shift from the source material too badly and is a great film. Although the films will be watched and analyzed in chronological order by release, this was watched first because it had been in my Netflix queue for a while. So, the next film to be analyzed will be Pocahontas, a huge shift from Mulan.

Update: I forgot about The Swan Princess.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: An Introduction

It’s an idea born out of madness. And by madness, I’m referring to me being sick and bored.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on Facebook and one of my friends had posted a link to a YouTube video that had three of the numbers from the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. This then sucked me into watching several other videos of musical numbers from the film, which I’ve been meaning to revisit. Since the three movies I’ve recently watched have been Troll 2, The Simpsons Movie, and the animated film Anastasia—Guess which ones I liked more—I thought, “Huh. Both The Prince of Egypt and Anastasia are non-Disney movies with big musical numbers and respected composers, but I think that The Prince of Egypt has better numbers and the film didn’t bastardize the source material as much.”

And so, I’ve decided to watch a bunch of animated films from the 1990’s that stray from the source material and write about them.

Films that will be included in this are:

The Lion King (took some inspiration from Hamlet)
The Swan Princess (Swan Lake)
Pocahontas (the life of Pocahontas)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo)
Hercules (Greek mythology about the tasks of Herculas)
Anastasia (1956 film with Ingrid Bergman)
The Quest for Camelot (The King’s Damosel by Vera Chapman)
Mulan (Legend of Hua Mulan)
The Prince of Egypt (The story of Moses)
Tarzan (Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
The Iron Giant (The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes)

Among things I will look at will be whether or not straying from the source material causes a film to be “bad,” the use of musical numbers in animated film and the presence of the Cute Little Animal Sidekick adds or detracts from the story.

So, let’s begin.