The Disney Princess Project and The Films of Pixar: “Brave”

bravePreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Pocahontas
Hercules
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The Little Mermaid
The Princess and the Frog

As time progressed, Pixar received criticism for not having any films with female lead characters. Pixar had strong female characters, such as Helen Parr/Elastigirl and Violet in “The Incredibles,” Sally in “Cars,” EVE in “WALL-E” and Colette in “Ratatouille,” but none of the lead characters had been women. Pixar decided to fix this by making the lead character of “Brave,” the studio’s thirteenth feature, a woman.

The main premise of “Brave” is that Merida (Kelly Macdonald) does not want to get married. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is a little more willing to allow her to be her natural tomboyish self, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is concerned about the future of the kingdom and has been preparing her daughter for marriage since she was little. The lords of the land arrive to present their sons and Merida isn’t impressed and challenges them to an archery match. Through this, Merida shows she can do archery better than any of the potential suitors, humiliating her family and the lords. She then runs off and meets a witch (Julie Walters), who prepares a spell to change Merida’s fate. Merida feeds the spell-laden treat to her mother, turning her into a bear. They then run off to try to figure out how to reverse the spell while tensions brew because Merida needs a suitor.

The movie would be much better if Merida wasn’t so annoying. Even at the end it’s difficult to care about Merida and her problems since she brings most of the upon herself by being confrontational and not willing to understand her mother. Additionally it isn’t until the end that Merida really realizes that she brought her problems upon herself. For most of the film Merida feels like her problems are the result of her mother wanting for her to get married. I would be a little more sympathetic if this wasn’t set in Scotland during the same period the Vikings existed and a girl who wasn’t even in her teens getting engaged wasn’t common place. After all, we’ve already seen a Disney movie during this blog post series that featured a woman being engaged to a prince at the announcement of her birth.

What’s troubling about the movie is the use of anachronistic humor in the film. Humor that uses anachronisms can work, as seen with “Hercules,” but because of the tone of the film it seems very out of place. The two examples seen in the film both come from the witch when Merida and her mother visit the witch. The witch has left an away message in her cauldron that has options where you dump a vial to get a different message. This is reminiscent of menus anyone gets when calling a customer service number. When Merida dumps the vial for the message left for her, the Witch mentions going to the Wicker Man fest, which is either the Dark Age version of Burning Man or a festival where people yell “Not the bees!” at each other. Why either of those things would be mentioned in a children’s movie is beyond me. Wicker men were also part of Druid rituals, but even for a film studio that is prone to make obscure references in their movies, Druid rituals is pretty obscure. Also, most adults watching this movie would hear “Wicker man” and either think of the British horror film or the Nicholas Cage film. No matter how you slice this, I don’t know why the “Wicker Man festival” comment is made.

Some of the jokes made in the film also tend to be a bit lazy. In the film we get a joke about haggis being gross and one of the lords lifts his kilt to insult the other lords. These jokes feel lazy because they’re jokes that have been seen in every movie and TV show that has ever had Scottish characters.

But this is not the biggest problem with “Brave.” What ultimately makes this film problematic is the pacing. The big event in the film–the transformation of Elinor into a bear–doesn’t happen until halfway through the film. Everything before the film just leads up to that event. If you think about it, that’s 45 minutes of events that lead up the transformation which isn’t the slowest I’ve seen in a movie released by Disney, but that ends up feeling very slow. As a result, the quest to reverse the curse feels a bit rushed.

But since this is a Pixar film we have excellent animation, particularly with the animation for Elinor. We have wonderful hair designs, especially with Merida’s red locks that bounce up and down as she rides on her horse. The Scottish landscape is wonderful to look at, such as whenever the characters are near water. The attention to detail is also very evident, such as the fabric in Elinor’s dress at the end of the film or the hairs on the chin of the witch.

But is Merida a Good Role Model for Children?: No.

I can see where some people would argue that because Merida is tomboyish and rides horses and shoots a bow and arrow that she’s a good role model. That doesn’t excuse her behavior in the film. Her behavior is in many ways similar to that of Ariel. In this situation, rather than being told by her father that she can’t marry a human, she’s told by her mother that she has to marry. This results in the same solution of going to a witch and asking for help. A difference is that all Merida knows is that she’ll change her fate with the spell given to her by the witch while Ariel is well aware of what she’s getting herself into with Ursula.

That said, there is a clear transformation the character undergoes during the film. All of the stronger princesses I have examined or will examine feature this characteristic. I will give the filmmakers credit for this, but for most of the film Merida feels a bit annoying and also not a very compelling character. What’s even worse is that the conflict of not wanting to be in an arranged marriage feels better handled in “Mulan 2,” and I should not be able to say that I think a plot is handled better in a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel.

As both a Pixar film and a princess movie, “Brave” fails to live up to previous standards. But you could do much worse with Pixar films and it never manages to fall to the level of “Cars 2.”

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The Disney Princess Project: “The Princess and the Frog”

Come! We pucker.Previously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Pocahontas
Hercules
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The Little Mermaid

Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009 and it was notable for featuring the first African-American Disney Princess. There would later be some concerns from Disney because they didn’t attract enough boys to a film with the word “Princess” in the title and it didn’t receive the warm welcome that “Tangled” received a year later. It seems to me that “The Princess and the Frog” is actually an underrated film and deserves a place among the great Disney films.

The film follows Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman in New Orleans who wants to open a restaurant, fulfilling the dream of both her and her dad (Terrence Howard). Tiana is a hard worker and finally earns the money, but fails to secure the restaurant after being outbid. At the same time Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) has arrived in New Orleans, completely broke. He is going to stay with the fabulously wealthy “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman) and his daughter Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who would love to marry a prince. Naveen ends up tangled up with Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who should really do more animated Disney movies), a voodoo witch doctor who transforms the prince into a frog. Facilier also transforms Naveen’s valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) into Naveen, which is part of Facilier’s plan to take over New Orleans.

At the costume ball the La Bouff’s hold, Tiana meets Naveen in frog form and after much cajoling from the prince, she kisses him. This results in Tiana being transformed into a frog and the two are chased off into the Bayou. While there they meet a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings) who can help them find Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis). The two hope that Mama Odie can transform them back into humans, but they get deeper help from Mama Odie.

“The Princess and the Frog” paints a portrait of New Orleans that isn’t completely whitewashed. The viewers are shown the stark contrast between where the La Bouff’s live and where Tiana and her family live. The La Bouff’s live in a grand New Orleans mansion surrounded by other grand New Orleans mansions. Tiana’s family lives in a tiny run-down bungalow surrounded by similar buildings, all of which are occupied by blacks. The film could have portrayed New Orleans as a place where whites and blacks lived in harmony everywhere, but it shows us a socioeconomic and racial difference in where the characters live.

The film also shows us that Tiana faces difficulties because she’s a black woman. After all of her hard work, Tiana finally makes the down-payment for the restaurant but is outbid. She is then told by the realtors that it’s for the best because a woman of her “background” couldn’t possibly handle the pressures of running a restaurant. Although they don’t explicitly tell it to Tiana, the realtors do dismiss her dreams because she’s a black working-class woman. With the other characters who were servants, they didn’t get dismissed for their dreams because of their race or economic background. And while Tiana does get the prince in the end she doesn’t pick the prince because he will help her realize her dreams–although she realizes her dream will be complete if she shares it with him.

What’s also interesting is how the film portrays voodoo, which isn’t treated like a religion. There’s a very clear difference between good voodoo and bad voodoo in the film and they’re represented by Mama Odie and Dr. Facilier, respectively. Mama Odie uses her voodoo to help all living creatures while Dr. Facilier uses his voodoo to manipulate and control people while also serving his masters. This is a situation where the filmmakers could have shown voodoo as only being a tool for evil, but they chose not to do so and the film is better for that.

The film features terrific lively animation for all of the characters and settings. Even in the murky Bayou or the a dark cemetery it is always a delight to look at the film. Two of the best moments come during musical numbers. In “Almost There” we have a fantasy sequence where Tiana imagines her restaurant in an illustration coming to life, which fits in perfectly for the setting of the film. Later in the film there’s the sequence of “Dig a Little Deeper” there are numerous animals dancing and singing like they’re a gospel choir in a church. The sequence ends with multiple colored bottles hanging from Mama Odie’s tree that creates a look that reminds one of stained glass.

Randy Newman also wrote a terrific score for this film that is the finest Disney had in more than a decade. It does a great job of adding to the film’s setting and is incredibly memorable. “Dig a Little Deeper” is also one of the best songs of any of the Disney Princess songs simply because of how exuberant it manages to be.

But the film is not without fault and the weaknesses come in the form of Louis and Ray. Louis is at some moments a little too over-the-top which distracts from the relationship forming between Naveen and Tiana. Ray on the other hand has a weird plot where he’s in love with the evening star, which although amusing seems to do very little for the film.

But is Tiana a Good Role Model for Children? Yes.

Tiana is a hard-worker and an incredibly kind person. She never seems to dread her work, which might be tied to the fact that she views it as a means to achieve her goal. Additionally, Tiana actually has a dream that is a more substantial than “marry a prince” or “attend a ball.”

I also disagree with the idea that Tiana only ends up with Naveen because she wants him to help her make her restaurant a reality. Tiana makes it very clear at the end of the film she wants to be with Naveen because being around him makes her happy, not because he will make her restaurant magically occur.

Even though it has problems, “The Princess and the Frog” is a great movie to watch because it does present a good role model and is an excellent story with great characters and a terrific setting. So grab a bowl of gumbo and enjoy.

The Disney Princess Project: “The Little Mermaid”

Poor unfortunate souls! In pain, in need. This one longing to be thinner, That one wants to get the girl. And do I help them? Yes, indeed. Those poor unfortunate souls So sad, so true. They come flocking to my cauldron, Crying, Spells, Ursula, please! And I help them! Yes I doPreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Pocahontas
Hercules
Atlantis: The Lost Empire

“The Little Mermaid” was the first film in a string of hits Disney would release from 1989 until 1999. It was the rain that relieved a drought for Disney after the dismal performances of “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Oliver and Company” and “The Black Cauldron.” So why did “The Little Mermaid” succeed at the box office?

The film focuses on Ariel (Jodi Benson), a mermaid princess who strays away from activities and dreams of being on the surface. This troubles both her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), and the court conductor, Sebastian the Crab (Samuel E. Wright). On one evening, Ariel floats to the surface and sees a celebration on a boat. There she spies Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) and falls in love with him, eventually saving him when his ship burns. But Ariel cannot be with the prince because humans are different and they’re savages. Then Ursula (Pat Carroll) arrives on the scene and offers Ariel a deal: She can be a human and remain a human if she shares true love’s kiss with Eric before the third sunset after the transformation. If she fails to get true love’s kiss, she will return to her mermaid form and become the property of Ursula. Crazy in love, Ariel takes the deal.

The most obvious reason as to why “The Little Mermaid” was essentially an instant classic is that it’s one of the best movies Disney has ever made. The film features fantastic animation, great voice acting and wonderful songs. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote many of the best Disney songs ever done and quite a few of their best songs are in this film, such as “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl.” The film also does something the three films I mentioned earlier did not do, which is tell a love story. Most people love a love story and this film features a girl meets boy story.

The film also features Ursula, who is possibly Disney’s best villain. Ursula schemes and does everything possible to rule the sea. She also camps it up–although young Meghan-Annette thought Ursula was a guy–while being a delightful character to watch. No, she doesn’t burn down an occupied house because she’s lusting after someone nor does she destroy an entire village to send a message to a ruler, but watching her character is a delight and she does go to great lengths to get what she wants. She also has a motivation for why she does her plan. It’s established that Ursula used to be part of the royal court, but was banished for trying to seize the throne. While it’s not clear why she wanted it in the past, her banishment explains why she wants the throne now.

Although all of the songs in the film are great, I do want to focus on “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” We know “Part of Your World,” which is a classic “I Want” song that is found in musical theater. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” shows how Ursula uses Ariel’s desires and manipulates her into becoming a human. Ursula starts off by explaining how she works as a “businesswoman,” but after explaining the deal tells Ariel that she doesn’t need her voice.

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what’s idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with idle conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man.

With that speech it’s easy to understand why Ariel would give up an incredibly prized possession, her voice, to get the guy of her dreams.

Before I get to the main point of my posts, I would like to say that after watching this film I’ve noticed that “Someone different than you is a savage” is a recurring theme in Disney films released during the decade known as the Disney renaissance. In this film, it’s humans to merfolk; in “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s the Beast to the villagers; for “Pocahontas,” the natives to the settlers and reverse; in “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” it’s everyone outside of the cathedral to Quasimodo (as per what Frollo says) and gypsies to Frollo. This certainly creates a lot of dramatic tension in the films, but I find it interesting that it’s a theme Disney kept bringing up during this time period.

But is Ariel a Good Role Model for Children? No.

Sure, she’s a rebellious teenager, but Mulan struggles to meet the expectation of her society and is awesome. The problem here is that Ariel falls head-over-heels for a human and even defends him even though she hasn’t really had time to interact with him at length. (I’ll give “Pocahontas” credit for having Pocahontas defend John Smith and the settlers after she’s gotten to know him.) After her father tells her to stay away from the surface, she trades her voice to get human legs. This could be interpreted by people, and has been interpreted to mean that if you really want a man, change your body and he’ll like you.

I will admit that it’s good that Eric falls in love with her even though she can’t talk, which means that even though she is imperfect, he still likes her. (I don’t interpret that as being the result of men not liking girls who talk, as Ursula suggests.) But Ariel, although strong-willed, does make a deal to get the guy she wants. She also gets her friends into dangerous situations.

So in terms of “Is she a good role model,” I have to say no. But at least Ariel has a strong personality, which more than I can say about Cinderella or Aurora. It also helps that Ariel is placed in a really good movie, so if you haven’t seen “The Little Mermaid,” you have to see this movie.

The Disney Princess Project: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”

Less talk, more sawPreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Pocahontas
Hercules

Disney decided in 2001 to try something new by releasing a movie that was darker, explosive-filled, violent movie with no wisecracking sidekicks or musical numbers. That film was “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” which ended up being lost like the titular setting due to it being released the summer of “Shrek”‘s release as well as not being a very good film.

“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” starts off by showing people on hover vehicles avoiding an approaching wave. The wave is approaching Atlantis and as the residents panic, the queen is sucked into a bright light, saving the city, which sinks. Fast-forward to 1914 and Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is desperately trying to get funding for an expedition to find “The Shepherd’s Journal,” which he believes could lead to Atlantis. He is laughed off because it’s a fairy tale, but then he comes home to find Helga Sinclair (Claudia Christian), who is supposed to be a femme fatale character. She leads him to explorer Mr. Whitmore (JOHN MAHONEY) who reveals that the journal has been found and Whitmore is going to finance an expedition to Atlantis where Milo will be an expert in gibberish.

On the expedition, Milo meets his crew mates which includes Sinclair, Commander Rourke (James Garner), Mole (Corey Burton), Dr. Sweet (Phil Morris), Vinny (Don Novello), Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), Packard (Florence Stanley) and Cookie (Jim Varney). After several mishaps, the crew eventually finds Atlantis and is greeted/cornered by Atlantians, led by Princess Kidagakash (Cree Summer), or Kida. However, the king (Leonard Nimoy) isn’t too pleased that they’re there. After some exploring, Milo finds out that Rourke and the crew wants to find the “Heart of Atlantis” and sell it on the surface, much to Milo’s dismay.

There are many problems with “Atlantis,” the first of which happens to be the plot. First of all, we what could have been a great action movie with a “find this first” doesn’t happen. The plot could have been reminiscent of Indiana Jones movies, but instead we have a quick resolution to the plot of Milo wanting the journal. In addition, there are plot holes such as how an ancient civilization that disappeared thousand of years ago knows how to speak English. While Ramsin Canon, who was my editor at Gapers Block, suggested that this could be magic, it’s still a massive plot hole.

There’s also the problem of the film lacking in interesting characters. Even Milo isn’t a very engaging character despite being the central character. Most of the characters are archetypes, even though some don’t work. Sinclair is introduced as a femme fatale-esque character but is incredibly boxy in design compared to Kida. The only member of the crew who is interesting is Vinny and that’s mostly because of his wisecracking lines.

Finally, the film has hideous character designs. Although they’re influenced by the style of Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy, that style works well for comics. In this context it really doesn’t work for any of the characters except for the Atlantians and it might just be the people who were assigned to animate them. What’s worse is that watching the DVD the animation felt like a step back from not only “Tarzan,” which proceeded “Atlantis,” but also “Hercules.” The overall design of Atlantis in shots showing the overall city is quite lovely, but that’s about it.

But is Kida a Good Role Model for Children? Yes.

Kida is a strong, intelligent woman who seems to be very independent as someone who is born into royalty. In fact, when members of the expedition try to capture her, she does a great job of fighting them off. Additionally, Kida is shown to care very much for the condition of her fellow Atlantians as well as her father. She also heals Milo, a stranger to her, somewhat early in the film. Kida is a great role model for children.

However, Kida is not an official Disney Princess even though she is the member of the royal family in the film. So why might this be?

The easy answer would be that “Atlantis” performed very poorly at the box office in America. Another reason might be that the film feels like it’s geared towards young boys rather than what a typical person would think girls would like.

But another thing might be that Kida could have been a difficult character to merchandise. Granted, her main outfit for the film would be a great outfit for going to the beach, but it’s not really something that children would run around in when playing in the backyard. And while Disney has the wedding outfits for Aurora, Rapunzel and Tiana as well as Belle and Cinderella’s ballgowns, I can’t see Kida’s outfit when she’s made queen being a big seller at Disney Stores.

While we may never know why Kida is left out of the Disney Princess line, she is a terrific role model and one of the best characters in the film. Unfortunately she’s not worth sitting through the entire movie to have a good role model.

The Disney Princess Project: “Hercules”

Read our lips, you're in lovePreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Pocahontas

Mulan, the titular character of the film “Mulan,” is part of the official Disney Princess line-up. Although I’ll discuss it more in-depth when I write about “Mulan,” this puzzles me because Mulan is neither born a princess nor does she end up with anyone of nobility. So since Mulan is a princess, I’ve decided to look at Meg, the main female character in “Hercules” since she ends up with a demi-god.

“Hercules” tells the story of Hercules (Tate Donovan/Josh Keaton/Roger Bart), the son of happy, monogamous Zeus (Rip Torn) and not-psychopathic Hera (Samantha Eggar). In order to fulfill a plot for Hades (James Woods) to take over Mount Olympus, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer) kidnap the baby Hercules and try to turn him mortal in order to be able to kill him. Their plan fails and Hercules retains superstrength, but he grows up believing that he is a freak. After finding out that he’s the son of Zeus, he goes to train with Phil (Danny DeVito). Once he’s completed his training, Hercules heads to Thebes and along the way he meets Meg (Susan Egan), a damsel in distress.

Up until this point, all of the character designs in the princess films felt like pretty standard Disney designs. With “Hercules” there are unique character designs that haven’t been seen in any other Disney films. There’s the truly grotesque cyclopes, the hunky Hercules, the varied designs of the muses, and the shapely, beautiful Meg. Watching the film it can be gathered that the animators looked at ancient Greek artwork for inspiration and a guide on the character designs. This helps both establish the settings for the film and give it a unique feel.

“Hercules” is filled with anachronisms, but I find that I have so much fun watching “Hercules” to really care about the anachronisms. While “Pocahontas” is a film that tries to be a Very Important Film, “Hercules” is a film that just wants to be fun, but it ends up helping the film soar rather than tumble. One of the greatest strengths of the film are the gospel-style songs performed by the Muses. In fact, “Hercules” has one of the best Disney songs ever done, which I’ll discuss later.

In terms of critiquing the film, I can’t think of anything I haven’t already said, so we’ll get to the main point.

But is Meg a Good Role Model for Children? Yes, actually.

Meg is the first Disney Princess who is presented as a flawed person. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are flawless. Ariel is rebellious, but it pays off in the end. Belle reads books and that distances her from the villagers, but it pays off. Pocahontas runs off a lot, but she’s still a great person. Meg actually feels like she sits in a moral grey area as she is presented as a damsel in distress who works for Hades. She shows that she’s one of the good guys as the film continues, but it isn’t immediately clear to us that’s the case.

What’s also unique about Meg is that she’s the second Disney character I can think of who is presented as a sexual being. (Frollo in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the first one that comes to my mind because of “Hellfire.”) We see women who swoon over Hercules, but she comes onto him and flirts with him. Even Gaston doesn’t really do that to Belle. There’s also dialogue between Hades and Meg where it’s revealed that Meg sold her soul to Hades to save her significant other’s life, only for him to chase off after some “babe.” So we also are given a character who is hurt because she was left for another woman, something never presented again in a Disney movie, to my knowledge.

What is also astonishing about Meg in the context of the other characters I’ve written about is that we see Meg progressively falling in love with Hercules. While a majority of the characters have instantly seen a guy and declared love for them, Meg slowly falls in love with him. And when it’s clear to the audience that she’s in love with Hercules, there’s then a big number about how she won’t admit that she’s in love with him, which is one of the best songs in a Disney film.

Additionally, rather than having to be rescued at the end of the film, Meg, like Belle, ends up saving the day. But what’s incredible with Meg is that she does save the day by sacrificing herself. (SPOILERS: She lives.) She starts off as a damsel-in-distress, but then becomes one who does the saving by the end of the film. Yes, she’s a pawn for Hades during most of the film, but Meg is one of the strongest female characters in any Disney film and a terrific role model for children.

Just let them know to not sell their souls to the lord of the underworld.

The Disney Princess Project: “Pocahontas”

Can YOU paint with all the colors of the wind?Previously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast

My opinion of “Pocahontas” is known as I nearly eviscerated it when writing The Great ’90s Animated Film Project. After watching “Cinderella,” “Pocahontas” feels like a masterpiece, so this will not be the scathing post you were expecting.

“Pocahontas” tells the tale of Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), a free-spirited Native American woman who is the daughter of Chief Powahatan (Russel Means). Her hand has been given in marriage to Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), which is not someone she wants to marry because of how serious he is. Meanwhile, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) arrives in The New World with The Virginia Company, led by Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Steirs). Upon arrival, he searches the land and eventually meets Pocahontas, whom he falls in love with. We figure out that they both fall in love by leaves and symbols swirling around them. However, as it is said many times within the first thirty minutes of the film the natives are savages and cannot be trusted, so let’s ravage their land in search of gold that does not exist. Since they are of two different groups of people, Pocahontas and John Smith’s “love” is threatened.

The film starts off with a prologue where we see a painting of London. It seems, like many other things in this film, an attempt to be like “Beauty and the Beast,” but constantly falling short. The painting feels more like the opening of the storybook in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” than the stained glass in “Beauty and the Beast” as its a place setting, but not as a way of telling us what’s going on. The film also ends with a painting depicting Pocahontas saying goodbye to John Smith, which again feels like a “book-end” that we have seen in the previous films. But this feels like a nice little artistic touch rather than something that has a real purpose, like the stained glass in “Beauty and the Beast” or the storybooks.

But why focus on one minor detail when there are numerous flaws with Pocahontas? First of all, the film features one of the weakest villains in a Disney film. Ratcliffe, although determined to get his gold, never really terrifies you like numerous other Disney villains. After all, anyone on that ship, even John Smith before he meets Pocahontas, could have attacked the tribe living where they settled. We also have John Smith, who manages to be an incredibly bland character despite having lots of screen time and an actual name. He’s dashing, has a weird American accent for being English and is nice to Pocahontas, although he does say some insulting things to her. There will be more on her rejecting Kocoum but falling for John Smith later.

What is oddly weak in this film is the score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. While the two later teamed up and wrote the fantastic score for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” most of the score feels incredibly unmemorable. Sure, “Colors of the Wind” is the best-known song, but it feels like a lecture given in song from Pocahontas, set to scenes that feel ready-made for a music video on Disney Channel.

The best song in the whole film happens to be “Savages,” a prelude to potential war between the tribe and the settlers. Like I mentioned in my earlier post on “Pocahontas,” “Savages” is a weaker version of “The Mob Song” in “Beauty and the Beast,” but “Savages” is the catchiest, most energetic song in the entire film. It also provides my favorite bit of animation in the film.Savages! Savages! Savages! Barely even human.

The biggest problem with this film is that it feels like it wants to be a Very Important Film, but Disney films shouldn’t feel like a didactic film. You watch a Disney film to have an escape from the outside world, not to be lectured on the sins of some of our European ancestors. And if Disney wants us to constantly cheer for the Native Americans, it works well since I find the settlers to be straw Evil White Men who are incredibly whitewashed.

But is Pocahontas a Good Role Model for Children? No.

In the beginning, Pocahontas is an incredibly free-spirited woman who is loyal to her tribe. By the end of the film, she has let her infatuation with an English settler whom she just met threaten the safety of her entire tribe. Additionally, when Kocoum is shot, she fails to tell the truth about who killed him. She could easily say, “Father, I saw the man who shot Kocoum. It was a red-haired white man,” but no, she lets John Smith remain tied inside of a tent so they can have a big power ballad.

Additionally, I find it a bit odd that her reasons for rejecting Kocoum are a confusing dream and him being “so serious.” It is established that Kocoum is a skilled warrior who has helped lead the tribe to victory against enemies. Kocoum also happens to be rather hunky and cares very much about Pocahontas’ safety. Sure, history dictates that Pocahontas ends up with a white settler–although it was John Rolfe, not John Smith–but in the line of Disney Princesses who pick one man over another, this is the most confusing.

Perhaps it’s because of “Cinderella” my usual disdain for this film is tempered, but “Pocahontas” is still a bad film that is worth skipping. Honestly, if you are really interested in watching a Disney film with “Pocahontas” in it, you might as well watch the sequel.

The Disney Princess Project: “Sleeping Beauty”

BLUE! PINK! Previously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella

“Sleeping Beauty” is the final film of the Storybook Trilogy, a term I’m using to describe the three Disney Princess films that are framed by a storybook. These have films that are ultimately fairly faithful elaborations on classic fairy tales and feature incredibly detailed visuals. What’s also interesting is that while we have three films that feature princesses or girls who become princesses heavily in the plot, the next time we see an official Disney Princess is 30 years later with “The Little Mermaid.” (“The Black Cauldron” features a princess, but that movie failed and isn’t included probably because of how dark it is and how poorly it did at the box office.)

“Sleeping Beauty,” which is adapted from the Charles Perrault story and has a score adapted from the ballet by Tchalkovsky, is essentially Disney’s art film. Yes, the film’s titular character is being used now to sell shoes, socks and sippy cups, but if you pay close attention to the film it isn’t like most Disney films. (Neither is “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” but we’ll get to that in a few weeks.) There’s really only one major musical number, “Once Upon a Dream,” and all of the other songs are choral pieces that underscore scenes, similar to the Latin singing in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The film however does not really focus on Princess Aurora (Mary Costa), the Sleeping Beauty. The film starts off at the birth of Aurora, which is a wildly celebrated event. Everyone is invited, except Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), who decides to gift Aurora with a curse that she will die on her sixteenth birthday after pricking her finger with the needle of a spinning wheel. Concerned for her safety, King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), burns all of the spinning wheels while three fairies, Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy); decide to raise Aurora as Briar Rose and lead her to believe that she’s been taken in by three peasant women. Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, the fairies prep for the party while Aurora is out in the woods. There, she meets Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), whom she’s been engaged to since she was born. They fall in love and return to where they came from. Meanwhile, the fairies fighting has informed Maleficent that the fairies are in the forest, so she knows where Aurora is. When the fairies take Aurora to the castle, Maleficent leads Aurora to a spinning wheel where she pricks herself and falls asleep, but does not die thanks to a spell put on her by Merryweather. The fairies put the entire castle under a sleeping spell and they try to save Phillip so he can save the kingdom.

Although this is entitled “Sleeping Beauty,” it could really be retitled “Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.” In fact, other than to have Aurora fall in love with Phillip so that they’re in love and not just fulfilling the obligations of arranged marriage, the scene set in the forest is basically about the fairies trying to prep for a party without magic. Is it compelling film? No. But that’s what the film focuses on. In fact, Aurora could never be seen on screen and we could just be told of what happens and the film could possibly function quite well. This isn’t to suggest that the film would be better without Aurora, I’m just trying to point out how unimportant she feels to the film. I can excuse that Phillip seems to take over the film in the last quarter of it since he has to save the princess, but it does seem odd that the fairies–there were seven in the Perrault story–dominate the story.

The best part of watching the film, other than the arranged and adapted score, has to be the visuals. While there were already great backgrounds with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Cinderella,” here are backgrounds that have depth, such as in a banquet hall in the castle. Another interesting thing is that almost all of the characters have either sharp lines for faces or very round lines, an interesting character design since it’s not exactly realistic, but some of it would carry on in Disney animation.

Honestly, if you’re looking for a film to enjoy based on how it is constructed as art, I would say that “Sleeping Beauty” would be a great movie. But for a movie to watch based on its princess, not so much. Which brings me to the main point.

But is Aurora a Good Role Model for Children? No.

This is mostly because of the lack of characterization for Aurora that I discussed earlier. Maybe if she felt as instrumental to the plot as Snow White or Cinderella were, I could give a definitive answer. But other than that she’s pretty, kind and sings well, but two of those were the result of gifts that Flora and Fauna bestowed on her. Normally, I would criticize her falling in love with a guy she thinks she just met, but I feel like that was put in so that it wouldn’t seem so bad when she ends up with the guy she’s been betrothed to since she was a baby. I also can’t criticize her engagement since that was kind of common back then.