Marvel Musings: The Ten Most Emotional Scenes of Phase 2

Yeah, the it took some time, but here is finally the ranking for Phase 2. Same rules as the last time: The scenes have to be emotional, but not necessarily tearjerkers. And I consider December 2015 as the end of Phase 2, so Agents of Shield fans, don’t be angry if a certain infamous scene from season 3 isn’t listed here, it aired more or less right after the cut-off date and will certainly get its due when Phase 3 is finished and I do lists for that one. Also, while this should be self-evident, there will be spoilers. Especially if you haven’t watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I will mention some very pivotal information here.

10. Age of Ultron: Quicksilver dies

Quicksilver didn’t have enough screen-time to be really broken up about his passing, but he was around just enough to feel his loss. Less for him, but on Wanda’s behalf. Her taking revenge on Ultron by literally ripping out his heart is a very gripping scene (pun totally intended). And then there is Clint’s guilt. When he puts Quicksilver’s body on the helicarrier and breaks down beside him, it just summons up all the exhaustion and the emptiness which one might feel after a fight like this, one in which you can only try to do damage control and rescue as many lives as possible but aren’t really able to stop a catastrophe from happening, into one single image.

9. Ant-Man: Anthony dies

This one mostly made the list because it is so unexpected. Making the audience care about the death of an ant of all things requires a lot of skill. I guess we can thank the CGI department for making the ants look cute and realistic at the same time, but also kudos to Paul Rudd’s acting abilities. The thing he is broke up about isn’t even there, and while there is too much going on to linger too long on Anthony’s fate, he puts all into the moment.

8. Jessica Jones, Season 1: Jessica shoots Luke

For some reason the interaction between Jessica and Luke often packs a more emotional punch than her interacting with Killgrave. I think because Killgrave is mostly creepy. Really creepy. The scenes with him make me shudder, but not exactly emotional. In addition Jessica keeps fighting against Killgrave in every single one of those scenes. But whenever she is with Luke, you can feel her emotional turmoil, her self-hatred and her guilt. The only other person which makes her open up that much is Trish and yes, Trish nearly dying and her being under the control of Killgrave were both choices I considered for this list, too. But the fact that in this case Jessica is forced to damage a loved one herself gives this scene an additional level of hurt.

7. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 1: Ward drops Jemma and Fitz into the ocean up to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 2: Ward shots Kara while Bobbi springs Ward’s trap

Yeah, I am cheating a little bit here, but I think the whole arc Ward had between those two episodes is an emotional rollercoaster. When Ward suddenly turned out to be Hydra, I think a lot people in the audience expected that there would either be some explanation or that he would become at least a sometimes ally eventually. It’s what most (arguably lesser) TV shows would have done. But not here. In season 1, Ward’s past was explored very thoroughly, showing what Garrett did to him, and yes, it was enough to make me feel for Ward. Until he dropped Fitzsimmons into the ocean, nearly killing them both and damaging Fitz permanently. But even then there was always the possibility that Ward would get a redemption arc or become some sort of frenemy. But him killing Kara believing her to be May closed this particular door once and for all. And I honestly don’t mind. Redemption arcs are so overdone and kind of predicable. Getting invested in a character and then realizing that the whole character was just an illusion is a way better source of drama. More or less every scene Ward and the team share in season 2 are pure emotional gold, especially whenever Fitz is confronted with Ward’s presence.

6. Daredevil, Season 1: Jack Murdock wins his fight

The second episode of Daredevil was easily my favourite of season one, less because of the famous hallway fight and more because of the backstory which was told in it. I really liked Jack Murdock, and when he has his one moment of success, my heart arched for him knowing what would most likely happen next. I don’t know if what he did was really worth it, if that was really the right way to secure Matt’s future. I am pretty sure that Matt would have preferred to grow up with his father still being around. But there is still something powerful about some sacrificing his live for someone else. And in a way it is the ambiguous nature of the sacrifice which made his victory such a bittersweet moment.

5. Thor, The Dark World: Loki’s reaction to Freya’s death

There isn’t really much I like about this movie, but the parts which I do like are so strong that they make up for a lot. Most of those parts are related to Loki, and what happens to him represents his self-destructive streak more than anything else. There he is in prison, hating the world (and himself), but there is one person left who is still ready to reach out to him and that is his mother. And then he inadvertently causes her death by pointing the Kursed the way out to the throne room out of petty revenge. The way he first pretends that he doesn’t care and then explodes in rage, destroying the cell and hurting himself while still trying to keep out the illusion is a perfect representation of Loki’s complicated character. And in a way truly heart-breaking.

4. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 3: Fitz rescues Jemma  from the Monolith

No matter what TV show or movie I watch, there is always the question of the stakes. I usually don’t expect any main characters to die (and yes that includes Game of Thrones, no matter what anyone says, some characters are safer than others), so I am the most invested when the characters are about to make decisions which I know will have far reaching consequences. When Fitz jumped after Jemma, I honestly wasn’t sure if he would manage to pull her back, and the show runners really milked this scene for all its worth. It’s an emotional nail-biter which still works on multiple watches.

3. Captain America, The Winter Soldier: Cap stops fighting against Bucky

One of the criticisms levelled again the MCU is the fact that the big action set-pieces often lack an emotional centre. This is certainly true for some of them, but not for The Winter Soldier. Between all the fireworks, there is so much going on. Fury confronting Pierce, Natasha deciding to step into the light and then electrocuting herself, but above all, there is the emotional dilemma Steve has to face. He doesn’t really want to fight Bucky, but he knows that he has to do so in order to protect million of innocent lives. Once he successfully inserted the chip, though, he is finally free of his obligation. I always wondered what was going on in Bucky’s head in this scene. To me it looks like he didn’t hit quite as hard as he could have because he was confused that his “mission” didn’t act the way the it was supposed to. In any case, though, I can’t watch this scene without my heart breaking for those two all over again.

2. Agent Carter, Season 1: Peggy talking the fall for Jarvis

This might be an odd choice, especially since there are various scenes centred around Peggy’s grief over Cap which really tug on my heart-strings. But this moment is emotionally so draining that I have actually trouble to watch it. For those who don’t watch the show, here is the set-up: Peggy has just managed to show herself as competent in the field when she is forced to deliberately make a stupid mistake to get Jarvis off the hook. The moment is crushing. Not only is she forced to apologize to the guy who keeps talking down to her, he humiliates her on top of it. And knowing that she is actually not as stupid as she pretends to be, but just tricked her co-workers again for the bigger goal, doesn’t make this better. It makes it worse, because she truly doesn’t deserve the scorn which is thrown her way.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy: We are Groot

There was not doubt for me from the get go that this scene would be the winner of the list. In a movie which already has a number of emotional scenes which would fill half of the list if not for the rules I set myself, this is the one which encompasses everything this movie is in three memorable words. The fact alone that I tear up over a racoon pleading with a tree is a testament how well constructed this scene is. And it is doubly sad now that it seems that the current Groot isn’t quite the same character as this past version of Groot. Which would make Groot the first main character who died for real in the MCU.


By the Book: The Sword in the Stone

The Arthur saga is technically a legend, and would therefore not fit into this series, but this movie is not based on the legend. It is an adaptation of a specific book based on said legend with the title The Sword in Stone. So I guess I’ll have to take a look how the book relates to the legend, and how the movie relates to the book.

1. The Sword in the Stone

This is one of the books I read specifically for this article series. And I have to say, it surprised me, mostly because I read some reviews in the past which complained that the movie is nothing like the book at all and that the very modern tone ruins the story. When I actually read it, I discovered to my surprise that the movie actually hit the tone spot on. The book is pretty much a modern take on the Arthur Saga, with a focus on what kind of understanding a good king should have.

But naturally the Disney version did change some aspects. For one, the relationships between the characters. In the book Wart and Kay are friends, Sir Ector is pretty laid back, Sir Pellinor has somewhat of an arc on his own and a lot of side characters are cut. In the book I read, there was no Madam Mim, which confused me, until I discovered that the author did a lot of changes to the story later on. Now publishers use the new version when they publish it as part of the tetralogy The Once and Future King, but the old version is considered the better one by a lot of people.

The Disney movie is based on the original version. The tone of the book is very modern, especially since the narrator keeps explaining old words by with modern examples. And while the author obviously did have extensive knowledge of medieval culture, there are a lot of anachronism in the story, partly explained by the fact that Merlin supposedly lives backwards in time. The characters – well, let’s put it this way: no one in this book feels real. Take what is usually considered the ideal of knighthood and then emphasis them so extreme that they become ridiculous, and you have most of the characters of the book. Pellinor for example keeps hunting some sort of beast, for the honour of his family.

Judging not the whole tetralogy but the book on its own, I would say it is okay. It has a good idea and the unusual style of narration might help younger readers to develop an understanding for the concept of brain over brawl it tries to convey. The downside is that there doesn’t really happen that much, the book spends a lot of time on describing nature, but barely any time on character development. Which is odd, since it should be a coming of age story, but I don’t think that Wart at the beginning of the book is notable different from the one at the end, it’s more like the basics for his later development as kings are laid. It does fit somewhat into the legend and is a good reimaging, though.

2. The Setting

As far as settings go, this movie doesn’t really have a lot to work with. Movies or shows set in vaguely historical England are after all dime to dozens. But at least the moments when Ward is a fish, a squirrel and a bird allow some unusual perspectives. The animators managed to capture perfectly the feel of the first lesson in the book, where the description of the murky water creates an atmospheric mood, and when Ward is jumping through the trees, you really feel the height.

3. The Animation

Like all Disney movies from this period the style is very sketchy and overall, this one looks a little bit cheap, at least for a Disney movie. But it still has its moments. The backgrounds are beautiful for starters. But the real stand-out is the wizard duel. The change into different animals is flawless in its fluidity.

4. The Characters 18 merlin

I think if there is anything Disney did a good job with, it’s the characters, mainly because the movie added conflicting interests to them. In the book, more or less everyone goes along just fine, and in their readiness to accept the oddities of the others, they sometimes come off as quite silly. The movie adds a conflict between Wart and Kay by making Kay an example for the “brawn over brain thinking” and, maybe even more important, a fall-out between Wart and Merlin. In the book, Merlin just decides to go at one point and then randomly turns up when Wart pulls the sword out of the stone. The conflict in the movie, with Wart having enough of getting in trouble for Merlin’s teachings, is not really a good explanation for Merlin leaving in a sulk, but at least there is some reason provided. Idealism is a good thing, but it often clashes with reality.

The best character in the movie is in my eyes Sir Ector, though. While he often does play the rule of the antagonist, he is introduced as someone who does care about Wart’s welfare, even though his approach is not always the right one. In the Disney universe, in which most characters are clearly categorized as “good” or “bad”, he is one of the rare antagonists, whose point of view is understandable to a degree.

Madam Mim on the other hand falls firmly on the bad side, to a point at which it is deliberately ridiculous. She is one of those funny villains, who don’t really come off all that threatening in general, but has enough pull to not come off as pathetic. In the book she was (before she was removed) the mother of Morgause. In the movie she is a one-off character, only present for one (very memorable) sequence.

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Merlin is more or less exactly like in the book (plus a funny, grumpy sidekick and a tendency to sing, naturally). And then there is Wart. Honestly, the most problematic character in the movie, not because he is badly written, but because of the dubbing. Three different voice actors for one character are two too many. It makes the movie in English nearly unwatchable.

5. The Plot

The basic story that Merlin comes to the castle to teach Wart by changing him into all kind of different animals is still the same as in the book, though the lessons itself are a little bit different. The first one, when Wart is turned into a fish comes the closest. The main difference is that the book is mostly about teaching something about those animals. The movie has those moments too, when it explains how fish move, how impressive the survival of squirrels is and how birds are flying. But it also has an element of danger to it the book mostly lacks because there Merlin tends to lurk in the background. Putting him out of commission so to speak, by making him forgetful or busy or absent, the movie adds an element of suspense to the lessons which is desperately needed for a screen adaptation.

I think the two things which are the most memorable in the movie are Wart’s romance with a squirrel (and I can’t believe that I just wrote this) and the wizard duel. The squirrel, because it’s so heart-breaking (and honestly, how often does love at first sight doesn’t end in a relationship in a Disney movie?). The wizard duel, because it is so creative and has such a clever solution. It is a better climax than the actual ending, which is a little bit rushed, to be honest.

6. The Songs

The soundtrack of The Sword in the Stone is criminally underrated imho. In terms of structure we are still in the pre-Broadway era of Disney, but the timing for the songs is nevertheless perfect. There is the intro song, which really gives the vibe of a bard telling the story of the magical sword. You can just imagine the story being told all through the country. “Mad Madam Mim” is an early example of a villain song, but naturally played for laughs, though still with a creepy vibe to it. All the other songs are sung by Merlin. Their purpose is always either him having to explain something or doing magic – and the Sherman brothers are the masters of putting memorable nonsense words into songs. “Higitus Figitus” isn’t quite as memorable as some of their other songs along this line, but I still admire the creativity in it.

7. The Conclusion

The Sword in the Stone is, despite only taking a margin of the actual source text, a good adaptation of the book which is in turn an interesting take on the legend. It is not one of the “big” Disney movies, though. It is fun to watch and has its moments, but overall, it is a fairly simple movie. And the fact that neither the animation (even though it has its moments), nor the dubbing is as good as it should be, doesn’t help. What does work are the characters, though, which are all fairly unusual for a Disney movie. This alone is a reason to give it a watch.18 archimedesstump


By the book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

To say it upfront: Between Victor Hugo’s two “big” novels, I tend to gravitate more towards Les Misérables, mainly because Notre Dame de Paris is downright depressing. Oh, both books delve deep into the social injustices of their time and the darkness of the human soul. But I think that Les Misérables is the more sophisticated take of those two, much clearer in the message it is trying to tell with much more relatable characters in it. Notre Dame de Paris is from a literature historic angle the more important one though, because it is considered the first novel about the society as a whole, including different classes, instead of concentrating on only the rich or only the poor. That Disney even tried a take on it is somewhat surprising, because Disney movies are not about social but about personal problems. When Disney does Dickens it’s never about the social aspect and always about the fate of main character of the story. But Dickens’ stories usually have some sort of happy end which plays well into the fairy-tale-like family- friendly storytelling Disney likes so much. Notre Dame de Paris has none of those elements, it is a very disturbing book made for adults. So, does Disney’s watered down version work?

1. The Setting

You might have noticed that I used so far the original French title for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That was intentional, because the translated title is very misleading. It’s not the Hunchback who is the main character of the story, it’s Notre Dame. Most of the book is set there and a lot of time is spend on the description of Notre Dame itself. And the Disney version? Well, there Notre Dame is prominent, too. The most memorable parts of the movie feature the cathedral and the scales are very impressive. The difference is that Disney shows off the beauty of Notre Dame, while Hugo’s intention was to point out that this great building was neglected and slowly falling to ruins. The state of Notre Dame reflects the state of society.

I’m not too bothered by the change, though. The audience and the intention of the movie is entirely different from the book. A close adaption would try to stick to those kinds of details, but I think that a good adaption should try to be relevant. And for a modern audience it makes more sense to appreciate the beauty of what survived the decades (I guess Victor Hugo would be very pleased to know that his book made sure that Notre Dame is nowadays one of the most well-known places in Paris).

2. The Animation

Would you be surprised if I told you that Notre Dame is actually not that big of a church? The two big towers are only 69 metres high. Nor are there any steps leading up to the entrance. What is real, though, are the gargoyles, the giant rosette window and the bells. But I don’t mind it that Disney exaggerated a little bit, I put this down to artistic licence. What is truly important is not how realistic the church and Paris itself is, but if the portrayal works for the movie, and it certainly does. Nearly all Disney movies are visually impressive, but this one is especially memorable.

3. The Characters

The great thing about the original book is that none of the characters are totally good or totally evil. The one who comes the closest of being an “innocent” is Esmeralda, who is somewhat (to borrow a line of another Disney movie) a diamond (or Emerald) in the rough. The Disney version is somewhat clearer cut – therefore the characters end up being very, very different.

Disney Quasimodo: More or less imprisoned at Notre Dame he dreams of leaving the place. He is kind-hearted and doesn’t do a single bad thing during the movie. Original Quasimodo: Not only ugly but also practically deaf and nearly unable to speak he chooses not to venture out of Notre Dame very often. He tries to kidnap Esmeralda for Frollo, but later, after she showed some kindness towards him out of pity, he does his very best to defend her, killing a couple of people in the process, including gypsies who are actually there to rescue her. He eventually murders Frollo when he laughs about Esmeralda’s death by throwing him from the cathedral. And then dies of starvation next to her body.

34 FrolloDisney Claude Frollo: A judge who uses his power over Paris mostly in a crusade against the Gypsies. After he accidentally kills a woman, the archdeacon orders him to take care of her ugly child as penance. He gives the child the “cruel name” Quasimodo and hides him in the tower. When he falls for Esmeralda, he slowly descends into madness, burning half Paris and eventually trying to burn her. Original Claude Frollo: The archdeacon, who takes care of an abandoned Quasimodo out of compassion and named him after the day on which he was found. He also cares deeply for his spoiled younger brother (who gets later accidentally killed by Quasimodo). Despite being a man of the church he dabbles in alchemy and is therefore mistrusted by the people of Paris. When he falls for Esmeralda, he falls into sin, first by trying to kidnap her, later by offering her escape in exchange for being with her when the king orders to ignore the sanctuary of Notre Dame. Oh, and he tries to rape her, and lets her take the fall for the murder of Phoebus.

Disney Esmeralda: A gypsy and free spirit, who openly challenges the authority of Frollo. She is able to see through Quasimodo’s misshapen face, seeing the beauty of his soul. But she is not in love with him, instead she falls for the heroic Phoebus. Original Esmeralda: As a child she was kidnapped by the gypsies who left her mother Quasimodo in her place. Her beauty causes more or less every man she meets to fall for her. She once gives Quasimodo water and rescues his life when he is punished for the kidnapping attempt of her. But this is only an act of pity, she is repulsed by him the same way as everyone else until she spends some time with him in the cathedral. Later she marries a poet (who is originally interested in her, but later more obsessed about her goat – and no, I’m not making that up) in order to rescue his life after he discovers the court of miracles. She never lays with him, though, because she is convinced that staying chaste is important in order to find her real mother (which she does, shortly before her death). The only man who nearly manages to convince her of laying with him his Phoebus. She is impressed by him due to his beauty and because he rescued her when Quasimodo first tried to kidnap her. But their “night of passion” is interrupted by Frollo who stabs Phoebus in the back. Esmeralda is accused of his murder (and of being a witch) and killed.

Disney Phoebus: The hero. And that’s more or less all you need to know about him. Oh, and that he is in love with Esmeralda, who rescues him from drowning after he rescued some people from getting burned by Frollo, getting hit by an arrow in his back in the process. Original Phoebus: An egocentric womanizer whose main interest is to bed Esmeralda, despite the fact that he is already betrothed. He actually survives Frollo’s attack on him, but nevertheless doesn’t step forward to defend Esmeralda. Instead he lives unhappy ever after in the cage of marriage.

Disney Clopin: Some sort of king of the gypsies, who is sometimes the narrator of the movie. He once intends to kill Quasimodo and Phoebus for finding the court of miracles. But he also speaks up on Quasimodo’s behalf…eh…this character really doesn’t make much sense, he switches from bad to good and back in seconds. Original Clopin: First introduced as a beggar he is later revealed to be the king of the gypsies. He has never much contact with either Quasimodo or Phoebus, the episode in the Court of Miracles involves the Poet Gringoire instead. Towards the end of the book he is killed by molten lead when he leads an attack on Notre Dame in order to rescue Esmeralda.

4. The Plot

After the rundown it should be pretty clear that the story of the movie is only vaguely related to the original. The animators mostly took elements they liked and created a new story out of it. Therefore, I won’t bother to discuss if this is a faithful adaptation of the book. It naturally isn’t. The real question is if the newly created plot works and if the movie at least manages to address some aspects of the book.

Disney followed the misleading English title and tried to make Quasimodo the main character. Therefore there are storylines which got rewritten for the movie in order to include him, most notable the scene in the Court of Miracles. But what Disney didn’t manage to do is to make him an interesting character. The original Quasimodo is in appearance as close to a monster as a human can be, and not just because of his looks, but also because he has trouble to communicate. Frollo is more or less his only human contact until he meets Esmeralda. He is also a character who means well, but rarely acts well – which is a contrast to most of the other characters in the book, who often are able to sell even the most selfish acts as good to the other characters.

Disney’s version of Quasimodo is, to be frank, quite bland, mostly because they changed his relationship to Frollo and society in general. This Quasimodo doesn’t feel shunned by society, but mostly removed from it. Everything Quasimodo does is about finding a way to connect to the word outside, but since he lacks any experience with it prior to the movie, his isolation seems to be more Frollo’s doing than based on how society tends to react to people who look different. And if you take Quasimodo’s desire away, what is actually left of the character? Quasimodo is basically the ugly duckling, which never becomes a swan. And we tend to feel for the ugly duckling. But if Quasimodo weren’t such a suffering character, would he actually be likable? Being all naïve and wide-eyed? I’m not sure.

Quasimodo’s view on the world is very convoluted. Does he love the cathedral, hate it or a little bit of both? Does he want to leave it for good, does he want to see the world outside or does he mostly want human companionship? Well, he has the companionship of his gargoyles. Yeah, the gargoyles. I didn’t mention them beforehand because they are more or less solely Disney’s creation. A lot of people have stated the opinion that they ruin the mood of the movie and shouldn’t be there in the first place. I agree and disagree.

34 hunchback-gargoyles-webI agree that their kind of humour (mostly modern jokes) doesn’t fit into the movie. But I don’t think that the gargoyles alone are the problem, they are just the worst offenders. This is the movie which put the goofy yell on a scene in which someone falls into an inferno of flames. A freaking goofy yell. I can’t imagine anything more unfitting. It’s like the makers were worried that the movie might become too dark so they threw in as many unfunny jokes as possible to make up for it.

I also agree that the gargoyles as comic relief don’t work. But I also think that the basic idea for them wasn’t bad. Quasimodo spends a lot of time alone, so having the gargoyles as sounding board is a very good solution. An even better solution would have been, if they were presentations of Quasimodo’s psyche. A couple of times during the movie it is suggested that the Gargoyles are not real. This goes out of the window in the final scene, when the Gargoyles intervene in the battle. But if they had stick to the idea and had made the Gargoyles representations of different aspects of Quasimodo’s mind (for example Victor stands for the rational site which keeps saying that nobody will like him, while Hugo (a less silly one) stands for his emotions and his wish to try nevertheless), arguing with each other instead of with him, this could have turned him into a more rounded and interesting character.

Esmeralda and Phoebus are not that interesting either. Oh, Esmeralda is an improvement from the book in being fiercer, and she got some of the best scenes in the movie. Especially the “God help the outcast” scene. Seeing Esmeralda, someone who doesn’t own much and isn’t even a Christ asks for the less lucky ones, while in the background the “true believers” voice their egoistical and shallow wishes, creates a contrast which prompts the audience to think about religion and morals, without being judgmental or preachy. And personally, I think the movie would have been much more interesting if they had made Esmeralda a secondary lead and had taken the time to flesh her out a little bit more.

The main problem with Esmeralda is that she is mostly reduced to her love story, which is very generic. Though the fault lays more with Phoebus than with her, since he is very badly explained in his motivations. One minute he is the obedient soldier who will follow everything Frollo says, next he turns around and does whatever he wants. Which could be an interesting story-line if he were either a soldier who believes in obedience but is eventually swayed by Esmeralda and the level of cruelty Frollo displays, or if he were from the get go someone who doesn’t think highly of authority and only wants a cushy assignment to get away from the war. Any motivation which would require some character development on his part would be more interesting than him just doing what the plot requires of him to do.

But let’s talk about the best character in this movie: Frollo. One of the greatest Disney villain, mostly because he has one of the most interesting motivations and perhaps the best villain song to go with it. Hellfire can’t be praised enough for putting his decent into madness into memorable lyrics and stunning visuals. There is a tiny problem with it though, since Frollo isn’t the archdeacon but a judge, there is actually no reason why he shouldn’t be interested in a woman, he isn’t bound by a vow of chastity after all. But I guess that can be explained away with him thinking of himself as above such feelings, especially when they are related to a gypsy of all people.

But, in a strange twist, everything which makes this character so good works to the disadvantage of the movie as a whole. Because Frollo is a bastard from the start, his feelings for Esmeralda are not really the downfall of his soul, they only lead to revealing a new level of darkness. And because he is the one who hides Quasimodo (in a way a symbol for him hiding his “sins” from the world), he basically stands between him and society. But the idea that society is shunning Quasimodo doesn’t have much a merit when it mostly happens because of Frollo’s actions, and not because society is the way it is.

Which brings us to the real problem of the plot: society. Nothing the “people of Paris” do makes any sense. They have the feast of fools (even though Gypsies are prosecuted they apparently allowed to come out of hiding for this one – weird…..), and they act with fear when they realize that Quasimodo left his tower. Fair enough. Who knows what horrifying stories are told about him (though it would be great to learn what they think about him at one point, the only story which we do see told about him paints him as a victim, after all). But following Clopin’s lead they start to celebrate him. Still understandable, the first shock is over and apparently Quasimodo is no danger. And then they suddenly turn on him…why? He has done nothing, why should they throw anything at him? And later on, where exactly are all those people when Frollo starts to burn down Paris? But when he starts to attack Notre Dame, they are suddenly all for helping Phoebus because a cathedral is naturally more important than their own homes?

This movie should be,about the relation between the Hunchback and society, and that’s what the animators are intended to do. But because the actual story focusses so much on Frollo and the other main characters, the relation between Quasimodo and society becomes an afterthought most of the time.

5. The Music

It should be obvious at this point that I adore the soundtrack of Hunchback of Notre Dame…well, most of it. I really can do without “A guy like you”. But overall he soundtrack is the main reason for me to watch the movie. I especially love how the sound of the bells are integrated in music, most notable in “The Bells of Notre Dame”. But my favourite songs are “Hellfire” (English version) and “God save the outcasts” (German version). Those are songs about deep emotions which manage to transport a lot of feeling.

6. The Conclusion

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very flawed movie, which has a lot of very good aspects which sadly don’t go together very well and are overshadowed by silliness. Some consider it Disney darkest entry. I disagree. It might seem that way because in recent year Disney has become fairly sugary. But if you look back to the classics, you’ll find that Disney can do dark. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s just not done very well. Mostly because the animators couldn’t decide on one tone for the movie. You can either do Pinocchio or Aladdin, but you can’t do both at once, you have to pick one style and stick to it. It seems like the animators were worried that making it too dark would make it too adult. I don’t think that one necessarily causes the other. You could have told this story in a serious way without it being utterly unsuitable for children as long as you made sure that you put the story in terms they understand.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those Disney Movies which don’t have much to offer in terms of storytelling, but excel in animation and music. The big scenes  are really gigantic and always worth a watch. Though I admit, I tend to watch it this way: I rewind the “Bells of Notre Dame” three or four times, because it’s so good, then I press the fast forward button, with a few interruption for a couple Frollo bastardy and Esmeralda dancing scenes, until I reach “God help the outcast”. I switch to German for this song (because there it’s more sung like a prayer), go back to English and again fast forward to the hellfire scene. Then I skip (no, not fast forward, I skip so that I don’t have to see any part of “A guy like you”) to the Court of Miracles and from this point onward I watch the rest of the movie.

And that sums up the movie pretty well: A lot of good but with too much bad mixed in to work out as a whole. But, to be honest, considering the source text and how unsuitable it is for a Disney movie, this can be considered an okay effort.


By the Book: Oliver and Company

So far, I only reviewed movies which I either liked, or had at least some good aspects to point out. But there is no way I can start this one pretending not to know what the outcome will be: Oliver and Company is a really, really bad adaptation of Oliver Twist and a terrible movie. And this will be easier if I go into this trying to explain why I consider it as bad, so even if you are a fan, please bear with me. I don’t try to bash the movie, I just want to explain why it doesn’t work for me.

1. The Setting

To make one point clear from the start: My issue with this movie has nothing to do with the setting. It should be pretty obvious from my previous reviews that I’m not opposed to changes or new angles, and I think setting the story in New York was the single good decision the animators made. Oliver Twist was written because Dickens wanted to point out that being poor and being a criminal is not automatically the same thing. You can take out the social message, but then you end up with the basic Cinderella story. If you want to keep it in the movie, you could keep it traditional. But if you want it to have an impact, you better pick a place which is close to the reality of the main audience (and that is still the US viewers – with one of two exceptions the movies are always made first and foremost for the US and not the foreign market), a place where the gap between poor and rich is similar big and crime is on the rise.

And back in the 1980s, there was no better place to choose than New York. It’s hard to believe when you visit the city nowadays, but back then, this was not a safe place to be. You better didn’t take the subway, especially not alone, and there were parts of it you better avoided altogether, even at daylight. I still have pictures of a visit we made back then, and on more or less each which isn’t taken at a main tourist spot (and sometimes even then), you can see unbelievable amount of rubbish piled up on the streets. In short: If there was a good place for a more modern retelling of this story, it was New York.

This is the one reason I won’t complain (much) about the story being set so clearly in the 1980s. I’m normally against everything which dates a Disney movie because the timeless ones stay relevant no matter how old they are. This one was doomed to age quickly from the get go, but it would have been a price worth to pay if Disney had delivered something meaningful. Sadly, the movie fell short in every way possible.

2. The Animation

On a purely technical level, there is nothing wrong with the animation. We are still in the kind of sketchy style of what I call the Impressionist era, but it really fits in this movie, especially when it comes to backgrounds.

27 Oliver-Dodger-Jenny-oliver-and-company-movie-5937556-314-368The problem are the character designs: They are not very creative. I realize that there aren’t that many ways to draw cats and dogs, but when I look at Oliver and Company I always get the impression that the character designs are based on rejected ideas for older Disney movies. Partly this is due to the production history. At one point this was supposed to be some sort of sequel to The Rescuers, with Penny in the main role. Which continues a pattern, since one of the ideas for The Rescuers was to have Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians as villain. But unlike Madam Medusa who still became her own brand of character in the end, Jenny isn’t really all that different from Penny. And the other characters also feel like they have been plugged from other Disney movies,  mainly Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats. The high number of cameos by cats and dogs from those movies doesn’t help either, if anything it makes the similarities even more obvious.

3. The Characters

I guess making Oliver a cat which gets more or less abandoned somewhat works. If anything, it makes for a powerful start when the cute little kitty nearly gets drowned just because nobody wanted it. Making Dodger part of a group of dogs is in a way the next logical step. It’s when Fagin is introduced when this movie starts to go off the rails.

Now, Fagin in the book is an opportunist, someone who thinks of himself first and foremost. The only reason he takes care of street kids is because they steal for him. The only reason he doesn’t do worse than stealing is because he knows that the small crimes are usually not thoroughly investigated by the police while the big ones just attract unwanted attention. A character like this would have fitted into 1980s New York perfectly. Instead we get a guy who simply likes dogs and has debts with the wrong people. Because he spends so much money to feed the dogs? It’s not really clear why Fagin is in this bad situation in the first place. If there were some sort of backstory attached to him he might not work as Fagin, but at least a character who sends a message. Another message than “I was stupid enough to get tangled up with a loan shark” that is.

Concerning the villain: Book Sykes is not exactly a layered character, but he works because he presents the worst society can breed. Movie Sykes is just there and frankly, I don’t get his motivation at all. Naturally he can’t let Fagin off the hook that would be bad for business, but he can’t be that hard on money to risk a kidnapping. I don’t see what he can gain from this apart from a long prison sentence.

It’s also a weird inversion of the two characters. In the novel, Fagin is the smart one, but he is afraid of Sykes’ brutality – even though he did his part to make him this way in the first place, Sykes being one of the orphans he taught stealing. In the movie, Fagin is so stupid that even Sykes seems to be cleverer than him.

27 GeorgetteThere are only two characters who get some sort of backstory in this movie, and those are the two which are not from the original novel. For one there is Jenny, who is lonely because her parents travel all the time. The other one is Georgette, who is obsessed with staying pretty. Those two character overwhelm the movie to a degree that it’s largely not about Oliver, but Jenny’s loneliness and Georgette issues – and let me tell you that the scene in which she practically begs to get raped is the strangest and most uncomfortable thing I have seen in any Disney movie. This tops even a cricket which lusts after wooden figurines.

4. The Plot

Above I defended the decision to set this story in New York and so clearly in the 1980s. But this defence only works under the premise that the movie actually addresses the social aspect. It doesn’t. Plus, there is no resemblance to the original book whatsoever. The only thing which is left is that orphan Oliver ends up first with a street gang then with rich people than back with the street gang and finally back with the rich people. That’s it.

The novel is mostly about Oliver trying to stay honest despite his poverty. Even when he is part of the street gang, he mostly manages to hold onto his innocence. The message is that Oliver is not the bad one, the society around him is. And it’s not only people like Fagin or Sykes which are shown as rotten to the core, the same is true for a lot of “good” members of society, like the leader of the orphanage and the people who originally take Oliver in, not because they care for him, but because he is a cheap worker.

But even if you forget the book, the plot of Oliver and Company doesn’t work. I already mentioned that the actions of Sykes don’t make a lot of sense. Even more confusing is Dodger. He spends the first part of the movie trying to get rid of Oliver, reluctantly accepts him into the gang – shouldn’t he be glad when Oliver ends up with new owners? Up to this point he only made trouble for everyone, so why should they even care? In the book, Oliver is kidnapped back, too, but that’s because Fagin is worried that he might tell the police about his little organisation. In the movie, I get why Georgette has an interest in getting rid of Oliver, but not why Dodger comes for him in the first place.

Plus, as I bemoaned beforehand: Oliver becomes very fast a secondary character. There is a bigger focus on Jenny. And to be frank: The child who is sad because the parents are always busy elsewhere, ends up in danger and finally gets some attention again – is there are more overdone storyline? Or a more boring one? And to add insult to injury, the movie ends with Dodger repeating his little musical number, essentially celebrating to live in poverty on the street. So much for a social message. Or any message at all…what exactly was this movie about?

5. The Music

The aspect of the movie which dates it the most are the songs. They are so 1980s, it isn’t even funny. And, with the notable exception of “Why should I worry”, they are kind of forgettable. Well, “Perfect isn’t easy” does stick out, but what it remarkable about it is the performance and the scenes they came up for Georgette, but the song itself is kind of…eh. All in all not bad, but far, far from being Disney at its best.

6. The conclusion

I once read the theory that Oliver and Company was a very successful movie and the main reason that it gets so mixed reviews nowadays is because it’s measured on the movies which came immediately after. Now, I watched this movie when it hit the theatres. And Imho: It didn’t measure up back then either. This was the movie which turned me away from Disney, the movie which convinced me (along with The Black Cauldron) that Disney’s good times were over and the only reason I gave the studios another chance was because The Little Mermaid is one of my favourite fairy tales.

I firmly believe that it was the marketing which made this movie so successful, and not the movie in itself. And what a marketing machine it was. Toys, toys, toys, for month it seemed like this movie was everywhere. And if you consider what the original novel was about – talk about totally missing the point. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that there has to be necessarily a moral attached to everything Disney does. But when you make a movie based on a novel about such a serious issue, the result shouldn’t be a celebration of poverty and consume (and how the hell they managed to combine those two aspects I will never understand).

27 Oliver


By the Book: Pinocchio

Well, so far I moved back through the ages, so I guess it’s time to tackle a movie from Disney’s golden age. Pinocchio started, like a lot of classic novels, as a serials, which soon became popular and lead to a novel. Nowadays it has become common to analyse Pinocchio like a book for “adults” (because, you know, children’s books don’t require analysing in the minds of serious academics, we first have to declare them as “adult” to take them seriously), leading to the stories being read in a literature-historical contexts, with parallels drawn especially to the concept of the fool. But when Disney made the movie, it was still mostly seen as an educational book, used to teach children that bad deeds have bad consequences. This is therefore the most prominent aspect in the movie.

1. The Setting

To be frank: The world which is created around Pinocchio is rather odd, even odder than usual in a fairy tale. There just don’t seem to be any logical rules to it, and it’s sometimes aggravating how everyone expects Pinocchio to act reasonable even though nothing about the world he lives in is reasonable (at one point he even gets arrested for the “crime of foolishness” when he goes to the police after the fox conned him out of his money).

The Disney version amplifies this even more. Seeing a talking, clothed fox acting all surprised because he comes across a living marionette is just strange. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be no consistency to what Pinocchio can survive and what not. How he can “die” towards the end, even though he apparently can easily walk under water and has no bones or anything else which could break is anybody’s guess. The Disney version is also very dark, mostly due to the animation.

2. The Animation

I have pointed out in the past already how expressive the animation in the early Disney movies is, and Pinocchio is the prime example for this. The only really inviting place in the whole movie is Gepetto’s hut, everything else is full of shadows and has a sinister vibe to it. It’s sometimes unpleasant to look it, not because of the animation is bad, but because it’s deliberately designed to be unsettling. Especially in the Pleasure Island scenes the use of shadows and strange angles signal from the get go that there is something off about this place. Pinocchio is often hold up as a masterpiece of animation, and on a technical level there is no arguing about it. The story, well, that one is another matter.

3. Characters and Plot

I’ll do both section in one this time around, because the plot centres around Pinocchio even more than usual, since the main theme is his learning curve. And there is a fundamental difference between the source text and the movie, which influences more or less every decision Disney made regarding the characters.

2 pinocchioIn the original version, Pinocchio is, in lack of a better term, born bad. He is selfish, lacks compassion and shows no appreciation for what Gepetto does for him. One early episode involves Gepetto selling his warm coat in order to buy school books for Pinocchio. Pinocchio in turn sells the school books so that he can see Stromboli’s marionette show. He only learns through experience to feel compassion (or to care about Gepetto at all).

Disney’s Pinocchio on the other hand starts out as a blank slate. He immediately connects to Gepetto simply on the ground of him being his father and provider. And when he ends up in dangerous situations it’s not because he is selfish, but because he is gullible, easily lead astray by dangerous advice. This change of character is also the reason Jiminy Cricket even exists. There is a Cricket in the original novel, but its appearance is very short-lived, in every sense of the world, since Pinocchio almost immediately kills it and it only turns up later in ghost form and berates him for his wrongdoings. That Disney greatly expanded the role and made Jiminy, quite literally, Pinocchio’s consciences is necessary because of the naivety they added to his character. If Jiminy weren’t there to warn him, there would be no way that we could truly fault Pinocchio for his actions. He is, after all, just a puppet, barely a day old, so it would be more than harsh to punish him for believing his elders. But since there is Jiminy as voice of reason, the responsibility shifts back to Pinocchio for listening to the fun advice over the trustworthy one.

2 JiminyJiminy himself is, btw, a giant hypocrite. The whole movie he does nothing but preach towards Pinocchio, which would be okay, since that’s his job. But it’s a little bit grating that he himself doesn’t practice what he preaches most of the time and is often not there the very moment Pinocchio needs his advice the most (he also keeps ogling women made out of wood, which is just weird). The Blue Fairy gives him a job, new clothes, but is this enough for him? No, he also wants a gold medal. One thing for sure, if I had to pick a role model for my children, it certainly wouldn’t be Jiminy, and if I were the Blue Fairy, I would have told him that he should be satisfied with what he gets.

2 blue fairySpeaking of the Blue Fairy (actually the Blue Haired Fairy, but I guess blond looks more attractive?): She is the ultimate Deus-ex-machina, in the book even more than in the movie. There she just randomly turns up, becomes some sort of mother figure for Pinocchio and usually helps him out should he really come to the danger of dying (or to test him). In the movie her involvement is slightly better explained. In the book Gepetto just happened to create a marionette out of magic wood, in the movie the Blue Fairy spelled him alive as a reward for Gepetto. This is partly an improvement because this way the Blue Fairy’s interest in Pinocchio and her being somewhat of his mother makes more sense. But it’s also a very strange reward, since the “happy outcome” entirely hinges on a piece of wood proving himself and not on Gepetto’s actions. Where exactly was the Blue Fairy when he was in the stomach of a whale? And for that matter: Why is it that the only good adult person in the movie has to endure greater hardship than any of the other truly villainous adults?

This is already a problem of the novel which gets amplified by Disney’s typical black and white approach to characters. With Pinocchio it’s easy, whoever was in the hut when Pinocchio became alive is good, all the other characters are only there to lead him astray. Lampwick is a little bit of a special case, though, because while he is a “bad boy”, he actually means well with Pinocchio, looks out for him and tries to teach him his “wisdom”. Well, you could argue that he does it mostly because he likes himself in the leader role, but his “evilness” mostly consists of skipping school, smoking, drinking and destroying stuff in a house which is built for exactly this purpose. And this makes the fact that he and the other boys on Pleasure Island are the only ones who get a permanent punishment even worse (in the book he gets sold and Pinocchio finds him dying after a life full of hard work – just in case you wanted to know for sure what you only suspected).

Honest John and Gideon sell Pinocchio twice and get away with it (and the gold). Stromboli (who isn’t really a villain in the novel) holds him like a slave and gets away with it (and the gold). The Coachman turns hordes of boys into donkeys and then sells them to the salt mines, where they will have a short and painful live (and I really don’t want to know what he does with the ones who still talk). And gets away with it. For all we know his operation is still in full swing. So what exactly is the message of the movie? Don’t trust anyone but your parents, be honest as long as you are a child, but when you reach adulthood you have the power to do whatever you want?

One thing for sure: Neither The Hunchback of Notre Dame, nor The Black Cauldron is the darkest movie Disney ever made, this honour belongs to Pinocchio. And it is not because Disney went for the dark imaginary out of a whim, it’s because Pinocchio is a very messed up story which resulted in a very messed up movie. The truth is: Disney actually disneyfied the story considerably. At least Pinocchio doesn’t get his feet burned away because he sleeps too close to the fire or gets hanged.

The whole point in both, the novel and the movie, seems to be that whenever Pinocchio (or another boy – girls are apparently always following their parents advice) does something bad or foolish, he gets punished in the most gruesome way, and the only reason he survives long enough to see the end of the book is because he is a puppet and the blue fairy turns up whenever the situation becomes really dire (though the original serial did end with Pinocchio dying – the part with the Blue Fairy was added later, which explains why she turns up so randomly).

4. The Music

The interesting part about the songs in Pinocchio is that they are all justified by plot. Usually when characters sing in a Disney movie, I tend to take it more symbolically. Meaning, those people do not really prance around in order to shoot their feelings to the world, it is more like a transitional element. But in Pinocchio the songs feel more like something which is actually happening within the story. They also hold up particularly well. “When you wish upon a star” is naturally to this day the Disney hymn whose meaning not just for this specific movie about for the Disney company in general I have already analysed in the past. The other songs aren’t necessarily Disney classics, but they are memorable enough that Marvel can put a creepy version of “No strings on me” into a trailer and expect the audience to recognize it.

5. The Conclusion

Yeah, I guess it should be very obviously by now: I don’t like the book, I don’t love the movie. But if one had to make a movie based on Pinocchio, it should be like the Disney version. It should display this level of careful animation and dark images and it should attach a nice “when you wish upon a star” message to it to soften the dark aspects a little bit. And to its credit, while very exaggerated, it does address true dangers. The people who promise teenagers a great career or lure children away from their parents with sweets, those are the predators a child is protected best from when it is aware of them. I’m not a fan of using fear in child rearing, but if this movie will keep children from going with a stranger, a week of nightmares about the coachman might be the lesser of two evils.2 Figaro


By the Book: The Fox and the Hound

When I started this article series, I had to make a decision. Officially, nearly all Disney movies are based on some sort of source text. In reality, it is often something really obscure and practically forgotten. So I made a decision early on: That I would only discuss the books, which are known enough to have an own Wikipedia article. This distinction served me fairly well, with one exception and this is The Fox and the Hound.

When this book was published, it was highly praised, and therefore it does have an article. But nowadays it is so hard to come by that you have to pay a three digits sum to actually get an edition – provided that you find one. You will understand that I was unable read this book under the circumstances. But I didn’t want to ignore it either because, well, Disney’s The Fox and the Hound is somewhat infamous for being very far removed from the actual source text. Considering that Disney often tends to use the source text more as a stepping stone, I was wondering why in this case so many people felt compelled to comment on it. So I went hunting for all sources I could find about the topic, trying to figure out what kind of book has been buried by history. This article is the result of my findings.24 Tod

1. Twisting the source

The first thing I noticed is that Disney took a couple of elements of the book, but twisted them around. For starters, it is true that Tod grows up with humans – but not just any humans but the ones who killed his mother and the rest of his litter. It is true that he goes back into the wild, by his own volition though. It is also true that he finds a vixen in the forest…two of them, and in both cases the vixen and the whole litter are killed (there is apparently one cup which is simply not mentioned again in the story and therefore might have survived). It is also true that there is another dog named Chief in the story, but the roles of him and Copper are actually exchanged.

24 HoundIn the book, Copper is the aging dog and leader of the pack, and when Master (that is the way his owner is called all the time) buys the stronger and younger Chief, Copper hates him because he fears that he will replace him. There is a scene in which a bear attacks Master (during a bear hunt, not out of the blue), but Copper does NOT leap to his defence, he is too afraid. Chief is the hero of the day, and the resentment Copper feels grows even stronger.

The scene in which Chief gets hit by a train happens in the book too, but the situation is entirely different. One, Tod deliberately lures Chief on the tracks to get rid of him. In the Disney version, the whole thing is an accident. Two, Chief dies. In the Disney version, he survives. And three, it is Master, not Copper who swears revenge and therefore trains him to hunt no other fox than Tod in the future.

And that is apparently just the beginning of a livelong hunt. During the book, Master loses more and more of his land and every single dog save for Copper. At the very end, there is one last hunt which ends when Tod finally breaks down due to exhaustion (and old age). Copper on the other hand is rescued by his Master and is allowed to live happily for a few months. But then Master has to go into a nursing home where dogs are not allowed. The book ends with him taking his shotgun, ordering Copper to lie down and covering his eyes….I guess it is pretty clear what happens next.

2. A look at the basics

It is pretty obvious that the original book is downright depressing. As far as I can tell, there are three big themes. One is the destruction of the rural areas and in its wake, the destruction of a particular way of life. Connected to it is the second theme, the way humans treat their environment. There is for example one episode in which rabies spread. The solution to use poison in order to get rid of the foxes not only kills a lot of other animals, a child dies when it ingests some of it. The book also points out how everything which is feed the animals moves up the food chain – and unlike Tod, who becomes a vegetarian for a while, because he realizes that something is not right with the flesh, humans are not as sensitive.

The third theme is the way animals think. Daniel P. Mannix did a lot of research into the way, animals actually act and tried to illustrate their thought processes as realistic as possible. Tod is smarter than the other foxes in the forest due to his unusual upbringing, but he doesn’t understand humans most of the time. For him only knowledge which helps him to survive counts. And Copper, despite hunting Tod practically his whole life, doesn’t feel any hate towards him. He does it because he is trained to do his master’s bidding. For him it is about being the leader of his pack and having the attention of his master, nothing more.

Now the Disney version is another matter altogether. For one, all the animals in it act very human. And two, this is the story of an unlikely friendship between two animals who were born to be enemies of each other. Is it a bad story to tell? No, but it has nothing to do with the actual book. In fact, I am wondering why Disney even bothered to buy the rights. Rename the characters, replace the scene on the tracks (it is way too similar to The Aristocats either way), and you couldn’t even accuse Disney of plagiarism.

3. On its own merits

But let’s take a look on the movie independent from the source text. Speaking of the tracks: That is in a way the whole crux in the movie. In typical Disney fashion, The Fox and the Hound glosses over a lot of aspects. Especially over the little fact that most of the animals featured in the movie are predators. They need to kill to survive (how Dinky and Boomer manage to not catch one caterpillar the whole summer and not dying of hunger is a riddle in itself).

But the scene on the tracks is known to have been a bone of contention between the animators (and one of the reasons Don Bluth left the studios). The main issue was: should have Chief died or not? Personally, I think that neither is a good solution. Because the issue is not if he died or not, it is Tod’s culpability. The scene needed a rewrite, with Tod doing deliberately something which might have killed Chief, or at least Copper having reason to believe that he planned to kill him. Copper shifting his own guilty conscience about letting Tod escape (and even having one in the first place) only works if Chief looks like the innocent, the tricked party. While someone dying would amplify the likelihood overreaction and thoughts of revenge, it would still have been a disservice to the movie if the conflict is only based on a misunderstanding and not on Tod acting like a fox and Copper reacting like a hunting dog.

But this aside, there is a lot to like about the movie. The animation, mostly done in more mute colours than usual for an animated movies, the character design and the overall tone, which is a little bit more serious than the standard animated movie, especially since it moves away from the typical hero against the villain structure. Amos Slade is not necessarily a bad man, he is just a hunter. Before he starts pursuing Tod in a protected area, his point of view is somewhat understandable, even if his temper leaves a lot to be desired. It is very appropriate that this movie ends on a positive, alas bittersweet note, instead of the usual villain defeat.

Stand-out scenes are the one when Tod is left in the forest (a real tear-jerker), his first night in the woods and the attack of the bear (which is really terrifying if you see it on the big screen).

4. The Soundtrack

I already mentioned the animation, but let’s not forget the soundtrack. Though there is a lot to forget about. The music choice is kind of odd. One would think that the naturally choice for a story set in rural America would be hillbilly style music and indeed the score often has this vibe, but the songs for some reason don’t. They have obviously been written specifically with Pearl Baily in mind, and her style doesn’t quite fit into the setting. It makes me think more of night clubs or even the stage than of rural America. Consequently the one song I really love is not sung by her. “Goodbye may seem forever” is a beautiful and heartfelt tune though I have to add that I consider the German version superior to the English one.  Partly because the singer puts more feeling into it, she really sounds like she is holding back tears, but also because a small chance in the text. The English version ends like this:

Goodbye may seem forever
Farewell is like the end
But in my heart is a memory
And there you’ll always be

The German version translates to:

Farewell means separation,
to never see each other again,
I wish you with all my heart,
good luck and prosperity.

Which is way, way sadder and fits the mood shown in the scene way better. I am not lying: I can’t watch the German version without crying to this day. The English version doesn’t have half the impact.
4. Conclusion

The Fox and the Hound is a terrible adaptation. But is it nevertheless a good movie. One of the best Disney made during what I call the Impressionist era, though its best moments tend to be the ones which depart the furthest from the usual Disney fare, like the attack of the bear. It has some flaws which prevents it from being one of the truly great Disney movies, but it is certainly worth a watch. It is just too bad that the book it was supposedly based on ended up mostly in obscurity. It does sound like an unusual read.


By the Book: Alice in Wonderland

Between all the books I’ll tackle in this series, Alice in Wonderland (correctly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) is a very special case. Because, if you ask me: This book is not translatable and it is not adaptable. I don’t even think that the common English reader would nowadays should read it without a ton of footnotes added to the original text, because it is full of in-jokes and references to a very specific time in British history. I doubt that many people even know why the Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat are mad (and if you don’t know either, you just proved my point – if you do, congratulations to your knowledge of English idioms and sayings). Or that the mouse keeps falling asleep because she is a Dormouse. A lot in this book basically consists of a play with language (it’s a gold mine for linguists, really). At one point for example Alice encounters a “school of fish” (a word play on the fact that fish who are swimming together are “schooling” or “shoaling”) in which the fish have shorter lessons every day, because, naturally lessons have to become “less”. Any movie adaptation has to fall short, simply because it’s impossible to put this level of language play on screen – for the most part. But let’s see open the door and find out how Disney fared with their attempt.13 doorknob

1. The Setting

In contrast to Disney’s Peter Pan, there is no doubt that all we see is just in Alice’s mind. And what a strange mind that it. I said in m last review about Peter Pan that Neverland works on children’s logic. The Alice novels do something similar, but they are not really trying to explain the world of a child, but how a child’s mind sees the adult world with it seemingly (and sometimes really) arbitrary rules. This aspect is mostly lost in the Disney movie. You still get a glimpse of it when Alice encounters the Queen of Hearts, but all in all, the movie lacks the referential character of the book. It works more like an experience. Instead of arbitrary rules, there are no rules at all, everything can happen.

2. The Animation

The animation underlines the bizarre character of the world we enter. There is a constant play with colour and darkness, with light and shadow and an abundance of weird angles. When the colour pops, it really pops, but this makes the darker scenes even more unsettling.

3. The Characters13 Alice

There isn’t really much to say about the characters in Wonderland. Most of them just turn up and are gone just a moment later, and really, the only true important character is Alice. The biggest change Disney made was switching the colour of her dress from red to blue. Otherwise she is simply a curious child who explores her unfamiliar surroundings. Her reactions are, for the most part, believable, and even when they are not, this is her world, and everything which didn’t make sense at the beginning surely makes sense towards the end, when it’s revealed that this is actually a dream. In the original books some aspects of the characters she meets are a little bit more fleshed out, but that’s a matter of simply having a little bit more time for them. The only big change occurs concerning the Queen of Hearts. In the book it’s mentioned that her death sentences are rarely carried out (thanks to the king). The movie omits this detail, making her a much more terrifying tyrant (and the king more of a push-over).

4. The Plot

There isn’t one. And that’s not a criticism, there shouldn’t be one. After all, Alice in Wonderland is purposely filled with nonsense stories, so the movie shouldn’t be any different. Disney just picked what they liked the best of the whole Alice series and then edited it down to just the right length for this kind of movie – the result is quite a mixed package. Some of the segments are so short, you are barely have time to think about them. Like the caucus race, which could have been a commentary on politics, but is over way to fast to have a lasting impact. I doubt that many people even notice that the group walking around a rock through the tides is singing about nothing being “dryer” than a caucus race, before the conversation of the Dodo with Alice about getting dry starts.

Personally I have a love/hate relationship with the segments when she changes size. I don’t know why, but the very idea terrified me as a child. I’m fairly sure that the part when she is stuck in the house is meant to be comical, but I truly fail to see the humour in this. Though it’s nice to know that Billy the Lizard apparently survived being blown in the sky and later on became a villain in Ratigan’s gang…. But I digress. Let’s tackle some of the stand-out segments.

The first which comes to mind is the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Mostly because it is a really strange premise that in the middle of the story Tweedledum and Tweedledee just turn up to tell another, totally unrelated story. And a really messed-up one, that is. I mean, really, the poor mother of the poor little oysters. In the book the (slightly different) story results in Alice trying to determine, who was worse, the Walrus or the Carpenter, but whenever she comes to a conclusion Tweedeldum and Tweedeldee reveal another detail about them which makes her change her mind.

13 caterpillar2Then there is the caterpillar. This was always my favourite segment, even though it really looses in the translation. Now, from the eyes of an adult (and knowing the original), I can appreciate it even more. I think this is the part which captures the book the best, because it translates the word-plays on screen, quite literally. 13 madhatterWhat everyone remembers is naturally the mad tea-party. What can I say about it aside from it being utterly nonsensical?

13 Queen of HeartsAlice meeting the Queen of Hearts is naturally the last stand-out segment, and the longest. In a way, the movie has a shift in direction when Alice is alone in the woods. Not only is it a very sad scene, it’s the moment the movie stops being so directionless. Up to this point Alice was simple following the White Rabbit. She was just experiencing Wonderland. Now she decides that she wants to go home and follows the advice of the Cheshire Cat to apply to the Queen of Hearts for help. For the first time, her actions have a purpose, and while the plot still makes some unexpected twists, from then on the segments are no longer interchangeable. Disney also made the situation way more dangerous than in the book. There it’s not Alice who is on trial, she is just one of the witnesses, she doesn’t shrink again and there isn’t chase scene, she simply wakes up. But I guess even a nonsensical movie needs some sort of climax.13 white rabbit

5. The Soundtrack

If this were a more conventional movie, I would complain about the use of music in it. Some of the songs add something to the story, but most of them have the tendency to get off some tangent. But that is exactly the point.

None of the countless songs in this movie are bad by any stretch of imagination, but they all are very short and very 1950s. If someone starts singing the tune, you will remember them, but I doubt that anyone would remember the songs without prompting. The exceptions are – at least in my case – “All in the golden Afternoon”, “The Unbirthday Song” and “Painting the roses red”.

6. Conclusion

I am not really a fan of “Alice down the Rabbit hole” stories, I prefer character development and a plot which makes sense in a world which rules I understand. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an interesting approach to story-telling, or that I can’t appreciate the animation and creativity which went into this movie. The animators made an effort to keep the linguistic aspects whenever possible, and while I wish they had done more in this direction, especially in the lyrics, what is there is fairly enjoyable.

Nevertheless, the movie misses the Meta aspect which makes the book special. But then, this is true for all adaptations of the story I know. Like I said, I don’t think that the book is truly adaptable, something will always be lost. But of the attempts out there, Disney’s might be the best, despite the fact that allegedly Walt Disney himself didn’t really like the movie either. He said that it had no heart. But what it does have is a sense for the nonsensical. Too many adaptations try to change the story into a cohesive plot, but that’s simply not what this story is about. If it does have a deeper meaning, you’ll find it in the Meta which mostly refers to a reality too far in the past, to be fully understood nowadays. This in mind, Disney’s “let’s see which animator can come up with the strangest scene” approach does the material more justice, than any other take I’ve seen so far.13 cheesire cat


By the Book: Peter Pan

Technically Peter Pan isn’t really based on a book because the first version of the story was a play. But: This play was so successful that Barrie also published a novel based on it. Plus, while the play made the figure Peter Pan well known, he actually turned up first in the novel The Little White Bird. See? Not cheating at all when I discuss the movie as part of this series. But it would be naturally strange to ignore the play – I’m a little bit at disadvantage here, though, because I’ve never seen the play, and in my experience, it makes a big difference if you read a play or actually see it. But I’ll try my best to include the most important aspects of it.

1. The Setting

One of the changes most adaptions, including the Disney version, make is that they draw a clear distinction between Neverland and the real world. In the novel the lines are a little bit more blurred, for example the Lost Boys are still sometimes flying after they come back with Wendy. Personally I think a clear distinction is necessary, because if the “real world” described in the book is already unusual (well, more unusual than having babysitting dogs), it makes it harder for the audience to believe in Neverland, since it then become a fantasy world in a fantasy world instead of a concept which could exist right behind our own reality. peter-pan-disneyscreencaps_com-2264

Disney creates a convincing version of Neverland, basically the land of imagination and childhood plays. It has a secret tree house, Mermaids, Pirates and Indians. Yeah, the Indians. I guess I should address the elephant in the room from the get go: If you see the Indians as Native American stereotypes, they are downright offensive, and the only excuse for them is that those stereotypes are not only en par with what was written by Barrie but also more or less akin to what was shown in the very popular western movies which were made in the 1950s. But I think you should see them as what they are supposed to be, not Native Americans, but the kind of Indians which tend to life in the imagination of children. Don’t blame Disney or even Barrie for this one. Blame Buffalo Bill with his Western show, blame Karl May, blame everyone who ever wrote a story about the “Wild West” without really knowing what he is talking about. I don’t think that the Indians would look or act like that if the movie were made nowadays, they would tone it down a bit. But I also think that realistic Native Americans wouldn’t fit into Neverland. It’s not like the Pirates are anything like the real ones either.

Another difference between the original and the Disney version is that in the novel, Neverland is treated like a real place. The children are gone for months, and when they come back, they bring the lost boys with them, who are all getting adopted by their parents. But in the Disney movie, it’s strongly suggested that Neverland is born out of Wendy’s imagination. Not only does the narrator states from the get go that all children have a Neverland, Wendy also tells stories about Peter Pan before she even meets him (and then notes that he looks exactly like she imagined him). And when she “comes back” (after just one night) she is initially found sleeping at the window by her parents.

2. The Animation

Of all the Disney movie from the Romantic era, Peter Pan is in a lot of ways the least distinctive one, even though Mary Blair did work on the designs. What is still noticeable are her typical colour schemes, with a lot of primary colours creating a bright world. But there is something about the designs which is also very 1950s. With most Disney movies it is easy to forget when they were made, but Peter Pan somehow betrays the era it was made in, especially in the design of the main character.

But what is truly remarkable is the character animation, especially the crocodile. Doesn’t speak one word, has basically the same role every time it turns up (terrifying Hook) and yet it might be the most popular character in the whole movie. Part of it is the score connected to it, but also the expressive gestures it makes. I think my favourite moment in the whole movie is this one:

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Do I have to say more?

3. The Characters

Barrie never described Peter Pan, nor did he specify his age. The Disney version has rather elfish features, and he wears green clothes instead of a dress made of leaves. And, like he is supposed to do, he is the embodiment of childhood. He is selfish, convinced of his own invincibility and has no sense for consequences whatsoever. Especially the scene with the mermaids drive this across, when he doesn’t see much harm in them trying to drown Wendy.

I guess this is the right moment to say something about the female characters. We have here a movie from the 1950s based on a story from the 1910s whose secondary main character is mostly praised for her motherly qualities. In this combination the best one would expect a fair for its time portrayal of the females. But when it comes to the novel, it was more than fair. For example the reason there are only Lost Boys and no Lost Girls is because supposedly girls are too smart to get lost. Wendy’s motherly traits are revelled, as are the other females. Aside from Peter Pan himself and naturally Captain Hook, the female character also get way more attention than any of the male characters. This is, after all, mostly Wendy’s story.

And the Disney version isn’t that bad either. It keeps the aspect of honouring the mother role, but it also allows Wendy to draw the line. Looking out for her little brothers? Sure. Getting treated like some sort of servant while the boys are allowed to party? Now you are trying her patience. And when it comes down to it, the female characters in the movie are the truly brave ones. Peter might be the one who fights, but since he is convinced that he will win in every encounter, there isn’t much bravery behind it. Wendy on the other hand would rather go of the plank that betraying her principles. Tiger Lily would rather drown than giving away anything, even though she knows that this way of dying would keep her from reaching her afterlife. And Tinkerbell nearly dies when she rescues Peter from a bomb.

When it comes to the lost boys and Wendy’s brothers – I can take them or leave them. They have just enough character to be not interchangeable, but they are neither particularly memorable nor important in the grand scheme of things. Same for Nana, though it’s certainly fun to watch her react to the situation in the family (and trying to rebuild the castle again and again). This character is just made for a Disney movie (though I never really got the point of a dog which acts like a nanny…it’s just odd…).

Mr. Darling is an example of unintentional symbolic by the writer. In the original play, he and Captain Hook were portrayed by the same actor. The reason for this was simply economic use of resources, since the characters don’t share a scene, they needed one actor less this way. But since there is an undeniable symbolic meaning in this arrangement, it has become tradition. In the Disney version the character designs are different, but the voices are the same. It also lays more emphasis on the father than the mother, by making his role of the “kill-joy” more extreme and his intention to remove Wendy from the play room the central conflict.

In the original story the mother is the more important character. One symbol in the novel I was never really able to figure out is that she has a hidden kiss in the right corner of her mouth which Wendy could never reach. It’s apparently reserved for her husband. But at the end of the novel, Peter Pan takes this kiss with him. 14 Captain Hook

Disney’s version of Captain Hook is easily one of the funniest villains in canon. His whole relationship with Smee and how they constantly play off each other as a comedic duo is entirely Disney (in the novel Smee is mostly notable because he is one of two pirates who survives, telling everyone that he was the only pirate Captain Hook feared). My favourite part is when Smee hammers a “don’t disturb sign” on the door because Hook has a headache (and everything which follows). But Hook is also one of the most threatening villains. Partly because of his design and actions. Causally shooting one of his men, kidnapping and nearly killing Tiger Lily, how he fools Tinkerbell meanwhile pretending that he is all honourable (naturally he isn’t), there is no doubt that Hook is a dangerous man. In the play and the book, Neverland is a dangerous place in general. In the movie though, the source of danger is usually Hook, even if it’s only indirectly.

4. The Plot

When it comes to the broad strokes of the original, the plot is more or less the same. Wendy discovers Peter, attaches his shadow, the children learn to fly (fun fact: the only reason pixy dust was eventually included by Barrie was because originally children got hurt when they tried to fly after seeing the play), they travel to Neverland, experience a few adventures. Wendy nearly dies due to a scheme by Tinkerbell, Peter Pan rescues Tiger Lily, and eventually Wendy and her brothers want to go home again but get captured. Peter survives a murder ploy by Hook thanks to Tinkerbell, and there is a final battle on the pirate ship. After this Peter brings Wendy and her brothers home.

The details though are sometimes fundamentally different, and not just because Disney naturally takes full advantage of the different medium. Memorable scenes in the play include a misunderstanding between Wendy and Peter which makes him believe that a thimble is a kiss (and the other way around), Tinkerbell drinking poison for Peter and surviving if the audience claps in the hands and shows that they believe in fairies and Hook getting eaten by the crocodile in the end because the clock stopped ticking. In the movie, Wendy simply says that she wants to give Peter a kiss instead of a thimble (in both cases Tinkerbell interferes), instead of poison the murder ploy involves a bomb, how Tinkerbell survived isn’t quite clear since the clapping scene is omitted because Walt Disney didn’t think that this would work in a movie, and Hook doesn’t die, instead he is chased away.

The adventures of the children in Neverland have, especially in the novel, a very episodic character. The Disney animators basically picked what they liked and rewrote is in a way that it works as an “it all happened in one night” story. The biggest change is that Wendy and the Lost Boys barely interact with each other in the movie. Peter introduces them to each other after they nearly killed Wendy due to Tinkerbell scheming against her, but then the group immediately splits up. Peter and Wendy explore the island together, while the boys (lost and otherwise) search for their own adventure. The only scene in which there is meaningful interaction is when she later reminds them how great it is to have a real mother.

I already mentioned that the Lost Boys and Wendy’s brothers are not really that important. In the original they are mostly just along for the ride, the focus is on Wendy and Peter. That’s true for the movie too, and to be honest, I never enjoyed the part when the boys go “hunting Indians”. The song is annoying, there doesn’t really happen all that much and while the stereotypes don’t bother me unduly, the very idea that hunting people is an acceptable game (especially since John believes that this is for real) does. Even as a child I always felt uncomfortable watching this part.

14 SmeeThe best scenes are naturally the ones with Hook. No matter if he interacts with Peter, Smee, the Crocodile or Tinkerbell, no matter if he is funny, threatening or both, whenever he turns up he owns the screen. If Disney’s depiction of him has one weakness than that by playing his fear of the crocodile (and by extension the ticking clock) for fun it distracts from him being basically afraid of time.

Disney simply ignores some of the symbolic aspects of the play and the novel, the odd ones as well as the more straightforward ones. In the play and the novel Peter Pan is a somewhat tragic figure. He is trapped in childhood, not being able to move forward, partly because he keeps forgetting his past, because otherwise his mind would grow up. A part of him is constantly searching for some sort of mother figure, and his desire for one is so strong that he initially plans to convince Wendy to stay in Neverland through trickery, and changes his mind only when he sees the grief of Mrs. Darling. The play allows the audience to revisit the perspective of their youth, but it also makes clear that nobody can stay in Neverland forever. The play as well as the novel is very clear that Peter Pan is the only one who will never grow up (it’s also suggested that all the other inhabitants of Neverland eventually die, too – meaning that while Peter remains unchanged, the world around him moves forward).

The Disney version omits this tragic aspect. There the idea that Peter Pan will always be out there is more a comforting one, as if a part of our childhood will always be there, no matter how old we are. Disney also lays more emphasis on the conflict between Wendy and her father, ending it with them both changing their mind by her accepting the need to grow up and him realizing that there is no need to rush it. This leads to his wife and daughter embracing him, a far cry from the way he is treated at the beginning of the movie – yes, he acts a little bit like a dick, but it’s also very hurtful if you fall through the whole room and your family only cares about the dog getting hurt. So while the “growing up” aspect is still there, there seems to be an even stronger message that one should never wholly forget his childhood perspective, no matter how old you are. Well, you are never really too old for Disney movies either, right?

5. The Soundtrack

The songs in Peter Pan are quite a mixed package. The slow paced title song which is typical for the 1950s movies has a nice enough tune, but the other songs have a childish aspect to it, not just in tune, but also in text. It’s not a bad fit for the movie, though, not at all, this is a children’s world after all, epic songs would just overwhelm it, but they sometimes slip too much into triviality.

Ironically the song I consider the best is the controversial “What makes the red man red”. Just hear me out: I think it’s the best partly because it has a drive to it the other songs lack, but mostly because the mind-set behind Neverland is hit spot on in this. The question which are asked in this are typical children’s questions (along the line of “Why is the sky blue?”) and the answers are children’s logic. It’s not unusual for children to make surprising leaps of logic, making connections between things which are not connected at all, and the song transports this perfectly.

Though there is one other song which is even better, but doesn’t really count because it is not quite in the movie. Well, it’s score is. I already mentioned it when I was talking about the crocodile. “Never smile at a crocodile” is one of those songs with a text which doesn’t really make much sense, but has a tune which is a relentless earworm. You can practically hear the ticking of the clock in its rhythm, and it is used to great effect in the movie. We always hear the song before we get to see the crocodile.

All in all the soundtrack is serviceable with flashes of brilliance in it. It doesn’t quite compare to the best of Disney soundtracks and has become a little bit dated at parts, but overall it fits the movie and has its memorable moments.

6. Merchandise14 tinkerbell-the-pixie-with-dust-picture-by-milliesky-520904

Yeah, I normally don’t have this category in my reviews, but I guess I should say something about Tinkerbell. For a classic Disney character she is unusual. Not only is she jealous, she also acts on this jealously two times. In the novel, those actions as well as Peter’s willingness to overlook them are explained with fairies not being able to have conflicted feelings. Since they are so small, they have only place for one feeling, meaning weather they love or hate, they always do it with full force.

The movie omits this explanation, therefore Tinkerbell becomes quite a vindictive character. While her betrayal mostly happens because Hook manipulates her, she is very aware that it’s dangerous to deal with him. That she insist on Peter’s safety being part of the deal, but doesn’t seem to care for anyone else, is a very callous move. Tinkerbell’s willingness to do everything for Peter but also to act against everyone who seems to get between them, makes her unique in the Disney canon. Normally those are character traits you would find in a villain, not in a sidekick. That she oozes sexuality on the other hand is not that uncommon, not really. Disney was never above getting crap past the radar, she is just another example of this.

But one thing for sure: The Tinkerbell in Disney’s fairy franchise has nothing to do with the one in the original movie. Thus said, I don’t think that the franchise hurts anything. I guess it’s enjoyable enough for little (really little) children and easy enough to ignore.

5. The Conclusion

All in all, this is a solid but overly simplified take on the story. From today’s perspective the movie certainly has its problems, the character designs as well as the music are so clearly 1950s that it does look a little bit dated. But the strong point of the movie is the humour, and I’m saying this as someone who is usually not into slapstick at all: The comedic timing is just perfect, it’s impossible, not to laugh, and the best part is that none of the jokes are in any way referential, they are in-universe funny.

The downside of the movie is that it lacks depth, since the message is too anvilious and the plot too simple. It’s the play broken down to its very basic and never ventures out of the safe zone of family friendly entertainment. Therefore it’s more fun for children to watch then for adults, even though they might enjoy the nostalgia, not just the nostalgia of watching something from their childhood, but also experiencing the mind-set of a child again.Bildschirmschoner-TickTock


By the Book: Tarzan

So, in order to give my readers here a little bit more content, I have decided to continue with uploading my old “By the Book” series…with one little change. One of the reasons I have been holding off on this for so long is that I have already covered most book-based movies which have no or only a handful of songs. If I would continue with the current format for this, the section for the song-discussion would become incredible long. For example, I have been writing on and off about the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack (yes, I haven’t forgotten, I am working on it), and even though I am not even half through, it is already a beast of an article (pun not intended). So for the sake of keeping it brief, I have decided to keep the soundtrack discussion more general instead of going into deep analysis.

In the case of Tarzan this makes double sense. I just had the opportunity to watch the musical adaptation and it was very interesting to see how much of the story was changed for the stage, and how the new songs fit in. In case you are wondering: I liked the stage play. I often feel that it is somewhat pointless to watch them because they rarely have something to offer which you don’t get in the movie, too, but in this case, the stage play has managed to step out of the shadow of the movie just far enough to be worth discussing – in another article.

Let’s focus on the movie for now, and on the books it was based on. Which means I have to briefly address the Jungle Book, too, since it is fairly obvious were the inspiration for the Tarzan book series came from. And to be honest: Between those two stories about a child which grew up in the jungle, Mowgli is definitely the better pick. If you ask me, the idea behind Tarzan is better than the stories themselves. An old idea in a crowd pleasing format, which is mostly notable due to its revolutionary marketing strategy. Tarzan is not just a book, it is a trademark (copyright is limited, trademark rights aren’t), and Burroughs did his very best to make as many money out of his idea as possible. He was warned that the public would get tired of his character if he created too much around him. Ignoring all those warnings he wrote book after book and gave the audience as much Tarzan as possible – and the audience couldn’t get enough of “their hero”.

1. The Setting

Burrough never visited Africa. And that’s all you really need to know. His idea of the jungle is some sort of exotic place, a fairy tale land in which he can add dangers however he likes. He also didn’t really bother to do his research. For example Sabor was originally a tiger, until someone informed him that there are no tigers in Africa (which is the reason the “piranhas live in South-America” discussion in the Disney movie cracks me up every time). Therefore he changed it to a female lion (female because there already was a name for a male lion mentioned in the stories), but that doesn’t really work either because lions live in the veldt, not in the jungle.

Disney’s take is more realistic. The audience nowadays is more aware which animals actually live where. It’s also much more sensitive about racial issues, the movie therefore painstakingly avoids to show any “native tribes” living in the jungle. The movie also takes much more care to portray the fauna correctly. Consequently Tarzan grows up with Gorillas instead of a non-existing kind of humanlike apes, Sabor is a Leopard and the Jungle in general feels more like an existing place than some sort of phantasy land.

2. The Animation

Tarzan is a gorgeous movie. Not quite as gorgeous as The Lion King, but it does take full advantage of the setting, especially when Tarzan shows Jane his world. But where the movie really shines is the character animation. The movements are fluid, and there are a number of scenes in which a lot of said through gestures rather than words. I think the most memorable scene of the whole movie is when Tarzan compares his hand to Jane’s. There is so much meaning in this one moment when Tarzan realizes that he might not be the only one of his kind after all, while Jane is finally able to calm down and truly take a look at this weird wild creature which just rescued her, seeing the humanity in his eyes. It’s not just the hands and the call-back to the earlier scene with Kala which makes this moment work, it is also the facial expression of the two characters.

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In addition, this is one of those stories practically made for animation. There is only so much a real human can do, but an animated Tarzan is able to swing through the trees like an ape (and sometimes like a surfer). I guess it might be possible to find an acrobat who is able to do some of this stuff, but finding one who is also looking the part and is also a good actor is a nearly impossible task. Consequently this Tarzan is vastly superior compared to all the other versions out there. 37 tarzan6

3. The Characters

Burrough’s  Tarzan is the most perfect human being ever. Not only is he physically stronger than any human being and fights lions with his bare hands, he also teaches himself to read and write, learns later dozens of languages with no trouble at all, is a good shot even though he doesn’t believe in guns, in short, there is nothing Tarzan can’t do. While in most adaptation Tarzan needs some time to truly adjust to humans, in the books he has no trouble at all to act like a “normal” human being. He even lives some time in England. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with the rules of human society (mainly with the ranks, which don’t make sense for him) and prefers to go back to his jungle ways whenever he can. Oh, and on top of this, it turns out that he is rich, an earl and a natural leader.

Disney’s Tarzan is more realistic, and heavily influenced by the Movies and TV series made about him, mainly the Weißmüller movie series. This is where the sound of Tarzan’s yell was established and this is the source of the “I Tarzan, you Jane” dialogue (even though it never happens this way in the English version). The learning curve of Disney’s Tarzan is a more realistic one, and the only notable talent aside from his powerful physic is the ability to imitate every sound he hears, and both are explained with his upbringing.

The original Jane Porter can be summoned up with three words: Damsel in Distress. In the first novels she doesn’t have much of a character aside from being “the one” for Tarzan, and getting rescued by him all the time. Though, to her credit, she is a woman of integrity. Later (waaaaaay later) on she gets a few abilities of her own. But make no mistake: This is not an equal relationship. Burroughs view on the natural order in the relationship between males and females shines through in all novels and basically comes down to the female being happy to serve the strongest protector.

37 janeheadDisney’s Jane Porter is kind of a damsel in distress, too, but not in a bad way. Following the lead of many other adaptations, she is British instead of American (I guess because the more stiff British society provides a better contrast to the Jungle than the American one). But above all: she is smart, she is just as much of a scientist as her father is. Disney offers the audience a full-fledged female character. When she is in distress, it makes sense, because she is in an environment which is unfamiliar to her. But she does learn, at the end of the movie she might not be as good as Tarzan in jumping from tree to tree, but competent enough to hold on her own, which is a far cry from the usual “Jane sitting in a treehouse” scenarios of earlier adaptations. And she has just as much to teach to Tarzan as he can teach her, which includes way more than just the human language. I also like the detail that it’s not Tarzan’s physic which captures her interest the most, but his eyes.37 jporter22

Jane’s father is mostly just that. In the book he seems to exist mostly because a woman back then would normally stay with her family until marriage. And she certainly wouldn’t travel alone, so to get Jane to Africa, the father has to be there. The Disney version underlines the father aspect more, though. When it comes to father figures in animated movies, Professor Porter is certainly one of the better ones. While not exactly an authority figure, he isn’t stupid either, and is neither overly controlling nor neglectful towards his daughter. He is supportive and has a keen eye for her feelings and needs.

When it comes to the animal characters, they are in the books exactly that. They don’t have (nor need) a lot of personality, they simply act like the author thinks animals would act. It naturally wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the animals didn’t talk, so they get some distinctive character traits: Terk is being a tomboy, Tantor is portrayed as fussy germaphobe. They aren’t exactly layered characters, but they have just enough personality to be somewhat memorable.  It’s notable though that Tarzan can talk to them, but Jane can’t, at least not until she imitates Tarzan.

And then there is the villain – Imho opinion the greatest weakness of the movie. Clayton in the book is somewhat pathetic, but he is much more interesting. He is actually Tarzan’s cousin, who unwittingly usurped his inheritance, and his rival for Jane’s affection. Most of the time he serves as some sort of foil for Tarzan, though, and it’s heavily suggested that his physical weakness compared to him is a mirror of his weak character. While he wants to act honourable, he often takes the cowardly way out. Still, the book version of Clayton has a lot of potential and some pathos.

37 clayton33Movie Clayton on the other hand is a fairly boring villain. While it is a good thing that he isn’t interested in Jane (this would be too much like Beauty and the Beast), greed is really the most overused motivation to pick, especially in a movie about white people entering a native or untouched world. I think this would work much better if Clayton were another scientist and his motivation were more along the lines of taking gorillas (and Tarzan) with him to study them. It would have been a nice contrast to Jane’s and Professor Porters less intrusive approach. Plus, historically speaking, so called explorer have done at least as much damage in their thirst for knowledge than people who were just interested in financial gain. Either way, that’s not the approach Disney picked, and I should judge Clayton based on what he is and not based on what I want him to be. What makes him ultimately a failure as a Disney Villain is that he is too obvious.

Yes, I know, Disney Villains tend to be the epitome of evilness. But in this movie we have a character who is, in a way, part of the close circle around the heroes. This means he has to act in a way which at least makes it believable that the characters wouldn’t suspect him of any ill-will. We need at least a clever manipulator like Mother Gothel or Scar, but even better would be a character, whose betrayal even surprises the audience. Clayton is so obviously evil, I keep wondering why Professor Porter hired him in the first place.

4. The Plot

You could summon up the plot of the novel like this: boy grows up in jungle, kills many enemies, boy becomes king of the jungle, boy meets white girl, boy confronts civilization, boy gives up on girl (though naturally not forever). It’s basically the kind of story I expect from a dime novel (well, Tarzan is pulp fiction, so this is not surprising), a clever mix of adventure and romance which speaks to a broad audience, but, honestly, not particularly well written. The characters are mostly stereotypes and the dialogues are full of unnecessary melodrama.

In the Disney version, the focus is not on the love story or on Tarzan confronting civilization, though both aspects are still there. No, the focus is where it should be, on Tarzan trying to figure out where he belongs. To achieve this, Disney took a lot of elements from the novel and remixed it in a clever way. I normally don’t summarize the plot of the movies I review because I expect that my readers already know the basic plot, but in this case I’ll make an exception. For one because it seems to me that this is the best way to point out how Disney twisted the novel around and two, there are some concerns I have concerning the plot which are easier to discuss in context.

So, the movie starts with a couple fleeing in a boat from a burning ship (in the novel Tarzan’s parents get marooned, but really, same difference). We get a nice montage showing how the couple creates a home for themselves in the Jungle. This part is actually way more detailed in the novel, but really, in the great scheme of things it’s not really that important, so it’s a good thing that Disney puts the whole origin of Tarzan into one song.  Tarzan’s real parents are really well done, and there is some outstanding animation which shows how worried his father is about the situation, and how much courage they both show in their fight for survival. We then get a really well done scene in which Kala loses her child to Sabor and then discovers Tarzan, whose parents were killed by Sabor, too. She convinces her mate Kerchak to give her permission to raise Tarzan.

Now, this is a big change from the book, because there Kerchak is the one who killed Tarzan’s father (the mother already died, most likely from child birth), and Kala isn’t his mate, she is just part of the troop. When Tarzan becomes stronger and stronger, killing some powerful enemies, Kerchak sees him more and more as a treat and finally attacks. Tarzan kills him and takes over his position as a leader. But I like the Disney approach better, because it introduces a more compelling conflict. As sad as it is to watch Tarzan having to deal with constant rejection, it is understandable where Kerchak is coming from. It also leads to some of the best scenes in the movie when Kala tries to comfort Tarzan. 37 Disney_Tarzan_by_zaratus

Though I have to say that overall, the scenes from his childhood are a little bit dissatisfying. I love everything related to Kala, and how the movie explains the iconic yell, I also like Tarzan’s resourcefulness. But the scenes between him, Terk and Tantor, they don’t really work, I guess mostly because they both are reduced to “the tomboy” and “the phobic”. A little bit more exploration of their unlikely friendship (even pointing out that elephants usually don’t hang around with gorillas) would have been nice.

You can divide the Disney movie into two parts. The first part is about Tarzan growing up and ends with him killing Sabor, which, I guess, kind of mirror’s Tarzan killing Kerchak in the original novel, since in both cases the kill changes his status in the troop. But I think, Disney missed an opportunity there. While Tarzan is kind of accepted after this deed, the scene between Kerchak and Tarzan is interrupted to early. This would have been the perfect moment not necessarily to accept Tarzan as son but at least to accept him as part of the troop. Tarzan just rescued him and killed the enemy who was a danger for the whole troop for years, the enemy which killed Kerchak’s child. Plus, if Tarzan already had this kind of acceptance, everything which happens in the second part of the movie would have more of an impact.

Now, Tarzan in the novel is well aware of what he is. There is a tribe in vicinity, though relations are – strained, to put it politely, considering that one of the hunters killed Kala. Jane is not special because she is the first woman he met, but the first white woman he comes across (yes, I know, but when I start to rage about every piece of racist and misogynistic BS in this novel, this review will be endless). And the story focusses mostly on the heritage which is rightfully Tarzan’s.

37 kerchackIn the Disney movie on the other hand, it’s Tarzan’s heritage as a human which matters, not title or money. He grew up in the belief that there is no one like him. And now he suddenly discovers that he is not alone, that there are other people exactly like him. People who show him more acceptance than he gets from Kerchak. And that’s the first reason why an early understanding between those two would have caused a better dynamic in the movie (aside from making Kerchak’s desire to protect his people more relatable for the audience). It would have resulted into Tarzan being more torn about approaching the humans.

Either way, from this point onward all similarities with the novel end (thankfully), since the novel describes Tarzan leaving the jungle. The movie is more about Tarzan deciding if he should leave or not. I give it a lot of credit for making Tarzan’s learning curve believable. I give it even more credit for making the learning process a two way street. It puts the science of Jane’s world in contrast with the beautiful nature of Tarzan’s world, without being judgmental about it. Both worlds have their advantages, and both worlds have the dangers, and Jane is as fascinated by Tarzan’s world as Tarzan is by hers. This part is very well done, though, again, a scene between Kerchak and Kala talking about Tarzan’s activities would have been nice, with him warning her that Tarzan will slip away, perhaps even telling her that this is where Tarzan really belongs.

37 kalaIn the end the ship arrives, Clayton tricks Tarzan into believing that Jane will stay if she sees Gorilla’s and we end up with the most idiotic scene in the movie. Sorry, but this part was really not thought through by the animators. One, the way Terk and Tantor lure Kerchak away is just stupid and the idea that he would fell for it idiotic. Two, I get why Tarzan would bring Jane, but why Clayton with his riffle? At this point he should know how dangerous this weapon is, why would he allow it close to his family? Three, after Kerchak discovers what Tarzan has done, why doesn’t he move the troop elsewhere? Up to this point he was a very careful leader, and now he just stays at a place which has just become unsafe?

Anyway, this is reason two why an earlier understanding between Kerchak and Tarzan would have worked so much better. If Tarzan’s task to protect the family had been more like the final hurdle on the way to acceptance, an opportunity to proof himself once and for all, his decision to throw this away would have been a more tragic one. And could have led to a conversation more along the line of “you are drawn to them, your heritage is stronger than your loyalty”, instead of putting the focus on the “you ignored my orders” part. It’s weird because Tarzan is so clearly wrong, but the movie seems to encourage the audience to root for him, I guess mostly because there isn’t enough time spend on Kerchak’s concerns, and because Tarzan has been rejected so often already.

Well, eventually we get the climax, with a lot of fighting, a little bit fun in-between and finally Kerchak’s dead. And again: how much better would this scene be, if Kerchak were killed protecting just Tarzan and not Tarzan and Kala. That he would protect her is kind of a given. Giving everything for Tarzan’s protection, and his protection alone, would be the kind of finale gesture which would me actually care about his dead. As it is the scene puzzles me, especially since (and this is reason number three why an earlier acceptance would be the right way to go) it doesn’t make much sense to me that he would suddenly accept Tarzan after the mess he caused. Yes, he came back. But the whole act of protection wouldn’t be necessary if he had followed Kerchak’s advice earlier, Kerchak is dying because of his mistake, the biggest mistake Tarzan ever made, and now he suddenly accepts him as his son? If Disney were really gutsy he would die without Tarzan ever getting the acceptance he craved, but deciding to take over the responsibility for troop nevertheless, because that’s the only thing he can do for Kerchak, protect the family which is so important for both of them. I think it would have been a really good lesson to put across that sometimes you can’t correct the consequences of your actions; that you should be careful not to squander away the chances you get. But if you really go for a somewhat happy ending with Kerchak calling Tarzan his son, this would have made much more sense if there were prior indications that he felt this way beforehand and was just unable to admit it.

Thankfully the ending puts the movie back on track. The villain is defeated in one of the more memorable villain deaths, Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and the audience gets a really great end sequence, showing Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle side-by-side, ending the movie on a high note. 37 tarzanjane

5. The Soundtrack

This movie often gets a lot of flak for its soundtrack. Yes, it’s Phil Collins. So what? To me it looks like the complaining about the music is mostly based on Phil Collins being particularly popular with woman. So it’s apparently unmanly to like the music. Well, suck it up, the songs in this movie are really, really good.

Some people are also complaining because they are sung from the off and not by the characters, with the exception of Kala starting “You’ll be in my heart” as some kind of lullaby. But really, can you imagine Tarzan starting to sing? Yeah, I don’t think so. Now you could argue that the songs are not really needed. But with the notable exception of “Destroying the Camp” (which has no text at all), they all have the purpose of providing some narration when the movie skips forward in time. I also like that the songs, while commenting what is going on, don’t spell it out too directly. They offer more an additional layer to what the audience sees on screen.

6. Conclusion

Yeah, I don’t really like the books. I think they are a classic example of someone writing a mediocre story based on a really good idea, and I hate the stereotypes and the sexism in them. I’m normally fast with excusing old fashioned views in older media, because I think it’s stupid to expect them to be conform to modern ideals. But even I have my limits and I still need something compelling in the book, movie or whatever, something which makes it worthwhile to sit through this kind of drivel, and I can’t find anything of this kind in those books.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a Tarzan fan. There was a phase in my childhood during which I watched every Movie and TV-Show about Tarzan I could get my hands on. Until I realized that most of them work the same way (there are intruders in the Jungle, at one point either Tarzan or Jane (or both) end up in dire danger, Tarzan yells, the elephants turn up to destroy everything in sight, Tarzan defeats the intruders, the end). I actually don’t know why I was so obsessed with those movies. Tarzan being less talented than in the books certainly helped to make him a more sympathetic hero, and in some of the adaptations Jane is pretty resourceful, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stories are pretty simple. Though, this might be exactly why they worked so well. It was more about the notion of living in an interesting and colourful world, in which Tarzan is able to make up his own rules, than about the actual plot.

Disney’s take on the source material has all the usual elements, but also adds thoughtful moments and gives the character some new layers. This is a story which was practically made for an animated movie, with its exotic location and the options to design a human who moves at least partly like an animal. All this makes Disney’s take on Tarzan certainly worth a watch. It might not be perfect, but I consider it the best and most thoughtful adaptation of the source material so far. Except maybe the musical, which avoids a lot of the story problems I listed above. But that is a discussion for another day.

37 tarzan12


Marvel Musings: Do you know the score?

A couple of months ago Every Frame a Painting uploaded a vid about the Marvel scores. To be specific, it offered a theory why the Marvel themes are not memorable. I usually feel that the videos on this particularly channel are highly educating and interesting, but this one made me pause. I had a number of issues with the argumentation used. And I wasn’t the only one. This video followed a string of other ones, which examined the issue and the arguments. The end result was exactly the kind of discussion I would love to see more often on the internet, on topic, with a number of well articulated point of views which in turn made me consider some aspects I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. And I naturally have my own opinion about the matter. But before I get to it, I’ll try to summarize the core points made in the various vids – I nevertheless encourage you to also watch them yourself. The first one, The Marvel Symphonic Universe, was uploaded on the 12.09.2016.

The arguments brought up here are:

  1. Marvel themes don’t cause an emotional response
  2. The music is too predictable and doesn’t challenge the expectations of the audience
  3. The dialogue distracts from the music.
  4. There is a trend in the industry believing that music in movies shouldn’t be notices.
  5. Producers encourage composers to imitate the temp music.

The arguments boils down to the Marvel scores being too safe – which is a common complain about different aspects of those movies in general, but let’s stick to the music for now.

Just three days later, on the 15.09.2016, the first rebuttal, A Theory of Film Music was uploaded by Dan Golding.

Golding agrees to the basic idea that the Marvel scores are forgettable, but disagrees partly when it comes to the reasons. This video points out that:

  1. The Star Wars Theme was actually created based on temp music.
  2. Temp tracks are not a modern phenomenon, but are as old as film music itself.
  3. Unoriginality is normal for film music.

and brings up the following points:

  1. The tracks used nowadays tend to be more recent.
  2. Hans Zimmer pioneered the use of digital music, which changed the process of creation.
  3. And lead to a tendency to use rhythms instead of melodies in movies

Dan Golding concludes that Marvel movies have a musical landscape but are different not in melody but through texture.

Just one day later Marvel Movies: The Thematic Continuity Issue added another thought to the discussion.

This video points out that

  1. the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to change composers, which often use different scores in the different movies, thus not creating a thematic continuity in the music.
  2. The Avengers theme, which might be the most memorable of all of them, might have this status because Danny Elfman used Silvestri’s score in Age of Ultron, thus preserving the theme.

It concludes that the points made in the previous video essays are correct, but sees the lack of a thematic continuity within the scores of the MCU as the main reason for the inability of people to remember the scores.

Similar thoughts are voice in Why You (Actually) Don’t Remember Marvel Music, uploaded roughly one month later on the 19.10.2016.

This one is also a response to the first two videos, stating that both of them describe symptoms, but miss the point. In an argument similar but not quite identical to the one above, it points out that:

  1.  The theme music of Pirates of the Caribbean is an example for a very popular and well known score which is both temp music and made by Hans Zimmer (for the record, he was the producer, not the actual composer).
  2. Star Wars, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean are all franchises which have been around for way longer than the MCU, and which have used the same theme music not just in all of their respective movies, but also for connected media, theme park rides and above all the general marketing.

This video concludes that the key to a score being remembered is above all repetition, not quality, and adds that the Marvel movies actually have a number of great tunes, pointing to the Thor score and the Avengers theme.

The latter is also in the centre of the last, but perhaps best rebuttal, The Avengers Theme – a video response to “The Marvel Symphonic Universe”, which was uploaded by HelloLillyTV on the 15.11.2016.

HelloLillyTV points to the comment section of the first video essay and how many said that that they, unlike the people in the video, immediately remembered the Avengers theme. This rebuttal argues further that this particular theme neither plays in the background of the movie, nor is it devoid of emotion. Based on the concept of repetition with association, it points out that:

  1. The theme consists of two distinctive parts.
  2. It is used multiple times through the movie in very specific key moments.
  3. It is shown in association which large scale shots, connecting the music with the notion of “greatness” early on.
  4. And is then played during the most iconic moment of the whole MCU, when the Avengers unite for the first time.
  5. It is also part of Age of Ultron and therefore part of a thematic continuity

This video then draws attention to the fact that while certain themes are actually used multiple times and very effectively in the MCU, they are next to never used in the marketing. There is even a supplementary video to make this point.

So, where do I stand in this battle of sometimes conflicting and sometimes overlapping arguments? Let’s start with my thoughts concerning the first video.

I am a big admirer of Every Frame a Painting. I especially love the videos in which the staging and the camera work in movies are taken apart, since they really opened my eyes and made me realize what is possible to convey just on a visual level, what a difference something as simply as a movement in the background can make. Those videos made me more critical towards modern movie creation, including some issues with the MCU I didn’t notice beforehand. But this particular video essay is, in my honest opinion, one of the weaker ones, because it is very manipulative and bases the conclusion on the connection of two barely related issues.

From the very beginning this argument stands on very shaky grounds. A collection of random people being asked any question is always a little bit problematic when it comes to formulating a thesis. For starters, the group of people presented is way too small to be in any way representative, and as a viewer I am unable to judge if really every person who was asked actually made it into the video. I am giving Every Frame a Painting the benefit of the doubt here and assume that there wasn’t a person who did remember the theme but was cut out of the video to preserve the intended impression. But even then this is far from a remotely scientific group. In addition, I think it would have been interesting to play the Avengers theme to a number of people to test if they would have recognized it, or confused it with other themes.

Another aspect I noted about the essay are the scenes which were picked to make the argument. Instead of identifying the main themes of the movies and discuss how they are used, most of the scenes discussed are fairly random moments. I have to admit that I think the argumentation here is a little bit odd. Yes, playing a “funny” music for a funny scene is an expected choice, as is the high note for suspense. But that is kind of the point. Film music is to a certain degree codified, meaning we connect a certain kind of music to certain situations or feelings. The last rebuttal I linked, the one by HelloLillyTV, even gives a great example for this when it points out that the trailer for Age of Ultron feels more like the advertising for a horror movie. And this impression is nearly entirely based on the music alone. Age of Ultron does have a number of moments which are reminiscent of horror movies sprinkled through the more jokey and action-packed  scenes, but none of the more obvious ones made it into the trailer.

There is one “main score” which is briefly touched upon in the video essay by Every Frame a Painting, and that is Silvestri’s Triumphant Return. The complain here is that the useless narration hides the movie, followed by a demonstration how the scene would work without it. And yes, it works beautifully, thus proving that the score elevates the scene in question considerably. But the narration is actually not useless at all, it is needed to bring the whole audience on the same page. Let’s pretend that someone in the audience hasn’t seen The First Avenger, or doesn’t remember the movie all that well and is also not particularly informed about the comic book lore. Without the narration he would be able to gather that Steve is remembering his past in the military, but he had no idea what Bucky actually means to Steve. So when Bucky looses his mask later in the movie, said audience member would not gasp in surprise, he would ask “Who?”, confused about Steve’s strange reaction. But independent from the question if the narration is needed in this particular scene or not, the same score is used earlier in the movie, during the jogging scene, with no narration at all (unless you count “on your left”).

My point is that the MCU is too large to make a sweeping statement about it based on a few randomly picked scenes. You would at the very least need to look at the way one movie as a whole is scored, or how a specific score is used in different movies within the MCU to make at least some sort of judgement about it – and yes, that is my roundabout way of saying that I really like the argumentation of HelloLillyTV, which does the former with The Avengers and then the latter with the main theme of the respective movie. But more about that one later. Let’s examine first the statement that the Marvel scores don’t take risks, as well as the more general claims concerning the current trends in film music.

For starters, I don’t think that any of those trends are actually that current. As Dan Golding rightly points out, using temp music has been common since the very beginning of film making. What also has been around since the start is the need to find a balance between the different elements of a scene. Meaning, what the audience is supposed to notice in any given scene is not necessarily the music. Unless you watch a musical or something along the line of Fantasia, the most important element of a movie is usually the plot, and the music is, along with the visuals and the dialogue, only there to serve the story. Consequently it shouldn’t be the main feature in any given scene unless the director wants it to be.

Thus said, if music is used, it should enhance the scene in question. If you just can take out the music, like Every Frame a Painting did in the Ironman scene, and it doesn’t really make difference, than it might have been better to not use a score in the first place, since the focus should be on the dialogue anyway. The example from the Thor movie on the other hand is simply a matter of taste. Yes, you could have used a more attention seeking score to replace the more conventional one, but I actually wouldn’t have, because I feel that something too grand for the setting would have overwhelmed the scene. This feeling might, btw., be related to the fact that the score Every Frame a Painting added instead is, just like the Avengers theme, used for big fighting scenes and large spaces through the movie. So, yes, I am sure if I go through the whole MCU I will find a number of music choices which do nothing to enhance the scene, as well as a few I would personally disagree with. But I’ll skip the rant about the lack of Heavy Metal in Ironman 3 for now, and focus on the idea that the music choices in the MCU are too generic.

I mentioned before that Every Frame a Painting mixes two different issues. One is the question if the MCU has a theme people can hum on the spot, the other is the question if the themes of the MCU are particularly memorable. Those two questions aren’t necessarily related to each other, though, since a score doesn’t have to be hummable in order to be memorable. If someone would ask me what soundtrack I consider particularly remarkable, one of the ones I would point to is this one:

 

But I wouldn’t be able to hum this one if my life depended on it. And, to address the notion in Dan Golding’s response that the use of digital music is the reason why certain themes aren’t remembered that well, the theme doesn’t become more hummable if it is played by a full orchestra either.

What it nevertheless is, though, is unusual, remarkable and perfect in every way for the movie it which it is used.

This in mind, I am inclined to dismiss Dan Golding’s complain about the Hans Zimmer style of scoring movies. Yes, using rhythms instead of melodies is a bit of a trend in Hollywood, a trend which was born out of an unusual choice which then became mainstream. I am currently (mostly) sick of it, too, but I don’t think that either approach to movie scoring is in any way superior. And the MCU itself is a great example for it. Or, to be specific, the Captain America Franchise.

This piece is easily my favourite score in the whole MCU. It is a very compelling – and melodious – tune, and it is used to perfectly in The First Avenger. The moment I hear it I have immediately a bunch of associations, most of which originate from the scene above: Steve Rogers, practically back from the dead, having managed the impossible, finally accepted by his peers and superiors alike, the hero of the day. This is truly a triumphant return and it is no accident that this piece is used very briefly in The Avengers when Cap turns up in full costume, back in Germany and again standing up to yet another tyrant in yet another triumphant return. It is also no accident that it turns up again at the very beginning of The Winter Soldier.

Nothing about this scene is accidental, but especially not the way the theme rouses in connection with buildings and monuments which do stand for the American Ideal more than even the Lady Liberty. And Cap fits perfectly into this picture as yet another symbol of said ideals, but also of a time long gone by. It is a poignant choice that the theme plays again in the museum, in connection with a view on the past, which focusses more on the heroics of Captain America than the experiences of Steve Rogers. It is also quite deliberate, that the actual main theme of the movie is this one:

Take a Stand is more or less everything what Triumphant Return isn’t. It’s not a rousing, slowly swelling melody, but a fast staccato of rhythm building up to climax, which sounds as if someone just hit the table with his fist to make everyone present listen to him. And I love it. It is perfect for this movie exactly because it is so different. The contrast between the sepia-tinted world of pure heroism seen through a lens of nostalgia to our way more complicated, hectic and cynic reality is reflected in the way those two score pieces are used in the movie.

Which brings me to the idea that the MCU has an issue with thematic continuity in its scores. Well, this is kind of correct if one looks at the MCU as a whole, especially within the Ironman franchise, in which not only every movie has a different composer, but the third one doesn’t even fit remotely into what came beforehand. With the two Thor movies, it is kind of a shame that those soundtracks are different, but at least they are tonally in the same ballpark. Ironman 3 just switches to a different tone, bit without the narrative connection which make the change in The Winter Soldier so brilliant.

I admit, I would love it if each Superhero in the MCU had his or her own theme. The Captain America franchise does this to a certain degree. Aside from Triumphant Return and Take a Stand, the Winter Soldier theme is another one which sticks out, and carries over from The Winter Soldier to Civil War. But what Civil War lacks in my opinion is a clear theme for Ironman, which can play in contrast to Cap’s theme. But that is not the fault of Henry Jackman, he couldn’t use a theme like this because there was never one established for Ironman beforehand.

On the other hand, though, a rule like this might limit the composers too much. There are narrative but also stylistic reasons why Henry Jackman switched from Triumphant Return to Take a Stand. This choice doesn’t just reflect the change in the character, but is also a way better fit for a movie, which is not a wartime adventure put a political thriller. It would have been difficult to have the more patriotic tunes of The First Avengers present through the whole movie without undermining its themes. For similar reasons Jackman went for a less rhythmic and instead more epic score for Civil War, to reflect the tragic aspect of a larger than life conflict.

And no, it is not at all hypocritical of me to complain about the musical changes made for Ironman 3, while praising the ones in The Winter Soldier. I truly dislike the soundtrack for Ironman 3, and not because I think that the music chosen or the scores are in any way bad, but because I consider them a change which is not carried by the narrative. I feel that it is jarring.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that there is a thumb rule for the right way to score a whole universe. While a consistent musical line has a lot of merit, the decision what works and what doesn’t has to be made on a movie to movie base to a certain degree. Thus said, I am very pleased that Silvestri will score Infinity War, since switching composers isn’t exactly helpful in keeping a consistent tone.

But consistency or not, I don’t think that the use of specific themes within the movies is the deciding factor for it become ubiquitous. I agree with HelloLillyTV that marketing and advertising has a way bigger influence on which music pieces we connect to which movies – to a certain degree. While everything which is said in the video is correct, there simply are scores and songs which click with the audience better than others.

See, the trick with playing the score from Gladiator, which one of the videos used? Didn’t work on me. It didn’t work even though I have never even watched Gladiator, nor did I pay any attention to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after movies two and three were such a giant let-down. I still like the first one and consider it the best pirate movie ever made, but overall, there wasn’t a lot of marketing which could push me into remembering that particular score more than other scores I listened to in the last years. I nevertheless noticed immediately that the score which was played to me was not quite the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, because I love that score. I have loved it from the moment I first listened to it. It was an instant ear worm for me. You could play other music pieces a hundred times to me or connect them to a very emotional moment, and they wouldn’t stick with me that way.

Another score I love even though it is not part of a particularly popular or successful franchise, but was used in exactly one critically not particularly respected movie is the one from The Man in the Iron Mask. And I am obviously not the only one who felt that way about this melody considering that Yagudin used this this score for the ice dancing performance which won him the Gold medal. A lot of people love this score and might even be able to hum it.

I don’t think that it is really possible to explain completely why some melodies connect with the majority of people while others doesn’t. The marketing is certainly not the only aspect one has to consider. For example there are a number of animated TV shows with themes which are repeated again and again and due to the repetition, people watching those shows will most likely at least recognize them. But I just need to do this:

“Duck Tales…wohooo….”

and a number of my readers will have this damned song stuck in their head yet again (and no, I am not sorry, I spend the last week trying to get the title song of Moana out of my head and I am really in the mood to share some of my suffering. Just be glad that I didn’t mention It’s a small world…ooops). There is really no obvious reasons why this particularly theme song has such an effect. It is not like Duck Tales had a longer run than other TV shows, or that the opening is particularly well animated. Some unique word combinations in the text certainly helped to create trigger words for the theme song, but otherwise, there simply is something about the tune which makes it memorable.

All this said, the marketing is certainly the best explanation why people don’t connect the MCU immediately with a particular theme. But it is also an observation which doesn’t really address the quality of the actual MCU soundtracks (though all videos which went for the repetition argument as explanation did praise specific scores in the MCU). Let’s disconnect the whole argument from the question why the MCU scores aren’t hummed on cue, and go back to the question if the MCU soundtracks are generic or not.

There is an underlying complain in those first two videos essays which does have some merit: That there might be a systemic problem with the way movies are scored. But I don’t think that the points brought up in those videos are new at all. As Golding rightly points out, temp music has always been used. Likewise, there have also been trends in film music. In any given time period it is possible to point to a number of movies which followed a specific trend, and to a number of movies which ignored said trend or set a new one. The main reason why film music is codified in the first place, why we associate certain tunes with certain emotions, is because we connect said tunes to certain kind of scenarios. And this connection is older than movies themselves, you’ll find the same kind musical cues in the opera or the ballet.

It is true, though, that digital music has changed the way movies are scored. But again – is that really a bad thing? Since the scores now can be changed more easily, the composers can bring in their ideas way earlier, instead of having to score the movie after it already has been finished. Every approach has, at the end of the day, its upside and downside.

But there is one thing one always has to consider when it comes to film music: Every movie is a collaborative effort. A musician who works on his next hit single or creates something for the stage has, at least theoretically, all the freedom in the world to realize whatever idea occurs to him. A musician who works for the movie industry is limited from the get go by the movie he is working for and might get limited even further when directors already have been influenced by temp music, want music in the background and not in the forefront, or aren’t really open to any new ideas from the get go, because they want to follow a trend instead of doing something experimental.

But those are all aspects and concerns for the movie industry in general, not just for the MCU. So, how much freedom do the composers in the MCU actually have? The fact that music themes often don’t carry over to the next movie actually points in the direction that they have a lot creative freedom. Seen as a whole, the MCU offers a rich collection of very different music pieces. Just listen to this collection (once you have an hour of free time):

 

Naturally not every soundtrack is necessarily on the same level, but overall, there is a lot of quality in the MCU. In addition, if there is a recently released movie which really shines when it comes to the use of music, it is Guardians of the Galaxy.

The most obvious counterargument to this statement is that Guardians of the Galaxy sticks out, because it uses songs which already were popular, and nobody remembers the score. Well, first of all, a lot of movies use already established songs and music pieces, but that doesn’t automatically make it a good use of said songs. In fact, using even good scores and songs can end up annoying and distracting for the audience, if they are used too on the nose (*cough* Suicide Squad *cough*). The songs in Guardians of the Galaxy work so well not because they were already popular beforehand, but because they have an important function in the story. They provide an emotional connection to the protagonist, serve as a constant reminder of his traumatic past, while simultaneously spreading a sense of fun and a little bit of nostalgia – meaning they deliberately trigger a sad memory and a happy emotion. But they are also only one half of the soundtrack and only take centre stage whenever there is a narrative opportunity to play a song in-universe. Otherwise the movie does rely on a score, which, yes, gets overshadowed, just like most of the songs which are used in the movie ore overshadowed by Hooked on a Feeling, which was used in the marketing. But it is nevertheless a score which takes the centre stage in the scenes more than ones. For example here:

And naturally here:

And let’s not forget this scene:

Did you notice how the movie switches from the song, which is played in-universe, to the score? I could write a whole essay about the way Guardians of the Galaxy is scored and take apart every single scene just to point out how much the music enhances the experience and often adds a second layer to a moment.

To summon up my thoughts:

  1. I don’t agree that there is necessarily a problem with the MCU scores in general, or that Marvel limits the creativity of their composers too much.
  2. I do think that more coherence and some sort of symphonic connection in the MCU movies (not the TV shows) would be a neat idea, especially if it leads to each hero having a specific theme. But I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary, it is just a personal preference.
  3. I nevertheless prefer it if Marvel sticks to the same composer within a franchise as much as possible, unless there are good reasons for a change.
  4. Using the scores, especially the Avengers theme more often in the marketing is a good idea, but this is an aspect which would improve the marketing of the MCU as a whole, not the quality of the movies themselves.

 

At the end of the day, the movies in the MCU are like every other movie: They do some things right, and some things which don’t quite work. Some of the scores are remarkable, some are forgettable and generic. Sometimes a scene is scored perfectly, and sometimes you wonder what exactly the composer was thinking or why there even is a score at all. If you ask me, the movies which have the best scores are The First Avenger, The Avengers, The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The one movie which has a score which annoys me is Ironman 3 (and again, more in relation to the previous scores, on its own it is perfectly fine). Btw, the TV show with the best title sequence is in my opinion Jessica Jones, even though I don’t even like the melody (if you can call it melody) used, but it is one which really sticks out. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deserves a lot of love for its scores, too (and a lot of hate for having the most annoyingly to write title), one which especially stuck out to me was the tune used in the Parting Shot scene (fans of the show will know immediately what I am talking about). And then there is naturally the exceptionally use of songs in Luke Cage.

I for my part look forward to what the MCU will deliver in the future, weather people are able to hum the Avengers theme or not.


Puh, I never thought that this would end up being such a beast of an article. But then, this seems to happen to me quite often when it comes to this particular blog. Anyway, I hope a few of you made it to the end. Feel free to share your own thoughts about this topic, I would be quite happy to continue the discussion or little bit. Or list your own favourite scores and/or soundtracks in the MCU.