Some thoughts about the DCEU

The internet is currently in arms (again) because a movie based on a DC-property didn’t life up to the hype (again) and now everyone is accusing each other of bias (again). I am tired of this sh… And apparently the general audience is too, if the numbers for the opening week-end of Justice League are any indication. And it would be a lie to claim that I am in any way surprised.  In fact, I think the DCEU was pretty much still-born, for multiple reasons.

I’ll be honest: To a certain degree I am satisfied by this development. Not because I hate DC, I really don’t, I cheer whenever they create something I like and I respect them for a lot of movies and shows I don’t like, but in which I see value on a “this is just not for me” basis. No, I am satisfied, because I predicted that this would happen, and like most people, I like to be proven right, even in situations in which I would have preferred to be wrong.  There is a lingering sadness because I would have loved to see a strong and popular Wonder Woman without her being dragged down by the mess which is the DCEU. But I am also glad that Warner Bros. did get the reaction those movies deserved.

So, why did I predict this would happen? Well, let’s go back when The Avengers was released and became an instant phenomenon. What happened back then is exactly what happens every time when a movie is financial successful: Executives from all studios tried to pinpoint the reason why this particular movie resonated with audiences. And as it is often the case, their answer was incomplete.

I suspect their line of thought went something like this: The Avengers has a number of popular IP’s in one movie, this movie is connected with other movies featuring those IP’s so we only need to make movies featuring popular IP’s meeting each other and we will make the big money.  Eh….nope.

They weren’t even the only ones who thought that way. There were a couple of comic book fans which were dead-sure that Justice League was an automatic candidate for a billion dollar box office just because it featured the most well-known DC characters. But the executives and all those fans, they forget one important thing: The general audience doesn’t care about those comic books.

Shocking, I know, but nevertheless the truth. Do you really think that many people even knew who Ironman was back in 2008? Hell, one of the reasons it was so difficult to get Ironman off the ground was because a lot of directors, writers and actors feared for their career taking a project like this about a minor comic book character. The Avengers wasn’t so successful because the audience was full of comic book fans who wanted to see their favourite characters on screen. It was so successful because the general audience had already fallen in love with this particular incarnation of Ironman and Captain America and to a lesser degree Thor and wanted to see more of them on. Plus, it was a great movie. I think it is easy to forget that The Avengers beat all box office predictions and showed true staying power. It wasn’t an automatic success because of the IP’s featured, it was a success because it was the perfect conclusion to a four year long project.

Marvel earned its success with The Avengers, by taking financial and narrative risks, but above all by taking its time to carefully cultivate an audience for their brand. And now Warner Bros. and Universal (and whoever else was suddenly announcing some kind of universe) thought that they could just throw some well-known IP’s together and have the same kind of success? Yeah, I don’t think so. But with Warner Bros. there were a number of additional factors which made a success unlikely.

One is the structure of the studio. Warner Bros. follows traditionally a director driven approach, meaning they look for talents and then allow them to go creative with their own projects. That is very different to Disney/Pixar/Marvel Studios habit to focus on producer-driven projects. Walt Disney, John Lassiter, Kevin Feige, it has served the company very well because it turned the names of the studios into brands. They don’t need name recognition based on directors or actors because the audience trust the studio itself to deliver quality no matter what, and they have a pretty good idea what kind of movie they can expect based on the brand. Warner Bros. doesn’t have that. Usually this has the advantage that it can delve into whatever project strikes them fancy without worrying too much about audience expectations. For an overreaching universe though, there was no way that this would work.

The MCU is basically the principle of a TV series adjusted for the big screen. And every series needs a show runner, someone, who has a clear vision concerning the direction in which the story will go. That doesn’t mean that a series has to be planned out from start to finish, but you need a goal and some bullet points along the way. Most show-runners plan their series from season to season (though the best shows are usually those for which someone thought way further ahead), Marvel plans their movies from phase to phase with a pretty good idea what might be good options for the future. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have scripts lying around even for properties they currently don’t own just in case the rights revert back for some reason. But Warner Bros. waited until after the box office disappointment of Batman vs. Superman to create an own division for the DC-based movies. At this point it was too late, because the DCEU had already written itself into a corner.

Another reason why I didn’t think that the DCEU could succeed was Warner Bros. attitude towards Superhero movie. I’ll now say something which will most likely be very controversial: I don’t think that there has been ANY good live-action Superhero movie based on a DC property since the first two Superman movies. And before someone tries to bring up the Batman movies, hear me out: Those are arguably good movies, but they are not good Superhero movies. They are Burton’s take on Batman and Nolan’s take on Batman. And all those takes (and the majority of comic book movies pre-MCU btw) have one thing in common: they are theme driven. None of them are actually about the comics, instead the comics are just the backdrop for whatever theme the director wanted to discuss – or an excuse for nifty set-designs. And don’t get me wrong, a theme driven approach is not necessarily a bad one, but the MCU is entirely character driven. It is way easier to make the audience invested in characters than in themes.

Speaking of audience, I also didn’t think that Warner Bros. had any idea who their audience actually was. That is something I realized when I saw Watchmen. I know I risk even more nerd rage when I say this but: Watchmen will always be a movie with a niche following, because this movie is utterly inaccessible for the general audience. For someone who is not already familiar with comic book lore it is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, partly because Snyder is unable to shot a brutal murder as anything other than a cool event, but above all because there is a constant sense of the movie referencing something without having any idea what this is about. Just the vague feeling of missing something big there.

Nerd culture has taken over the internet and consequently created a bubble in which it seems as if there is a huge community of comic book readers out there. This is not the case, especially not once one bothers to look past the US border. I keep describing myself as a non-comic book reader, but what I am actually mean by that is that I didn’t grew up with specifically Superhero comics. The comics of my childhood were called Asterix, Tintin and Lucky Luke (well, mostly Asterix), with a lot of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (mostly by Italian or Scandinavian writers) thrown in for good measures. Europe has its own comic culture, as has Asia. And, btw, Mangas are way more accessible for foreigners than Superhero comics are, because they tend to be concluded series instead of a giant construct which makes it practically impossible for an outsider to find a starting point.

Yes, most people in the world has at least an idea who Batman, Superman, Spider-man and to a lesser degree Wonder Woman are. But that has nothing to do with the comics, and everything to do with those characters having been present on TV for decades. Batman fans might hate the Adam West show, but without it, there won’t be any Burton movie, or a ground-breaking animated series. Spiderman had so many cartoon shows, there is one for every generation out there. And thanks to all those adaptations, there is a basic knowledge a studio can expect from the audience, but it is not as extensive than some people might think. How Batman’s parents died, what the deal with Superman is or the fate of Uncle Ben, those are things which are pretty well established by now. But don’t expect the general audience to know about The Killing Joke, the fate of the various Robins or how Gwen Stacy died. Comic book readers know this. People who have just watched a Comic book based TV show once in a while don’t (unless they have observed comic book media related discussions as long as I did). Marvel either understood that or never even thought about it due to using lesser known characters. They build their universe under the assumption that the majority of the audience wouldn’t know anything about their characters, hence making it accessible for everyone.

Marvel understood also that what the nerd soul demands is not necessarily what it needs. It is always important to pay attention to your fans, but that doesn’t mean that you should follow every suggestion they make.

A good studio listens to its fans and then figures out what they actually want.  

To summon this up: I doubted that Warner Bros. would succeed because I thought that the structure of the studio wasn’t suitable for a project like this, because they had already shown that they didn’t really know the audience for Comic book based movies and because their approach to comic books in the past displayed a dismissive attitude towards the source material. And once I saw Man of Steel, I no longer just doubted, I was sure that I was watching a slow moving trainwreck.

Picking Snyder for a Superman movie has to be the most puzzling decision Warner Bros ever made. Oh, I get the thought behind it. Gritty Batman worked, Superman Returns didn’t, so let’s go gritty with Superman. Plus, thanks to 300 and Watchmen, Snyder had a lot of credibility with comic book fans. But, as I pointed out above, comic book fans don’t equal the general audience. Who the hell thought that Snyder’s cynical point of view would be a good fit for Superman, even for a gritty version of him? Though what really turned Man of Steel into a terrible movie – yes, it is terrible, I don’t care that it has its defenders – is not even the tone and the cynicism, though neither help. The main problem with it is that it spends long stretches of the narrative to make clear that this is supposed to be a different Superman, but then throws in scenes and expect them to resonate with the audience based on prior knowledge of those characters. The killing of Zod is the prime example for that. If comic book Superman did that, the “Noooooo” would resonate because Superman usually doesn’t kill. If the Man of Steel does it, it fits perfectly to his actions through the whole movie, leaving the “Nooooo” without any context.

But even though Man of Steel confirmed a lot of my fears, I didn’t expect what followed then. After all, there was still time for Warner Bros. to rethink their strategy, wasn’t it? Instead they doubled down on it!  Why was Snyder kept on the project not just as one director, but as the director who set the tone for the whole universe? Remember what Marvel did? Marvel build on the successful movies which resonated with the audience and quietly shoved The Incredible Hulk into the darkest shadow available.

Marvel also created a baseline for their universe, but it was very careful to not lock the directors too tightly into a specific aesthetic or the writers into a specific storyline. They did the whole setting up the next movie thing exactly once in Phase 1, during the production of Ironman 2, and remember the movie which resulted out of those decisions – a rushed production, an unfocussed script, and a construct in which three Marvel movies were supposed to overlap –  is to this day considered one of the weakest of the MCU. Which is why Warner Bros. approach is so puzzling. Marvel had already demonstrated what worked and what didn’t. Dropping Easter eggs and subtle connections? Works great! Using huge chunks of a movie to advertise the next instalment? Nope, don’t do this! And yet Warner Bros went and created a whole movie which is nothing but set-up with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

But the biggest mistake in all this might have been the stories Warner Bros. picked for adaptation. Look, I get it, The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman are very popular comic books, but there is a reason why Captain America: Civil War is movie 13 of the MCU and not movie 2. Those kind of stories can only work if the audience has already established a relationship to the characters and the world in question, and, as I already pointed out, a studio shouldn’t just assume that such a relationship automatically exist due to earlier adaptations, especially not if the incarnations shown are so distinctively different from prior versions of them.

While we are at it, Flashpoint won’t work as a first Flash Stand-alone story either. This year a lot of people joked that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did Flashpoint better than CW’s The Flash did. And the reason why the take of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was so much better received boils down to one word: patience. The Flash did this particular plot point in its second season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.waited nearly four years before it confronted its characters with a possible alternate existence and had therefore way more material to build on. There is no way that Warner Bros. can do it in the very first instalment of the Flash.

On top of this, Warner Bros. or Snyder or Goyer or whoever else was involved in the mess which was Batman vs. Superman, none of them seem to understand why those comics were so popular in the first place. Even I know that the most iconic moments of The Death of Superman are not whatever happens with Doomsday, it is the images of Lois holding his broken body and the whole Justice League attending his funeral. It is not the death in itself which is interesting, it is how the world reacts to it after having been protected and inspired by Superman for so long. It is the worst story one could pick as follow up of a movie in which Superman wrecks both Smallville and Metropolis in his first big public outing.

So, to recap: On top of the very basic hurdles Warner Bros. was facing, they also made a number of mistakes from the get go. They didn’t took care to avoid the missteps Marvel already made. They picked the wrong director for the wrong reasons and allowed him to dictate the look of the universe even after his first movie ended up controversial. And they didn’t understand why the comic books they picked as inspiration were totally unsuitable for the start of a new universe.

Here is what they should have done: First of all, they needed to discard Man of Steel and instead go for a proper franchise starter. Naturally not Superman, because they had just tried that, and not Batman, because everyone was still salivating over the Nolan trilogy. Plus, DC needed to show that they have more to offer than Batman. What they needed was a hero with name recognition, preferable one with a rich history and a reputation untarnished by bad adaptations. Mmm…which DC hero fits the bill?

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Yeah, you guessed it, they should have started with Wonder Woman, and not just because she is the third part of the Trinity and was decades overdue for a movie of her own. From a marketing point of view, a female lead Superhero movie is something Marvel Studio still hasn’t done, and Warner Bros. had the best known Superheroine in the world at their hands. Wonder Woman might have less outings than her male counterpart, but her TV series raised her to a feminist icon which in turn gave her a staying power even decades of neglect couldn’t destroy. It was crazy not to use this immediately because of the irrational believe that female lead Superhero movies can’t be successful. Obviously they can, even while weighted down by a deeply unpopular cinematic universe. And from a storytelling point of view picking Wonder Woman would have meant starting at the very beginning, laying some groundwork for what will come later on, but without fixing too many aspects to a point of no return due to her origin story being set so far in the past.

For what is worth, I think Warner Bros did a lot of things right with Wonder Woman. I am not as enthusiastic as others about the movie as whole, but I think the basic concept of setting it in WWI instead of WWII and making it a movie about the futility of war was sound. But I won’t go into how this movie could have been improved from “okay” to “outstanding”, the important point is that Warner Bros had a perfectly good option for a strong start and didn’t use it because they stupidly though that the general audience would rather see a second outing of a deeply controversial version of Superman encountering yet another Batman than the first take on Wonder Woman. I think that the box office result for the Wonder Woman movie which they eventually did showed how wrong they were.

Not that I would have kept either Batman or Superman out of the picture, the next step would have been a movie in which Wonder Woman encounters either of them. Because this is the one thing in which the Warner Bros was in principle right: We don’t need another origin movie for Batman – nor did we need one for Superman. One can easily make a movie in which Wonder Woman meets Batman or Superman without the need to explain their whole backstory the same way the MCU can just throw Spider-man into the mix without long explanations. As long as the version on screen follows the core of the various incarnations of the character, the audience will just assume that the basic rules are still intact the same way nobody has to explain “Bond, James Bond” to anyone.

But I keep talking about what Warner Bros. should have done. The more important question is what they should do now that they have burned their most popular characters and stories for a failing franchise. The most popular opinion in the nerd bubble seems to be that Justice League was a step in the right direction and Warner Bros. should double down on those changes in order to eventually win back the audience with better movies. I disagree. Batman vs Superman not only created a confusing mess of a universe, it also blocked practically blocked the writers from a huge chunk of comic book lore by alluding that a number of events already happened at one point in the past. No matter how strong a movie is, if you build it on a foundation that weak, it will always sink at least partly into the mud.

I think it is high time to regroup. They naturally can’t stop Aquaman now, and it might be worth to do a sequel to Wonder Woman, but in the meantime, they should scratch their whole slate, put together a team for some brainstorming and then start anew, but without a big announcement. Just put someone competent in charge (meaning someone who has hands-on experience as producer but a sense for storytelling), hire a team of writers and then create a couple or stand-alone movies with the potential to turn them into a big crossover-event later on – just like Marvel did it.


All this won’t help, though, if Warner Bros. doesn’t make some basic changes – not just in personnel but above all in mind-set. Otherwise they will just run into the same problems. I have therefore decided to put together a couple of ideas how to approach this project. Let’s call it the DCTU . Yep, DCTU. Because DCCU sounds awkward and DCEU just stupid. Extended from what? Therefore DCTU, DC Theatrical Universe.

Step 1: Embrace the Differences

As I pointed out above, Warner Bros. should study Marvel’s approach and learn from their mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that they should just copy the MCU. Marvel and DC are similar in a lot of ways – no wonder, after all even the artists and writers switch from one company to the other once in a while – but there are also some fundamental differences between their respective comic book verses.  Marvel stories are set in the real world, preferable in New York. DC stories are usually set in Gotham, Metropolis or Central City. Marvel stories tend to feature normal humans who suddenly acquire the power to change the world – even the comic book version of Thor spend time as a human, unaware of his godly powers. DC stories on the other hand tend to feature god-like beings who mingle with humanity. Even Batman, maybe the most human of the DC heroes, is still incredible rich and is labelled the “greatest detective”.

As a general rule, it is easier for a writer to make Marvel’s heroes relatable, exactly because they tend to deal with very human struggles. It is way more difficult to make the audience sympathise with someone whose powers are off the charts, though. And no, adding flaws to the character doesn’t help. A flawed human is relatable. But a flawed god is above all terrifying. That doesn’t mean that the characters have to be perfect in every way, but if I had to create the DCTU, I would focus less on flaws and more on the kind of struggles a superpowerful Being faces. For example, how does Superman decide which people he should rescue and which not? Yes, he is faster than a speeding bullet, but even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. So does he decide to block out petty crimes believing that the police can deal with it on its own and only jumps in for the big events? Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope, and seeing him struggling with this responsibility and how the world reacts to such a paragon of virtue is a way more engaging story than him trying to figuring out what moral actually is.

Wonder Woman is a way more interesting character than most give her credit for. She is a warrior, but the idea is also that she fights for peace. This contradiction alone could deliver material for multiple movies about the battles she picks and the weapon of choice. After all, words are often more effective than a sword to solve a conflict. Especially when the words are forced out by a powerful lasso.

But then, we can’t start the DCTU by focussing on either of them. Or on Batman or any other of the Justice League – if for no other reason than another movie headlining Batman or Superman underperforming might destroy the brand. We need to approach this through the backdoor. So let’s not start with the characters. Or with the themes.

Step 2: Start with the World

The DCEU’s approach to world-building has been confusing to say the least. It tries to start at the beginning with Superman, but in medias res with Batman, various villains and Wonder Woman. It destroys Metropolis only to have it rebuilt one scene later. On top of this it keeps alluding to events which I guess happened in the comics, but mean nothing to general audience. I don’t get the impression that Warner Bros actually knows what “res” actually looks like. It is a very confusing hodgepodge of Superman being a revelation for the world, but somehow Batman was already catching villains for decades and there are other Meta-humans around but somehow in hiding, yet their rogues gallery is in prison – nothing fits together smoothly. It is like Warner Bros just assumes that the audience has read every comic which was ever popular and somehow magical knows which pieces of them are part of the DCEU canon and which aren’t.

The MCU solved the world building problem by basically taking our world and then carefully inserting heroes in our history. And it has found an easy solution how to insert heroes before Ironman into the timeline by just claiming that S.h.i.e.l.d. (and others) covered up a lot, and that, aside from Captain America, heroes or powered beings simply worked secret until the Battle of New York revealed their existence (and the existence of aliens) to the world.

This approach wouldn’t work for the DCTU because, as I pointed out above, most heroes operate in fictional cities. Which sounds like a drawback, but is actually a huge advantage. The DCTU needs something which will distinguish it from the MCU and the Fox movies and whoever else finds or invents a Superhero property to adapt. And the thing which sticks out the most is how the city tends to reflect the hero living in them. Or the hero reflects the city. This is especially true regarding Batman and Superman. Nothing expresses this as well as this image:

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The day and the night, the prosperity and the poverty, the art deco and the gothic. One thing which made especially the Burton movies and Batman TAS so appealing was the stylized setting. It is a concept so simple that before the DCEU, it was kind of a given. Even Gotham (the TV show) has a distinctive style and a sense of place. The CW show do the same light vs dark contrast with their take on Central vs Star(ling) City. But in Batman vs Superman there is no obvious difference between Metropolis and Gotham. Most of the time I am not even sure in which part of the city the movie is set.

Focussing on the place has also the advantage that the viewer will actually care if a particular landmark or city block gets destroyed. And it solves a lot of problems, too, because it gives the writers the freedom to write the rules themselves. Who cares if nowadays newspapers are struggling to keep their readership? If the writers decide that the Daily Planet is still the top authority in investigative journalism, than this is the reality of Metropolis. Who cares that the whole concept of Arcum Asylum is kind of silly? In Gotham city it can exist and maybe even function as an exploration of the concept of cities in which the majority of the population is working for the prison system. And that is just Gotham and Metropolis. There is so much a creative mind could do with the various fictional DC locations. Central City for example could be some sort of silicon valley for science, contrasting sharply with the close-bye and distinctively blue collar Keystone city in which what is thought up in Central City is built. Because in the DCTU America still has a strong production base. And Star City could really lean into its status as a port city, where the yachts of the rich are replacing the quaint fisher boats.

But world building is about more than just locations. So the next step which needs to be done for my DCTU to work is:

Step 3: Figure out the timeline

I am not talking about a timeline in the sense of putting definite dates on what is shown on screen. I am talking about the need to actually have an idea at which point in their life your characters are. See, the idea of starting in medias res with Batman was a sound one. Batman has been on screen so many times, nobody needs or wants an origin movie about him. But why starting the universe with him at the very end of his career as a crime fighter while Superman just arrived? That is a puzzling decision, especially when one thinks long-term. It blocks the writers from exploring a number of potential angles regarding Batman and his supporting cast by suggesting that the majority of them are already dead or gone.

I would pick a starting point along the line of: Those heroes have been active for a while already and are established enough that the world has gotten used to their presence. But they haven’t meet each other yet, nor is their support network of allies complete. Basically, no need to do another origin story (most of the DC ones are pretty boring or convoluted anyway), but still enough options to develop a character in one direction or another.

This doesn’t even have to be particularly precise. The MCU went for a tightly knit continuity, but there is no need for the DCTU to copy that method, nor would it make much sense. The cities are fictional anyway, so instead of confusing the audience with the question how this reality fits in our reality, let’s turn the DCTU in the best escapist fantasy possible! There should be a little bit more care put into how the movies relate to each other than Fox bothered to employ with their X-men franchise, but in principle, a looser connection would fit the usual modus operandi in Warner Bros. much better, because this would allow the writers and directors way more freedom. Though there is one important rule they should follow:

Step 4: Start small

It seems like Warner Bros. thinks that a comic book movies needs four things: A hero with some sort of issue to overcome, a flashy villain, an expendable love interest to rescue and a earth-destroying event. It is a template which has been used in countless Superhero movies, and Warner Bros. uses it in every single one of its DCEU movies! But it’s no longer the early 2000s, nowadays the audience expects a little bit more than that. And with more I don’t mean necessarily the flashy elements, I mean moments which draw them in on an emotional level. Ironman didn’t work so well because everyone wanted to see a bunch of metal suits crashing into each other – in fact I think that those kind of fight scenes tend to be the weakest moments in the franchise – it worked because the audience really felt for Tony Stark getting a wake up call and then struggling to make better decisions.

What Warner Bros really needs to understand that a bigger budget doesn’t necessarily make a more successful movie. Sometimes it is necessary – for example if you have to pay a number of highly prolific actors so that they will all appear in the big event movie you plan as finale for a ten-year long saga – but the budget should serve the story instead of the other way around. Plus, if you start your universe with a world destroying event, there is no room for escalation. Which brings me to

Step 5: Move slowly and earn your moments

I have alluded to this multiple times already, but one of the biggest problem with the DCEU is that it feels so rushed. And I get it, Warner Bros. has to keep the shareholders happy, so they need their big success immediately. At the same time there is this fear that Superhero movies will go out of fashion soon. God knows that there are more than enough articles about “Superhero fatigue” and Superhero movies going the way of the Western.

But all of this doesn’t change the fact that you need to earn the success Marvel had with their movies. I am well aware that a lot of the more popular and/or well known DC titles are either event comics or Elseworlds stories. Warner Bros. needs to accept that it shouldn’t do either before establishing a proper baseline for its universe.

In addition, while Marvel had great results with reinterpretations of well-known comic book titles and storylines, some of it biggest successes had no direct comic book counterpart. Guardians of the Galaxy for example is basically a complete rewrite of the original comic books (which used to be very obscure), and if there has been ever a Spider-man comic called Homecoming, this is not a title which is particularly well-known. Even Disney had great success with Big Hero 6, not that the movie bore a lot of resemblance to the comics, which next to nobody read anyway.

The truth is that while it is always a good thing to get the actual comic book fans excited for a movie, the general audience doesn’t care one bit if the costume in the trailer looks exactly like something out of a specific comic book. It is also unlikely to recognize specific title or having knowledge what those titles are about. The general audience only cares about two things: Marketing and Word of Mouth. The marketing is needed to create a basic interest in the movie, the word of mouth convinces people to actually spend the money.

And yes, it is possible that the interest in Superhero movies will eventually fade. But it is on the studios to keep the genre fresh, and so far Warner Bros. is the only studio which hasn’t quite grasped the concept yet. Well, them and maybe Sony, but the judgement is still out on that one.

Step 6: Copy Marvel’s genre approach

Honestly, even Fox has caught on by now. The Superhero genre is incredible versatile. Romance, horror, detective story, everything is possible, there is no need to follow the same patterns again and again and again. Just look at the most successful Comic book movies of the last years: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy is a Space Opera, Civil War is a Revenge Play and Fox managed to tap into this formula by turning Logan into a gritty western and Deadpool into a raunchy romantic comedy. No, I am not kidding, Deadpool has a very basic rom-com plot mixed with Superhero elements and a lot of self-awareness. Meanwhile the movies which follow a more basic hero plot, like X-Men: Apocalypse or Suicide Squad, they don’t really resonate with the audience anymore – if they ever did in the first place.

Marvel has raised the standards of what a Superhero movie has to deliver considerably. But Marvel and Fox have also broadened the definition of what such a movie can look like. The opportunities are countless. What Warner Bros. shouldn’t do, though, is chasing the latest trend.

Step 7: Figure out the draw of the property

One of the biggest problem with the recent DC movies is how they tried to force concept which worked elsewhere on properties which aren’t meant for this kind of story. Granted, that Batman vs. Superman hit plot points which were similar to Civil War, that one was mostly incidental considering that both movies were in production around the same time. But, as I already pointed out, Man of Steel basically used the Nolan approach which worked so well with Batman, even though the main draw of Superman is how different he is from Batman. Green Lantern was a thinly veiled attempt to do a version of Ironman, complete with an irresponsible main character and Amanda Waller taking the role of Nick Fury, even though the property lends itself way more to a crazy space adventure. You know, the kind of movie Marvel did successfully a few years later with Guardians of the Galaxy, so successful that Warner Bros. decided to model Suicide Squad after it, even though Suicide Squad should have been a gritty heist movie. Even Wonder Woman is at its weakest whenever elements of Captain America: The First Avenger creep into it. Hold your horses, I am not saying that Wonder Woman is a copy of Captain America: The First Avenger. But Steve Trevor’s multinational team (which is, as far as I know, not from the comics) is suspiciously similar to the Howling Commandos, and Steve Trevor’s sacrifice is way, way too similar to Steve Roger’s sacrifice.

See, this is why Marvel is winning. For all the claims that the “play it safe”, they are not afraid to shake things up and allow comic book properties to be something different. They are not afraid to go out in space (at least not anymore…The Dark World is another movie which was tied back to earth for no reason at all) or the mystical world and they are not afraid to do a smaller story which doesn’t involve the fate of the whole world in the climax. Warner Bros keeps chasing after the latest trend, no matter if it actually fits the property they are dealing with, and more often then not they change the direction of the movie mid-production.

What they should do instead is trying to figure out why a particular comic book property resonated. With some of them, this isn’t really that difficult. Ask a random comic book fan what Superman stands for and the answer will most likely be “Hope”. Ask what Wonder Woman stand for and the answer will be either “Truth” or “Peace”. Ask what Batman stands for and the answer will be “Justice”. And everyone who ever bothered to look up Green Lantern knows that the green stands for will as opposed to fear (yellow), rage (red), greed (orange), death (black), live (white), hope (blue), compassion (purple) and love (pink).

Not every hero is helpfully labelled or colour coded, but one really doesn’t need to be a genius to recognize that a Suicide Squad story should be about a gritty wet work suicide mission, and not about a bunch of villains suddenly becoming anti-heroes and rescuing the world from a beam into the sky. One also doesn’t need to be a genius to recognize that beams into the sky as well as evil clouds should be avoided at all cost unless one has a really, really good idea how to utilize them.

Secret identities on the other hand is something most DC heroes should have. Marvel doing away with them was a great idea because for most of them, they were a useless element anyway. But even Marvel allowed Daredevil and Spider-man to keep on their masks, because in their case the secret identity isn’t optional but an important part of their stories. DC heroes tend to be vigilantes, therefore they need their masks, and they should reveal themselves to pretty much every person they know. In fact, the love triangle between Lois, Superman and Clark is one of the most essential themes in the Comic book.

Speaking of which: Nobody really cares why nobody recognizes Superman once he wears a pair of glasses. Yes, there have been jokes about this since pretty much forever, but Christopher Reeves managed to make the notion believable simply by hunching and adjusting the mannerism of Clark Kent. I am sure about this because nobody but me ever seems to wonder how it can be that in Disney’s Aladdin every character is apparently face-blind, because none of them is able to recognize Aladdin just because he changed his clothes. As long as the story enthrals the audience, it doesn’t really matter that a pair of glasses are a very basic disguise. Likewise nobody cares about Batman’s voice either. If anything, the Batman voice should be naturally threatening while Bruce Wayne should sound different simply by being more mild-mannered and speaking less forceful.

But I digress. The point is that while the group of actual comic book readers within the audience is pretty small, they are still serving as a great test group. A concept which resonated with them will most likely resonate on a larger scale, too. The actual difficulty is to figure out what part of the concept resonated. In the case of Superman, it was certainly not the costume or the quality of his disguise, but the notion of someone standing up for ideals and being powerful enough to enforce them.

Step 8: Focus on the villain

While I do think that Marvel’s so called villain problem is grossly overstated, there is no denying that DC has a huge advantage in this regard. Marvel’s most prolific villains are owned by Sony or Fox, while Warner Bros. has full access to all Batman villains, all Flash villains and all Superman villains.

Plus, on a more practical level, if you have a hero who has only limited room for character development, the most obvious solution for that problem is to create a flashy villain. Disney used to do this all the time and one can’t argue with the results. Consider this: What were the best episodes of Batman TAS actually about? Most of them were about the villains. Why do people like The Dark Knight so much? Certainly not because of Batman’s gravely voice but because of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.

One of the most frustrating aspects about the DCEU is how shockingly bad the villains have been so far. I am pretty dispassionate when it comes to Lex Luther’s general mannerism or motivations, but there is no excuse whatsoever for him to be stupid enough to follow through with a plan which will result in him ending up either dead or in prison for sure. I admit, I have no idea what Comic book Ares is like, but if there is anything Xena has proven than how engaging the notion of a Being thriving on human unrest can be, plus, everything would have been better than a giant CGI something with a moustache. Suicide Squad has the first depiction of the Joker ever which didn’t resonate with the fans at all, and the less said about Enchantress “hypnotic” dance the better. Zod comes the closest to being a kind of interesting villain except that his motivation for acting the way he does – having been genetically designed that way – isn’t really explained until the very end of the movie, plus, it makes less sense the more you think about the notion.

Granted, a number of the villains in DC’s rogues gallery should be put on the backburner for now. I think the audience really needs a break from the Joker and without him, ushering in a new version of Harley Quinn wouldn’t really work either. There have been already two versions of Two-Face, one of them in the widely acclaimed The Dark Knight, so this is another villain which should be used further down the line. But I do think that the Riddler, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze all deserve redemption for their depiction in the Schumacher movies and while Batman Begins is a more acclaimed movie, I don’t think that anyone would mind a version of the Ra’s a Ghul or Scarcrow which is less grounded. Or of a the Penguin who doesn’t randomly bites off noses.

There are some other Batman villains which might be worth exploring, but have never graced the big screen. Hush for example is especially interesting, because he is not just an enemy of Batman, but also insanely jealous of Bruce Wayne. Warner Bros. would also have free run (pun intended) of the Flash’s rogue gallery. Yes, most of them have turned up in CW’s The Flash, but, to be frank, the main reason why the various Superhero shows on CW are still on air is because CW is satisfied with way lower ratings than the bigger networks like ABC or CBS expect. Meaning the exposure to the general audience is not as high as some might believe. For the same reason Deathstroke and Sinestro are certainly still an option for a fresh take.

The only property where the villain question is kind of problematic is Superman. Oh, there are quite a few Superman villains which never made it to the big screen, like Brainiac, Bizarro or Vandal Savage. But Metropolis without Lex Luther that just feels wrong on so many levels. But then, the last iteration of him was so terrible, I have the feeling that the fans wouldn’t complain to finally see a take which is closer to the animated version of the character, just to get rid of the lingering bad taste.

All this said, step 7 isn’t really a hard rule, while it is certainly worth remembering that Villains are one of DC’s strength, there are storylines in which the villain should be a background element. Which brings me to what might be the most important element.

Step 9: Pick talented writers

As much credit as directors tend to get for their work, I am convinced that the foundation for a good movie is a solid screenplay. It is not a guarantee for success, because a bad director is perfectly able to ruin a great script, but I can’t think of any movie in which a terrible script was somehow turned into a great movie. And no, Ironman doesn’t count, that was a case of shooting with no fixed script at all, which can work out if the people on set are flexible and creative enough.

Anyway, one should keep in mind that one of the reasons why the Captain America franchise feels way more like a coherent story-arc than the other MCU franchises do is that all three movies have been written by the same writing team (and I certainly look forward to what they will come up with in Infinity war). Case to point between all the DCEU movies so far, there is exactly one in which Goyer wasn’t involved in, which wasn’t written in less than a month or penned by two writers with completely opposite styles, and that is Wonder Woman. That screenplay was written by Allan Heinberg, who also happens to be a comic book writer. Gosh, who would have expected that an actual comic book writer would have an understanding for comic book characters?

I am not quite sure how Marvel picks their writers – apparently they are actively developing new talents – but it works. Well, most of the time. I don’t know what they were thinking when they hired the writers for Doctor Strange. Their record wasn’t exactly stellar.

Anyway, even though Warner Bros. is a director driven studio, they should be aware of the importance of writers and allow them the necessary time to develop a solid script.

Step 10: Change the narrative

And this time I am not talking about the actual plot of the movies, but about the bad press which is surrounding them. And the only way to do this is to hold of any announcements as long as possible and to divorce itself from the DCEU as fast as soon as Aquaman had its run (Wonder Woman 2 will draw the audience in even if it is officially the last outing of the character). I know that a lot of people won’t be happy about the notion. But there is no way that Warner Bros. can satisfy both the “grim and gritty” fans who will defend the DCEU to their last breath as well as those, who desperately want a new direction. Even more important, the general audience will shy away from the DCEU, due to its terrible reputation.

At this point, Warner Bros. needs to show that it has learned its lesson. And that will only work by releasing a few high quality movies which can be marketed as stand alone projects in every sense of the word. None of the Snyder style, none of the grey colours, just a fun looking Superhero movie.


Well, so far, so good. But naturally this is just a very basic concept, and I am certainly not so arrogant to think that this the one and only solution for Warner Bros. If for no other reason that even the best concept can fail if it isn’t realized with good scripts, the right directors and the fitting actors. Still, to end this article, here some thoughts about which movie Warner Bros. is already considering would be a good fit for the reboot as well as a couple of very vague ideas which might work for the DCTU.

Of all the movies Warner Bros. has currently in planning stages, Shazam and the Green Lantern Corps are the only ones I would keep on the slate. Granted, I am not so sure about what I have heard about Shazam so far, but as a comic book property, it is in a lot of ways perfect for a restart. The notion of a child being able to turn into an adult hero hasn’t been explored in any movie so far, Black Adam is certainly one of the better DC villains (that doesn’t mean that a movie just about him would be a good idea, though) and Fawcett City might not be the worst place to start some world building.

It might be a little bit early to revisit Green Lantern, but then if they start proper pre-production now it will be almost ten years since the last movie, and just keeping it in Space would allow some colourful trailers. Just, please, remove Goyer from the project! Please! His track record for writing Superhero movies is frankly terrible.

But what then? What is the right approach to re-establish Gotham and Metropolis and to create Central City and Star City for the first time on the big screen?

I would start with Gotham. And yes, I am aware that I complained at length about Warner Bros. relying way too much on Batman, but there is one element which has never been properly explored on the big screen, and which would be a perfect draw for the audience: The Bat Family! After all this years the only movies which even tried were the Schumacher ones, and they had zero understanding for why it is interesting to sadly a loner like Batman with a supporting cast.

So let’s start with Robin. I know that some people think that Robin can’t work on the big screen because Batman would look irresponsible if he would allow a child to fight violent criminals. It is a reasonable argument – as a general rule, animation has an easier time to get away with stuff like this – but I still think that this is just a question of the right approach.

First of all, there is no need to make Robin an outright child, just cast an actor who is around 14 (or can pass as being that age). That is just old enough that he has a certain degree of agency, but young enough that he still needs guidance. And I would make the movie about the events surrounding Dick Grayson loosing his parents.

Yes, I am aware that this story has been done multiple times in animation already and once on the big screen. But I don’t think that any of those adaptations have ever taken proper advantage of the notion. Think about it, a boy who grew up in the circus suddenly trapped with a millionaire he barely knows in some giant mansion. The whole movie could be told from his perspective, meaning that the audience would get to know Bruce Wayne and Gotham through the eyes of Dick (or Rich, if the writers are too worried about the immaturity of the audience). The story could focus on him trying to find the murderer of his parents (it was naturally Zucco, but it turns out that he was working for the Penguin), clashing into Batman during his investigation, eventually figuring out that the kind of closed off millionaire he has just started to trust actually is Batman, and eventually convincing Batman that it is better if he allows him to accompany him than risking him to run into danger on his own. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Robin has to be in the thick of things btw. After all, the main reason why Robin was invented for the Comics was that Batman needed someone to talk to, so Robin can just as easily be on look out for Batman instead of personally hitting criminals. At least not until he is older.

There are a number of storylines and conflicts related to Robin and the Bat Family which could be explored. The audience already knows the brooding Batman. But what about a Batman who initially gets used to having Robin around but then had a wake-up call when Robin nearly gets killed on one mission and he has to realize that the villains he has to deal with have become steadily more and more crazy and dangerous? What about a Batman who is suddenly confronted with a second crime-fighter donning a costume very similar to his? What about the whole Court of Owls story-arc? There is so much which has never been explored on film simply because the various directors weren’t really interesting in Batman’s non-romantic relationships and saw Robin at best as an opportunity to sell more toys. Delving into this part of the lore might bring a number of fans back on board, especially casual fans who know Robin mostly from his Teen Titans career.

The same way the Batman movies have never shown much interest in Batman’s supporting cast or detective skills, the Superman movies have always treated the Daily Planet as some sort of backdrop for Clark to hang around waiting for the next catastrophe to happen. Why not start at a point at which Lois Lane is still relatively new reporter, looking for her big break, who sees Clark Kent initially as an annoying rival for the job she seeks? One could build a whole storyline around Lois going undercover to reveal some big scheme while Clark, being aware of the risk she takes, keeps an ear out on her, but eventually doesn’t have to rescue her (for a change), but the people who are in danger because of the scheme. While he is busy, Lois manages to secure proof for the scheme, but since everyone is more interested in the heroics of Superman, Clark and Jimmy Olson are initially getting all the credit for the story. In order to make up for this injustice, Superman offers to give his first press conference ever during which he reveals that he would have never been there on time if not for Lois Lane making him aware of what was going on. And yes, I know, all this sounds like a very simple story and I am sure that the writers would need to embellish this with excuses for additional action scenes, but this way Lois has a reason to be in love with Superman aside from him being so powerful, and he has a reason to feel resentful towards Clark without her looking like a bully. And it would be a good way to cover a lot of Metropolis without destroying buildings left and right. Later instalments could focus on Superman’s status as alien and last of his kind (at least until Supergirl turns up) and him trying to find something to pin on Lex Luther (once he figures out his true nature).

Central City would naturally be introduced with a Flash story. I freely admit that I have no concrete idea for that one,  but just like I would lean onto Batman’s detective skills and Clark being a reporter, I would use the fact that Barry Allen is a forensic scientist. After all, the Flash doesn’t have superhearing, in order to be at the right place he still needs to figure out where the big crime will go down, no matter how fast he is.

And yes, establishing Star City would require the introduction of the Green Arrow, but why not? Even starting with the whole story about him coming back after having been marooned on an island might be a good idea. Yes, the CW show already did that, but I think another take on the same story with a Green Arrow who is less Batman like and more the modern Robin Hood and liberal crusader might be worth it.  Another option would be a movie exploring the Clock King, whose backstory isn’t just truly tragic, but might resonate with an American audience considering how much of a topic health care currently is, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I even have an idea for a team up movie down the line. Forget the “a world ending danger brings everyone together” storyline. Why not built on the notion of a competition between various powered heroes instead, which serves as a backdrop for a larger plan. See, the whole “who will win in a fight” discussions fans like to have, they are actually not that interesting because the answer to it is obvious: Whoever the writer wants to win. A more interesting question is: Under which circumstances would which hero have an advantage. I can actually imagine a story about a charity event which involves Superman, The Flash and Wonder Woman having to race each other through some sort of obstacle course, with Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen both being sponsors of the event, which is naturally organized by Lex Luther who wants to figure out the weaknesses of the various heroes and if one of them can challenge Superman. Naturally there is an even larger plan by another villain in play, which leads to the racer having to work together to survive while Batman and Green Arrow figure out and take down the culprit.


But I think it is time to finish this. After all, what started out as some quick thoughts about the predictable downfall of the DCEU ended up in an article with close to 10,000 words. Currently Warner Bros. seems to lean towards blaming Snyder, but, for the record, as much as I dislike the decisions he made for DCEU, it was Warner Bros. who put him in charge, it was Warner Bros. who wanted to rush in the universe and it was Warner Bros. who was overly confident in the draw of the characters they own. Consequently it is Warner Bros. who needs to do better and not Zack Snyder – not that I would want him anywhere near more comic book properties unless they happen to fit his very specific aesthetic. But it is Warner Bros. who needs to rethink its approach, and I really, really hope that this will happen and the executives draw the right conclusion for a change. Because I truly want them to succeed – if they actually put the necessary work in it.

 

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Marvel Musings: Ivan Vanko

One thing I have to clarify before discussing Whiplash: I don’t think that Ironman 2 has two villains. Justin Hammer is for me not a villain, he is an antagonist. Sure, a lot of the stuff he does is shady, especially when he frees Ivan Vanko from prison. But I don’t get the sense that he actually knows or cares that people were killed during this process. He isn’t the type who would plan something like this, he is the type who would order someone to fetch Vanko for him without caring how. He certainly lacks morals but overall, he is simply a dumb wannabe. That doesn’t mean that he can’t graduate from antagonist to outright villain in the future, but for now, I don’t think that the title really fits him. Ivan Vanko is another matter though. He certainly is a villain…but is he a good one? Let’s find out.

MV-Ivan-Vanko

 

1. Character Establishing Moment

How well is the villain established in his first scene?

Is he actually established at all? His first scene does too little and too much at the same time. It starts out with some guy dying and saying that “This should have been you” regarding Tony to someone else. We don’t get the backstory to this until the second half of the movie. And before we even get a sense for either of the characters we just got introduced to, the movie launches into a montage which has mostly the purpose to cover what Tony has done since Ironman 1. When Vanko has his second great entrance on the track later on we still know next to nothing about his character. It’s so butchered up, I can’t give it more than  1 Point.

 

2. Motivation

What is his motivation and how creative is it?

Revenge is a motivation which can either be very creative or boring depending on what someone wants revenge for. The idea of wanting revenge for someone else having a better live than yourself because of something which went down between your respective fathers could be very interesting, since it plays into the whole legacy theme of the movie. But the way it is explained is so convoluted, I am still not sure if Howard Stark actually did screw Vanko’s father over or not.  Considering how badly executed the idea is, I can’t give more than 2 Points.

 

3. Plan

What is his goal and does his way of reaching it make any sense?

When it comes to confusing plans, Vanko takes the cake. Let’s take this from the top: He attacks Tony at the racing track. I am not sure how he was able to predict that Tony would drive in the race, but okay, I roll with it, he might have simply waited for an opportunity to catch him, and that was the first one he got. After a fight in which he is keeps wielding his whips when he could have simply shoot Tony with arc reactor energy, he gets arrested. But then he claims that he still won because the world saw Ironman bleed. Wait, does this mean that he wanted Tony to survive, or did he want to kill him? And why going through all this effort when he already knows that Tony is dying? Granted, taking revenge in person is more satisfying, but what is the point of all this when he just ends up in prison? He can’t know that Justin Hammer will free him after all. And then we end up with the apparently on the fly created plan to attack Stark Expo. That makes a little bit more sense, because this way he attacks Tony’s legacy and not just his body – which actually might have been the idea from the get go. But Hammer is the one suggesting it to him, so perhaps not?  All in all his plan is a nonsensical convoluted mess. 1 point.

 

4. Success Rate

How successful is the villain overall? 

Well, he does manage to tarnish Ironman’s reputation to a certain degree, but all in all, he is a little bit like a dog behind a giant fence. For most of the movie he is just dicking around with Hammer, and when he finally attacks the Stark Expo, he looses. I can’t give him more than 2 Points in the end.

5. Threat Level

How dangerous is the villain in general and to the hero in particular? 

The most frustrating aspect about Vanko is that he could actually be extremely dangerous. He has the plans for the arc reactor, he is smart, he could easily sell his knowledge and attack Tony more indirectly. But no, he storms forward like a bull. Granted, there is still something dangerous about a bull, but in this case the physical presence is undermined by his questionable planning. Without Hammer getting involved, he might have spend the next years in prison. So I guess I’ll stick to 2 points.

 

6. Foil Factor

How well does the villain figure into the story the movie is trying to tell?

To be honest, I have the feeling that Vanko is only in the movie to provide action scenes. The actual core of the story is about Tony coming to terms with the fact that he is dying, as well as dealing with his complicated feeling towards his dead father. Vanko kind of plays into the latter, in a “sins of the father” context, but based on what we are told about the past, Howard’s actions were self-serving but not necessarily wrong. All in all the time spend on Vanko is more a distraction from Tony’s actual struggles than something which serves the plot. 1 point.

 

7. Acting

How well does the actor sell the role?

Urgh, I hate laying into an actor like this, but wtf was that? There is really nothing about this performance I like, especially not the habits the actor added to the character. I know that some people like the “Burd”, but while it is the most memorable thing about the performance, it is also nothing more than a really stupid quirk. I am inclined to give a little bit credit for at least ensuring that people remember the name of the villain, but that’s where I draw the line. I settle at 2 points.

 

8.  Costume

Does the Costume fit the character and does it stand out in general?

Let’s be frank here: The costume is stupid. Who the hell would take the arc reactor technology and then turn it into whips? But that is not even what bothers me the most about it, since comics tend to be silly at times. But if you want to smash a character into a wall repeatedly with a car, you better put said character into a protective gear to make it halfway believable that he would be able to walk away with no visible injuries later. I guess he has a second costume towards the end of the movie, but I can’t even remember what it looks like. 1 points

 

9.  Entertainment Factor

How strong is the emotional response?

The only reason why the scenes with Vanko aren’t boring is because he shares them with either Tony or Hammer, two character who are always entertaining, no matter what they do. Vanko on his own is as interesting as drying paint. It is saying something that his “burd” is more memorable than he is. 1 point.

 

10. Memorable Moments

How many memorable scenes and lines has the character?

Did I mention the “burd” already? Otherwise, he has quite an entrance on the track. Most of the other memorable scenes he is involved in are standing out because of Hammer’s lines, not because of him.  2 points


All in all, Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash is one of the weaker MCU villains. I think part of the problem is that he is acted like a Disney villain, even though this kind of villain doesn’t fit into the thoughtful movie Ironman 2 tries to be. But above all it feels like the writers really wanted to tell the story about Tony’s personal struggles and just threw in Whiplash because they needed some action scenes.

Average: 1,6 Points


Marvel Musings: Obadiah Stane

And it is the time of the year again in which I start to make up for all the months in which I neglected this blog…well, to be honest, I didn’t really neglect it. I prepared this little article series because I felt, I should do something special for Halloween this year. And what is a better topic for Halloween than villains? And in my opinion, the best way to study villains is taking a good look at the MCU villains.

No, that is not just because I really, really love the MCU. That’s part of it, but I also love Disney and animated movies and Harry Potter and a number of TV shows, all of which offer a number of villains to discuss. But what the MCU has but most franchises lack is variety. From the Disneyesque Supervillain which prances around in plain sight to the more grounded villains, from powerful to human, from layered to simple, from extremely well-written to a total failure, there is a little bit of everything. And it is certainly interesting to examine why certain villains work and others don’t even though they are all part of the same universe.

And once I settled on the MCU, something else occurred to me: This would be the perfect series in preparation to Infinity War. So I decided to start with it today, in honour of Halloween, and will then discuss another villain every two weeks until the movie is released. I will sort them roughly by release date of the movie or TV show in which they turned up, but I will for now skip the Hydra villains (because they should be discussed in connection to each other) and villains which are still alive. Then I will cover the Hydra villains and finally to the ones which are still around. I will have to revisit this series at one point anyway, but if I do it this way there might be a chance that I don’t have to rewrite too many of my old articles because of additional information. And don’t worry, since I prepared this series in advance, I might be able to post about something else in-between.

Since I wanted to keep my examination of the characters as fair as possible, I have come up with ten categories to judge them on, as well as a point system. For each category a villain can earn up to five points, but I’ll only give full points if I see no grounds for complain whatsoever. Four points is basically a “well done”, three points stands for “okay”, two points means “needs improvement” and one point “utter garbage”.  There will be no half points, I deliberately designed the scale as simple as possible to keep it comparable, and this way I can give it a proper average.

All this said, let’s take a closer look at Obadiah Stane, the villain from Ironman.MV1-Obadiah-Stane Continue reading


Double Take: Bambi vs The Lion King

I am taking a break with my “By the Book” series, but meanwhile I want to examine two movies which I could have discussed in this context but decided not to. In the case of The Lion King because it is no official adaptation of Hamlet in the first place and in the case of Bambi because it is similar to The Fox and the Hound an adaptation in name only anyway. The original book is mostly an exploration of religion and the relationship between human and animals (and often very depressing). This in mind I feel that the movie will be served better if I discuss it in this new series. “Double Take” is about comparing movies, which have similar themes and elements but were made in a different time period. Other obvious cases I have in mind for future discussion are for example The Rescuers and the Fantasia movies. I have to emphasise though that the point of this series is not to declare one movie as the better one (unless the answer is obvious), but to examine how the approach to those themes differ and what this says about the development of the Animation Studios and animation in general.

I’ll do the following: I will identify elements which are similar in both movies and then compare how they are dealt with. Some will be quite standard – i.e. every movie has a certain set of characters, animation and music – others will be very specific to those movies. So, without further ado, let’s begin.5 Bambi-1

1. The Circle of Life

Even though The Lion King is the movie which made a big deal around the Circle of Life, Bambi was actually the first animated movie which tackled the concept. Well, kind of. A number of elements The Lion King is famous for already turn up in Bambi: Animals gathering to witness the birth of a new “prince”, the notion of nature recovering over time, the closing of the movie with the birth of a new generation and a character taking over for another character. But despite all this Bambi creates less the notion of something circular and more a sense of live continuing and new beginnings. The forest which burns down in Bambi doesn’t just magically appear again, instead you can see the charred wood under the new plants. In Bambi, life might be swift and fleeting, but what stays is the love which will ensure that there will always be a new generation.

In The Lion King the Circle of Life is a whole philosophy which boils down to everyone being part of a carefully balanced construct and if one group takes more than it should, then it leads to everyone suffering due to it. Though I am not quite clear how Scar’s leadership can cause a drought which conveniently ends as soon as Simba defeats him, the message is way more overt than it is in Bambi:  If you allow destructive elements to take over the government, than everyone will suffer. (And yes, I wish that the people in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, the UK and the US had paid more attention to said message, just to mention a few countries in which the balance has been systematically destroyed).

2. The Concept of Leadership32 mufasa

Bambi was released 1942. The Lion King hit the theatres 51 years later. But even though there is half a century between those movies, it is oddly Bambi which is the more unusual one when it comes to portraying leadership. Even though Bambi is considered the prince, the movie suggests that his father is the leader because he is the biggest, strongest and smartest and when Bambi takes up the mantle he has already proven himself to be a great fighter, too. Though it is not like either of them ever does something especially kingly aside from looking over the forest in an impressive pose.

The Lion King on the other hand has an actual royal family in the traditional sense, with Simba being the next in line for the throne even though he is still a child. And there are responsibilities connected to the position, like keeping the hyenas at bay. In short, Bambi portrays how hierarchy works in the animal kingdom while The Lion King is built on a the concept of a very human monarchy. One in which apparently the animals are supposed to be happy that the lion eats them because otherwise they might get eaten by the hyena.

Yeah, I admit, I have a little bit of trouble with the notion of animals kneeling for a predator. Also with the notion that everybody has his place in live and should accept said place. It is better to take The Lion King not too literal in this regard and see the animals as stand in for different kind of people. In the case of the hyenas it is pretty obvious which kind is meant, the extremists, who believe in their own superiority. But, as the movie shows, if you actually do allow them to realize their visions, it is very much a case of “be careful what you wish for”.  In this regard The Lion King adds an element which is not present in Bambi, by contrasting good leadership with bad leadership.

3. The Coming of Age

Between Bambi and Simba, only the latter shows actual character development. We see Bambi as a babe, as a child, as a young adult and finally as a father, but his character doesn’t really change much through it. He is a little bit a blank slate, an audience surrogate. It is easy to just slip into his mind-set and experience his world from his point of view, to feel his pain and his joy, but this is pretty much all his character offers, we never learn anything about his desires, his dreams or even his opinions.

Simba is the absolute opposite, after a short scene with him as a babe, we get to know his child version, who is, frankly, an arrogant brat. Zazu is right, the idea that this child might be king one day is not a pleasant one. We then see him embracing a live without responsibilities, hiding from his own guilt. And finally we see him maturing and accepting his responsibilities. Unlike Bambi he has an actual arc in addition to just growing up, though the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing. The whole message of taking responsibility is a little bit muddle up in the end, because what actually gives Simba peace is not him facing his past but discovering Scar’s betrayal. Though naturally he would have never learned the truth if not for him going back. Like I said, it’s a little bit muddled. 32 hyenas

4. Hurdles and Adversaries

The Lion King has clear villains in Scar and the Hyenas. Now, Scar has one of the best villain songs Disney ever created in “Be Prepared”, and his demeanour is very terrifying – at the beginning of the movie. Once he actually is in power he comes off as kind of pathetic. I used to think that this is a little bit of a let-down, but recently I have started to realize that this is actually pretty realistic. People who are interested in the position of the king without any consideration what it actually means to be king are often pretty pathetic once they have all the power and are unable to wield it in a manner which will strengthen their position. Or for the benefit of the people.

In Bambi the adversary is live itself. Sure, “man” is a little bit of a villain in this because it whenever “man” turns up it means something terrible will happen in the forest, but there is no rhyme or reason to his presence, it is just something which happens once in a while, just like a thunderstorm, or a hard winter, or a rival wanting to lay claim on Feline. “Man” wrecks the most destruction during the movie, but he is still just one of the realities of live – though a particular terrifying one.

5. The Loss of a Parent32 Scar

There have actually been discussions which death scene has been done better, Bambi’s mother dying or Mufasa dying. I would say, it depends what you are looking for. Mufasa’s character is more fleshed out than Bambi’s mother is – who doesn’t even have a name – we get to see his terror when he realizes what Scar is about to do, we see his body and we see Simba crying beside him. All this is certainly a stab in the heart. But it is also a very expected tragedy. The movie is called The Lion King, Scar has been established as a scheming character who is out for the throne early on, and as long as Mufasa is around, he will always protect Simba. Ergo there was next to no chance that he would make it to the end of the movie.

But there is a reason why the scene of Bambi’s mother dying is so infamous that even people who never watched the movie know about it. The movie establishes early on that the meadow is a dangerous place to be because of “man”, therefore it is kind of expected that something terrible might happen at one point, but not exactly what will happen, consequently her death is not as expected as Mufasa’s is. Everything about this scene, from the music, to Bambi’s mother telling him to run, to Bambi suddenly realizing that she didn’t follow is just perfect. In a way him never seeing her body makes it even more effective, because she is just gone. One moment there was happiness because they finally found some green during a hard winter and the next all of it is gone and the only thing left is emptiness. It actually feels very realistic. In most cases death is something sudden and unexpected, you rarely get to say good-bye and sit by the bedside while someone passes on. 5 Bambi-Flower-Thumper

6. The Support

Ever noticed that Thumper and Flower have the same basic narrative function as Timon and Pumba have? Thumper’s role in the story is pretty much to share his “wisdom” with Bambi, from teaching him his first words to showing him how much fun snow can be, just like Timon explains to Simba the concept of Hakuna Matata, though he comes more from the place of a mentor (or crazy uncle), while Thumper is Bambi’s peer, being only slightly older than him. Flower and Pumba are both comic relief, though they use a very different kind of humour. The joke with Flower is how affine and nice he is for a skunk. Pumba is one big fart joke.

32 GroupAnother difference is that Bambi’s friends are never around to help him whenever he ends up in danger, while Timon and Pumba are supporting Simba during the final fight. They are more integral to the story than Thumper and Flower are.

In addition both movies have a bird character who is mostly around to complain about the world. Bambi has Owl, The Lion King has Zazu. Those characters are pretty similar to each other except that Zazu has personal stakes in what Simba does, while Owl is more a benevolent observer.  32 zazu

7. The Romance

The romance in neither movie is more than a plot point to create conflict and/or move the story forward. In both cases, the protagonist has a childhood friend and falls immediately in love the moment he sees her as an adult. To the credit of The Lion King, Nala is a little better fleshed out than Feline. She has an adventurous streak, but has a better sense for responsibility than Simba has. On the other hand, though, Bambi’s approach to the whole romance matter is refreshingly honest and funny. It’s spring, it is part of the animal instinct to mate in spring, so just go with it. The Lion King pretends that there is more to the story, but in the end, it also boils down to “oh, female I know as a child, let’s mate”. There isn’t much depth to either relationship.

8. The Animation

Both movies are made for the big screen to a degree that a lot of the experience is lost if you watch them on TV. Bambi has those beautiful detailed backgrounds and often looks like a moving painting. If I have one beef with it than that the characters sometimes look a little bit too cartoony in the setting. The Lion King stands out through its use of primary colours, but also through sheer scale. The most impressive scene is naturally the stampede, which demonstrates a giant jump in computer technology. It is also more inventive. Bambi mostly uses imaginary which already existed beforehand, you could simply freeze frame a lot of moments and they look like a typical hunting lodge painting. With The Lion King it is the other way around, you see an image of someone lifting a babe and you are immediately reminded of this movie. Some of what is done is based on something – for example Timon, Pumba and Simba walking over a tree bridge is similar to Aurora doing the same in Sleeping Beauty – but with a unique twist to it. Bambi is the movie you watch if you want to be in awe over the beauty of nature, but also be soothed by it. The Lion King is the movie for you if you want to be overwhelmed by the spectacle on screen and iconic imaginary.32 Pumba and Timon

9. The Music

Bambi is a masterpiece of Mickey Mousing, meaning the technique of replacing sound effects with music. It has gotten a negative reputation with time, partly because it originated in Disney cartoons, partly because some movies just overdid it. But in fact most movies are still using the technique to a certain degree. And if there is a movie which demonstrates how much atmosphere Mickey Mousing can create if used correctly, it is Bambi. Just listen to “Little April Shower”, you can hear the rain and the thunder and the lighting in the music itself. But this is just the most obvious example of this technique, through the movie the music often sounds like wind or, for the winter scenes, specifically cold wind.

In addition, Bambi is a ground-breaking movie. You know those music pieces which play only two notes in order to suggest looming danger? You know, along the line of Jaws and Psycho? Yeah, Bambi invented that concept. It’s still three notes there, but the basic idea of using a very limited number of tunes and then speed it up in order to suggest danger coming closer was first used in this movie.

The Lion King can’t really hope to be similar ground-breaking in this category simply because it was created decades later. What it did start is the trend in Disney movies to use foreign language in a song to give a setting an exotic vibe. But otherwise it does fall pretty much in the pattern Ashman and Menken have codified for The Little Mermaid. Which is kind of ironic, btw. Word is that Elton John only agreed to do this project if nobody forced him to write another musical. Disney agreed and the end result was a soundtrack which is now the basis for the highest grossing musical of all time.

Though while both movies feature music, Bambi isn’t really a musical. This is especially notable in the way the music is used. With one exception, all the songs are sung from the off and the one which isn’t is justified within the plot. In The Lion King there is only one song completely sung from the off (“Circle of Life”), and the character perform elaborate dance numbers while they blurt out their plans and feelings. The purpose of the music in The Lion King is character development as well as creating opportunities for the animators to go crazy. In Bambi it is used for atmospheric purposes. It still has something which passes as a love song, but otherwise it is completely devoid of the usual kind of songs to a degree, that none of the categories I put together for my Systematic of Songs would be a particular good fit for them.

10. A Fiery Finale 

When it comes to the finale, neither of those movies disappoint, and they both really amp up the action by throwing fire into the mix. Notably though, in The Lion King the fire is more a background feature, something to make the battle look cool (alongside the fake slomo, a feature Disney thankfully mostly stopped using after Pocahontas). In Bambi the fire is the enemy. Bambi last big feat in the movie is not to defeat an opponent (its his second to last instead) but to outrun something which is way more powerful than he is.

11. The Big Difference5 Bambi-4

If there are two movies which demonstrate that having similar elements says nothing about the end result, its Bambi and The Lion King. They have similar themes, similar characters, similar plot points and a lot of similar elements. And yet they are totally different, mostly because the approach is so different. The mind-set behind Bambi was largely realism. Disney even brought real live deer to the studio so that the animators could study their movement – which really paid off, btw, if you compare Snow White with Bambi, there is a giant leap in quality regarding the animation of the animals. We are still in a period in which Walt Disney experimented a lot. His desire was to not repeat the same thing again and again but to surprise the audience with fresh ideas. Hence Bambi ended up being a slice of life story. It isn’t really about Bambi, but about the experience of growing up.

The Lion King on the other hand falls into the Disney Renaissance and sadly the people who were in charge of the studio during this period were ready to milk a working formula. This is not a criticism The Lion King, despite it not being a fairy tale movie, the structure fits the story and it does enough new to not come off as stale. Even if it dips mostly into familiar structures, you can hardly argue with it when it does it so good. But in contrast to Bambi, The Lion King is more set on telling a story about a layered character with a very specific moral. That makes it kind of predictable at times, but only in the basics. You know that Mufasa will most likely die, but not that he will die by stampede, or that Disney would have the balls to show a dead body. You know that Simba will eventually go back home, but how he comes to the decision is really unexpected. And you know that Simba will triumph in the end, but there is enough going on in the finale battle to make it engaging.

12. Conclusion

My experience with both movies are very different. Bambi I say the first time when I was very, very little and it frankly kind of terrified me. Though what really got to me was less the death of Bambi’s mother specifically, and more the thunderstorm and especially the damned dogs in the end. I am actually kind of terrified of dogs, and this movie is one of the various reasons why. Then came a period in which I didn’t watch it at all. I am not really the type who is into slice of life stories, for me the characters are pretty much the most important element of any movie out there. Nowadays though I kind of adore Bambi. It is not the kind of movie I would watch just for fun, but the artistry in it is something really enthralling.

The Lion King I saw in theatres – twice. I was all over it during its runtime. But this is one of those cases where a movie doesn’t get better an better upon rewatch. On the small screen, it just looses a lot. It is kind of like Titanic that way. You can watch it on the small screen, but without drowning (no pun intended) in the pure scale of it the flaws in the narrative become more obvious. I was just never able to recapture the first experience of watching it, or to replace the feeling with something similar enthralling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the movie, it is still one of Disney’s greatest. I just don’t consider it as this big masterpiece. Maybe because I had my “shocking death experience which scarred me as a child” with Bambi while a lot of other people had it the first time The Lion King.

In terms of quality those movies are on the same level. They are excellent movies which will most likely continue to be relevant, no matter how much time passes. But if I had children, I think I would show them Bambi first. Terrifying or not, it is just better suited for younger children, while The Lion King is better suited for slightly older children who might at least partly get the political aspect of it. Bambi is just a little bit more self-explanatory.

And yes, I do think that every child should watch a movie in which a parent character dies on screen in a heart wrenching manner. It is a good way to prepare them for the notion of death and to give them an understanding of it. That Disney dared to venture into this territory at least twice is the main reason why those two movies are so enduring.

 

 

 


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.