As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.
Seriously, how can you top this:
I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.
My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.
I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)
The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.
In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.
A friend of mine recently posted: “Let’s stir up some controversy: What are your thoughts on The Lion King?” I replied that a certain song on that soundtrack was a top-5 Disney song, and it wasn’t “Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata”.
That inspired me to consider how I would actually rank the best Disney songs. My needlessly arbitrary rules:
only one song per movie (live-action or animated)
from a movie that’s actually a musical where characters sing songs, not just a movie with a lot of original songs (sorry Tarzan)
judging the song itself, not the movie it’s from
Let’s get to it.
Just missed the cut
“The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book (1967), “Under The Sea” – The Little Mermaid (1989), “Not in Nottingham” – Robin Hood (1973), “Love Is An Open Door” – Frozen (2013)
I must admit that seeing the superior Broadway stage version has made me partial to that version of the soundtrack (both of which were composed by Disney music maven Alan Mencken). But for the purposes of this list I have to go with the opening number, which ably and jauntily establishes the setting and characters in under five minutes. (Runner-up: “Seize the Day”)
To be honest I barely remember Mulan and most of its songs, so the fact that this one stands out so much is a testament to its enduring appeal. The a cappella chorus towards the end is a nice touch. (Runner-up: None)
Happy to show some love for Randy Newman since his Toy Story work is ineligible. The soundtrack as a whole (which I have a history with) is a great showcase for jazz, zydeco, gospel, and blues—and this song is probably the most danceable on this list. (Runner-up: “Almost There”)
Nothing but respect for “The Rainbow Connection” from the original Muppet Movie, but this reboot and its music by Flight of the Conchords alum Bret McKenzie really surpassed (at least my) expectations. I favor the finale version of this song, which includes the entire ensemble. (Runner-up: “Pictures In My Head”)
For a long time this was my stock answer for best Disney song. It’s an Alan Mencken joint, after all, and I’m a sucker for a soaring strings-melody combo. (Also Jasmine is the most attractive Disney princess.) But it just kept getting pushed down the list as I considered other songs. (Runner-up: None)
This whole soundtrack is up there in terms of all-around quality. No surprise since it’s another Alan Mencken production. Just an explosion of gospel/soul ebullience. I went with this song over the runner-up because it sticks with one tempo and, as the finale, brings some extra zest. (Runner-up: “Zero to Hero”)
Guess who again? I swear I wasn’t tracking the composers when making this list, though I could have told you beforehand that Mencken would dominate. Anyway, this song rules. (Runner-up: “Happy Working Song”)
Like Hercules, this is one of the stronger soundtracks top to bottom. Even the villain song isn’t terrible. This particular track—while not the best sung given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s less-than-professional voice—is propulsive and buoyant like an ocean wave. Of the two iterations I’d have to pick the first, but the finale version provides a nice punch. (Runner-up: “Where You Are”)
(Spoiler warning on that link as this song ends the movie.) To date, this is the only Disney song that has given me goosebumps and tears at the same time. I now watch Coco every Dia de Los Muertos while thinking of my ancestors, and this song is a hell of a climax for such a tradition. (Runner-up: “Un Poco Loco”)
I think I’m as surprised as you are. As I mentioned above, “A Whole New World” was my #1 for a long time. But listening to this one recently, I was struck by an epiphany that it’s really just an amazing bubblegum pop song. Goofy, sure, but with a killer guitar/flute (?) hook, colorful bass lines, and an inspired chord progression. I once played a stripped-down acoustic guitar cover of it at an open mic and still worked brilliantly. Think I’m getting wildly out of wing? Nah—this is my finest fling! (Runner-up: “Circle of Life”)
My betrothed and I caught the penultimate performance of Newsies: The Musical in Chicago on Saturday night. We’d been watching prices on StubHub for a while and finally jumped on them Saturday morning for the 8 PM showing. So glad it worked out because I’ve been excited to see it since its announcement years ago.
I went with “Breaking Newsies” because of the pun, obviously, but also because to make this show they had to break the original Newsies movie and rebuild it into something way better. I’m not exactly sure why I so love the original movie, which is—let’s be honest—a mediocre camp-fest meant primarily for kids, a la High School Musical (which is fitting given the two movies share a director.) But I watched it in high school with some friends who were strangely enthusiastic about it and found myself enjoying the music, which isn’t surprising given that it was wrought by Disney musical maven Alan Menken. “Seize the Day” is my go-to pump-up song, and what I listen to on repeat when I’m having a good day and want to keep it good.
Christian Bale famously disdains the 1992 movie he helmed, which makes no sense. If you turn off your left brain and remember its audience, the movie is quite fun, though about halfway through it dips considerably in quality. Once the strike is on and the “Seize the Day” a cappella chorale passes, it loses charm for the sake of plot and message—and who wants that in a silly musical made for kids?
This was what I worried most about in the musical. How would they fix the movie’s terrible excuse for a love story, honor the politics, and raise the stakes for everyone? No spoilers here, but I thought the adjustments they made to characters and motivations were savvy and ameliorative. The new songs, too, were welcome additions to the Newsies cult canon. They ditched weak songs (peace out “High Times, Hard Times”) and moved some existing songs around, but in a way that tightened the story and made it more cohesive.
What else should I have expected from a Tony Award-winning Broadway show based on a Disney property? The dancing was top-notch and remains my favorite element of stage shows in general. I’m always impressed by what these performers can do so well and so seemingly easily. We saw the penultimate performance in the Chicago run and yet the energy level seemed just as high as an opening night. I greatly admire what these professionals can do. I only wish from our nosebleed seats we could have seen the performances up closer.
Published in the North Central Chronicle in September 2009.
Everyone has a favorite animated movie. I’m a Toy Story man myself. But no matter which film you prefer, it’s clear that our generation—the Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000—has been the most spoiled in history in terms of the animated films we’ve grown up watching.
The first phase of the most recent golden age of animation began unofficially in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film was Disney’s reentry into relevance after decades of forgettable material. It was a box-office smash, spawning merchandise like nobody’s business and charming young girls worldwide, making them Disney customers for life.
After The Little Mermaid came Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin the next year—two more cash cows and critical darlings. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nomination for Best Picture, the only animated film to date to do so. From there we were awed by The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former remains the Lord of the Rings of kids’ movies with its epic scope and affecting story.
Perhaps the most appealing part of these movies is the music. The composer Alan Menken created the music for all of those films and all of it is fantastic. I marvel every time I listen to “A Whole New World” at how perfect a pop song it is. “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”—each song is so flawlessly constructed in melody and tone.
These songs compose the soundtrack of our lives, whether you admit it or not. The stories and characters are fun, sure, but when you’re driving with your friends, only a Disney song will get the whole car singing. In 40 years we’ll be singing these songs along with our kids as they discover these films for the first time, just as we watched Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six decades after they were made and were nevertheless enchanted.
The release of The Lion King in 1995 was the apex of Disney domination. But that year also became the springboard for the second phase of the golden age of animation: the Pixar era.
I often think about how lucky I am to be growing up in the age of Pixar. Their films are renowned for their universal appeal, but there’s nothing like having watched Toy Story as an eight-year-old boy and being fascinated by the notion that all your toys could actually come alive. On the other hand, as an adult I’m equally entertained by the complexity of The Incredibles and the pure joy of WALL-E and the surprising tenderness of Up.
I’m also struck by how Pixar’s most recent projects—the triple whammy of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up—showed something important. All three were predicted to fail to earn as much money as their most successful predecessors. Yet all three dominated the box office and won over audiences and critics with equal admiration. This proves the staying power of Pixar’s pictures lies not in the breadth of their merchandising but in their smart and sophisticated storytelling.
I’m not sure how long this gilded age will last. After all, not all the animated films of the last two decades were good (anyone remember The Road to El Dorado? Didn’t think so). But looking forward a few years may give us a few clues. Next summer Pixar will release Toy Story 3 and Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, which will be a return to the classic 2-D animation style and feature Disney’s first African-American princess. Those two films alone make me confident that this current age of awe-inspiring animation will take us to infinity and beyond.
Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008.
Are all movies created equal? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) doesn’t think so. With the creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, animated movies that deserve to be nominated for Best Picture are unfairly pigeon-holed into this marginalized category.
Only one animated movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture. It was Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Though the AMPAS rules don’t prevent a film to be nominated for both categories, the chances of an animated movie being nominated for Best Picture are greatly reduced because of the animated feature category.
Take last year’s Ratatouille for example. It was one of the best reviewed films of 2007. It currently has a 95% certified fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than There Will Be Blood. So why wasn’t it nominated for Best Picture? Because an animated movie aimed at kids does not meet the same high-brow expectations as art-house flicks like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and so Disney would never try to lobby for a Best Picture nod, even if every member of the Academy loved it.
That’s understandable, I guess, but the real problem is how animated movies as a whole are regarded. Critics and audiences as well as the Academy ooh and ahh over the good ones but never even think Best Picture is in the cards. The Pixar animation studio has put out an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits since Toy Story in 1995, its first feature film. Three of their films have won the Best Animated Feature award, deservedly so. But the fact that such acclaimed work does not get a fair shot at the biggest possible award for filmmaking shows an implicit condescension and under-appreciation for the animated genre in general.
Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, put it bluntly: “People keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre; animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.” Using animation is simply one way of telling a story. To box it in as a separate entity is to belittle the work writers and animators do to create an entire fictional world from scratch in order to tell a story.
And animated movies may not just be for kids. Look at last year’s Persepolis or Beowulf or the Japanese films Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Even the more commercial Shrek and all of the Pixar movies appeal to young adults and parents because of the subtle (and not so subtle) pop culture references. I love Ratatouille and the other Pixar movies not just for their artistic shimmer and sly wit, but for their solid storytelling. That, above all, should be the litmus test for Best Picture nominees, which is how Beauty and the Beast earned a nod a decade and a half ago.
The animated feature category may do a good service by acknowledging excellence in that medium, but it does harm by allowing poor movies to be nominated. Because there are only so many feature-length animated films that wouldn’t embarrass the Academy by being nominated (I’m looking at you, Space Chimps), movies that don’t deserve the recognition sneak in beneath the far superior works. Shark Tale and Ice Age have been nominated, as well as Happy Feet, which won unjustly in 2006. The Academy needs to fill the void somehow, so they have to nominate non-Pixar movies to try to make the category relevant.
Film should serve the story. It shouldn’t matter if the film is computer-generated. The stories in Ratatouille and Toy Story 2, another animated film that got short-changed, deserve the recognition that lesser live-action movies often times receive. Pixar’s latest, WALL-E, will no doubt receive the same treatment as its predecessors, even though it was the most daring and exquisite film of the year. It will win Best Animated Feature, but it’s not just that. The level of praise it has garnered from critics and audiences is bested only by The Dark Knight which already has a better chance of scoring on Oscar night because it stars real human beings.
The best films of the year should be recognized as such. Period. Hollywood politics get in the way of this too often, which is how lesser pictures win. But because I’m not an Academy member, I can only sit back and hope the best of best get a shot at the big prize. One can only hope.