I have been reading, a lot. I just don’t want to write about books at the moment. They’re as great as ever and they’re getting me through—from my first forays into really well-written romance with Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley, a tender WWII-era m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast starring an overprivileged aristocrat/dragon and a battle-scarred vicar, to classics like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s socialist dystopia We and Willa Cather’s gorgeously atmospheric My Ántonia (which I’m currently rereading). But right now I want my reading to be just that: mine, private, just for me. And I want to write about silly movies. Things where everyone knows the plot, so I don’t have to do any summary, and can just tell you what works and what doesn’t. Here’s some more.
Growing up in Virginia in the ’90s, it would have been weird if I wasn’t wildly obsessed with Pocahontas when it came out. Other people seem to have been less affected by it, but a rewatch only confirmed its place in the Disney pantheon for me. Alan Menken’s music is ten for ten, every song evocative, sophisticated and often funny. “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” are the obvious standouts, but there are strong showings from “Mine, Mine, Mine” (which is A PUN, HOW DID I NOT GET THAT AGED THREE) and “Savages”, which uses intercutting shots of Powhatan and Governor Ratcliffe to brilliant metaphorical effect. Speaking of Ratcliffe: contemporary reviewers seem to have thought him a weak villain. I think he’s brilliant: pompous and silly, yet sufficiently unanswerable to anyone else to be dangerous. (His valet, Wiggins, clearly designed as comic relief, is delightfully twinky, and their relationship remarkably queer-coded, if not exactly healthy.) The fact that the animal sidekicks don’t talk is something of a blessed relief; Meeko, the cheeky and permanently hungry raccoon, is perfectly comprehensible with his clicks and purrs, and less grating than the more vocal Disney animals (see Iago in Aladdin, below). Pocahontas herself is a touch Manic Pixie Dream Girl–forever running off to the forest or leaping down waterfalls–but the vast majority of her dialogue with John Smith reveals the astonishing presumption and irony inherent in the Virginia Company’s “civilize the savages” mission; it’s much more directly addressed than I remember, which feels impressive for 1995. And the film is visually stunning, maybe the most beautiful thing Disney has ever made (with the possible exception of The Lion King). The sets are so saturated with colours: pink and purple sunsets, red dawns, green mountains, blue rivers. I could look at it for hours.
Pixar never seems to fail, but Ratatouille hasn’t historically been among the number of their movies that I feel a particularly strong love for. Rewatching it, though, I couldn’t get over how much I wanted to be in Paris, and as the film progressed, I remembered what a charming piece of work it is. Remy, the gourmet rat with a gift for cookery, is beautifully animated; his little pert nose and expressive ears are used to heartrending effect. The long scenic shots of Paris are, of course, stunning. (Is it possible that Lingini’s apartment has the same blueprint as Sulley and Mike’s from Monsters Inc.? I’m just thinking of that long window…) All of the scenes set in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant are exceptional on a technical level: many of them are shot from above, giving viewers a strong sense of an industrial kitchen as a well-oiled machine, as well as a haven for life’s misfits. (One of my favourite parts of the film is when Colette gives a potted biography of each chef, none of whom has an uninteresting past.) The floating Gusteau force-ghost who periodically appears to Remy, always clarifying that he is “a figment of your imagination”, is a delight. Other than that, I think the human plot is less engaging: hapless young Linguini is sweet when he’s interacting with Remy, but a bit of a waste of space in every other context, and Skinner’s villainy feels a little pantomime-y, although still executed with panache. What surprises me is the fact that the filmmakers make Linguini’s illegitimacy quite explicit: he’s Gusteau’s son, and Gusteau famously never married, but apparently “became close” to Linguini’s mother Renata. As ever with Pixar, an adult concept is treated without either sentimentality or luridness, but it still comes as something of a shock given that their core audience is probably middle America. Their perfect emotional pitch comes to the fore in the treatment of Anton Ego, though: the wordless scene where he eats Remy’s ratatouille and is instantly transported back to the comforting country kitchen of his childhood is worth a thousand words in cookbooks about the mnemonic powers of food and flavour. It never fails to make me cry a bit, actually.
Famously, the first film I ever “saw” in cinemas was Aladdin, which my parents (clearly more enthusiastic than practical about child-rearing) took me to when I was still an infant. Wildly overstimulated by the lights and noise, I started screaming during “Friend Like Me”, forcing my parents to flee the cinema with me, and didn’t see the film again for probably a decade. Given this inauspicious beginning, though, I’ve always really liked Aladdin, right from the opening shots of waves of dunes and the (somewhat stereotypical) caravan trader who sings “Arabian Nights”, then breaks the fourth wall in a very particular way that I can’t remember another Disney character doing. He’s not perpetrating a smug aside to camera; he’s addressing us directly, molding us into the audience for this particular story. It’s a shame we never come back to this frame device. It’s smart and a little bit sinister; I remember being slightly freaked out by it even as an older kid. There are other genuinely freaky moments too: the appearance of the mysterious elderly prisoner in the dungeons of the sultan; the booming voice of the cave as it rises out of the desert sands. Aladdin himself is a bit bland as a human, but at least he does more than Disney leading men normally do, and he’s a working-class hero. Jasmine is surprisingly resilient and sparky, standing up to powerful men and flirting sarcastically with Aladdin: no one comes close to Mulan for ballsiness, or Meg for sass, but Jasmine is among the most interesting of the Disney princesses. Jafar is
SOOOO GAAAYYYY [coughs] dramatic (how many other Disney villains actually get subtitled as “maniacal cackling” more than once in their movies?! It seems to be Jafar’s every other line.) The sultan is utterly adorable and useless, a big baby-man in the vein of Prince Charming’s royal father from Cinderella. The few shots of him dressed up as a puppet jester during Jafar’s brief reign are genuinely pretty horrifying, not to mention the infamously sexy outfit Jasmine has to wear; it’s a surprisingly dark movie in general, with the parrot Iago’s anger management problems exploding in violent verbal fantasies. (Iago is dreadful. He’s banal and unfunny and his voice is grating. Abu is a slight improvement because his dialogue is delivered in what sounds like monkey chatter. Rajah the tiger is lovely, and, not coincidentally, mostly silent.) And Robin Williams as the genie, may he rest in peace, is superb. He makes the movie, no question. The sheer amount of verbal energy he pours into his performance, both sung and spoken, could power a small city. Will Smith could never.
At last, a toe in the waters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I felt less driven to explore via Disney+ because a lot of its movies have been on Netflix recently, one way or another), with its very first installment, Iron Man. Somehow I had never seen it. Given that my expectations for MCU movies are now a) many explosions, b) extremely dubious faux-ethical hand-wavey explanations for extreme violence, and c) extremely dubious faux-feminist hand-wavey sops to teh wimminz (look, all the lady superheroes fight together for one shot! The battle for equal rights is won!), it’s a pleasant surprise to go back to the start and see that it actually wasn’t terrible. The MCU is always better with single-character-focused movies than with its ensemble pieces, I feel. Iron Man is largely carried by Robert Downey Jr., whose come-to-Jesus trajectory is the plot of the movie: a billionaire genius playboy weapons manufacturer, he changes his life after spending three months in captivity at the hands of a (totally fictitious and implausible) Middle Eastern insurgency group called the Ten Rings who happen to have large amounts of his company’s weapons. (What do they want? What’s their history? Who’s in charge and why? What’s the command structure? How do they recruit? Not only do we never find out, we never get the impression that there even are answers. Bad man Raza muses that with some iron suits, he could “control Asia”; that’s as much as we’re gonna get.) Downey Jr.—sorry, Tony Stark—declares that his company will no longer manufacture weapons, which scares the investors and pisses off his right-hand man, poster boy for nominative determinism Obadiah Stane (played by a bald, bearded, call-me-daddy Jeff Bridges). He then builds an iron suit which is essentially its own weapon, perpetrates what in real life would be acts of treason against the US Air Force that would absolutely get him shot down as a matter of national defense, and saves LA (and his love interest, Gwyneth Paltrow) from Jeff Bridges, who has built his own mech and wants to take over… everything, I guess? I didn’t say it was a great movie, I just said it wasn’t terrible in comparison to later MCU forays. What it has going for it is an extremely realistically-shot first half, which mostly takes place in the mountains of Kandahar Province—it’s easy to see how, twelve years ago, this kind of gritty, current-events-based approach to a superhero story would have felt like a breath of fresh air, especially after nonsense like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies—and a real sense of growth and evangelism in Stark, who is completely thrown and then horrified by the fact that his weapons can in fact be used against America. (Always interesting to check the timing of movies like this. Iron Man came out in 2008, seven years after the 9/11 attacks. The most deadly bombing of the Afghan war happened that year, in Kandahar.) Stark’s not really a heroic kind of guy, but he wants to do the right thing eventually, and that—at least in theory—is the cornerstone for the MCU we’ve come to know.