Snow days

Unfortunately, I have to take another break from updates for a few weeks. There’s a lot going on that I have to take care of. But I hope to be back in better shape in February. Enjoy the snow!

Pearl Harbor (2001)

*. Pearl Harbor has caught a lot of flack (to use an appropriate metaphor) for having what is considered one of the stupidest lines in movie history. As the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and chaos reigns, ace pilot Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) exclaims “I think World War Two just started!”
*. Of course, by December 7, 1941 World War Two had been in full swing for a couple of years, and most historians today would backdate it even further. And while I’d cut the character of Danny some slack by saying it’s clear in context that he means the Second World War has come to America, it’s still surprising he expresses himself this way as we’ve seen him watching newsreels of the war in Europe and Asia, and we also know that his best buddy Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is fighting overseas flying for the RAF. But no matter. For Danny the war has just started, and that’s what counts.
*. In other words, I really don’t think it’s quite as stupid a line as it’s accused of being. That said, Pearl Harbor has plenty of genuine native American dopiness to spare. But why? Tora! Tora! Tora! came out in 1970 and is widely credited for its historical accuracy and (a Japanese-American co-production) balance. Then thirty years later Hollywood came out with this confection, which makes a hash of history and is filled with jingoistic applause lines. Had America gotten dumber as well as more nationalistic? Note that this movie came out just before 9/11, so all the rah-rah stuff wasn’t in response to that.
*. Some of the change was just Hollywood being Hollywood. And with Michael Bay at the helm you can take what you think that means and double it. There is a story built around a romantic triangle, with Danny and Rafe vying for the love of beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). In contrast, I think there was only a single speaking female part in Tora! Tora! Tora! (the flight instructor, who was a real historical figure). The other big change here is the happy ending, because after the attack on Pearl there’s an extended second half that deals with the Doolittle raid. Because let’s face it, you couldn’t end a movie on such a downer note as the U.S. Pacific Fleet sinking in shallow water. Even the producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! knew that was going to be a tough sell, and it was.

*. Finally, there’s lots of CGI action and things being blown up. This was state-of-the-art in 2001, and still looks OK in the usual artificial sort of way today (though the planes seem to me to be flying much too fast when we’re in the cockpit). But of course today you can also play games online that are equally impressive visually. Personally, I was more impressed at the propeller rolling across the tarmac after the plane explodes in Tora! Tora! Tora! than I was by any of the pyrotechnics here.
*. I don’t know, but video games might even come with better dialogue too. What we get here is sappy True Romance stuff alternating with Men in Combat cheer lines. When Danny and Rafe take to the skies in their P-40s the dogfight is punctuated with lines like “We’re ain’t gonna let these sons of bitches get home!” “How do you like someone shooting back at you?” “Come on! Come on!” “Oh, I’m on your ass now!” “Yeah! I got one!” “Whoa!” and “I got you, you son of a bitch!” Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings the fire down below playing a ship’s cook who’s not allowed to fire the big guns (boo!) but then gets his chance when the Japs attack (yay!).

*. Now I don’t doubt that people in the heat of battle say things like this, but they aren’t meant to be realistic here so much as to provide the action equivalent to a sitcom’s laugh track. You’re supposed to pump your fist along with all this action, and for all I know audiences did. Even the sailors cheer along in cutaway shots, and FDR gets up out of his wheelchair in the ultimate act of courage and defiance. Mein Führer, I can walk!
*. Twenty years later I don’t think this movie registers in people’s minds much at all, having joined most of the rest of Michael Bay’s forgettable output. The only thing that impresses is the handsomeness of Hartnett and Affleck, who, to give them their due, never looked better. But at just over three hours this is a trial to get through, stuffed as it is with corn and claptrap. It did good box office though, which brings me back to the only really interesting thought I had watching it: were audiences getting dumber? Or was it just our movies?

X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time (2015)

*. The title might be parsed. Great adult movies? Have there been any, unless we make that judgment strictly relative? And of all time? When do we start? With stag films? Nudie cuties?
*. For the question of when we start the answer is obvious: with Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and Devil in Miss Jones. These were the three films that made porn chic in the early ’70s. But what was porn chic, anyway? Did it really amount to much, or have any lasting impact? I don’t think so.
*. Then there’s the question of whether any of these movies are great. Or even good. My own feeling is that very few of them are. I do think Behind the Green Door and Devil in Miss Jones are at least worth a look. After that, however, I don’t think any of the titles ranked here are even of historical interest. Maybe Café Flesh works as a kind of futuristic social allegory. And Andrew Blake is a director with an erotic eye (Hidden Obsessions is the Blake title they go with in this listing). But after that, there’s nothing.
*. We may well ask what makes a porn film great. Given its function, shouldn’t it just be sexy? So how impressed should we be at the vain attempts at comedy in so many of these movies? In their reworking of various influences? Or their ability to waste a (relatively) big budget on cheesy effects? Doesn’t all this stuff just get in the way? Did anyone think Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody was either sexy or funny?
*. The almost sad thing is that it really appears as though some adult directors try. Brad Armstrong, one of the directors interviewed in this film, says that if you cut the sex out of his movie Flashpoint it would still be decent entertainment, with a “B-movie vibe.” Oh, Brad. No.
*. This might have been a decent little documentary, but it’s really just an industry showpiece. Produced by Paul Fishbein of Adult Video News, which may explain why they keep talking about how many AVN awards some of these movies won. Or maybe there’s just no other metric available for judging which of these movies is the best. But are there no real porn critics? Al Goldstein was one of the few who seemed to take the role seriously, and may have even invented the job. But he didn’t end well.
*. Directed by Bryn Pryor (whose porn name, Eli Cross, comes from Peter O’Toole’s character in The Stunt Man). One of Cross’s adult titles makes the list. Or perhaps more than one. I wasn’t taking a lot of notes. Hosted by performer Chanel Preston, who does well enough with her clothes on.
*. Some of the interviews with vets are OK, and Jacky St. James provides a rare spark of personality and intellect. But nothing particularly insightful is said. Commentary by current porn stars also seems pretty pointless. As I say, it’s just an exercise in self-congratulation. There is no discussion of what makes a film erotic or of changing tastes in these matters, no historical or political context, no critique of the industry, or even acknowledgment of such critiques.
*. Still, X-Rated did make me think. The porn industry has tracked new technologies closely, from peep shows to VHS to the Internet. But given how completely it has adapted to the latter, is there any future in porn features, the kind of movies celebrated here? It may be, as Preston says at the end, that in the sort of fare offered up on various tube sites what we’re seeing is “a return to the loops and vignettes” that started it all. What place does film criticism have in responding to any of this? Little to begin with, I suppose, and less and less all the time.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

*. The oddest factoid I turned up when doing a bit of research into this title, which I first saw during its original release run, is that it received a “zero stars” review from Roger Ebert.
*. Huh? I could understand not liking Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, but it’s still a long, long way from Freddy Got Fingered and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. I mean, Roger even gave Battlefield Earth half a star. Sure, he gave Walker the no-star treatment too, but what I mean is that he wasn’t in the habit of nuking decent flicks.
*. I’m beginning with Ebert’s surprising rating because of the way his review worries over the question of “What went wrong?” The answer isn’t simple. He likes the play and has nothing against its adaptation here and the direction by Tom Stoppard. He likes the cast. Finally he settles on the idea that it was a bad idea from the start: “I think the problem is that this material was never meant to be a film, and can hardly work as a film.”
*. I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think this cuts it. I don’t think this is an entirely successful adaptation of the play, and it may be that it was an impossible job putting it on film, but I think it’s easier than this to identify where it goes wrong. It’s too slow on its feet, especially given the nature of the dialogue, and the visual gags that Stoppard introduces, if they even rise to the level of gags, are pretty dull. Rosencrantz watching the paper boat rise and fall with the water level in his bath? What was the point of that?

*. I should jump in here and say I don’t hate this movie. In fact, I think it’s pretty good. It has a lovely, frosted look that perfectly walks the line between naturalism and the theatrical. The three leads are all excellent, Richard Dreyfuss surprisingly so. He strikes just the right impish note. The editing is a bit rough in places but the photography is first rate. And the play is still the play.
*. It’s a play that was almost twenty-five years old at the time. I wonder how Stoppard felt about going back to the work that was his breakout hit. I suspect he wasn’t very sentimental about it. On taking on the role of director (to date it’s the only movie he’s helmed), he remarked that “It just seemed that I’d be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect.”
*. Usually I’d consider that a good thing, but as I hinted at in what I said about the pacing I think this is a production that is, in the end, too solemn. It needed a lighter touch. Stoppard’s dialogue, for example, has the effect of making you feel like you’re always a step behind. I think this is intentional. But here it’s too easy to keep up.

*. A large part of the way the play works is by exploiting the friction between the almost slapstick nature of the comedy and the musings on death and the meaning and purpose of life. I’m not sure it’s all that profound in the end, basically just using the metaphor of the stage to show how we find ourselves thrust into various roles in life that we’re forced to go along with, losing ourselves in the process, and that some people just aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, supporting actors in a greater drama. Still, it makes you think about where the boundaries of the world’s stage lie.
*. I can’t think of a better example of this than the game of Questions that plays out like a tennis match. Some reviewers objected to this being too obvious, but the thing is I always remembered this scene as having them actually playing tennis while they volley questions back and forth. I was, I think, confusing the scene with one from another movie, but still for nearly thirty years I had a memory of an imaginary game of tennis that I never actually saw. There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.

The King’s Man (2021)

*. Horrible. Just horrible.
*. The first two Kingsman movies — Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle — weren’t groundbreaking classics, but they were somewhat distinctive in their blend of wildly over-the-top, retro spy shenanigans mixing lowbrow humour with hugely indulgent (in terms of both budget and violence) action sequences. Whatever you thought of them, it did seem as though they’d set up a franchise. You knew what you were getting with a Kingsman movie.
*. That is, until this bloated piece of junk finally crawled into cinemas, over two years after its original release date. There had been something like eight postponements, mostly due no doubt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I also suspect that the studio might have known they had a turkey on their hands. Eventually, however, the bomb did go off, leaving the franchise now in ruins.
*. I can’t understand what happened. Matthew Vaughn returned to direct, and shared the writing duties as he had in the first two films. So you’d think there’d be some continuity. But everything about this movie is different. Different, and worse.

*. Technically this is a prequel, taking us back to the years of the First World War, a conflict that was hatched by a bitter Scot going by the name of the Shepherd (Matthew Goode) with a raging hard-on for independence. He lives on a mesa somewhere with a bunch of goats and a stable of agents who have infiltrated the corridors of power all over the world. These agents include such historical luminaries as Rasputin (who also had a prominent role to play in Hellboy, evidence of his oddly durable place in the annals of villainy), Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, and even Vladimir Lenin.
*. Opposed to this secret society of international shit-disturbers is the pacifist Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). Orlando is, in turn, assisted by his box-checking sidekicks Polly (Gemma Arterton) as the sassy lady who can talk back and kick ass, and his Black butler Shola (Djimon Hounsou), who doesn’t talk back and who will take a bullet for his titled lord, should the need arise (and it does).
*. Orlando has a wife and son but the wife is killed in the opening sequence while Orlando is visiting one of Kitchener’s concentration camps in the Boer War, which was kind of depressing. And then his son, who we were starting to like, is killed in the trenches in the Great War, which is even more depressing. And so, duty calls and the Kingsman outfit is born.
*. I don’t know where to begin explaining how much I hated this movie, or even if I should bother. But for starters, it’s at least an hour too long. Instead of just being pure insanity, like the first two movies, the script is full of leaden lines delivered portentously and the plot is a mash of actual historical events retold as part of the Shepherd’s conspiracy. So we get the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Rasputin “healing” the son of the tsar, and the Zimmerman telegram all explained in ways that don’t make any sense, even if you accept tossing history to the wind.
*. To take just one example: even after the Zimmerman telegram is decrypted America still won’t enter the war on the side of the allies because President Woodrow Wilson is being blackmailed with a video that had been made of Mata Hari giving him a lap dance in the Oval Office. I mean, this is just stupid.

*. Where are the laughs? This movie has no sense of humour at all. The only scene where I even thought they were trying to be funny was the awkward and creepy bit that has Rasputin massaging Orlando’s leg before turning into a whirling dervish. At least I think that was trying to be funny. And it sure wasn’t.
*. Instead of laughs we get a painful rehash of how awful the First World War was, with a ponderous reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” Which isn’t even on point because that poem is about a gas attack, which is something we don’t see here. Otherwise, even the trenches of the Western front are presented in the usual prettified style, and the heroism of Orlando’s son is underlined in bold in headline type, all of which sort of undercuts Owen quite a bit.
*. To dilate on this point just a bit: Orlando’s arc, and it’s the same arc the film travels, takes him from being a conscientious pacifist to someone who glories in war. As he vanquishes the Shepherd at the end (throwing him from a cliff after the Shepherd mocks him for being a namby-pamby peacenik) he declares that now he can become the man his son would have been. That is, a military hero. Then the dirty filmstrip is destroyed and America joins up to fight and there are cheers and exclamations of how “We’re going to war!” Yay!
*. But even this naked jingoism isn’t the most alarming political message the film carries. Apparently the Shepherd isn’t just anti-British empire but anti-the toffs who threw him off of his family farm. And he’s the villain. He chums around with the likes of Lenin and Hitler because Scottish independence is on the same level as the Russian Revolution and the Nazi takeover in Germany. Not surprisingly, all his operatives are lower-class losers raging against the system. The point being that there is a natural class order (not to mention a gender and race hierarchy) just as there is a natural international (imperial) order, and to go against any of this means you’re not just wrongheaded but pure evil. Hard to believe a movie like this existing in the twenty-first century, but here we are.

*. Look, if a movie wants to be pro-war (and pro-empire, and pro-Victorian class structures) that’s fine. But then why all the stuff about war being so horrible? And why introduce Polly and Shola just to have them be such stereotypes?
*. Orlando’s son is killed at the front (for the crime of impersonating a Scot), which sends his dad into a tailspin. But Polly is there to stir him out of his funk with the usual clichés and by tendering her resignation. Orlando then rises to his feet, as the music rises, and says he won’t accept her resignation but he will accept a very strong cup of tea. The music soars! Polly smiles! Because you know what a strong cuppa means in Britain. It means he wants to fill Polly up with a new heir! And also save the empire. Maybe both.
*. What a dull, stupid, cliché-ridden, politically obnoxious mess. I can’t imagine wasting $100 million on such crap. Something is very wrong with the movie business.
*. One can only hope this is the end of the line for the franchise, at least if they don’t have anything better on tap. And since a mid-credit sequence introduces us to a young Adolf Hitler, who is going to work together with Lenin to . . . just trash everything for no good reason at all . . . it seems they did have a sequel in mind. From the looks of it, that might turn out to be the worst movie never made. Let’s hope.

Quick picks 2022

Some very quick picks indeed this year, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic the major streaming platforms — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Disney+ — all sought to entrench their position in the film food chain, with many major releases going direct to people’s homes. This didn’t affect me too much, as I’ve only been in a cinema a couple of times in the last decade. However, the other thing about a lot of direct-to-streaming releases is that they never come out on DVD. As time goes on, I suspect this is a situation that will only get worse, as cinemas and DVDs both become fossilized cultural artefacts. But then, so are blogs. Social media itself might soon be going the same way.

Second, I didn’t get around to seeing many new releases even on DVD, and those I did see were mostly crap. Or, to be a bit more charitable, movies that I thought might be at least passable but turned out to be somewhat below that. I’m starting to think that new movies just don’t interest me all that much, which shouldn’t surprise me since new fiction doesn’t interest me as much as it used to either. I usually try to plow through as many new releases as I can in November and December in order to prep for this post, but this year I just couldn’t be bothered with what I saw on the shelves.

In any event, here we are with the 2022 releases that I watched in 2022.

The Batman
Bullet Train
Crimes of the Future
Death on the Nile
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Gasoline Alley
Infinite Storm
The Northman
Thor: Love and Thunder

Just you try picking some winners out of that field of beauties!

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Frankenstein (2015)

*. Back in 2010 DC Comics stirred up a bit of controversy by putting Superman in a hoodie on the cover of a new graphic novel series called Superman: Earth 1. A hoodie seemed not the kind of thing Superman would, or even should, be seen wearing.
*. I had a flashback to that cover when I saw the DVD box cover for this version of Frankenstein, which gives us the monster in a hoodie. That’s not false advertising either, as Adam (or the Monster) wears a hoodie through most of the second half of the movie. This conceals his decaying appearance and gives him street cred.
*. The tie-in to Superman also works because this monster is a superhero too. He actually hasn’t been put together out of spare parts taken from corpses but instead seems to have been turned out with a 3-D printer and then given an elixir of life. For some reason this gives him the strength of ten men and an accelerated life span. So he’s basically rotting daily.

*. Even if Adam isn’t a monster made out of bits and pieces the movie sure is. The gear shifts made my head spin. Things start out very low budget and almost art house in the scenes when Adam is brought to life. Then there is an eruption of splatter when he breaks free. Then it turns into an update of the classic 1931 film, including variations on the scene with the girl tossing things into the water and the Monster hooking up with a blind man. This leads into a bit of social commentary, as the Monster becomes a homeless version of the Elephant Man, living among L.A.’s down and out while looking to get his revenge on the corporate jerks who made him.
*. Some of it I rather liked but the whole thing doesn’t hold together at all. The narrative stitching is as loose as you can imagine, with several elisions where Adam just seems to wander from one part of the story to the next. The larger point of it all is hard to reckon. For example, Adam is fixated on his mother (the always cool Carrie-Anne Moss) but his feelings are not reciprocated. At least they don’t seem to be. But the door is left open I guess, and they do seem to achieve a kind of vision of reconciliation at the end.
*. It seems to have been a project that meant something to Bernard Rose (who did Candyman and Immortal Beloved) but exactly what I’m not sure. I appreciate the independent spirit with which it was undertaken, but I came away confused and underwhelmed.

King Lear (1970)

*. In my notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet I said it was a production that did a lot of little things well but was hit-and-miss on a few of the big things. I think his King Lear is equally good on the little things and only really muffs one big scene, which is the always difficult storm on the heath. There’s a great use of landscape throughout, and the heath looks like the surface of the moon, but the storm isn’t that impressive and the scene is undone by way of a distracting and totally unnecessary crane shot. Though I have to say that is one barren heath!
*. But first a checklist of the things I liked. Some of this might have been fairly routine stage business at the time, like Goneril wielding a whip when she confronts her husband Albany or, even better, Regan backing away in horror from the dying Cornwall when he asks her to give him her arm in support. Sorry Cornwall, but she’s already moving on! I loved it.

*. Other little things that show up big on screen come by way of quiet expressions. Regimantas Adomaitis plays Edmund and he’s very good. Watch for the subtle look of pain on his face in that opening scene where his father makes a joke out of his birth. Or notice the way Goneril looks at Lear as he’s sleeping across from her in the carriage and she pulls a blanket over him. That’s a woman with a lot on her mind (and it’s another great performance).
*. Then there are the things only a movie can do. Of course some of these are big things, like the battle scenes. You can always count on the Russians for delivering when it comes to epic battle scenes. But Kozintsev perfectly balances these big battles with the human journey of the major characters, much like Tolken did in Lord of the Rings. We get the sense of people whose tragic destinies are caught up in a larger tide of events. This is brilliantly captured in the scene where Lear is carried on a stretcher downstream past some rough water. That’s a perfect parallel. And elsewhere you get the same feeling of the war being a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, the characters swept along by its power in remarkable dolly shots that seem to almost ignore them.

*. I wonder how many directors at the time had made Poor Tom one of a whole traveling troop of refugees, with the hovel turning into a hostel for the homeless. I don’t remember seeing it played like that way anywhere else, but I thought it worked well here.
*. Other nice movie touches include the opening scene, which has a small army of peasants coming to Lear’s castle to watch the show. It’s sort of like the audience gathering at the Globe in Olivier’s Henry V. Then the first appearance of Lear has him screwing around with a chambermaid, underlining what an old fool he is. To turn to stronger stuff, Gloucester’s calls to Edmund as he’s getting blinded are answered by a cut to Goneril’s bedroom, where Edmund can hear his dad screaming just as he’s pulling on his pants after servicing her. And marvel at the way Cordelia is revealed at the end hanging from the battlements. Stark, and tremendously effective.

*. You’ll have gathered by now that I’m a big fan of this film. I think I was smiling in wonder and nodding my head throughout the whole thing. I don’t think there are many creative decisions that go wrong. Having the Fool pipe us out at the end made perfect sense, for example, even though the character had disappeared from the play. And while Jüri Järvet’s voice was dubbed as Lear, he’s such a striking visual presence, with the wildest hair-do since Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, that you hardly notice (especially if you’re reading subtitles). It’s a great performance, capturing the full sense of an old man in ruins.
*. The rest of the cast are excellent too. Valentina Shendrikova debuts as Cordelia, and she’s stunning. Goneril and Regan look like they could eat her for breakfast. That’s Donatas Banionis, who you’ll remember as Kris Kelvin in Solaris, playing Albany, and he fits the part perfectly with those sad eyes but sense of inner strength (his voice is dubbed as well). I’ve mentioned Adomaitis as being excellent, and he’s complemented nicely by Leonhard Merzin as Edgar. When we see Edgar stalking toward his revenge it’s hard not to think of Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. You almost expect him to say “You killed my father. Prepare to die” at the end.
*. The play was set in pagan Britain, but it feels totally at home in Orthodox Russia. It also feels at home in black and white. Kozintsev was making this movie at the same time Peter Brook was making his King Lear and they corresponded with each other while filming. They were on to something.
*. King Lear is a giant, spectacular, sometimes messy play and this is a film version that fully does it credit. It may even be my favourite film adaptation, and the fact that it stands alongside such versions as Brook’s Lear and Kurosawa’s Ran is all the argument you need for Shakespeare as a universal genius.

The Ref (1994)

*. Some interesting credits, even before you get to the cast. A Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheiser film. I guess they were having a Christmas break or something from shoot-’em-ups. Though Simpson said he could relate to this project as its “biting and sarcastic” tone was up his alley.
*. And then we have the cast. This was very much a vehicle, close to a launch, for Denis Leary. He was the main attraction and was set up to do his thing, playing a break-and-enter man who takes a bickering couple hostage on Christmas. They proceed to drive him crazy.
*. Unfortunately, as many critics were quick to point out, Leary’s stand-up persona didn’t translate that well to such a property. To my eye, he always seems waiting for a punchline that he isn’t being allowed to deliver. I blame the script, which isn’t funny at all and even finds itself recycling a number of old jokes. Before too long I was wishing Leary had just been left to improv the entire thing. He looks like he knows he’s dying (in the stand-up sense) and it’s killing him.
*. The couple are played by Kevin Spacey and and Judy Davis, talented actors not known for their work in comedy. Sometimes casting this way works and you get revelations like George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, but here it’s a flop. Again I think the script is mostly at fault, but Spacey and Davis can’t even sell the mediocre parts.
*. OK, I didn’t like it. The premise is really simple and gets increasingly strained as things go along. Then it’s wound up in the most predictable and feel-good way you could imagine (and likely were). It did poorly at the box office and some people thought that was because it was too dark. I think it needed to be a lot darker. I don’t know what Simpson saw in it, because for me it wasn’t nearly biting and sarcastic enough. Everybody knows married couples bitch at each other, that holidays with family can be hell, and that letting it all hang out can be a kind of therapy. So what?
*. Apparently the original ending, with Leary getting arrested, didn’t work with audiences so they reshot it and didn’t end up releasing the movie until March. Which I’m sure didn’t help the box office for what was clearly meant to be a Christmas movie. Honestly, they didn’t get anything right here. There are Simpsons Christmas specials with more laughs and social insight. It might have had a shot at attracting a following if it had been a little more perverse, but as it is I think it’s justifiably forgotten.

The Aristocats (1970)

*. Disney gets criticized a lot for the way it’s tried to adapt its brand to a changing audience (and changing world), but I can appreciate the jam they’re in. Things were simpler fifty years ago. Today, animated features, even those primarily directed at kids, have to appeal to adult audiences as well, creating the bastard genre of “kidult.” Such films are then marketed as being “for kids, but parents will love them too!” I wonder if either audience is satisfied.
*. It’s refreshing then to go back to a time when a movie for kids was just a movie for kids. The only “adult” moment that registered for me here was Thomas O’Malley’s double-take when, in full PUA mode, he realizes the sexy Duchess is actually a single mom with three kids in tow. But he rolls with it and I’m sure kids at the time thought it was all good. What self-respecting man-on-the-prowl would balk at taking on three adorable toddlers?
*. Of course, the downside of Disney sticking with what Disney does (or did, back in the day) is that their productions became formulaic. The Aristocats is a feline Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Phil Harris (voicing O’Malley) was criticized for just redoing his turn as Baloo from The Jungle Book. There are no surprises in the plot, which had to be stretched as it was just to make 78 minutes. But it’s good clean fun, and the cats are posh without being snobs. I don’t think I saw it as a kid, but I had a picture book of it that I loved.

*. The story has a rich ex-opera singer living in Paris living in a mansion with a pampered cat who has three kittens. One day, her bumbling butler overhears her making her will and leaving all her money to the cats, with the estate then reverting to him. Impatient (and poor at math) he decides upon the time-honored expedient of dumping the cats out in the country. This may be taken as kinder than actually killing them outright, and he will be served much the same way at the end, but having lived in the country most of my life and had plenty such cats show up in my barn I can tell you that most don’t make it and it might be less cruel to just put them down.
*. Critics carped that the animation wasn’t up to the classic, lush Disney style, but I think it works well with the material. I especially like the sketchy effect of the hair. The music, however, is a bit disappointing. There’s only the one good number (“Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat”) while the rest of the songs are disposable. The lyrics are good enough but the music is pedestrian and won’t be having you singing or humming along with any of the tunes. Even Maurice Chevalier coming out of retirement can’t save the title track.
*. The other issue with old Disney movies is that they don’t play as the most politically correct flicks today. The Chinese swinger has even been cut from some versions, and I don’t think that’s any loss at all. And there are gender stereotypes too. Today I don’t think you’d see the boy kitten wanting to grow up to be a rough-tough alley cat and the girl kitten being such a princess. And Duchess would have more “agency” (to get the lingo right) instead of having to be saved all the time by O’Malley. Really, she doesn’t do much by herself except make sure the kittens are bathed and put to bed.
*. The voices are hit and miss. Eva Gabor struck me as a bit old for Duchess, but then I guess she’s a mature feline. Harris I didn’t think added much as O’Malley. He’s a bland bit of rough, but cleans up well. Scat Cat was supposed to be voiced by Louis Armstrong but Satchmo was ill and Scatman Crothers filled in, playing Louis Armstrong nicely. Hearing Sterling Holloway made me think of Winnie the Pooh and not Roquefort the mouse detective. I wasn’t sure what two Southern bloodhounds were doing in the French countryside, but they’re just extras anyway.
*. Granted this is vintage Disney in a minor key, it still seems to me to be better children’s entertainment than most of the Pixar/Disney product on offer today. It doesn’t carry any message except the importance of not judging others too quickly. And of course there’s also the old myth being recycled of a “natural” social order, which holds that abandoned nobility will always re-ascend to its rightful place one way or another. This is the tale of Oliver Twist and King Arthur and Sargon of Akkad. The aristos being placed in a basket and tossed in a stream makes the point pretty clear. That’s an enduring fantasy though, and after 3,000 years of continual use it’s probably pointless for even the most progressive among us to complain about it now.