Mulan (1998)

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Ok, I’m going to get this off my back first, because it’s an annoyance of mine. WHY is Mulan considered a Disney Princess? She’s not royalty, she doesn’t marry royalty. I mean, ok, she saves the entirety of China, but if that were the case, there are a lot more Disney leading ladies that should be considered “Princesses.” It bugs me. It’s like in the 90s Disney just wanted to show that they were more diverse than just white girls with blonde or brown hair. I don’t have an issue with her being a princess, but if she is, then where the hell are the other “non-princesses”? Where’s Esmeralda? Where’s Meg?

Alright. But I digress. Mulan, I feel, is kinda one of those movies that people tend to forget about a bit. I’m actually having a hard time deciding whether to put this in my underrated list, or just call it under appreciated. Due to the Disney Princesses, people know about Mulan, but do they really? We all knew about this movie in the 90s, but is it one that people still know about today? The late 90s was weird for Disney. We still had financial successes, but I almost feel like the last two of the Disney renaissance (This and Tarzan) are a bit overlooked. That’s a shame, because honestly? This movie is unbelievable.

This is the second of Disney’s movies to be based on “true” events (I put true in quotes because this is actually a legend, so it’s hard to know if it’s true or not). It’s the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a woman who posed as a man in the wars for years. The Disney version follows a similar storyline:

In the beginning of the movie we see Shan Yu and his hun army attack the great wall of China, announcing to them that they are there. The emperor requests the formation of a larger army – one man from every family must fight. The general isn’t sure that they need that many people, but The Emperor reminds him that “even a single grain of rice may tip the scale – one man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”

We then cut to meet Mulan on the day of her meeting with the Matchmaker. We learn pretty quickly the Mulan is smart but kinda a klutz and not exactly the meek and obedient woman that she should be. antics get in the way with her meeting with the matchmaker, and she grows angry, claiming that Mulan will never bring her family honor.

Upset, she heads home just as the recruiters are heading into town, decrying that one man from every house must fight. Her father is the only man in their household, and injured from a former war. Mulan doesn’t understand why he has to fight, and decides it’s not fair. She makes up her mind and in the middle of the night she cuts her hair, steals her father’s armor and takes her horse and rides off to pose as a man in the army.

Her actions awaken the ancestors in her family’s temple, where the eldest decides to send the great stone dragon to retrieve Mulan and bring her home. He sends Mushu, a demoted family guardian to awaken the stone dragon, but it’s no use. Instead of returning to tell them, Mushu decides that this is his chance to prove himself. If he can advise Mulan and turn her into a war hero, his guardian status might be restored. He goes after Mulan along with Cri-kee, a lucky cricket.

Mulan, with the help of Mushu, somehow gets into the army with a few hiccups, adopts the name Ping and makes a few enemies with the other soldiers and the captain, Shang. He’s been left in charge by his father, the general, to train the new recruits. It gets off to a rough start for all, as none of them can pass the “test” Shang sets up: seeing who can reach an arrow at the top of a pole while their hands are tied down by weights. We get the best song montage EVER as Mulan realizes how hard it is to keep up and is told to go home. But she soon figures out how to reach the arrow and becomes almost respected. yay.

But Mushu is getting tired of waiting and wants to send Mulan into battle so she can become a hero. He and Cri-kee fake an order from the general to meet them near a pass in the mountains, and soon they’re off. But it turns out that the Huns got there first, and destroyed not only the village that’s there, but the entire imperial army as well. They show up in great mass to fight, and Mulan uses her smarts to cause an avalanche and destroy the entire hun army. She also gets hurt in the process, and it comes out that she’s a woman. Shang loses it and leaves with the rest of his soldiers, abandoning Mulan in the mountains.

Mulan and Mushu have a heart to heart, but something interrupts them. It’s the Huns. Shan Yu and a few of them have survived the avalanche and start their walk to the city where the emperor is. Knowing she has to warn them, she and Mushu head to the city. Shang doesn’t believe her, but her friends in the army at least seem to be open to her ideas. The Huns show up and kidnap the emperor and lock themselves in his own palace. Shang and the soldiers attempt to get in, but then Mulan shows up with an idea. Shang hesitantly joins them as they go to rescue the emperor and destroy Shan Yu. It’s a happy ending. yay.

I’m going to spend a lot of this review talking about our protagonist, Mulan. Without a good character, this movie would have plummeted. This movie is unique in Disney-dom because it really is so reliant on our protagonist. Typically we have a lot of secondary characters that are also very well defined. Not in this movie. Sure they exist, but the focus rightfully is on Mulan. She carries this movie squarely on her shoulders, and does a remarkable job.

Mulan is awesome. I almost count her and this movie as a bridge between the older disney princesses and what we’ll start seeing in the future. In the early renaissance we have female protagonists who are plucky or stubborn. They each want something, and try to get it, but one could argue they don’t really work for it. They want to stretch their legs, but you can tell they are hesitant to do so. The thing they want is a man, or their individual freedom (Belle is an apparent exception to all these rules btw. She’s in a league of her own). Mulan on the other hand, has a goal in mind and is willing to do anything to prove that she can do it. She has the chance to give up but doesn’t. She’s not looking for a man but one happens to come along. Even then, the movie doesn’t become about them. It’s about Honor. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about fighting the huns and protecting their country.

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She’s also more like our current Disney heroines in her personality. She’s got a lot of spark and is smart but has something quirky and weird about her that makes her different. She’s struggling to find her place in the world and bring honor to her family. In her klutzy way, she challenges stereotypes but doesn’t mean to – it’s just her. If anything she wants to be like everyone else. She wants to just be a good woman and marry a man. She wants to be seen as a success in her family’s eyes. At the same time, she knows that that isn’t her. She wants to be herself but isn’t allowed to. Only by breaking every single rule does she truly get to be herself. I think that’s why the goal of becoming the best man she can be is so appealing to her: it’s freeing in a way. Finally, she can be herself and show everyone what she’s really like on the inside.

The only other “major” character in this movie would be Mushu. Voiced by Eddie Murphy in his pre-Donkey days, this little dragon is as adorable as he is funny. He is trying to prove he can be a good guardian and redeem himself back into that status. He doesn’t do what the ancestors wanted. He does what he wants, but arguably what Mulan also wants. He’s an interesting character because he’s a bit on the gray side. He’s selfish and is doing a lot of these things with his own intentions in mind, but grows to actually care about Mulan. He comes clean at one point but by then it’s almost like no one cares. Mulan was always going to try and fit in and be a soldier because that’s what she wanted. Mushu acting selfishly didn’t seem to matter.

Mushu is also our main comedic relief, and believe it or not I think he hits the mark most of the time. Sure some of it is corny or pop-culture-y, but it’s not over the top, and it’s not in the way of the story. Instead, most of the humor is just funny. I honestly forgot how funny this movie was – I was laughing a LOT, even this many years later. Eddie Murphy could have been awful, but he managed to rein it in and be lovable. Every single line out of this characters mouth is hilarious. I mean, he even makes r-rated and Lion King jokes. What could get better?

Along with Mulan and Mushu are Khan (Mulan’s horse), and Cri-kee. This little guy only chirps, but I love his addition. Crickets were believed to be lucky. He’s brought to Mulan by her grandmother for luck with the matchmaker, but ends up being Mushu’s sidekick. He’s kinda pointless, but hey, let’s give a sidekick a sidekick. Why not?

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I think they just wanted to make it seem like Mushu had someone to talk to so he wasn’t talking to himself all the time.

In the rest of the movie, we have a plethora of supporting characters. Some are memorable, and some are not. Shang is our love interest and the son of the general to the emperor’s troops. We get the idea that this is Shang’s first real time doing anything of this caliber, and the last thing he wants is to be a failure. In this aspect, he and Mulan have a lot in common. The fact Mulan is playing a boy lends for a few awkward encounters, but in the end of the day, I think the relationship the two of them get is more “real” than a lot of Disney relationships because of the fact it couldn’t just come out in the beginning. Instead, it’s based on trust and the realization that what makes you special is what someone will like about you. It’s the idea that you don’t have to be anyone different than yourself to get people to like you, nor should you have to.

We also have a trio of soldiers that befriend Mulan in the camp (after a bad first encounter). These three may not be extremely memorable, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad characters. They’re just not as developed as some of the others. But can I ask this: Why wasn’t Harvey Fierstein a Disney character before this? his voice and the character design of Yao go perfectly.

Yao, Ling, and Chi Fu

Yao, Ling, and Chien Po

We also have the hilarious grandmother Fa (who has the best line in the entire movie in my opinion: “Oh great, a sword. If you ask me, I think she should have come back with a man…”), the “I’m going to speak in riddles so people think I’m wise” emperor, his right hand man Chi Fu (who’s also funny), and Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou.

Then we have our villain, Shan Yu. When I was a kid and saw this movie, I thought Shan Yu was the most boring villain ever. He was rarely in the movie, and when he was, he wasn’t really that scary, at least not in the same ways that Frollo or Scar are. As I grew older, I think I’ve learned to appreciate him a bit more. What’s frightening about Shan Yu is the quiet confidence he has. He doesn’t say many words, but when he does, this guy is so sure that he’s not going to be thwarted. He’s just like “ok, you build a wall, I’m going to climb it and I don’t care if everyone knows I’m here, cause I’m a badass.” He does grow a bit more angry when we see him in the Palace, but by then everything has been taken from him and he almost realizes that he should worry a bit more about failure. He’s a strange villain but in his own way, frightening. He’s killed countless people without mercy, including children. These happen off screen, but still happens. He’s merciless. Then there’s the way he dies.

Death by Fireworks. Coolest Disney death EVER!

Death by Fireworks. Coolest Disney death EVER!

One of the other things this movie really has going for it is the atmosphere. The animation on this is beautiful. It starts with the opening credits, and watching those, I remember thinking “Ok. Disney’s gonna do ok with this one because they respect this culture.” I would know. I lived in Japan in my childhood for a total of 2 years (over 3 different trips). I understand and respect Asian culture. This could have been really bad, but it wasn’t. Disney understood it. They understood it in the art, the animation, the storytelling. The addition of the ancestors was brilliant. They understood why it was important. Thank GOD.

Anyway, back to the animation. It’s almost like watercolored backgrounds. We see the scale of the mountains and the bamboo and everything else. The palace is beautiful. The characters are well drawn and all different enough to remember (at least in looks). And I have to say the obligatory “Shang is somehow an attractive animated man.” I had SO many friends who thought that.

As far as music goes with this movie, the songs seem very hit or miss. I remember thinking when I saw this movie that it seemed bizarre that there are only four songs in this movie. I’m a kid of the 90s man! Disney movies have LOTS of songs! Well, this seemed to be when they started to phase them out. That being said, these songs aren’t bad. In fact, it has one of the most catchy disney songs ever.

... now we're all singing....

… now we’re all singing….

Yes it’s a montage song, but it’s an amazing montage song. It conveys so much and moves the story along so well. In the span of that song, we learn that all the other soldiers are sort of in the same boat as Mulan – they don’t know much either. No one can do anything perfectly. We learn exactly how determined Mulan is, even when she’s given the chance (actually told) to leave. And we learn how to get that stupid arrow off of the pole.

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This brings me to another thing: I kinda adore how this movie is secretly all about how women are smarter than men. Don’t agree? Let’s see: Mulan is the one who gets the arrow off the pole. She’s the one who thinks about using the firework thing to shoot the mountain and cause an avalanche instead of just killing one Hun. She comes up with the idea to get into the palace (all while the guys are just like “let’s pound this incredibly heavy thing on the door). She ALONE defeats Shan Yu. This girl kicks ass, and makes the guys look stupid in the process. I have no idea if this was on purpose, but it’s kinda great.

Here’s a few more random likes/dislikes about this movie:

– I love the the background music when she goes boy. There is emotion in this scene. We know the stakes. It’s done extremely well.

– Mushu was the one who actually saved China. He and Cri-kee made the fake telegram telling Sheng and his troops to meet the others in the pass. If they hadn’t done that, the huns would have gotten into the capitol – ALL OF THEM.

– There are a lot of really random unexplained things in this movie: like in the avalanche scene, she rescues Sheng on the back of her horse and they go careening over a cliff. Yao shoots an arrow and she catches it and pulls them to safety. how did she have that much time to wrap that rope around her horse?!?!? Also: in the Capitol city, What happened to the rest of their army? Now it’s just 5 of them vs the rest of the huns in the palace?

– In the end, why does no one from the crowd that’s watching go and help??? There are probably literally a MILLION of them just watching, like it’s a freaking show. That ALWAYS bugged me

– The ending is… weird. It’s like shrek: suddenly we have a dance party with Mushu and the ancestors to a song from 1998 sung by 98 degrees. They couldn’t think of anything better?

 

This movie is great. I always forget how much I love it, then I watch it and laugh. If you’ve never seen it, get out from under a rock and watch it. It’s funny, thoughtful, action packed, and it has a great heart. I’m glad Disney didn’t just make another love story. I’m glad they brought us a heroine who isn’t afraid to be herself. She’s up there with Belle. Just… see this movie

I give Mulan (1998) a 3.9 out of 5. The songs are hit or miss for me. some of the characters are forgettable. Everything else is good

Up Next: Tarzan (1999)

 

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Hercules (1997)

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In response to people claiming that Disney had become “Too serious” with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this movie was made. This movie is the opposite of serious, in every sense of the word.

If you are familiar with Greek mythology, do yourself a favor and pretend that you don’t know anything about it when you watch this movie. It enhances the experience. If you compare this movie to the Greek myth of Hercules (or actually Heracles was his Greek name…), you will drive yourself insane. We had to do that in 7th grade. We were learning about mythology and we actually watched this movie to see if it had the same elements. This movie, simply put, does not follow the actual myth. If it did, it would have been more messed up than anything Disney’s ever done. So I know that this movie doesn’t follow the myth, and personally, I don’t care. (My husband refuses to watch this cause he’s one of those people that can’t stand it… He said he’d get mad.)

So what’s Disney’s take on the story of Hercules? I’m glad you asked.

We get a quick backstory on the Titans and how Zeus trapped them (this becomes important later) before we meet Hercules as a baby. He’s Zeus and Hera’s son, and they’re having a party in his honor. Hades, the God of the Underworld and Zeus’s brother, pops in to size up the kid before returning to the Underworld, where he meets with three sisters called The Fates to figure out if Hercules is going to ruin his plan to take over Mt. Olympus (or, in his words: “Is this kid gonna mess up my hostile takeover bid or what?”) The Fates can see into the future and turns out Hercules will screw it up. In order to stop that from happening, Hades sends his henchmen, Pain and Panic to turn the kid mortal and kill him with a little concoction he just happens to have lying around.

Pain and Panic kidnap Hercules and get him to drink the elixir, but are interrupted by two humans and Hercules doesn’t drink the last drop, letting him retain his God-like strength. The two that happened upon the baby adopt him and raise him.

We then cut to Hercules as a teenager, where he doesn’t fit in because of his crazy strength. Frustrated, his parents tell him that he was adopted and Hercules travels to the temple of Zeus to ask the God where he really belongs. The statue of Zeus comes to life upon seeing his son and tells him the truth and tells him that if he can prove himself a true hero then his Godhood will be restored and he can return to Mt. Olympus.

Hercules, now joined by his childhood (babyhood?) friend Pegasus head off to find Philoctites, or Phil, who is a trainer of heroes. He’s hesitant but eventually takes Hercules on. We get a song montage and suddenly Hercules is older and stronger. They head off to Thebes to prove himself, but on the way they meet Megura (Meg) who seems like a damsel in distress. After saving her, they head to Thebes.

Turns out Meg is working for Hades (although not by choice, she sold her soul to him to save the person she loved), who upon hearing the name Hercules freaks out and decides that he has to destroy him before the planets align and his plan can be set in motion. He sends a Hydra to kill him, but Hercules takes this as his moment to prove to the citizens of Thebes he’s a hero. After a rough patch, he defeats the Hydra, angering Hades but pleasing the citizens of Thebes. Over another song montage we see him destroy monster after monster that Hades throws at him as he grows in popularity.

Hades grows upset and sends Meg to figure out what his weakness is. The two go on a date, have a good time, and Meg realizes that she’s in love with him. But she’s been burned before and refuses to admit it. Hades reads through her and realizes Hercules’ weakness is Meg. Phil figures out that Meg is working for Hades and thinks she really doesn’t love her and tells Hercules, who doesnt believe him. As a result, Phil leaves. Hades meets with Hercules and manages to get him to relinquish his strength for 24 hours, so long as Meg won’t get hurt. Hades releases the titans to march on Olympus and sends the cyclops to finish off Hercules.

Battles are fought, people die (sort of…) and Hercules’ Godhood is restored after the learns what makes a true hero. But in the end he gives it all up to be with the woman he loves. (oh Disney…)

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I’ve found that this movie tends to be really divisive on a lot of its points. People are either fans, or they simply can’t stand this movie. There are few who seem to be kinda in the middle. So where am I? I lean more on the “I love it” side. I don’t love this movie, but I think it’s entertaining, hilarious, and deeper than it seems to be. Not deep like Hunchback or Fox & the Hound, but for a movie that seems like the Genie from Aladdin on steroids, it’s relatively grounded.

I want to talk about what I mean by that. I talked a lot in my Aladdin review about my issues with the Genie and pop culture. This movie has pop culture references as well, but I have absolutely no problem with them here. Why? because in Aladdin, we had a serious world and a serious story. The Genie seemed random and crazy. There really was NO reason for him to be doing those pop culture references. Here, in Hercules, this movie establishes itself as a bit off-kilter and strange before it even puts in a modern reference. When they are put in, it’s part of the story or it’s for humor, but not completely in your face, and they’re not quite totally modern. This movie strikes a good balance, and the references fit in this movie because it is in itself a bit bizarre. Things are still done like they would be in ancient Greece if they had the idea for action figures or something akin to Air Jordans…

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This movie also brings out its bizarre uniqueness through its animation. Now this movie is a stylized movie in the vein of Sleeping Beauty. We have characters who are clearly cartoon. There is no attempt anywhere to look realistic. And this movie really likes swirls. It’s in Hercules’ ears and every cloud of dust. The animation on this movie is great simply because it’s different. This movie knew what it wanted to be and executed it with pizazz.

We can also see this with the music in this movie. And again, this music, like the movie, is very divisive in terms of fans. This music is heavily influenced by gospel. If that seems weird in a Greek movie, I guess it is – but that’s what this movie is going for. While we do have songs sung by characters in this movie (Hercules, Phil and Meg all get a song) all the others are sung by a quintet of women that are supposed to represent the Muses.

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If google is to be believed, there’s an entire following for these 5. And the one on the far right screams late 90s. I think it’s both the style and the hair. Oh geez.

Save for “Go the Distance,” all these songs are filled with an incredible energy because of these ladies. We played a medley of these songs in middle school, so I of course have an affinity for them. Yes the gospel is weird, but I love it. I love all the songs. Even the corny “Go the Distance.” It’s a great song. It conveys the wants of our main character and has a great message. “I won’t say I’m in Love” and “One Last Hope” and “Zero to Hero” and “Gospel Truth,” Geez. The first two make those characters deeper. The Latter two help with the story. These songs fit this movie perfectly. Love them. If you’re ever in a bad mood, listen to these songs. You can’t help but sing along and smile.

Alright, so we get it: this movie is upbeat and unique and bizarre. I have one more example: The message. Sure every Disney movie has a message. Normally they have more than one if you look close, but one that they tend to focus on. Typically it’s something about acceptance, being yourself, not judging others, etc. But then there’s this little movie. This movie actually tackles something that no other Disney movie has done: What makes a true hero? (ok, there’s also don’t give up on your dreams, yadda yadda).

We, like our titular character, don’t know what it is till the end, same as him. “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” Geez, go Disney! What a great unique message! It’s refreshing not to have a rehash of an old message like they tend to do so much. Good job.

The characters in this movie are going to help me transition from what I like in this movie to what I dislike. As a whole, these characters are just…. blah (with a few glaring exceptions). I’ll explain, but let’s start with who I like.

HADES. Dear sweet lord (or under lord), is this character hilarious. We’ve never had a villain quite like Hades, and this type only seems to surface in these unique Disney comedies (I’m thinking Yzma here!). In all honesty, I watch this movie for two things: The songs and Hades. That’s it.  James Woods does his voice, and apparently ad-libbed a lot of his lines. You can kinda tell because every word that comes out of his mouth is comic gold. The delivery is genius. His jokes are hilarious. When he gets angry it’s hilarious. Every time this character is on screen it’s amazing. I can see how a lot of people would think he’s annoying, I really do. I guess it’s kinda like the Genie, except I’m reversed. This type of humor I like. Again, it’s refreshing to have a villain who’s funny. Yes he’s also hell bent on dominating olympus, but he’s not extremely evil. You almost get the feeling he’s doing this because he’s bored, and has tried it before. He’s an over the top villain for an over the top movie, and in my mind he’s perfect.

He knows he's hilarious.

He knows he’s hilarious.

The other characters I like are actually mostly supporting characters. That’s Phil and Meg. We’ll start with Phil. I love that he’s a satyr that doesn’t at all look like you think Satyrs look like. He’s a Hero trainer who’s been burned before with all of his former apprentices: Jason, Achilles, Perseus, Theseus, etc. He’s sarcastic and argumentative but also cares a lot for Hercules. You can see the hope in him. He’s voiced by Danny DeVito, who will always and forever be this roll for me (NOT the freaking Lorax…).

Then there’s Meg. Again, I can see how a lot of people might not like her. She is kinda annoying. But here’s what I like about her. It’s refreshing that the love interest in a Disney movie is actually aligned with the villain. Ok so it’s not of her own accord but still. Before you know that it’s kinda like “whoa, where’s this gonna go?” Then you learn of her “Deal with the Devil” and suddenly she’s a deeper character. You understand her attitude. You understand her stand-offish nature and strong persona. She has a wall inside of her that only comes down after Hercules has been so genuine with her. She’s changed her tune and no longer wants to hurt him and cares about him enough to risk her life (literally) to rescue him.

So let’s talk about Hercules for a second. He has a lot of really good qualities. He’s a genuine nice guy. All he wants is to prove himself and go home. He’s sweet. That’s really what it is about him. He’s nice; overly nice. Like – no way there is a person who is really this nice in the world (although I do know one…). To me, that gets a bit annoying. Also… Hercules seems really dumb. Disney seemed to make a character that was all muscle and heart, but no brains. I mean really. Maybe that’s just how I prefer my guys, but Hercules is actually my least favorite protagonist of a Disney movie EVER. I don’t hate him… I just… I don’t like him. The worst part is I almost feel bad for not liking him, because he seems like such a likable guy. ugh. I’ll watch the movie and be happy about it, but to me, he’s not a strength of the movie. He’s just…. blah.

Along with Hercules we have Pegasus, proving that bros existed long before Barney Stinson ever put on a suit. Seriously, their relationship is completely like that. Which works fine, cause Pegasus is dumber than Hercules. They work well for each other. And some of the things Pegasus does are funny (thank GOD they didn’t make him talk…). He’s like a stupid bird but also does dog things? I love that Disney thinks Horses are just big dogs.

Oh yeah - they're totally bros.

Oh yeah – they’re totally bros.

Are other really small characters, to me, are just kinda like Hercules. They’re just…. there. Zeus seems just as stupid as Hercules. Pain and Panic have some funny lines, but I’ve always thought of them a more annoying duo more than anything. Although watching it this time I didn’t get as annoyed. Maybe they’re growing on me.

The last thing I want to talk about is the comedy in this movie, because this is one of Disney’s only real crazy comedic movies. Sure every Disney movie has comedy, but not to the level of this one. This was the first in its own sort of class of Disney movie: Zany and incredibly hilarious. And you know what? The comedy actually hits its mark. Watching it this much later, it’s not dated. The jokes are appropriate and not “bathroom humor.” I really don’t know how to describe this comedy. It’s just GOOD. It’s smart humor. How they came up with some of this stuff is beyond me. There are only a few Disney movies that make me laugh as much as this one. These people did a great job.

There’s a few other things I have issue with in this movie:

~ Hades had that potion that turned Hercules mortal. Why didn’t he just use it on Zeus? seems like a much easier way to win at world domination.

~Hercules takes the fact he’s a God really well. He just kinda goes “A God?” and then collapses into his oversized father’s statue hands.

~ I always talk about how good the CGI is in Disney movies. Well… not this one. The Hydra is CGI, and you can tell. It’s kinda a shame that the Wildebeest look better in a movie that was 3 years older than the Hydra. It’s actually kinda distracting.

~ Meg dies by sacrificing herself to save Hercules. When this happens he gets his strength back. Why? because the deal made with Hades is now Null and void because Meg got hurt. We literally heard that 10 minutes prior, but Meg has to explain it to Hercules as she’s dying because he can’t remember. Either this character is really dumb, or Disney is assuming we are.

~The voice of Hercules is Tate Donovan. Tate Donovan had a stint on Friends as Joshua. I don’t know why anyone wants to know this, but I’m telling you because I love friends and always knew that voice sounded familiar!!

I really enjoy this movie. It’s a good movie to put on if you need a good laugh, or a reason to sing along or dance. It’s a movie to put on when you’re feeling down. It may not be the best thing in the world, but it will certainly put a smile on your face. Even if it does completely screw up Greek Mythology.

I give Hercules (1997) a 4 out of 5. Solid entertainment.

Next up: Mulan (1998)

 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

 

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“Life’s not a spectator’s sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, than you’re gonna watch your life go by without cha” – Laverne

Warning: this review is LONG. Read at your own risk…

There are only a few movies in the Disney Animated Canon that I could call truly “Dark.” Up to this point, only The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron are in this category, in my opinion. There are a few that teeter on the brink, Like Pinocchio and even The Great Mouse Detective, but I’m hesitant to have those join these others.

Disney doesn’t like its dark movies, which is kinda a shame. Other than The Black Cauldron, most of its dark movies have actually been financial successes. These dark movies aren’t ones you know as a kid, unless they come out during your childhood. You have to really search to find these movies. Why? Because Disney likes it’s squeaky clean, family friendly, light hearted musical image. It tends to market re-releases of movies it’s guaranteed to make money on. These tend to be the classics, or the princess movies. Rarely does it include these “dark” movies.

That being said, many of these Dark movies have gotten blu-ray releases. They’ve gotten Anniversary Editions or even Diamond Editions. They may not have been marketed, but at least they got them. All except two: The Black Cauldron (for reasons we discussed here), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While Hunchback is available on blu-ray, you can bet they didn’t restore it or add anything or it doesn’t have any special features (It NEVER had even a good DVD release!). It’s 20th anniversary is in 2 years. I swear… Disney’s gonna get a letter from me if they don’t give it a good release then!

If you can’t already tell, I think this movie had been completely disrespected and mistreated. This movie was “technically” a hit (it more broke even – it made about a $117M profit: I’d call that a hit but apparently the movie world requires more…), and the critics liked it. But stupid Disney stupidly wants to shove it to the wayside. This is incredibly unfair. This movie is amazing. This movie is on levels that other Disney movies only hope to reach. Do I sound like I’m over-reaching? Maybe I am, but allow me to justify my decision.

This movie is based on the book of the same name (at least in english), by Victor Hugo, published way back in 1831. Hugo got the idea for the book upon visiting Notre Dame and seeing the word “Fate” chiseled into the wall in latin. While the Disney movie does follow the characters and the story, it is extremely different from the book. A lot of critics actually hated what Disney did to the book, saying they ruined it and changed the characters into unrecognizable cliches. While this may be true (to a point), let’s face it: would anyone want a faithful version of Notre Dame de Paris these days? Yes it’s a literary masterpiece and explores some really interesting themes and ideas in great ways, but I dunno… I think there’s a reason there hasn’t been an adaptation of this book (before this one) since the 1950s. *Ok that’s not true, there was a ’97 TV version, but it wasn’t close to the book either. It was closer to this movie and had Mandy Patinkin, Selma Hayek, and Richard Harris.*

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Dumbledore and Indigo Montoya in the same movie?? Oh the jokes I can think of….

So knowing that this isn’t at all like the book, what’s our Disney movie about? Part of me just wants to skip the plot because it’s complicated. I feel like I’m going to be explaining it forever. eh, ok. I’ll give it a shot.

The movie starts with Clopin, the king of the gypsies. He’s gathering local children for a puppet show to tell us all about the mysterious bell ringer that lives in the tower of Notre Dame. Through son, we find out that he was the son of a gypsy who was killed by Claude Frollo, the minister of Justice. Upon seeing his misshapen face, Frollo tried to drown the child, but the archdeacon stops him and tells him to look after the child as his own. overcome with guilt (and thinking the kid may be of use to him one day) he agrees, but sends him to live in isolation in the bell tower in isolation.

Fast forward 20 years and we meet Quasimodo, the hunchback who wants nothing more than to spend a day out in the real world, despite what his master Frollo tells him about the world being cruel. He decides to go anyway to the Feast of Fools, a festival happening right outside the cathedral. Upon being crowned the king of fools, cheer turns to jeering as the crowd turns on him. Suddenly stopping the bullying is Esmeralda, a gypsy who helps Quasimodo, despite what Frollo wanted.

This scene is incredibly hard to watch, but I think that's a credit to the animation team. They did it well.

This scene is incredibly hard to watch, but I think that’s a credit to the animation team. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Suddenly she’s a wanted woman. Frollo sends his captain of the guard Phoebus after her, but she escapes into the cathedral. Wanting to help her (and smitten with her), Phoebus exclaims she claims sanctuary, and suddenly Frollo is stuck guarding the doors until she comes out.

Inside the Cathedral, Esmeralda finds Quasimodo, and he agrees to help her escape by climbing down the bell tower. She thanks him and gives him a woven band necklace, claiming that if he ever needs sanctuary, this will help him get to safety. She runs off, and Quasi is smitten.  Frollo finds out she somehow escaped and sends his guards to search everywhere for her. His methods get a bit obsessive (aka: burning people’s houses down with them inside…) and Phoebus can’t stand it. Frollo calls him insubordinate and suddenly he’s on the run as well. He gets shot in the shoulder and Esmeralda rescues him and takes him to Quasimodo. She leaves him in Quasi’s care, then leaves.

Frollo figures out that it was Quasi who helped Esmeralda escape and goes to visit the hunchback, pretending he knows where the gypsy hideaway is (the “Court of Miracles,”), and that he plans to attack with a thousand men. Realizing that they have to warn the gypsies, Quasi and Phoebus make their way there first with the help of the woven band Esmeralda gave Quasi. After a misunderstanding, the duo warns Clopin and the gypsies about Frollo, only to find out that the Minister of Justice used them to find the Court of Miracles.

All the gypsies are arrested and Esmeralda is set up to burn at the stake in front of the cathedral. Quasi is chained up in the tower, but gets over his sorrow and breaks out, rescuing esmeralda and taking her to the tower. A fight ensues, Frollo climbs the tower to destroy Esmeralda and Quasi, and truths are finally told. Frollo goes tumbling to the ground below and all is saved. At the celebration, Esmeralda and Phoebus invite Quasi to join them, and the cheering dies down. Everyone is a bit hesitant until a little girl comes up and accepts him. Yay. The end.

I tear up almost every time...

I tear up almost every time…

I will be the first to say that the critics who said the movie is nothing like the book are right: the characters in this book are completely different. For one, Frollo in the book is actually the archdeacon, not a Minister of Justice. Quasimodo is not as sympathetic of a character, Phoebus is a sexist man-pig, and there’s a whole character they cut out named Gringoire who is a starving poet that ends up marrying Esmeralda. The book is great. If you haven’t read it and you like classics, this is definitely one to read. I used it for my thesis in high school english and could literally go on and on about it. But like I said, we’re going to take this movie as a movie, and not compare it too much to its source material. We will a bit though, because I can’t help it.

That being said, what I love about this movie is they still managed to take some of the themes and focuses of the book and transfer them well onto the screen. Hugo was a big believer in the preservation of gothic architecture. In his book he goes on and on about the different buildings and lighting and everything about every single brick in the cathedral. You can tell he loved it (This popularity of book was actually part of the reason the Cathedral was renovated at one point and not torn down…). In this movie, the cathedral really is like another character. She’s incredibly central to the story and the setting, as a lot of scenes take place inside or just outside of her. The way the light moves in and out of the stained glass and the crevices is beautiful. The level of detail in the animation of the architecture is astonishing. When Quasi swings around on the cathedral, it shows her off.

God I miss hand drawn animation

God I miss hand drawn animation

The biggest theme of the book that this movie latches onto and arguably expands on is the idea that a person cannot be judged based on looks or appearance. This is what Disney really want kids to walk away understanding. In the beginning, Clopin poses a riddle after telling the story of Quasimodo’s origin: “Who is the monster and who is the man?” We spend the entire movie figuring it out, and at the end, he poses it again in a different way: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”

In the book this theme is apparent in every character. In this movie it is as well, although they obviously want you to focus on two characters in particular: Quasimodo and Frollo. Appearances are deceiving. Quasi looks hideous and frightening, but turns out to be sweet, helpful, thoughtful, loyal, soft-spoken, and a bit naive. Frollo, on the other hand, is a man of power; a holy man that one would expect to be just, truthful and trustworthy. It turns out that he is corrupt to the point of insanity (we’ll talk about him later…).

There are other themes in Hugo’s book that transfer to the screen, but they’re not done in the depth that they are in the book. I honestly think this is for the best. This was already a hard one to put on screen. But in case you’re curious, Hugo also explored the idea of determinism (fate and destiny) as well as social evolution, revolution, loyalty, love (and how it’s bad for you – that’s an interesting one) and social strife.

This movie also focuses on religion and temptation, same as the book. In fact, it’s the only Disney movie to ever tackle this subject. It uses the words “God,” “Hell” and even “Damnation,” like they were drops in the hat. The influence that religion has on this movie is apparent everywhere from the music (a lot of the songs include sung prayers and organs or choirs) to the internal struggle that burns within Frollo’s heart for lusts of the flesh.

Oh yes, let’s talk about this man a moment. Frollo is by far Disney’s most complex and evil villain. I know I just gave that prize to Scar, but Frollo is hands down evil for seemingly no good reason. Scar had a reason. Frollo just seems to enjoy killing/torturing people for the hell of it. Actually no it’s not for the hell of it. He technically has a reason: he’s cleansing the world of “demons” that don’t belong here, but in hell. He’s getting rid of everyone he and the “church” (in his eyes) deems unworthy. WTF?!? Remember another person who tried to do something similar in real life?

I feel wrong putting this in here. Also don't ever do an image search for Hitler. Seriously....

I feel wrong putting this in here. Also don’t ever do an image search for Hitler. Seriously….

Yes. I’m comparing Frollo to Hitler, and I’m not sorry. Of course there are differences, but really, they’re scarily similar if you actually stop to think about it…

Anyway. What’s so interesting about Frollo is that while he’s busy killing/arresting/torturing people, he’s also dealing with this intense inner struggle centering on Esmeralda. He, like every other man in this movie, is smitten with her. He wants to know her, but he’s a man of the church and a man of religion and knows that’s wrong. He still has urges. There’s an entire song that centers around this. A song that Disney almost cut but is now considered one of the most amazing songs ever written for a disney movie (also one of the only Disney songs that frightened me even as a 12 year old  – I’ve obviously grown to appreciate it now).

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No picture of this song could ever do it justice

Imagine how much worse this would be if they had kept him an archdeacon like in the book. The only reason I think they changed what he was was because they feared what people would think/say. (I swear, stupid PR – no one can say anything anymore without offending someone).  Anyway, he deals with his obsession with her, but he still can’t really make heads of tails of it. In the end, he actually offers for Esmeralda to be his or die. A request to which she responds by spitting in his face. “Frollo found corruption everywhere except within.” Love that. In one sentence in the beginning of the movie, we know what our villain is all about, and it explains him perfectly.

On the other side of our man/monster debate is Quasimodo. First off, I love this character design. If you look at other adaptations of Quasi, he’s almost terrifying. I know that’s kinda the point, but Disney realized that for a movie aimed at kids (which I would argue this movie really isn’t appropriate for… at least young kids) they needed to make him a bit softer. His face is misshapen, sure, but there’s a friendliness to it. The second he opens his mouth, you know that this character is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. That’s a testament to Tom Hulce, the voice actor. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think he was a perfect choice. There’s a lilt in his voice that portrays a lack of confidence and naivety but a friendliness. That is  just what his character should be. Quasimodo isn’t confident, but through the movie grows enough and gains the confidence he needs to tell Frollo exactly how he feels. He grows to learn the lies this man told him. He learns who he can and can’t trust. He learns what love is and how it can break your heart (3 cheers for Disney creating a character that doesn’t get the girl!). The only thing he’s ever wanted is to live “out there” and be accepted. It’s hard, but he gets it in the end because of the type of person he is.

I think Quasi is hands down my favorite Disney protagonist. I don’t know what it is. Every time he’s on screen, I love it. I love him. He’s a great, well rounded character. I love the way he talks, I love the way he yearns and dreams, and I love the abilities that he has and the loyalties he shows to the people he knows are trustworthy. He also realizes that jealousy isn’t worth it, and accepts that Esmeralda won’t be his. I love Quasimodo. One of the nicest character’s Disney has ever created.

The other reason I think I enjoy Quasimodo so much is that he’s a sympathetic character, and deeper than most people realize. Deep? yes. Remember the gargoyles?

You know, the characters Disney HAD to put in the movie to make it tolerable for children?

You know, the characters Disney HAD to put in the movie to make it tolerable for children?

Yeah. Those three: Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. While a lot of people count them as the most distracting thing in this movie (and hands down the worst thing), I’m in another boat. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to the gargoyles: 1) they’re real. They really turn from stone to life and help Quasi with his issues, or 2) they’re all a figment of Quasi’s imagination.

I agree with #2. Not only does this make the gargoyles a lot easier to watch, but it also deepens the movie. Suddenly, Quasimodo becomes more real. He’s been in isolation for his entire life, and how has he chosen to deal with that? By creating imaginary friends that embody everything that his world isn’t. Everyone would do that, because everyone wants someone to talk to. Think about it: they never interact with anyone else (maybe djali… I dunno though, he’s a goat), and each of them is almost a different personality to balance Quasi’s self-deprecating, timid self. Hugo is fun and annoying, Victor is the smart, educated, introverted wise one, and Laverne is the one that seems the most down to earth and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. What I’m saying is that it’s very easy for this all to be in his head. It makes the most sense. I know a lot of people will go “But we saw them in the last scenes doing stuff!” To that I say this: Quasi is so anti-violence, but in that instant he had to be to save his friends. By having the “gargoyles” do it, he was justifying it in his head. Super cool. (I didn’t get that on my own… that’s from another article).

Our only other characters in this movie are Esmeralda and Phoebus. While these characters are both good, they are much more boring and cliche than Quasi and Frollo. I do love that Esmeralda’s kinda a bad-ass and is willing to fight and get hurt at a time when most Disney Heroines were “trying” to get their hands dirty but wouldn’t really… It’s refreshing. Pheobus is in love with Esmeralda, and he’s a nice guy. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders and is almost there as a challenger to Frollo who stands up for his morals and almost leads a revolution. I guess they needed someone to do that.

He has a horse named Achilles, who was only named that because the animators thought it was funny to say "Achilles, Heel."

He has a horse named Achilles, who was only named that because the animators thought it was funny to say “Achilles, Heel.”

The animation in this movie is beautiful. The Cathedral is done mostly with CGI when Quasi’s swinging around on it, and you can’t tell one bit. The architecture is gorgeous. The Bells are gorgeous. The character designs are realistic but not weird realistic like Pocahontas.

Where this movie really gets me, though, is the music. I’ve mentioned how the music is church infused. A few of the songs include sung prayer, while a few of them have choirs and organs. I haven’t talked much about the atmosphere of Disney movies, but this movie is dripping with it. The songs definitely help create the world we are going to be spending our time in. These songs are huge and grand in sound and substance, just like our titular cathedral. They move the story along or convey emotion better than any Disney songs before it (yes, even Beauty and the Beast, IMO). This movie is literally tailor made for broadway. “The Bells of Notre Dame” open us up to the idea of this bigger than life picture and tells us a background story. “Out there,” my personal favorite song, conveys exactly what Quasi wants. It’s a good introduction not only to our protagonist but our villain as well. “God Help the Outcasts” is beautiful. “Heaven’s light/Hellfire” is an incredible… INCREDIBLE song. “A Guy Like You,” the song the gargoyles sing, is fun and sweet. The two the gypsies sing, “Topsy Turvy” and “Court of Miracles” are fun and silly (but the latter is also serious, if that’s possible). These songs are great. I just want to listen to them over and over. Then that makes me always want to watch the movie again. It’s a viscous cycle.

Also want to do a random shout-out to the song in the credits, “Someday” by All-4-One. This song is also unbelievable, and the video is all sorts of 90s awesomeness.

 

It’s true: this movie is not like a lot of Disney’s other movies. It’s dark. It deals with adult themes, but it does it well, unlike our last super dark “I’m going to forget you exist” movie, The Black Cauldron. Animated movies don’t have to be just for kids. Look at Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke (or some of his other darker movies). Animation does not equal kid movie. Disney should not have to get or take crap from people that think they should only cater to children. This movie makes you think. It teaches a lesson, and it does it well. I was 11 when this movie came out, and I loved it. I love it more and understand it more as an adult, but it didn’t matter back then. I still loved it because it had great characters and a great message. I knew these were adult things it was dealing with, but that was always ok. There was still enough for me to enjoy. If anything, I felt honored that Disney made a kids movie and felt like we could handle it. Disney, you did a remarkable job. You shouldn’t pretend this movie doesn’t exist. Are there flaws? sure. This movie is far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t amazing and enjoyable. It’s my reason for making an “underrated” Disney list. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a classic and a masterpiece.

I have argued with myself for a long time about how to rate this and where to put it on my list. But I think I’ve figured it out.

I give The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) a 4.3 out of 5. This movie is much better than people give it credit for. It’s also dethroning The Lion King as my favorite Disney movie, I think…

Up Next: Hercules (1997)