Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Last week my wife, daughter and I popped some popcorn on the stove and watched Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.  We hadn’t seen it since it came out in 2005, but I remembered the film as a gem of a move, a perfect little work of art.  I was happy to discover that, more than five years later, the movie held up:  a truly haunting blend of horror and heart, disturbing and moving in equal parts.  The design, the lighting, the one-of-a-kind textures created by stop motion photography—and, of course, the wonderful characters and story—all merge to create one of Burton’s best films.

This got me thinking about my all-time animated favorites (and, yes, they’re all Disney or Pixar.  Doesn’t mean I haven’t embraced others—as Corpse Bride proves—just that Disney’s universe grabbed me at a young age and never let go)—and thus this list, beginning with the masterpiece every other animated film must be measured against:    

Snow White brilliantly set the stage, but Pinocchio was where Disney really proved his artistry.  Few other movies—animated or otherwise—have transported me the way Pinocchio has.  From Jiminy Cricket singing “When You Wish Upon A Star”—one of the greatest songs ever written—to the wonders of Gepetto’s workshop, the nightmares of Pleasure Island, the sublime beauty of the Blue Fairy and the jaw-dropping terror of Monstro the whale, every frame, every word, is perfection.  Gorgeous design, memorable characters, a fantasy both deeply intimate and deeply epic.  In the end, it’s the metaphor that makes it:  We’re all Pinocchio—wooden puppets, desperate to be free of our strings and become truly, fully human.  There are so many wonderful films from the era when Walt Disney was at the helm of his company and the truth is I could add almost any of them to this list and the choice would be justified—but Pinocchio is in a class by itself.

After spending some years in the wilderness, Disney animation came roaring back with this letter-perfect adaptation of the classic fairy tale.  Once again, the central metaphor is what sells it—we think we’re small and powerless, but our dreams can lead us to transcend our limitations—but it’s the artistry of Disney and his animators that creates the magic.  Cinderella herself may seem a little too passive and submissive to contemporary audiences—and she is—but she’s also genuinely compassionate and loving, decent and honest almost to a fault.  In the character of the wicked stepmother —voiced by Eleanor Audley, who also voiced Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent—Cinderella has one of the most frightening villains in movies:  Lady Tremaine isn’t some spell-chanting witch with supernatural powers, she’s a frightening example of all-too believable human cruelty.  My daughter had a friend who could watch just about any movie—no matter how dark or violently graphic—without batting an eye, but Cinderella’s stepmother terrified him to the bottom of his soul.  With good reason.

Peter Pan
If I had to pick my two or three favorite scenes in movie history, the scene of Peter, Wendy, Michael and John flying over London en route to Neverland in the first section of Disney’s Peter Pan would absolutely be one of them:  It’s a dizzying, breathtaking sequence.  The magic of the Pan story is that this grinning figure of myth can appear at your window, any time, anywhere—and carry you off to a world, equal parts magic and danger, that transcends this one.  Peter is the personification of the urge in all of us to go flying out the inner window and seek the transcendent.  (“Second star to the right and straight on till morning” is my destination every time I sit down to write.)  When you add the inimitable Hans Conreid as Captain Hook and a pirate ship, covered in pixie dust, sailing like a UFO across the skies...well, it doesn’t get much better than that.  (If only the heartbreaking final scenes of the Mary Martin Pan—done for television in the 1950’s—could have been grafted on to this. The moment when Peter returns to find Wendy grown old, “ever so more than twenty” shocked and moved me as a child and still does today.)  Pan isn’t perfect:  as with every other version of the story, Neverland never quite lives up to its hype (in some ways, it’s more fun to set out on the journey than to actually arrive at the destination) and the portrayal of the Indians leans too heavily on racial caricature—but the heart of the story beats louder than its limitations and makes Disney’s Pan a genuine classic.  (If you’ve never seen the sequel, Return to Neverland, you’re missing out on a charming little film.)

Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
Disney animation had been in the doldrums for years—and then Jeffrey Katzenberg and Company delivered up the back-to-back-to-back wonderment of these three films and completely rejuvenated the Mouse House.  If you weren’t around in 1989, you may not be able to understand just how thrilling it was to watch Disney return to form with Little Mermaid—the elegant animation, the memorable characters, the wonderful songs:  Walt Redux.  Then they followed that with the Broadway majesty of Beauty and the Beast and added some Bugs Bunny-style mayhem with Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin.  An astonishing triple play:   three classics in a row.  People claim that The Lion King is the masterpiece of 90’s Disney, but, for all the skill that went into it, that movie never implanted in my heart the way this magical trilogy did.  

Toy Story Trilogy
And then came Pixar.  The original Toy Story was as revolutionary as Al Jolson’s
“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” in
The Jazz Singer:  it changed the game for animated films—and all films, really—by ushering in the digital revolution.  But the shift from 2D to computer animation wouldn’t have meant anything if the story hadn’t worked—and what a story it is.  Buzz, Woody, and Company remain as unforgettable (and, I suspect, they’ll be as lasting) as Peter Pan, Dorothy Gale, Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice and other great characters from children’s literature.  Each subsequent film in the franchise has been of equal excellence—with the final installment being, perhaps, the best.  When Toy Story 3 came out in 2010, I was sitting in a South Carolina movie theater, crying my eyes out as Andy went off to college and the toys began their new life with Bonnie.  Somewhere, I suspect Walt Disney was crying, too.  And smiling through his tears.

Monsters, Inc.
The Toy Story movies are the gold standard for Pixar films, but Monsters, Inc. is the Pixar I love most.  Love?  I adore it.  Why?  Could be the memorable characters (Mike and Sully are one of the screen’s great comedy teams), the underlying mythology of intersecting universes, the fully realized world of Monstropolis itself—or that extraordinary sequence at the end, where Sully and Mike, pursued by the malevolent Randall, leap from door to door to door (Charlie Chaplain couldn’t have engineered a better slapstick chase).  Most of all it’s the heart, embodied by Sully’s dedication to Boo and his willingness to risk everything for a human child.  Or maybe it’s that indefinable...Something that escapes analysis.  After all, love (whether for a person or a movie) can’t really be explained.  There’s a Monsters, Inc. prequel in the works:  a part of me wants them to leave well enough alone; another part wants them to create a follow-up equal to, or better, than the first.

In Steven Spielberg’s underrated
Amistad, there’s a sequence that follows a group of slaves from their capture in Africa, through their tortured journey across the ocean and on to their arrival in America:  it’s one of the most brilliant, horrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie and it’s enough to raise Amistad (which is otherwise a little bumpy in its storytelling) up to the level of unforgettable art.  The opening sequence of Up, which follows Carl and Ellie Fredricksen through their lives together, from childhood to marriage to old age and, ultimately, Ellie’s passing, is equally unforgettable.  You could have cut out everything that followed and still had a classic.  Lucky for us, the rest of the movie—an old man’s fanciful journey from despair to a heart-expanding reaffirmation of life—is almost as good.  Add in two wonderful voice performances from Edward Asner and Christopher Plummer and a memorable score from Michael Giacchino (one of the best composers working in film and television today) and Pixar adds another classic to the ranks.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
No, it’s not a feature in and of itself, but I couldn’t complete this list without Mickey, the mouse who single-handedly built the Disney empire.  Back in the 30’s, when he made his debut (okay, technically it was 1929), Mickey Mouse was a pop-culture phenomenon:  the animated equivalent of Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles.  By the 1950’s, the Mouse had become more staid, less rebellious, but that can’t take away from the explosive creative energy of the early Mickey shorts.  I’m especially fond of Thru the Mirror, The Brave Little Tailor and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” from 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free—but my absolute favorite Mickey is the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from 1940’s Fantasia, an admirable film that, frankly, never appealed to me:  it’s the one Disney movie that takes itself too seriously.  “The Sorcerer's Apprentice,” happily, doesn’t suffer from that disease:  it’s a celebration, a volcanic eruption, of unbridled imagination.  And that, to me, is what Mickey Mouse has always stood for:  he’s the avatar of imagination, an ancient god of dreams, creativity and joy descended from the astral in the form of a cartoon mouse.  Now if someone—hello, Pixar...?–would please come up with The Great Mickey Cartoon of the twenty-first century, I’d be a very happy man.

Before I end, I have to mention a movie that delighted me from first frame to last, 2010’s Tangled:  a reinvention of the Rapunzel fairy tale and the best non-Pixar Disney film since Aladdin.  Not quite sure if it’s ready to be dubbed an all-time classic, but I have a suspicion that, if I update this list in a few years, Tangled will be on it. 

©copyright 2012 J.M. DeMatteis

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Incredibly sorry to hear that Joe Kubert has died.  His work on 60’s strips like Hawkman and Sgt. Rock imprinted on my psyche at an early age.  (It may surprise some of you to know that I was obsessed with war comics as a kid; none moreso than Rock.

Kubert was a giant of our industry, a singular talent up there on the mountaintop with masters like Gil Kane, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.  His art was dynamic, powerful and, most of all, rich with humanity and emotional impact.  Like Kirby, he was one of comics’ greatest cover artists (check out this amazing cover gallery over at Comic Book Resources).  Like Eisner, Kubert got better with time and age (one look at his recent graphic novel,
Yossel, more than proves that point):  his work achieved an elegance and simplicity that made storytelling seem effortless, easy.

I never met Joe Kubert—but when someone whose work you love passes, it feels deeply personal...and I guess it is, because you have met them, in the deeps of your soul, through that work.

My heartfelt condolences to Mr. Kubert's family and friends.