The Thief and the Cobbler

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This neglected but absolutely delightful animated musical (released in theaters as “Arabian Knight”) is a must for family viewing.

A shy cobbler and a plucky princess save ancient Baghdad in this fairy tale, put together by the Oscar-winning animator from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It is one of the most visually inventive animated movies ever made, with dazzling optical illusions and shifts in perspective. Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals and Matthew (Ferris Bueller) Broderick provide the voices for the leads, with the late Vincent Price’s voice providing silky menace as the evil sorcerer. Jonathan Winters as the hilarious thief steals every scene he is in.

The musical numbers are pleasant, with one sensational show-stopper when the desert brigands explain that if you don’t go to school you’ll turn out like them. Unlike the recent Disney movies, this was not designed to sell merchandise, just to tell a story and entertain, which it does very, very well. It is suitable for everyone except maybe the smallest children, who might be frightened by the hulking bad guys.

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Ever After

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Drew Barrymore plays Danielle, according to her great-great-great grand- daughter the real inspiration for the story of Cinderella. Just as in the classic fairy tale, Danielle lives with her mean step-mother and step- sisters, after the death of her beloved father. They force her to do all the work. She meets the prince, goes to the ball wearing glass slippers, and runs away before midnight. But there are some big differences. No pumpkin coach, no fairy godmother, and no bibbity-bobbity-boo. This heroine is not meekly obedient. She stays on because she wants to take care of her home and the people who work there, because it makes her feel close to her father, and because she still hopes that somehow she will find approval from the only mother she has ever known.

The step-mother, played by Anjelica Houston in her most evil “The Witches” mode, is not going to give it to her. She tells Danielle that she sees her as a pebble in her shoe. All she cares about is making sure that the prince chooses her elder daughter, Marguerite (Megan Dodd), as his bride. She is willing to lie, cheat, and steal to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the Prince (Dougray Scott) is not quite Charming. He appears arrogant, but is really just lonely and aimless. His parents want him to marry the princess of Spain, to cement a strategic alliance, but he wants to fall in love. He meets Danielle when she is in disguise as a courtier, to rescue a family servant sold by her step-mother to pay her debts, and he is very taken by Danielle’s passion and intellect.

The stepmother finds out about their relationship, and does her best to thwart it. When the prince finds out that Danielle is not really of noble birth, he is furious, at first. But it all ends happily ever after, even without a fairy godmother (though with a little help from Leonardo da Vinci).

Sumptuously filmed at medieval castles and chateaux, with gorgeous costumes, this is is a pleasure for the eye as well as the spirit. Danielle is a very modern heroine, smart, brave, honest, and able to save her prince as well as herself, if necessary. The script is clever (though wildly anachronistic in places), and while the accents come and go (and why do French characters speak with English accents, anyway?), the performances are excellent, with particularly engaging turns by Melanie Lynskey as the sympathetic younger step-sister and Judy Parfitt as the queen. It is one of the most delightful family movies of the year, maybe of all time.

Parents should note that some profanity in the theatrical release has been removed to secure a PG rating for the video, but there is still one expletive. There is some action violence, and a sad onscreen death. The plot may be a challenge to younger children, especially those expecting the story they know, so it is a good idea to prepare them, which can lead to a good discussion of different versions and points of view. Older children will enjoy Ella, Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, a different modern retelling of the Cinderella story. And everyone should see the more traditional versions, especially the wonderful Disney cartoon and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical starring Lesley Anne Warren in the original and Brandy and Whitney Houston in the remake.

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The Tigger Movie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

What is a family? Is it people who look like us? People who like the same things that we do? People who always have time for us? Tigger learns something about what family really means in this pleasant animated musical that draws much more from Disney than it does from Tigger’s original author, A.A. Milne.

As we know from the well-known Disney song about Tigger, he’s “the only one.” But when he has a hard time finding a friend to bounce with and seems to be getting in everyone’s way, he thinks that maybe he should try to see if there are some other Tiggers after all. He thinks that if he can find others like him, he will feel accepted, understood, and proud.

Many small children will identify with some of Tigger’s concerns. He shows signs of sibling rivalry right at the beginning, when he lets us know that most of the stories are about Pooh, but this one is about him. He has a hard time understanding why he can’t get anyone to play with him and gets upset when others get mad at him for breaking things and making a mess. His dreams of finding a place where everyone will be just like him will appeal to kids, who are always surrounded by that strangest of species, grown-ups.

Make sure kids learn along with Tigger that what makes a family is not looking alike, enjoying the same things, or even getting along all the time, but love, loyalty, and caring for each other. When Tigger runs away, his friends follow him and they all work together to get home safely. Once they are back home, Tigger shows his appreciation by giving each friend the one special gift that most shows how carefully he listened to each of them, even while he was bouncing.

Anyone over age 8 may find the movie slow, but a couple of bright musical numbers (by the same Sherman brothers who wrote the music for “Mary Poppins” and the original Pooh movie) and a running time of 75 minutes make it relatively painless. Parents should know that there characters are in peril, but nothing too intense.

Kids who like this movie should make sure their parents read them the books about Winnie the Pooh and his friends. They’ll also enjoy the other Pooh movies on video, especially the early ones.

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Fantasia 2000

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Almost sixty years ago, the original “Fantasia” was released and hard as it may be to believe it now, the response was unenthusiastic. Today, images like Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the little black Pegasus getting some extra help learning how to fly and the dances of the mushrooms and the ballerina hippos are a part of our culture. Walt Disney hoped that “Fantasia” would be released each year with new episodes, but the lacklustre box office and the distractions of other ventures meant that the idea of adding new material was shelved. Still, the animation studio hoped for another chance, and one of the pleasures of this movie is the chance to see some of the proposals for new episodes submitted by animators over the years.

Disney called the original “a grand mixture of comedy, fantasy, ballet, drama, impressionism, color, sound, and epic fury,” and that well describes the very worthy successor. As the first theatrical release designed exclusively for IMAX screens, it fills the eyes of the audience with splendor. Now on video and DVD, it is still a delight, even better in one respect because you can see the entire screen and catch some of the details that are lost in the vast expanse of the IMAX experience.

The audience is reassured from the beginning that this is not going to be some strange or boring culture lesson. Glimpses and sound clips from the original float into view, and then suddenly we are in the midst of the most famous opening notes of classical music, the da da da DUM of Beethoven’s Fifth, accompanied by an abstract battle between groups of triangles. Then Steve Martin comes on to make a joke, and we’re off to the next episode, whales in moonlight, to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The light on the water, the stillness, the dignity and grace of the whales in the water and then as they float up into the sky are magnificent.

Other segments include a rollicking Al Hirschfeld-inspired look at 1930s New York, to the music of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a very romantic “Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Dimitri Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, and a mystical tale about death and rebirth in the forest, to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” From the original, we get Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with glowing colors and dazzling detail. And Donald finally gets his chance, as Sir Edward Elgar’s famous “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanies not a procession of graduates to their diplomas but a procession of animals to Noah’s ark. Celebrities like Angela Lansbury, Quincy Jones, and James Earl Jones provide smooth transitions.

The movie is rated G, but the experience may be overwhelming for some children. A three year old sitting near me in the theater was in tears throughout the first segment, though she enjoyed some of the others. Parents should also know that magicians Penn and Teller do a trick that may scare some kids, though they immediately show that everything is all right.

Families should talk about the way that music makes pictures in our heads, and experiment by asking children to draw pictures as they listen to music. Ask children why the people in “Rhapsody in Blue” are sad, and how they find what they were dreaming of. They may be especially interested in the rich little girl who is dragged around to all kinds of lessons by her nanny, but who dreams of spending time with her busy parents. Talk to them about the spirit of spring in “The Firebird Suite,” who learns that she cannot prevent death, but can help the forest to renew itself. Ask them about “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which has a Disney-ized happy ending). Why did the solider first like the ballerina? Why did he think she would not like him? Why was the Jack in the Box so jealous? Show children some of the drawings of legendary artist Al Hirschfeld, who hid the name of his daughter “Nina” in his pictures. Kids who are interested in the adaptation of his work for “Rhapsody in Blue” will enjoy the award-winning documentary about him, “The Line King.”

Families should watch the original, and compare them — one has a segment on the coming of fall and one on the coming of spring, both have music by Stravinsky, both have a non-representational segment, both have a processional number, and both have a funny animal segment — this one “answers the age-old question, ‘What would happen if you gave a flamingo a yo-yo?'” And see if kids can figure out the closest approximation in the new version of the original’s little black Pegasus. All of this may require a repeat viewing, but hardly anyone will object — and it will give you time to search for the Ninas in “Rhapsody in Blue!”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three new Disney releases on video — originally produced as “Fantasia” follow-ups with modern music. “Melody Time,” “Make Mine Music,” and “Fun and Fancy Free” feature some of Disney’s classic animation, with outstanding segments like “Peter and the Wolf,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

DVD note: The DVD version has some exceptionally entertaining extras, including commentary by Hirschfeld on his segment and a hilarious commentary by Mickey about his experiences making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — he is reassuring that no brooms were harmed in the making of the movie!

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Tom Thumb

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

The fairy tale about the boy no bigger than a thumb is brought to life with former gymnast Russ Tamblyn as the title character. Tom is as irresistibly charming as his “Very Own Song,” one of many charming musical numbers. Fiendish villains Terry Thomas and Peter Sellers try to get the tiny boy to steal for them, but watching over tom is a good fairy. Watching over the good fairy is the handsome woodsman whose kiss can turn her into a mortal. Without giving anything away, it is fair to say they all live happily ever after, at least those who deserve to!

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