31 December 2007

The Little Mermaid

In the early 90s, I loved Garfield and the Ninja Turtles. (What kid didn't back then?) I got up at 8 AM every damn Saturday just to watch them. I watched my recorded Garfield specials quite often. I practically memorized the first Ninja Turtles movie. I bought anything with Garfield on it; I even had some expensive ceramic figurines. Needless to say, I was something of a fanatic.

Now maybe you'll understand my full meaning when I say that phase was a mere blip on the radar compared to my all-out obsession with Disney's The Little Mermaid. It became my life.

It was released to theatres in 1989, but my mom wouldn't let me go to the theatre for reasons that I'd rather not get into right now. Instead, I saw it when it was released to video, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. When it aired later on The Disney Channel, my dad recorded it for me, and I watched it every. Single. Day. The sad part is that I am not exaggerating for comedic effect. Sometimes I watched it more than once a day.

I had everything. Toys. Clothes. Sleeping bag. Bedroom set. Any other random crap they sold that had Ariel's face printed on it.

Somewhere along the way, my tape got lost and my interest finally waned. I didn't see the movie again until the Platinum Edition DVD was released and I shelled out the 20 bucks for it.

Anyway, how could I be writing a nostalgia blog and not mention this movie? Therefore, here's my observations now that I'm an adult with more discerning taste and self-control.

It can't be denied that the production values are stellar; the animation fluid, bright, and colorful. The songs are among some of the best in the Disney canon, perhaps even the best. This movie is the reason Disney still exists today (though it's arguable if we should be thankful for that or not).

The opening sequence is a pretty nice piece of animation, and is an okay hook. However, the, er, cinematography (?) isn't anything fantastic; I feel like it could've been much more epic. The accompanying score really makes up for it, though.

One random stupid thing that's always bothered me: Do Triton's seven daughters all have different mothers, or are mer-genetics just weird like that? I mean, they all have different hair colors and such.

Speaking of hair colors, it's refreshing that Ariel is a red-head and not a blonde. Her character design is simple but nice; it lends itself very well to becoming iconic.

Also, how come the requisite sidekick character had to be a dumb little fish, anyway? Why couldn't we have had another mer-person or something? Flounder is one of the least-irritating animal sidekicks, but he's still pretty boring.

Speaking of bad animal sidekicks, Scuttle the seagull is one of them. I just can't stand the guy. The bit with the "human stuff" is cute, but other than that, ugh. At least he isn't totally useless, and there is one pretty funny part where Eric makes a joke at his expense.

It's amazing how much your outlook can change when you get older. When I was a kid, I thought King Triton was a royal asshole. I thought, how could he just blow up all Ariel's shit like that? Now that I'm an adult, I realize that I probably would've done the same thing. He's not a bad guy, he's just trying to do the right thing, trying to protect his defiant teenage daughter. Moral #1: Just because you're 16 doesn't mean you suddenly know everything.

As for Ariel, her persistence and bravery are admirable, but I just can't help thinking that she's dumb (pun intended). This could very well stem from my general dislike of teenagers, though. Nevertheless, she's likeable enough and not completely flat or one-dimensional like most other Disney heroines. I think that has a lot to do with the performance of her voice actress, which is no less than perfect.

Therefore, the saddest thing about this movie is that Ariel doesn't get to sing more. Part of Your World is probably the best part of the whole thing. The song is adeptly composed and beautifully performed. The only flaw is that they should have played it totally straight. There are random funny moments with Sebastian the crab throughout the number, and I think it really breaks up the drama. The comedy should've been saved for after the song was over.

As for other big numbers in the production, Under the Sea leaves me somewhat underwhelmed. Yeah, it's cute...I guess. I realize that the whole point of it was to say to Ariel, "Hey, life under the sea is badass. Quit being a retard," but something about it is just...too much.

Another random thing that's been bothering me is...how the hell did Flounder get a hold of that statue? Did he have to pay someone to haul it to Ariel's secret place for him?

The other character who really benefited from a great voice actress was Ursula. The character would have been total crap without the right actress. Ursula is a strong presence for this reason, not necessarily because of the writing. Her dialogue is mostly bland, but the performance makes up for it.

Her big number, Poor, Unfortunate Souls, is pretty damn good. It's a catchy song, well-written, and it helps to further the plot because it's used to convince Ariel to give up her voice in exchange for legs. By the way, you'd think that Ariel would've been a little put-off by that whole "you belong to meeeee" thing, but I guess the point they're trying to make is that she's very fearless and dedicated-- or maybe just really, really stupid. Moral #2: Always read contracts before signing them.

I feel that the second half of the movie is significantly weaker than the first, partly due to the fact that there's no more singing by Ariel until one little tidbit near the very end.

There are a couple of highlights though, such as the scene at the dinner table with the fork and the pipe. Probably the funniest part of the movie. Although, why in the hell did they put her in a pink dress? She's a red-head, for crying out loud! They should have put her in lavender or green or something. Ugh.

Also, there's the bit with the French chef, which is also pretty funny, but way over-the-top. I'm surprised more kids weren't traumatized by this.

The backgrounds on land are exquisite. There's a lot of contrast between the undersea world and the world above the surface.

Then we have the last big number, Kiss the Girl. It's a nice song, but again, they tried to put in comedy and I think it undermined the whole thing.

I'm also not a big fan of the movie's climax. I don't know how I would make it better, but something about it just doesn't sit right with me.

And then there's the biggest departure from the original story: the happy ending. It's just...meh. I mean, it sends the message that even if you almost get yourself killed, Daddy will still be there to save you, AND you'll still get what you wanted in the end. Maybe I'm cynical for looking at it that way, but surely I'm not the only one.

I know I haven't exactly been nice in this write-up, but I do still enjoy this film for what it is, and I can't ignore the impact it had on me. Besides, what do you expect from Disney? High drama?

By the way, this is the last post of 2007. Good riddance, 2007! Here's hoping for a brighter future in 2008.

18 December 2007

Books! They Do A Body Good.

When I was a kid, I loved books just as much as I loved movies and cartoons. I learned to read at a very early age, and would look at my collection of books over and over again. I even wanted to make my own children's books-- and often did, taking great care to crudely assemble them with copier paper and Scotch tape, complete with even cruder illustrations.

Obviously, old children's books are a one-way ticket to Nostalgia Land for me. They're also the easiest retro junk to find, and the cheapest to boot-- they're often only a dollar a piece. I assume that people get tired of their old books and leave them in Mom's attic for a few decades before they finally end up in a Goodwill or other second-hand store. So it's no surprise that I usually find some pretty cool books in places like that.

Today, I hit the jackpot.

About a block from my apartment there's a place called Second Chance Books and Comics. I've passed it several times, and today I finally decided to pay a visit. Boy, I'm glad I did because this place has everything. I found five books, four of which I had as a child and one of which I thought was too hilarious to pass up. They even had a huge collection of VHS tapes. I wanted to buy like, ten of them, but settled on just two, because I'm poor, dammit. All the items are things that would have ended up on my Retro Wishlist at some point.

The first book I found was...actually not a book I had as a child. However, I had it on a Golden Book Video entitled Three Mercer Mayer Stories. It was one of those weird "video books" that just showed pseudo-animated illustrations from the book with a voiceover. (Read more about the video on RetroJunk if you so desire.)

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This book, called Just For You, is about a little furry dude, aptly named Little Critter. It was always my favorite of the three stories on the tape. Basically, Little Critter wants to do things for his mom, but he keeps messing them all up, because that's what kids do. But he gives Mom a kiss and hug, and that makes everything all better. The end.

It's a simple story, as most children's stories are, but it's cute and has neat illustrations. I'm glad to finally have the actual book so I don't have to deal with the funky voiceovers, though I wouldn't mind seeing that video again, either...

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The next one was a Little Golden Book adapted from Disney's Cinderella. I barely even remembered it at all until I opened it and flipped through the pages. It's hard for me to put into words what I felt upon doing so. To someone else, this book probably would seem like nothing special, but I was flooded with memories of looking at the illustrations and marveling at them. I think I was only about four years old at the time. I don't know why it made such an impression on my little mind, but it's nice to have it around again.

Next, I came across a Super Mario Bros. book. I did a double take and then laughed out loud. A kid's story about Mario and Luigi? Comedy gold. Published in 1990, Super Mario Bros. 3: Happy Birthday, Princess Toadstool is as awesomely dumb as it sounds. In fact, I think I could write a better Mario story. But I just couldn't pass this one up, especially since it was only a dollar.

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Basically, Mario decides to go into an old, decrepit castle to find a Starman (called "Magic Star" in the book) to give to the Princess for her birthday. He picks a fireflower and shoots fire out of it at Goombas and Koopas, who are always described as "ghastly" and "creepy", respectively. The writer goes to ridiculous lengths to make sure Mario doesn't actually take anybody out, but we all know better.

I always thought you found stars in question blocks, but in this tale, Mario finds it sitting on top of a giant pile of coins. You'd think he'd be like, "Wow, a giant pile of coins!" but I guess Mario has seen enough giant piles of coins in his lifetime. So anyway, he gives the star to the Princess. And stuff. Oh, and Luigi is in there somewhere too. Man, poor Luigi. I always felt kinda bad for the guy.

The next book I came across was one published in 1965, entitled The Witch Next Door. This copy definitely shows its age, but at least it's not falling apart.

When I had this book as a small child, it was already 20-some years old and I think it once belonged to my sister, who is fifteen years older than me. I wonder if it's the same copy I had as a child, but I don't remember there being sloppy grade-schooler handwriting inside the cover of it.

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It's surprising to me that my mom let me read this book at all, because she was on this crusade against magic and the like, and wouldn't let me watch certain things because of it.

The book made a big impression on me. The illustrations are very simple, and are black-and-white except for little hints of green. I remember thinking someone had colored in my book until I figured out it was made that way, since the coloring style looks like green crayon. This was another one of those books I used to sit and stare at.

Anyway, the witch wears the stereotypical witch hat and black robe and even paints her house black, but she's all nice and stuff. She makes friends with the neighbor kids. Two cranky old people get all up-in-arms about a witch living in their neighborhood. So what does she do? She casts a spell on them!...and turns them into a young prince and princess, and they frolic off somewhere to live happily ever after.

Okay, so this book is weird. But I did a dance when I saw it, because I totally forgot it existed until I saw the cover. I love that "holy shit I haven't seen this in 20 years" feeling.

The last book I found was The Doll in the Garden. It's one of those elementary-school-type chapter books, and it's a ghost story.

When I was in the third grade, we read a story called Stonewords, which I'll write about in detail another time. It was also a ghost story, and started a fascination with them. So not long after, I found The Doll in the Garden, read it, and loved it.

It's not bad for a kid's book, but definitely not a masterful work of literature. A girl named Ashley discovers-- surprise --a doll buried in the garden. The doll belongs to a little dead girl. Et cetera. Like I said, no great work of art, but entertaining enough for a nine-year-old.

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I read it approximately seventeen times as a kid. I remember writing my own alternate ending where Ashley rescues the ghost girl. God, I was a weird kid. Anyway, I've collected the other two ghost stories I liked, but this one has been elusive as hell. I've been looking for it for at least two years. It was a little expensive for this sort of thing-- four dollars --but totally worth it.

And now for the VHS tapes. One of them is The Lion King, which I've been looking for forever, but didn't want to shell out 30 bucks for on the internet. I was fine with paying $12.50 for it, though, so it's finally mine. However, I am not going to write about it at length right now, because everybody knows how awesome it is. But "Be Prepared" for a post about it sometime in the future. D'oh ho ho, I'm so funny.

The other tape I got was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Now, this saw a DVD release not too long ago, but I couldn't talk myself into paying 20 dollars for it. So, needless to say, I was happy when I found this. Besides, it being a VHS tape adds major nostalgia points.

There have been many Disney cartoons about Pooh Bear, but I think these are the best ones-- at least, they are according to my memory. It's actually three stories in one collection. The one I remember the most is the one about the honey tree, and the thing I remember most about that is the "I'm Just a Little Black Rain Cloud" song. My dad used to sing it to me sometimes. Oh, and the Tigger song. Who could forget that?

Needless to say, I'm definitely going back to Second Chance. Who knows what treasures are waiting to be discovered?

16 December 2007

Three Christmas Specials.

Well, it's December, and you know what that means.

Like many of you, some of my favorite Christmas memories are of watching the holiday movies and TV specials. I remember those more than the presents I got; I haven't yet figured out if that's a good thing or not.
So, you all get to listen to me blather on about some of them. Because that's what I do.

A Garfield Christmas Special

This special premiered in 1987, but I first saw it in the early 90s, a time when things at my house were beginning to take a turn for the worse. My mom was going crazy and my parents' marriage was starting to fall apart. So I have mixed feelings about this special. I think this was the first time I felt cynical about Christmas-- even though I was only about 10 or 11 years old.

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Honestly, it's pretty cute, but it's not the end-all be-all of Christmas specials. The best part about it is definitely Jon's grandma. She totally steals the show. Maybe this is just the bad memories talking, but if you missed out on it as a kid, you probably ought to just skip it. Check out the Thanksgiving special instead-- it's far better, in my opinion.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Alright, who hasn't seen this? Well...my fiance, for one, but we're going to fix that problem very soon.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has long been a yearly tradition on television-- for over 40 years, actually. It used to run on CBS, but nowadays it's on ABC, which to me feels kind of...wrong. But I won't get started on that again.

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I actually didn't manage to catch this special until sometime in the early 90s, so it isn't quite as nostalgic for me as some of the others. However, it's still one of my favorites. It's still relevant even today-- well, except for maybe that aluminum Christmas tree thing. What was that all about?

This is one of the few specials still running on network television that's true to the meaning of the holiday. It's refreshing, because most of them are all about family or Santa or whatever. Those stories can be fun, and Christmas may be about family to some extent, but there's way more to it than that. It is called Christmas, you know. Anyway, Linus tells it like it is and I really appreciate that.

Also, the quality holds up pretty well considering that it's a TV special that was made in 1964, which wasn't exactly the golden age of animation.

Finally, the soundtrack is wonderful. I own the album and sometimes listen to it even when it isn't Christmastime. It's not fancy or anything-- just jazz piano, backed by drums and an upright bass, but it's unpretentious and has a lot of heart, which really makes me feel warm and fuzzy. If I had a fireplace, I'd sit by it and drink hot chocolate while listening to this CD.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

I don't like that song, actually. It ranks at the bottom of my Christmas music list, along with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town (ironically, also a Rankin-Bass special).

Thankfully, the special is much less irritating.

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The stop-motion animation looks pretty decent, to be honest (except for all the scratches on the film-- what exactly does "digitally remastered" mean anyway?). They obviously put a lot of time and effort into it. I also think the character models/designs are cute, and it has a good little message about how it's okay to be different.

I'm surprised that this was also made in 1964. I think time has been a little unkind to it, since it seems much older. Much like with the Garfield special, it's cute, but I hesitate to recommend shelling out 14 bucks for the DVD unless you're really nostalgic for it or have kids-- otherwise you might get bored with it. I personally have fonder memories of some of the other Rankin-Bass specials, which I'll probably talk about another time.

I know, I've been a little more negative than usual in this post. I'm not Ebenezer Scrooge or something-- I really enjoy Christmas, and I get a kick out of watching these specials, even the lackluster ones.

So, feel free to leave a comment and share any good memories you might have of these specials-- or other specials, if you haven't seen any of the ones listed here. And I promise the next Christmas-y post will be more positive...if I can get around to making another one before Christmas is over.