Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmases Past

Christmas has always brought a special kind of magic with it. Last year was my first Christmas away from my family; this Christmas is my first Christmas without my dad. Even with snow, twinkling lights and Christmas carols, I just haven't felt the Christmas magic this year. But today I realized that instead of focusing on getting through Christmas present, I should take a look at Christmases from yesteryear. So from my heart to yours, here are some of my fondest Christmas memories.

Braving the Crowds
Sporadically throughout my childhood, my dad worked as a traveling consultant. This required him to be gone during the week and home only on weekends. There were random little holidays he missed, but he always made it home for the big ones. Some years, he wouldn't get home in time to go Christmas shopping. So every year, on Christmas Eve, he would take my sister and me to brave the procrastinating crowds. I can imagine that it would have been easier for him to go on his own to choose my mom's gift, or even pick it up somewhere he was traveling. But instead he created the extra burden of dealing with two small girls and all the special requests and demands they entail, and crafted a tradition. He made the day extra-special.

When we were older and he was no longer traveling, we kept up the tradition. Getting two teenagers out of bed early in the morning on Christmas Eve couldn't have been enjoyable. Yet he always found a way of perking us up, whether it was with breakfast and coffee or, one unforgettable year, opening the sun roof on the car to cause a cascade of snow to shower us and make us laugh. Though he didn't really need our 'help' to pick out a gift at any point, he always listened to our ideas and found some small way of incorporating them. This first year without him, Christmas Eve will be harder than Christmas day, even though I'm not physically there to not go shopping with him. I'm still going to try to make it into at least one store, just to keep the tradition alive.

Santa Left a Mess
One year, the childhood version of myself  (let's be honest; I'm not that different now!) went running into the living room to discover---SHOCK! Santa left a mess! The milk and cookies were gone, but he left behind sooty boot-prints from the chimney to the tree to the cookies. Bonus! He left a note, in a penmanship I later discovered to be remarkably like my mom's (quality, Mom, quality) apologizing for the mess. I have no idea what gifts I received for Christmas that year, but I do remember the pure joy of knowing that Santa had been in my living room, and was considerate enough to leave a note.

Fast forward to a future Christmas when some meanie-face tried to convince my third grade self that Santa wasn't real. A heated debate ensued, with me promising to bring my note from Santa in the following day to prove him wrong. When my mom discovered me turning my already disaster-area room upside down to find said note, she broke the news. I have yet to forgive her for lying to me and telling me Santa wasn't real, as Santa is clearly very, very real. But I'm sure she meant well. ;)

The Case of the Not-Hungry Reindeer
One year, my school decided it would be a good idea to give us all little bags of hay and tell us to put them out for Santa's reindeer, as Santa gets fed all night while the reindeer do all the real work. After much convincing, I did not climb up onto the roof to spread the hay where it would be most convenient for the poor, hungry reindeer. Instead, we tried tossing it up to the roof and spread the rest in the front yard. The lack of snow in Oklahoma that year made the next morning slightly less disappointing, as it was difficult to tell what was simply dead grass and what was uneaten reindeer snack.

My parents and sister did their best to convince me a significant portion was, in fact, gone and must have been eaten by reindeer. Eventually someone just said, "Well, maybe they just weren't hungry. They must have stopped at the other kids' houses first, so they'd already had their fill of hay."

Do you notice a trend? My family likes to lie to me at Christmas. The things you realize as an adult...

It's Snowing-- Inside!

Every year, my mom, sister and I bake approximately a million cookies to decorate together.The first step is always spending some portion of time searching for the recipe. I always hate making the dough, because it has sour cream in it (ew) and has to chill (my family may be liars, but I am simply impatient). However, once my sister and I were older, the dough making became more interesting. Mostly because we started a tradition of making it snow-- inside the house.

At some point in our cookie making history, someone (there's truly no discerning who began this war) threw flour at someone else. Someone else proclaimed that it was snowing inside. A huge flour fight ensued, with everyone from the bakers to the dog to even innocent bystanders attempting to get one bite out of a piece of leftover pizza in the fridge (ahem, that would be one-bite-man, AKA my dad) would get caught in the crossfire of flour warfare, and get pelted with the soft white substance. By the end, the kitchen and those of us 'baking' would be covered in a thin white film of flour. The flour fight occurs each year, despite threats from my dad or stern looks from my mom (yet, I recall, she often starts it. Or at least participates.Or fails to stop it. Possibly all of the above). Regardless of infringement, the flour fight must occur.

This year, while my super pregnant self is thousands of miles away in Alaska, my mom and sister will be baking cookies at my Grams' house. I've given one of them secret instructions to begin the flour fight. But which one... (insert ominous music of your choice here).

After the flour fight concludes, we use cookie cutters that have mysteriously multiplied over the years. We then bake batch after batch, becoming weary with the process of putting cookies in, taking them out, accidentally slightly burning the last batch while we craft the icing, etc. Then the second most fun part begins (the flour fight is clearly the first most fun): decorating them. The earlier cookies are intricate and detailed, with each cookie becoming sloppier and plainer until we get to the point where we'd rather...well, do anything except finish decorating those dang cookies.

Of course, part of the tradition is also eating about a dozen cookies each while we decorate them. And about half a pound of cookie dough each while we roll and cut the cookies out before baking them. No, we don't eat them between baking and icing. We eat raw cookies or overly sugared up cookies. One nice cookie and several sloppy ones typically get left for Santa.

The Christmas Eve Present Debate
Each year, my sister and I debate our parents and, now that we're married, our husbands to let us open just one present each on Christmas Eve. We win.

There are an assortment of photos of my sister and I growing up, sitting in front of the Christmas tree with our pets surrounding us. The year is more easily distinguished by the fads of the time than our ages. I'd post photos of this to prove it, but if I put a picture of my sister with her crimped, permed early 90's hair, purple leggings and hot pink sleep shirt on the internet, I'd be dead before morning. (If I mysteriously die in the next 24 hours...look to her. Just kidding! I love you, sister...). It's harder to distinguish by just me, because my hair was always long and dark and I was pretty much always wearing a Lion King shirt.

Reflecting on what makes Christmas special to my family helped restore a bit of the magic during this season. My husband and I are slowly establishing our own Christmas traditions, and I'm already planning for what we'll do with our son when his childhood Christmases come around. The memories from each year are worth so much more than I can put into words, especially now that our family is one smaller this year. Thankfully, next year we'll be bigger by one.

What are some of your fun Christmas traditions and memories? Feel free to share in the comments below.

May your days be merry and bright; Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Charlie Goes to the Vet

In October while my Mom was visiting, I enlisted her help while trimming Charlie's toenails. His nails are always long and have always varied in color; some are white, others on the same foot are black. He's generally pretty good about getting his nails trimmed, but his trusting nature puts even more pressure on me not to take too much off. I'm always afraid of cutting his nails to the quick, which would hurt and cause bleeding. I noticed, and had my Mom look at it, one of his odd nails. It seemed to have split vertically. The way the split was angled, I couldn't cut it. My plan was to leave it to Mother Nature for a few weeks and see if it got long enough I could cut it easily.

Fast forward a month and a half. Charlie is once again getting his nails and Clydesdale-esque foot hair a trim since we finally got some snow. His nail looks much, much worse. Though it hasn't torn anymore, the area inside the nail is crumbly and brown. We called our vet, who has only seen Layla before, and made an appointment.

On Thursday at 4, we wrangled Charlie in the car (getting a 70 pound, claustrophobic collie into a 2 door car is hard enough; add in the addition of a car seat base to one of the seats and it becomes akin to the clown car sketches at circuses). It's been excessively cold here in Alaska (highs around 1 or even in the negatives, temperatures staying in the negatives all day) and on top of that, we were under a high wind advisory. The biggest issue with the wind is that it blows snow drifts into very inconvenient places, like the middle of roads. It also blows snow off the parking lots, leaving a thick layer of ice without any traction on top of it. Being 37 weeks pregnant, I'm not a fan of this. Walking is hard enough; ice skating without the skates just seems cruel. We were so confident that this little toenail matter would be cleared up quickly, J almost left the car running.

If only we'd known. Before even examining Charlie, the vet mentioned that typically vertical splits were difficult to deal with, and the best solution was complete removal of the toenail from the nail bed, which requires sedation. My heart just about stopped. Sedation, to me, is surgery. The only other time Charlie has had surgery is when he, ah, lost the ability to procreate. He's nine years old now, and all vets seem to think that makes him a 'senior dog'. I don't know why they don't understand Charlie is simply immortal, because I've had him since he was 7 weeks old and he tormented me so much then that I was guaranteed never losing him to something as passive-aggressive as time.

The vet gave Charlie a full physical and determined he also has osteo-arthritis, another issue with older dogs. I didn't feel the need to share my Charlie-immortality theory at this point. She then examined his toenail, and said he definitely needed to have the whole thing removed. J, being much more fluent in medical gibberish than myself, asked about alternatives to full sedation. His reaction reassured me that sedation seemed quite serious, especially over a toenail. Surgery makes me worry about Charlie simply not waking up, which would destroy me.

The vet explained that sedation was the best option because local anesthesia couldn't guarantee numbness in the toenail bed, which is where the pain would be worst. We agreed to the sedation, signed some paperwork, and were told the surgery and waking-up process would take about an hour and a half. Though worried, I knew there was nothing I could do except wait and pray. So I did a little of the former and a lot of the latter. We went to grab a bite to eat (at this point in the pregnancy, I'm basically always a little hungry. Seeing as how we thought this appointment would be quite short, I hadn't even had a snack between leaving school and taking Charlie to his appointment.) We returned to the vet and waited some more.

After the surgery, the vet explained that Charlie was awake, but not himself yet. She'd removed the toenail all the way to the base, hoping that it would grow back normally. His foot is bandaged, he can't get it wet, he can't walk in deep snow, he can't lick it or chew on it. He has pain medicine he takes twice a day. His toenails are weird, most likely due to genetics, but we have to keep them really short because of their peculiarity. We need to keep him stimulated and alert to verify the sedation has fully worn off. The cold air and wind woke him up some when we got him outside, but he immediately wanted to doze when we got back in the car.

When we got home, J carried him in from the car; Charlie hates being carried, but was completely compliant. Nala and Layla thoroughly sniffed him while he swayed on his feet, leaning heavily against me. Layla licked his long snout. J made him walk all over, trying to keep him alert. Charlie laid down. We tried rubbing his face. Yelling in his face. He was still falling back asleep. Finally, I said, "Charlie, I'm going to run."

No running, ever, for any reason, is Charlie's number one rule. His head snapped up. I stood. His eyes followed me.

"I'll do it. I'll run," I teased.
"Do it. Run," J instructed. I looked at him dubiously. I'm currently the same size as a small whale. Running is not my friend. I slowly jogged in a circle around the dining table. Charlie made his typical groaning noise, but at a small level. I did another circle, all the while singing, "I'm running, I'm running!" Charlie's groans increased in level and severity with each lap, until he stood up and barked and began what he thought was chasing me. If I was running slow for me, Charlie was running in slow-motion for himself. I'm sure he thought he was very fast, and his eyes were dancing excitedly for playtime, but he was walking.

When I tired, J began running through the house, Charlie slowly following and yelling at him, but clearly having fun. He was still pretty loopy. Once the running excitement wore off, we needed a new tactic. Since he was a puppy, Charlie and I have played Hide-and-Seek, where I hide and he finds me. So we did this for a while.

In our defense, we tried to get him to play with his favorite toys, but he chose sleep. If you've ever met Charlie, he greeted you with a toy in his mouth. His disinterest in his toys was the biggest concern.

When hide and seek lost its luster as well, we resorted to Pavlov. We've conditioned our dogs with the Jaws music. When we do the, "do-do, do-do,do do do do do do!" music, we tickle them at the end. Even though it's just tickling, they think it's the biggest deal. So we resorted to the Jaws music.

Finally, enough time had passed so we could let him rest. We needed rest too at this point; keeping him alert was exhausting!

I'm glad to report the patient is doing well, though he has developed a limp. He has shown only little interest in licking or chewing his bandage, and is very much over being walked instead of allowed to run around his yard. The wind has blown knee-high snow drifts around the deck, meaning he has to be walked in the front yard. Charlie is quite modest and doesn't like doing his business in front of people, so he isn't enjoying these walks very much. He's whined and cried some from the pain, which is the hardest part for me. I give him his pain medicine as often as I can, which is twice a day, but he's still uncomfortable and in pain. Poor guy. We also discovered he know weighs 79 pounds, instead of 70 as we thought. But the weight may just be his winter coat.

Thankfully, his bandage gets removed tomorrow. He has pain medicine for a week, but he's getting lots of love and attention to help make up for the gap the medicine leaves.

Moral of the story: toenails are serious business.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Phonetic Alphabet--Disneyfied

There has been a sadness in my life since (re)Discovering Disney was completed. It's as though something has been...missing. That something is my metal pair of Disney glasses. My weekly infusion of Disney animation kept me looking at the world through Disney shades, and in an attempt to recapture that, I watched Beauty and the Beast yesterday and composed this phonetic alphabet, Disney style (since I can never remember the standard Alpha-Beta one) (Well, I forget what comes after Beta) (Oops, I think it's Charlie, Delta, then I don't know. So you see my need for a Disney version). Being indecisive, some letters have multiple options. If you want one I didn't think of, put it in the comments!

A- Aurora, Ariel, Aladdin
B- Beast, Bambi, Belle
C- Cruella, Cogsworth
D-De Vil
E- Esmeralda, Eric
F- Flounder, Faline (Bambi's love interest)
G- Gaston, Genie
H- Hercules, Hugo (Hunchback Gargoyle), Hook
I- Iago
J- Jasmine, Jafar
K- Khan (Mulan's horse), Kanga
L- Lady, Lumiere
M- Mufasa, Mulan, Mushu, Mickey
N- Nala
O- Owl (Winnie the Pooh)
P- Pocahontas, Pumbaa, Pinocchio
Q- Quasimodo
R- Rafiki
S- Simba, Sarabi
T- Timon, Tinkerbell
U- Ursula
V- Vanessa (Ursula's disguise)
W- Walt, Winnie the Pooh
Y- Yeti (Monster's Inc)
Z- Zazu

That's all I've got-- I couldn't find a single Disney thing that started with X! So help me out-- what Disney character's name starts with X?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

It All Began with a Mouse: The Great Mouse Detective

            Walt is famous for saying, “I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse.” It’s entirely appropriate, then, that my Disney project concludes with a film populated by mice. I’d never seen The Great Mouse Detective before, though it is one I would like to watch again. It’s enjoyable, and it’s one of those films where you notice things as an adult you’d never have noticed as a child.
            There are a few notable instances of this. First, there are several smoking characters. In the 1980’s, perhaps this was less taboo. Not only does the villain Ratigan smoke cigarettes, but our hero Basil smokes a pipe. The film is set in 1890’s England, making the pipe historically accurate, but it’s still a little unsettling to see a beloved character taking part in negative behaviors, akin to the villain’s vices. Another instance is in the song the female mouse sings in the pub scene. She starts out innocent enough, but then loses most of her clothing and sings the line, “Hey Fellas/ I’ll take off all my blues/ Hey Fellas/ There’s nothin’ I won’t do/ Just for you.” She’s wearing a blue costume at the time, and I thought she sang she’d take off all her clothes. She also encourages the men to drink their beer, and let her be good to them, all the while doing a provocative, Vegas-show-girl-esque dance. It isn’t anything I’d be worried about my (future) kids seeing, but it is something I noticed as an adult.
            Along the note of music (I had to include at least one terrible pun!), the interesting musical aspect of this particular film is that aside from the show girl, only the villain and his posse sing. All the musical numbers are allotted to the villain. It’s the villain’s songs in recent animation that frighten me the most, particularly those in The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled. Ratigan’s songs aren’t frightening, but they aren’t exactly jolly, either.
            The animators used a variety of techniques to give the movie the slightly noir, mystery air that it carries so well. The sweet opening with Olivia’s gift, the flower-ballerina, is absolutely precious, making the sudden kidnapping of her father jarring. In fact, I thought the peg-legged bat was much larger than he actually was at first, because I was frightened of him. Things I’m afraid of often grow in size in my mind, which is why my family makes fun of me for calling them in to kill what they call tiny and I call rather moderately sized spiders.
            Another effect the animators used to create a sense of mystery is the use of shadows. Nearly every climactic scene shows part of the action in shadow. This makes the action less frightening at times, such as when Ratigan feeds one of his henchmen to his giant cat; this same technique also increases the emotion at other times, when our heroes are in danger.
            Speaking of heroes, I love Olivia, her father, and Dr. Dawson. I think they’re marvelous characters. Dr. Dawson stops to help Olivia out of the goodness of his heart, and it nearly costs him his life. On the other hand, Basil of Baker street was entirely uninterested in helping Olivia until he discovered her missing father was a clue that could lead him further in his pursuit of Ratigan. It wasn’t until he saw a benefit for himself that he agreed to help her. That’s certainly not a very positive personality trait. During the clock battle, he and Olivia help each other, though he does prioritize her safety by handing her off to Dr. Dawson and her father without just jumping on the make-shift airship himself. When he and Dr. Dawson are trapped and tied to the death-chain-of-reaction, he gives up all hope. It isn’t until Dawson goes ballistic on him (thank goodness for that) that Basil wizens up and finds a way out of that mess. For someone who is so smart, he sure wasn’t smart in that situation.
            I can see that Basil has some good qualities, as he does use his intelligence for good. He also very nearly sacrifices himself in order to escape Ratigan and keep the future Ratigan-free.
            While the film credits the “Basil of Baker Street” book series as its inspiration, my Sherlock source tells me much of the film follows the plot of a particular Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mystery. There’s even a sound clip from the most famous Sherlock actor of the 40’s, Basil Rothbone, in the film. Our hero Basil is also named after this most famous actor, according to IMDB, at least.
            Technologically speaking, this film is quite a milestone for Disney. For the first time, traditionally animated characters were set against a CGI produced background for the clock fight sequence. This particular technique would be adjusted and improved until its perfection for Tarzan, which seamlessly incorporated the two mediums in 1999, 13 years after Great Mouse Detective was released.
             These Disney films helped propel me through the roughest winter I’ve ever experienced, my first full winter in Alaska—complete with record-breaking snow accumulation. They got me to summer, when I can open the windows and let the breeze blow that winter mindset right out the window. The courage that Disney heroes and heroines exemplify encourages me regularly, whether I’m just taking a walk, or taking a walk up a mountain (which I did, yesterday). I may not have made it to the summit (too much rock climbing on my weary legs at the end), but I made it to the grassy plain below the summit. There I sat in the warm mixture of grass and dirt, marveling at the view of the mountains ahead and farms below, feeling the sun on my face and arms. Much like those Disney characters at the end of their story, I felt, for a few moments, simple joy and peace. And it was blissful.
The view from my grassy plain.
           These characters and their fictional plights have helped me work through my grief and sorrow at the passing of my father, and focus on the things I did get to experience with him instead of dwelling on the events that he’ll miss. Perhaps it is most appropriate that my husband and I conceived our first child while I rediscovered the beginning of my love for animation, from before The Lion King, to finding myself where I am today, seeing new animation in theatres more often than live action movies.
            The hardest part about expecting doesn’t have anything to do with the physical aspects, but rather the emotional difficulty of the timing. It’s been difficult to not dwell on the things my Dad won’t see, the fact that this child and our future kids won’t know him except through the multitude of stories I share with them. But once again, Disney has seen me through it. I haven’t been able to watch The Lion King since my Dad’s death, but I know I can, and will, get through the scene where Simba realizes his Dad is gone. Thinking about it now makes me teary, but soon enough I’ll be able to process it. Like Rafiki says, “He lives in you,” and I know he does. I also know he’s looking out for me by the little things that occasionally happen. For instance, at 3 a.m. the day I flew into Florida to be with my family, mere hours after I learned of his death, I put my iPod on shuffle while I put on make-up and braided my hair. The first song to play was ‘Circle of Life’, followed by the one Elvis song I own (my Dad was a huge Elvis fan), and finally my Dad’s favorite Garth Brooks song: ‘The Dance’. I knew he was with me in that moment just as I did when I found a perfect conch shell, crab free, on a beach known for only producing crushed shells. There are small moments, when the wind blows the hair off my face or we get a legitimate rain storm instead of just an annoying drizzle, that I feel him with me more than ever. And I’m eternally grateful for those moments of peace, be they Disney inspired or simply there.
            Personally, this film was a milestone for me. It signals the end of my first project, (re)Discovering Disney. It also signifies the completion of my first non-children’s book, which is both scary and amazing. The grueling editing process still lies before me, as does the terrifying search for a literary agent and publisher. But as a lifetime of Disney films have taught me, I’ll get through it. As long as I keep my faith, keep going and stay positive during the worst of the storm, I’ll get through it.

**As a side note to Facebook friends, please don't mention the expecting on Facebook. Thanks :) **

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dream a little Dream

Last night, I had the most marvelous dream. It was one of those dreams that when the alarm clock goes off, or your phone/iPod set to a less offensive noise than that incessant BLEEP! BLEEP!, you're sad it's over and wish you could back.

In my dream, my family-- my Mom, sister, aunt, Grams, Dad and Papa Jack (my mom's dad who is currently hanging out in heaven with my Dad) and I were all at a restaurant, eating dinner. This is odd for a couple reasons, because I don't think we ever ate in a restaurant with both my mom's and dad's sides of the family--and if we do, I don't remember it. We often spent time with them together at our house, but such a large group usually does better ordering pizza than eating out. I had to run out to the car for some reason, and when I came back inside, they had all switched places. Just like them, they were playing a joke to see if I'd notice. I did, and as a joke back, I sat down at the table behind ours (it was empty). My Dad made some teasing joke, like he always did, and I returned to the table. The restaurant was loud, but we contributed to it with our laughter and jokes, with gentle teasing zinging across the table. We all sat around a rectangular wooden table, passing appetizers around and planning what we'd eat for the next meal. The restaurant was unremarkable, it was the moment that was special.

Papa Jack, for one, was not how he was near the end of his life, but rather how he was when I was a little kid. His booming voice, along with my favorite flannel 'lumberjack' shirt of his, filled the restaurant and made even the busy setting feel like home. He laughed and joked in a manner that was so real, I knew it had to be, at least a little.

My Dad had changed a little with each stroke and TIA that tried--and failed-- to take him away from us. But in my dream, he was tan with a full head of black hair and a bushy mustache that he reminded my Mom needed trimming-- another very real moment. He was athletically lean like he was when I was much younger, and he leaned on his elbows eagerly to tell me how excited he was about everything going on in my life. He was wearing a ratty old teal shirt we all hated, but it wasn't ratty yet. His face was remarkably happy, as it always was when he was with his family.

It is these words and descriptions I wish I could have had the emotional strength to put into his eulogy, but they failed to come until more than a month after his death. As a writer, it can be crippling to be without the right words at the right time.

Dreams are a little piece of reality, especially when they are as real and living as the one that visited me last night. The sound of bells-- my attempt at a non-jarring alarm-- broke me out of my reverie, and I couldn't help but once again briefly mourn the loss of the amazing people I've known. I wish my Gramps, my Dad's dad, had also been there, but perhaps he was off visiting another family member's dreams last night. After all, I can't be too selfish-- I did get Dad and Papa Jack.

It isn't often we get to see people at our favorite moment in their lives. For me, the age at which my Dad and Papa Jack appeared in my dream was an age where I was gullible enough to look on the ceiling for words and vulnerable enough to admit when I needed help finding an answer. On Sunday night, as I prayed, I fell asleep while thinking I miss my Dad. I needed help with this grief. He heard me, and once again helped me climb the steep hill, putting me on his shoulders so I could see the most incredibly view.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Overcoming Darkness: The Black Cauldron

            There are a few times I’ve been genuinely frightened during an animated film. The first time occurred during Maleficent’s entrance in Sleeping Beauty. She’s always frightened me, and it is because of her that it took me so many years to finally watch the full film. I was rightfully frightened of Scar as he plots and executes said plot for Mufasa’s death in The Lion King. I say ‘rightfully’ because Scar kills Mufasa, and murder is quite scary to me. The villain from The Princess and the Frog is frightening because his evil was simply too real for me—making deals with the devil is beyond frightening. Now, thanks to The Black Cauldron, I have another villain to give me nightmares: the Horned King (who quite frankly resembles the devil, which must have been intentional).
Why yes, I do find this villain TERRIFYING.
            I had heard that this film is the darkest in Disney’s canon, and I have to say I agree. At one point, when the princess and Taran are escaping and you’re expecting the princess to round to corner and instead it’s a castle guard, I jumped. It’s also Disney’s first PG rating for animated films. The other six films were all released in the 2000’s and 2010’s, when the MPAA decided arbitrarily (like they always do) that animated films are PG. How is it, then, that films like Tarzan with bloody paw prints, dead bodies, strangling, and animal violence are rated G, while Lilo & Stitch and Tangled are PG? (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, and Bolt are the other PG ratings). There’s protecting innocence and then there’s ludicrous over-protection. I think the MPAA has officially passed into the ludicrous spectrum. They’re that parent who buys a plastic bubble, attaches a backpack-leash to it, and puts their kid inside it. Except they affect, to some degree, the entire U.S. with their censorship—I mean, decision making.
            Don’t get me wrong, I think a system that fairly evaluates films based on a set of regulated and published standards would be incredibly helpful. However, the MPAA refuses to give the reasoning behind their ratings, nor do they have a rubric that states what’s allowable for each film. And that’s my rant against the MPAA.
            I was completely absorbed into The Black Cauldron, even if I did find a prophesizing piglet a bit hard to swallow (prophesizing pigs trouble me but singing lions don’t—I can explain my logic, so please don’t ask that of me!). I was genuinely concerned for Hen’s safety at numerous points, because of the darkness of the film. In previous Disney films, favored characters often escaped the axe because of the possible traumatic effect it may have on children. But The Black Cauldron is an entirely new type of animated film. I mean, it has zombies! No other animated film I have seen thus far in my life (and as an animation connoisseur I’ve seen a LOT of animated films) has included zombies.
            The last few films had been musicals, but Black Cauldron stands apart in that respect as well. The score is lovely and fitting and just about perfect with the plot, but characters don’t randomly break out into song. Of course, they are kind of running for their lives, or trying to save the world, at just about every point in the film, so I could see how they might not spontaneously combust musically.
            BC is different from the rest of Disney animation. That isn’t a bad thing; as I’ve touched on before, ‘different’ and ‘bad’ are not synonymous for me. Once again, the story is adapted from a book. I’m not sure how much the book is aimed towards children, or if it was meant for adults. The style of language and plot are much more adult, but Walt always emphasized that children at not to be talked down to nor should material be dumbed down. Every moment can be a learning moment. What differentiates this particular film is the prevalence and prevailing force of evil. Evil is winning almost the entire film. Except for a few rare moments, like when Taran leads the escape, the Horned King is succeeding.
Prophetic piggy
            The Horned King, with his army of brutes and evil powers, has been winning for some time. He only needs to Black Cauldron to cinch his victory and make overthrowing him impossible. For that, he needs little pig Hen to show him where the cauldron is. Taran, always trying to be a hero, loses little Hen when he’s supposed to be leading her to safety. That’s when he meets Gurgi, the little furry friend who is neither human nor animal. He can’t be solely an animal, because he can talk and no other animals can talk, yet he can’t be human because he doesn’t look or act it. He’s adorable, if a little annoying at times—especially to Taran.
            The message of the film concerns, partially, not letting images of honor and glory cloud your eyes and cause you to lose focus and purpose—and your pig, too. It also touches on the consumptive nature that is evil, as the Horned King, his minions and brutes, are all consumed by the evil purposes at hand and take part in every available vice. We see them drinking, partying and even see a dancer’s panties (that was a jaw dropper for me). Other than Esmeralda’s not-so-subdued sexuality, this glimpse—also a woman dressed as a gypsy—is the first (chronological) mention of sexuality. Sure, characters fall in love all the time. But this evocative dance and the whole plot of Hunchback are the only times we see temptation and women viewed as sexual objects.
            Although it’s reported that the author of the book series, Lloyd Alexander, didn’t intentionally weave Christian allegory into his series, it is present in some capacity. Gurgi, the woodland animal that Taran meets repeatedly, sacrifices himself to the Black Cauldron to save the world and stop the Horned King’s zombie army, purely out of love for the people he’s come to know recently. The Horned King (who bears a strong resemblance to the devil) is then consumed by the cauldron (a fairly frightening sequence by Disney standards—heck, by my standards! Oh, wait, I’m a scaredy cat and you know it. Hmm, by pre-gory-movie standards). Not only does Gurgi sacrifice himself whole heartedly, but he’s resurrected by the love of Taran, the princess and the minstrel. When the witches want the now-defunct cauldron back, they bargain for it. They first offer the sword they took from Taran, but he says he’d rather have Gurgi back. Then, miraculously, Gurgi comes back.
Gurgi, immediately prior to being resurrected.
            Gurgi, Taran, Hen and the minstrel are all interesting characters. But my favorite would have to be the princess, whose name I can’t hope to pronounce nor spell, so I will simply call her the princess (though the Horned King does refer to her as a scullery maid during the film’s climax, which I found a bit confusing). She is a strong character, and rescues Taran from the dungeon. It is she who leads him to the catacombs, wherein he finds the magic sword (which is why I’ve always confused this film with The Sword in the Stone—they both have swords!) that saves them multiple times and which he trades for the Black Cauldron. She doesn’t ever really need rescuing, she does so herself. Yes, the magic sword came in handy, but she played a large hand in that. She also stands up for herself when Taran starts being a big meanie face, which I like. I like the message that young girls should stand tall in their beliefs and use logic and reasoning to win their word wars.
            The unique and well developed characters couple with the well thought out plot to make the film enjoyable for all ages (though I don’t know at what age my kids will be able to watch it—I suppose it depends on if they’re afraid, like me, or brave, like James). At first, while saying I liked it, I also stated that it wasn’t one I thought I’d find myself watching again. But the more I ponder it, the more drawn back to it I am. There are many layers to the film, and I think I’ll discover something new each time I watch it.
            It’s now a dreary, rainy day in early-summer Alaska. When we first moved here in late winter of 2011, we experienced a very mild winter (yes, snow on St. Patrick’s Day is mild up here) and an exceptionally amazing summer. If this past winter (record breaking snow) is any indication of this summer, our weather will be cooler and wetter than usual. I think if anyone has earned a really terrific summer, it’s the Alaskans who just dealt with this year’s overwhelming winter.
            Yet it’s the Lower 48 summers that I miss: running through the sprinklers; weekends spend on a beach towel, sprawled on a deck or lawn or driveway, soaking up the sun while someone cooks hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill; afternoons spent sitting, sundress-clad, under trees in sun-dappled shade; holidays spent on a pool float, one hand trailing lazily in the water; fireworks lighting up the night sky on Independence Day while the whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, stop what they’re doing and stand amazed. Basically, any scene from The Sandlot details what I think of as perfect summers. In South-Central Alaska, the water that comes out of the hose is glacier cold making sprinkler runs more like pneumonia runs, spaghetti-strapped sundresses have to be worn with leggings and jackets due to the cool air, there are no outdoor pools, and the midnight sun (it is light all night, but not sunshine-y light, cloudy-day light) prevent those spectacular fireworks from being so spectacular.
            There are many special things about Alaskan summers, like the wildlife and camping and the midnight sun. But I didn’t grow up with those things, they don’t hold that special place in my heart. When it’s summer and I’m back in the South, every cookout and pool day sends my heart a flutter with that, “Ah, it’s summer!” feeling. But regardless of how amazing our summer in Alaska is, I don’t get that feeling. It may be summer here, but it just isn’t my kind of summer. There are no thunderstorms that send you running, dripping wet, from the pool to the house, where you shiver in the air conditioning and watch all that water you ‘accidentally’ splashed on your sister (who wasn’t even in the pool) suddenly be refilled with warm rainwater. Most houses in Alaska don’t have air conditioning. In fact, we still have our heat on. Even on the warm days when we can crack the windows for a few hours, we have to close them when clouds cover the sun, and crank the heat back up. Alaskan summers are different. Not bad, just different. This different may not suit me, but I’ll enjoy it while I’m here, even though I’ll always look forward to summers in the south, complete with (outdoor) pools and thunderstorms.
Alaska in the summer--  beautiful, but there's still snow on the mountains (that means it's cold-- notice the long sleeves and pants of the person in the photo)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Disney Does Dickens: Oliver and Company

Despite my love of animals, I hadn’t seen Oliver and Company until this project. It never really appealed to me, for some odd reason. Perhaps I could tell by the previews and trailers that it just wasn’t up my alley. There are a lot of wonderful aspects about it, but it isn’t one I think I’ll watch again and again, like many of the other films from this project.
            I haven’t read “Oliver Twist” so I can’t say how much Disney strays from the original. I think it’s a nice thought to imagine that perhaps some kids, who liked this film, will one day read the original. Disney specializes in adaptations; they truly make the material available to a wider audience and introduce the original to that same broad audience. They have to adapt the material for young kids, but saying Disney butchers any classic is unfair. Many people, trying to set themselves apart as different, say they dislike Disney because their adaptations alter the original material, often adjusting adult topics to be suitable for young audiences. First of all, every adaptation will differ from the original; that’s why it’s called an adaptation. Different mediums require different adjustments. Many who read a book and then see a movie based on the book prefer the book version. That doesn’t always mean the studio destroyed the original in adapting it; it means more people are now aware of the original. Secondly, how many kids could tell you the basic plot of classic fairy tales, books and folk lore without the help of Disney? From Snow White to Dickens to Johnny Appleseed, these characters have come alive in children’s imaginations and inspire them, as they grow, to seek out the original. Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.
            Back to Oliver, the cuddly little kitten who finds his way into a thieving band of outcasts. The opening of the film is heartbreaking, as each of Oliver’s brothers and sisters find new homes, with only him remaining. His struggle during a rainstorm and finding food and safety in New York City are equally heartbreaking. Then Dodger comes along, and you have a little bit of hope. The problem is that one song later, that hope is dashed and you want to bump Dodger on the behind with a newspaper for being such a meanie-face.
Poor sad little Oliver.
            Dodger tricks Oliver into helping him, then refuses to share the reward. Oliver, being the spunky cat that he is, refuses to be ignored, and follows Dodger home. He finds his way into this family of homeless dogs, and a man (the voice of Itchy from All Dogs Go to Heaven, actually), who trick and thieve to stay alive. The man owes money to the villain, who has two scary looking Dobermans that are equally mean to the misfit gang.
            When the film was originally pitched, it was meant to be a sequel to The Rescuers. When that didn’t work out, all that was left was a New York setting and a little girl who looks remarkable like Penny, except her name is Jenny and her rich, jet-setting parents are never home. Her sadness is palpable, which makes the gang’s ‘rescue’ of Oliver, after Jenny finds him and sings the one good song in the movie to him and clearly loves him, all the worse. Oliver is separated from his person, which in every film with animals always makes me cry, and has to tell his old new-friends that his new-new friend needs him and is where his heart really lies. So sad.
Jenny and Oliver during the one good song in the movie.
            The downside is the Broadway-esque show dog that lives in Jenny’s house. I’m not sure whose pet she’s supposed to be, but Georgette does not like Oliver and helps to rid the house of him. Then a misguided Fagin, the homeless owner of the dog gang, decides he’ll ransom Oliver, since he’s there and Fagin is desperate. Sadly, Penny brings her piggy bank, and Georgette as protection, to the docks to Fagin in order to get Oliver back. She is then kidnapped by the villain, who is always smoking and was apparently a linebacker before becoming a loan shark, which also made me sad. Children being kidnapped is just too real these days, and I have trouble watching films that contain it without being heartbroken for the families it happens to. On top of that, Oliver and Jenny have just been reunited when their happy moment is destroyed by further separation.
            It’s always eerie to see films, live action or animated, set in New York before 9/11. The presence of the twin towers now is as jarring to me as their absence was after that tragic day. The look of the film is supposed to be reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians, but just looks outdated and sloppy. More CGI use was pioneered during this time, but it’s still not used frequently. Rotating camera shots, as opposed to straight-on shots, also occur during this film, improving the cinematography. Cinematographers also spent time photographing New York as a dog would see it—18 inches off the ground. This helped make the film much more believable. During Dodger’s first singing-in-the-street scene, dogs from the other Disney features make cameos. Pongo (101 Dalmatians) is most obvious, followed by characters from Lady and the Tramp.
            The music is very 1980’s, which dates the movie significantly. Music from the classics, such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King are all still enjoyable to listen to, regardless of what decade you’re living during. But Oliver’s music is decidedly 80’s, which honestly I really don’t like. Sorry, Billy Joel, but your Disney music let me down. Billy Joel also voiced Dodger, which is great. It’s just the music that’s lacking, and it’s only because after living during the 80’s and both mini-comebacks, I’m rather 80’s’d out.
            The one thing I really enjoyed about Oliver is the characterization. Each dog and person you meet is clearly an individual, from the Shakespeare loving Francis, to the salsa loving Tito, to the intellectually challenged Einstein. The characters are much more real because individual dogs do have individual personalities; it was especially nice to see that in a film.
            I love animal movies, especially dog movies, and while Oliver was enjoyable, it wasn’t repeat-enjoyable for me. I liked it well enough for once, but I don’t feel like I’ll be losing anything by not watching it again for a few years or decades.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Powerful Friendship: The Fox and the Hound

             There were a lot of factors we considered before moving across the country to Alaska, positive and negative. We thought about the extreme climate difference, being far away from family, the increased expense. One thing I didn’t consider was that we were moving to the land of my two biggest fears: earthquakes and crabs.
            My terror of crabs may or may not come as a surprise to you. I love Sebastian, but real crabs terrify me. You can blame my Aunt Julie; I do. While we were on a beach at night, she told me a terrible story about a giant crab that came out of the ocean every night to eat little girls with long brown hair and green eyes (ahem, my precise description). I’m had nightmares and an intense fear of them ever since.
            I wasn’t afraid of earthquakes until I was in one during middle school. We were living in Indiana, not exactly known for its fault lines. It was early morning(ish), during the summer. We lived in a two-story house with a basement and I had a canopy bed. I awoke to the whole house shaking, and my bed moving across the carpeted floor. I immediately called my best friend (on her house phone, because when we were middle school age, kids of that age didn’t have cell phones). Her mom answered, and I told her what had happened. They lived just behind us, and she said they didn’t feel anything. “Maybe it was just a big truck,” she said. Then I called my dad, while turning on the news. I told him what had happened, and he said they had felt a little shake but figured it was just a big truck. That’s when the news returned from a commercial, saying we’d had an earthquake. My friend’s family didn’t feel it because their house didn’t have a basement.
            I’ve handled tornadoes and hurricanes, no problem. Severe thunderstorms? As long as there’s no injury, I love them. During either of those events, you can take action. You know where you’re ‘safe place’ in the house is for tornadoes, you have your radio, flashlights and bottled water there. When the siren sounds, you grab your pets, favorite childhood stuffed animal and run for the closet. With hurricanes, you know they’re coming. You can put sandbags out, or evacuate. But with earthquakes? You don’t have any warning, you have to gather your pets and get under a door frame or a table. It’s very difficult to do that when you have a neurotic, claustrophobic collie. Closets were hard enough, but under a table? He won’t hear of it.
            This morning I was shaken awake to my walls, windows and doors rattling. Nala and Layla, who had been asleep on either side of my legs (I call this trapped cuddling, because I’m trapped). Layla jumped up and stared at the doorway to the hallway. Nala sat up and looked around. James grabbed my shoulder and said, “Are you alright?!” Then Charlie sauntered in from the living room, yawned and walked to my side of the bed. Then he gave me a look that said, “Hey Mom, guess what? The couch just gave me massage!” He was totally calm. The dog who jumps up when someone walks within a five-foot radius of him is apparently totally cool with the GROUND MOVING with no warning. I will never understand him.
            I’d been putting off watching The Fox and the Hound because, quite frankly, it’s my cry movie. It’s the movie I put on when I’m sad for no reason and feel like a good cry will do me good. It’s hard to get past the heartbreaking scene of the widow releasing Todd, but the message of the film is beautiful and deep, which makes the cry-fest worth watching the movie.
            I didn’t really realize it until watching it this time how tragic the whole story really is. You become friends with someone you’re supposed to have an antagonistic relationship with, but then you both get in trouble for it. You risk it again, and again, and then a third party gets injured while trying to hurt you and your friend blames you. This causes the person you love most in the world, who raised you and kept you safe, to release you into an environment that you’ve never experienced. Just as you get settled and find a shot at happiness, that friend searches you out with the intent of harming you, and you defend him, risking your own life. Finally he sees the light and protects you from harm, yet both of you walk away without saying goodbye. It’s just so dang sad.
            It doesn’t help that Todd tries over and over to be the greatest best friend ever, and Copper responds with lukewarm reactions. It’s all fun and games until the master calls him home, and then he’s just gone. They’re separated for a winter, and suddenly Copper is a hunting dog and won’t even be friends with Todd?  That’s just not cool. Todd risked himself repeatedly just to be Copper’s friend, and Copper doesn’t want to be that anymore because he’s something else? I’m thoroughly disappointed with Copper, even though Kurt Russell is the voice actor for him.
            I do appreciate that it’s clear that Amos didn’t kill Todd’s mother—he was out buying Copper when the hunting party killed her. I’d forgotten how selfless she was, hiding Todd and then running towards the hunters to protect him. She sacrificed herself so he would live. I did find an alarming number of similarities between Fox and the Hound and Bambi, from the mother dying to the thunderstorm frightening the protagonist. The water color-esque backgrounds, water reflections, and changing seasons segment all link back to Bambi as well.
            The scene in which I always lose it is when the widow drops Todd off in the forest, watching him shrink and look at her confusingly in the rear view mirror. I held my dog Nala to me, crying into her velvety black fur. I can’t imagine having to let one of my dogs go, even for their own safety. They’re a part of my family, and I can’t imagine life without any of them. My worst nightmares are something terrible happening to them that I can’t stop. Part of my fear of earthquakes is the difficulty in training them to get under tables or in door frames when the ground shakes. When I lived in an area with tornadoes and wasn’t home, I worried a tornado would hit and they wouldn’t be in the safest room in the house. Perhaps I’m just a worrier, but I can’t help but be concerned for their safety.
            That’s why the release scene is so difficult for me. I don’t know how she could just drive away. It wasn’t even Todd’s fault; Chief is the one who didn’t lay down on the tracks like Amos said. He also shouldn’t have been chasing Todd in the first place. Just because something feels instinctual doesn’t mean it’s right.
            The deep bond of friendship and having to choose where your loyalties lie is a very grown-up concept to be explored in an animated film. The book upon which it is based is even more sad and heartbreaking than the film, because Todd and Copper are never friends, and both die. Todd dies from exhaustion from being chased by Copper, while Copper dies when his master shoots him, because he’s moving to a nursing home and can’t take him with him. I thought the movie was heartbreaking until I read the summary of the book. The book seemingly aimed to show a comparison between an industrialized world and increased promiscuity. I still prefer the movie, and don’t plan on ever reading such a pointlessly sad book.
Bravery-- about time!
            The animation studio was going through quite a shift during the making of this film, from its 1977 beginning to its 1981 release. In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth recruited other disgruntled Disney animators, supposedly discontent because Disney films weren’t as charming as they used to be, and started his own studio. He began many different ventures that ended in bankruptcy, but did succeed with some of his films. His departure left the remaining Disney animators in a bit of a lurch, as they were in the midst of producing two-feature length animated films. Both Fox and the Hound and Black Cauldron were completed, despite the sudden departure of several young animators.
            Although Fox and the Hound may have been delayed, it did well when it was released. It marked a lot of lasts for the Disney studio. It’s the last film that Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of Walt’s nine old men, worked on. It’s also the last film to have all the credits roll during the opening sequences, as opposed to our modern closing credits. Finally, I get a break! I much prefer closing credits to opening. Now Disney even does cutesy little things to get you to stay and watch the credits. I like watching the movie when I first put it in, not ten minutes later when all the names have drifted by.
            Like in Lady and the Tramp, a main character was spared from death due to fear of how traumatic it would be for children. Chief, who only breaks his leg in the final version, was originally killed by the train. Thankfully that got reduced to the leg breaking, as I don’t think I could ever watch either movie again if one of the dogs died. I watch Disney movies to escape from the sadness and reality of the world, not be reminded it’s there.
            Our three rambunctious pups are loving that it’s springtime in Alaska again. Of course, it’s May. But yesterday, we saw temperatures of 67 degrees, which is quite warm for here any time of year. No wildflowers have taken over yet, but dandelions are popping up. If you ever hate dandelions, move to Alaska for a year or two. Even those yellow weeds are a welcome sight after six months of cold and snow. Weeds representing hope and enemies becoming friends; I may have a connection there!
            It’s rather a good time to end my film project, as people prefer to spend as much time outdoors from May to September in Alaska as possible. When the sun is shining, no one wants to be inside—and the sun shines from four a.m. to midnight. I’ve only got three movies left, and I’m sad to see this project end. I’ve loved watching the Disney films and learning about Walt. Every now and then a bit of genius touches your life, and you’re forever changed because of it. Walt was truly a genius, and he’s touched my life and restored my hope through animated films more times than I can count. Since I’ve been a toddler, every time I’m sick, or sad, or just need a laugh, I put in a Disney animated feature and my day improves. That’s a powerful kind of hope, indeed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reflections on the Water: The Little Mermaid

            The Little Mermaid is the first movie my parents ever took me to see in theatres. From then on, I loved it. Until the release of The Lion King, it was my favorite movie. I very nearly wore out our VHS copy by watching it nearly every day. Some things never change: my current DVD has two parts where it messes up regularly. It’s very irritating, but the Blu-ray is being released in a few months, so it isn’t a long-term issue.
            The Little Mermaid came about at just the right time. The Disney animators were pared down; only 125 animators inhabited the huge animation building that Walt had built for his artists. They were moved to trailers in a parking lot off of the studio lot—a very clear signal that the feature animation division needed a hit or else the division might be cut completely. There was a lot riding on Ariel’s shoulders. On top of the fate of the animation department, Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale to be produced since Sleeping Beauty thirty years earlier.
            With so much riding on the film, the storyline, animation and technology all had to be unique, innovative and have huge earning potential. The director’s also co-wrote the feature, with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken teaming up with Disney for the first time ever. Their influence is a huge aspect of the Disney Renaissance. The creative combination of those three creative geniuses is the best thing to happen to animation since the multi-plane camera (in my opinion, that is. And I happen to think the multi-plane camera is insanely important, as well.). The special effects department spent a year finishing just the storm sequences; their hard work clearly paid off. There are some digital backgrounds that were utilized, but the integration of CAPS (the early Disney computer animation) and hand-drawn isn’t subtle. Of course, I watch a lot of animation, so my opinion may be biased. But those few backgrounds looked completely different to me than the rest of the film. It wasn’t until I knew there were computer animated backgrounds that I looked for them. So it’s kind of like hide-and-seek: if you’re looking, they’re easy to find, but if you aren’t looking, you probably won’t find them.
            There was one executive at Disney during the 80’s and 90’s that I’m not a fan of, but I’m a lady so I won’t mention names. (If you want to know, he identifies himself in the special features of this film). During the test screening, Ariel’s “Part of Your World” sequence wasn’t completely animated. One boy, the one sitting in front of the executive, dropped his popcorn and focused his attention on cleaning it up instead of watching the song. Because of that, this executive wanted to cut the song completely. I’ll give you a minute to collect your shocked and shattered thoughts, as I know I can’t think about this movie without instantly having that song stuck in my head (in a good way). It’s my go-to sing in the shower song. I wouldn’t hold one terrible suggestion against this guy, but he’s also the person who wanted to cut “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King and succeeded in cutting “If I Never Knew You” from Pocahontas until the 10-year anniversary DVD was released. One day, I might be able to forgive this person, but it’s terribly difficult. (Hmm, I think it was the same person over and over again, but I could be wrong!)
            The first character we actually meet isn’t even a merman or mermaid; we meet Prince Eric and the sailors before entering the world ‘under the sea’. It’s a fish who escapes the nets that truly leads us into the world of Ariel and her family, which is most appropriate. It makes sense that we meet Eric first, because he’s Ariel’s motivation for really wanting to become a human. Before she rescues him, she wants to experience that world, but she doesn’t really dream of being a human, and staying a human, until she observes him and rescues him. It’s also important that she doesn’t necessarily fall in love with how he looks, but how he acts. She sees him playing music, dancing, playing with his dog. Of course I love Max the dog, how could you not? I also love how Eric risks his own life in order to save his dog during the shipwreck.
            Max also serves to identify who is good and who is not. For instance, he’s excited to see Ariel as a human, running up to her and licking her. Whereas when Ursula walks down the aisle to marry the entranced Eric, he growls at her. She kicks him in the face, making me hate her even more. He also plays a part in stalling the wedding, which is a great scene. We know Eric marries the right person when, after their wedding, Max interrupts their embrace with a huge, wet kiss. And they love it.
            Over the years, you can see the Disney princesses age. Not age as in become dated, but they literally grow older. The early princesses are young; even Ariel is only 16—and she gets married at the end! The two princess movies of the 2000’s are older: Rapunzel starts her adventure on the eve of her 18th birthday, and Tiana is old enough to buy a building to start a restaurant. Personally, I like that the princesses are growing up a little more before setting out on their adventures. As a kid, I thought turning 16 would unlock every door, window and attic hatch. While turning 16 is a big deal, I didn’t get married, open a restaurant, begin to rule a country. I just started driving. By having our heroines be a little older, we’re saying it’s okay to wait until you’re a little older to have giant adventures. It’s great to have little adventures as a teenager, but a certain level of maturity is required to have huge adventures, like moving 4,000 miles from everyone you know to a place you’ve only spent a few days in.
The tour of the kingdom-- my favorite scene!
            Ariel is an interesting character. James isn’t a huge fan of this movie because he chooses to see it as a girl disobeying her father, instead of them both being a little wrong. King Triton shouldn’t have been so bigoted and Ariel shouldn’t have run away. However, James went a little too far by saying he didn’t want our kids watching Little Mermaid at all, and refuted my counterpoint that most Disney princesses disobey someone in order to achieve their dream by saying our children shouldn’t be allowed to watch Disney films at all. To which I replied, “If that’s the case, I’ll be leaving you.” He replied, “I can tell you’re more serious now that you’re stabbing your salad with more ferocity than before this conversation began.” So it was settled that our kids can watch any Disney movies they want!
            James also made a very astute observation: despite their short comings, the Disney villains all have a lot of ambition. Ursula is a great example of this. She doesn’t only want revenge for being banished, she wants to rule the seas. The more people who get hurt in the process, the better (that’s what makes her a villain).
            Originally, the Disney studios had some qualms about releasing a mermaid movie so soon after they released Splash. As a result, Ariel’s hair color became a topic of hot debate. One executive said in a meeting that everyone knows mermaids are all blonde! But the director’s won out, with Ariel being a redhead. This suits her fiery personality as well as the incredible adaptability of red hair. The way light and water work with her hair is truly marvelous, and it allows for Eric’s enchantment, as he only saw her silhouette.
            The importance of sacrifice is also a theme. Ariel has to sacrifice seeing her family in order to be with the man she loves, in a different kind of world. I relate with her even more after moving to Alaska, as I chose to live away from my family in order to have this great adventure for a few years. Granted, the man I love isn’t a different species and our relationship doesn’t depend on where we live. But it isn’t only Ariel who has to sacrifice: her father finally decides her happiness is more important than how much he’ll miss her. This particular sequence at the end of the film was difficult for me, with the recent passing of my own father. Having to do what’s best for your children can’t be easy for you. I know our living so far away wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t. But we’ve built our life here now, with our jobs, church, friends, and a house we bought last December. Thankfully technology helps immensely with living far away.
            Despite a fear of crabs, I love Sebastian. In fact, there’s a humiliating story of an eight year old me when my family visited a crab shack in Maryland. In this story my parents love to tell, a waitress carried a platter of crabs by our table, and I gasped, “Sebastian!” Then I ordered a hamburger and a salad, staring at my plate only for the remainder of the meal.

            One of the special features of the two-disc DVD is a short animated film directed by Roger Allers entitled “The Little Match Girl,” which is quite possibly the saddest short animated film I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, but heartbreaking. We watch as a young homeless girl tries to sell matches during wintertime in Russia. We see everyone pass her by, not even acknowledging her. At night, she huddles alone and battles against herself to not light the matches. Finally, she lights one and sees a warm stove. When the match burns out, the stove disappears. Next she lights another and sees a feast, which again disappears as the flame flickers out. The next match brings a horse drawn sleigh, leading her to a warmly lit home. As the door opens, a grandmotherly looking woman welcomes her. Before they can embrace, the mirage dissipates. Finally, she lights her last three matches. She embraces her grandmother, lights candles on the Christmas tree. The matches burn out as the snow falls heavier, and we see her slumped over in the snow. Then the grandmother appears, picking the young girl up as her face lights up with joy. It’s not until they both begin glowing and walk through a wall, and you see the young girl’s lifeless form still in the snow, that you realize both characters are no longer alive. There’s no dialogue at all, yet it’s a beautifully heartbreaking film, a reminder to always care for the wandering and the lost.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gators and Mice: The Rescuers

            As odd as it is, the main thing I remembered about The Rescuers was the alligators. I couldn’t remember what they did or why they were important, but I clearly remembered their presence. The funny thing is that in the sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, alligators/crocodiles play a large part in the plot as well. Those large reptiles are always thwarting our heroes and helping the villains. After living in Florida for four years and only seeing alligators in the zoo, I can’t really vouch for their negative representation in Disney films (except Princess and the Frog, in which one alligator in particular breaks stereotypes). Then again, it’s not like they didn’t earn their reputation as vicious predators.
            There are many interesting occurrences associates with this film. It did exceptionally well at the box office, but was also the final film of Disney’s ‘Golden Age’ of animation. The Rescuers is also the last Oscar-nominated animated film until The Little Mermaid, which was released twelve years later and signaled the beginning of the Disney Renaissance that children of the late 80’s and early 90’s are most familiar with. It was the first Disney film to inspire a sequel, as well. The technology of animation also improved with this film; the xerography process was altered to give the film a cleaner look, and more colors were added. For instance, Miss Bianca is outlined in purple instead of black. Though this is a small detail to the viewer, it has a big effect on the film as a whole as well as on the evolution of animation technology.
            There are an amazing number of similarities between the villain of this film and that of another—101 Dalmatians. Madame Medusa was actually based on Cruella DeVil; at one point, the animators considered having the villain be Cruella. They even drive the same car; both of them drive it manically, of course.
            I have to say, I really appreciate that Bernard works his way up into the Rescue Aid Society from being a janitor by being a gentleman. His superstitious-ness is cute, but his concern for Miss Bianca’s safety—and his bravery in speaking up about it—signify his strong character. It’s also reassuring to see a strong female lead; she isn’t afraid to speak up for herself or risk her own safety in order to save someone else.
            Although I look forward to completing my (re)Discovering Disney project, I’m also a little sad. I have only five films left, and I find myself watching them a little slower, trying to savor them more. I know The Fox and the Hound will make me sad for days, but the way I see everything has changed because of my father’s death. Moments that didn’t use to be bittersweet are now. For instance, The Little Mermaid is next. I’m already thinking about the end of the film, when Ariel says goodbye to her family after her wedding, as she’s going to live on land instead of in the sea. I know now how hard it is to live far from your family; I feel it more now, because my father is in heaven. I can’t call him, or see him when I visit. Instead I’ll have one more person upon whose grave I’ll place flowers. I have a lot of happy memories, but I have more things that I never got to say. Now I’m left with this heart full of words that I can only write in a letter he’ll never read or say into the wind, hoping my words are heard from above. My life will forever be different.
            Change is difficult as it is, but things ending have always been the hardest for me to cope with. And now everything seems to be ending at once. My father’s life has ended, my project of the past eight months is coming to a close, and the school year is almost over. Next year a new wave of ninth graders will walk into my classroom door, with new quirks and interests and life will be full of new beginnings. Like Mufasa said, it’s the Circle of Life. We’re all moving, life is constantly changing. I’m ready for new beginnings, but new endings are always hard on my heart. Instead of thinking of these endings, I’ll try to think like The Rescuers heroine, Penny. Focus on the new beginnings in life, on being kind and sticking up for those you love—even if those you love happen to be mice and a teddy bear. Love is love, regardless of the recipient.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Loss: The Rescuers Down Under

            If I didn’t know better, I would think I had tempted fate. The same day I wrote my Winnie the Pooh chapter dealing with the bitter-sweetness of growing up, I received the phone call no one ever wants to get: my dad was hospitalized after a massive heart attack. Both his father and his grandfather died young from massive heart attacks; with my dad nine years younger than his father was when he passed away, I irrationally thought I was somehow guaranteed nine more years with him before I really had to worry.
            Less than 48 hours after writing that saying goodbye to childhood innocence is optional, I had to do just that. I had to grow up, board a plane, and fly home to bury my father.  I set foot in 10 states while flying there, helping to move my mom back to Oklahoma, and flying home. I’m now fairly certain there’s a Jacksonville in every state (after researching this I discovered it wasn’t true, but there’s probably a Jacksonville in every state we drove through. However, I’m too lazy to research that, so it’s just speculation).
            There are many difficult apects about losing a parent, whether it is unexpectedly or not. I was fortunate enough that my parents were still married—in fact, their 30 year wedding anniversary would have been just one month after my dad passed away. Because of this, having two parents was a simple fact of life for me. The sky is blue, the grass is green and I had two parents. The world was well and balanced, and since April 16th my world has felt unwell and unbalanced. I keep saying things like, “my parents’ house” and “my parents’ car”. Now I have to say “my mom’s house” and “my mom’s car:” It’s a small thing, but it’s a huge adjustment to make when I’ve been saying their names together for 24 years.
            When I did travel, which wasn’t frequently, my dad wanted my flight numbers. My sister, who travels monthly for work, always forwarded her itinerary to our parents so they would know if her flights were on time and she was safe. On my day-long journey from Alaska to Florida to join my family, I looked at my flight numbers and had opened my phone to call my dad and tell him when I remembered he wasn’t there, that his absence was the reason I was traveling at all.
            There are hundreds of tiny adjustments you have to make in your thought processes and actions, like not picking up the phone to call him anymore. But there are also things you don’t even think about. For instance, when watching The Rescuers Down Under, the little boy reveals early on that his father is gone—as is the giant golden eagle’s husband, rendering their eggs fatherless.
            James’ first comment on the movie was, “Thanks, Disney,” since I was trying to escape into animation and forget, for at least a little while, the loss I am dealing with.  Before I even resumed my project, I realized that Mufasa’s death in The Lion King would hold an entire new meaning for me. Although that part of TLK may be more difficult, there’s a line from Rafiki and an entire new song with the same message in the Broadway adaptation: “he lives in you.” This is both a condolence and it makes me a bit sadder; on one hand, my dad is never truly gone because my sister and I are so like him. Yet on the other hand, it’s a reminder that he isn’t here anymore. I’m not sad for him; I know he’s in a better place. Rather, I’m sad for me. I keep realizing all the life events he’s going to miss, and they hit me suddenly and randomly. I’m most sad for the grandchildren he will never hold, the stories that I’ll have to tell them on his behalf.
            The hardest part for me is recognizing that life goes on, and that he would want me to resume my life and not spend my days crying constantly, completely consumed by loss. Because I have a strong faith, I know he is in a better place. Yet it’s still difficult to go through the motions of everyday life, pretending everything is okay and my world hasn’t just permanently changed. Some days I get so caught up in the fa├žade of living life like I did before April 16th that I forget, even if just for a moment, that he’s gone. Just as suddenly, I remember, and I feel as though I’ve been kicked in the gut.
            I was very happy living in Denial-ville until the night of the visitation. Since we were having a closed casket funeral (neither my mom, sister nor I find that looking at the body provides any kind of resolution; we prefer to remember him alive and laughing rather than frowning in a casket), I wasn’t expecting the coffin to be in the chapel until the following day. When I walked into the chapel, I saw the Ford-blue casket and my knees instantly felt weak. My dad’s photo sat atop it, and the photo slideshow played on a loop for the entire two hours. I essentially felt as if my little town of Denial had been put through a washer and dryer on the intense-super-muddy cycle. It was much harder to pretend the whole situation wasn’t happening after that.
            I thought when I returned home I could go back and rebuild my happy village of Denial. Then I hear a song on the radio or pass a photo I have up of the family, and it hits me again. The tears are unstoppable and the feeling of heavy stones in my stomach won’t go away. I’ve dealt with death a number of times before, but it’s never been like this. I feel as if part of me has been amputated; I still feel itches and tickles on the missing part, but it’s just a phantom limb—it isn’t there anymore.
            So it is with a heavy heart that I venture back into the wonderful world of Disney animation. I need the uplifting happy endings more so than ever before. My Disney glasses are unhinged and in need of repair, but in time I believe they can be fixed. In time, my pain will lessen. In the meantime, Disney will help me through it.
            The Rescuers Down Under didn’t really help all that much. It was released in 1990, and I remember loving it as a kid. I loved the little mice dressed in clothing and the fact that the kidnapped kids could talk to animals—and they talked back! That was the best. But while I liked it, and can clearly picture that VHS cover, it just didn’t stay with me that much. I liked it, sure. It made me laugh, but it didn’t quite make me cry. I felt a bit ripped off. Cody spends so much time with the poached-but-still-alive animals, yet when McCleach dies, he doesn’t go rescue them. James justified that, saying the little lizard used his tail to get out once, so he could do it again.
            The part I really didn’t like was that poor Cody’s mom was told her son was dead, and it never shows their reconciliation. We know he’s going home, but after being put through the ringer thinking he’s dead, when should get to see his mom finally. After all, we never see her face. Are the non-villain adults not important enough to show their faces? How can we spend so much time on McCleach and ignore the rangers and the mom? We should at least see their faces.
            Also, I know why the little boy is named Cody. I’m pretty sure 80% of the boys in my 1990 classes were named Cody. It was a super popular name in the late 80’s, and I thought it was hilarious that Disney used such a popular name for a protagonist.
            This is the only animated sequel to hit theatres before the Disney-Pixar merger. It did so terribly, it’s the main reason why there are so many terrible direct-to-video sequels: they realized they didn’t have to work hard enough to please a theatre audience, just enough to please people who already liked the characters and would rent or buy the movie based on that alone. Thanks for that, guys (sarcasm here. I don’t like direct to video sequels, excepting The Lion King 1 ½ and The Lion King 2).
            The animators also tried out CGI and digital renderings on this film. Unfortunately, they didn’t really like them and didn’t put the time, effort or financial backing into exploring them. Thankfully for us, Pixar did. The combination of traditional animation with CGI isn’t very well blended; you can easily spot the scenes that are CGI.
            I’m looking forward to watching the original Rescuers in a few movies, since it’s been a good twenty years since I’ve seen it. Perhaps then I’ll appreciate this sequel a little more. Luckily The Little Mermaid is up next, which was a childhood favorite and is still near the top of my favorite animated list today. Once the whole project is complete, I may have to update that list.