Episode 2: The Star-Spangled Man
Episode 1: New World Order
Episode 2: The Star-Spangled Man
Episode 1: New World Order
Once upon a time, in a kingdom called Kumandra, people lived peacefully alongside dragons, who brought them water and protected them. But when a sinister plague known as Druun threatened the land, turning its people to stone, the dragons pooled their power, sacrificing themselves to save humanity, leaving behind only a gem to represent their faith and trust in the people they’d saved.
500 years later, the realm of Kumandra is no more. This last drop of dragon magic proved too tempting, and factions broke off, each desperate to hold the gem themselves. An attempt to steal it breaks the gem into pieces, unleashing the Druun plague monster once again. Raya, a young warrior, goes on an adventure to retrieve the broken pieces of the gem and resurrect the last dragon. It’s going to take more than just magic to heal the world, but trust and cooperation might be even harder to come by.
This is Disney’s latest animated offering, available to stream (at a premium) on Disney+, and if Raya is their most recent addition to the Disney Princess lineup, she’s a good one. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is courageous, and adventurous. She plots to save herself, and her people. Sisu (Awkwafina) the dragon also has beautiful female energy, more giving and trusting than Raya, who, though brave, is also flawed, making for a far more interesting protagonist and princess.
The realm of Kumandra may be fictional, but Disney animators were inspired by Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos when establishing its unique culture and aesthetic. The film looks stunning, proving that Disney animation is back on top, with or without Pixar. The stellar voice cast includes Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, and Alan Tudyk, but the greatest interplay is between Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, who share a wonderful, warm chemistry, emphasizing the film’s respect for female friendship.
The best part of Raya and The Last Dragon may be its subtle but timely message. Raya is a strong and skillful warrior, full of conviction and a sometimes impetuous desire to run straight into battle. Success in her mission, however, will depend more on conflict resolution; people who have long considered themselves enemies will have to put aside their differences in service of the goal they all have in common. Someone will need to be the first to cross partisan lines because the real threat is never the outside force, it’s the cracks sown between the people within. Raya’s fighting style is based on the Filipino martial art Kali but victory won’t require her weapons, she’ll need to arm herself with empathy and diplomacy instead.
Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a little girl who wants to believe the world is filled with wonder and magic, but experience has taught her to embrace cynicism instead. She may hope for the best but she prepares for the worst, reading disaster preparedness books alongside the comic books written by her father. Incandesto and his super hero friends are so familiar to her she can practically see them but her father George (Ben Schwartz) has had no luck selling them, and has recently left the family, bereft. Mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) isn’t doing so hot either. A romance writer, Phyllis has been in a bit of a slump lately, and her new project isn’t very inspired either.
But don’t worry, folks, this isn’t some sad sack story, this is a super hero origin story, and the super hero is a squirrel named Ulysses. Ulysses gets sucked into a robot vacuum and once resuscitated, he’s got super powers! He’s super strong, and super fast, and super troublesome when Flora brings him into the house. He also writes poetry, but it’s unclear whether that’s actually a super power. Anyway, any squirrel in the house is likely to wreak havoc, but Ulysses is capable of so much destruction! All accidental, of course, but ask mom if she cares. She does not! But in the course of things, mean Miller (Danny Pudi) at animal control gets whiff of a potentially rabid squirrel and he’s on the case, pursuing the Buckman family, the boy next door, William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is temporarily hysterically blind, and their super squirrel Ulysses, stopping at nothing to euthanize super Ulysses, willing even to tranquilize humans in his quest to cage a furry little super hero.
Matilda Lawler is an insanely cute kid and a very capable actor. Much of the film’s charm emanates directly from her. Ben Schwartz harnesses a lot of his oddity and delivers straight up goofball as the affable, supportive dad. Their family adventure makes for excellent family viewing, and there’s no denying the soft, endearing fuzziness of Ulysses the poetry writing super squirrel. Director Lena Khan does an excellent job of translating the hijinks onto the big screen but keeping it grounded first and foremost in family values. The characters may be offbeat but the message is hopeful, the story is bright, and the squirrel is hard to resist. Flora & Ulysses has the makings of an excellent family movie night.
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Episode 9: The Series Finale
Episode 8: Previously On
Episode 7: Breaking the Fourth Wall
Episode 6: All New Halloween Spectacular
Episode 5: On A Very Special Episode
Episode 4: We Interrupt This Program
Episode 3 Now In Color
Episode 1 Filmed Before A Live Studio Audience &
Episode 2 Don’t Touch That Dial
Yesterday we watched The Ugly Dachshund mainly for its title and then ended up kind of charmed by it – except for the racist depictions of other cultures, for which Disney is truly sorry and even has a neat little disclaimer saying so. We checked for a disclaimer on this movie as well and found none, which Sean found a little unlikely but I reminded him that IF any other races or cultures were depicted in the film they surely would be horrible and racist but in 1959 it was even more likely that the film would just be homogenously white. Problem solved! Right? Well, it’s the kind of racism you don’t need a disclaimer for, a thought so disturbing we had to put a pin in it to debate some other time, though I do think the idea has value: the complete lack of diversity is also courtesy of racism, and it’s just as important to recognize racism by omission or lack of representation as the more “overt” kinds that may be easier to spot and condemn. Anyway, on to a very white 1959 indeed…
Wilson Daniels (Fred MacMurray) feels like some kind of freak, but he just doesn’t like dogs. Perhaps, as a former mail carrier, they’re just not meant to mix. His young son Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) wants a dog pretty badly anyway, but dad is adamant (and to be fair, also seems to have an allergy, despite his wife suggesting it may be psychosomatic). Perhaps a dog would have been a safer compromise, though, something to distract the kids because as it stands, teenage son Wilby (Tommy Kirk) is in the basement, about to blow the house up with a missile. Or an “issile interceptor”, mom Freeda (Jean Hagen) mistakenly supplies, because her female brain is clearly inferior, the poor, ignorant slut. In fact, the way Disney treats women in this film deserves its own disclaimer. And would definitely be picketed by PETA, while we’re airing all of Disney’s dirty laundry. That out of the way, back to the review.
Wilby goes and gets himself into yet more trouble, this time involving the girl next door. No, not THAT kind of trouble. This kind of trouble: he takes her to a museum where he clumsily knocks over an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts and accidentally brings home a ring in the cuff of his pants that periodically turns him into a sheepdog. And that’s not even the crazy part! While nosing around a neighbour’s house, Wilby the sheepdog overhears a plot involving spies and stolen technology. He’ll have to convince brother Moochie, who knows his secret, to convince his father, who doesn’t know it yet, to flag the police. Dad is more distraught to learn that his son is (sometimes) a dog than he is about the whole secret agent theft thing. He can’t believe his own son is a dog, how terrible, how embarrassing, what will the neighbours think? He whines long enough that I start to wonder if this is a weird allegory for finding out your son is gay, but then I remember: 1959. Disney. That would be a whole other disclaimer.
No, the son is just a dog, and the dog will have to hop in a cop car and stop the criminals himself – and if he’s lucky, engage in an act of heroism along the way, which would break the dog curse. Fingers crossed.
Disney+ has so many hidden gems and unknown oddities that it feels like the vault is more like a mystery grab bag. Having adopted our first Dachshund about 6 months ago, we couldn’t believe that you’d ever call any of them ugly (our Walt was born with a birth defect – his left eye socket is too small, and he’s blind in that eye, but honestly it just makes him cuter) and we couldn’t wait to find out why they did – though we did wait, at least until Walt was out of earshot, just in case.
The Ugly Dachshund (1966) is about a young couple, Fran (Suzanne Pleshette) and Mark (Dean Jones) Garrison, who are perhaps a bit mismatched in the doggie department. Fran is obsessed with her prized Doxie, Danke, who’s just given birth to a litter of female pups. They are receiving the best start to life in Dr. Pruitt’s (Charles Ruggles) cushy vet office, where his own Great Dane has also recently given birth. Great Danes have much larger litters than little weiner dogs, and Dr. Pruitt’s concerned that his girl won’t have enough milk to go around, so the two men agree to sneak one of the Great Dane pups into Dake’s basket, who has the space and the food for one more. This, then, is the Ugly Dachshund.
Mark, who has never been a fan of the Doxies, is quite tickled to have Brutus the Great Dane, though he attempts to keep the breed a secret from his wife as long as possible – which actually results in poor Brutus having an identity crisis of sorts, believing himself to be one of the Dachshunds, never realizing he’s simply too big to be a lapdog. The Garrison household becomes a war of dogs, the Dachshunds getting into all kinds of trouble, with old pal Brutus taking most of the blame. Things come to a hilarious head on the night of a big backyard party; the Garrison’s social circle will never be the same!
This is an exceedingly cute movie if you don’t mind the casual racism, which of course we should. When Disney Plus started migrating all these old movies onto their streaming service, making some of them available for the first time in decades, they realized how poorly some of them had aged. Some of their films simply did not make the cut but others, like The Ugly Dachshund, is prefaced with a disclaimer: This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. We want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. We’ve seen this warning in front of Peter Pan recently, and Dumbo too. Certainly the “negative depictions” were not difficult to spot in any of those movies and if you’re watching with children, a follow-up conversation is probably appropriate. That said, this movie was extremely difficult for me to watch, mostly because of cuteness overload. If I thought having one little Walt running around our house was sweet, imagine having a proud mama, 3 adorable puppies, and 1 Great Dane in disguise. I literally squealed and squirmed my way through this movie, my heart aflutter over every puppy pile – and true to Doxie tradition, there were many piles indeed (they love to cuddle!).
In real life, Suzanne Plechette had a Yorkie at home named Missy who kind of resented the Dachshund scent on her mama at the end of the day, so Plechette had to shower and change before returning home. We have a Yorkie too (we have nearly as many dogs as the Garrisons). His name is Fudgie and he doesn’t resent Walt at all; in fact, he likes the cut of his jib so much that he frequently tries to mate with him.
Fun fact: you may recognize Brutus from another Disney film – he’d also starred as Duke, one of the Swiss Family Robinson’s two guardian Great Danes. Dean Jones, meanwhile, starred in That Darned Cat, which I think makes him a bit of a traitor, and frankly, I’m surprised the dogs didn’t take a collective vote and boot him off the film altogether.
Watch Walt join me for a 60 second review:
Joe (Jamie Foxx) has jazz music in his soul and zero dollars in his bank account. His mother likes to brutally remind him of this little fact, and push him toward accepting a permanent position as a middle school music teacher. Just as he’s about to capitulate, an old student calls to offer him a wildly exciting opportunity to play with the wonderful Dorothea Williams. Ms. Williams (Angela Bassett) is impressed with his jazzing, and he’s engaged to play with her later that evening. But he doesn’t make it to later that evening; he dies on his way home.
Understandably, his soul panics on the way to heaven, and he decides to buck the system, running away from heaven or the great beyond or whatever you want to call it, but unable to get back to Earth/life. He hides out in a mentorship program instead, posing as a mentor soul assigned to help new souls find their spark. Soul #22 (Tina Fey) has been mentored by the very best for eons but has yet to find her spark. In fact, she expects that life is kind of a buzzkill, and she’s actively resisting it. Joe runs through all the obvious things like music and food, but it’s not until they sneak back down to Earth that things really start to gel for her. Of course, it probably helps that she can finally experience things in a human body, one that moves to music and tastes food and is delighted by the strange wonders of the human world. One small hiccup: in the melee, 22 took over Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul…ended up in a cat. Joe is desperate to make the Dorothea gig, but what use is it if he’s a cat? And 22 is deeply distracted by pretty much every single thing she encounters. She’s finally found her spark, but the problem is, she kind of promised it to Joe. You need a spark to get to Earth permanently, and taking 22’s is Joe’s only option. And until very recently, 22 had no use for a spark and no interest in life. She promised it freely. But now…well, what if 22 wants it too?
This movie is beautiful and tragic because life is beautiful and tragic. It is everything you want from a movie and nothing you expect from a cartoon – except it’s Pixar, so you dare to hope. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it again.
In talking about death, Soul is actually discussing how to live. Joe believes that his life will be fulfilled by achieving his dream of performing jazz, but 22 teaches him there’s plenty of pleasure and wonder to be found in simply living, in taking the time to look, listen, and learn. 22’s naivety and newness to the world inspires Joe to slow down and take a look around as well.
Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are not afraid to embrace the surreal and the intangible when examining the life well-lived, or to ask children to engage in a little introspection. A simple premise allows for a wonderful complexity of ideas embodying Joe’s existential crisis – which may be putting it mildly considering he’s dead and doesn’t want to be. But this spiritual scrutiny is able to include both the joy and the sadness, the fear, regret, obsession, insecurity, and the inspiration, ambition, passion, and life-affirming facets of personal philosophy because Pixar’s trademark playfulness makes it all feel non-threatening and really rather fun.
The voices are well-cast, the entities are well-designed, the movie looks amazing, but most important, it just feels good. It feels right, it feels warm, it feels like a hug from your past self to your future self, and I can’t think of a more perfect (cinematic) way to end the year.
Safety plays it pretty safe as far as inspirational sports movies go. Following in the footsteps of Remember The Titans or The Blindside, Safety tells the true story of a freshman college football player who’s got a lot more on his plate than just practice.
Ray (Jay Reeves) is just like any other athlete at Clemson University, until things back home start to fall apart. His mother is an addict, and little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has been alone since her most recent arrest. And things are about to get worse: the good news is, Ray’s mom is going on to a rehab facility to get help. Bad news? That leaves Fahmarr alone, and he’s just a kid. There’s no one else to take him, so it’s either a group home, or…. Or Ray decides to sneak him unto campus where he secretly cares for him for the next month or so, just barely managing between class, football, and childcare, plus the burden of a pretty big secret.
Remember that Ray McElrathbey was a real kid who took on the raising of his younger brother while attending school on a full sports scholarship. He couldn’t really afford to risk his full ride by becoming distracted, nor could he afford to risk his brother’s life. For a while he manages both, but eventually his school and those darn NCAA folks who are sticklers for rules.
Safety skirts around its darker corners, focusing instead on the importance of family and community; if you were feeling cynical you might call it sanitized, but if you were feeling generous of heart you might just find it admirable for its sense of duty, sacrifice, support, and good old fashioned taking care of each other. It’s formulaic and completely unsurprising but it’s also the kind of heart warming stuff that’s hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Director Reginald Hudlin knows he’s got a good story, and tells it in a low-frills, straight forward kind of way, and if it’s a little saccharine, well, we could all use a little extra sweetness this year, couldn’t we?
Eleanor (Jillian Bell) is the youngest trainee and the only person who’s bothered to apply in decades; fairy godmothering just isn’t what it used to be. But head mistress Moira (Jane Curtin) keeps on teaching the same tried and true formula: 1. glittery gown 2. true love 3. happily ever after. Except humans stopped believing in ‘happily ever after’ a long time ago. No fairy godmother has been on assignment in years – the school’s about to close, the godmothers to be retrained as tooth fairies. Eleanor is devastated. Godmothering is all she’s ever wanted to do and now she’ll never even get the chance to start, so she takes matters into her own hands and finds a neglected assignment, a request for a fairy godmother that was never granted. She heads down to earth to fulfill the godmothering duties, and hopefully prove that godmothers are still in demand.
Of course, when she eventually finds herself in Boston, she finds not a 10 year old girl, but a full grown woman named Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) (apparently the letter was a little dated). What a disaster: in what way could a single mother in a dead end job possibly need godmothering? Well, both Mackenzie and Eleanor are about to find out because Eleanor refuses to go back to the motherland a failure.
Godmothered doesn’t exactly skewer the popular Disney fairy godmother formula, but it expands on what was traditionally a pretty narrow definition of happily ever after. Welcome to the modernization of Disney. They’ve been rehabbing their image and redefining the princess genre in movies like Frozen and even Ralph Breaks The Internet. Godmothered asks whether magic, wishes, and belief still have a place in modern society, and if not, what should take their place. It doesn’t quite go all the way as a ‘message’ movie but it does get some pretty great mileage out of good old-fashioned kindness and cooperation, which never go out of style.
Eleanor is charming as a fish out of water, a magical being in the land of humans for the first time, not unlike Enchanted Giselle or even Elf’s Buddy the Elf. Jillian Bell is simply enchanting, more grounded than flighty, but with enough fairy dust on her performance to give her wings. Director Sharon Maguire delivers a warm and feel-good story that is perfect for cozy family viewing.