Saturday, November 30, 2019

Animation Celebration Saturday - Babes In Toyland (1997)

MGM, 1997
Starring Lacey Chabert, Joseph Ashton, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Raphael Sbarge
Directed by Charles Grosvenor, Toby Bluth, and Paul Sabella
Music by various

This was MGM's entry into the Disney imitation race of the mid-late 90's. Unlike most of its ilk, it went direct to home media in the United States. Is this Christmas release worthy of a trip to Toyland, or is it the old-fashioned fantasy more than a little crooked? Let's join two children on their way to the famous town of childhood dreams, just in time for the holidays...

The Story: Jack (Ashton) and Jill (Chabert) are on their way to Toyland, where they're hoping their Uncle Barnaby will take care of them. On the train there, they encounter Tom Piper (Sbarge), a toy designer who's coming back with Santa's order, and Humpty Dumpty (Reilly), who runs pretty much everything in Toyland. Humpty takes the kids to Barnaby, the Crooked Man. He's only interested in their money, which will allow him to buy the Toyland Toy Factory. Mary Had a Little Lamb (Cathy Cavadini), who inherited the factory from her father, refuses to sell. It's three days before Christmas, and Mary and Tom have to get the new toy soldiers Santa wants made in time.

The kids escape from his crooked house to help in the factory. Barnaby, determined to destroy the factory and stop toy production, hires Gonzargo (Jim Belushi) and Rodrigo (Bronson Pinchot) to sabotage production. The kids catch them and chase them, but they capture them and take them to the Goblin King (Lindsay Schnebly). Even after Mary and Tom rescue the kids and the thieves, there's still Barnaby and the other goblins to contend with...

The Animation: Par for the course for this era. Everything moves pretty well, but some of the characters, especially Humpty Dumpty, look a little scarier than they probably should. The goblins are a nifty design, though, and the sequence with them is pretty well done.

The Song and Dance: Short and sweet. There's a surprisingly decent cast for a direct-to-home media animated film at this time, including Broadway star Reilly singing "Toyland" in the opening, Belushi as one of the thieves, and TV favorite Chabert as little Jill. Ashton is quite funny as Jill's tougher brother. This is also one of the few adaptations of this story that uses at least a little of the original idea of the "babes" being the ones adopted and abused by Barnaby and rescued by Toylanders.

Favorite Number: The film opens well with Humpty telling the audience what they're about to see on a moon via the title song. It continues on the train, as Jack and Jill travel on everything from balloons to swans to explore their new home. Jack, Jill, Tom, and Mary each discuss what they want from life - the kids want a real family, Tom wants to be a great toymaker, and Mary wants to live up to her father's legacy - to the rather lovely montage "My Dream."

What I Don't Like: It's obvious this is a pretty cheap production. The animation is boring, the music is dull, and most of the characters besides Humpty and Barnaby are even more so. Bland Mary and cocky Tom pretty much fade into the woodwork and are poor imitations of Disney lovers; Mary even looks and acts like a copy of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And why couldn't they have used slightly revised versions of the rest of the original score to go with the slightly revised version of the original story?

The Big Finale: Cute time-waster for families with younger children who are looking for holiday programming or fans of the 90's animated musical boom.

Home Media: Pretty easy to find on DVD; it's currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving! - Meet Me In St. Louis

MGM, 1944
Starring Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brian, Tom Drake, and Louise Bremer
Directed by Vincent Minnelli
Music and Lyrics by various

Yes, I know this one is set on every holiday but Thanksgiving...but it does discuss the importance of home, family, and being thankful for those around us and what we have. It was a huge hit during World War II, at a time when many Americans were fondly looking back at the simpler, gentler world of their youth. How does this nostalgic trip into the life of the Smith family in 1903 look now? Let's peek on the Smiths at their home in St. Louis, Missouri and find out...

The Story: As we join the Smiths, the biggest excitement in the family is oldest sister Rose's (Bremer) beau calling her long-distance from New York during a family dinner and the construction of the World's Fair that will debut in the spring. Second-oldest sister Esther (Garland) is more interested in drooling over John Truitt (Drake), the handsome boy next door. She tries to encourage him during a family party, but he's oblivious to her advances. She finally gets through to him on a trolley ride to the fair grounds under construction.

Little sisters Tootie (O'Brian) and Agnes (Joan Carroll) go out as "horrible ghosts" to join the kids for playing tricks on Halloween. When one of their pranks goes wrong, Tootie runs home crying, claiming John Truitt hurt her. Esther runs over to him and pounds on him before she learns that Tootie lied. He was actually trying to keep the girls from the police. Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) creates even more havoc when he comes home and reveals that he took a new job in New York and they'll be moving there after Christmas. Everyone is upset, until he reminds them that they're still together.

It comes to a head at the local Christmas ball and afterwards, where Esther realizes how much she loves John and how upset she is when he can't come. After he sees Tootie destroying her snowmen because she can't bring them along, Mr. Smith finally realizes how much his family loves their home and how important St. Louis is about to become.

The Song and Dance: Garland was trying to distance herself from the kiddie roles she'd mostly played until then and was wary of playing another moony teen, but she ended up putting in one of her best performances as love-struck Esther. I especially loved her laying into John Truitt - do not attack that girl's family or get her upset! In fact, the entire cast is a delight, including O'Brian as the rather macabre Tootie, Ames as the eternally exasperated patriarch of the family, Majorie Main as the down-home maid Katie, and Harry Davenport as sassy Grandpa.

The production is just lovely, especially for wartime. The Technicolor cinematography and the historically-accurate sets and costumes give us a wonderful feel for a changing St. Louis of the early 20th century, from girdles and pianos to the glowing gowns at the Christmas ball and those snowpeople poor Tootie destroys. The Halloween sequence is incredibly atmospheric and spooky, with some wonderful, shadowy work from Vincent Minnelli.

And..I just love how realistic all this is, even now. Having grown up in a family of mostly women, I remember what it was like to have your whole family hear you talk to boyfriends on the phone (even after cell phones came into regular usage), drool over a guy from afar, and get Dad back in the loop when he comes home from work.

Favorite Number: We open with the title song, which is ably passed from family member to family member as we're introduced to everyone. "Skip to My Lou" is a delightful chorus number for the younger family members and their friends, while Garland and O'Brian do an adorable cakewalk to a genuine 1903 hit, "Under the Bamboo Tree."

Garland gets to sing the film's three best numbers. She introduces the longing "The Boy Next Door" as she admires Truitt from afar in the opening number. "The Trolley Song" is another big chorus number, probably the film's most famous, as Esther excitedly sings about how she found love on the trolley, with some fairly spirited choreography. The standard here is the touching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which Esther sings to comfort Tootie Christmas Eve and assure her that everything will be fine, despite the move.

Trivia: "Merry Little Christmas" had even sadder lyrics when it was first written. Garland thought they were too depressing to sing to a little kid and requested that they be changed.

A TV version debuted in 1959, with Jane Powell as Esther and Patty Duke as Tootie. A 1966 pilot with Shelley Fabares and Celeste Holm wasn't picked up for a regular series. It debuted as a Broadway show in 1989, but it lasted less than a year.

Garland met and fell in love with Minnelli while working on this movie.

What I Don't Like: My sisters and I loved this movie. Dad, on the other hand, was baffled, and many men may be likewise. The Halloween sequence used to scare my brother silly when he was a kid, and it may be a little much for some other younger members of the audience as well.

The Big Finale: One of my favorite musicals, and one of Garland's best movies. Check this one out with your own family over Thanksgiving dinner.

Home Media: Easily found in all formats, including two 2-disc special editions.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Musicals On TV - Peter Pan (1960)

NBC, 1960
Starring Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, Joe E. Marks, and Maureen Bailey
Directed by Vincent J. Donehue
Music by Moose Charlap and Jules Styne; Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green

This was NBC's third go-around for this adaptation of the 1954 Broadway show. They broadcast live versions in 1955 and 1956, but this was their first taped showing. We saw Disney's animated retelling of this story back in January. How does a live-action version - with a woman playing Peter - look now? Let's head back to the Darling family's home in London and find out...

The Story: Wendy Darling (Bailey) loves telling her brothers Michael (Kent Fletcher) and John (Joey Trent) stories of Peter Pan (Martin) and his exploits in the magical island Neverland. Their father (Ritchard) isn't as amused by them, their noise, or their nursemaid dog, Nana. Mrs. Darling (Margalo Gilmore) says she frightened off a boy who flew in the window, but he won't hear it. Turns out the boy was Peter Pan himself, and he wants the shadow Nana got off him. After Wendy sews the shadow back on, he shows them all how to use the pixie dust from his fairy friend Tinkerbell and fly to Neverland.

Wendy is shot down by Peter's Lost Boys, who think she's a bird, almost as soon as she arrives. After Peter admonishes them that she's to be their mother, they build a home for her. Thankfully, she's fine. She even stops them from eating cakes that were left by Peter's adversary Captain Hook (Ritchard), admonishing that they aren't good for them. Having been foiled in that plot, Hook tries again, kidnapping Tiger Lilly the Indian princess (Sondra Lee), but Peter, and then her Indian braves, rescue her.

Wendy and Peter play mother and father, but Peter's sad song at this point reminds the Darlings of home. They want to go back, and the Lost Boys insist on coming with them. Peter has no desire to grow up and insists on remaining. Hook and his boys are still determined to get the Boy Who Won't Grow up and take him out for good, but Tinkerbell won't let that happen!

The Song and Dance: You'd think Martin, a middle-aged woman, would be creepy as Peter. She's actually a lot of fun, especially when she's goading Hook with "Mysterious Lady" or leading the Boys in capturing the Indians. Ritchard easily matches her as a hilariously mincing Captain Hook. There's some nifty choreography too, especially with Lee and the Indians right before the kids arrive and Hook and the pirates towards the end.

Favorite Number: Jerome Robbins' dances were recreated for the first three versions in all their rousing glory. "I'm Flying" has Peter showing the Darling children how to take off, and it's pure joy (even when you can see the wires in the flying harnesses). Richard, Joe E. Marks as Smee, and the pirates have a great time with all their numbers, especially "Hook's Tartanella" and "Captain Hook's Waltz" on the ship after they've captured the Lost Boys and Wendy. The Boys and Peter get the lilting "Wendy" as they put up her little home. The most iconic number besides "I'm Flying" may be "I Won't Grow Up," Peter and the Boys' rousing manifesto as they seek adventure and claim they'll always remain young and have fun.

There's two lovely lullabies here. Mrs. Darling sings "Tender Shepard" to her children as she sets them down to sheep, just prior to Peter's arrival. "Distant Melody" is Peter's response to a request for a song as he gently explains why he wants to remain a child.

Trivia: Peter Pan debuted on Broadway in 1954, with Martin and Ritchard in the lead roles. The show was actually closed early to film for television with its original cast in 1955, and again in 1956. It was even more successful in a 1979 revival with Sandy Duncan. Gymnast Cathy Ridgby made several short-lived appearances in Broadway revivals throughout the 90's. Her last appearance was filmed in 2000. Peter Pan showed up in another live NBC broadcast with Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook in 2014.

What I Don't Like: While the campy Indians depicted here are slightly less offensive than the ones in the Disney version (their big song sticks to nonsense lyrics like "ugga wugga meatball"), they're still obviously white dancers playing Native Americans in stereotypical costumes. I find Martin to be charming and funny, if a bit noisy, but some folks may think her too old or creepy for the role. Older TV prints cut a reprise of "Wendy" and a dance sequence with the housemaid Eliza and the animals of Never Land.

The Big Finale: Worth seeing for Martin and Ritchard's performances and the spirited choreography alone.

Home Media: The 1960 broadcast is currently DVD-only.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Animation Celebration Saturday - FernGully: The Last Rainforest

20th Century Fox, 1992
Voices of Samantha Mathis, Robin Williams, Johnathan Ward, and Tim Curry
Directed by Bill Kroyer
Music and Lyrics by various

Messages about the importance of saving the environment were all over TV and movies in the late 80's and early 90's. The Exxon-Valdez oil spill and other ecological disasters made people more aware of just how fragile nature was. Along with the TV series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, this was probably the most famous cartoon - and to my knowledge, the only musical - to deal with the importance of saving our Earth. How well does its message come across today? Let's head to the title rain forest on the eastern coast of Australia and find out...

The Story: Young fairy Crysta (Mathis) is in training with elderly Magi Lune (Grace Zabriskie) to take over her role as protector of the forest, but she'd rather be out exploring the many wonders of FernGully. On one such expedition, she encounters Batty Koda (Williams), a fruit bat humans experimented on. His experience left him with an antenna on his head, a constantly-changing personality, and a hatred of all humans. The other fairies believe humans are extinct, but Crysta agrees to check this out.

She discovers a lumberjack, Zack (Ward), helping his buddies cut down trees for a new highway. When a tree nearly falls on him, she shrinks him to save him...but can't figure out how to change him back. Meanwhile, his buddies have cut down the tree that imprisoned Hexxus (Curry), the spirit of pollution and waste. Hexxus targets FernGully, laying waste to all before him. Zack can't bring himself to admit that it was humans who freed Hexxus, but he may not have a choice when the fairies have to defend their homes against this oily menace.

The Animation: Absolutely gorgeous, and probably the best thing about the movie. The animators actually went to Australia to learn more about the rain forests there, and it's obvious they did their homework. Each frame bursts with life, light, and color, from the well-integrated CGI flocks of tropical birds to the lush,  hand-drawn flowers and trees. "Dream Worth Keeping," with its glowing fungi and glittering backdrops, is particularly stunning.

The Song and Dance: My family used to watch this quite a bit in the early 90's. It's funnier than I remember, partially due to Williams' wild and creative improvisational riffs (seven months before the release of his more famous role in Aladdin), but mostly thanks to a script that's better than most people give it credit for. Some of Ward's lines are hilarious as he tries to deal with his change in size and his odd new friends who think humans were long gone from this world.

If nothing else, this features one of Tim Curry's best performances as the evil pollution spirit who wants to obliterate everything in his path. He's so over-the-top, he outshines everyone but Williams by a wide margin. Indeed, many fans of the film cheer more for him than for the fairies.

Favorite Number: Williams' "Batty Rap" shows just how batty this rodent went after humans got into his head. This stream-of-consciousness song gives Williams a chance to really go to town with his many references and breathless lunacy. "Dream Worth Keeping" is a slightly syrupy Sheena Easton ballad, but it does accompany a lovely sequence with Crysta showing Zak the forest and its beauty and falling in love with him. Curry scores with "Toxic Love," which was so sexually-charged, it had to be cut down before release in order to get a PG.

Two routines seem a tad out-of-place. A lizard (Tone Loc) tries to eat Zack, to the tune of "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It May as Well Be You)." It's not a bad number, but the lizard is never seen, nor heard of again after Crysta saves Zach from becoming his meal. Likewise, the fairies' routine to a cover of "Land of 1,000 Dances" comes out of nowhere and serves no function, other than introducing the fairies to more of the human world.

Trivia: This was a passion project of producer Wayne Young, whose ex-wife Diana Young wrote the original FernGully book in 1977. Most of the money from film was donated to various environmental causes.

Though by no means a record-setter, it did well enough at the box office to warrant a direct-to-video sequel, FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue, in 1998.

What I Don't Like: While the side message on the dangers of animal testing still comes across thanks to Williams' performance, the main one about the damage to the environment caused by pollution and human negligence is well-meaning but muddled and and annoyingly preachy. Having a "toxic spirit" be the one who causes the damage is too obvious and kind of takes the easy way out, no matter how much fun Curry has with the role. And speaking of Curry, he and Williams pretty much leave anyone else in the dust. Ward isn't bad as sarcastic Zach, but Mathis is too cutesy as curious Crysta, and Christian Slater just sounds bored as her jealous fairy guy friend Pips.

The Big Finale: It's too dark for young guys, but older kids who can handle some of the scarier elements and have any interest in nature or saving the Earth, or folks who grew up watching it on video or cable in the 90's, may find much to enjoy in this one if they can get around the pushy message.

Home Media: Easily found in all formats, often for under 10 dollars.

Amazon Prime

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Little Miss Broadway

20th Century Fox, 1938
Starring Shirley Temple, George Murphy, Edna Mae Oliver, and Edward Ellis
Directed by Irving Cummings
Music by Harold Spina; Lyrics by Walter Bullock

Judy Garland was hardly the only girl who figured putting on a show during the Depression would save her family. Shirley Temple, probably the most famous child star in Hollywood, appeared in several variations on that particular plot. How does this stand up against the similar Everybody Sing and other similar backstage films of the time? Let's head to an orphanage in New York and find out...

The Story: Betsy Brown (Temple) is delighted when Pop Shea (Ellis), an old friend of her parents, takes her in. He runs a theatrical hotel, where many different show business types rent rooms. She makes friends with everyone in the hotel, including Pop's daughter Barbara (Phyllis Brooks) and malaprop-prone bandleader Jimmy Claydon (Jimmy Durante). Their next-door neighbor and the owner of the hotel, grouchy old Sarah Wendling (Oliver), isn't crazy about performers or the noise they make while rehearsing. She orders Pop to either pay the back rent or vacate the premises. Betsy goes to her to make an appeal and meets her nephew Roger (Murphy). Roger eventually falls for Barbara, to the delight of Betsy, who considers them to be her parents. Sarah's appalled by pretty much everything. She tries to cut off Roger, but he opts to fight for his part of the building and his inheritance. Betsy is sent back to the orphanage. She doesn't stay there for long before she hurries off to help her unusual family, even if the show has to go on in the courtroom.

The Song and Dance: Not every movie Shirley did was a musical, but this is one of the more charming ones. She has a couple of nice dances with Murphy and works very well with him, especially when they're invading the stuff club where Sarah's brother Willoughby (Donald Meek) tries to practice with his glee club and proceed to make noise. If nothing else, this is the only backstage musical I've ever seen where the big show in the end is performed before a judge in a court of law!

Favorite Number: The opening at the orphanage gives us the girls and Temple performing what could be the theme song for her films in general, "Be Optimistic." She gets the charming "We Should Be Together" at the mansion with Murphy as they begin their friendship. The big finale in the courtroom encompasses two cute numbers. Temple teaches Willoghby and his group how to "Swing an Old Fashioned Song" after their initial version of "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" doesn't go over. The title song is the sole large-scale production number. Temple and Murphy really put it over, complete with an intricate dance and elaborate sets.

Trivia: Murphy wasn't satisfied with "We Should Be Together" and asked to redo "Little Miss Broadway." Temple agreed (despite her mother's worries), and apparently it went over so well, the crew requested encores.

What I Don't Like: If you've seen one of Temple's films, you've pretty much seen them all. She did the same idea in most of her films - she's adopted by an odd group of people, brings young lovers together, and manages to barely avoid being separated from her new family by an old sourpuss. Durante is ill-used - he's barely in most of the movie - and Brooks is an especially dull love interest. The songs are cute, but not especially memorable.

The Big Finale: If you're a fan of Temple or are looking for a musical for younger kids, you can do far worse than this charmer.

Home Media: The Shirley Temple movies are pretty easily found on DVD and streaming.

DVD - The Shirley Temple Collection, Volume 1
Amazon Prime

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Everybody Sing

MGM, 1938
Starring Judy Garland, Billie Burke, Fannie Brice, and Allan Jones
Directed by Elwin L. Marin
Music and Lyrics by various

Judy Garland was just starting to get noticed at MGM when she made this backstage tale, coming on the heels of her success in The Broadway Melody of 1938. How does this effervescent cross between a coming-of-age story and a Busby Berkeley-type revue look nowadays? Let's head to a music class at a stuffy private girls' school, and find out...

The Story: Judy Bellaire (Garland) was just expelled from private school for singing swing in choir class when she was supposed to be performing a spiritual. She returns home to discover that her parents, actress Diana (Burke) and playwright Hillary (Reginald Owen), are nearly broke. Her sister Sylvia (Lynne Carver) is in love with the handsome singing cook Ricky Saboni (Jones), but is being pursued by wealthy Jerrod Hope (Reginald Gardiner).

As it turns out, Ricky's not the only servant who is a terrific performer. Russian housemaid Olga Chekloff (Brice) is a wonderful singer and a cut-up onstage. Judy thinks they could put together a show to save her family from ruin. The second her father catches wind of her plans, he tries to send her to another school in Europe, but she breaks out and auditions for the show herself. Meanwhile, Sylvia finally agrees to marry Jerrod, despite her not being in love with him. Now Judy has to figure out how to bring everyone together without being dragged away...and get to show off her jazzy style to her parents and all of New York.

The Song and Dance: The story may be thin, but there's an awesome cast doing everything they can with the material. Fannie Brice has a lot screen time than she did in The Great Ziegfeld, including a big solo and a rare chance to see her play her radio character Baby Snooks on the big screen. Garland adorable as the teen who only wants to be able to show her stuff. The movie plays like a warm-up for Judy's later backstage movies with Mickey Rooney, only with a more adult cast, endearingly low-key compared to earlier big backstagers like the Broadway Melody series.

Favorite Number: The movie kicks off with Judy's high-energy "Swing Mr. Mendelssohn" number that gets her into trouble at school. Jones gets to reprise "Cosi Cosa" from the Marx Brothers vehicle A Night at the Opera at a nightclub, where Judy also gets the cute solo country spoof "(Down On) Melody Farm."

Fannie Brice gets to make fun of romantic Jane Austin-style heroines in "Dainty, Quainty Me" that allows her to show off her signature pratfalls with aplomb. Her Baby Snooks number with Judy, "Why? Because!" is brief but hilarious. No wonder the critics loved Judy in this - they're right that there's not many people who can hold their own with Brice and come out well. The big finale "The Show Must Go On" is the lone venture into elaborate Busby Berkeley territory, with dancers in sequined costumes.

Trivia: This was Jones' last movie for MGM.

Judy went on a seven-week, seven-city tour to promote the movie, with her mentor Roger Edens accompanying her on the piano. It was her first time performing in front of huge crowds.

The St. Brendan's Boys Choir performed for the girls in the opening classroom number.

What I Don't Like: Did I mention how thin the story is? This isn't that far removed from Judy's later Mickey Rooney musical or other similar backstage films; it also has some roots in the screwball comedies of the era that plays "normal" folks against wacky rich families. It's a pretty typical "B" movie of the time with an "A" cast. All the whining and yelling this particular family does with each other can get on some folks' nerves after a while.

And then, there's Judy's blackface number, which she uses to try to get an audition without anyone knowing how young she is. It's full-on black makeup-white lips, and she keeps it on while doing a dramatic scene. It can be anything from disconcerting to incredibly offensive for many audiences today.

The Big Finale: I'm glad I found this one. This was a charming film with a nice glimpse at Garland, just prior to her fame in The Wizard of Oz and Babes In Arms. Necessary if you're a fan of her or Brice; also worth a look for fans of 30's musicals or MGM musicals.

Home Media: I'm afraid the Warner Archives DVD is currently out of print. Your best bet is to check used venues like I did.


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Family Fun Saturday - Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Disney, 2017
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, and Emma Thompson
Directed by Bill Condon
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice

I was more than a little concerned when Disney announced they were remaking this one. While I do like the stage musical, the original animated film is one of my favorite movies of all time. I actually went to see this in the theater as a birthday present to myself in April 2017. Is it as enchanting as its animated predecessor, or does it shrivel up like a dying rose? Let's return to that small town in 18th century France and find out...

The Story: Belle (Watson) is an outcast in the tiny town of Villeneuve. She's the daughter of Maurice (Kline), an inventor and artist, and loves books, reading, and adventure. The dull and illiterate citizens of the town regard her as an uppity child who doesn't know her place. Former soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) wants to marry her, not because he loves her, but because he believes the handsomest man in town should have the most beautiful wife. Belle thinks he's an idiot and brushes him off.

Her life changes when she learns that her father has been imprisoned in a dark, spooky castle after trying to bring her a rose. She convinces the terrifying Beast (Stevens) who captured him to let her take his place. With the encouragement of the moving objects who act as his servants, they begin to gradually understand and befriend one another.

Back in town, Gaston still hasn't given up on taking Belle for his wife...whether she wants it or not. He first abandons Maurice in the woods, but the town hermit Agathe (Hattie Morahan) rescues him. When the old inventor shows up ranting about a Beast, he has him sent to an insane asylum. Belle gets the Beast to let her go long enough to go after her father...but Gaston intercepts her and, convincing the townspeople that the Beast will hurt them, takes them to raid the castle. Only Belle can truly end the curse on the Beast and show everyone that real love means a lot more than admiring the first pretty face that comes along.

The Song and Dance: Absolutely gorgeous, possibly the best-produced of the Disney live-action remakes. The meticulous details on everything from the grimy small town to the Beast's shadowy  monstrosity of a castle, along with some of the best special effects of any recent Disney film, make this a delight for the eyes. The cast is fantastic, too. Thompson makes a warm and wise Mrs. Potts, Watson is a charming Belle, Stevens more than matches her as a more intelligent Beast, and Evans is a hoot as the vain and selfish Gaston. Josh Gad also has a lot of fun as LaFou, Gaston's oblivious and adoring best friend.

At the very least, they did try to do some things that would set it apart from the animated film (unlike the remake of The Lion King). I like that they re-added some details from the original French fairy tale  like Maurice stealing the rose, as well as the greater emphasis on how Belle and the Beast's education set them apart from the illiterate townspeople (including Gaston) and their backstories.

Favorite Number: "Be Our Guest" is nearly as much fun to watch here as it was in the original, with Ewan MacGregor as Lumeire swirling around dancing black and white feather dusters and delicate tea cups. The pub-set stomp to "Gaston" is even better. showing off terrific choreography as Gad and Evans sings the praises of being macho. "Something There" gets a lovely montage as Belle and the Beast realize that they have a lot more in common than previously suspected, and "Beauty and the Beast" is just as swirling and romantic here.

Three new songs were written directly for the film. "Days In the Sun" has Belle, the Beast, and the Enchanted Objects sadly recalling lost childhood memories or days of glory. "Evermore" is the Beast's tortured ballad when Belle leaves to save her father and he thinks he's lost her forever. "How Does a Moment Last Forever" is a touching ballad first sung by Maurice to the accompaniment of a music box as he recalls his late wife, and then by Belle after she learns how her mother died.

What I Don't Like: Did Disney really need to remake this? Frankly,  no. As lovely as it is, it still lacks a lot of the simple spark and charm that made the original so wildly popular, not to mention its Broadway-worthy cast. Watson is wonderful in the book scenes, but she's not really much of a singer or a dancer, and Stevens lacks Robby Benson's gruff charisma. I also wish they could have used at least some of the songs from the stage show. "Home" and "No Matter What" might have been especially nice here.

The Big Finale: It may not be necessary, but that doesn't mean it isn't lovely, romantic, and exquisite. This is by far my favorite of the Disney live-action remakes I've seen, and the only one to be anywhere near as delightful as its source material.

Home Media: As one of the more recent films I've reviewed and the second-biggest hit of 2017, this is easily found in all formats.

Google Play

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cult Flops - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Universal, 1978
Starring Peter Frampton, George Burns, Frankie Howerd, and the Bee Gees (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb)
Directed by Michael Schultz
Music by John Lennon and George Harrison; Lyrics by Paul McCartney and George Harrison

And I thought Rocky Horror Picture Show was strange. This tale of a beloved band who use the power of love to save their small town is a supremely weird monument to the music of the Beatles and the pop culture of the late 70's. Everyone from Aerosmith to Earth, Wind, and Fire pops up here, with more than 100 stars joining in for the reprise of the title number. Everything before that...well, let's just head to Heartland, where its mayor Mr. Kite (Burns) is telling the story of Sgt. Pepper and his band, and find out just how off-the-wall a rock opera can get.

The Story: The original Sgt. Pepper dies during a performance in 1958 and leaves his legacy to his grandson Billy Shears (Frampton). Billy forms a new band with his three best friends (the Bee Gees), and they continue to play the magical instruments that keeps Heartland happy. Billy's half-brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas) is their manager, who is more interested in selling their music than in how their music makes the town feel. Billy only has eyes for his beloved girlfriend Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina).

B.D Hoffler (Donald Plesance), a record producer, brings them to Hollywood for a contract. They're easily plied with sex and drugs, to Strawberry's dismay. Meanwhile, Mean Mr. Mustard (Howerd) and his female robots steal the famous musical instruments, sending Heartland into a slump. When Billy, Strawberry, and the Lonely Hearts Club Band find out, they steal Mustard's van to find the missing instruments. After Dougie holds a rally to help Heartland (and intends to keep the money), Mustard kidnaps Strawberry and takes her to the Future Villain Band (Aerosmith). Can the members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band stop this menace and bring happiness back to Heartland?

The Song and Dance: Well, it's definitely original, I'll give it that. It plays more like a comic book from this era than a typical musical. Among the few people who seem to have any idea of how to handle the material are Steve Martin, who has a blast with his one number, and Aerosmith. The last-named oozes menace as the "Future Villain Band" and are frankly far more interesting to watch and hear than the so-called "good" and "clean" singers. There's some decent cinematography, sets, and costumes as well, especially in the picturesque Heartland.

Favorite Number: There are a few numbers that do manage to work. The bizarre comic version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," the hiding place for the first musical instrument, shows off Martin's then-brand of insane comedy and foreshadows his somewhat similar "Dentist!" routine in Little Shop of Horrors eight years later. Shock jock Alice Cooper does a wild psychedelic "Because" as a cult leader who specializes in mind control. Earth, Wind, and Fire's "Got to Get You Into My Life" actually became a top 10 single, pretty much the only thing from this movie to go over well at the time. If nothing else, you can play "spot the random star" in that huge final rendition of the title song.

By far the best number here is "Come Together." As the so-called "Future Villain Band," Aerosmith are supposed to represent everything that's evil and decadent in the world. Steven Tyler, at the peak of his sexual and vocal prowess, and his band blow everyone away with their darkly sexual performance. They're so magnetic, it's more of a disappointment when Frampton and the Bee Gees show up and lay into them.

Trivia: It started as an off-Broadway concert, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road.

What I Don't Like: Pretty much everything else. Not a single thing makes sense, from the weird song placements to the silly and piecemeal story. George Burns' narration is intrusive and unnecessary. Farina, Frampton, and the Bee Gees can sing just fine, but can't act worth a darn and come off as dull, lifeless, and bland. They're supposed to be the good guys, but they're amazingly boring compared to all the lunacy around them. Mean Mr. Mustard is an even duller villain, with absolutely no motivation and few interesting traits besides being mean. His number with Strawberry, "When I'm Sixty Four," comes off as more creepy than funny.

And then, there's the literal deux ex-machina ending. It feels like the writers couldn't figure out how wrap things up and wanted to finish on a positive note...and shoved a happy ending in at the last minute. The whole thing really goes on for way too long. The entire "find the instruments" middle portion could be deleted with no one the wiser - they could have found another place for the "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Because" numbers.

The Big Finale: They don't come much campier than this. Only come here if you really love camp, the cast, or the music and pop culture of the late 70's, or you're a huge fan of Aerosmith or Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Home Media: Despite - or maybe because - of it's "so bad it's oddly fascinating" status, it's easy to find on all major formats, often for under 10 dollars.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Animation Celebration Extra - Uglydolls

STX Entertainment, 2019
Voices of Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Nick Jonas, and Janelle Monae
Directed by Kelly Asbury
Music and Lyrics by Clarkson, Shelton, and others

I had no idea this was even a thing until I saw it mentioned on an animation show on YouTube last December. Universal was originally going to do this one in 2011, but I suspect the success of another movie about ugly-cute dolls, Trolls, as well as the release of Toy Story 4 this year, encouraged STX to give the strangely adorable "ugly" monster stuffed animals a shot. How does their colorful world come off onscreen? Let's head to Uglyville and find out...

The Story: Moxy (Clarkson) is an Uglydoll with only one desire - to be loved by a child in the Big World. Despite Ox (Shelton), the mayor of Uglyville, telling her they can't be loved, she and several friends go through the portal between worlds to find someone to love them. The portal takes them to Perfection, a world of perfect dolls ruled by obnoxious Lou (Jonas). Lou insists that only dolls who meet his unreachable standards of beauty can be allowed to cross to the Big World and find the child for them. The Uglydolls, no matter how hard they attempt to shove themselves into a mold, do not fit those standards. Lou finally sends Moxy packing, until glasses-wearing doll Mandy reminds her that we're all different inside and out...and no matter what we look like, we all deserve a chance to be loved.

The Animation: Colorful and cute, much like the real Uglydolls. I love the details, especially on the stitched world of Uglyville and in the house where "the Gauntlet," the test that dolls go through to enter the Big World, is run. Maybe not quite as flowing and tactile as some higher-budget films, but not bad for what they had to work with.

The Song and Dance: This is the kind of movie that just puts a smile on your face. Moxy's utter determination to prove that she is as worthy of being chosen by a child as anyone else will leave you cheering at least a little bit in the end. It's cute and fun, with decent performances by Clarkson and especially by Jonas as the self-centered "prototype" Lou who thinks that just because he set the mold, the rest of the line has to follow him.

Favorite Number: Clarkson gets to show her stuff right away in two spirited opening numbers. "Today's the Day" shows how desperately Moxy wishes for a child to love her; "Couldn't Be Better" introduces the other Uglydolls and their wacky universe. Mandy tries to dress the Uglydolls as something like "perfect" in "All Dolled Up"...and then admits that she wishes she didn't have to adhere to such stringent standards of beauty. She cheers Moxy up with "Unbreakable," as they dance through mirrors to combine their worlds and come to realize that it doesn't matter what you look like, as long as you have a good heart.

What I Don't Like: Like ZOMBIES, this movie's heart is in the right place, but it kicks you in the head with the "everyone is different, and that's ok" moral. It's frantic, sugary, and way too preachy. This is an imitation Trolls, with some of the Toy Story and Monsters Inc films thrown in for good measure, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else. There's also the whole "based after a toy line and made to sell toys" thing to consider.

The Big Finale: Too sweet and cliched for older kids, but if you have younger guys who loved Trolls or musical stories, or you're a fan of any of the singers here, you'll want to take a trip to Uglyville and give this one a shot.

Home Media: Just released in July and pretty easily found everywhere and on every format.

Amazon Prime (Buy Only)

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Saluting Our Troops - Follow the Fleet

RKO, 1936
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Harriet Hillard, and Randolph Scott
Directed by Mark Sandrich
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin

This year's Veteran's Day review returns us to the glittering romantic comedy world of Astaire and Rogers. Scott's joining them again, this time for the tale of two gobs and their girls based the old play Shore Leave. How well does this nautical-themed backstage story hold up now? Let's head to a ship coming into port to find out...

The Story: Navy sailor Bake Baker (Astaire) is thrilled to be on shore leave with his buddy Bilge Smith (Scott). His former partner Sherry Martin (Rogers) wrote him and told him she was dancing in a fancy club. Turns out she's really a singer at a dime-a-dance hall. Her shy school teacher sister Connie (Hillard) is also seeking her. Bilge thinks she's cute but bland, until Kitty (Lucille Ball), one of the dance hall girls, finds her a gown and gets rid of her glasses. Now they're both attracted to each other. Connie claim she'll salvage her father's old sailing ship for him, even though it'll cost a bundle.

A few months later, Bilge is now being pursued by a glamorous widow (Astrid Allwyn) with a crush on him. Connie wants marriage, and he's afraid of commitment. Meanwhile, Bake attempted to set Sherry up with a job in a Broadway show, but a series of mistaken identities leaves her without a job and angry at him. He does a better with setting up a benefit show to earn the remaining money needed to raise the girls' ship...but he not only has to jump ship to do so, he needs to convince Bilge to help him do it.

The Song and Dance: The stars and the Irving Berlin score are the things here. Scott, while still a tad out of place, at least seems more comfortable as a seaman than he did as a football player in Roberta. Astaire and Rogers have a great time with their numbers, and Rogers even gets a rare solo dance routine. Lucille Ball has a short but fun role as the sarcastic dancer who gives Connie a dress, and later dealing with a sailor who tries to hit on her.

Favorite Number: Astaire and Rogers get three great duets here. "Let Yourself Go" at the Paradise Club begins with them competing with another couple, only to explode into a lot of kicks and prancing that's a lot of fun to watch. "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket" is similar, only this time, they're challenging one another to keep up with their moves. Rogers gets her only solo in any of her movies with Astaire in an instrumental version of "Let Yourself Go" that shows she's no slouch in the dance department herself. Astaire challenges the entire fleet in his solo, "I'd Rather Lead a Band."

The big one is "Let's Face the Music and Dance." A mini-story within a story has Fred and Ginger as gamblers about to end it all before they find - and dance with - each other. It's by far the most dramatic number in any of the Astaire-Rogers films, and it comes off as a dark moment floating in a sea of fluffiness.

Trivia: Harriet Hillard became far better known when she married bandleader Ozzie Nelson and had two sons named Ricky and David with him. The four appeared on the radio and TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for over a decade.

What I Don't Like: The plot is even more ridiculous than Top Hat and lacks that movie's hilarious supporting cast. The entire side plot with Hillard and Scott is cliched and very dated. Scott may be happier in the Navy, but Astaire isn't. He never really worked very well in uniform. The down-to-Earth setting makes things feel a little grittier than usual. Fancy costumes are limited to the nightclub scenes and the finale, and there's none of the elaborate sets that mark many of their other films.

The Big Finale: Worth sitting through the silly plot if you love Astaire and Rogers or the musicals of the 1930's.

Home Media: Available for streaming and on DVD solo or packaged with other Astaire/Rogers films.

DVD - Silver Screen Icons: Astaire & Rogers Vol. 2
Amazon Prime

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Tonight and Every Night

Columbia, 1945
Starring Rita Hayworth, Marc Platt, Lee Bowman, and Janet Blair
Directed by Victor Saville
Music by Jules Styne; Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

Here's a truly unique wartime musical I'd only read about in books before today. Hayworth was at the height of her popularity as a Hollywood pin-up queen when she appeared in this slightly dark tale about a dance troupe in a theater operating during the London Blitz. Let's head to the Music Box Theater in London to see just how this tragic backstage story looks nowadays...

The Story: Life Magazine comes to the Music Box to do a story on their troupe and how they never closed during the war. Flashback to a few years before. Theater owner May "Tolly" Tolliver (Florence Bates) is auditioning new performers. Tommy Lawson (Platt) is a wonderful dancer, but he makes up his own steps and doesn't know how to learn them. American dancers Judy Kaye (Blair) and Rosalind Bruce (Hayworth) show him some steps and make him a part of their act.

Rosalind meets a handsome Royal Air Force solider, pilot Paul Lundy (Bowman) when he's in the audience and they're all evacuated to the basement during a raid. He tries to ask her out, but she says 'no.' He tries again with her and Judy at a local restaurant, then tricking her into coming to his apartment. She's not happy about that one, but she feels better after he arranges for the troupe to play for the RAF. Tommy has a huge crush on Rosalind and is upset when Paul confesses his love for Ros. She thinks Paul has given up on her....but he's really on a special assignment. Rosalind thinks she wants to be with Paul, but when tragedy strikes, she learns who really means the most to her...and how important it is for the show to go on

The Song and Dance: This is one of the most unusual backstage musicals I've ever seen. While many musical films had a war backdrop during the 40's, few of them got into the reality of the situation like this one did. They aren't just talking about selling war bonds and entertaining the troops here (although they certainly do that). The bombs are falling right outside the door, right across the street towards the end. The details of life in wartime London, from all the performers moving to the studio to avoid bombs to Paul's apartment being flattened by a bomb just minutes before he and Ros are going to go to it, bring an immediacy and a slightly dark feel to this story.

Favorite Number: "You Excite Me" is the big one here. The exotic dance routine with Hayworth in a skimpy white costume with chorus boys around her is one of Hayworth's best solo dance performances on film. Hayworth joins former vaudevillian Professor Lamberti, an older man who has an act that involves a xylophone, a pretty dancer, and a lot of fun slapstick, for an instrumental version of "Anywhere." Blair gets a more traditional version of the lovely "Anywhere" and the stirring title song, with a newsreel spoof and chorus girls singing about how everyone will survive the war. Hayworth takes over the number in the finale.

Trivia: This was Marc Platt's first major film role.

Rita Hayworth was pregnant during the filming of this movie. They filmed her dance routines first, then did the rest of it with her behind muffs or feathers.

This was based after the real Windmill Theater, which also continued running during World War II. They, however, played mostly nude reviews, as detailed in the movie Mrs. Henderson Presents.

This was originally supposed to be a drama with Ida Lupino and Merle Oberon.

What I Don't Like: Despite the novel setting, the story is a standard love triangle. I would rather have heard more about her dealing with Judy and Tommy's crush than with the rather dull and obnoxious Paul. I have no idea why she fell for him so quickly. The tragic ending is abrupt and really of comes out of nowhere; anyone expecting a happier one will likely not enjoy this. And couldn't they have given Platt and Hayworth one duet together like the ones she had with Fred Astaire in her films with him?

The Big Finale: If  you're a fan of Hayworth or World War II, despite some problems, this is still an overlooked gem that deserves a lot more love.

Home Media: The solo DVD is out of print, but it can be found in at least two collections of Rita Hayworth movies and that Mill Creek 20 Musicals set.

DVD - Hollywood Legends - Rita Hayworth 4 Movie Collection
DVD - The Films of Rita Hayworth
DVD - Musicals 20 Movies Collection

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Election Day Special - Let Freedom Ring

MGM, 1939
Starring Nelson Eddy, Victor McLaughlin, Virginia Bruce, and Lionel Barrymore
Directed by Jack Conway
Music and lyrics by various

While we wait for the election returns to come in, here's an unusual western tale from 1939. Nelson Eddy got his first and only vehicle without a female partner at MGM in this Zorro-esque western. Does it come off as a stirring action-packed adventure, or should it be run out of town? Let's head to the hills with the lovely Maggie Adams (Virginia Bruce) as she contemplates the arrival of the railroad and find out...

The Story: Lawyer Steve Logan (Eddy) returns home from college to discover that railroad baron Jim Knox (Edward Arnold) has been buying up more land than he needs for his tracks and driving out local farmers. His father, Tom Logan (Barrymore), expects him to the the champion for the farmers, but he claims it would be impossible to fight the railroads. Steve is friendly with Knox and his immigrant workers, including head foreman Chris Mulligan (McLaughlin), singing sentimental Irish songs for them. In reality, he poses as the Wasp to kidnap the town's newspaper editor (Raymond Walden) and force him to print the truth about Knox and his workers. When the immigrants read the paper, they start to question Knox and his business practices.

Matters come to a head at the local Election Day celebration. Steve has to convince the workers that they have the right to vote as they choose, convince Mulligan that his boss is a crook, and keep them from destroying his family's farm. It'll take help from the estranged Maggie and his goofy friend "The Mackerel" (Charles Butterworth) to finally prove to the town that the true meaning of liberty is defending our rights...including our right to vote.

The Song and Dance: I'd only heard about this in books on Eddy and his frequent partner Jeanette MacDonald before a few years ago. It's too bad. If you love pulp-y, Lone Ranger-style westerns or are a fan of Eddy, this is quite a bit of fun. Eddy does all of the singing, and he does get to throw his lush tenor into a range of sentimental and popular songs, from "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" to "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair." There's a nice supporting cast, too, including Arnold as the affably evil railroad man and Barrymore as the strong-willed farmer who is determined to keep his family's land.

Favorite Number: Eddy performs "Love Serenade" at Arnold's request. It had apparently been Steve and Maggie's love song, but the look on her face when he performs it after she believes he's become a coward is pure disgust and disappointment. "Pat, Sez He" becomes a fun dance number at the bar when Steve is trying to convince McLaughlin that he's on the side of the railroad. "Where Else But Here," Steve's rousing number at the Election Day rally, is the only song written directly for the film. Maggie finally gets the crowd's attention - and reminds them that we're all Americans, no matter where we come from - with "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

What I Don't Like: Eddy's not much better with the heavier dramatics than he is in his movies with MacDonald, and his fight scenes with the much larger McLaughlin are far from believable. Bruce is stiff in a dull "love interest" role; her so-so singing ability eliminates any duets.

While the movie has good intentions, all the talk about the rights of Americans to do what they please and the references to educating "foreigners" can come off as a tad condescending and way too preachy. A lot of it probably stems from many people's concerns about the war going on in Europe and Asia at the time.

The Big Finale: If you love Eddy, patriotic stories, or old-fashioned pulp westerns, you'll want to give this unusual operetta gem your vote.

Home Media: Available via the Warner Archives and on several streaming companies.

Amazon Prime

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Animation Celebration Double Feature - An American Tail & An American Tail: Fivel Goes West

We switch gears and kick off the month with two interesting movies about the immigrant experience in America. Don Bluth's first movie, The Secret of Nimh, was a critical but not a commercial hit. He hit it out of the park with his second try. American Tail wound up being one of the biggest blockbusters of 1986, with critics and audiences. He had no involvement with Fivel Goes West, but it managed to hold its own against Beauty and the Beast in 1991 anyway. How does the story of Fivel Mouskawitz and how he finds, and then rescues, his family in New York and out west fare today? Let's start in the Ukraine, where Fivel and his family are celebrating Hanukkah, and find out...

An American Tail
Universal, 1986
Voices of Philip Glasser, Dom DeLouise, John Finnegan, and Madeline Kahn
Directed by Don Bluth
Music by James Horner and Barry Mann; Lyrics by Cynthia Weil

The Story: Curious five-year-old Fivel (Glasser) is traveling to America with his mother (Erica Yohn), father (Nehimiah Persoff), baby sister, and sister Tanya (Amy Green) after having been driven out of the Ukraine by murderous Cossacks and their equally damaging cats. Papa claims America is the land of opportunity, where the streets are paved with cheese and there are no cats to harm them.

Fivel is separated from his family when he's swept overboard during a storm. He first ends up on Ellis Island, where a friendly French pigeon named Henri (Christopher Plummer) sends him into New York to find Warren T. Rat (Finnegan). Rat, however, cares nothing about some immigrant kid and sells him to a sweatshop. He escapes with the help of a street boy named Tony (Pat Musick) and flees into the city. Tony falls hard for pretty Irish Bridget (Cathianne Blore), who is trying to rally the mice to fight the cats. She has more luck persuading perpetually drunk politician Honest John (Neil Ross) and crusading rich mouse Gussie Mausenheimer (Kahn) to help corral the cats and send them packing. 

Little Fivel is still searching for his family when he discovers Rat's big secret. Rat captures him, but he's once again rescued, this time by a sweet vegetarian cat named Tiger (DeLouise). The little mouse the one who finally brings the cats running...but now the mice have a secret weapon of their own. Even when there's "no cats in America," will Fivel ever find his family...and truly be able to call America home?

The Animation: Among the most gorgeous Don Bluth ever did. Every frame is lush and detailed, with glowing backdrops that show New York as it was becoming a haven for "the tired and poor" in the late 19th century. The animals are a bit more cuddly here than they would be in The Secret of Nimh or later in All Dogs Go to Heaven, harking back to Disney's rounder style of the 30's and 40's. There's some nifty special effects here, too, from the sparks that come off the trains to the truly terrifying Mouse of Minsk and ship that were done by rotoscoping models, rather than computer.

The Song and Dance: Possibly Don Bluth's most touching and sentimental film. Glasser is cute as the little mouse whose big curiosity continually lands him in danger, but the real stand-out is the supporting cast. Kahn and Ross play nicely off each other as the drunk politician who only cares about votes and the wealthy mouse who really wants to get rid of those darn felines. Musick is funny as Tony, especially when he encounters Bridget for the time and is absolutely smitten by her beauty and tenacity. Plummer as Henri the sculptor pigeon and DeLouise as gentle Tiger are so much fun, you really wish they were in more of the film.

Favorite Number: Papa Mouskawitz is joined by an Italian mouse who lost his mother to cats and an Irish mouse who lost his sweetheart as they explain why they're making the journey across the Atlantic in the rousing "There are No Cats In America." My favorite song from this score is Plummer's perky duet with Glasser inside the newly-built Statue of Liberty. He assures him that he should "Never Say Never" and keep searching for his family.

By far the most famous song from this film is the Oscar-nominated ballad "Somewhere Out There." Tanya and Fivel perform the number from two different locations, her at the Mousawitzs' new purse home, him in an old bassinet in a flooded house, wonder where each other are and wish they were together. It's so simple and lovely, it almost makes up for neither of the kids being able to really sing. (Linda Rondstat and James Ingram's version over the credits was one of the bigger song hits of 1986.)

Trivia: Steven Spielburg produced and had a hand in much of the film. Fivel was named for his grandfather. 

Henri the Pidgeon was originally supposed to be a scruffier hobo type, but was reworked to be a more polished character when Plummer was hired. 

Weill and Mann were given four weeks to write "Somewhere Out There." They didn't think it would be a hit, but Spielburg knew better. 

What I Don't Like: I have no idea what audience Bluth intended this for. While not quite as dark as All Dogs Go to Heaven, there's still a lot of violence, starting with the Cossack raid in the opening sequence. The Mouse of Minsk isn't just scary to the cats - it's truly terrifying for just about anyone, with its detailed craggy face and waving purple tail. There's also the several attempts on Fivel's life and his near-drowning. 

I wish they didn't drag out Fivel finding his family for so long! The movie should have ended after they rounded up the cats. They probably could have cut the entire short bit at the end with Fivel and the street gang with no one the wiser - it feels like filler. Fivel's search frankly takes a back-seat to the mice trying to get rid of the cats and all the unusual characters he meets on the way.

The Big Finale: The stunning animation and score and unusual story make this a must for adults with an interest in the history of immigration in the US, lovers of melodrama or Don Bluth, and kids with a taste for history who can handle the scarier stuff.

Home Media: Easy to find in all formats, occasionally packaged with its sequel (see below).

An American Tail: Fivel Goes West
Universal, 1991
Voices of Phillip Glasser, Dom DeLouise, James Stewart, and John Cleese
Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Music by James Horner; Lyrics by Will Jennings

The Story: It's now 1890. Cats have returned to New York and are once again persecuting the mice, including the Mouskawitzs. After a raid, they end up in the sewer, where the elegant Cat R. Waul (Cleese) is selling land out west, claiming it's where every dream can be fulfilled and cats and mice will get along. Tanya (Cathy Cavadini) wants to become a singer; Fivel (Glasser) wants to meet his comics idol, Sheriff Wylie Burp (Stewart). Turns out, as Mama says, they've been snookered. The land Waul sold them is barren desert, made even drier after his spider goon (Jon Lovitz) cuts off the water supply. 

Fivel does get lost on the train trip after he discovers what Waul is really up to and is thrown out a window. He not only manages to find his family quicker, he also discovers that Burp is an over-the-hill law dog whom the cats barely notice. He claims he needs someone he can train as a deputy. Fivel nominates Tiger (DeLouise), who is out west in pursuit of his girlfriend Miss Kitty (Amy Irving). It's going to take a lot of work to make this tubby tabby into a top dog...and they don't have much time to do it before Waul and his boys reveal their plan to get rid of the mice for good!

The Animation: Not as lush as the first film, but it does have its virtues. Once we get out west, everything is detailed and bright, whether it's the home of the mouse Natives or animal residents of the town of Green River. The "Rawhide" sequence, with its animals popping up everywhere, is especially well-done.

The Song and Dance: I know most people prefer the original, partially because Bluth worked on it, but...ehh, I think this one is a lot more fun. The story is lighter, thanks to the side plot with Fivel and his family not being nearly as drawn-out. If you know anything about western cliches, you'll have a lot fun identifying them here, from the smooth villain to the saloon-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold to the city slicker-turned-gunslinger. I also like that Tanya and Tiger's roles are expanded; DeLouise gets some great gags early-on when he's being chased by every dog in New York, and later when Wylie Burp is trying to teach Tiger the ins and outs of being a law dog.

And honestly, just having James Stewart's final performance makes this a bit of Hollywood history. He has a good time spoofing his own image as the over-the-hill sheriff who thinks he may have found salvation in his unusual new partners. 

Favorite Number: "Way Out West" is the big "there are no cats" chorus routine here, as all the mice reveal what they hope to find in their new home. Appropriately for a budding singer, Tanya gets two songs, the lovely ballad "Dreams to Dream" that so impresses Cat R. Waul, and the big chorus number at the saloon with the cats, "The Girl I Left Behind." 

The one for the books is "Rawhide." I have no idea who at Amblin decided to sneak the Blues Brothers version of this classic TV theme in or why, but the song is so goofy as it accompanies Fivel bouncing along in the tumbleweeds, it seems oddly fitting.

Trivia: This would be James Stewart's last movie. 

While this has been Fivel's last appearance on the big screen to date, it's far from the last film in the franchise. There would be two direct-to-home-media movies that ignored this one and a short-lived Saturday morning TV show.

What I Don't Like: The first half (up to and including "Way Out West") is more-or-less a rehash of the first film. The Mouskawitzes are driven from their home by marauding cats, then leave for a new location where they believe there are no feline pests. Fivel gets lost and has to find them, and he's the one who figures out that the seemingly nice and cultured head cat is up to no good. It's not until the second half that things really diverge and get interesting. 

The animation, while far from horrible, isn't nearly as good as either the original film or Beauty and the Beast. Some folks may also miss Bluth's touch...and that dark side that made the original film such a hit in the first place.

The Big Finale: Fans of Stewart and westerns and families with younger kids who aren't up to the heavier original film will want to hop on a tumbleweed and ride on over to this one.

Home Media: Same deal - easy to find for cheap on all formats, including packaged with the original film.