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The Best Shows and Movies on Disney+

IndieWire's Christian Blauvelt has published a series of essays about some of the best shows and movies available on the streamer. Click through for each one.


Five “Muppet Show” Episodes Worth Checking Out

Disney+ continues to have the deepest reservoir of archive content of any major streaming service. While Netflix continues to struggle to feature anything made before 1980, legacy gems make up a huge part of Disney+’s value. But there are still some gaps that need to be filled: Give us the 1957-59 “Zorro” series! In both the black-and-white and (shockingly great) colorized versions, of course.

But one gap is being filled in a major way starting February 19: All 120 episodes of “The Muppet Show” from across its five seasons now appear on the service. And despite all the high-profile musical guests, and the trickiness with the music rights clearance that must have followed, the vast majority of these episodes appear unaltered. Here are five, listed by their guest star, that are worth watching right away.

Diana Ross

The former Supremes songstress is the perfect kind of Muppet costar: someone who doesn’t acknowledge at all they’re Muppets, but treats them simply like fellow performers. They’re made of felt, but Ross interacts with them like they’re flesh-and-blood. (That’s also what made Michael Caine so great in “The Muppet Christmas Carol, and, let’s face it, Mark Hamill opposite Yoda.) It’s an ethos that gets to the core of what makes the Muppets great: They’re funny because they are — they don’t need to do anything on top of that. They don’t need to lean into the funny, they don’t need to lean into the cute. They just need to be. And that leads to a winsomely deadpan style that’s sort of an American equivalent of British humor. (I’d argue “Star Wars” as a whole achieves something similar.) And it’s all the more perfect that “The Muppet Show” was filmed at Britain’s Elstree studios (where the “Star Wars” movies were filmed).

But this episode also features some incredible musical numbers without Ross. First up, there’s “I Go to Rio,” a color-splashed beach scene. This episode was the Season 4 finale, airing in April 1980, and a number like this shows just how sophisticated “The Muppet Show” had become by this point, with its fake ocean glittering under a fake sun.

And while you’re at it, check out Beaker’s hilarious version of one of the sappiest songs of the ’70s, Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” or rather “Mee Mee.”

Elton John

People who grew up with John in the era of his dark suits and bowl cut could use the shot of glam excess that is his 1978 “Muppet Show” appearance. There are certain songs you just know are perfect for the Muppets, and “Crocodile Rock” is indisputably one of them. This takes a very literal interpretation of the song, setting it in a swamp, complete with crocodile choir belting out that earworm of a chorus.

Edgar Bergen

Candice’s father was, of course, a pre-Henson pioneer with his ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Seeing his pine-based friends interact with the Muppets is a treat, but this episode’s best moments actually have nothing to do with its guest start. Airing in October 1977 (Season 2), this installment, maybe more than any other, lives up the vaudeville-meets-“SNL” vibe that the Muppets could pull off at their best. It flows like quicksilver from a chicken chorus clucking “Baby Face” to Rowlf singing the Groucho Marx song “Show Me a Rose” to (another gloriously literal) performance of “Time in a Bottle” to a group of chickens pecking out a song on a piano. “Show Me a Rose” is a particular highlight and, in drawing a link to the Marx Brothers, establishes the Muppets’ anarchic absurdism — something cutesy efforts like the 2011 “Muppets” movie (criticized by Frank Oz and Brian Henson) failed to achieve.

Harry Belafonte

Another song that you just know the Muppets would have a field day with? “Day-O,” of course. Harry Belafonte’s 1950s calypso hit gets another fun literal treatment set in a Caribbean dockyard. (For another like this, check out the Renaissance Faire take on “Scarborough Fair in the Paul Simon episode.) But the real highlight is an ethereal performance of “Turn the World Around,” which Belafonte talks about learning in Guinea. The performance is accompanied with Muppets that look like African masks, specially created for this performance. Belafonte would perform “Turn the World Around” again at Jim Henson’s memorial service in 1990.

Roger Moore

Fully aware of his persona as the “goofy” Bond (not that that’s bad — he’s this writer’s favorite Bond), Moore brought his tongue-in-cheek style to the Muppets, which, of course, involved romancing Miss Piggy. His explosion-filled “Talk to the Animals” finale is pretty funny, but as is so often the case, it’s a guest-star free number that really shines: the opening set piece of a Viking raider descending on an unsuspecting village, accompanied by the Village People’s “In the Navy.” Rarely do numbers like this boomarang around for jokes in subsequent sketches but this one then does, as one of the Vikings is the patient in this episode’s “Vet’s Hospital.”

January 2021

We all felt a great disturbance in the Force December 18, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in joy. Yes, that was the day of the Season 2 finale of “The Mandalorian,” which brought a glimpse of Luke Skywalker at the height of his Jedi powers unlike anything we’ve ever seen of the character before.

But what if you’ve never watched a “Star Wars” TV show before “The Mandalorian”? All the previous shows have had one thing in common: they’ve been in animation. And maybe you thought they weren’t canon (wrong about that, you were) or were just for kids (doubly wrong about that, you were) or just weren’t important (no bounds, your wrongness knows), but there’s a good chance you hadn’t watched any of them. This writer has extolled the virtues of the seven-season “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” at length in this column (Dave Filoni has now been making great “Star Wars” for 12 years, and the world is only just realizing it), but its successor series, “Star Wars Rebels,” set during the five years leading up to “A New Hope” is just as crucial. And both of these shows together are essential for getting the most out of “The Mandalorian.” The Darksaber wouldn’t mean nearly as much without watching them — and there’s the matter of several characters these shows introduced who popped up in “Mando” Season 2. Want to watch the key episodes of these previous shows to learn more about Bo-Katan, Grand Admiral Thrawn, et al? You’ve come to the right place. And it just so happens that all of these episodes are just a click away on Disney+.


Bo-Katan, fighting alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi to retake Mandalore from Darth Maul on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

Bo-Katan isn’t the first Mandalorian introduced on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” That would be her sister, the planet’s pacifist leader, Duchess Satine, who… well, was Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ex-girlfriend. Or pretty darn close to it, anyway. Their romantic feelings for each other certainly test the boundaries of the Jedi Code forbidding attachment. Satine (voiced by Anna Graves, and named by Filoni, a “Moulin Rouge” fan, after Obi-Wan actor Ewan McGregor’s doomed love interest in the Baz Luhrmann film) first appears in Season 2, Episode 12, “The Mandalore Plot.” That whole thing Boba Fett mentioned in Chapter 14 of “The Mandalorian” about the Mandalorian Civil Wars? Satine was the leader who finally brought peace to her planet after years of infighting. But some Mandalorians felt her pacifist ways went against their heritage; one violent sect called Death Watch was led by Pre Vizsla, who — guess what! — was voiced by “Mandalorian” showrunner Jon Favreau. And Satine’s sister, Bo-Katan, in a massive family squabble, had joined Death Watch to fight for the “old ways” despite her sister’s policies.

The main way to understand Bo-Katan in this period is that she’s rebellious, and doesn’t quite fit anywhere. Bo’s first episode is Season 3, Episode 14, “A Friend in Need.” From the start, and voiced by Katee Sackhoff, she seems like someone who would insist upon winning the Darksaber in combat, as she threatens Din Djarin at the end of “Mando” Season 2. Of course, Death Watch proves a poor fit for her after a while — we’ll get to that — and she finally stands up for her sister.

Key Bo-Katan episodes to watch from “The Clone Wars”:
“The Mandalore Plot”
“Voyage of Temptation”
“Duchess of Mandalore”
“A Friend in Need”

Katee Sackhoff’s Bo-Katan holding the Darksaber aloft as the rightful ruler of Mandalore in the “Star Wars Rebels” Season 4 premiere, “Heroes of Mandalore.”

The Darksaber

This has been a plot element since that episode we mentioned that first introduced the Mandalorians on “The Clone Wars,” way back in Season 2 called “The Mandalore Plot.” It was wielded by the Death Watch leader voiced by Jon Favreau, Pre Vizsla. But my, what a journey it takes! Bo-Katan begins to break with Death Watch when Vizsla aligns himself with Darth Maul (never killed, but driven mad by being cut in half and finally restored to his wits by the Dathomiri magic of the Nightsisters, a group of witches — did I mention “Clone Wars” rocks?). Bo-Katan doesn’t like outsiders meddling in Mandalorian affairs, hence even her snotty reaction to Boba Fett on “The Mandalorian” itself. That her leader aligns himself with an ex-Sith Lord who now wants to become a crime lord, a kind of third party faction in the Clone Wars that have engulfed the galaxy, is not something she likes. She likes it even less when Maul turns the tables on Vizsla, and beheads him, in a less-graphic though no-less-dramatic moment worthy of “Game of Thrones,” and claims the Darksaber for himself. He rules Mandalore now. All this occurs in a stunning three-arc episode of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” Season 5: the episodes “Eminence,” “Shades of Reason,” and “The Lawless.” In the last of these episodes, he kills Satine with the Darksaber, a way to both claim Mandalore’s throne and get revenge against a now-heartbroken Obi-Wan. (He wants payback for being cut in half!)

Darth Maul holding the Darksaber after beheading Jon Favreau’s character Pre Vizsla. You had no idea this weapon and this elaborate of a history, did you?

Obi-Wan is not the one who ultimately keeps up the fight against Maul. That would be Ahsoka Tano. The former Jedi Padawan of Anakin Skywalker is recruited to lead an assault on Maul’s forces during the last days of the Clone Wars, just before Order 66. This is what makes her close enough to Bo-Katan that Bo would recommend Mando seek her out decades later. And these episodes from Season 7, about Ahsoka fighting to remove Maul from the throne of Mandalore once and for all, just debuted on Disney+ in April 2020. These episodes are “Old Friends Not Forgotten,” “The Phantom Apprentice,” and “Shattered.” We’ll get back to Ahsoka in a minute.

Fast forward to the years of rule under the Empire. A violent junta in support of Emperor Palpatine has taken over Mandalore. Bo-Katan helps liberate the planet from the Empire in the two-part Season 4 opener of “Star Wars Rebels,” titled “Heroes of Mandalore.” At the end of that episode, Bo-Katan inherits the Darksaber, meaning she is the rightful ruler of Mandalore. But their actions in kicking the Empire off the planet seem to invite the horrible retaliation against Mandalore hinted at on “The Mandalorian”: something called the Purge. And it’s during the Purge that Bo-Katan apparently loses the Darksaber to Moff Gideon.

Key Episodes from “The Clone Wars” to Watch:
“Shades of Reason”
“The Lawless”
“Old Friends Not Forgotten”
“The Phantom Apprentice”

Key Episode from “Star Wars Rebels” to Watch:
“Heroes of Mandalore,” Part 1 and 2


My colleague Tyler Hersko has written an excellent primer on Ahsoka Tano here, so I’ll just keep this short to the episodes you should watch to hit the character’s highlights:

The “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” movie — Yes, it bombed in 2008 in theaters. It’s important to see her introduction.
The four-part Second Battle of Geonosis arc from “Clone Wars” Season 2:
“Landing at Point Rain”
“Weapons Factory”
“Legacy of Terror”
“Brain Invaders”
Two part arc from Season 3:
“Padawan Lost”
“Wookiee Hunt”
Four-part arc about her departure from the Jedi Order in Season 5:
“The Jedi Who Knew Too Much”
“To Catch a Jedi”
“The Wrong Jedi”
“Victory and Death”

Key Episodes from “Star Wars Rebels”:
“The Siege of Lothal”
“The Lost Commanders”
“Relics of the Old Republic”
“Twilight of the Apprentice”
“Wolves and a Door”
“A World Between Worlds”
 “Family Reunion — and Farewell”

Grand Admiral Thrawn

This is a character that’s been beloved by diehard fans of “Star Wars” books since Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” in 1991. However, he only made his canon debut in the Season 3 premiere of “Star Wars Rebels.” Zahn always described him as “a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Erwin Rommel” and that characterization survives very faithfully on “Rebels.” A master tactician, Thrawn is way, way smarter than any other Imperial officer you’ve ever seen. A native of an apostrophe-loving species from the Unknown Regions called the Chiss (Thrawn is just the shortened version of Mitth’raw’nuruodo), the blue-skinned Grand Admiral can determine an enemy race’s strengths and weaknesses based on the art they produce. Voiced by Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn wasn’t defeated at the end of “Star Wars Rebels” so much as taken off the field of play, spirited away against his control to a part of the galaxy no one’s been able to find yet. With him, though, was the young Jedi apprentice Ezra. More than likely, Ahsoka wants to find Thrawn in Chapter 14 of “The Mandalorian” so that she can find Ezra. Fans speculate that that search will be the subject of the spinoff “Ahsoka” series starring Rosario Dawson.

Key Thrawn Episodes on “Star Wars Rebels”:
“Steps into Shadow”
“Hera’s Heroes”
“Rebel Assault”
“Jedi Knight”
“Family Reunion — and Farewell”

Boba Fett

Boba Fett uses a different suit of armor on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

Of course, Boba pops up on “The Clone Wars”! Whereas Temuera Morrison plays old, grizzled Boba on “The Mandalorian,” the young kid who played him in “Attack of the Clones,” Daniel Logan, voiced him once again as a teenager on “The Clone Wars.” First up, in Season 2, he tries to get revenge against Mace Windu for having beheaded his dad, Jango. Then he begins his career bounty hunting career in Season 4. It is not auspicious (though that episode, “Bounty,” is this writer’s second-favorite episode of the entire series).

Key Boba Fett Episodes on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”:
“Death Trap”
“R2 Come Home”
“Lethal Trackdown”

These episodes, all currently available on Disney+, expand the universe of “The Mandalorian” and hopefully will hold you over until we get more live-action “Star Wars” TV. But know this: animated “Star Wars” has been every bit as good, and in some cases better, than live-action “Star Wars.”

December 2020

Click to the “Holiday Collection” on Disney+ and the first image you’ll see is nine-year-old Macaulay Culkin, hands pressed to his face after daring to use his father’s aftershave. There’s no image that evokes Christmas more. It’s director Chris Columbus’s Yuletide version of Edvard Munch’s “Scream” and, at this point, almost as iconic. Somehow Culkin’s grimace can stand alongside Nativity scenes and Christmas trees to evoke the season.

Disney+ has a whole lineup of cheery movies in that “Holiday Collection.” One new addition, a three-minute short about a Filipina grandma and her granddaughter bonding over a cherished toy called “From Our Family to Yours,” is a tear-inducing treat. But “Home Alone,” acquired through Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019, feels like the crown jewel in this collection. Clips from the movie now feature prominently in commercials for the streaming service. And it’s getting a whole surge of renewed attention for celebrating its 30th anniversary. Plus, a remake starring Archie Yates — the cherubic, bespectacled friend of the title character in “JoJo Rabbit” — is in the works. What’ll it be called? “Home Alone 3”? Oh wait, that already exists, even if we’ve all mercifully purged it from our collective memory. (Along with two direct-to-TV sequels, one imagines “Home Alone 3” thrown in Old Man Marley’s garbage can full of salt.)

This new remake must not happen. The idea alone causes this writer to wince as if he’s stepped on a nail barefoot, or had his scalp burned off, or been branded with the initials of a wealthy family from their vanity doorknob. And this is coming from someone who would gladly pay good money for a Trump-free re-edit of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Like rebranding the Wet Bandits the “Sticky Bandits,” this remake is a horrible idea. “Home Alone” is a product of a time and a certain set of creatives; it should be left alone unless at least some of those creatives can return. And frankly, there’s no reason for them not to.

This column will not attempt to elaborate on the greatness of “Home Alone,” which is self-evident (but more about that can be found here). Instead, let us point out these five reasons the remake is as terrible an idea as sticking your head through a doggie-door after your partner in crime has already been shot with a BB-gun by someone on the other side.

HOME ALONE, Macaulay Culkin, Daniel Stern, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Tragedy ensues.

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

1. The original “Home Alone” is John Hughes by way of “SCTV”

And that’s an alchemy impossible to replicate two decades into the 21st Century. Hughes, who wrote the script after he had already made all of his teen landmarks of the 1980s, adjusted his focus from adolescents to a younger tyke in Culkin’s Kevin McAllister. Apparently, the idea came to Hughes, when, a relatively new father himself, he imagined how his own child would fare on their own if he suddenly left on a trip.

The real spice to the script, though, seems to have been found on-set. For many viewers, it was “Home Alone” through which they were first introduced to Catherine O’Hara’s unique style of comedic obtuseness. The way she goes from harried, unconcerned indifference to harried, obsessive concern is something only O’Hara could do. And her scenes with John Candy, who apparently, as a condition of working for only one day and not receiving payment, improvised all of his dialogue, have all of the charge of an “SCTV” sketch. That’s probably because both O’Hara and Candy were “SCTV” alums.

2. It’s a much harder story to tell in the age of cell phones

“Home Alone” only seems possible because it was made right at the last moment before the introduction of cell phones and the internet made Kevin’s level of isolation in one’s own home and neighborhood impossible. Tech started to intrude a bit more even in “Lost in New York,” when Kevin’s parents are able to track his movements by his use of his father’s credit cards. Being cut off from the world seems much more difficult in when a downed phone line doesn’t mean a total communications blackout.

3. The original represents legitimately beautiful craft

Before the production proper even started in the village of Winnetka, north of Chicago, in the early months of 1990, Columbus had already filmed shots to convey a fake movie within the movie: “Angels with Filthy Souls,” a play on the 1939 Warner Bros. gangster classic “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Many kids who grew up watching “Home Alone” thought for years that “Angels with Filthy Souls” was a real movie, including Seth Rogen and Chris Evans. That’s also a testament to just how well that fake movie is cast, acted, and shot, to make you think this is the real deal from the 1930s.

All of “Home Alone” shows that level of care, though. Take a look at how many of the shots are centered on Kevin so the camera is at his level, with his point-of-view shots also taken from a relatively low angle to reflect his perspective. It’s one of the most effective kids’-eye-view movies ever.

HOME ALONE, Macaulay Culkin, 1990. TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved, Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Quentin Tarantino and Mel Gibson wish they could unleash in their movies the cathartic, bone-crunching carnage Columbus puts on display in “Home Alone’s” punishing final act.

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

4. It’s a character study more than a franchise

Let’s back up a minute. This is a movie about a kid who, when he can do anything he wants with his parents away, decides to pop in a VHS tape of a 1930s gangster movie. Now that’s a character we want to know! And one very hard to duplicate.

5. Why remake when you can keep it going?

Pitch time. Don’t remake “Home Alone,” make a 30-years-later follow-up. Kevin McCallister is now a 40-something racked with commitment and abandonment issues who runs afoul of a paroled Marv (Daniel Stern solo, as, let’s face it, Pesci’s not coming back), which triggers his warrior instincts. Culkin, who always seems on the verge of some big, weird, almost-certainly-indie comeback project, would be back. Catherine O’Hara has never been hotter after “Schitt’s Creek,” so who wouldn’t want to see her in this movie? Devin Ratray (snotty older brother Buzz) has been on an indie-movie tear with “Nebraska,” “Blue Ruin,” and “Hustlers,” so he should come back too. Columbus should be behind the camera. Of course, Hughes died in 2009, as did John Heard, who played Kevin’s father, in 2017. But nothing would pop more than seeing most of the original cast return for a meta take on the original film. An evolution, not a reboot. As every one of us who’s lived through 2020 knows, the idea of being “home alone” has never had greater currency.

The original film was meant to be a Christmas parable, a la “It’s a Wonderful Life,” about discovering the value of what you have as opposed to the pipe-dream wish you think you want. No, you don’t really want your family to suddenly vanish after all. But in our world of hyper-connectivity, the idea of suddenly unplugging from it all for a bit is less a “be careful what you wish for” fantasy than ever before. It’s now just a fantasy. “Home Alone” is a story with great plasticity. It’s easy enough to find a “social distancing” metaphor here, or an articulation of your desire not to spend your holidays with your Trump-supporting relatives. Read just a little into it and you’ll find something that speaks to you. Remaking this story from scratch rather than continuing the story 30 years later would be an even bigger mistake than forgetting to take your child on a trip two years in a row.

Just watching the original feels like an act of the movie being made anew each time you hit the play button. That’s what timeless classics do.

And here’s Culkin’s own take about a “Home Alone” remake:


On November 13, “Fantasia” turns 80. It’s tempting to say there’s never been a movie quite like this, but even beyond the obvious imitators the Disney studio itself produced through the 1940s (and a sequel released in 2000), it’s not as singular an object as it might look. “Fantasia” is the first of a type of movie that’s still being made today — the visionary work of a filmmaker more dedicated to technical breakthroughs than aesthetic substance. Think “Avatar,” the “Hobbit” movies, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “Gemini Man,” and so on.

We’re not here to bury “Fantasia.” A lot of it is impressive, even absorbing: the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence that opens this unique anthology plays like an experimental film, and the “Rite of Spring” transplants Stravinsky’s inflammatory ballet to the beginning of life on Earth before delivering the best dinosaur epic pre-“Jurassic Park.” But “Fantasia” is also the ultimate example of “white elephant art” in film, to borrow critic Manny Farber’s label. This is a case of Walt Disney being so committed to making an “important” film, a “breakthrough” film — one he felt would make critics take animation that much more seriously — that he ends up with a work of just intermittent artistry.

When Walt started down the road of “Fantasia,” he had just achieved a massive success: Between “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Gone With the Wind” at the end of 1939, the single biggest box-office earner was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” It also all but invented the idea of the animated feature film (hat tip to Lotte Reiniger, of course). Before “Snow White” debuted in December 1937, the trade press considered it in terms much like they would 60 years later for James Cameron’s “Titanic” — it was a mess, it would bankrupt the studio, they said. There was even a belief that the human eye might be incapable of watching animation for the length of a feature film.

All of that went out the window when “Snow White” recorded an unheard-of $8 million in box-office rentals. Suddenly, Walt began planning a massive new studio in Burbank. He wanted to invest heavily in a vehicle that could revive the popularity of Mickey Mouse, whose fans had receded ever so slightly in favor of Donald Duck. Walt’s solution was to put his rodent in an extended installment of “Silly Symphonies,” the short cartoons he’d been making since 1929 that revolved heavily around music. The idea he set upon was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” based on the Goethe poem and set to Paul Dukas’s music. He wanted this to be more than a cartoon, to be a film instead where “sheer fantasy unfolds,” he said. “Action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality.”

FANTASIA, Hippo, Alligator, 1940. (c) Walt Disney Productions/Everett Collection

Ballet Russe or Ballet Kitsch?

Walt Disney Productions/Everett Collection

Disney pitched the idea to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s, who agreed to arrange and record “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for free. But as production continued throughout 1938, it became clear that it was becoming so expensive it couldn’t just be released as a short. The only viable solution was to make it part of a feature-length anthology. Then came the breakthrough: Why not have other segments devoted to classical music as well? That might truly evolve the idea of the cartoon into the realm of art, especially with someone like Stokowski onboard.

Originally titled “The Concert Film,” “Fantasia” became Walt’s swing for respectability — even though almost anyone in Hollywood would have then said he already had it. He hired music critic Deems Taylor, who gave contextual commentary during New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts, to introduce each segment. Disney seemed hellbent on creating a new cinematic language, something that could synchronized the senses like never before. “In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action,” the mogul told staff, according to “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in the Golden Age,” by Michael Barrier. “But on this … we’re supposed to be picturing this music — not the music fitting our story.” How strange, then, that Disney didn’t attempt to include a Wagner piece in here: the German composer’s idea of a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” seems to have been Walt’s endgame.

The highbrow bona fides squared away with Stokowski and Taylor, Disney then approached the direction of the animation for each of the film’s segment like a technologist: He’d roll out a new multi-plane camera that allowed for the photography of seven levels at once; he experimented with (and ultimately discarded) cardboard glasses audience members could wear during the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence for a possible 3-D conversion; he hired, then fired, experimental filmmaker Len Lye to help push that “Toccata and Fugue” segment into complete abstraction; he looked into the possibility of piping scents into theaters during different parts of the movie (incense for “Ave Maria,” of course); he gave Mickey Mouse a makeover, with pupils in his eyes for the first time; he hired scientists Julian Huxley and Edwin Hubble to advise on the accuracy of the “origins of the world” as depicted in the “Rite of Spring’ sequence; Marge Champion performed ballet movements that the animators could study and try to capture for a dancing hippo; Bela Lugosi came in briefly to model threatening poses (which were rejected) for the demon Chernabog in the “A Night on Bald Mountain” segment; a UCLA athlete was made to hop over barrels on a Disney soundstage to replicate Mickey’s movements in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney embraced abstraction like never before in the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence that, if separated from the rest of the movie, could play as an experimental film.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

If this all sounds as extravagant as it is ambitious, you’re not wrong. The budget for “Fantasia” ballooned up to $2.25 million. There was also the matter of recording all the music, which Disney decided Stokowski would do at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, renowned for its acoustics, and that it would be captured onto eight channels for a stereo mix. Anticipating Dolby 5.1 by decades, Disney’s stereo set-up would be called FantaSound, and he insisted that each of the 13 theaters where “Fantasia” would play had to be outfitted with it, even though it cost $85,000 to set that up at each theater. Each theater had to have specially trained Disney ushers to escort patrons to their seats. Each ticket buyer would receive a program illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. No wonder that by 1941 the Disney studio was fighting for its financial life.

Which isn’t to say that “Fantasia” wasn’t successful. But the plan for its release essentially called for a Broadway-style run. Disney’s usual distributor, RKO, wouldn’t give it a general release. Disney had to go for the roadshow approach in just 13 theaters, with a premium ticket price. That meant it could make back its money — but only over a long period of time. Manhattan’s Broadway Theater on 53rd Street was rented out for an entire year just to play “Fantasia.” All of this extravagance paid off in public interest, though. The movie ended up exceeding that year-long lease and played for 57 weeks, with most of the 12 other locations having runs of at least three months.

RKO did put the movie into general release in 1942, when Disney was so destitute that he had no choice but accede to their demands to reedit it (cutting out Taylor and the experimental “Toccata” prologue). By that point, Bank of America had installed one of its executives onto the Disney board of directors to manage the company’s debt and the studio was kept afloat mostly by government contracts for World War II instructional films.

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney’s multiplane camerawork is particularly noticeable in the “Ave Maria” segment that ends the film.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Fantasia” didn’t turn turn a profit until 1969, after multiple re-releases. It was also that year that racist imagery during the Pastoral Symphony sequence — a Black centaur, stereotypically presented, is depicted as doting on and being subservient to a white centaur — was quietly cut. This, and the 1942 RKO reedit, lead to another question: What’s the definitive version of “Fantasia”?

Like so many other movies fiddled with by technologist auteurs, it doesn’t appear there is one. Well after Walt’s death, the fiddling continued. The entire score was re-recorded in 1982 so as to correct a problem with the original (it was out of sync by two frames), with Deems Taylor replaced by Hugh Douglas and then, for a subsequent re-release a couple years later, future “West Wing” star Tim Matheson. But for a 1990 50th anniversary re-release “Fantasia” underwent a two-year restoration, at which point the original Stokowski recordings were restored. By a 2000 re-release, Taylor’s original audio recordings had been lost, so voice actor Corey Burton was brought in to meticulously recreate Taylor’s cultured diction via dubbing.

It’s so easy to get so caught up in the technological aspects of this movie and the subsequent tinkering it has endured, that it’s no wonder the artistic intent of the film sometimes gets lost. That seems to have happened to Walt. Yes, the “Toccata” sequence holds up as a bold stab into the realm of visual art, something that could be playing in a loop on a monitor hanging on a museum wall. And the “Nutcracker” sequence gratifyingly avoids depicting anything of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is charming, and “The Rite of Spring” may be the best sequence of all.

But the second half of “Fantasia” stumbles. “The Pastoral Symphony” was even called out by Stokowski for having a random Greek mythological setting, one that’s about as kitschy as it gets. And the “Dance of the Hours,” with its dancing hippos and lusty gators, is a bizarre aside that threatens to deflate the seriousness of the whole project.

FANTASIA, Disney animation, 1940. © Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection

Impressive? Or like an image you’d find on the cover of a kid’s Trapper Keeper?

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

This is a mixed bag presenting itself as a masterpiece. It’s like the Salome movie that Norma Desmond wants to make, the city-sized play Philip Seymour Hoffman directs in “Synecdoche, New York,” the Beach Boys’ “Smile.” It’s an idea more than a movie. But it’s an idea that can, at times, thrill.

Incidentally, Disney followed up “Fantasia” with other anthology movies in the 1940s built around musical pieces, though none around classical works: “Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time,” the latter of which is particularly impressive. (Bach’s okay, but he’s got nothing on the Andrews Sisters.) To recall Farber again, they’re the “termite art” response to the “Fantasia” white elephant. In these, artistry is defined as more than flagrant expressions of ambition.

And they’re all the better for it.


So is it plagiarism or inspiration?

“Ghostbusters” bears an uncanny resemblance to a nine-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1937 called “Lonesome Ghosts,” available to watch this month on Disney+. In fact, the streaming service has a whole slate of spooky programming available and a dedicated Halloween section: among them, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Halloweentown,” and other Disney Channel movies for the holiday, and of course, “Hocus Pocus,” a film that’s grown in cultural esteem more than its creators ever dreamed.

But one area where Disney+ truly delivers is in its collection of animated shorts — it’s here where the service most resembles those late-night hours of the Disney Channel in the late ’90s called “Vault Disney,” where the array of hidden gems seemed inexhaustible. If you want to get into the Halloween spirit in a cool nine minutes you could do no better than checking out “Lonesome Ghosts,” from 1937. Humor, a little creepiness (mostly thanks to a strange image of Goofy thinking his own buttocks is a ghost he needs to vanquish with a sharp pin), some atmosphere, and loads of character work — what more could you want?

Oh, and it is also the spitting image of the “Ghostbusters” concept. “Lonesome Ghosts” is not credited in the Ivan Reitman comedy caper, but several beats seem taken wholesale from this short. It must be a sign of how down-and-out Disney was in 1984 that none of its studio bosses thought to sue Columbia Pictures for a piece of that $296.4 million box-office.

“Lonesome Ghosts” opens with a gong on the score, to let you know something dramatic is in the offing, and so it is — the first thing we see is a haunted house, as ramshackle as you could imagine, its shutters flapping rhythmically in the wind. Cut to the interior and we see three ghosts hanging around, looking bored, itching for someone to make some mischief to. With their weird bowler hats, you get the sense Disney was patterning them on heavies in Warner Bros. gangster films, even if they’re a tad more amiable than Little Caesar or Scarface.

One of the ghosts sees an ad in the paper for “ghost exterminators.” What better idea than to call them up and have a little fun at their expense? Apparently the afterlife is just like life but a lot more boring. You might as well be spooky — there’s nothing else to do!

Apparently, ghosts can pick up the receiver and make phone calls, because that’s the first thing they do upon reading this.

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy are waiting by the phone, fast asleep, in their office. Then they get the call. In “Ghostbusters,” Bill Murray and company are also just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, even if they’re busy eating rather than slumbering.

Our ghost exterminators arrive at the mansion and find they have quite the spectral infestation awaiting them indeed. Their choice of weapons leaves something to be desired: Mickey carries a shotgun, Donald a butterfly net, and Goofy an axe. Not certain what effect these will have on those already dead.

“We’ll separate… and surround them,” Mickey declares. Keep in mind when you hear this high-pitched mouse, it is actually Walt Disney himself you’re listening to. The company founder voiced his rodent continuously from 1928 to 1947, and sporadically after that. When you remind yourself of that, it lends every one of these cartoons a little bit more of a personal touch. Imagine if Bob Iger voiced a major character in, say, the “Frozen” movies.

Surreal proceedings then occur, including one Escher-like moment when the ghosts are somehow able to move a door from its fixed position in the house and onto the floor, and are still somehow able to emerge from it. Goofy also has a Harpo Marx-style gag where he sees a ghost in the mirror, realizes “You know, for a moment… I thought it wasn’t me?” and then does a bit of pantomime to see if his “reflection” really follows him.

This mouse packs heat.

Puffing himself up, Goofy also announces, “I ain’t a-scared o’ no ghost.” With just a slight tweak to “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” you get the Ghostbusters’ catchphrase and a key line in Ray Parker Jr.’s song. And just like the Ghostbusters end up covered in marshmallow, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy end up covered in molasses and then flour, so that the real ghosts they’re tracking, thinking their pursuers are ghosts too, get scared, and ultimately leave. Mission accomplished.

How did Disney not file an intellectual property lawsuit against Columbia over these similarities? Well, when “Ghostbusters” came out in June 1984, it was right at the end of CEO Ron Miller’s tenure. Though a technical innovator in his own right — he had championed “Tron” — Miller got the job mostly because he was Walt’s son-in-law, and his business instincts were shaky (he also championed “The Black Cauldron”). Not to say that his time as CEO was entirely a failure. He helped launch Touchstone Pictures and invested in Tim Burton’s earliest efforts, such as “Frankenweenie.” But would he have had the presence of mind to call out Columbia for appropriating Disney IP? No. Was he even aware of the existence of “Lonesome Ghosts”? Probably not.

Three months after “Ghostbusters” came out, Miller was ousted and new president Frank Wells and new CEO Michael Eisner took over.

September 2020

Sean Connery turns 90 today. Though we haven’t seen him on the big screen in 17 years, since “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” he’s popped up here and there since: cheering on Andy Murray at tennis championships and lending his voice in support of Scotland’s independence push in 2014.

Connery was never the kind of actor to chase past successes; his multiple attempts at leaving the James Bond franchise prove that. So even if there’s a twinge of sadness he hasn’t graced the screen in so very long, there is at least comfort to be found in a career of continual quality. How many other actors can you say made good movies in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s? No, we’re not counting “Extraordinary Gentlemen” for the 2000s; that would be Gus Van Sant’s inward-looking “Finding Forrester,” which many of us prefer to think of as Connery’s swan song.

What’s the ‘50s film, you ask? You can watch it right now on Disney+. It’s a strange fantasy adventure called “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a deep immersion in Irish folklore and culture directed by future “Mary Poppins” helmer Robert Stevenson. Connery doesn’t have a lot to do, but at 28-years-old his starpower is undeniable. In fact, it’s hard to think of another more handsome guy in any Disney live action movie after this for who knows how long. Sex appeal has typically not been a requirement for Disney stardom. When Connery made this movie, he was under contract to 20th Century Fox, which lent him out to Disney as a one-off. It was a hit, a genuine special effects extravaganza, and for many Americans the first they had ever seen the future 007.

Connery breaks out into the song “Pretty Irish Girl” in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”

Connery’s early days are almost mythical. There’s a story often told about his impoverished 20s that says he was so poor he couldn’t pay to have heat in his Edinburgh flat, but so good looking it didn’t matter since he brought a different woman home each night to keep warm. That certainly has the whiff of a tall tale about it. What we do know is that he came from as working-class poor a background as anyone destined for global moviestardom ever: his mother was a cleaning woman, his father a factory worker and truck driver.

Connery himself joined the Royal Navy at 16 before being drummed out at 19 on account of a duodenal ulcer. Various odd jobs followed: mail carrier, milkman, even coffin polisher (yes, apparently a real job). In his early 20s he got into bodybuilding and placed third in the 1953 Mr. Universe competition. At that event he learned that the touring U.K. production of “South Pacific” was looking for actors in its chorus; he landed a gig as a singing Seabee, and then got promoted to one of the more prominent roles. A flurry of small parts in film and TV followed.

The most important of these early roles had to be the MGM adventure film “Action of the Tiger,” directed by Terence Young, the filmmaker behind the first three James Bond movies and on whom Connery clearly made an impression. (This was a guy so good-looking, it didn’t even matter that by the time he first donned Bond’s tux at 32 he was already wearing a hairpiece.)

And then “Another Time, Another Place” for Paramount, in which Connery had a supporting role opposite Lana Turner. The actress’s gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato became hysterically jealous of this handsome Scot, and when he started causing problems on the London set, Turner called Scotland Yard and tried to have Stompanato deported. Instead, the gangster showed up on set pointing a gun at Connery, which didn’t seem to dissuade the 27-year-old actor at all. He charged Stompanato, grabbed the gun out of his hand, and twisted his wrist. The police indeed then forced the thug to board a plane back to America.

It was around this time Walt Disney began casting in London for “Darby O’Gill.” He had wanted to make a movie about Celtic mythology since the ’40s when he had a treatment for a never-realized live-action/animation hybrid called “Three Wishes.” Disney never wore his Irish heritage as conspicuously as some. His father, Elias, born in Ontario, was himself the son of Irish immigrants to Canada.

Perhaps it’s because he and his father had such a fraught relationship — Elias was a socialist and ardent supporter of Eugene V. Debs, while his son was anything but, opposed even to his studio becoming a union shop in the early ‘40s — that he didn’t feel tremendous connection to his Irish heritage. But the magic and folklore and mythology… all that he connected to. And before that casting session in early 1958 in which he chose Connery as the romantic lead for young Janet Munro, he spent three months in Ireland researching Celtic legend.

DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, Albert Sharpe, Jimmy O'Dea, 1959.

Forced perspective tricks make Jimmy O’Dea and the other leprechauns appear tiny; O’Dea is only filmed in full-length shots (you see him head to toe) in order to accomplish this

Courtesy Everett Collection

“Darby O’Gill” is the kind of movie that would never be made today because it’s really just an endlessly talky showdown between 73-year-old Albert Sharpe as the title character and 59-year-old Jimmy O’Dea as King Brian, leader of the leprechauns. This is a dense script, lively on wit and wordplay, with key moments of special effects wizardry befitting a tale of folkloric magic. Darby once met King Brian years before and got him to grant him three wishes: a crock of gold was one, of course. But then he made the mistake of making a fourth wish, which you simply never do when making requests of a leprechaun. A fourth wish will negate the previous three. Now Darby’s caught King Brian again, putting him in a sack over his back until he can think of the three best wishes to wish this time. Connery is the young gamekeeper who’s just taken over Darby’s job — against his will — but is romancing the old man’s daughter. It meant something to Connery too since his paternal grandfather’s parents had in fact emigrated to Scotland from Ireland in the mid 1800s.

If this plot sounds a bit like “Aladdin,” released 33 years later, you’re not wrong. It’s the same bit of Disney-style exploitation of a unique culture in service of atmosphere. And it features a similar resolution: only when Darby realizes he should use his relationship to magic in a way that benefits others does he win the day. Because evil forces are indeed afoot: there’s a banshee in the area (honestly not looking much less sophisticated than the Nazgul in “Lord of the Rings” 42 years later) and Death’s Coachman insists upon taking a passenger. The most impressive effects, however, are with the leprechauns. Using the same forced-perspective tricks Peter Jackson used for his hobbits, Jimmy O’Dea, always filmed in full-length long shot, all the better to surround him with overly large set objects to make him lake small, appears like a wee sprite indeed.

The banshee appears in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”

It’s not surprising that The New York Times’ A.H. Weiler wrote off Connery’s performance here as him being “merely tall, dark, and handsome.” It’s not his movie, even if he makes a striking impression. How interesting it would be if a movie with a septuagenarian lead getting drunk and trading clever limericks with a leprechaun made bank at the box-office for Disney today. But Connery does have one unique moment where he actually sings to his lady love Munro. It’s a song called “Pretty Irish Girl.” There’s some question about whether or not he’s actually dubbed here. Give it a listen. It certainly sounds like him, especially given its questionable competence.

Within three years Connery would become an international icon of generic Britishness as Bond. But Disney helped put his name in lights by letting him explore his Celtic heritage onscreen a bit first.

August 2020:

“Treasure Island”

Not every Disney movie features a lead actor cited as a role model by Oliver Reed and Keith Moon. That’s the case with the very first all live-action movie the studio produced: “Treasure Island,” in which hard-living actor Robert Newton played Robert Louis Stevenson’s legendary peg-legged pirate, Long John Silver. Newton would die of chronic alcoholism just six years later and in the interim he mostly chased the glory of his Long John Silver in other swashbuckling seafarers.

The 1940s had been rough for Walt Disney’s studio: “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” were back-to-back bombs and the studio was kept afloat through World War II mostly through government contracts to produce training films and contribute animation to propaganda efforts such as Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak’s “Why We Fight” films. The studio tried to cut corners by packaging together a number of anthology films — “Saludos Amigos,” “Make Mine Music,” “Melody Time,” “Fun and Fancy Free,” “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” — all of which feature shorts and sequences as artistically satisfying as anything Disney would ever produce but didn’t exactly light the box office on fire. Not that it mattered because they cost so much less to produce than the likes of “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi.”

As 1950 approached, Walt wanted to make a big swing to diversify what audiences associated with the brand. He found it in Stevenson’s briny classic: this would be his first film not to feature any animation whatsoever, kicking off a tradition of live-action filmmaking for the studio that’s now marking its 70th anniversary. Out of “Treasure Island” would emerge the idea of the Disney child star. And it would redefine the cinematic notion of pirates.

Newton, a native of Dorset in England’s West Country, just like the pirates of “Treasure Island,” had made a name for himself in British films of the ’30s and ’40s, including “Fire Over England” (1937), which paired Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. He was the romantic lead of Alfred Hitchcock’s final British film before leaving for Hollywood, “Jamaica Inn,” about pirates holed up along the storm-swept coast of Cornwall. And he had been cast as Cassius in Josef von Sternberg’s never-realized adaptation of “I, Claudius,” one of the most longed-for films that never actually ended up getting made. This was a coarse man’s man of an actor given to rum and ribaldry, and who, not long after the phenomenal success of “Treasure Island” in 1950 would be accused of kidnapping his own son.

Funny how life has a way of imitating art, because much of “Treasure Island” finds Newton kidnapping, or otherwise menacing, 12-year-old Bobby Driscoll. The film is a slow burn: a creaky old pirate named Bones (Finlay Currie) gives young tavern-keeper Jim Hawkins (Driscoll) a map to the treasure he buried on an island, so as to keep it for himself and away from his murderous crew. He tells the boy to beware a man with a peg-leg who might be in want of it. Indeed, young Master ‘awkins finds such a man in Long John Silver, the cook at another local tavern, who signs up for a voyage sponsored by Hawkins’ mentor Squire Trelawney to find the treasure. Silver ends up populating much of the crew with his own men — all of whom want a piece of the loot they thought Bones had denied them. It becomes a “will they, won’t they” battle of wits as you wonder when the pirates — for they obviously are pirates, regardless of the dim Trelawney’s blindness to it; this is the kind of movie where the lead kid character is smarter than any of the adults — will lead a mutiny and take over the ship. They eventually do, Silver taking Hawkins hostage and threatening to slit his throat unless the rest of the crew acquiesces.

Newton’s pirate is a dramatic departure from previous Hollywood depictions of buccaneers plundering the Spanish Main. In films like “Captain Blood” (1935) or “The Black Swan” (1942), you’d have dashing romantic leads flying the Jolly Roger, such as Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Unconcerned with sex appeal, Disney ultimately opted for a more realistic approach with Newton’s Silver: pudgy, obviously illiterate, at times incomprehensible, and clearly not a former pupil of any of the major studio’s fencing masters. Nor their elocution instructors.

Instead, the actor inaugurates the “arrgh, shiver me timbers, matey!” school of cinematic piracy. Which is really just his West Country accent, leaned into with a little more bite. In fact, most of the names we would associate in the annals of piracy did come from Cornwall, Devon, or Newton’s Dorset (Penzance in “The Pirates of Penzance” is a small Cornish town). Blame Newton for the inauguration of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Bobby Driscoll was the first Disney child star

His approach may seem the definitive version of a movie pirate, but in 1950 Newton’s acting was as radical a redefinition of a pirate as Johnny Depp’s in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie 53 years later. Pairing him with a young lad as bright-eyed and quick-witted — not to mention true-hearted — as Driscoll was the kind of cinematic alchemy from which, of course, a hit would be born.

Driscoll had appeared in several Disney productions before this, including the now impossible to see “Song of the South,” the comfort-blanket of a movie “So Dear to My Heart,” and a brief scene in “Melody Time.” All of those movies mixed live-action with animation, a style inaugurated in Disney’s most eye-popping effort of the ’40s, “The Three Caballeros.” It seems Walt just did not feel confident enough to have an all live-action film until he’d landed on a title with built-in name recognition with “Treasure Island.” That was the same mentality he brought to 1950’s massive animated success for the studio: “Cinderella,” Disney’s first full-length animated feature in seven and a half years.

“Treasure Island” is a gorgeous film to behold. Disney had been a pioneer in the use of three-strip Technicolor since his Academy Award-winning 1932 short, “Flowers and Trees.” In fact, the Disney studio from then on, with the exception of the wartime propaganda oddity “Victory Through Air Power” (1943), would release all of its productions using Technicolor’s process, by some accounts helping to keep the film colorization company in business as other studios found its methods too expensive.

Disney had been Hollywood’s most consistent employer of Technicolor’s processes since the early 1930s; notice how perfectly lit and composed this dining-room tableau is, the apples bathed in a golden light

“Treasure Island” is soaked in atmosphere and attention to detail. Above all, it seems Walt Disney wanted you to feel immersed in his movies, as if you had jumped into the screen. And you’re not going to feel immersed in a movie if you don’t believe in it, so every piece of the production design here is carefully thought through. When the pirate Black Dog first approaches the Admiral Benbow Inn along a steep cliffside, that’s an actual cliffside in Devon being filmed.

As he pushes the door to the tavern, director Byron Haskin’s camera is trained behind him, the pirate’s back to us; then he steps to the side, and it’s as if the camera has now adopted Black Dog’s point of view entirely as he walks deeper into the ale-soaked environs. His perspective is now ours. It quickly cuts to Jim Hawkins, but for a moment you felt like you were a pirate and you were in 1765. Other moments feel like that throughout the film, almost as if each set piece was in fact part of an elaborate Disneyland ride, the camera mounted to the front of the car. Universal Studios may have coined the phrase “Ride the Movies!” but it feels like Disney was doing that before he ever even stepped foot in the theme park business.

The other thing that gives “Treasure Island” a strong sense of immersion (rather than diversion, like so many later, more insubstantial live-action Disney efforts) is its surprising violence and amorality. At least two men are shot in the face while in close-up, one of which Jim shoots himself. Before he dies, that villain then launches a throwing knife into young Jim’s shoulder. The film was only 96 minutes, but when it was re-released in 1975, the studio had to cut nine minutes in order to obtain a desired G rating. The “uncut version” of “Treasure Island” had suddenly become as hard to see then as “Song of the South” is now. The censored footage was only restored in 1991, when having a PG-rating for the film then had become acceptable to the Michael Eisner administration.

“Treasure Island”

The biggest problem with “Treasure Island” appears to be an intentional one: none of the characters beyond Jim and Long John Silver are interesting at all. This makes you actually root for Silver by the end and heartily cheer when he makes off with the treasure — Jim even helps him get away with it by that point. The film unquestionably presents Silver’s victory as a happy ending. This is the morality of “Pulp Fiction.” Because Silver has more personality than everyone else — he’s a true character, even if he doesn’t have character — he deserves to win the day. How on earth did this get past the Production Code? Villainy not only wins, it’s endorsed.

And audiences ate it up. “Treasure Island” made back four times its production cost and solidified Disney as a producer of live-action films ever since. Its next few efforts would make little impact: who remembers “Robin Hood and His Merrie Men” or “The Sword and the Rose”? Disney’s next great live-action film would be “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” a film so superlative that it’s never demanded a remake and so adult in its themes — not a child actor in sight — that you’d barely think it was a Disney film at all.

But “Treasure Island” started it all. For his part, Driscoll’s only remaining contribution to Disney was to serve as the inspiration for the look of “Peter Pan” in the 1953 animated film. His path would be that of so many child stars, if a particularly sad one. After spending time in jail for drug abuse, he moved to New York to be part of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Those horrifying images earlier this year of countless coffins interred at New York City’s potter’s field, Hart’s Island? Driscoll’s body is there too. He’s in one of its countless pauper’s graves after dying in his East Village apartment on 10th Street from heart failure in 1968 due to substance use. He was 31.

For his part, Newton kept chasing his “Treasure Island” success. He’d star in “Blackbeard the Pirate” and a non-Disney sequel to “Treasure Island” called “Long John Silver.” That led to an “Adventures of Long John Silver” TV series. Whenever you say “arrrgh,” you know who to thank.

July 2020

“Many of the things that seem impossible now will become realities tomorrow.”

Walt Disney said this in his introductory opening to “Man in Space,” the 20th episode of his “Disneyland” TV series from 1955, now on Disney+ alongside its 1957 follow-up “Mars and Beyond.” It’s hard to imagine a more purely optimistic vision of the future — one that seems more than a bit disconnected from the reality we’re facing now.

The attention of Disney+ users in July will rightly be on “Hamilton,” but the phenomenal success that the Broadway musical  represents for the streaming service is one of acquisition, of the world’s biggest film studio doing what it does best these days: opening its wallet. “Hamilton” is just the latest blockbuster IP gobbled up by the Mouse House, sanded down to ensure a PG-13 rating. The artistic triumph here is that of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and their extraordinary cast — not the suits at Disney.

Which makes “Man in Space” and “Mars and Beyond” so novel by comparison. Here’s Walt Disney himself — that rarest combination: the ultimate corporate suit but also a visionary artist — presenting a stunning glimpse at where we might go if we’re daring enough. Before NASA was even founded (in 1958), he helped kick off the Space Race by showing that humanity’s future lies in the stars.

Wernher Von Braun presents a sequence of gorgeous animation imagining his early vision for a space shuttle — 26 years before the actual NASA space shuttle would make its first flight


“Man in Space” is the more purely science-minded of the two installments. Uncle Walt quickly turns hosting duties over to animator Ward Kimball, one of the “Nine Old Men” and an obvious space enthusiast, and the credited director of these animation-heavy episodes. What follows is a point-by-point cartoon history of rocket science, from medieval China to the development of the German V2 rocket, with film clips from Melies’ “Trip to the Moon” (1903) and Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” (1929) interspersed. The implication is clear. There’s no need for a separation between art and science at all: the artists who capture the wonder of the universe share much with the scientists who study it. The animators who can dream possible futures align comfortably with the engineers who could actually build it.

German rocket scientist Willy Ley, who advised on the designs for “Woman in the Moon” before fleeing the Nazis, narrates an animated segment, as does Wernher von Braun, who served the Nazis and created the V2 rocket before joining NASA. (Conveniently, the technical triumph of the V2 is extolled without mention of the over 9,000 civilians, including 2,500 in London, who were killed by it during World War II.) Von Braun reveals his vision for an early version of the space shuttle, with a reusable airplane-like orbiter sitting atop booster rockets.

The special ends with blatant call for the U.S. government to create a space agency of its own. This is a company that didn’t just want to make a ton of money or promote its theme park but actually believed it could influence public policy. And apparently it worked: historian Bill Cotter reveals that among the 40 million viewers of “Man in Space” (also nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short because it played in theaters before features) was President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who urged Pentagon rocket scientists to watch it.

“Mars and Beyond” contrasts hard science with the burgeoning science fiction of the 1950s in one humorous sequence


This is not the first time Disney had sought to affect government strategy. In 1943, Walt released “Victory Through Air Power,” which follows a very similar template to “Man in Space”: in that case, it was an animated history of aviation followed by a detailed visual argument narrated by the Russian flyer Russian P. de Seversky for how long-range bombing could shift the fight against the Axis that much more in favor of the Allies. It involved specs for new types of bombers that could be developed and even a suggestion (an admittedly questionable one) to make the Aleutians the hub for an air campaign against Japan. The movie is such a treatise, such a visual essay prioritizing inquiry over entertainment, that Disney’s usual distributor RKO refused to release it: United Artists picked it up instead, and, unsurprisingly, the movie flopped.

There’s an oddly utopian spirit behind the Walt Disney Company at moments like this in the ‘40s and ‘50s — a sincere belief they could change the world and that some things are more important than making money. It’s the same spirit that Walt would carry with him in his initial conception of Epcot Center as the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”

Sixty two years before “Captain Marvel,” Disney presented its first female superhero, who stands up to a bunch of sinister aliens in “Mars and Beyond”


“Mars and Beyond” is a more light-hearted and animation-heavy installment than “Man in Space” but equally impressive: it imagines the forms that life might take on other planets, including silicon-based life, which must have been mind-blowing to the TV audience in 1957. Before it considers the possibility of extraterrestrial life, though, it devotes an entire segment to the evolution of life on earth, a decidedly Darwinian vision that makes you wonder if we’d even see anything as rigorously non-theistic on network TV today. It also makes us long for when we could have more TV science educators than just Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

These two specials are startling — and a reminder that sometimes when you look back you can be surprised at how much people were looking forward.

June 2020

“Red Tails” took 23 years to get made, but it was still somehow ahead of its time when it was released in January 2012. Directed and scripted by black filmmakers, this was a movie that focused on black excellence, not suffering. It bears some similarity to “Black Panther,” released six years later, another movie that makes black heroism its subject. But “Red Tails” isn’t taken from a comic book — it’s an electrifying jolt of real-life history that’s been under-explored on screen: the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

It’s not the reverential, flag-waving World War II drama you might expect. “Red Tails” is less “Saving Private Ryan” than “Star Wars,” because, well, it was the passion project of George Lucas himself. He wanted to see a story about the Tuskegee Airmen in the mold of the rip-roaring World War II aerial actioners he grew up with as a kid, films like “Flying Tigers,” “The Dam Busters,” and “Twelve O’Clock High.” Those movies had inspired the X-Wings vs. TIE Fighters action of “Star Wars.”

The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots in the Army Air Forces (and so named for having been trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama) became legendary for their heroics in the skies of Nazi-occupied Europe during 1944-45. With the tails of their fighters painted red, they primarily served as bomber escorts, drawing Luftwaffe fire from B-17 Flying Fortresses so that they could drop their payload on Axis targets. Who knows how many American bombers were saved because of the actions of the Tuskegee Airmen? Lucas felt their heroism should be celebrated — but that that celebration should be fun.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd/Partnership Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885949av) Michael B. Jordan Red Tails - 2012 Director: Anthony Hemingway 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd/Partnership Pictures USA Scene Still Action/Adventure

Michael B. Jordan was among the cast of rising stars

20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd/Partnership Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

Like “Star Wars” itself, “Red Tails” opens in the middle of explosive action. There are no elaborate training sequences or exposition-heavy introductions that show the Airmen suffering under Jim Crow before taking to the skies. When we meet these daring flyers — a cast of rising black actors that we would hear much more about in subsequent projects, including David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Michael B. Jordan — they’re already in the air, as experienced veterans who want more challenging missions and are being denied them by the racist hierarchy of the Army Air Forces.

Other than “Dunkirk,” it’s hard to think of another World War II film with more impressive aerial sequences. Hemingway follows the “Star Wars” model for staging dogfights, cutting among highly detailed wide-angle establishing shots, close-ups of the pilots’ faces, and point-of-view shots from the cockpits. There’s an immersive energy to the flight combat throughout, but you never lose sight of the individual pilots amid all the CGI fireballs. Each character is exceptionally well defined, in quiet moments as well as in the air, with Oyelowo’s “Lightning” Little becoming the emotional heart of the film. A scene in which he courts a young Italian woman who has an overly intrusive mother is a particularly funny character beat.

Racism in “Red Tails” is omnipresent, but it’s not assigned to just a few white characters who can be written off as “bad apples” in an otherwise righteous U.S. Armed Forces mission. Instead, it’s structural, and that perspective comes from the film’s creative team of black artists: screenwriters John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks”), and director Anthony Hemingway (who would later helm half the episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”). The film opens with a stunning quote, taken from a 1925 U.S. Army War College Study: “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient, and cowards in the face of danger. They are therefore unfit for combat.” But this isn’t ultimately a story about black heroes struggling to earn the respect of white people; it’s about being the best they can be.

“We wanted to show the Airmen as heroes, not victims,” McGruder said to this writer for EW in 2012. “What George was looking for in our script was more fun, more excitement, more energy. I just kept going back to ‘Star Wars,’ ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark for the tone we were trying to set.” And that action is the first thing you notice: “Red Tails” has over 1,600 VFX shots, just a few hundred less than “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.”

The film received mixed reviews from critics but was strongly boosted by other black creators, including Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, who had previously criticized Lucas for creating a racist caricature in Jar Jar Binks. Before the term “allyship” was ever thrown out there, Lucas seemed to grasp that he should open his wallet for “Red Tails,” and he did, to the tune of nearly $100 million of his personal fortune — and limit his creative involvement.

“Red Tails” is full of details and texture that might not have been there if not for the Black creative team

But that financial support almost wasn’t enough. Though he was willing to finance and produce it on his own, part of the reason why the film never got off the ground after Lucas first thought of it in the late 1980s is because no Hollywood distributor would take a chance on releasing it. 20th Century Fox, Lucas’s “Star Wars” distributor, finally came onboard for its 2012 debut, but even then they wouldn’t release it internationally. I’ll never forget sitting in the audience at the panel for “Red Tails” at the 2011 New York Comic-Con and a white Fox marketing executive saying to the crowd that the film would only receive a domestic release because international audiences didn’t care about African-American stories.

When I asked Oyelowo in 2012 if he thought Hollywood had supported “Red Tails,” he was unequivocal. “No, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a film that would’ve gotten made without George self-financing it, because there’s no ‘white savior’ role. The Tuskegee Airmen are the heroes. It’s their story… But the excuse, ‘Oh, a largely African-American cast doesn’t [bring in box-office]’ is ridiculous when you consider that the biggest film in history — ‘Avatar’ — was largely populated by blue people.”

In the wake of the phenomenal success of “Black Panther,” it’s fascinating to look at “Red Tails” again, and the push-pull of black filmmakers going up against white gatekeepers. Here was a film that a lot of critics didn’t think was a “serious” enough look at the Airmen. Those white journalists were wrong: “Red Tails” deserves your time. And it’ll pay it back. This is history that isn’t homework.

May 2020

The new offerings on Disney+ peak early this month: on May 4 to be precise, as in May the Fourth Be With You, the reason this date is widely designated “Star Wars Day.” Some diehards — you’re looking at one — also choose to acknowledge the day after as Revenge of the Fifth. The streaming service is rolling out new “Star Wars”-themed banners and design skins in commemoration of that galaxy far, far away to give the site architecture a refreshed feel whenever you click on any “Star Wars” content. May 4 is also the Disney+ release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” but your time would be much better spent treating yourself to a binge of the most immersive, kinetic, world-expanding “Star Wars” ever, a show that’s streaming its final episode on May 4: “The Clone Wars.”

Best Bet

The “Star Wars” galaxy is a whole lot bigger because of “The Clone Wars.” And if you’ve never watched any of it and consider yourself a big “Star Wars” fan, you’re to be envied: you have so much fun ahead of you.

George Lucas created this series himself and it bears his unmistakable stamp: instantly memorable characters, quirky creatures, in media res plotting, extraordinary worldbuilding, pulpy dialogue, and a healthy dose of politics. The series went into production right after “Revenge of the Sith” concluded the prequel trilogy in 2005, and as the animation wizard to lead day to day production, Lucas chose Dave Filoni, a native son of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who had previously worked on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “King of the Hill.” It was a harmonious match: in Filoni, Lucas had found his heir, the person who understood his sensibility most acutely and could evolve it for the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, a lot of “Star Wars” fans and casual viewers were resistant to giving “The Clone Wars” a chance. Whatever backlash there is against “Star Wars” content produced under the aegis of Disney was equaled or exceeded by the backlash against the “Star Wars” prequels, and here was more storytelling — dozens of hours more — set during the prequel era. It also had big shoes to fill: a previous 2-D animated series of “micro-episodes” called “Clone Wars” had aired to great acclaim under the direction of Genndy Tartakovsky in the leadup to “Revenge of the Sith.” That series was almost wordless, boiling “Star Wars” down to its leanest essence. It was brilliant, but it didn’t have to be the only take on the period between Episodes II and III, the time of a great war between the Republic with its Jedi-led clone army and the secessionist Separatists.

Then came the worst decision of all: to stitch together the first four episodes of Filoni’s new 3-D animated series and release them as a Frankenstein’d “movie” into theaters in the summer of 2008. Of course it didn’t work. These were TV episodes cobbled together as a marketing ploy against Filoni’s wishes, with the animation still at its most basic — the computer graphics on “The Clone Wars” would evolve substantially with each subsequent season.

The reviews for the film were terrible, and after that, a lot of fans might not have been willing to give the TV series a chance. But for those who did, this very quickly became the “Star Wars” they had been looking for. And for a generation of young kids first being weaned on the saga, this series would come to define what “Star Wars” meant for them.

This was particularly true for a generation of young girls, due to the character of Ahsoka Tano. The 14-year-old Togruta voiced by former Disney channel star Ashley Eckstein (who’s since turned her fame from the show into the fashion empire Her Universe, which markets geeky apparel to girls, long neglected by the merchandising side of “Star Wars”) was precocious and daring and more than capable of holding her own with Anakin Skywalker when the Jedi Council assigned her to be his Padawan. In her first mission with Anakin she accompanies her new master on a quest to rescue the kidnapped infant of Jabba the Hutt, a stinky Huttlet named Rotta — the seeds for Baby Yoda were planted even in 2008! And she’d cross sabers with the vile Sith wannabe Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), calling her “the hairless harpy” — proving that she’d have a whole arsenal of Han Solo-style verbal barbs to snarkily assail her foes.

Seven years before Rey, “Star Wars” fans already had a girl Jedi to look up to in Ahsoka, and thanks to George Lucas himself. And the culture around “The Clone Wars” and its subsequent series, “Star Wars Rebels” and “Star Wars: Resistance,” if smaller than those for the live-action films, has certainly been more positive.

One side benefit to the furor over the live-action Disney “Star Wars” films, though, has been to retroactively elevate Lucas’s own prequels a tad more. But also, in the way it fills in the gaps between the movies and enriches characters like Anakin Skywalker and Mace Windu, “The Clone Wars” makes the prequels much better. The show expands the scope of the prequels far wider, introducing stunning new designs for species (check out the wordless floating mushroom jellyfish creatures, the Parwans, a personal favorite of this writer) and planets. An entire three-part arc is set underwater on the ocean world of Mon Cala (home to Admiral Ackbar who makes an appearance as just a “Captain” during the time of “The Clone Wars”). One episode from Season 4 called “Bounty” is set on a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere where everyone has to live in pressurized tunnels underground connected by supersonic trains. Frankly, for worldbuilding alone, “The Clone Wars” puts the post-Lucas theatrical “Star Wars” films to shame.

Admiral Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) threatens Ahsoka during the events that cause her to leave the Jedi Order.

Admiral Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) threatens Ahsoka during the events that cause her to leave the Jedi Order

Series composer Kevin Kiner made sure the series wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, too, bringing in unique instruments to give cultures like the Nightsisters of Dathomir a distinctive aural signature. A blaring organ lends some Morricone-esque flair to the introduction of bounty hunter Cad Bane (a series MVP character and proof of something great about “The Clone Wars” that was lacking in the prequels: it has scoundrels!) In the final episodes of the series’ run, Ahsoka experiences the events leading up to Order 66 and Kiner’s music is all ominous, pulsing electronica, like something you’d expect in a Michael Mann movie. “Star Wars” doesn’t just have to be one thing, and in pushing wider what it could be, in terms of characters and aesthetic flourishes, “The Clone Wars” proved that emphatically.

But “The Clone Wars” went deeper as well as wider: Matt Lanter channeled Han Solo in his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker, capturing a sense of cocky swagger that, for all his charms, Hayden Christensen never quite managed in the live-action films. In Lanter’s portrayal, something deeper emerges: the sense that the very qualities that made Anakin a hero — his “go it alone” spirit, his desire to always be in charge, his care for others bordering on being a controlling jerk — are the qualities that also make him a villain. And what the show did for Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is extraordinary: it took a character that had but three lines in “The Phantom Menace,” showed that because “the dark side of the Force leads to powers that some consider to be unnatural” he survived being cut in half, and then dealt with the aftermath. When we first meet Maul, discovered by his half-brother Savage Opress (Clancy Brown), he’s a shell of his former self. He’s missing his legs, sure, but what’s worse is that he’s lost his mind for more than 10 years. When he finally gets his wits back, he says he wants to “start with revenge” — against Kenobi, of course — but what he’s ultimately after is far more complex. He’s rejecting the whole idea of the light side/dark side divide and wants to just enrich himself as a crime lord. He’s suffered enough, why not live the good life?

Darth Maul is not the only instance of “The Clone Wars” pushing deeper than the Manichaean light side/dark side divide that often defined the saga. You could argue that the prequels already did much of what “The Last Jedi” achieves, introducing shades of grey into the Arthurian majesty of our collective idea of the Jedi: they kinda suck. As ex-Lucasfilm staffer Justin Bolger put it recently on Twitter regarding a scene from “The Phantom Menace,” “Beloved Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn sat at the dinner table of two slaves. He enjoyed their hospitality. He ate their food. And then he told them… ‘I didn’t come here to free slaves.’… The revenge of the Sith started long before #Order66.” “The Clone Wars” goes even deeper in showing how much the Jedi had compromised their values. By fighting this war at all — by becoming generals and abandoning their role as peacekeepers — they were playing right into the Dark Side’s hands.

"Star Wars: The Clone Wars"

Ahsoka fights to free Mandalore from the clutches of Maul


The show also goes messier, too, with the kind of big swings and head-scratching choices that big tentpoles could use a lot more of. A huge cinephile, Filoni retold the story of Hitchcock’s “Notorious” in one episode, with Anakin as Cary Grant and Padme as Ingrid Bergman. Plus, there’s a two-part Godzilla story. And film legends contributed to the show, as well: Walter Murch directed an episode. So did David Lynch collaborator Duwayne Dunham. Not to mention that Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini wrote several episodes too, as did “Sons of Anarchy” writer Charles Murray. Want to have an entire episode built around the aesthetic of Mobius? There’s one here. Want to see a Mandalorian-themed version of Picasso’s “Guernica” hanging in a city plaza? The episode “The Lawless” will hook you up. This is a show where a bar patron will lustily swoon about Darth Maul’s brother, “Wow, I’d like to check his midi-chlorian count.” And that then will drop a stunning hint about the fate of the fish people, the Selkath, from the beloved “Knights of the Old Republic” video game when Count Dooku says to one bounty hunter Selkath, “Your people were once a peaceful race… how far they have fallen.” A line that also proves that hinting at a horrifying backstory is always more effective than actually explaining it and filling it in.

If you’re looking to recharge your “Star Wars” batteries, you’d do no better than to watch “The Clone Wars.” It doesn’t just expand the “Star Wars” universe that much more. It makes you want to keep on exploring it.

Also New on Disney+ This Month:

Disney Gallery: Mandalorian

If you’re still looking for even more “Star Wars” content beyond “The Clone Wars” this May 4, Disney+ is unveiling a new “making of” series about “The Mandalorian,” the live-action hit that launched the service back on November 12. All the filmmakers who were involved, including Jon Favreau, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard, and “Clone Wars” mastermind himself, Dave Filoni, should make appearances.

Hello, Dolly!

Jerry Herman’s musical about the Yonkers matchmaker is certainly canonical, even if this Barbra Streisand-starring film adaptation is not. She’s too young for the part of Dolly Levi, and the fact she’s romantically paired with Walter Matthau is… odd, to say the least. That Gene Kelly directed this flat mess is proof positive that the films that bore co-director credits for Kelly and Stanley Donen, such as “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” were really just Donen efforts after all. That said, you might find yourself enjoying parts of “Hello, Dolly!” despite your better judgment… it can be surprisingly watchable, as WALL-E himself found out.

April 2020

Disney+ is an oddity in the streaming landscape. While it took over pop culture last fall with Baby Yoda and “The Mandalorian,” that blockbuster series was very much the exception for its content model thus far: this is a platform that relies almost entirely on its studio’s back catalogue of classic films. There won’t be another original live-action series of the stature of “The Mandalorian” until, well, “The Mandalorian” Season 2 later this year (assuming its post-production still continues as planned).

As for its classic film titles, Disney+ maintains a family-friendly focus, so many of the company’s more mature titles produced under its Touchstone banner, let alone its 20th Century Fox archive, don’t appear on the service. Even still, Disney+ touted the depth of its content offerings in the leadup to its November 12 launch with an epic Twitter thread of hundreds of beloved (or at least on-brand) titles spanning decades: from the 1940 version of “Swiss Family Robinson” starring Thomas Mitchell, which Walt Disney bought and suppressed so as to make his own 1960 version, all the way through “Coco” and “The Last Jedi.”

If the service is an oddity unto itself, it’s the oddities on the platform that have been among its most interesting offerings — including a “Disney Parks at the Holidays” special from the 1960s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series in 1966 that was the last TV broadcast Walt Disney himself appeared in before his death.

Because there isn’t that much new on offer through the service, this recurring feature singles out one recently added title to highlight as “The Best Bet” on the service each month, along with a couple other newly available picks and a selection or two from the back catalogue. Sometimes, “The Best Bet” will be a film, sometimes a series or TV special. It can be a new offering or a vintage favorite. This time, it’s a singular title: when Disney got Lynchian.

The Best Bet

“The Straight Story” is like the transcendental meditation famously practiced by its director, David Lynch. Watching it feels like an act of emotional healing. Its languid rhythm contradicts one of the key ingredients of drama: namely, conflict. There’s no real conflict in “The Straight Story” at all. Its story is gentle, a simple tale of perseverance and the kind people along the way who help ensure it has a happy ending.

It’s also a true one: in 1994, 73-year-old Alvin Straight, stripped of his driver’s license due to poor eyesight, embarked on a six-week, 240-mile journey via lawnmower to visit his ailing brother. Five years later it became a film as quintessentially Lynchian as anything the “Blue Velvet” auteur has ever made — and all the more remarkable in that it received a G rating and was picked up by Disney for distribution (after a successful debut in competition at Cannes and possibly as a consolation prize by the Mouse House, since the director already had wrapped shooting the ABC pilot for “Mulholland Drive,” on which the network’s executives ultimately passed.)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1654857a) The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth Film and Television

The real Alvin Straight sold the movie rights to his story for $10,000 and 10 percent of the profits in 1995; he died in 1996


In “The Straight Story,” what Lynch did for the picket-fenced, Main Street Americana of “Blue Velvet” and the wind-whipped forests of “Twin Peaks,” he does for the golden wheat fields of Laurens, Iowa: he creates a vision of small town America that’s respectful, even reverential, while not ignoring the darkness that can seep in. Of course, there’s no nitrous oxide-huffing madman here or supernatural “Man from Another Place,” so you might be convinced that Lynch has sanded down his edges. Instead, his characterization of Straight (played magnificently by Richard Farnsworth), unfolds delicately over the film’s 112-minute running time: as he meets different people on his journey, he shares more about his life and what motivates him — a sweet story about how he’d have his kids break a twig in two, then point to a bundle of sticks he’d tied together that they couldn’t break and say “That’s family,” is heartbreakingly tender, but makes you think you’re in for a film full of fridge-magnet lessons.

Very quickly you realize that’s not the case: he hasn’t lived up to his own parable about family himself. His struggle with alcoholism created strain in his marriage, only one (Sissy Spacek) of his seven surviving children is present in his life — or even mentioned — and he’s compelled to make this journey to visit his brother because they haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years following an argument in which “unforgivable things” were said.

This isn’t a film about a life in which everything is pristine and perfect, but, despite their reputation, most other Disney films aren’t either. They’re about finding happiness and purpose despite the challenges we face, the tragedies we’ve endured (think of all those absent Disney animated film parents), and the baggage we carry around with us. “The Straight Story” is unique in that most of these heartaches are related by Farnsworth in conversation with the people he meets on his journey, almost all of whom are kind listeners. The closest anyone comes to being a jerk are twin brothers who overcharge him to repair his lawnmower. For its emphasis on conversation, “The Straight Story” practically becomes Lynch’s detour into Richard Linklater territory. But the staging of each talk is pure Lynch. One of the most moving moments comes at a small-town bar where Farnsworth’s Straight talks to a fellow septuagenarian about their respective traumas during World War II. “I can still see the swastika,” his drinking companion says of a German fighter that crashed into his camp. Lynch only employs a sonic flashback: the soft percussion of bombs falling in the distance accompanies the man’s story, though the camera itself never leaves the bar and remains trained on his face.

Lynch’s longtime editor Mary Sweeney contributed to the script of “The Straight Story” and its conversational cadences are much like that of Lynch’s own speaking style: direct, unfussy, relying on one-word answers where possible. When Straight buys a grabber, a tool for the elderly to pick things up without bending over, he’s asked, “What do you need that grabber for, Alvin?” His answer: “Grabbin’!” This is the Lynch who — when asked to describe himself — has often simply said, “Eagle scout. Missoula, Montana.” It’s the Lynch who understands the power of saying nothing at all, when Farnsworth and Spacek pause several times to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings: gazing at the stars in the sky and the lightning-flashes in a thunderstorm.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1650508a) The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth, Wiley Harker Film and Television

“The Straight Story”


The country boy from Montana that Lynch remains shines through so clearly in this film, and in perfect harmony with his more surreal touches. The only moment of real suspense in the movie occurs when Straight finds himself hurtling down a hill with the lawnmower’s breaks busted. When he finally comes to a stop, breathless from panic, behind him, and unrelated to his fright incident, is a burning house that firefighters have set ablaze “for practice.”

This is a film that arthouse devotees of “slow cinema” and heartland churchgoers looking for a clean movie would enjoy together. How do you describe the mastery of a filmmaker who can make a movie that could bridge America’s political and cultural divides? That’s a level of skill matched only by someone capable of selling his movie to Disney without compromising his vision at all.

Also coming to Disney+ this month:

— Four new episodes of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Dave Filoni’s often dazzling Lucasfilm animated series that has given fans some of the best “Star Wars” storytelling ever. These episodes focus on former Padawan Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein) as she navigates life after having chosen to leave the Jedi Order. In the original run of the series that concluded in 2013, Ahsoka decided to make her way throughout the galaxy on her own after the Jedi Order refused to defend her against a spurious murder charge trumped up by Admiral (later “Grand Moff”) Tarkin. But of course her desire to do good and help the innocent as war rages across the galaxy endures.

Disney gets churchy in “The Small One”

— “The Small One” (1978): If you want to get a sense of how aimless Disney animation was in the late ‘70s under company CEO Card Walker (who cut his teeth as a camera operator and short-film unit production manager with the studio in the 1930s and never left) take a look at this 26-minute short. It’s directed by Don Bluth, who’d leave the studio not long after to form his own independent studio (he’d later direct “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail,” “The Land Before Time,” and “Anastasia”), and it feels of a piece with his later work. But it’s also oddly touching? It tells the story of the aging donkey who carries Mary to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Or rather the story of how he comes to be her mode of transport in the first place — he’s the beloved pet of a young boy whose father forces him to sell him. And the purchaser, Mary’s husband Joseph, could not be more divinely inspired.

Yes, “The Small One” is from a time when Disney was open to adapting Bible stories. This writer once expounded in the late academic journal Jump Cut about how the caricatures of Jewish merchants in “The Small One” anticipates the Arab stereotypes of “Aladdin,” right down to a song called “Klink-klink, Klank-klank (Take the Money to the Bank),” which had some altered lyrics for its 2005 DVD release, likely reflecting concerns about the portrayal. In case you think Disney+ is devoted to avoiding “problematic” content in its back catalogue, here’s one that suggests they are not.

Poor Pluto in “On Ice”

— “On Ice” (1935): This is a delightful short about Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald going for a skating party — even if why these holiday or winter themed shorts are dropping on Disney+ now is a bit of a mystery. Brilliant images abound – Donald attaching ice skates to a sleeping Pluto’s paws so he’s tormented on the frozen surface when he wakes up, Goofy going ice-fishing by using chewing tobacco as bait. Rather than hook them with a line, Goofy plans to beat them with a club when they surface to expectorate their chaw in a spittoon.

A Gem Already on Disney+:

In the “Short Circuit” collection of experimental animated films produced in the past few years, be sure to check out “Cycles.” It’s less than five minutes, but it covers a lifetime: it’s about two parents moving into a new home, raising their daughter there, and finally as they move out decades later. It packs a wallop, as if it were the opening sequence of “Up” as a standalone short film. The talented director, Jeff Gipson, who also debuted “Myth: A ‘Frozen’ Tale” at Sundance earlier this year, created this as a 360-degree VR experience — meaning that the house itself becomes that much more of a character. But no emotion is diluted by converting it to a 2-D version on Disney+.

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