Naughty and Nice – Christmas Vacation and the Memorable Delights of a Holiday Gone Wrong

It’s Christmas Day.  We’ve all had a pretty hectic year, but if you are making it to this festive time with your mind set in the right place, then you’ll no doubt be feeling the warmth that the season brings.  We all celebrate the holidays in our own way, depending on our background, cultural upbringing, and station in life, but there is no doubt a lot that many of us still have in common when we reach the Holiday season.  No matter what holiday it is that we celebrate, this end of the year season is about coming together and expressing how much we are grateful for having the loved ones in our life to share these moments.  That and giving each other lots of presents.  That in itself can be both something wonderful this time of year, as well as a headache.  We also have that in common, scrambling through all the days and weeks trying to prepare for the big day.  Whether we are decorating, shopping, or preparing the big Holiday meal, many of us are putting in a lot of work to make the season bright.  And all for a brief moment on Christmas morning where we open our gifts together.  It’s a time of joy, but also frustration.  But even these hectic moments have come to define the season itself, and in many ways, the perseverance to make the the holidays perfect become memorable moments themselves.  In some ways, they turn into war stories that we tell each other, sort of a way of bragging to show just how much Christmas spirit we have.  I have some of those two, with my years spent working in retail during the holiday season.  This goes for the shopping experiences as well as all the headaches at home with making everyone happy during the holidays.  Oftentimes, there are just as many tears to be had over the holiday season as smiles.  We all recognize the trials of a holiday season because many of us have gone through it ourselves.  No Christmas is 100% perfect, and the ones that we remember as being perfect may be just rose colored glasses over a foggy memory.  But, that strive for perfection is a universal feeling, and the best we can do is to laugh it off in the end and just enjoy the holiday mood.  Though many movies show the ideal types of Christmases we’d like to have, there is one movie that perfectly encapsulates all the things that could go wrong during the holidays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Christmas Vacation is an all time classic holiday film, but one that I think goes against the grain of what a typical Christmas movie should be.  It’s a movie about everything going wrong during Christmas time, despite the best efforts of it’s central family, The Griswolds, to make everything perfect.  And by the Griswold’s, I mean the father, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) who takes holiday festivities to a cult like obsession.  And every mishap that befalls Clark and his family is played up for laughs.  The movie overall is a farce in the very classic sense of the word.  There really is no driving plot to speak of, other than a couple of loose threads like Clark’s ambition for a perfect holiday and his anticipation for a Christmas bonus check from his greedy boss.  It’s merely just a collection of moments with hilarious punchlines at the end of each scene.  We see the family going pick out their Christmas tree, Clark decorating the house, the extended family members making their arrivals, and the family sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner.  Things we all have our own experiences with during the holidays.  But, as the movie unfolds, every possible thing that could go wrong does.  The tree is too big, and Clark forgot to bring an axe; Clark nearly falls of the roof many times while putting up the lights; the grandparents all hate each other; and the Christmas Turkey is cooked too dry to be edible.  All these mishaps are filmed with the same kind of manic zaniness of a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin comedy, which is typical of the National Lampoon brand.  And yet, there is still an underlying truth beneath all the farce.  None of the scenarios that Clark Griswold finds himself in are too far fetched; we all can identify with all the mishaps that befalls him, because many of them have often happened to us too, though maybe not to the same extreme extant.  It’s that combination of relatable mayhem and the unrelenting farcical tone of the movie that really helps to keep the film a perennial favorite.

It might surprise many that National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the third in a series of comedies, because it stands pretty well on it’s own as a stand alone movie.  The series began with the celebrated National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).  Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation followed the Griswold family through a similar series of unfortunate events, only it’s during a Summer vacation trip that takes them to a fictional theme park named Walley World.  That film likewise is renowned for it’s manic farcical tone and often mean-spirited humor.  It also marked Chevy Chase’s first post Saturday Night Live hit as a headlining star.  And it was a role that he played to a “T”; a highly strung out dad trying his best to make everything perfect even though nothing goes right, and it only makes him sink deeper into his own mania.  Where I think a lot of people forget that Christmas Vacation is the third film in the series is because of the often forgotten sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985).  Made right on the heels of the original, and retaining John Hughes as screenwriter, the sequel obviously did not have the same magic of the original film.  Something just felt off taking the Griswolds abroad and placing them in Europe rather than the American Midwest.  And I think that’s where the problem lies with European Vacation; it’s just trying to be the first movie all over again, and it can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.  The change of scenery doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all the same farcical situations all over again, and all it does is spotlight the flaws all that much more.  So, when the opportunity came to make a third film, Hughes and company decided to do something different, which ultimately helped to bring fresh new life into the series; they brought the Griswolds home for the holidays.

The at home Christmas seemed like a natural progression for the series to take, but it also opened up the series to a fresh set of mishaps that could befall Clark and the family.  In essence the dynamics are still the same.  Clark is the driven to perfection man that we are all familiar with from the last two films, and his mania is perfectly countered off of his long suffering wife Ellen (played again perfectly by Beverly D’Angelo).  What is especially funny is that the movie keeps the tradition going of recasting the Griswold children in every new film.  This time around Rusty and Audrey Griswold are played by a very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis respectively, and of course the recasting is never brought up at all.  The same progression of cascading problems also happens to the Griswolds, but here it’s all set at home.  The gimmick of them driving across the country is out of the story, and that allowed John Hughes to craft his comedy around the characters’ home life.  And that offers a whole different set of comical situations to mine from.  This is especially hilarious to see with Clark’s manic personality coming through.  He not only decorates the house, he decorates to a point where he uses so many lights that it literally drains all the power from the community.  The tree he picks out is so big that it destroys half the living room once it’s branches are unbound.   Everything is not a minor thing with him; he has to take it to the nth degree.  It’s all over the top, but John Hughes grounds it in a very real place.  Every situation feels like something that naturally would happen, and probably comes from real place.  John Hughes was a midwestern kid from Michigan who probably experienced his fair share of crazy Christmases.  Whether he wrote himself into the character of Clark, or based him on members of his own family, you really get a sense of Hughes finding a universal story within the mishaps of the Griswolds and their striving for not just a perfect Christmas, but also a sane one.

What is interesting about the movie is how Clark Griswold comes across to us the audience.  We are meant to sympathize with his ordeals, but it’s often hard when Clark is not the best person in the world.  Carrying over some of the character traits from the previous films, we see Clark as a very flawed man.  He insults his co-workers, constantly puts his family in harms way in order to achieve his often impossible goals, and at one point even flirts with a girl at a department store while his wife is somewhere else.  Clark, in many ways is a self-obsessed jerk underneath that suburban dad exterior.  But, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Clark as a character.  As flawed as he is, he is very much an everyman whose problems are all too recognizable.  It’s through his striving for a perfect Christmas that we see his attempt to be a better man, and it makes all the funnier when he fails horribly at it.  I think if he was a purer soul, the farcical situations he would find himself in wouldn’t feel as funny as they do.  Because he is sometimes a jerk to others, it makes it funnier when we see misfortune fall his way.  But, it’s not to the point where he is too unlikable or the misfortune too stacked against him.  The movie is all about that balance between hilarious hubris and triumphant comical resolution.  It helps that the Griswolds live next door to an uptight Yuppie couple, played by Nicholas Guest and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Clark’s mean-spirited self-obsession feels much more earned and celebrated when the misfortune falls the neighbors’ way.  He may not be the antithesis of a George Bailey, but Clark Griswold is a Christmas character worth celebrating this time of year, because he honestly is the one who represents how we all feel during the holidays.

There is one moment in particular in the movie where I think the movie reveals exactly what drives Clark Griswold, and in many ways shows us what we see of ourselves in him.  At one point, Clark goes up into the attic to hide Christmas presents from the rest of the family.  However, his mother-in-law ends up closing the roof access door, not knowing that he is still up there.  Now, Clark is stuck in the cold attic in his pajamas, with no way out.  While going through some old boxes to find extra layers of clothing he can put on in order to not freeze, he finds some old 8mm film reels.  Not knowing how long he’ll stay up in the attic, he finds the family projector and begins to run these old films strips through it, using a white shirt as the screen.  On the film, we see Clark as a young boy celebrating Christmas with his family.  It’s in this scene where it finally dawns on the audience what is driving Clark Griswold to making this a perfect Christmas for his family; Nostalgia.  While watching the movie projected in front of him, we see Clark at his most content, even shedding a tear while he has a beaming smile on his face.  Though the film is grainy, worn out, and not ideally projected, it brings Clark back home to the days when Christmas was ideal for him.  Naturally, we all look back on the Christmases of our youth with fond remembrance, but that’s because the burden of the holidays were not on our shoulders yet.  As kids, we were the main recipients of holiday cheer.  We didn’t have to spend hours at the mall looking for the right presents, or work for days to put up the decorations in the cold of winter.  The holidays change for us as we get older, and many of us can easily adapt to the new dynamic.  But, Clark is still trying to hold onto when Christmas was just as self-fulfilling as it was when he was a child.  It’s really interesting that the movie takes a pause from the farcical situations from before and gives us this moment of reflection that tells us more about Clark than we’ve ever known before.  Of course, the movie punctuates it with Clark falling through the ceiling access door once Ellen reopens it, bringing us right back to the comedy.  Still, it’s a moment in the movie that probably captures the holiday spirit the most, as it personalizes what Christmas means for Clark Griswold, and that it’s a whole lot more than just the superficial traditions; it’s a quest to feel inspired by the holidays again.

It’s really interesting to see where Christmas Vacation falls within the John Hughes filmography.  He was only the screenwriter on this one, with Jeremiah Chechik capably handling the direction, but it really shows a certain mode that he was finding himself in as a story-teller.  This movie came in between two other Christmas themed comedies that Hughes also wrote, 1989’s Uncle Buck and 1990’s Home Alone.  They are all very different films that use the Christmas aesthetic, and yet all three perfectly illustrate the way that John Hughes mined American holiday traditions for comedic effect; including Thanksgiving as well with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987).  Christmas Vacation clearly is the movie that mines the foibles of the holidays the most, but there is a characteristic sense of comedic precision found throughout all of them.  Hughes liked to turn the holidays on it’s head and slyly insert the kind of slapsticky, mean-spiritedness of the comedies he grew up with into this thing that is supposed to be so pure.  At the same time, there is a genuine love he displays for the spirit of Christmas in his movies, and I’m struck by how much of Hughes own creative trademarks have themselves becomes part of our own holiday nostalgia.  I think that his series of holiday themed movies were instrumental in helping to create the Christmas playlist of holiday standards that we hear every year on soft rock radio stations.  That’s true for Christmas Vacation as well, which has something as enriching as Ray Charles “The Spirit of Christmas” to something as bouncy as Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.”  In many ways, John Hughes contributed more to the nostalgia for the holidays that we continue to have thanks to his choices of needle drops.  There’s a cynical edge in the movie, but one that never belittles the idea of the holidays itself.  Like all great comedies, it asks us to find the humor in the things we hold sacred and in that sense, John Hughes achieved what he wanted; to create a farce in the same comedic spirit of those that came before him, like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and even the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.  And it’s definitely a flavor of comedy that the holiday season definitely needs.

There are countless moments in Christmas Vacation that stand among the funniest ever put on film.  The climatic Christmas Eve series of events are especially hilarious, in just how much it cascades into pure chaos.  From a cat that’s fried to death by faulty Christmas light wiring, to Clark’s elderly aunt (played by original Betty Boop actress Mae Questel)  mistaking the Pledge of Allegiance for a prayer, to Clark’s Cousin Eddie (a perfectly demented Randy Quaid) kidnapping his boss after Clark did not receive his Christmas bonus in the mail.  It’s just the right balance of mayhem and genuine Christmas spirt that I want to see in a movie like this.  It’s both naughty and nice, cynical but uplifting.  Naturally myself and many like me return to this movie every year and enjoy it over and over again.  For some, the holidays don’t feel complete without it playing at least once.  It’s not an unexpected holiday classic; how could it be when the holidays are ingrained into every frame of the movie.   But, it’s one that’s not afraid to buck a few traditions and reveal some of the misfortunes of the holidays in a hilarious manner.  Perhaps the highlight of the movie is it’s most profane moment, when Clark reaches his breaking point and delivers his manic, single breath, vitriolic rant against his cheapskate boss who cut his holiday bonus out of his yearly salary.  That’s something you won’t find in a wholesome Christmas movie.  At the same time, the movie celebrates the idea of trying to make the holidays better for others.  Clark Griswold may be a maniacal sociopath, but his heart is in the right place when it comes to making the holidays work out for his family.  It’s just that the problems fall out of his control and build towards a chaotic end.  Even still, he pushes ahead and declares, “We are going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f***ing Kaye.”  The Griswold family Christmas is course, crude, and chaotic, but it’s not unlike the kinds of Christmases we have had ourselves.  The only thing is that we shouldn’t let the drive for perfection cloud our own enjoyment of the holidays.  Even as everything has cascaded into insanity by the end, Clark Griswold finds that special sense ultimately too, and that helps to make Christmas Vacation in the end feel like a hopeful tribute to the holidays.  So, to all of you, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading.  Now where’s the Tylenol.

Spider-Man: No Way Home – Review

With the roller coaster year that 2021 has been, leave it to Marvel to be the ones commanding the box office through all the turbulence.  If the mighty studio hadn’t already been on top of the world before with their record breaking success with the Avengers, 2021 would be a banner year for them regardless.  They started off with their big launch of their Disney+ programming all the way back in January with Wandavision, a highly acclaimed mini-series focused on the characters Scarlett Witch and The Vision.  Then came even more successful series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki to tide us over into the summer season.  As big a deal as these shows were, the industry was far more interested in seeing how Marvel would fare at the box office.  Movie theaters were slowly coming back to life after a year long pandemic forced closure in 2020.  Though Marvel’s parent studio Disney started by hedging their bets going back into the theater market with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, they nevertheless set out to bring their big screen pictures back to the big screen.  The pandemic delayed Black Widow (2021) was first, and even with the hybrid release it still managed to scrounge up an $80 million opening weekend.  It also saw the biggest second weekend drop of any Marvel movie, and it’s final gross end up on the low end of the MCU, but it still showed that the Marvel brand still had enough mojo to liven up the decimated pandemic box office.  This led to their next film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) getting a theatrical only release to see if that led to a better result.  And even while the Delta variant of Covid was flaring up, Shang-Chi managed to not only succeed, but also flourish beyond opening weekend; leading to it’s current status as the box office champ of the year.  However, that didn’t help Eternals (2021), their third film, which to many underperformed.  But, it should be noted that Eternals didn’t fade quickly as many expected, and has actually accumulated a healthy box office that while low for Marvel it’s still impressive for a film in the pandemic era.  Now, at the end of a busy year for Marvel, which has included all the properties from last year as well as this one, they are bringing us the next installment of one of their marquee franchises, Spider-Man, in the hopes that it not only ends the year on a strong note for them, but also hopefully brings the box office back even more strong than before.

While Spider-Man has always been a hot property for Marvel, it’s interesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hasn’t rested all their success solely on his shoulders.  If anything, in the grand narrative of the shared universe that the MCU has been, Spider-Man has thus far been a fairly secondary character.  That would’ve been unheard of before the launch of the MCU, but Marvel chose to Avengers be the driving force of their connective thread, and Spider-Man was not an original part of that team.  Since then, he has come into his own, taking more of a central role, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s still second tier to the likes of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  But, after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), several new possibilities have opened up for the character.  The best part thus far of Spider-Man’s development in the MCU is seeing how this hero we are all familiar with interacts within a world where what he does is not as extraordinary as we’ve seen before.  He exists in a world full of super heroes, so the dynamic is very different.  As a result, the MCU has been able to focus on their Spider-Man being a naïve but eager kid, much like he is in the comics.  One of the best character dynamics of the MCU that has resulted from that was the mentor/apprentice relationship that he had built up with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.  This became a central part of the story going into the final chapter of the Infinity Saga with Infinity War and Endgame, and with Iron Man’s departure, it has taken the Spider-Man character into a whole different path than we’ve seen before.  Of course, a Spider-Man movie where the hero has suffered a heart-breaking loss is nothing new, but when he is now expected to fill in a vacancy within that same dynamic, it has opened up a new layer of character that we haven’t really explored with Spider-Man just yet.  In fact, everything with this MCU iteration has felt fresh, especially in his own franchise of films.  In what has been dubbed the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, we have seen the character grow on his own, through the trials of high school life in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to the dilemmas of a post-Endgame world in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  Now, the trilogy comes to a climax of it’s own with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and the question is, does it bring Spider-Man’s story together in a satisfying way, or is it caught in a web of it’s own problems?

One thing I definitely have to say before hand is that so much of this movie is filled with plot elements that I don’t want to spoil.  So, before I go into a plot summery, let me just state that what I’m going to write forward in this paragraph and review after is solely in line with what’s already been revealed in the movie trailers thus far.  So, spoiler free, let’s talk about what happens.  Picking up literally right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man’s secret identity has been leaked to the public thanks to internet provocateur J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).  Now, everyone in the world knows that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is really Spider-Man.  This suddenly thrusts him and those close to him into the spotlight, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. Watson (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).  Life is no longer the same for them, and it comes to a brutal head when the revelation about Spider-Man’s identity excludes him from college admittance to his desired school, which also happens to M.J. and Ned.  After this crushing disappointment, Peter seeks out help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he believes can turn back time in order to help erase his identity being revealed.  Since Strange no longer has the Time Stone, he can’t help Peter by reversing time, but he believes he knows another way to help him instead.  Strange begins a Forgetting Spell to erase Peter Parker’s identity from everyone’s memory, but Peter realizes that doing so will make even those close to him forget.  Unfortunately, this botches the spell, so Peter is out of luck again.  He tries to think of his next move, but that is interrupted when new enemies begin to emerge.  They are powerful foes who have faced Spider-Man before, but not the Spider-Man of this universe.  They include Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).  Doctor Strange reveals that the broken spell opened up a rip in the multiverse, and if they don’t return these multiversal tresspassers back to their own universes, it could lead to a collapse of reality as we know it.  So, Spider-Man must set things right, but he soon encounters a different dilemma; is it right to send these villains back to their fate where their destiny is to die fighting Spider-Man?

There’s definitely a lot to unpack with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Not only is it continuing the story that’s already been told thus far in the MCU Spider-Man films, but it’s also incorporating elements from previously existing Spider-Man franchises.  We are seeing pretty much every major villain Spider-Man has faced on the big screen over the last 20 years.  Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Thomas Hayden Church return to play Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman respectively from the Sam Raimi directed / Tobey Maguire starring Spider-Man films of the 2000’s.  And then there are Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans also playing Electro and The Lizard from the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield.  That’s a lot to pack into a single film, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg without going into spoilers.  Which makes me all the more amazed by how well this movie manages to bring everything together in the end.  This movie is just a remarkable achievement in logistics alone.  How they managed to pull all these multiversal things together and not loose sight of the central narrative thread is truly amazing.  There are some big revelations in this movie that I’m sure are going to be the stuff of movie legend in the years to come, but I think where the movie excels the most is in how well it stays focused on Spider-Man’s story.  This is still a movie that falls in line with the plot thread spread across the rest of the “Home” trilogy as well as with all the MCU movies that Spider-Man has been a part of, and it helps to give this movie a surprising amount of emotional weight.  In particular, I think this movie does an especially great job of fleshing out what it means to be Spider-Man.  What we’ve seen throughout the MCU movies is that the universe is far more complex than the black and white morality of good vs. evil.  We’ve seen villains like Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos portrayed with layers of character that show they aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil.  And we’ve also seen heroes in the MCU commit some very evil acts like Iron Man creating Ultron, or Scarlet Witch holding a town captive within her fantasy world in Wandavision.  That same depth of examination is also brought beautifully into No Way Home, and it helps to re-contextualize all the Spider-Man films as a whole in a surprising way.

One of the things that is going to easily blow people away is seeing all the different characters from all the different Spider-Man films together.  But, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just plop these characters in for the sake of nostalgia alone.  Each and every one of them has a purpose in the story, and none are wasted.  I actually want to say, without going too much into spoilers, that the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it holds back and doesn’t try to do too much.  It would have been very tempting to just throw all the doors open of the Multiverse and bring in a whole lot more into this movie.  But, director Jon Watts and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal wisely decided not to.  They give us just enough multiverse treats to satisfy what we’d hope be in this movie and don’t go overboard.  Had they done too much, it might have overwhelmed the story to a point of breaking.  There are some points where that is the case, and it’s the only flaw that the movie has.  The movie is the longest of any Spider-Man film at 2 1/2 hours, but it doesn’t feel like that at all except for a select number of scenes.  And those scenes are where the characters basically stop the movie to go through a “previously on” recap of their backstory, so that the audience that hasn’t been up to speed can be caught up.  It’s the most awkward part of the script, and I see why the filmmakers felt that they needed to include it, but I also felt like they were the only parts of the movie that started to take me out of the film.  Credit to the actors for selling that clumsy exposition as well as they can.  There’s an especially funny exchange where Electro and Sandman compare their origins like they are casually trading battle scar stories.  Apart from that nitpick, the movie surprisingly has a sound flow to it and manages the tone perfectly.  And given all the building blocks they had to work with, that’s really something remarkable.

It’s suffice to say that the movie’s biggest asset is the stellar cast, both with the central players as well as all the legacy characters carried over from other franchises.  Most importantly, it continues to put Tom Holland’s Spider-Man front and center, and helps to build upon the character development that we’ve seen with him up to now.  In many ways, this is Holland’s best performance thus far as Spider-Man.  He goes through the gamut of emotions in this movie, managing to perfectly balance the goofy playfulness of Spider-Man’s lighter moments with the hard pathos of the movie’s more tragic scenes.  And seeing him interact with all these legacy characters is also quite an interesting new avenue to take this character.  Of course, the big deal with this movie is all of these legendary characters returning to the big screen, and with all the original actors making the return as well.  Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock hasn’t appeared on screen since Spider-Man 2 (2004), which was 17 years ago.  That film is considered by many to be one of the greatest super hero films of all time, and Molina’s iconic performance was one of the reasons for that.  So not only is it a pleasure to see him in the role again, but he doesn’t waste the opportunity either, slipping right back in effortlessly.  Jamie Foxx, who was kind of shortchanged in the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) gets to redeem himself here with a version of Electro that feels truer to the comic book and gives Foxx more to chew on as an actor.  Naturally, he’s the character most improved upon in this film.  Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans have less to do than the rest of the cast, but are no less a welcome presence in the movie as their respective characters  But if anyone steals the movie the most, it’s Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin.  Somehow, he managed to find a way to make the character even more menacing since his debut almost 20 years ago.  His performance here is really remarkable and probably the highlight of a movie already full of iconic moments.  The fights he has with Spider-Man are especially brutal and carry a lot more weight than we’ve seen from other films in the series.  In addition to the great return of the iconic villains, I’m especially happy to see that characters like M.J., Aunt May, and Ned don’t get lost in all the shuffle, and their respective actors all contribute something special to the movie as a whole.  If anyone is short-changed, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, since he actually has less screen time than the trailers would have you believe.  He’s not terribly used, but if you’re looking for a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up in this movie, it ain’t there in the way you’d expect.  Still, overall, audiences are going to go wild for the cast of charcters I described here, and of course, there might be surprises as well.

Given the enormity of what the movie has to accomplish, even in an expansive 2 1/2 runtime, it’s amazing that the film flows as well as it does.  Director Jon Watts certainly deserves that credit.  His work on the Spider-Man franchise has really been the most consistent that we’ve ever seen for the character.  It probably helps that he had the guidance and support of a producer like Kevin Feige whose expertise has been to manage multiple franchise on a scale unseen before.  For the Raimi and Webb films, they often fell victim to studio interference negating the vision of the director, and resulted in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were unfocused messes.  No Way Home feels so certain about what it is and it’s in line with the story that has been told over not just Spider-Man’s own films, but also those in the MCU as a whole.  At the same time, Watts certainly knows that this is the movie that has to go bigger than anything we’ve seen before.  Many are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame in many ways, and some of that comparison is warranted.  This movie feels like the culmination of so much of the Spider-Man mythos built up not just within the MCU but also with all Spider-Man media.  At the same time, like what I previously stated before, this movie knows when to hold back as well, giving us enough to digest while not spoiling the whole meal.  I think that’s why the movie holds together in the end when it could’ve easily fallen apart.  That’s evident in the final confrontation that takes place at the Statue of Liberty (not a spoiler because part of it is shown in the trailer).  Director Webb manages to keep the action in that scene focused and consistent, so no one in the audience is likely to be confused by what’s happening.  I also want to note the incredible themes set forth by the movie, especially that one about the gray areas of morality that have been present in the MCU.  What I like most about this movie is that it brings to the forefront what drives Spider-Man to be a hero.  And that moral is that a hero strives to help save everyone, even the worst among us.  In this movie, that will to do the right thing gets tested and I love how the movies centers it’s story around that theme.  Those immortal words written by the late great Stan Lee all those years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility,” takes on a more important meaning in this film, and that in essence, helps to elevate this movie to a far more lofty place than I think most of us would’ve ever expected.

It’s hard to say just yet where I would rank this movie among all the Spider-Man films.  I definitely think it’s the best of the “Home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies, but the bar is still high that has been set by Spider-Man 2 and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  It may take a few more viewings to properly place this film in the pantheon of all the Spider-Man movies.  Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most is just how they managed to pull off what they did.  I’ve been very careful to not spoil some of the movie’s biggest surprises, but let me just say that the packed house IMAX showing that I saw this movie in had some of the loudest audience cheering that I have ever witnessed.  And this was the same IMAX theater I saw Avengers: Endgame in, so that really is saying something.  All that said, there are still something flaws in the plot and mostly in the dialogue that holds this movie slightly back from that level of greatness, and I hope they become less noticeable the more times I see this movie.  This movie really had an almost impossible task, and I felt that this was the best case result we could’ve hoped for.  For one thing, I think it does a great service to the legacy of all the Spider-Man films of the past, especially with regards to the much maligned Amazing Spider-Man films.  It’s great to see the actors who played these iconic roles from the past slip right back into character and not only deliver the good once again, but also find new avenues to explore.  And I’m also really impressed with the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to take some risks as well and doesn’t just wrap up Spider-Man’s story in a nice happy resolution.  Like many of the MCU films to date, the characters carry on the scars of their ordeal, and this especially is true with the MCU’s Spider-Man, who I am definitely intrigued to see where they take him next.  Without saying what happens, I’ll tell you that I especially found the ending of this movie to be a surprise and quite a ballsy move on Marvel’s part.  It shows that they recognize the significance of Spider-Man as a character not just on his own but as a part of a larger world, and they are determined to give him a story that carries a lot of weight with it.  Suffice to say, this is going to be another blockbuster for Marvel.  I know the lingering effects of the pandemic are still making things weary for some movie-goers, but if there is any film that you’ve been willing to take the chance on, this would be the one.  It’s a movie that demands to be seen with a large audience.  It’s certainly the best in theater experience that I’ve had all year, and it’s something that I though I’d never see again after the pandemic decimated the theatrical market all of last year.  Leave it to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to bring some much needed life back to the box office again.  This is definitely one of the webslinger’s finest hours, and a movie whose very existence is likely going to stand as a ground-breaking moment in the super hero genre as a whole.

Rating: 8.75/10

Collecting Criterion – Andrei Rublev (1966)

Of all the different types of world cinema that has made it into the Criterion Collection’s library, the ones with  some of the most interesting historical context behind them are those from Soviet era Russia.  To say that Russian cinematic history is a bit complicated would be an understatement.  Initially, post-Revolution Russia burst onto the scene as one of the most influential schools of film-making in the entire world.  With the likes of it’s founding fathers including Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film industry pretty much invented the thematic montage as a means of telling a story through editing.  That groundbreaking element alone helped to put Russian cinema on the map, and their revolutionary films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are still celebrated as masterworks that pushed the artform forward.  But, the creative output began to change during the repressive Stalin regime, which saw the flourishing Russian cinematic machine turned to a purely glorifying the new hard-lined leader of the Communist Party.  As a result, many of Russia’s great directors either found themselves heavily censored or those who would not submit could face death or exile.  Many chose the later, including Eisenstein.  Soviet cinema suddenly went from one of the most dynamic schools of cinema to one of the most restrictive.  However, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the propaganda machine of the Soviet film industry evolved once again.  They were still making propaganda, but the focus was instead on glorifying the Soviet people rather than one man.  With the liberalization happening under the reforms of the Khrushchev regime, it became an era known as the Cultural Thaw.  With it, there became a renewed desire to use the power of cinema as a means of breaking past the iron curtain of the Stalin years and showing to the world that Mother Russia could indeed hold it’s own in world cinema once again.  This included a new push to bring forth fresh new talent in the Soviet schools of film, and one such talent to emerge was a burgeoning and ambitious new filmmaker named Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky, to many in the world of cinema, is considered to be the greatest filmmaker to have emerged out of post-Stalinist Russia.  Even during his time, he was hailed as the best filmmaker to have come from the Soviet Union since Sergei Eisenstein, though the comparisons between the two directors couldn’t be more distant.  Eisenstein’s films were intense, fast-paced dramatic pieces intended to inspire fury within the viewer.  Tarkovsky was more contemplative, methodical and visually poetic as a filmmaker.  Tarkovsky’s films are often ethereal and dreamlike, and he was a major influence on like-minded filmmakers such as Terrence Malick.  Though very much a different kind of filmmaker than those of the post-Revolution era, Tarkovsky nevertheless helped to give a very Russian sensibility to what many saw as the New Wave movement of cinema that swept across Europe and over the world.  Like other movies of that era, Tarkovsky’s films were both grandiose in concept and intimate in scale.  Big ideas were at play in his films, but they always had that personal connection to them.  He was a valuable voice for Soviet cinema, and he immediately emerged on the international scene winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival with his first ever film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Spine #397).  However, though he was lauded by his peers outside of Russia, he almost always faced resistance from his native country.  Some in the Russian government found his films decadent and bourgeois and contrary to idealized values of the Soviet regime.  Because of this, his filmography is very limited, limited to only a handful of movies made under heavy scrutiny in the Soviet Union, and only a few more made in Western Europe after his defection in the 1980’s, and cut short by his untimely death in 1986 after a brief battle with cancer.  Still, as few as they were, his films are viewed as some of the greatest works of cinema ever created.  Criterion has included a few in their collection, including the sci-fi epic Solaris (1972, #164) which some have called Russia’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  There are also the previously mentioned Ivan’s Childhood, and the late Russian films Mirror (1975, #1084) and Stalker (1979, #888).  But probably the most interesting Tarkovsky film in their collection is that of what many consider to be Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film overall; the historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1966, #34).

Andrei Rublev as a historical biopic is not the kind of movie that you’d expect it to be.  On the surface it is meant to tell the story of the life of a legendary artist from medieval Russia.  Andrei Rublev was a painter and monk best known for creating religious icons and frescos for the interiors of Orthodox churches throughout Russia.  His work is largely considered to be among the greatest art created during the medieval period.  A handful of his paintings still survive to this day, including what many consider to be his masterpiece, the Trinity.  But, the interesting thing about Tarkovsky’s movie is that Andrei Rublev the man is not the focus of the film at all.  Instead, the movie is more about the world that he lived in.  The film Andrei Rublev finds the man himself (played by frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn) passing through a series of vignettes of medieval life in rural Russia.  Accompanied by his fellow monk companions Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Danil (Nikolai Grinko), heads to the workshop of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), who intends to have Rublev assist him on a commission to paint the new Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Moscow.  Along their journey they encounter a small village that is entertained by a jester (Rolan Boykov) who later is captured by the authorities for mocking their leader.  Later, they find a group of pagans partaking in a clothing optional ritual, who also later are captured by puritanical authorities.  Once at the cathedral, Andrei finds it hard to express his art effectively, seeing how medieval Russia has become so hostile to the acts of free expression.  Later, a raid by invading Tartar barbarians lays waste to Moscow, and the ruling prince is deposed by his traitorous cousin, who then usurps the crown.  In the chaos that ensues, Theophanes is slaughtered, the cathedral is in ruins, and Andrei was force to kill in order to save the life of another.  Because of the trauma, Rublev stops painting and takes a vow of silence, retreating from the harsh new world.  However, his lack of passion for life changes when he witnesses the creation of a massive bell being forged by a craftsman named Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who is just a teenage boy.  Upon seeing such a beautiful creation come from such a young person of humble beginnings, it reawakens Rublev’s desire to create, and the film ends with a prologue showing us all the iconic artwork that has immortalized his name ever since.

Andrei Rublev indeed is a very different kind of epic.  For one thing, it does have all the expected scale and scope of a traditional historical biopic, especially from the same era that gave us the likes of Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, narratively it is completely different.  Like I mentioned before, it’s a movie about multiple stories depicting life of medieval Russia, with only Andrei Rublev himself being the connecting thread.  It is also very much a movie built around imagined history and not actual history.  All the film gets right about it’s subject is that he was a painter of religious icons and that he lived in medieval Russia.  The rest is all fiction.  For the most part, it seems like Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make a movie that was a meditation on the connection between art and the artist rather than historical recreation.  Andrei Rublev is not so much a driving force on the story as he is a cypher; observing the world around him and having that influence the person he will eventually be.  Though the main character remains an enigma as a result, it surprisingly actually works in the movie’s favor.  It’s a movie about exploring the nature of art; why it’s important for the individual and for society as a whole.  You can see this as a definite statement that Tarkovsky wanted to make to his fellow Russians in the middle of the Cultural Thaw, as so many of them were reawakening to the idea of using their cultural works as a means of defining what it meant to be Russian.  The paintings of Andrei Rublev themselves gained a renewed sense of importance in those post-Stalin years, as Russians wanted a better sense of their cultural history to define who they were, rather than just the Revolution.  For Tarkovsky, art was an essential part of cultural awakening.  It’s most clearly stated in the climax of the movie, where the forging of the bell becomes the thing that renews Rublev’s faith.  Great art inspires other great art, and Tarkovsky believed that this was something important to pass down through generations.  The Stalin years stifled the artistic growth of Russian society in Tarkovsky’s eyes, and he saw a connection between the art of the past and the present as key to defining what it meant to be Russian.  Of course, the artistic fervor he shared wasn’t always welcomed by the power of the state.  With a movie that especially questioned authority and even entertained a very positive religious outlook, it was unsurprisingly heavily scrutinized by the Soviet government.  The film’s original 205 minute cut was trimmed down with the supervision of Tarkovsky after it’s premiere, but further edits were made by the government, and it would be many years before Tarkovsky’s true vision would be fully seen by the public.

But, despite the headaches that the Soviet censors were giving him, Tarkovsky nevertheless was lauded from cinephiles all over the world, and Andrei Rublev is largely seen as his masterwork.  Narratively, it is probably his most accessible film, given that most of his later films turned more cerebral and elusive.  But, given that, it’s an interesting film to watch because it does turn the historical epic genre on it’s head a bit.  The episodic nature of the story underlines for the audience that this is less a dramatization and more of parable of art, society, and humankind that just so happens to be based on real history.  Every segment of the film feels like it’s own short story, revealing a variety of different characters that make up the defining attributes of Andrei Rublev’s world.  It’s interesting that Tarkovsky opens his film with a cartoonish prologue of a man taking flight after getting caught in the ropes of a hot air balloon.  It’s silly to begin with, but ultimately it’s implied that the man meet a tragic end as he plummets back down to Earth, perhaps giving us an indication of what to expect through the rest of the film.  The moment otherwise feels unconnected to everything else.  The whole movie is filled with these little asides that reflect little on Andrei Rublev the character other than helping us to see how the world with all of it’s absurdities ends up shaping the man and his art.  The one scene that overall does reveal some character growth in Andrei is the climatic formation of the massive bell.  In that scene, where Rublev witnesses a young boy inspiring a whole community to create something grand and beautiful, we see his reawakening come to full fruition.  But, where Tarkovsky really sells home the point of the film is when Rublev finds the boy Boriska weeping after the completion of his master work.  He hold Boriska in his arms and learns that the boy learned nothing from his master, and that he was just winging it the whole time, making him feel like a fraud.  In that moment, Rublev realizes that he must reaffirm this boy’s faith in his ability to create, and in turn, it reaffirms his own faith as well.  For Tarkovsky, the cycle of creative inspiration was essential for making great things happen.  It’s what he wanted for all cinema in general, that he would inspire other filmmakers to create at the same level as well, both at home and abroad and that it in turn would help inspire him to do more as well.  Tarkovsky was an artistic optimist, believing that the desire for creation transcended national identity and politics, and it’s something that certainly made him stand out in the Soviet film industry.  Though the higher ups did not concur with Tarkovsky’s global view of the artform, he nevertheless made a point that this art is the thing that truly leads to immortality, as evidenced by the lasting impact of Rublev’s centuries old paintings.

For the Criterion Collection, adding Andrei Rublev was key to their drive to preserve the history of cinema all over the world.  It was the earliest film of Andrei Tarkovsky’s to enter the collection, dating all the way back to the days of laser disc.  An earlier DVD edition featured a rather rough looking transfer of the original 3 1/2 hour cut of the movie known as The Passion According to Andre, which they managed to source from a print found in the Mosfilm archives.  This long version itself was a revelation for film fans here in the United States, because all we had for years was a heavily edited down version released by Columbia Pictures.  Here, we were seeing the controversial original version that was especially hated by the censors of the Soviet cultural ministry.  It was a popular title for Criterion for many years, helping to establish Tarkovsky’s reputation as one of the great masters.  But, when Criterion started publishing blu-ray discs, many wanted to not only see Andrei Rublev get an upgraded presentation, but also one that fully brought the film back to a glory that most people never got to see before, other than Tarkovsky himself.  In collaboration with Mosfilm, the Moscow based studio that originally produced the film, a new high definition digital master was created from a restoration of a 35mm internegative struck from the original film.  The results are pretty remarkable, bringing the black and white film back to near flawless clarity, while still maintaining the grainy texture that helps to give it a cinematic texture.  Keep in mind, the Russians didn’t have quite the same quality of film stock that the West did, so there is far more signs of age still found in the picture, but for a film made under those kinds of elements, it still holds up for a movie of it’s era.  The same is true for the film’s soundtrack.  Soviet films do indeed sound very different from most Western film, as most of the dialogue, sound effect and music sound detached from the picture; maybe a side effect of using different equipment.  The sound restoration does the best job it can to help everything sound as natural as it can, with the dialogue benefitting the most from a crisper, clearer refinement.   What is especially impressive is that both Mosfilm and Criterion completed restorations for two different cuts of the movie; the previously mentioned long version, and the shorter, 183 minute post-premiere version that was actually the one Tarkovsky preferred the most.  Both are included on the blu-ray and it’s interesting seeing how different the two versions play.

Also included on the disc are plenty of interesting bonuses, which delve deeper into both the making of the movie, as well as the legacy it has left behind over the years.  One of the most interesting features is a documentary made during the development of the screenplay called The Three Andreis.  Made by a classmate of Tarkovsky’s from the film school VGIK named Dina Musatova, the documentary is about the prep work put into the making of the movie, focusing on screenplay written by two Andreis named Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky, and the actor who would play Andrei Rublev, Anatoly Solonitsyn, getting into character.  It’s a fascinating first hand look at the film in it’s early stages.  There is also another vintage documentary included that actually shows Tarkovsky and his crew on the set, made by Mosfilm itself as promotional piece to spotlight the film during it’s making.  The set also features a newly created documentary that features retrospective interviews from film scholars Louis Milne and Sean Martin, as well as the film’s cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev who played the bell maker Boriska.  One interesting insight revealed by Burlyaev in his interview is that he based much of his performance as a tortured artist on director Tarkovsky himself.  The legacy of the film is also further examined with new interviews featuring film scholar Robert Bird and filmmaker Daniel Raim.  In lieu of a full length commentary track, this edition includes a select scene audio commentary by film scholar Vlada Petric from the original 1998 laser disc.  And for those curious, the blu-ray edition also includes the thesis film that Tarkovsky made in film school back in 1961, titled The Steamroller and the Violin, showing the filmmakers humble beginnings before he was thrust onto the world stage.  Given that Tarkovsky’s body of work was so truncated compared to many of his contemporaries, having his earliest film presented here is important in giving us a more fuller understanding of how he became the cinematic artist that we all know.  In a way, Criterion is doing the same here, showing an the awakening of an artist in his early years before his grander work, that Tarkovsky himself did for the memory of Andrei Rublev.  This in general helps to really make this a very special blu-ray set to own.

Andrei Rublev really is a unique film in the history of Russian and world cinema.  It had all the trappings of a grand historical epic on the level of something out of Hollywood, and yet narratively it was subversive and antithetical to the genre itself.  Andrei Tarkovsky certainly had the vision grandiose enough to stage an epic on the level of some of the greats of that period, with a keen eye for staging big shots and giving his movie an authentic period look.  But, at the same time, he uses his cinematic eye to tell a story different from the one we expect, and tell it in a way that’s more about feeling one’s way through the narrative rather than following it in a linear way.  Rest assured, Tarkovsky’s style is definitely not for everyone.  Most of the movie features long, meandering shots of nature with almost no dialogue at all.  And lots of random shots of horses too (a Tarkovsky tradmark).  Don’t go in expecting to learn a lot about who Andrei Rublev was.  In a way, it’s not really important to the story that Tarkovsky wanted to tell.  It’s a movie less about the artist and more about the world he inhabits.  Tarkovsky said that we learn our history from the artists that observed it, and indeed some of our only insight into what life was like for medieval Russians is through the surviving artwork of Andrei Rublev.  That’s why he closes the film with a montage of close-up views of the master’s paintings, presented in full color (the only part of the movie presented that way).  The art endures long after the man and the society that inspired him has passed away.  Tarkovsky believed too that this was an essential lesson to learn in a society that he believed was loosing it’s connection to the past and how important it was to connect with the rest of the world through the art we create.  Indeed, his work has long outlived him and we continue to talk highly of him as a filmmaker because of how celebrated movies like Andrei Rublev are even half a century later.  It’s truly remarkable to note that Andrei Rublev was only his second feature as a director.  Though he would continue to make more films after, none have the same massive scope as this one does.  Though it breaks many rules of the historical epic genre, it nevertheless still feels big with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious story.  The less ethereal second half, which includes the Tartar sacking of Moscow and the forging of the bell chapters, do liven up the movie and show the director at his most dynamic, but the contemplative first half with dream like moments feel far more personal to the director’s own sensibilities.  It’s a beautifully complex and rule-breaking film to include in the Criterion collection and one that firmly places Tarkovsky as one of the most interesting voices spotlighted within the Collection.

When an Elephant Flies – Disney’s Unlikely Champion in Dumbo and His Unexpected Brush With History

For a lot of people, when they think of a Disney film, they first thing that will pop into their mind will be a fairy tale.  Make no mistake, whenever we look at a point in their long legacy of films, the ones that prove to be the most pivotal in the course of Disney’s success have almost always been centered around princesses and shiny castles.  Of course there are exceptions among their biggest hits being separate from the formula, like 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Lion King (1994) and Zootopia (2016), but you look at all the biggest eras of Disney’s history and there’s almost always a fairy tale attached to it.  They of course started off with a classic fairy tale with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), but the the other eras would end up getting their own movies to help shape the direction of the company; the post-War golden era had Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the Renaissance Era had The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the Digital Era has had Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).  But, it could be argued that the most crucial film to the history of Disney Animation was nothing that you would have expected.  It was neither a safe bet fairy tale, nor a bold experimental picture that redefined the artform.  Instead it was a little side project that slipped under the radar only to become an unexpected phenomenon.  That movie was a fable about a little baby elephant named Dumbo.  Dumbo (1941) the movie may not immediately pop out as something special in the Disney canon.  At a scant 64 minutes it is one of the shortest films Disney has ever made, barely cracking the hour mark.  It also doesn’t feature the same kind of groundbreaking animation that it’s loftier predecessors (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) had.  So, why is Dumbo so crucial to the history of Disney Animation, and to animation in general.  Because, it turned out to be the movie that saved Disney from economic collapse which could have led the animation giant to bankruptcy.  Without Dumbo, Disney Animation would have died on the vine after one of the most meteoric rises in Hollywood history.

For a little historical perspective, here is how Dumbo came to be Disney’s unlikely savior.  After Walt Disney broke all box office records with his huge gamble of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first ever feature length animated film, he not only was able to pay off all of his outstanding debts, but he now had a large sum of profit to cash in on.  With the money made from Snow White, Walt and Co. moved from their Los Feliz based studio to a brand new and much larger studio lot in the San Fernando Valley.  Situated a stone’s throw away from other major studio lots like Warner Bothers and Universal Studios in a burgeoning little community called Burbank, Walt Disney had a base of operations that now gave him the space to grow his company further and give his employees the most state of the art amenities.  Of course, once the move was made, Disney quickly put his men to work on what would be the ambitious follow-ups to Snow White.  And by ambitious, I also mean expensive.  When Snow White was completed, it had a then staggering $1.7 million dollar budget, and that’s in Depression Era dollars.  Today that number would easily clear the 9 digit mark.  Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) combined were nearly five times Snow White’s budget, and that’s not counting the amount of money spent on building the new studio.  Now, for Walt at the time, the expensive investments were worth it, because he had the wind in his sails from the success of Snow WhitePinocchio would be an artistic achievement on par with Snow White, and Fantasia was anticipated to redefine the definition of cinema all together.  But, something would end up dashing Walt’s dreams; one which was entirely out of his control.  The outbreak of war in Europe after Hitler’s invasion of Poland almost immediately shut off the much needed European box office grosses that Hollywood studios depended on, including Disney.  With Pinocchio and Fantasia still in the pipeline and facing that brick wall of a war torn international market, the Walt Disney company that was once flush with cash was now suddenly thrust back into deep debt.  Half a year into the war in Europe, Walt quietly released Pinocchio into domestic theaters in February 1940, and while it performed well in America, the grosses were still well short of the film’s budget costs.  Fantasia performed even more poorly, having been hampered by it’s limited roadshow release, where it could only play in theaters equipped for it’s revolutionary surround sound.  Just as quickly as Walt Disney’s star rose, it had quickly fallen back to Earth.

So, what was Walt going to do?  He began to assess what he still had in the pipeline and wonder what he was capable of moving forward with.  The other expensive project that had already been put into production, Bambi (1943), was put on pause, and Walt also made the crucial decision to axe projects altogether like his first attempt at The Little Mermaid and a feature project that would end up becoming the short, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947).  To make matters worse, the Disney studio also found itself embroiled in an animators strike, one in which Walt’s fiercely anti-Communist stances inflamed the situation to a boiling point.  With no money coming in and seeing himself loosing control over the staff at his studio, Walt was in a dire situation that he honestly had no way out of.  All the studio could afford during this time of contraction were safe bet short cartoons.  That was until a couple of members of Walt’s story department team came forward with a modest sized feature idea.  Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were two story veterans at the Disney studio, and had just come off their work of crafting the concert format for Fantasia.  They brought to Walt’s attention a children’s book from authors Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl.  In it was a story about a baby elephant born with giant ears.  The baby elephant gets teased and humiliated for his abnormality, until one day he begins to flap his enormous ears and suddenly takes flight.  After this extraordinary event, the little baby elephant is treated like a star after he has shown that his oddity is really a gift.  The heartwarming story of overcoming adversity and showing one’s true worth appealed immediately to Walt and he agreed to have the story of Dumbo the Flying Elephant launched into production.  However, due to the budget constraints at the time, Dumbo would not have the luxury of the same kinds of lavish budgets that Pinocchio and Fantasia had. Huemer and Grant had to do what they could with the miniscule budget that was allowed to them.  And this constraint in some ways proved to be an unexpected blessing of it’s own.

Walt, unlike with his other movies, was very hands off in the making of Dumbo, obviously because he was dealing with financial troubles and the strike at the time.  So, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were granted an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.  Dumbo was very much a change of pace for the studio, focusing more on story than showing off the possibilities of it’s animation.  Most of the movie’s brief run time involves Dumbo moving from one ordel to another in a very sparse story of learning to survive in the harsh environment of a Circus.  Where the filmmakers found the heart of the story is in Dumbo’s relationship with his mother, who is taken away from him early on.  With that as the central focus of the film, they were able to craft Dumbo’s story around a motivation that would encompass why he sets out to do what he needs to do.  And that includes being humiliated by the clowns, suffering the rejection of his fellow elephants, and eventually his drunken descent into self realization.  Huemer and Grant needed to keep everything tightly controlled on their film in order to meet the budget demands.  One way they accomplished this was by simplifying the art style.  Prior to Dumbo, Disney films were lavishly detailed, with background art especially showing un-paralleled intricacy.  Dumbo would be far more simplistic, but that was actually to it’s advantage.  Instead of having backgrounds painted like grand masterpieces, Dumbo had backgrounds that were painted in watercolors, with detail limited to sometimes mere abstraction.  In some scenes, the characters aren’t even animated against a fully painted background, but instead are simply shown in front of a single toned splash of color, including all black.  Character models were also simplified, with most of the characters in the movie being the easier to draw animals and the harder to draw humans often shown partially out of frame or silhouetted with shadows.  For a children’s storybook narrative like Dumbo, this art style actually feels in character with story, because the movie looks like a storybook illustration come to life.

But, the creative freedom also allowed for Huemer and Grant to do things that were never allowed before in a Disney movie.  The movie has some wild, abstract ideas brought to life that help to make the story feel more epic than it really is.  A spectacular sequence involving circus elephants forming an acrobatic living pyramid is such a bizarre idea in concept that it allows for the animators to truly go wild in bringing it to life.  It especially becomes a highlight in the final movie once everything goes wrong afterwards.  But, that sequence is nothing compared to the film’s most famous sequence; the Pink Elephants on Parade.  This is where the Disney animators completely throw every rule out and just go wild in ways they would never have been allowed to before.  It’s interesting to note that at the time of Dumbo’s making, Walt was beginning a collaboration with none other than famed artist Salvador Dali.  Dali was brought to Disney with the intention of creating a surreal animated short called Destino, which Walt intended as an addition for Fantasia in it’s original revolving program concept.  Despite some promising early development, including original artwork by Dali that still survives to this day, the project was shelved after Fantasia’s failure at the box office, after which Dali returned home to Spain.  But, while Destino didn’t get made, it still had an influence on those still working on Dumbo, and you can definitely see the Salvador Dali affect in the Pink Elephants sequence, including the artist’s famous obsession with eyeballs.  The sequence is so out of left field for Disney, and yet it works for the film.  It’s one of the first historically interesting brushes that Dumbo had with history, as one of the 20th century’s most famous artists directly influenced it.  What’s even better is that the abstraction of the sequence also helped the animators create something artistically daring without blowing up the budget.  Most of the Pink Elephant sequence is cast against all black backgrounds, making the sequence surprisingly cheap to produce.  All of this helped to make Dumbo a movie that felt in line with Disney’s most ambitious films, while at the same time costing only a fraction to make.

That careful planning as well as an appealing story at it’s center made Dumbo a perfect reset to help Disney right the ship in troubled waters.  Even with the animator’s strike slowing things down, Dumbo managed to be completed in less than a year, which is unheard of for an animated feature.  Walt’s lack of involvement may have also sped things up, as the filmmakers were less tied down by Walt’s numerous notes during the making.  The film completed in a hurry as Walt embarked on a goodwill tour of Latin America on behalf of the U.S. State Department, who were hoping to cut down on the influence of Axis powers in their neighboring countries.  While Walt was away, his brother Roy brokered an agreement with the animators union and the strike came to a quick end.  With the turmoil behind them, Disney Animation was set to give Dumbo a proper premiere.  Though still dependent on the domestic market to gain a profit, hopes were still high that Dumbo could help the struggling company out.  The film released finally in late October 1941, and became an instant smash hit.  Audiences really resonated with the lovable little elephant who learned to fly.  Though the movie left audiences spellbound with it’s more dynamic moments like Pink Elephants, it was it’s heart wrenching story that truly helped it receive high marks.  The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”  Most other critics also praised the movie with likeminded flourish.  The movie itself also opened strong at the box office, nearly making up it’s minimal production budget solely through the domestic box office receipts.  What this showed was that Disney could indeed survive without having to break the bank with each feature and still maintain their artistic integrity.  Certainly Walt preferred to be more lavish with his films, but the success of Dumbo couldn’t be denied.  Dumbo was more than just a hit, it became a phenomenon.  Everyone was suddenly talking about this little elephant who could fly and even the media elite began to take notice.  Dumbo was selected by Time Magazine to be featured on their cover as Mammal of the Year for their December 1941 issue; a high honor at the time, and unprecedented for a cartoon character.  However, that promise of a cover on Time Magazine never came to be and that is because of Dumbo’s other significant brush with history.

On December 7, 1941 a moment that would live in infamy occurred.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and America in response was put on a war footing.  After sitting out the conflict that was going on in Europe and Asia over the last two years, the United States could no longer ignore the spread of fascism across the world, and officially entered World War II.  Naturally, this pushed Dumbo off the front cover of Time Magazine, as the proclamation of war took precedent.  The publication did eventually run their profile of Dumbo in a later issue, but the front cover was scrapped before it was ever drawn up.  Naturally, there was worry that the war at home would cut into Dumbo’s future grosses, but the opposite proved true.  Americans needed an escape from the worries of the oncoming war, and Dumbo was the exact pick-me-up kind of entertainment that they desired.  The movie continued to play very well into the next year.   Even as Disney’s next feature Bambi was released and quickly underperformed, the grosses from Dumbo helped to keep the studio from loosing more ground.  Knowing the effectiveness of Disney’s studio being able to connect with a wide ranging audience thanks to a movie like Dumbo, the U.S. war department contacted Walt to propose using his studio to make propaganda films and artwork to help promote the war effort.  Though Walt was not reticent to hand over his studio to a higher power, he nevertheless agreed because he too believed in the wartime cause.  Though it limited what Disney was allowed to make, the propaganda machine run by the Government nevertheless helped to keep Disney solvent all the way through the War years, and helped him recoup quicker from the financial burdens of the past without having to loose the profit gains from Dumbo.  During those war years, Disney managed to keep his studio running, with his artists churning out adverts, insignias, and short cartoons all with their famous characters promoting the war effort.  Dumbo in fact became a favorite of the air force, as some pilots even painted Dumbo on the sides of their aircrafts, making him a sort of unofficial mascot.  When the war ended, Walt took back control of his studio and began to plan for his post-war future.  Eventually, when the 1950’s rolled around, Walt saw a new opportunity emerge to present his film, which was television.  In 1954, he premiered his prime time TV series Disneyland, which he himself hosted personally.  In addition to original programming on the show, Walt also used Disneyland to run some of his classic films, albeit shortened for commercial time.  And what was the first film to be given the honor of a television premiere?  Dumbo of course.  From the beginning of World War II to the prosperous days after, Disney could always rely on Dumbo for an extra boost when it needed it.

Now 80 years later, Dumbo’s legacy is still going strong.  He’s an evergreen presence in the parks, with a famous spinning ride made in his honor.  Upon a visit to Disneyland, Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson famously refused to go on the Dumbo ride because the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party.  Despite that benign little political anecdote, Dumbo has not been without controversy over the years.  Most famously, the movie has come under fire for it’s racial controversies.  Dumbo befriends a group of crows in the film, all of whom help to convince him that he can fly.  Sadly, it’s unmistakable that the crows are caricatures of black people, and not necessarily in a flattering way.  Many civil rights groups have called out Disney for this depiction, and their complaints are not unwarranted either, especially when you learn that one of the crows has the name Jim Crow; a very bad pun in retrospect.  Like most of old Hollywood depictions of minority characters, the extant of the offense is really up to discussion of intentional malice, which I don’t think the Disney artists were intending, as it was just how most movies at that time often portrayed black characters.  Indeed, the message at the center of Dumbo is tolerance, as Dumbo overcomes his abnormality to prove his worth.  It’s illustrated especially well in how his best friend turns out to be a mouse named Timothy, a reversal of the normally adversarial relationship between the species shown in media.  Also, Dumbo is accepted as part of the crow’s group, themselves socially outcast, and like them Dumbo achieves his true self by learning to fly.  Still, the controversy around the film should not be dismissed as the hurtful depictions of black people in film needs to be discussed.  There was worry that the offensive part of the film might have been excised from the movie altogether for Disney+, which thankfully didn’t happen, especially when it has one of the best songs in the movie.  It’s better for American society to have the ugly parts of history exists alongside the good so that we can learn from it, instead of burying the parts we don’t like.  Something Disney should consider with Song of the South (1946).  Dumbo‘s place in the Disney canon is truly unique, because had it not salvaged Disney when it did, who knows if Disney would’ve made it through the war years unscathed like it did.  Would Disney have still been deep in debt had Dumbo not given them a boost?  Would they have failed to recover in order to gain their second wind that guided them into their Golden Age?  Would Disney have had the confidence to take on more costly chances like Disneyland?  There’s no denying that things were precarious before Dumbo, and it became an unlikely champion that helped to set things back in order.  That’s largely due to a rock solid story crafted by Dick Huemer and Joe Grant, as well as an unburdened team of animators who were granted more creative freedom.  Even to this day, it’s hard to find another animated movie that so effortlessly tugs at the heartstrings like it does.  Dumbo is a jewel is a worthy jewel in Disney’s animation crown, and like the tiny elephant at it’s center, it sours much higher than anyone would’ve expected it to.