The Movies of Early 2023

The year that was 2022 has come to a close, and once again we have seen another year where the movie industry has been thrown upside down in ways that many people would not have expected at the beginning of the year.  Though still off from pre-pandemic levels, 2022 saw a strong return of business to movie theaters, buoyed by the holiday 2021 hold-over of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) in early January, the mid-Spring successes of DC’s The Batman (2022), Uncharted (2022) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022), and of course the summertime phenomenon that was Top Gun: Maverick (2022), ultimately closing out strong with James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  At the same time, the streaming market for the first time showed some cracks in their near flawless sheen for the first time, with Netflix seeing it’s first ever subscriber contraction, which led to a general slow down across the board in the blue sky outlook of the whole streaming craze.  While the beginning of the year promised big things for the streaming giants, the end of the year finds many of them starting to tighten their belts and re-thinking their futures.  In addition, two of the biggest movie studios went through tumultuous upheavals that could also cast a cloud over the next year.  Disney resorted to the drastic firing of their CEO after a disastrous quarterly misstep in their economic performance, and Warner Brothers completed their merger with Discovery Media by cancelling multiple projects across their media empire, including a few in the can films like Batgirl.  Certainly, Hollywood is a much different place now than it was a year ago, with a lot of uncertainty going into the next year.  One of the things that no doubt is going to need to be figured out in 2023 is how the studios will be able to balance their output in both theaters and on streaming, and where they’ll be able to get their money’s worth out of the performance from both with their catalogue of titles.

Before I continue to look back on the year that was 2022 (please wait one more week before I publish my Top 10) it’s time to check out what’s coming up in the early part of 2023.  Like my other movie previews, I will be taking a look at the Must Sees, the movies that have me worried, and the Movies to Skip.  I am by no means the best handicapper (I underestimated Top Gun: Maverick last year) so take my assessments with a grain of salt.  My thoughts are generally on how anticipated these movies are based on the early hype and the effectiveness of the marketing, when it comes to my own tastes anyway.  There could be a lot of surprises in store, so I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Movies of Early 2023.



The Ant-Man franchise has up to this point been the runt of the litter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While the movies are good, the franchise has been largely been mildly received by audiences and has been only successful enough to justify it’s existence, with Ant-Man’s more important adventures taking place in the Avengers movies.  By comparison, the Ant-Man franchise is low stakes and more geared towards laughs.  But, that looks to change with this third film in the franchise.  The stakes are much higher as Ant-Man, the Wasp, and their family end up stuck in the Quantum Realm, a mini-universe existing underneath our own.  The Quantum Realm has been involved in past films in the MCU, mainly in the Ant-Man films and playing a crucial part in the plot of Avengers: Endgame (2019), but here in Quantumania, we are getting the chance to fully explore it for the first time.  This film launches off what Marvel is calling their Phase 5, and it’s kind of surprising that they would give such an Avengers level event to a character like Ant-Man, who for the most part has been one of Marvel’s more affable characters.  But, at the same time, it seems appropriate because the Ant-Man movies thus far have been leading it’s hero to a moment like this, as playing around in the Quantum Realm no doubt has it’s consequences.  It will be interesting to see how Paul Rudd plays his character in this new tone for his story.  The visual representation of the Quantum Realm also looks stunning as well, with epic scope that we certainly have not seen in any Ant-Man movie thus far.  But what is going to be most significant about this movie is that it will introduce us to the next big bad of the whole MCU; the successor to Thanos as you will.  That character is the multi-dimensional tyrant Kang the Conqueror, played with menacing energy by rising star Jonathan Majors.  Majors has already played a variant of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series named “He Who Remains,” but this will be his full debut as the full blown iconic comic book villain, and it will be exciting to see what he does with the part.  Big things are in Marvel’s future, and it’s certainly exciting to see them help elevate their Ant-Man side of the universe in the process.


Speaking of upcoming movies with Jonathan Majors in it, we get the third installment of this franchise spin-off of the Rocky series.  While the original Creed’s director Ryan Coogler has been busy building the majestic world of Wakanda over at Marvel, the Creed franchise has surprisingly remained strong on it’s own.  The sequel Creed II (2018) managed to avoid the sophomore slump and held it’s own both critically and at the box office.  Now, we get the third installment, with the film’s star Michael B. Jordan for the first time pulling double duty behind and in front of the camera.  In his feature directorial debut, it seems fitting that he would take on this role in the franchise as his predecessor Sylvester Stallone also directed a couple films in the franchise, on top of writing the screenplay for the original Rocky (1976).  Jordan has been a steadfast believer in this franchise since day one, so I definitely believe that the franchise is in good hands with him at the helm.  And one of the best story choices that him and his team seemed to make is crafting a new adversary who has a past history with Adonis Creed; a one time surrogate brother who’s shady past has built up years of resentment.  All of this will no doubt lead to a volatile show down in the ring, which is where the Rocky and Creed movies have always excelled at leading up to.  Jonathan Majors is a perfect choice to play this role, being a perfect match for Michael B. Jordan both physically and as a performer.  Quantumania will no doubt showcase Major’s acting chops, but Creed III will show both his accomplished acting as well as his incredible physicality.  One thing this trailer doesn’t show us however is what has happened to Rocky Balboa.  I know it’s not his franchise anymore, but you do hope that the movie does give a shout out to the Italian Stallion.  Stallone certainly is still around and can still pop in for a cameo.  We’ll see what the movie has in store for us, and I hope the Rocky question will have a satisfying answer.  But, there is no doubt that Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors will be giving us one hell of a show once the gloves are on and the bell has rung.


Thus far one of the most exciting series of action films to have come out of the last decade has been the John Wick series.  And surprisingly, even 3 films in, the franchise has yet to run out of steam.  That’s pretty impressive for a franchise that is mostly just stunt work and gun fight choreography.  What this series has managed to do so well thus far is build upon it’s world with each installment; constantly raising the stakes while at the same time doing some incredible world-building around it.  It’s been fascinating to see more layers being added to this underground society of assassins and hit men, all with their own codes, network of bureaucracy, and even currency.  And at it’s center, a fascinating figure in John Wick (played by a career best Keanu Reeves).  Now, we continue the adventures of Mr. Wick, the man you call to kill the boogeyman, who has vendetta to settle with the High Table itself that betrayed him.  For the most part, the plot itself doesn’t matter, and that’s what’s refreshing about this series.  It’s just an excuse to set up the next mind-blowing fight scenes that honestly are works of art from the standpoint of stunt coordination.  The fact that Keanu Reeves is still putting himself physically into these kinds of on screen fights as an actor pushing 60 is really impressive, and it gives Tom Cruise some competition.  But, a hero is only as good as the opponent he faces, and in this one, martial arts movie legend Donnie Yen has joined the already stacked cast.  It will be fun to see what the John Wick team does with his talents as an on screen stunt performer.  Returning cast members Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne are also pleasing to see here.  But of course, it all comes down to Keanu Reeves and what he is able to bring to the table.  Can Keanu continue to keep up the pace of the series up with yet another adventure with John WickAs long as he keeps making these movies fun, there is little doubt that this will be a rollicking good time.


Alas, this looks likely to be a relic of a Cinematic Universe that no longer exists over at DC.  As the comic book giant re-assesses it’s cinematic future amid the shake-up at Warner Brothers, with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn now taking creative control of the DC universe plans, what was once known as the Zach Snyderverse era of the DCEU is now dead.  2023 will see the last remnants of that cinematic universe roll out into theaters, including the very troubled Flash movie in the summer and an Aquaman sequel in the Fall.  But first up, we get this sequel to what was honestly one of the bright spots of the dour Snyderverse years at DC.  When Shazam (2019) first came out 3 years ago, it managed to strike that right balance between big action spectacle and charming goofy comic book wonder that DC had honestly struggled to find in most of their DCEU movies.  It was honestly the kind of movie that DC comic book movies should have been over the last decade and sadly was too little too late to salvage what ultimately was an unsalvageable mess.  Thankfully, the movie did well enough to warrant a sequel, with much of the original team still in tact.  Zachary Levi and Asher Angel both return as the young man Billy Batson and his super-powered form.  It also looks like the original film’s refreshing sense of humor is translating over, as well as it’s earnestness.  While so many of the Snyderverse DC movies were serious to fault, Shazam was the one film that seemed to understand that it was a comic book movie first and foremost and it fully embraced the silly side of comics that all that entails.  It will be interesting to see how the movie works in the new foes played by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, and how the movies is able to build off the last Shazam storyline.  As long as it doesn’t lose sight of what made the first film work in the first place  this will hopefully close out this chapter of the character Shazam on the big screen in a good way.


This could either be one of the dumbest ideas for a movie, or one of the greatest.  Based on an actual recorded incident, the movie’s title pretty much tells us what we’re in for here.  It’s a wild bear that accidently consumes a bunch of cocaine.  And this movie basically speculates on what kind of chaos would ensue as a result.  For the most part, the trailer gives us a pretty good idea of the tone that the filmmakers are seeking with this scenario; pretty much using the premise for violent and gory slapstick comedy.  The film does boast a pretty interesting cast, many not really known for broad comedy.  This includes the late Ray Liotta, in what is likely his last film role, shot before his untimely death earlier this year.  As long as the movie understands that it can’t be taken seriously under any means, and just sticks with the absurdist tone, it might actually work.  There is a danger of them straining one joke over an entire movie and robbing it of it’s effectiveness.  What I think may be key to getting this movie right is the way that the human characters are portrayed.  If they seem to remain broad, cartoonish caricatures like they seem to be in the trailer, it could make the movie as a whole a lot funnier.  It’s all about who’s falling victim to this cocaine crazed bear and how silly their bloody deaths may end up being.  The talent involved could be the key to that, as there are some quality comedic performers here, including the grossly underrated character actor Isaiah Whitlock Jr., with his pitch perfect line reading, “Man, you f$%#ed.”  Hopefully, Cocaine Bear makes good on the promise of it’s premise and delivers something that we rarely see on the big screen these days; a good laugh out loud comedy.



This movie in particular has one major aspect to worry about.  On the surface, there looks to be a lot going right for this movie.  Adapting the legendary video game series is a daunting task, but the movie looks visually dazzling with characters on model and the attention to detail at a very impressive level.  So, why are people worried about this movie.  Because thus far, people are concerned that the role of the titular plumber himself may have been miscast.  Chris Pratt is no stranger to doing voices in animated films, including his charming roles in The Lego Movie (2014) and Pixar’s Onward (2020).  But, his voice just seems like an obvious mismatch for the role of Mario.  Mario has for many years been voiced in the video games by vocal artist Charles Martinet, who gave Mario a high pitched, Italian accented voice that is very distinctive.  In this case, it looks like Illumination Animation and Nintendo are chasing after a bigger name for the role instead of finding the right voice for the character.  To be fair, the rest of the cast is filled with name actors, but for some of those, like Charlie Day playing Luigi and Jack Black playing Bowser, there seems to have been more effort into getting the voices to match the character they are playing.  For Chris Pratt as Mario, there seems to be far less effort.  Mario just sounds like every other character that Chris has played in movies.  His voice can work in animated films, but the characters he has played have often been better geared towards his strengths.  Hopefully the samples of his performance that we have heard so far are not indicative of the whole movie.  The film does look like it is doing justice to the distinctive visuals of the iconic Nintendo franchise.  Let’s just hope that they have done right by their marquee character as well.


Attempting to launch a new franchise is always tricky, especially in what seems to be a dying genre on the big screen like the Fantasy epic.  The days when the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter ruled the cinemas are long over, so it’s odd that one the most notable titles in nerd all of nerd culture is attempting to step in now to begin it’s own big screen franchise.  Dungeons and Dragons of course is a decades old table top role playing fantasy game that continues to be popular with nerds everywhere, but has yet to cross over into mainstream popularity.  A failed attempt to start-up a cinematic franchise was made in 2001, just a week after The Lord of the Rings launched into cinemas, with a laughably bad movie adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans.  You would think that would deter any other attempts, but it looks like Paramount Pictures is going to make a go at it.  One thing that does work in the movie’s favor is it’s atypical cast.  The film includes actors as varied as Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Rege-Jean Page, and Hugh Grant.  Chris Pine can certainly carry a big action epic with a lot of charm as he demonstrated in the Star Trek series.  In general, it seems like the movie is going for a bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy in a fantasy realm feel, which can be a good thing if done right.  I haven’t played D&D myself, so I’m not all that familiar with the lore of the world in the game and cannot attest to the accuracy in which it’s being portrayed in this film.  My hope is that the characters and the sense of fun that we potential for in this trailer carries through into the final film, and at the same time, hopefully it manages to translate the game without disgracing the fanbase that holds the game very dear.  It’s a treacherous world for making a new kind of fantasy epic, so let’s hope this film is up to the quest.


It’s always a flip of the coin when it comes to the movies of M. Night Shayamalan.  The director who very much likes his puzzle box, Twilight Zone style thrillers, either makes some great films like The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), or he makes some truly terrible movies like The Village (2004), The Happening (2008) or After Earth (2013).  Despite a lot of hatred leveled his way, he has still managed to press on and continue to make movies his way with his own voice, for good and bad.  It’s hard to know which way his next film, Knock at the Cabin will fall.  There is some promise in the premise, but the execution could end up making the film fall short.  Shayamalan tends to overwrite his movies, or make the line readings of his actors feel strange and off.  One of the that is promising in this movie is the presence of Dave Bautista.  Bautista has been one of the most surprisingly versatile actors in recent years, capable of comedic performances in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and the recent Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), as well as dramatic turns in movies like Blade Runner 2047 (2017) and Dune (2021).  Psychological thrillers is something we have yet to see him wrap his muscular arms around until now, so it will be interesting to see how well he works under the direction of Shayamalan.  He certainly brings the right intensity that could work for the role.  Shayamalan is working with a wide range of themes here; religious zealotry, same sex relationships, apocalyptic signs, etc.  All of it may again be beyond his grasps as a director, but it will be interesting to see him try to make the experiment work.  Shayamalan can often frustrate his viewers, but when he does finally manage to make one of his films work, it can be quite the big screen journey.  Let’s hope that it’s one of those kinds of Shayamalan movies.


The first official movie week of 2023 starts off with a movie that is either going to hit it big with audiences, or is going to flounder in it’s own absurdity.  M3gan’s biggest charge against it is that it’s not terribly original.  We are basically just looking at a Child’s Play  for the digital age.  The trailer pretty much leads us towards expecting things to go exactly like they did when it was Chucky the doll causing mayhem.  To the movie’s credit, the doll faced M3gan is an effectively creepy design.  It’s movements, which are more human like as the movie goes on do have a creepy factor too.  But, the movie has a lot more to prove beyond that, which unfortunately from the trailer looks like your standard slasher fare.  Coming off what was actually a banner year for horror movies, with films like X, Pearl, Barbarian, and Smile all earning both critical praise and healthy box office, M3gan needs to show it’s more than just another creepy doll movie and put 2023 on a good start when it comes to the kind of horror movies that can bring back audiences in droves.  Chucky is one of the most famous horror movie icons, so it’s going to be tough to make this new character stick out against his legacy on the big screen.  It can be done, but given that this is a January release, a notorious dumping ground for movies that studios want to bury, the odds are that this movie is likely not going to be the next great horror classic.  But, it could also be a surprise as well, so we’ll just have to find out next week what side of the coin M3gan ends up landing on.



Oh Gerard Butler, why do you make it so easy to lower our expectations.  Butler for a while now has contented himself to being in low budget action flicks with increasing absurdity to their plots.  There have been some bright spots on his resume like Greenland (2020) and Copshop (2021), but for the most part he has been in tough guy action mode since starring in Olympus Has Fallen (2013) nearly a decade ago.  This new film finds him playing an airline pilot who gets caught up in a kidnapping plot with Filipino guerilla war lords, and he must team up with a convicted convict that his plane assigned to transport in order to survive and save the other passengers.  Combine this with one of the most laughably generic titles, and you get what will likely be the year’s most absurd action film, and not in a good way.  Butler continues to phone in these kinds of performances, which is too bad because the good movies that I gave examples of before show that he can still be a good actor when he wants to commit.  But, movies like this are more of what he seems more comfortable acting in, and it’s a a career trajectory that I don’t think does him any favors.  There’s a chance this could be one of those so bad it’s good kinds of movies, but chances are it’s exactly the kind of bad we’d expect from Gerard Butler.


It’s sad when you see some of the greatest actresses to have graced the silver screen reach their paycheck collecting phase during their twilight years.  That’s the case with this screwball comedy that seems especially late to the party, as it’s glorifying quarterback Tom Brady when he was still in a New England Patriots uniform; something that is already outdated by a couple years.  Not only that but the title is wrong for these particular actresses.  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are indeed in their eighties, at 85 and 83 respectively, but Sally Field is still under the bar at the age of 76 and Rita Moreno is remarkably still acting at a spry 91.  I love all of these actresses based on their years of great performances, with 3 out of the 4 being Oscar-winners, but man is this kind of movie well beneath their talents.  The sight of a blonde, botoxxed Jane Fonda is also very unsettling to see as well.  This is clearly a movie aimed at the over 60 crowd and no one else (maybe a few die hard Brady fans).  Otherwise, this is a wayward hard pass that goes completely out of bounds for me.


As if this franchise hasn’t already wrung out it’s last bit of mojo left, now we get the 6th film in the franchise.  The reason this movie is likely going to flounder is because it’s the first without series mainstay Neve Campbell.  Every movie up to now has centered around the character of Sidney Prescott, including the last one which was released only just last year.  That’s a pretty quick turnaround for the franchise, and I doubt this series has the kind of creative juices to take this premise out for yet another spin.  The truth is, the franchise ran out of surprises after the second film, to where even series creator Wes Craven could no longer maintain the suspense factor anymore.  It’s just the same thing over and over again; people killed by a knife wielding murderer in a ghost-face costume, while the survivors offer up some meta commentary about horror movie tropes while they happen to them.  We all know the formula by now, and the filmmakers just seem content to rehash them again.  Without Neve Campbell’s central presence, does this series have anything left to distinguish itself with.  My guess is not.

So there you have my thoughts on the upcoming movies of the first four months of the year.  Unlike last year, which was seeing some of the lingering effects of the pandemic years affecting the number of movies available for release, this year looks to be a far more robust one at the cinemas.  March in particular looks like the Spring Break seasons of old, with big studio titles coming out every week that month.  Not only that, but there’s a Marvel movie in February, which should definitely give late Winter box office a needed boost.  But, it’s the Summer season that looks even more jam packed.  I’ll cover it more once the Summer season gets closer, but we should expect big things from the returns of franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Mission Impossible, as well as the next big epic from Christopher Nolan, and Harrison Ford’s one last adventure as Indiana Jones.  For these Spring months, we’ll get a good sense of how the rest of 2023 will play out.  One thing that seems to be certain is that movie theaters will see it’s best post-pandemic year yet, just based on the quantity of movies that are coming to theaters in the next year.  Hopefully this helps to increase business to a point where it convinces the studios that the movie going experience is alive and well and the best possible place to see a return on their investment on their big tent-pole movies.  With the streaming platforms in a bit of a flux, this is certainly the time for the cinematic experience to re-affirm itself.  Let’s hope for a lot of good things to happen in 2023, both on the big screen and in the real world itself.  I hope this preview gives you all a good idea of what’s ahead, and may all of you have a lot of fun watching movies in the next year.

Misfit Toys – The Legacy of Rankin Bass and Holiday Specials

On this Christmas Eve many people are no doubt indulging in their favorite Holiday festivities on the night before the big day.  For many, it’s spending the night partying with friends, coworkers, or just family.  Some may go out to the movies, or others may just stay home and watch a holiday standard on television.  There are of course many movies made just for that occasion, from the perennials like Home Alone (1990) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or for something more recent there is a whole marathon of saccharine rom coms from the Hallmark Channel ready to satisfy that feeling of Christmas spirt.  But, for those not looking for a long sit, there is also the tradition of Holiday specials that have been a part of television since the early days.  More often the Holiday special has been used as a variety show for TV audiences, showcasing musical or comedy acts tied around the Holidays with celebrities getting into the festive spirit for the entertainment of audiences who tuned in.  But, Holiday specials were also used for one off short form programming, meant to draw in audiences looking to be entertained with something more substantial than a glorified concert.  These were often a great opportunity for animation studios, particularly smaller independent ones, to reach a wider audience that they couldn’t otherwise have gotten to on the big screen.  Of those animation studios vying to make a name for themselves, one not only emerged as a strong contender, but they also managed to excel so much as a producer of Christmas specials that their name is to this day synonymous with the Christmas season in the world of entertainment.  That studio is of course Rankin Bass.  For a whole generation, Rankin Bass became the authors of many childhood Christmas memories with their colorful and quirky holiday specials that even to this day enjoy a yearly revival on broadcast television.  So how did a pair of New York based ad men manage to conquer the airwaves as the masters of the Holiday special.

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass grew up on opposite sides of the country, but during the late 1950’s, both fresh out of college upstarts had their chance meeting while working in marketing at ABC.  Rankin was a junior art director and Bass a copywriter, and after a couple years of collaborating on numerous television commercials (which included their first forays into animation) the pair parted ways with ABC in 1960 to form their own independent studio.  Their company was called Videocraft International and like many start-up production companies, they were focused on creating programming for television.  The company started off with cel-based animated series for Saturday morning cartoon blocks, including shows like The New Adventures of Pinocchio and Tales of the Wizard of Oz.  Thus far, these animated series gave them plenty of work, but not much notoriety.  This was until they had a chance meeting with a Japanese based stop-motion animator named Tadahito Mochinaga.  Mochinaga had for years been developing his own animation studio utilizing puppets made from wood rather than the usual clay that most other stop motion had utilized.  Mochinaga’s puppets were doll like and highly expressive, and this immediately caught the attention of Rankin Bass who believed that Mochinaga’s style of animation would blend perfectly well with their own unique house style.  They formed a partnership with Mochinaga’s studio to produce television specials, with the characters being designed by Arthur Rankin himself and the animation itself being conducted at the Tokyo based stop-motion studio.  The style that came as a result of the Rankin Bass designs and the Mochinaga animation was dubbed “Animagic.”  This was a fortuitous partnership, but it needed a special kind of story to give these two animation studios a chance to really stand out in the crowd.

There’s no denying that stop motion is a costly and time consuming form of animation, so for Rankin Bass to convince any broadcaster to take on the project and provide the necessary funding for the project, they needed a surefire story that would connect with discerning holiday audiences.  What the studio ultimately landed upon was the story of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”  The special would be based on the 1949 song written by Johnny Marks, which itself was based on a poem from 1939 written by Robert L. May, commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward.  The song was popularized by recording artist Gene Autry, and by the time Rankin Bass were about to approach it, the song had become a holiday standard.  With many people already familiar with the lyrics to the song, all Rankin Bass had to do was fill out a story around it.  Jules Bass collaborated on the script with writer Romeo Mueller, finding a story that could fill the needed hour’s worth or programming that they need.  It seems like the lyric from the song, “They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games,” provided the driving force in the story.  Their Rudolph would start off as an outcast, shunned by his fellow Reindeer for being different; a “misfit” as it were.  As a result, this lead to Rudolph befriending other Misfits like him, giving the special a fuller cast of original characters; including Hermey, the elf who wants to be a Dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the very unlucky Klondike explorer.  They even visit a whole Island of Misfit Toys, which gives the movie a surprisingly open minded message of tolerance for those who are different.  Ultimately, Rudolph shows he has value despite the shiny nose than has given him grief most of his life, and ultimately turns that deformity into an asset when Santa needs Rudolph to guide his sleigh through a stormy night.  Rankin Bass’ treatment of the story won over executives at NBC, and they were given a greenlight to produce their special.  It aired for the first time on the network on December 6, 1964, and was an immediate hit with audiences.  It later was picked up by CBS in 1972, and since then has aired on network television every year since.

Rankin Bass suddenly found themselves in demand as an animation studio, with the big networks now looking to them to repeat the success of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  Of course, Rankin Bass continued to look to other well known holiday stories to provide their own twists on the tales.  They continued to work with Mochinaga on their “Animagic” projects, including 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy.  At the same time, they continued to also put out animated specials in their traditional, hand drawn style, with animation services provided by another Japanese based studio, Toei Animation; a studio that would go on to become one of the powerhouse names in Anime.  In the hand drawn animation style, Rankin Bass had another massive hit with the short Frosty, the Snow Man (1969), which like Rudolph was also based on a popular song.  The following decade saw a lot more success for Rankin Bass, as they seemed to have a new special every year lined up.  This included Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) which famously introduced us to the Miser Brothers, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) a psudo-sequel, Jack Frost (1979), and many more.  They also produced specials and films for other holidays as well, like Mad Monster Party (1967) which was Mochinaga’s final film collaboration with them.  They also were not just successful in making hit shows for television, but they also helped contribute greatly to the holiday time songbook as well.  Most of the specials featured songs from Maury Laws, as well as new covers of classic standards that were often the story basis for the specials.  It helped that some of the best singers at the time were involved as voice talent in these specials, like Burl Ives, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Joel Grey and many more.  In fact, the Rankin Bass specials were a great showcase all around for some of the best voice actors around.  Mickey Rooney was always reliable as a go to Santa Claus, and the legendary Paul Frees often was voicing multiple characters all at once in many specials.  In additions to the popular new covers, the Maury Laws songs themselves became popular standards themselves, like Rudolph’s “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand.”

But, Rankin Bass was not just looking to make their name in holiday specials alone.  They wanted to compete in the same field as the Disney’s and Warner Brothers’ when it came to animation.  Building on the success of their Christmas specials, the studio was looking to expand into feature animation.  They had managed to make simple family friendly animated features in the wake of their Rudolph success, including Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965), The Daydreamer (1966) and The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967).  But, in the latter part of the 1970’s, they wanted to go in a direction that ran contrary to where the bigger studios were going with animation, which were stories with a darker theme to them.  And they managed to secure the enviable task of taking audiences for the first time into a mythical place called Middle Earth.  Somehow, Rankin Bass managed to secure the coveted rights to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, and they were very much interested in bringing the famed Fantasy writer’s first novel, The Hobbit, to animated life.  The Hobbit (1977) became a made for television animated feature that was decidedly more mature in style and theme than what we had seen from Rankin Bass up to that point.  With a voice cast including Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, Hans Conreid as Thorin Oakenshield, and legendary film director John Huston as Gandalf the Wizard, The Hobbit may have divided Tolkein purists with it’s condensation of the author’s expansive mythology, but it enchanted young viewer who were getting their first introduction to the world of Middle Earth.  A couple years later, Rankin Bass followed up the success of their Hobbit adaptation with a film version of the third book in Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, The Return of the King (1980).  A few years after that they created a cult hit with the dark animated feature The Last Unicorn (1982).  Though they enjoyed a long and varied career in animation, changing times eventually caught up to Rankin Bass.  The specials of the 80’s were nowhere near as popular as their earlier work, with their last stop-motion special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) and their last hand drawn special The Wind in the Willows (1987) both performing very poorly in the ratings.  Even though they still had some success with their Saturday Morning Cartoon Thundercats, the studio ultimately couldn’t right the decline and in 1987, the studio dissolved.  Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass would collaborate one more time in 2001, on appropriately enough a Christmas special called Santa, Baby, but apart from that it was the end of an era for one of the greatest teams in animation history.

So, looking back on the body of work that Rankin Bass left behind, what do we understand about their legacy as animators as well as contributors to the holiday season.  For one thing, the ubiquitous-ness of the Rankin Bass brand with the holidays is undeniable, particularly for GenX’ers out there.  For many, who were raised during the 1970’s and 80’s, the holidays were not complete without seeing that Rankin Bass logo at the end of the credits on each special.  When you sat in front of the TV during the holiday season and saw one of the Rankin Bass specials, it gave you that special feeling of the holiday season being in full swing.  Drawing from my own family experience, my Mom recorded a few holiday specials from TV airings onto a VHS tape, and it included a couple of Rankin Bass programs on it, including Rudolph, Frosty, and The Night Before Christmas, as well as a couple other holiday classics like  the Grinch and Charlie Brown specials.  I probably wore that tape out through years of re-watches, but it did it’s job because it put me very much in the holiday spirit every year.  The same I’m sure is true for many others in my generation of late Gen X and early Millennial kids.  One other thing that the Rankin Bass holiday specials did to help make Christmas time even better is that it moved other like minded studios to elevate their game as well.  The success of Rudolph helped to launch a who new generation of holiday classics, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) from animation legend Chuck Jones, as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) from former Disney artist Bill Melendez and written for television by Charles Schultz himself.  Even Disney stepped up to offer their own holiday short, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), based on the Charles Dickens classic.  Holiday specials were standard before on television, but Rankin Bass carved out a special place for the art of animation into that block of programming every year.  The reason that there is so many cartoons to this day as a part of the holiday playlist for many households each year is because Rankin Bass was always a present player in the television that we watched during this time of year.

You can still see the influence of Rankin Bass in many new holiday films and specials made today.  Anytime a TV show does a holiday episode that features an animated segment, it almost always is stop motion in tribute to the Rankin Bass specials.  This includes sitcoms as varied as Home Improvement and Community, all with clear nods to the Rankin Bass style.  The style has also been spoofed on shows like Saturday Night Live and South Park, more often affectionately.  Though perhaps the biggest nods to Rankin Bass have been on the big screen.  The 2003 comedy Elf starring Will Farrell features stop-motion animation mixed in with live action to represent a vey Rankin Bass like vision of the North Pole.  The movie even goes as far to have Farrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, having a heart to heart talk with the Burl Ives’ Snowman from Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer.  It’s an affectionate nod to Rankin Bass that clearly knows just how indelible those specials were to the holiday season.  A less obvious nod to the Rankin Bass legacy is found in another film that has become a holiday classic.  I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the proven success of Rankin Bass use of stop motion, director Tim Burton might not have pursued it as the ideal animation style to bring his story of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to life.  Stylistically, there is little to compare Nightmare Before Christmas with the films of Rankin Bass, but you can see the influence is still there.  The fact that stop motion animation has such a connection to the holiday season is purely the result of Rankin Bass’ influence.  That’s why so many holiday commercials still use the animation style, banking on people’s familiarity with the holiday specials.  It seems reasonable that Tim Burton saw this connection too, and wanted to invoke the familiarity of the Rankin Bass holiday special style while at the same time subverting it in his own way.  You’ll also find references to characters from the Rankin Bass specials in unlikely places, including an appearance of Snowmiser from The Year Without a Santa Claus in the lair for Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).  Despite their studio being out of the game in the last 30-plus years, Rankin Bass’ place as an iconic part of the holiday season still remains as strong as ever.

Of course, Rankin Bass is not just an iconic part of the holiday season, but also a  highly celebrated name in the field of animation in general as well.  They helped to carve out a special place in the market and elevate independent animation studios at a time when the medium really needed it.  Their “Amimagic” stop motion puppets have this toy like quality to them that makes them appealing to audiences both young and old, and the specials they made continue to resonate across generations.  And Rankin Bass helped to elevate other parts of the animation field as well.  Toei Animation, which through it’s subsidiary Topcraft animated many of the hand drawn specials for Rankin Bass, would go on to make a name for themselves as producers of major anime hits like DragonBall Z and One Piece.  And before Peter Jackson embarked on his own groundbreaking cinematic trilogy, Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit would stand as the preeminent adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic adventure.  For many of my generation, Rankin Bass was our entry point into Middle Earth.  But, it’s unmistakable that the thing that Rankin Bass will be most remembered for are their holiday specials, and for good reason.  The short programs may be simple and quaint, but they are as cozy as warm sit by the fireplace with a warm cup of hot chocolate on a Christmas night.  The holidays are just not the same without them on TV every year.  While Rudolph still gets it’s annual airing on network TV, many of the lesser seen holiday specials have made their way to other avenues of broadcast.  Freeform, formally the Family Channel, has been the home to the Rankin Bass collection for many years now as part of their 25 Days of Christmas block of programming, and you can still find many of the standards like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town there.  There are also DVD and Blu-ray compilations out there, though it’s hard to find complete collections as the rights to the Rankin Bass library is scattered between NBC Universal and Warner Media.  But, regardless of where you find the specials, just know that they feel just as festive today as they did when they first aired.  Both Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass left behind a marvelous legacy to be proud of, and even into long retirement, they managed to see that legacy grow after they long called it quits.  Arthur Rankin passed away in 2014 and Jules Bass passed just this last October, at the ripe old ages of 89 and 87.  They were valuable pioneers in the field of animation and I hope in their last few years they were able to understand how much they made the holidays for a whole generation of children, including myself, that much more merry and bright.  And with that, may all of you have a holly, jolly Christmas this year.

Avatar: The Way of Water – Review

It’s becoming an increasing rarity to see a new film from award winning director James Cameron these days.  Since his Oscar winning epic Titanic (1997) from 25 years ago, Cameron has only directed two narrative films, with a handful of documentaries scattered around.  And both of those movies take place in the same world; one that Cameron is increasingly more invested in.  For the longest time, 12 years in fact, it seemed like no movie could ever catch the box office record set by Titanic, until James Cameron himself took up the challenge.  Avatar (2009) released into theaters with a fairly modest but strong opening weekend, but then it just stayed around, adding on to it’s box office week after week with better and better returns.  It showed long legs at the box office not seen in Hollywood since what was coincidently Cameron’s last film, and remarkably he found himself the box office king again as Avatar surpassed Titanic’s lofty summit and then some.  Most directors dream of making the most successful movie of all time, and James Cameron can say that he’s accomplished that moment twice in his career.  Avatar’s crown has since passed on to the likes of Star Wars domestically and the Avengers worldwide, but James Cameron can still claim to hold two spots on the all time highest grossing charts in movie history.  So, what does he do for an encore.  Given that Titanic and Avatar are so wildly different kinds of movies (historical epic vs. sci-fi adventure) you would think that he would change things up by tackling another genre.  But instead, Cameron decided to not just return to the world of Avatar for an encore, but to commit to a multi part narrative that will likely consume the rest of his directing career.

If the gap between Titanic and Avatar was lengthy, it’s been exceed even more by the 13 years it took to get this sequel.  Truth be told, that wasn’t by design.  James Cameron began rolling picture on this sequel all the way back in 2016, a full six years ago.  One thing that certainly contributed to the lengthy production on this film was Cameron’s heavy attention to detail.  He wanted this movie to push the boundaries of what is capable with digital animation.  The first Avatar was a groundbreaking movie when it comes to the cinematic tool known as motion capture.   Motion capture allows for an actor’s live action performance to be digitally captured and rendered into a CGI character.  This was famously pioneered in The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the character Gollum, but Avatar took the technology a big step forward by adapting it to a larger cast of characters as well as pushing the limits of the technology to make the CGI appear as lifelike as possible.  The end results were impressive for their time, and largely hold up 13 years later, even with the advancements made to the technology since like with characters such as Caesar from the Planet of the Apes series and Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  At the same time, those same effects were expensive and time consuming to get right.  With James Cameron’s well documented drive for perfection, you can see why it takes him a decade to get a movie made, especially when it requires the level of craft that Avatar does.  But, other factors were in play that delayed a quicker release.  The Disney takeover of Fox, the studio behind most of Cameron’s filmography including Avatar, shelved the project for a while as corporate matters were worked out.  And then there was the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw everything get pushed back on the calendar.  But, now, James Cameron is finally releasing his new movie, Avatar: The Way of Water into theaters, the first of what he plans as series of sequels further exploring the world of Avatar on the big screen.

Despite the 13 year gap between movies, Avatar: The Way of Water picks up right where the last film left off.  The Na’vi race that lives on the moon of Pandora has defeated the colonizing humans who have laid waste to their world.  All the military personal have left the planet, with only a few friendly scientists being allowed to stay, as long as they respect the Na’vi’s territory.  Among the Na’vi, there is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the once human soldier who has now been fully melded into his Na’vi Avatar and has become the chief of his own tribe.  His Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) has in time born his children, and the two nutured a family of their own.  Among their children are two boys, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), a baby girl named Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as an adopted daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was born from the Avatar of the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine under mysterious circumstances.  Hanging around the Sully family is a human boy named Spider (Jack Champion), who has integrated himself into the Na’vi culture despite being an outsider.  The tranquil life that the Sullys and the Na’vi tribe have enjoyed for almost a decade is broken suddenly when a new fleet of human space ships suddenly arrive and begin laying waste to the environment.  But the new colonizers carry an even more insidious cargo.  A new crop of Avatar clones have arrived with them, filled with the memories of fallen marines that were at war with the Na’vi in years past.  Among them is an Avatar clone of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is eager to pick up where his human predecessor left off; seeking revenge on Jake Sully and hunting down the remaining Na’vi.  Sully learns of the danger from this new threat and for the sake of his tribe decides to retreat into a self imposed exile with his family in order to save the rest of his people.  The Sully family eventually find refuge in a community of aquatic based Na’vi, led by Chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his queen Ronal (Kate Winslet).  Despite some difficulty, the Sully family adjust to life living in and around the vast Pandoran oceans.  But, as they soon learn, even out at sea they can still be hunted down by Quaritch, who will find Jake Sully by any means necessary.

When the first Avatar came out, it was a movie that definitely divided audiences.  A lot of people proclaimed it as a masterpiece, while another significant amount of people thought it was trivial and overhyped.  As for myself, I would say I fell more into the latter camp.  I didn’t hate the movie, and I would dare say that I liked it quite a bit as a spectacle.  But, it was a movie that was more style over substance, as the unoriginal screenplay and it’s wooden characters were definitely it’s biggest shortcomings.  What was unfortunate about the movie was the fact that as a story it was painfully derivative, especially with it’s cringe “white savior” narrative, which led many people to deride the film as “Dances with Smurfs.”  But, it should be noted that where James Cameron fails as a screenwriter he more than makes up for as a director.  I can think of very few directors who can command an action scene as well as he does.  It’s the moments when he leans more into spectacle where his movies shine, and Avatar certainly has plenty of those moments.  The guy can direct the hell out of his movies, and that to me is what helped to drive audiences back into the theater multiple times to see the movie.  So, did something change in between the first and second movie for better or worse?  Honestly, whatever opinion you had about the first Avatar will likely be the same opinion you have about the second one.  That’s where I ended up falling after seeing.  Just like with the first movie I admire the movie for it’s spectacle but at the same time can’t help but feel let down by it’s story.  To be honest though, there were some things that I do feel were improved upon a little bit from the original film.  One of the best changes is the “white savior” narrative being gone.  Sully as a character is far more grounded and believable as a hero in this movie, more passively playing a part in this world’s culture rather than being the driving force that he was before.  He’s no longer bending the Na’vi culture to his will, but is instead playing his part in respecting the cultures of this world while at the same time dealing with his own familial issues on the side within the story.

What I also appreciate is that while most blockbuster films force feed their audience backstory and exposition, James Cameron instead allows the viewer the time to absorb the world of this story.  The movie runs a staggering 3 hours and 12 minutes long (only two minutes shy of Titanic  by the way) and at several points in the movie, the film merely lets the atmosphere take precedent.  While the excessive length does open the movie up to some lagging, particularly in the middle, I do appreciate the attempt on James Cameron’s part to actually slow the movie down enough for us to really soak in the world of Pandora; something most other directors would fear to do.  To the movie’s credit, those 3+ hours don’t feel that long, and it especially peaks up steam in that final action packed hour.  The movie constantly lets the spectacle of looking at the world of Pandora be the driving force of the film.  But, at the same time, you leave the movie with the sense that little if anything was accomplished over the course of the movie.  For a movie with a three hour length, there is surprisingly little story in it.  Most of what we see is roughly a cat and mouse chase between our hero and our villain.  There is slight clashing between the sea Na’vi and the forest Na’vi, but nothing that really adds much to the drama of the story.  It’s hard to even say that Jake Sully is the main character here, as the Sully family as a unit is the central protagonist group of this movie.  Whatever character development there is mostly given to the children, and it’s again James Cameron being very derivative in his writing.  Surprisingly, one of the best character arcs in the movie belongs to a redemption arc for a Space whale of all things.  A lot of the shortcomings in the story are pretty typical of a James Cameron movie, as he likes his characters to be simple archetypes who more or less are shaped by events within the movie story itself rather than through lingering factors from their individual backstories.  For James Cameron, the story has always been secondary to the visuals, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that he continues to lean more on his strengths as a director to carry his movie.

For Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron has surprisingly managed to keep his cast in tact even after a decade long gap.  I would say of the returning cast members, the one who has shown the most improvement is Sam Worthington.  It can be said that the weakest link of the original Avatar was Worthington’s one note performance as the lead.  His Jake Sully was mainly there to act as an audience circuit who follows the tried and true “hero’s journey” in a strange new world.  This time around, Worthington is acting pretty much the whole way through as his Avatar, never once appearing as Jake Sully in his original human form.  He’s also a much different character this time around; a father rather than a warrior.  And as such, we see the years of parenting and growing more comfortable with this world having an effect on him.  Worthington in all these years seems to have also found more interesting ways to bring character to his Sully, and imbue him with more personality this time around.  The Sully children are the characters that get the most development throughout the movie, with middle child Lo’ak in particular getting the lion’s share.  What I like is that they integrated the idea of the Sully children having this extra bit of separation from the other Na’vi people because they are half breed, bearing hands with five fingers rather than the more common four, something that was obviously passed down from their human born father.  This introduces an element of prejudice into the story, showing that the seemly noble Na’vi are not without their own flaws, namely towards those that they view as different than themselves.  One thing that is a bit disappointing in this movie is how the returning cast members, other than Sam Worthington, are kind of pushed to the side.  Zoe Saldana suffers the most from this, as her Neytiri (the best character from the original movie) is given not much to do here.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang’s performances are also limited as well, even though they do make the most of their limited screen time.  It’s a mixed bag overall with regards to the characters, with some cases being improvements over the original movie while others are unfortunately lessened.

The thing that definitely does not disappoint with Avatar: The Way of Water is the breathtaking visuals.  James Cameron, for most of his career, has been all about transporting his audience.  Whether it’s to the bottom of the ocean floor in The Abyss (1989) to the decks and hallways of the Titanic, to the natural wonders of Pandora in Avatar.  His goal is to make his audience feel like they are there.  The original Avatar did a magnificent job of creating a world that was alien, but also familiar to our own world in many ways, and make it also feel organic and lived in as well.  He succeeded at that in a magnificent way, which makes it even more of a challenge upon revisiting that same world in a new movie.  The smart thing James did in this movie to change things up was switch biomes.  The original movie took place mostly in the rainforests of Pandora, but that’s just a small part of a much larger world.  With The Way of Water, Cameron takes his story out of the jungle and out into the open ocean, and that helps to make the visual feast of this film feel fresh and less like a retread.  We are getting more of a sense of just how diverse the biology of Pandora is, even among the Na’vi, and that helps to give this movie it’s own character as well.  Cameron of course makes good use of the refinements made to computer animation made over the last decade, and in particular, I think that his effects team may have made yet another big leap forward.  I was particularly blown away by how well the digital water looks in this movie.  Apparently, Cameron’s team invented a whole new way to do motion capture of his actors while they were in actual water, thanks to a state of the art sound stage pool that they recorded their foundational raw footage in.  The underwater scenes in particular are the main reason to get out to see this movie on a big screen in 3D.  They are absolutely breathtaking, and show off the best visuals that they movie has to offer.  Until now, water often looked strangely artificial in computer animation, but in The Way of Water, the digital effects team may have finally cracked the code to make digital water look as close to the real thing as possible.  At the same time, the motion capture technology is very much improved since the first film.  Skin textures in particular feel more authentic, and the subtleties in the actors’ facial acting is much better translated now.  Even still, they managed to make the movie feel like a natural continuation of the first movie.  In overall visuals, this movie in many ways improves upon the first.  James Cameron enlisted his Titanic DP, Oscar winner Russell Carpenter, to shoot this movie, probably because of his expertise in shooting scenes in water, and you can really see the impact that Carpenter’s keen eye had in shaping the look of this film.  The Avatar franchise above all else must be a feast for the eyes, to the point where it feels like a real tactile world, and it’s pleasing to see how well James Cameron has maintained that over all these years.

So, for some this movie will likely not win them over to liking this franchise if they disliked the first film already.  Cameron’s weakness as a writer is known, and even in iconic films of his like Titanic he’s had the tendency to have very poor judgement in his choices within the dialogue.  The same problems are found here too, but like most of his other movies, his film is buoyed by the incredible spectacle of it all.  He is an epic filmmaker without equal, and it’s clear that he knows where his strengths lie.  I was able to be on the edge of my seat during the breathtaking action sequences in the movie, while at the same time feeling like the movie would’ve been better served with a different polish of the screenplay.  Cameron needs a writer who understands character development better, like what George Lucas had with Lawrence Kasdan in the Star Wars franchise.  A writer with a strong character building background could work well with James Cameron’s world-building, and help bring this franchise to it’s full potential.  Unfortunately, Cameron’s a filmmaker who likes to be more hands on, even in script process, so the likelihood of him doing that are pretty slim.  In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water is shiny and beautiful on the outside, but hollow inside.  The story, even with the 3+ hour runtime, doesn’t really amount to much.  It’s just the same story with a different setting.  That being said, I could see this as being a much worse sequel.  James Cameron clearly made this movie out of his love for the project, and not as a cynical cash-grab mandated by the studio.  That’s why he’s committed to making several more, which are thankfully going to be released in much shorter windows across the next couple years.  The best thing I can say is that it does interest me in seeing where James Cameron decides to take this franchise next.  Hopefully he continues this world tour aspect and explores even more corners of Pandora in other movies.  Like I said before, if you loved the first one, you’ll probably love this too, and if you hated Avatar before, you are likely going to feel the same with this one as well.  I was more of the mind of being mixed on the original film, and that extended into this movie as well.  It’s got some moments of absolute wonder, as well as the typical Cameron spectacle in it’s action scenes, but it also has a story and screenplay that fall well short of greatness.  For the best experience, find the biggest screen you can (preferably IMAX) and try to see it in 3D.  Full immersion is James Cameron’s goal, and his preferred viewing experience is the one I just described to you,  And if that’s not possible, there’s still enough good about the movie to help keep it afloat.  It’s a job well done for James Cameron, but let’s hope that in the further adventures on Pandora that he adds more depth of character and story to match the out of this world visuals that have distinguished this series so far.

Rating: 7.5/10

Evolution of Character – The Nutcracker

There are plenty of classic tales that have over time become favorites around Christmas time.  There is of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as more contemporary stories that have come out of the movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and  Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  But if there is one story that has certainly become almost synonymous with the holidays and it renowned around the world, it is the classic tale of the Nutcracker.  The story first emerged in 1816 as a short story written by German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffman.  The story titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is about a young child’s favorite toy coming to life on Christmas Eve to save her from the wicked Mouse King and then after the battle whisks the girl away to his magical kingdom of real live dolls where they crown her queen.  It’s a charming fairy tale for children and it unsurprisingly quickly became a favorite story across Europe at the time.  Numerous adaptations were made in other languages at the height of it’s popularity, including a French one written by famed author Alexander Dumas.  But, it was when the story reached the cultural circles of Russia that it fell into the hands of one of the story’s most important figures.  That man was composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who in 1892 took this familiar tale and used it as the inspiration for his new ballet score.  While Hoffman was the one who created the tale, it was Tchaikovsky who made it immortal.  One cannot imagine the story of the Nutcracker now without the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s musical themes.  It’s also why today the story is retold today, more often than not, in the form of a ballet performance.  This is certainly true of the many film adaptations of the story that have been made, which almost all have at least some ballet elements.  Below are a few of the most noteworthy representations of the character of the Nutcracker on the big screen, which either vary close to the original intention of Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet or take the character and his story in very wild and unexpected directions.


It helps to start with an adaptation that sticks pretty close to the Tchaikovsky ballet that most people are familiar with.  This production was staged by the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and was aired on CBS stations during the holidays.  It’s also noteworthy for having the lead role being played by one of the most famous dancers of that era.  Baryshnikov was at this point starting to become a household name not just in the world of ballet theater, but also in film as well.  This staging came just mere months after his star making role in the film The Turning Point (1977) co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.  His small role as a womanizing Russian dancer stole the film and he earned an Oscar nomination the following year for his performance.  Not bad for someone who was just emerging onto the scene in the prestigious New York based ABT.  He also made headlines years prior for his public defection from the Soviet Union, gaining asylum in Canada before making his way to New York.  Suffice to say, this was a version of the famed ballet that benefitted from featuring a star that was well on the rise.  It goes without saying that Baryshnikov excels in the film with his athletic command of the ballet stage.  The overall presentation is what you would expect of a filmed version of a stage performance.  From what I’ve gathered, this is the only time he has played the part on both stage and screen, given that he was already 29 at the time of the recording of this performance and this is a role that typically is filled by younger dancers.  Still, those looking for a more pure, traditional staging of this story in it’s ballet form will be satisfied with the version of it here, as well as have the opportunity to see a dancer of Baryshnikov’s stature filling out the iconic, titular role.


A story with high fantasy like “The Nutcracker” is almost certainly going to receive the animated treatment eventually.  What is surprising is that the biggest name in animation, The Walt Disney Company, passed on adapting this familiar story into it’s own film; at least initially.  They instead took Tchaikovsky’s score and animated a pastoral montage of nature set to music for a segment in the film Fantasia (1940).  A true animated feature based on the story of the Nutcracker wouldn’t come until 1979, when we received this stop-motion animated film based very loosely on the original story.  Despite it’s strong resemblance to the stop-motion holiday specials by Rankin Bass, this feature was actually a Japanese production made by the Sanrio company, who are most famous for their Hello Kitty character.  The story of the Nutcracker in this film borrows a bit more from “The Wizard of Oz” than it does from the Hoffman tale, with the girl Clara spending much more of her story in the toy kingdom.  The character of the Nutcracker, here called Franz, is very different from the version we are all familiar with, being more of an appointed protector of  Clara rather than a driving force in the story himself.  Unlike in the original story, the curse that makes him a nutcracker happens late in the film rather than being a factor in his introduction.  And I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times, or a loss in translation through the Japanese interpretation of this classic story, but the film depicts a major age disparity between Franz and Clara that gets a little uncomfortable watching it today, especially when the two start showing romantic interest in one another.  It might be a factor in the English voice casting as well, as the mature sounding Roddy McDowall contrasts heavily with the you sounding Melissa Gilbert in their respective roles.  Aside from this, it’s an odd but still visually appealing animated presentation, and that strong resemblance to the Rankin Bass style certainly helps to give the movie a good holiday time feel.  But, as far as true adaptation of this story, there are far better examples to choose from.


Here we have what many proclaim to be the finest cinematic presentation of the ballet ever done.  It’s essentially a filmed version of the ballet, this one put on by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company based out of Seattle, Washington, with stagecraft and scenery based on the artwork of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame.  Sendak’s picture book adaptation of the original Hoffman story is a highly celebrated work of art on it’s own, but here we see it come to life along with the Tchaikovsky ballet, creating a truly surreal experience.  What is great about this version is that the filmmakers took the same ballet from the stage, but they composed their shots like they were filming a real movie.  Basically this is a version of the ballet performance meant primarily to be seen on the big screen.  There are some incredible visual effects used to create an imaginative experience.  Not only does the Nutcracker fight an army of mice led by the Mouse King, but the Mouse King is a grotesque, multi-headed monster that would feel at home in a Jim Henson fantasy epic like The Dark Crystal (1982).  The Maurice Sendak element of it all also gives the film a lot of character, with characters presented with exaggerated features to make them look more closely like they jumped off of the page of Sendak’s drawings.  Give credit to ballet dancer Wade Walthall, who has to perform his acrobatic moves with a giant nutcracker head on his shoulders.  Most stagings of the ballet do require the Nutcracker performer to wear a mask during his first introduction, but the one in this film is ridiculously large in order to mimic the Sendak style, so it’s a testament to the talent of the dancer.  While there is a quaintness to the visual effects of this version of the ballet, it is imaginative enough to help the whole movie stand out as one of the best versions ever captured on screen, and one that has another layer of an artist like Maurice Sendak adding his own visual flair to Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s music.


Since Disney chucked away the story of the Nutcracker in favor of animating to the music, it seems only natural that someone else would swoop in to take on the material themselves.  Made by independent Hinton Animation Studios and released through Warner Brothers, this animated version sticks pretty closely to the original version of Hoffman’s story, but perhaps more than most theatrical versions seen, it puts the Nutcracker himself in a far more central part of the story.  The film still centers around Clara and her journey, but the Nutcracker is far more than a secondary character here.  He goes through his own character arc of having to re-establish his place as a monarch in the toy kingdom after a long absence away.  It also puts more of a conflicting wedge between him and Clara as the condition for him being human again rests on Clara committing to staying by his side as his queen.  Apart from that extra bit of character building, the movie is pretty simplistic for an animated film, which is more a result of having to stretch out Hoffman’s short story to feature length without the benefit of long dance routines to pad the time.  The movie came in a transitionary time for animation, as Disney was in the middle of their Renaissance period, and animation standards were improving greatly.  This movie can’t quite match the same Disney quality, but for a small independent animated project it nevertheless has ambition behind it, as well as a strange stylized backstory that feels like classic Looney Tunes.  The voice cast is also noteworthy, with Keifer Sutherland (yes, Jack Bauer himself) playing the role of the Nutcracker.  Of course this was made when he was still a young actor, but it is kind of strange associating that voice with this kind of character.  This could be a good film to introduce younger audiences who don’t have the patience to sit through a ballet to the famed story, but in the grand scheme of things in animation, it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to what Disney was making at the time.


You may find this hard to believe, but right in the heart of his meteoric rise to fame following a starring role in Home Alone (1990), Macaulay Culkin also starred in a filmed ballet version of the Nutcracker.  It’s actually not too far out of left field.  Culkin in his childhood days before film stardom did take dancing lessons, though he was well short of being a professional ballet performer.  Still, as he was beginning to be cast in more high profile movies, he was also given the opportunity to play the title character in this production of the Nutcracker, put together by the ABT and choreographer George Balanchine.  This Balanchine staging was significant, because it broke with tradition in having young children play the roles of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara.  Typically more experienced dancers play the roles, but here the roles are meant for younger performers with some of the more demanding routines given to the supporting cast, thereby making the staging more true to the original story.  Culkin, for his part, fits the role fine and doesn’t feel too novice compared to the the more experienced dancers.  But, anyone looking to see him play a more central role in this film version may be disappointed as it’s another staging that makes the Nutcracker a more passive player in the story.  What’s interesting is that this movie sat on a shelf for years, even as Culkin’s profile in Hollywood was exploding.  He shot the movie just shortly after he made the first Home Alone, but the film wasn’t released until even after he made Home Alone 2 (1992).  By that time, Culkin had grown up a bit and his star power was not quite as strong as it once was.  If you saw this movie in succession with his other movies at the time, you would see him de-age by about 3-4 years in a jarring change of pace for his career.  Part of the reason for this was contract disputes with the makers of the film and Culkin’s father who managed his career, mainly over how Culkin’s presence in the movie would be publicized.  It only led to this movie missing it’s prime moment and ultimately flopping at the box office.  It was too long forgotten to impact Macaulay in any negative way, and the film ultimately pales in comparison to the Sendak version.  But it is an interesting side note in the history of this character on the big screen, as at some point he was played by one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time of it’s release.


There will probably never be an adaptation of The Nutcracker story as wild and misguided as this one.  A long time passion project for Russian filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy, this version of the story only has a passing resemblance to the Hoffman original.  The rest of this adaptation is filled in with a allegory to the Holocaust.  You heard me right.  Oh, and it’s a musical too.  This is one bizarre movie, and not in a good way.  The Nutcracker himself is also pretty off-putting, animated mostly as a CGI puppet with a disturbing looking, expressionless stare.  Anyone who thinks that the Pinocchio puppet in Guillermo Del Toro’s new stop motion adaptation of that story is disturbing clearly hasn’t seen this version of the Nutcracker.  Not only that, but actress Shirley Henderson’s vocal performance is screechy and obnoxious and not at all endearing.  Thankfully, when the nutcracker turns into a real boy, played by Charlie Rowe, he sounds more natural, but most of the movie features the former rather than the latter.  Just to show you how misguided Konchalovskiy’s adaptation is, the Rat King (played by a very hammy John Tuturro) subjugates the toys within a kingdom with very fascist overtones, to the point where he even begins to  burn them in bonfires.  Maybe allusions to the Holocaust may have worked if the movie fit that kind of tone consistently, but no, Konchalovskiy includes this kind of imagery with a whimsical tone that just makes the Holocaust allegory all the more out of place and offensive.  This alone makes this the worst version of the Nutcracker ever adapted in any medium.  But, there was a lot of other factors in this movie that make the whole thing a disaster, and the disturbing Nutcracker is chief among them.  It’s honestly a movie that really goes out of it’s way to make everything that was great about the Nutcracker (it’s whimsical tale, the iconic music, it’s memorable) and do the complete worst thing possible with all of them.


Well, it took them almost 80 years, but Disney finally got around to making a true Nutcracker movie, or so you would think.  Essentially, they are doing a Hook version of this story, based on the practice of making a sequel to a familiar story with characters returning to a fantasy world after a long absence, without having to make the original as a set up.  The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is another movie from the Disney company that seems to have put the bulk of it’s resources into the art direction and far less into the story and script.  It’s a hollow world-building exercise that in no way feels authentic and worth anyone’s time.  One of the big problems in this version is despite being in the title of the film, the Nutcracker is a minor supporting player in this film.  Jayden Fowora-Knight is decent, and it is interesting at least to see the part played by an actor of color, but the character matters so little in the grand scheme of the cliched story that you wonder at all why he’s a part of the title.  It’s probably because without the name “Nutcracker,” no one would ever know it’s connected to the famous story.  The Nutcracker himself, named Phillip this time, isn’t even cursed in this version, and never goes through a transformation from toy nutcracker to a real boy.  We only connect him to the character purely by the way he dresses, as the typical foot soldier design that most nutcracker dolls are made to look like.  If it weren’t for the travesty of Nutcracker: The Untold Story, Four Realms would likely be the disastrous production of this story ever put on screen.  It had a notoriously complicated production, which led to one director (Lasse Hallstrom) being unable to finish the movie during re-shoots and another director hired at the last second (Joe Johnston) to finish what had been started.  The end result, unsurprisingly lacks cohesion and substance, and not surprisingly it performed very poorly at the box office, dashing any hopes of a franchise.  Still, as Untold Story proved, Disney could have done much worse.  They should have followed Walt Disney’s original instinct and just work with the Tchaikovsky music.

So, there you have some of the most notable big screen versions of the Nutcracker character that audiences have been able to see.  For the most part, The Nutcracker is a character that is better appreciated live on the stage during a ballet performance.  There’s a reason why the ballet remains a favorite all these years later, especially as a key part of the holiday traditions.  What is interesting is that Tchaikovsky himself was not fond of his ballet score, finding it unsatisfying and too simplistic compared to his more preferred complex works like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.  And yet, The Nutcracker compared to the rest is the most often staged, making it his most successful score overall.  It’s only recently that we’ve been seeing film adaptations of the Hoffman story, because of the continued popularity of the ballet.  And because of that enormous popularity, few of the film adaptations stray away from the ballet as well.  The 1986 version with art design inspired by the drawings of Maurice Sendak is probably the best combination of the art of dance and cinema brought together that we’ve ever seen, but there are valiant attempts to fill the story with more than just beautiful choreography.  The two animated versions from 1979 and 1990 do their best to fill Hoffman’s short story with more enriched character development and an expanded plot, even if they fall a little short.  They certainly do a lot better than the live action films, with Untold Story being an especially notorious misfire that insultingly tries to add Holocaust allegory to this simple children’s fairy tale.  Even if the big screen’s samplings have been fairly light, there are numerous stage versions across the country that are easy to find during the Holiday Season.  It’s a production that is a part of every ballet company’s repertoire, and remarkably has shown to account for nearly 20% of all yearly ticket sales alone for those dance companies.  That’s a real testament to the staying power of this story and it’s iconic status as a part of the Christmas season.  Whether he’s dancing across the big screen, or on stages large and small across the world, or just sitting on a table or shelf as one of your Christmas decorations, The Nutcracker still remains an integral figure of everyone’s joyous Holiday experience.

Less Magical Kingdom – The Chaotic End to the Chapek Era at Disney

It has to be one of the most stressful jobs in all of media to take on the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company.  Disney has in all of it’s nearly 100 years of existence propelled itself to become the largest media company in the entire world.  It not only is in the business of movie making, but it also is a company with deep roots in consumer goods, theme parks, travel and hospitality, and many more avenues of commerce as well.  Being the CEO of a company like that must truly be a jack of all trades with knowledge of how to run so many diverse department all at once.  But being the CEO of the Disney company also has another aspect that proves to be an extra layer of pressure on the job.  Every person who rises to that role does so still within the long cast shadow of the company’s charismatic founder.  Walt Disney truly was a unique individual in the history of Hollywood.  One of the industry’s biggest risk takers, Disney managed to find a way to turn his little cartoon studio and make it into one of the most valuable names in all of entertainment.  When he suddenly succumbed to his secret battle with cancer in 1966, it left a major vacancy that honestly could never be filled again.  Walt’s brother Roy held the company together up until the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, and he passed away soon after himself.  The time afterwards became one of the lowest points in the company’s history, but fresh outside talent brought into the studio in the form of Michael Eisner as the new CEO in the 1980’s ushered in a new era of growth.  Eisner would oversee a prosperous time in the company, but over time he began to also become overwhelmed by the duties the job required.  His successor, Bob Iger, however managed to guide Disney to new heights with major acquisitions like Marvel and Lucasfilm, and was proclaimed as the best head of the company since Walt himself.  Unlike many other Disney CEO’s, Iger handed over the reigns of the company to a new successor while still on top.  However, as we would see, a whole different story would play out with his hand picked successor, Bob Chapek, stepping into the role.

Bob Chapek began working for the Walt Disney Company in 1993 as part of the Home Entertainment department.  A large part of his success in this department came from his push to move Disney into digital entertainment, which at the time was DVD’s and later Blu-ray.  He’s also the guy who created the concept of the “Disney Vault” which was an excuse Disney would use to pull some of their movies out of circulation after a few years, thereby increasing demand for newer editions of the same movie down the line.  You can credit him for the multiple times you’ve bought copies of the same Disney classics through their multiple re-releases, if you’re that kind of Disney fan.  His success in home video eventually got him promoted to President of Consumer Products in 2011.  This was an especially good time to take on that role, as it was around this period that Disney acquired Marvel and Star Wars, which gave Chapek and his team multiple new IP’s to merchandise.  In 2015, Chapek was then moved to the head of Parks and Resorts, a role that was going to be very important in the years that followed as Disney was preparing big projects like Shanghai Disneyland and the opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, as well as the construction and opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World.  While Chapek was able to manage these projects to help them complete on schedule, he was also criticized for neglecting other budgeting areas of the park experience, namely cast member salaries and maintenance costs.  Still, CEO Bob Iger was pleased with how well Bob Chapek managed the roll outs of these major projects and decided on him to succeed in the position of CEO once Iger’s contract was up in 2020.  For Iger, he believed it was the right time to go, as Disney had grown to colossal heights under his leadership and that a budget minded person like Chapek was the steadiest hand to take the wheel of the ship into the future.  However, neither of them really knew what that future would be like.

Bob Chapek’s ascendency into the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company could not have occurred at a worse time for anyone.  The turnover from Iger to Chapek happened mere weeks before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which put immediate and overwhelming pressure on all parts of the world economy, including the Walt Disney Company.  Movie theaters had to close, so there was no box office revenue to be had.  Even worse, all theme parks, the biggest piece of Disney’s corporate pie, were forced to remain closed in order to stop the spread of the virus.  The Disney Company under Iger was also ending it’s run with a massive amount of debt due to the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in the last year as well as the infrastructure needed to launch the new streaming platform Disney+ in 2019.  Chapek was given the unenviable task of steering the company forward even as the world itself was falling apart.  No money coming in from box office receipts or theme park passes meant left Chapek with only one avenue to keep the company from losing so much of what it built up; boosting consumer confidence in Disney’s future.  He did so through drastic expansion of the still in it’s infancy Disney+.  Projects that were initially meant for theaters were turned into streaming exclusives, with the biggest titles like the Mulan (2020) remake getting a special Premiere paid access presentation.  It may have been a droplet in the bucket of Disney’s usual yearly profits, but it allowed investors to be convinced that Disney still had the potential to remain at the top even in the face of the effects of the pandemic.  Indeed, Disney’s subscriber growth in the pandemic economy far outpaced it’s competitors and Disney’s stock price remarkably hit it’s highest point during this time period.  As the year went on, Chapek made further choices to bring high in demand programing like the filmed version of the musical Hamilton (2020) as well as Pixar’s Soul (2020) exclusively to Disney+.  The same strategy continued into the following year, as the theatrical market was slow to recover.  But, after steering the company through the rough pandemic economy, Chapek needed to convince the market that he would be able to make good on the promise of continued growth through a recovery economy that followed.

It was in the year of 2021 that cracks began to form in Chapek’s tenure as CEO of the Disney company.  Where the market first began to become aware of Bob Chapek’s short-comings as a CEO probably came during the public feud that erupted with actress Scarlett Johannsson of Marvel’s Black Widow fame.  Johannsson was finally getting a solo film within the Marvel franchise after over a decade of playing the iconic Marvel hero.  However, when the contract was written up during the development of the Black Widow (2021) movie, it included a share of the movie’s box office profit as part of her compensation.  When the movie was ultimately released, it was given a partial theatrical run with a simultaneous Premiere Access on Disney+.  To Scarlett and her team, this looked like an attempt to stifle the box office portion of her contract by siphoning some of that revenue into the streaming portion, which was not a part of the original contract. Johannsson rightfully took Disney to court over this as she never consented to a split premiere for the movie and that she was entitled to some of the revenue from the streaming pot.  Chapek, for some misguided reason, tried to paint Scarlett as an out of touch elite during a pandemic, but fans didn’t buy it at all.  Instead, Chapek looked like the greedy one, and fans demanded that Disney settle to give Scarlett exactly what she was demanding.  This was Bob Chapek’s first public stumble, but it wouldn’t be the last.  This immediately put a wedge between him and the top brass at Marvel, since Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige needed to maintain good relations with his talent.  Chapek also alienated himself with the animation departments, as they seemed to be increasingly pushed onto streaming against their wishes, especially at Pixar.  But where people really started to be concerned about the direction where Chapek was taking the company came when he made some rather controversial power moves.  In June of 2022, just as Chapek was given an extension of his own contract, he ended up firing entertainment and programming chairman Peter Rice, a person widely seen in the Disney company as a potential challenger to Chapek’s position as CEO.  This had all the looks of a desperation move on Chapek’s part; a Machiavellian gesture to assert his own direction at the Disney company.  This led a lot of people to call out Chapek publicly for his callous power grab at Disney, including Bob Iger who later stated that picking Chapek to succeed him was his worst decision as CEO.  But as long as the Disney company continued to remain profitable, Chapek had nothing to worry about.  But as the end of 2022 drew near, that would prove to be more bad new for Chapek as well.

On November 20, 2022, the Walt Disney Company board took the drastic measure to fire Bob Chapek after a disastrous quarterly earning report that saw Disney’s stock free fall.  What is especially shocking about this is that Chapek was not notified of his firing until it was made public to the rest of the world, and that Bob Iger would be returning to the job effective immediately.  With all that, the Bob Chapek era, the shortest tenure of any Disney CEO, came to a shocking and chaotic end.  There have been controversial corporate politics going on within the walls of the Disney Company before, but this was something on a whole different level.  Why did Disney go to such extremes to remove Chapek so quickly?  Well, if you had been following the inner workings of the Disney company over the last couple years, you could definitely see the writing on the wall.  It’s just shocking that it ended so abruptly.  The contract dispute with Scarlett Johannsson was just the first time we saw this spill over into public view.  Internally, many people at Disney became well aware of Bob Chapek’s poor communication skills and his lack of respect for creatives that worked within the company.  He is a corporate CEO through and through; a man who spends his time being more concerned with numbers on a spreadsheet rather than carving out a vision to inspire a company.  That may be good management style for a different kind of corporation, but Disney is and has always been a company that has put creatives first.  Going all the way back to Walt Disney’s time, the company has strived to push itself forward through innovation in storytelling, art, and the consumer experience.  This is why they try to form creative partnerships with the best filmmakers, animators, engineers, architects, and performers in the world.  And all the CEO’s from Walt to Eisner to Iger carried that vision for creativity forward, making Disney un-paralled in the world of entertainment.  But, Chapek didn’t have the skills to forge a vision for the company nor manage good relationships with creatives.  He had a mind to manage the money, and this unfortunately led to shortsighted pursuits for short term profit gains that diluted the magic within the company.

One thing that Chapek especially lost sight of in his pursuit of maximizing profits at the Disney company was the focus on the consumer experience.  If there is one thing that Disney has that has helped them through hard times, it’s a dedicated fan base.  There are millions of people out there that spend a good portion of their money indulging their Disney fandom.  They go to all the movies, buy annual passes to the theme parks, collect the countless pieces of merchandise, and attend special events for Disney fans such as the D23 Expo each and every year.  For most of people’s lives, Disney has delivered on the so-called “Disney Magic,” and have satisfactorily made the fan base proud and feel like they matter as part of the company’s legacy.  But, under Chapek’s time, the role of a Disney fan seemed to feel more like a chore than a celebration.  With theme parks this was especially true.  Under Chapek, the Disney Parks division seemed to be more concerned with squeezing out more profits off of park guests than in past years.  Ticket prices went up despite no new attractions being open and things that were convenient and free of charge in the past (like the Fastpass service) were now paywalled.  Not only that, but Chapek’s penchant for cut backs in maintenance and staffing began to catch up as the theme parks started to fall into disrepair.  Park guests, both annual and single day, were becoming frustrated with a sub-par experience that they were now paying extra for, on top of a cumbersome new reservation system that was held over from the pandemic.  The abuse of Disney fans’ good will was definitely most visible in the theme parks, but it was also a company wide problem as well.  There was a general lack of creativity being brought into the company, and many of the creative people who had helped to build the company over the years were beginning to leave.  Chapek’s corporate climate was about monetizing the magic through micro-managed short term profits, and that started to make Disney feel a lot less like the Disney we knew.

Not only that, but Chapek was very bad at earning the trust and loyalty of those working at the company.  In some cases, Disney employees felt betrayed by the company at a time when they really needed the support.  This was definitely the case with the LGBTQ workers within the company during the time when right-wing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” Bill into law; a bill that effectively bans any discussion of LGBTQ issues within Florida classrooms.  This ban hit the queer community of the state of Florida hard, as they saw it as a direct assault on their right to free speech, especially in helping young people learn the importance of equality for the gay community and giving queer youth a voice that they otherwise would be able to have.  The Disney Company has been supportive of the LGBTQ community, granting them equal benefits within their corporation long before most other companies did, and the workers that Disney employs in the State of Florida hoped that Disney would led it’s voice of support against this new, restrictive law.  Unfortunately, Bob Chapek initially chose to remain neutral on the issue, not wanting to feud with local government.  This caused an uproar among the LGBTQ workers in the company, who felt betrayed by the brand that had long had their back before.  Chapek, reacting to the backlash, pivoted to speaking out against the bill, which in turn led to even more backlash from Governor DeSantis and the Republicans in the Florida statehouse, who in turn voted to repeal the Reedy Creek Restoration Administration; a crucial special governmental exemption that allowed Walt Disney to develop Walt Disney World without interference.  So, through Chapek’s passive stance on a crucial issue affecting workers in his company, he in turn lost a lot of trust from many of his employees company wide and was in danger of having Disney World lose it’s self-governing administration that Walt Disney worked so hard to secure as payback for not following along with the Florida government’s bigoted agenda.  Had Chapek been more clear on a position from the beginning, no matter what side it fell on, he would be getting it from both side like he ended up doing in this case.  Iger, by contrast, was quick to condemn the Florida law and in turn that has helped him to retain more of that trust from the Disney employees and the fans as a whole.

It’s hard to say if Bob Chapek wasn’t already doomed from the moment he took the job.  The timing of his ascension could not have been worse as it came right at the start of a pandemic.  He did maintain consumer confidence through the worst of that experience, but once the world began to open up again, including the crucial theme parks and movie theaters that are the key money generators for the company, he needed to prove he could continue growing the company even more and he feel way short of that.  Instead, he burned bridges with creatives, cut budgets to within a inch of total annihilation, and nickel-and-dimed the fan base that had their good will wearing thin.  It just seemed like Bob Chapek didn’t care about what made Disney great; he just wanted to find a way to get more money out of what was already there.  The end clearly was coming for Chapek after this last D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.  He only made one public appearance in the three day event, opening the Disney Legends ceremony that kicks off the Expo on day one, and when he walked onto stage he was greeted by a chorus of boos from the crowd.  This was the D23 Expo; a collection of some of the most die hard Disney fans, and they were booing the head of the company.  It took a bit longer for the Disney board to see the light, but Disney fans knew already that it wasn’t working out with Chapek.  He alienated himself from fans, lost trust with creatives, betrayed the trust of marginalized employees at the company, and was increasingly making self-serving power moves to save his own skin instead of course correcting in order to save the company.  Now, Bob Iger is back in charge, seemingly as a means of cleaning up the mess of the last 3 years and making a do-over of training his successor.  I don’t think Iger is going to fix every single problem, but one thing he will be helpful with is re-establishing trust with the creatives within the Disney company again.  That’s the main difference between Iger and Chapek, a vision based on pushing the Disney company to be leaders in the field, and not just managing the stock value.  Some have speculated that Iger is just putting the house in order for a future sale to Apple, which I think is bogus.  Does Apple really want to be in the theme park business?  Or run a cruise line?  Apple’s name is only coming up because they are the only ones with the kind of capital to actually buy a company as large as Disney.  Disney is perfectly capable of maintaining their independence, and they’ve been through hard times before.  There is no doubt that the Chapek Era will be defined primarily for it’s turbulent nature, both of Bob’s own doing and because of outside forces.  Perhaps it’s most memorable moment, however, will be the way it came to an end.  We may never see Disney or any company like it make such a dramatic move to change the course of it’s legacy.  It may in the long run be the necessary move needed to set things right at Disney, because if anything, it demonstrated that the thing that Disney needed to show the world the most was that it was still capable of showing us that it could be that Magical Kingdom again, and not take any of the things that made it magical for granted ever again.