Top Ten Disney Songs

If you were to cobble together many of the greatest songs to ever feature in works of cinema, a pretty good chunk of them will likely have been from a Disney movie.  The Disney Company has assembled one of the most renowned songbooks ever, with newer hits being added to it’s catalog constantly.  On more than one occasion, Disney has been praised for saving the movie musical from irrelevance, and that’s in large part due to the fact that so much of their songs are written by many of the titans of musical theater.  From the early days of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths brought into the halls of Disney like Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, to pop chart songwriters like the Sherman Brothers, and then later Broadway veterans like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Stephen Swartz, Robert Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the pool of talent that Disney has assembled over the years is staggering.  And with all that, we have been given some of the most memorable songs ever written for any medium.  For many people who grew up with Disney movies, every lyric is written into our hearts and we can sing-a-long at the drop of a hat without even having to look up the words.  How many people have gleefully clocked out at work while whistling “Heigh-Ho” or gone swimming while having the words “We’ve got no troubles, life is the bubbles, Under the Sea,” rolling around in their head.  Disney movies have provided us with the foundation for the soundtrack of our lives, and it’s a musical legacy that continues to build upon itself year after year.

With The Walt Disney company reaching it’s 100th anniversary, I thought it would be fun to mark the occasion with a series of lists throughout the year.  Piggybacking off my last list in October with the best Disney Villain Songs, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at my favorite Disney songs in general.  My choices will likely be different than others, so please don’t be offended if I left one of your favorites out.  There are a lot of great songs to choose from, and many that don’t make my list are still pretty valid choices for anyone else.  Before I begin my list, I do want to point out that I am limiting the choices to films made solely by Walt Disney Pictures.  That means any song written for another branch of the Disney company, such as Pixar Animation or the Disney Theme Parks, won’t be on this particular list (though they are noteworthy songs and deserving of their own separate lists which I may someday get to).  I will however consider songs from Disney movies that are outside of the Animation canon, including a couple of their live action entries.  To give a spotlight to some of the songs that nearly missed my list, here are some of the titles listed in chronological order: “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” from Song of the South (1947) “Bibiddi Bobbidi Boo” from Cinderella (1950), “Belle Notte” from Lady and the Tramp (1955), “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty (1959), “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book (1967), “O-de-Lally” from Robin Hood (1973), “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” from Beauty and the Beast (1991), “A Whole New World” from Aladdin (1992), “What’s This” from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), “Zero to Hero” from Hercules (1997), “Reflections” from Mulan (1998), “Son of Man” from Tarzan (1999), “Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog (2009) and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana (2016).  If many of those songs missed the list, then you know I’ve had to make some tough exclusions to get to the following ten.  With that, let’s take a look at my Top 10 Favorite Disney Songs.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Sung by Tom Hulce

One thing to note is that you’ll be seeing quite a bit of the Disney Renaissance represented on this list.  This time period had a particular effect on me, as it was the era that I grew up with, which made me not just a passionate Disney fan, but a fan of cinema in general.  And it was also an era that was noteworthy for it’s revival of the Disney musical.  Long dormant in the post-Walt years, the musical came back with a vengeance in the Renaissance years, with movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all adding dozens of new songs to the already legendary Disney songbook.  The latter Disney Renaissance years were a bit more spotty when it came to musicals, but a few films did stand out.  One of the most noteworthy films during that time, particularly for it’s music, was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was a big gamble for Disney to try to adapt Victor Hugo’s grim medieval novel into a G-Rated musical but somehow they managed to do it.  One thing that really helped in making Hunchback’s musical score work is that it leaned in to the darker tone of the story and went into a far more epic territory than past Disney musicals.  It’s a score heavy in choirs and pipe organs, and a much fuller orchestral sound.  The songs for the most part match the heaviness of the subject matter (except for the misplaced Gargoyles tune).  Included is one of the greatest villain songs, “Hellfire” which I already spotlighted in my last list.  The film also contains one of the grandest “I Want” songs in the Disney canon. “Out There” is the titular Hunchback Quasimodo’s expression of wanting to live out of the shadows and in the world like everyone else after being hidden away in the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Longtime Disney composer Alan Menken builds the song from a quiet lamentation to a rousing crescendo by the end in a melodic journey that just hits with a powerful bang.  The lyrics, written by future Wicked creator Stephen Schwartz are heartfelt, and it’s remarkable that the voice of Quasimodo, Tom Hulce, had the kind of range to pull a song like this off.  Most famous for playing Mozart in Amadeus (1984), Hulce was not exactly known for his singing voice, so to hear him hit those high notes as gracefully as he does in this song was quite a welcome surprise.  For many Disney fans, this song has taken on a life of it’s own outside of the movie, becoming an anthem for marginalized people throughout society, especially the LGBTQ community.  That’s what makes this an especially important song in the whole Disney songbook overall.


LET IT GO from FROZEN (2013)

Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez; Sung by Idina Menzel

Apologies for putting this earworm back into your head.  When this song first landed during the release of Frozen in the Fall of 2013, it became a monster hit the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the heydays of the Disney Renaissance.  Much like how The Little Mermaid brought back the Disney musical for a long dormant period, so did Frozen; though The Princess and the Frog managed to be a mild success a couple years prior.  But Frozen was the movie that solidified the Disney musical in the Digital Age, as Disney’s computer animated films had yet to fully embrace the genre up to that point.  Calling upon Broadway vets like the Robert Lopez and his writing partner and wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who had achieved success prior on Broadway with shows like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, Disney had the kind of musical talent to really bring back that quintessential Disney sound into their movies once again.  Based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale The Snow QueenFrozen by it’s very nature cries out to be a throwback to the Disney musicals of the past like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but with the modern sensibilities of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  A lot of the songs are peppy tunes, like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” or “Love is an Open Door.”  But it’s the power ballad of “Let it Go” that put Frozen firmly on the map, and even someone like me who is lukewarm on the movie itself cannot deny the effectiveness of this tune.  I think the key to the success of the song is the one who performs it; Broadway vet Idina Menzel whose impressive voice takes this song to it’s fullest potential.  “Let it Go” much like Hunchback’s “Out There” is another passionate expression of self worth and the desire to live as one wishes without judgement, which is why it’s been embraced by modern audiences in a big way.  Sure, it may have been overplayed over the last decade, but it’s one of Disney’s biggest hits for a reason, and one that cannot be denied a place on anyone’s list.



Music by Sammy Fain; Lyrics by Sammy Cahn; Sung by the Jud Conlon Chorus and The Mellowmen Quartet

The post-War Disney Silver Age was a time period when Disney had finally found it’s groove again after years of making propaganda and package features during WWII.  In that time, they created a fair amount of classics, many with the same traditional musical qualities that put Disney on the map in it’s early years.  Cinderella was a grand emotional romance, while Alice in Wonderland (1951) was a whacky, surreal trip, each with songs that gave the story the needed melodies that they needed.  Sleeping Beauty even did the impressive trick of adding lyrics to the melodies of Tchaikovsky’s nearly century old at the time ballet score.  But perhaps the song that stuck out the most from this period was from the movie that was least like a traditional musical.  Disney’s Peter Pan featured a number of songs, but they are for the most part nondiegetic within the context of the story.  Case in point, the film’s most famous song “You Can Fly.”  The song isn’t even sung by the characters, but rather spoken word delivered in rhyme, that is until the characters actually begin flying.  Then the chorus takes over and the song properly begins.  What is so special about “You Can Fly” is that it perfectly captures the sensation of flight through it’s melody.  The tempo constantly changes from slow to fast, with peaks and valley, giving that feeling of gliding through the air.  It’s a wonderfully uplifting tune throughout, with the Sammy Cahn lyrics that feeling a nursery rhyme, like “Take the path that moonbeams make; if the moon is still awake.  You’ll see it blink it’s eye.  You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”  This song is one that Disney still features prominently in their songbook, and it’s definitely one of those cross generational hits that still impacts many years later.  Whenever people go on the Peter Pan ride in any of the theme parks, most will get that special feeling of whimsy as the sensation of flight takes them upon hearing this song again during the ride.  One of the definite classics, and a good example of a great song coming from a movie that doesn’t have to adhere to the traditional musical form.



Music by Matthew Wilder; Lyrics by David Zippel; Sung by Donny Osmond

Mulan is another of those late Renaissance Disney movies that began to move further away from the traditional Disney musical formula.  It had songs, but they mostly seemed second tier to the story that was being told.  The songs in Mulan for the most part are pretty forgettable, apart from the ballad “Reflections” and the song spotlighted here, which may be one of the all time catchiest tunes in Disney history.  This training montage tune is a motivational work out song on the level of an “Eye of the Tiger” and something you wouldn’t expect in a Disney musical.  And yet, it’s perfect for a movie like this.  Mulan’s story isn’t a fairy tale like other Disney movies, but rather a ballad about a woman who impersonates a man in order to fight in the army in place of her ill father.  Making this into a musical meant Disney had to rethink what kind of songs would be here, and this Rocky style motivation song not only fits the movie perfectly, but it elevates the movie itself.  Anyone who was lukewarm on the movie before this song had to have been feeling juiced up by the end as this is a fantastic motivational song.  And to sing this Asian influenced song about a Chinese Folk Legend you of course turn to; Donny Osmond?  Truth be told, despite the mismatch in cultural representation, Osmond does deliver a spirited performance of this song, hitting all the notes perfectly.  One other major surprise is that this song was written by Matthew “Never Gonna Break My Stride” Wilder; a pop music obscurity who somehow managed to deliver an all time great tune for Disney.  I know a few Disney fans who have this on their workout playlist (I might be one of those people too).  Mysterious as the dark side of the moon, this is one of the unexpectedly greatest Disney songs ever.



Music and Lyrics by Robert and Richard Sherman; Sung by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke

You definitely can’t talk about the Disney Songbook without mentioning the Sherman Brothers.  The Boys, as Walt Disney affectionately called them, were responsible for a string of hits for the Walt Disney company during it’s peak period during the 1960’s.  The contributed songs to animated hits like The Sword in the Stone (1963) and The Jungle Book (1967), as well as famous theme park melodies like “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “It’s a Small World.”  But what they are most celebrated for is their collection of classic tunes from Walt Disney’s magnum opus film musical, Mary Poppins. Poppins is widely considered to be one of the greatest movie musicals of all time; in the same league as classics like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).  The Sherman Brothers crafted a collection of unforgettable tunes based on the different adventures of the magical nanny created by P. L. Travers, and each one can be considered an all time great on it’s own.  There’s the Oscar winning “Chim Chim Cheree,” the elegant “A Spoonful of Sugar,” the rousing “Step in Time,” and the soulful “Feed the Birds” (Walt’s personal favorite).  But if I were to choose a favorite, it would be the song devoted to the longest word in the English language.  “Supercalifragilisticexpilalidocious” is Mary Poppin’s at it’s most playful, taking the extra long nonsense word and having fun with it.  This is the kind of song to easily put a person in a lighter mood, and it is quite amazing how the Sherman Brothers managed to make such a long word so easy to sing.  Add in the playfulness of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke’s performances, each delivering infectious enthusiasm into their singing.  The staging of the song itself is also memorable, with the seamless integration of live action actors in an animated environment which still impresses to this day.  Andrews and Van Dyke’s synchronized dance routine also is perfectly matched in this sequence as well.  The Sherman Brothers made an indelible mark on Disney’s musical legacy, and this song is a great demonstration of their talents creating something practically perfect in every way.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury

The height of the Disney Renaissance in terms of classic musicals can arguably be found with Beauty and the Beast.  This is the Disney machine in full swing, with show tunes that can find a home easily on the Broadway stage, which did in fact happen a couple of years later with a Broadway adaptation of this film.  There are definitely a lot of great songs in this movie, including the fantastic opening number “Belle,” the hilarious villain song “Gaston,” as well as the Oscar-winning title number.  But for me, the highlight of the film is it’s biggest show-stopping number; a song that represents everything great about a Disney movie musical.  “Be Our Guest” is a song that feels very much like a throwback to the musical numbers of Old Hollywood, particularly the ones choreographed by famed musical director Busby Berkeley.  Most Disney songs tend to lend support to the action of the film, but this one definitely is here to put on a show.  The animation in this scene is spectacular, with very clear nods to the Busby Berkeley, as the plates and silverware dance and spin across the screen.  It’s also a tour de force for two legends of the Broadway stage; Jerry Orbach, who plays the Maurice Chevalier inspired candelabra Lumiere, and Angela Lansbury as the warm hearted teapot Mrs. Potts.  Also making this song a classic is the brilliant lyrics by Howard Ashman.  A master of word play, Ashman puts together some incredible lines in this song, including underscoring a can-can with phrasing like “Course by Course, one by one, til you shout ‘enough, I’m done.’  Then we’ll sing you off to sleep as you digest.”  it definitely brings new meaning to dinner and a show.  All the songs are great in Beauty and the Beast, but this was definitely the one that kids like me and I’m sure quite a few adults were humming as they left the theater.  As an adult, the familiarity with the classic Hollywood musicals of old adds even more delight to this musical sequence.  It puts it’s service to the test, and all of us are all very much happy to be a guest to this tune every time we hear it.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Robin Williams

You couldn’t ask for a more perfect marriage of song and performer.  People have tried to take on this song in other re-tellings of this story, including Will Smith in the live action remake.   But no one has come close to capturing the exuberant energy of Robin Williams performance of this song.  “Friend Like Me” is the song that showcases everything that the magical Genie is capable of as he tries to convince Aladdin of the potential of the wishes he can grant.  In typical Disney fashion, the song is a tour de force of what animation can do, which is boundless.  I do wonder what led to the all the imaginative transformations that the Genie undertakes; where they all conceived from the beginning, or did they take inspiration from the different voices that Robin Williams slips into in his performance.  I like to think that the animators were following Robin’s lead, because the man was so much of a real life cartoon himself.  I imagine that when they hear him put on the voice of a French waiter for one lyric, the animators had no other choice than to do exactly what the performance is telling them, and there’s the Genie on screen with a stereotypical stuffy French waiter complete with a pencil thin moustache.  The bridge of the song where Robin Williams does a Cab Calloway scat routine must have also been fun to animate to, especially with the oversized hands dancing along.  Again, Howard Ashman’s clever word play is put to amazing use, including finding a way to work the word Baklava in there.  Sadly, this was Ashman’s final project, as he passed away from AIDS during the making of Beauty and the Beast, with his work on Aladdin only half finished.  Thankfully “Friend Like Me” survived into the finished film, and it represents the master songwriter at the height of his talent.  Menken’s big band jazz infused scoring also brings a great amount of energy to this song.  If there ever was a song worthy of an applause sign, which the Genie comically flashes at the end of the song, this is definitely it.  It’s songwriting, animation, an vocal performance all working together to create a perfect blend of just unmatched fun.  A wish well granted.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Jodie Benson

That’s three in a row for team Menken and Ashman, showing just how influential they were to the Disney songbook.  An interesting backstory, before they came to Disney, the musical duo worked off Broadway on underground hit musicals like Little Shop of Horrors.  For a time, Ashman tried to make a Broadway debut with composer Marvin Hamlisch on a little musical called Smile.  In that musical, there was an “I Want” song called “Disneyland,” sung by an up-and-coming performer named Jodi Benson.  I don’t think anyone at the time knew that the songwriter of that tune would one day write songs that would actually play for real in Disneyland, and that the singer would become one of the most celebrated Disney princesses.  Smile was a Broadway flop, but Disney took notice and brought Ashman and his friend Alan Menken into their fold hoping that they would revive the long dormant Disney fairy tale musical.  They not only rose to the occasion, but they created one of the most beloved musical scores of all time.  “Under the Sea” may be the Oscar-winning tune, but I think the song that best embodies the spirit of this film the most is “Part of Your World.”  This is the gold standard of all the “I Want” songs in the Disney canon, which has become a staple in most of the musicals made since.  Much of the power of this song comes from Jodi Benson’s heartfelt performance as Ariel.  For a character described so much for having the most beautiful voice in all the ocean, she doesn’t disappoint.  Remarkably, this song almost didn’t make it into the movie, as studio exec Jeffrey Katzenberg almost excised it because he thought it slowed the movie down.  Thankfully directors Ron Clements and John Musker and especially Howard Ashman pleaded their case passionately to keep the song in and thank god it worked, because the movie wouldn’t have worked without it.  It’s a song about chasing a dream, and you can’t help but feel a chill as Ariel reaches out to the surface world as she hits that high note; a tour de force on Jodi Benson’s part.  Whozits and Whatzits galore, this song has everything that makes a Disney song great.



Music by Leigh Harline; Lyrics by Ned Washington; Sung by Cliff Edwards

A song that is so intrinsically linked to all things Disney that it’s the first thing you hear in everything Disney film, playing over the company’s opening logo.  This song has become the anthem of the Walt Disney Company and has remained so for over 80 years since the original release of Pinocchio.  Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had it’s fair share of classic tunes, but “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a song that carries so much universal meaning beyond it’s place in the film it came from, and it’s amazing that Disney found that kind of song in only it’s second feature film.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” in many ways is the Disney company’s mission statement, a call to keep dreaming even if that dream is far away like a star.  The Disney company has from the very beginning been focused on creative thinking, something that Walt Disney valued as essential to his company.  And it’s something that he wanted to inspire in everyone who watched one of his movies or visited one of his parks.  The cycle of creativity is what he saw as essential to building the future of his company, and it’s why he held up the message of a song like “When You Wish Upon a Star” as a key part of his company’s mission; wish upon your dreams, and make the impossible, possible.  There’s a little naivete in there to be sure, but it’s still something that resonates about the song itself.  Though it’s been covered many times over the years, I don’t think anything has matched the soulfulness of the original Cliff Edwards rendition.  Edwards, who voiced Jiminy Cricket in the movie, wasn’t typically known for soulful songs like this; often singing more light-hearted fare with a ukulele, which earned him the nickname “Ukulele Ike.”  But there is no doubt that his performance of the song is iconic, giving it the heartfelt weight it deserves.  If there was ever a song deserving of being the fanfare for all things Disney, this is it.  It’s a song of inspiration, and who knows how many of the other songs on this list were written by writers who were inspired to wish upon a star in their youths when they saw Pinocchio for the first time.  Like a bolt out of the blue, this song has an immeasurable legacy as part of the Disney Songbook.



Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Sung by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M

If there was ever a song to rival, and perhaps even exceed the impact of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the Disney library, it might be the song that kicks off the biggest film they ever made.  “Circle of Life” is a movie that stands for so much of New Disney as “Star” stands for much of Old Disney.  The movie The Lion King was mostly dismissed by much of the Disney brass at the time as a B-picture project worked on the side amidst it’s more ambitious projects like Aladdin, Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  It was the only movie of that era not scored by mainstay Alan Menken (with Hans Zimmer instead filling that role), and instead of turning to Broadway talent to compose the songs, they went to pop star Elton John instead.  Sure, Elton John had Broadway lyricist Tim Rice to guide him through, but for the pop singer writing musical numbers for an animated film (one set in Africa no less) was a uncharted territory for him.  Thankfully he rose to the challenge, creating some of the most memorable songs in the Disney library as a result.  Of the five main tunes in the film, there is no doubt that the most powerful one is the song that opens the film.  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” may have netted the Oscar, due to it being a radio friendly love ballad that Elton John excelled at, but over time “Circle of Life” has become the song that’s been seen as the greater achievement.  So much so, that I don’t think it has any rival in the whole of the Disney songbook.  It’s a song that commands attention like the regal namesake of the film.  A large part of the song’s power comes from that spectacular opening note, provided by the choir director Lebo M.  That primal “Naaaaaaaaah” set against the rising of the sun is a hell of a way to open a movie, let alone a song.  The remaining part of the song keeps that spiritual feeling high, with Carmen Twillie’s passionate performance carrying the weight of the song through.  Once Disney executives saw the finished song in it’s entirety for the first time, I think they may have changed their mind about calling The Lion King a B-Picture.  I for one cannot find any other song from Disney that impresses me more than this one.  It really is the finest bit of music ever captured in animation.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” will certainly always stand as the company’s anthem, and it’s well earned.  But “Circle of Life” with all of it’s epic glory may be the high point of any musical sequence ever in a Disney movie.  Mighty as a lion’s roar, this is the song that demands and receives the respect that it deserves.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest songs from Disney Movies.  There are so many great ones out there and it was hard to thin the herd down to just 10.  Surprisingly, I left a lot of the Oscar winners off of my list.  Of the 10 I listed here, only “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Let it Go” came away with the gold the year they premiered.  Some of these songs were instant hits, while others like “Out There” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” have had to build their esteem over time.  But, there is no doubt that they have contributed to an amazing assortment of songs that span across the 100 years of Disney’s history.  There are a lot of amazing songs even in forgotten movies from Disney’s past as well, as well as songs that may have been overshadowed originally by other tunes and have only come into their own over time.  If there is one thing that the great Disney musical songs have in common, it’s that they stick with you for years after hearing them.  More than just being unforgettable earworms, they are songs that are easily accessible to audiences of all ages.  You don’t have to work very hard to remember all the lyrics, because in some cases the songs utilize clever repetition of the main theme.  Songs like ‘Be Our Guest,” “Under the Sea,” “Hakuna Matata,” “Heigh Ho,” and “You Can Fly” are by design meant to be easy to sing along to.  I know a lot of children of the 80’s and 90’s like myself were introduced to these songs through Sing-A-Long video tape compilations.  Most re-releases of these movies on DVD and Blu-ray also include subtitled lyric tracks for just that purpose as well, and sometimes they’ll even put sing-a-long versions of the movies in theaters.  While there is definitely a commercial aspect of the perpetuity of the Disney Songbook, it cannot be denied that many of these songs are indeed masterful works of music.  The Disney musical has seen many different lives and faces, and there is little doubt that the catalog of songs to come from the century old company will continue to grow.  Hopefully I’ve spotlighted a few that will indeed bring back some memories for many of you.  Have a wonderful musical time with this playlist I provided for you, and hopefully your dreams will come true wishing upon that star.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – Review

The kind of spectacular run of success that Marvel Studios has enjoyed over the last decade is something quite miraculous and not very common in Hollywood.  The studio built up it’s brand from the launch of Iron Man in 2008 and saw the world come together in anticipation for every new film they put out.  With the connective thread found in each individual film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the most ambitious narrative ever undertaken in movie history, with each Avengers movie acting as a touchstone in the overall saga.  Built over what they called their phases, Marvel built towards a grand finale with their two part Phase 3 finishers called Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  There was little doubt that Marvel had succeeded in their goals as Endgame for a time became the highest grossing film worldwide in history.  And with the story they had been building over those ten years finally complete, Marvel could now definitively call the entirety of that era The Infinity Saga, taking it’s name from the Infinity Stones that had been central to the connective narrative in all the movies.  So, with the Infinity Saga complete, what story was next for Marvel to tackle.  It seems like Marvel had the idea in mind of where to go next, as there were hints dropped about a mysterious new element that would soon come into play in the MCU; something called The Multiverse.  Starting with Phase 4, Marvel was set to take it’s universe into an exciting new direction with the concept of the multiverse central to it’s overall narrative.  Some of the Phase 4 movies have tackled it head on, like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), while others have remained more earthbound in their narratives, like Black Widow (2021) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  Regardless of which films tackle it or not, this is the multiverse is going to be the centerpiece of Marvel’s master plan for the next few years, and hopefully they are able to get audiences on board like they did with the Infinity Saga.

However, Marvel is also going through an awkward phase, perhaps related to their expansion into streaming over the last couple years.  The Multiverse Saga is not just making it’s presence on the big screen, but on the platform Disney+ as well, with several series airing on there that tie in with the movies.  Shows like Wandavision, Loki, Ms. Marvel, and others have just as many connective threads tied into the Multiverse Saga as the movies do, and in some ways it’s making the overall flow of the storyline a little too complicated for the average viewer to follow along with.  In Phases 1-3 of the MCU, you might have gotten as many as three films a year from the studio.  Now, it’s up to four films plus just as many mini-series on Disney+ all within the same calendar year.  Phase 4 alone had 15 individual titles, which is 3x that of Phase 1.  That’s a lot of story to wrap your heads around if you’re trying to keep track of where the MCU is heading.  And for some audiences, it’s too much.  In the last couple of years through the roll out of Phase 4, a feeling of fatigue has set it.  The once mighty Marvel machine is now starting to show signs of fragility.  The box office, while still decent (especially in the middle of a pandemic recovery) is off from previous franchise highs.  Not only that, but critical reception has slipped as well, with Marvel films like Eternals (2021) receiving for the first time a net negative rating for the studio.  Phase 4 culminated last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the overall feeling amongst Marvel fans is that the studio had lost a bit of it’s luster over the course of Phase 4, despite some high points along the way.  It’s a tough position to be in as Marvel now looks to begin Phase 5 in earnest.  And to launch their next Phase, they are turning to a character that in some fans minds is seen as one of the lesser Avengers; Ant-Man, who returns to the screen in his third solo outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Quantumania takes place a couple of years after the events of Endgame, with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) enjoying his celebrity status as an Avenger.  He has published a memoir about his experience helping the Avengers reverse the effects of the “Blip” and saving the world from Thanos, and has been receiving honors across his hometown of San Francisco.  At the same time, he also is trying to repair a strained relationship with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who had to grow up for 5 years during the Blip without her family.  Unbeknownst to Scott, Cassie has been spending more time with Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) aka The Wasp and hope’s father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man.  Cassie finally reveals what she has been working on in secret with her two mentors, which is a special device that can probe into the sub-atomic Quantum Realm.  While Scott is certainly proud of Cassie’s invention, the same feeling is not shared by Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother who had been rescued from the Quantum Realm after being trapped there for decades.  Unfortunately, Janet’s concerns were warranted as the probing device malfunctions and begins to shrink everything around it down to sub-atomic size, including everyone in the room.  The family finds themselves separated and stranded in the strange universe within a universe that is the Quantum Realm.  Scott and Cassie find themselves captured by sub-atomic beings that call the Realm home, led by freedom fighters Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian) and Quaz (William Jackson Harper).  Meanwhile, Hope, Janet and Hank try to find their own way back home.  For Janet, the goal is to get home quickly without being seen, because there is someone in the Quantum Realm who she is terrified of running into again; the fearsome dictator of the Quantum Realm, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).

Quantumania is the third film in the standalone Ant-Man franchise in the MCU.  But, apart from it’s predecessors, this film has far more influence on the greater narrative that’s being told in the MCU.  The first two Ant-Man’s were smaller scale adventures that only tied into the MCU storyline through the mid and post credits scenes.  This film on the other hand is launching the next Phase of the MCU, so it’s overall story is significantly more involved in the narrative built thus far and where it’s going next.  The same team from the other films returns for this third entry, with director Peyton Reed once again directing.  And while the new direction of this franchise is brave new territory for everyone involved, it’s also something that works against the effectiveness of the movie overall.  Peyton Reed as a director had carved out this niche for the Ant-Man branch of the MCU as being more light-hearted and comical; a welcome break from the more heavy films in the MCU line-up.  That tone is significantly changed in Quantumania, which is far more science fiction heavy than the previous Ant-Man movies.  The MCU has certainly delved into the weird and alien before, with the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, but shifting in that direction for Ant-Man is a big swing, and it’s one that I don’t think a filmmaker like Reed is comfortable working in.  A common complaint that has been rising about Marvel in Phase 4 has been that all their titles are beginning to become formulaic and carbon copies of each other.  This seems to be what’s happened with Ant-Man as well, as it’s ditched it’s fun romp through the city formula that served it well before in favor of looking more like the space operas of other franchises.  And that shift overall becomes awkward and unfocused when executed by a team that thus far has been comfortable working with a different style of movie.

There are still things to like about the movie, don’t get me wrong.  There are certainly individual scenes throughout that work very well on their own.  But all the ingredients put together leads to a meal that in some way feels very undercooked.  Peyton Reed is called upon to do so much universe building in this film, and it leaves him so little time to do the things he’s actually good at in this franchise which is comedic action.  The movie itself is very awkwardly paced, moving the story from set-piece to set-piece without every allowing the narrative to find it’s bearings.  You can sense a good version of this story within the film desperately trying to find it’s way out, but is continually denied by the break neck speed of the plot.  Perhaps the movie’s greatest sin is how it treats it’s central villain.  Kang the Conqueror is simultaneously the best part of this movie as well as it’s part.  There’s no doubt that a lot of people are going to be talking about Jonathan Majors performance as Kang in this film.  In just a handful of scenes he commands a foreboding and sinister presence.  Marvel definitely knew what they were doing when they cast him in the role, because this is a very demanding role that requires an actor that can literally play multiple variations of the same person and do so with the same intensity each time.  We first met a version of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series (also played by Majors), but this version is the Conqueror, the one that is feared above all the others, and Jonathan Majors does a magnificent job of capturing that terrifying power in his performance.  The only problem is Kang is very much misplaced in this movie.  The movie cannot quite figure out to use Kang as an adversary in this film.  Ant-Man is clearly out-matched in terms of power, so the film has to find ways to nerf Kang to make him less of a threat, and this very much robs the villain of his menacing nature.  Kang is supposed to be the next Thanos, and first impressions are everything, so if this is our first taste of what’s to come with Kang the Conqueror in the future of the MCU, it doesn’t exactly heighten our excitement.

There are definitely a few other things that help to keep Quantumania from becoming a complete misfire for Marvel.  One is the cast of characters.  With each new film in the franchise, as well as his guest appearances alongside the Avengers, Paul Rudd continues to reinforce his place as the perfect choice to play the role of Ant-Man in the MCU.  He is endlessly charming, and that continues to shine in Quantumania.  Even as the movie begins to lack the comical spark that defined past entries, Rudd is still able to find laughs in the best moments of the movie.  There is a spectacular scene midway where Ant-Man ends up in a realm where he keeps cloning himself exponentially until there are literally millions of him, and even here Rudd is able to find clever ways to make the interactions with himself hilarious.  The movie also does a good job tackling the father/daughter relationship between Scott and Cassie.  The character of Cassie is significantly aged up from the last installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), due to the five year jump in the MCU from the Blip, and Kathryn Newton takes over the role.  While the years have certainly hardened the character, we still see some of the same spirited persona within the character, and Newton does a good job of playing up the childlike enthusiasm of the character.  The other characters have less to do, which is especially true of Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, who only seems to be in this movie because her name is in the title.  Michelle Pfeiffer’s role is expanded, and she does a good job of helping to delve into more of Janet’s past; particularly the trauma that she carries with her.  Of all the characters in the film, Janet seems to be the one who has the strongest arc, as she has to confront the guilt of her past (particularly when it relates to Kang) and overcome it.  The secondary characters are for the most part underdeveloped, but actors like Katy O’Brian and William Jackson Harper make the most of their time on screen.  One character in the movie who I think is going to divide audiences is M.O.D.O.K.  Marvel fans are either going to love or hate what they did to this iconic villain from the comic books.  For me, the character took some getting used to, but at the same time, I feel like this was likely the best we would ever get to having a live action version of this character in the MCU.  M.O.D.O.K., the giant faced, tiny limbed villain has always been weird looking in all variations of media throughout the years, so the fact that Marvel even attempted to make him work here at all was risky, and despite the weirdness of it all, he’s a character that still makes an impression and even gets a well earned laugh or two.

There’s also something to be said about the look of the Quantum Realm itself.  You would think that Marvel has already exhausted it’s share of different world to explore within it’s universe, but the Quantum Realm is visually interesting enough to stand on it’s own.  One of the interesting aspects of how the Quantum Realm is used in this film is that the movie does a good job of making the sub-atomic feel vast.  It’s supposed to feel like a universe on it’s own contained within an even more vast universe, and it’s how the visual spaces are used within the movie that helps to emphasize the different laws of nature that this Realm lives by.  Kang’s stronghold for instance exists within a curved space that appears to extend up and around like the interior of a sphere while still maintaining the urban sprawl of it’s metropolis.  The same alien elements of the Quantum Realm continue through the floating islands of rock that dot the landscape under a sky filled with swirling wormholes.  While the story itself is unfocused, the movie does keep the visuals interesting throughout.  A lot of the re-watchability factor of this movie may come down to catching all the details of the world-building, of which there are many little things worth catching.  Even the creatures are imaginative and different from anything that we’ve seen in other Marvel properties, or any film for that matter.  There’s one character that looks like it has a glass jar for a head with a light source inside.  That and other creatures found throughout the movie really help to give more character to the movie, even if a lot of it is superficial and offers little to the overall plot.  I saw the movie on a full sized IMAX screen, which helped to make the imaginative visuals stand out even more.  Despite all the faults of the movie, the overall visual presentation is definitely on par with Marvel at it’s best.

Truth be told, the Ant-Man franchise has never really been among my favorites in the greater MCU.  I do love Paul Rudd as the titular super hero, but I feel like he has been best used outside of his own franchise in movies like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  The first Ant-Man (2015) was a troubled production that saw it’s original director (the visionary Edgar Wright) removed over creative differences and the finished film feeling in the end like it was compromised; choosing to play it safe as a super hero origin story.  Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the most cohesive film in the series, but it’s one that feels lacking in urgency and meaning; remembered more for it’s shocking cliffhanger mid-credits scene.  Quantumania is definitely the messiest of the three films in the franchise; unfocused and underwhelming on the story end, but at the same time daring in it’s big swings.  I think what ultimately made me upset about the movie is the missed opportunity it had with Kang as the villain.  The movie’s whole purpose it seems is to introduce us to the next Avengers level threat in the MCU, and it in many ways undermines the importance of that mission by diminishing the character’s power.  Kang never really comes off as scary as he should be, and I feel that’s where Quantumania fails the most as a movie.  That being said, when the movie does deliver something good, like the visuals and the father/daughter storyline between Scott and Cassie, it really hits the mark.  My hope is that when Kang re-emerges in the MCU plot thread that he’ll be far more menacing than he is here and live up to the promise of the character that we know him to be from his history in the comics.  For a third chapter entry in a franchise that honestly has been one of my least favorite in the MCU, Quantumania could have been a lot worse, and I do give it credit for trying something new.  But, given that Marvel’s Phase 5 is starting off with this underwhelming sequel as it’s launch pad, it’s already putting Marvel’s already shaky status into further uncertainty, and hopefully it’s not a sign that Marvel’s mojo has been drained completely.  Thankfully, next up for them is the promising Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn’s Marvel swan song before he takes over DC.  Quantumania is a decent enough adventure in it’s own way, but for it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s memory is likely going to remain quite small in the long run.

Rating: 7/10

Collecting Criterion – Malcolm X (1992)

As we reflect on the important figures that come into focus during Black History Month, it is important to also look at the many Black voices that have made an impact in cinema as well.  The Criterion Collection, for their part, have made an effort to spotlight filmmakers of color in their library.  Sure there are the iconic Blacksploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s in the collection, including a Box Set of the films of Melvin Van Peebles, as well as Shaft (1971, Spine #1130).  But, the collection runs through so many genre types that it gives diverse look into the many different ways that Black filmmakers were able to tell their stories throughout film history.  In there you’ll find Westerns like Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972, #1140), Noirs like Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, #1135)  and comedies like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987, #1173).  The collection also has films directed by Black women, like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball (2000, #1097), Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011, #1083), and Regina King’s One Night in Miami (2020, #1106).  But, when we are talking about the history of Black cinema, one of the most obvious names to come up is Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of the most prominent faces of African-American cinema over the last 30 years, and he continues to bring his sharp-edged social commentary to the big screen with recent celebrated films like BlackKklansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020).  He thus far has 3 films that have become selected as part of the Criterion Collection.  One is his blistering media satire Bamboozled (2000, #1019).  Another is a movie that many consider to be his masterpiece, and the one that put him on the map in world cinema; the iconic Do The Right Thing (1989, #97).  Most recently, however, they have added to the collection what may be the most ambitious movie of Spike Lee’s career; the epic scale biopic Malcolm X (1992, #1160).

Spike Lee, apart from being known as one of the most accomplished and skilled filmmakers out there, is also known for being one of the most opinionated too.  From the moment he started rolling film on his first ever movie he was adamant about using the art of cinema as a platform for spotlighting the Black experience in America.  In particular, there is a very charged political outlook in almost all of his movies, and he is not ashamed of the bluntness that he addresses those issues either.  As a result, he has become somewhat of a divisive figure in the world of cinema, though more recently he has been rightly celebrated for his accomplishments by a broad consensus within and outside of the film industry.  While some may be turned off by Spike Lee’s abrasive style, there can be no doubt that he is a one of a kind filmmaker and someone whose daring choices often always makes his movies pop with life and passion.  It’s rather surprising that given the subject matter that he often tackles in his movies, typically regarding the systemic racism that pervades our country, that he has managed to maintain a steady career in Hollywood, even with the support of some major studios.  His movies up through Do The Right Thing were produced independently and with modest budgets, but for his follow-up to Do The Right Thing he was given the full backing of Warner Brothers.  Malcolm X was a major jump for the still young filmmaker.  He was going from a contained, single location drama like Thing to a massive 3 1/2 hour epic story about one of the most divisive figures in the Civil Rights movement.  Convincing a major studio to invest in an epic biopic about the firebrand “by any means necessary” civil rights leader was not going to be easy.  But, with the celebrated Do the Right Thing lifting his profile, Warner Brothers believed it was a risk worth taking, and thus Spike Lee was granted the chance to bring his long time passion project towards reality.  The only question was, would audiences be willing to see it, especially those unfamiliar with the large swath of Black History and the cinematic voices that Hollywood often had pushed to the side for many years.

For his film, Spike Lee would focus on the formative years of Malcolm Little (X)’s life, from his time as a petty gangster, to his imprisonment and conversion to Islam behind bars, to his activism as part of the Nation of Islam, and then eventually to his departure from the same organization that led to his assassination.  All told through a first hand testimonial from Malcolm’s own perspective, we see the many different life moments that shaped the man into the crusader that he eventually became.  One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is that the man we meet at the beginning of the film is so far removed from the man we come to know by the end.  Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) starts off as a zoot suit wearing gangster in 1940’s Boston, working for a gangster running a numbers racket named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo).  After running afoul of Archie, Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) begin committing robberies to settle their debts.  Unfortunately they get caught and end up serving 8-10 years for their crimes.  While in prison, Malcolm befriends another convict named Baines (Albert Hall) who mentors the troubled youth and helps him convert to Islam.  Once his sentence ends, Malcolm pursues a more active role in the Nation of Islam organization, eventually rising up the ranks to be in the company of the organization’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.).  Through his activism within the NOI, Malcolm emerges as a powerful orator and a lightning rod figure in the growing Civil Rights movement.  It also puts him under the scrutiny of law enforcement, who frequently targets Malcolm and his follows as a means of suppressing Civil Rights movements in America.  As he grows older, Malcolm’s activism goes through it’s own transformation, as he begins to retreat from some of the supremacist rhetoric of the NOI  and instead he desires a more humanistic view of civil rights.  This ultimately makes him a target of NOI hardliners, who begin threatening him and his family, including his steadfast supportive wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett).  Eventually Malcolm has to put his own life on the line to continue his crusade for Civil Rights, and this ultimately leads to his assassination from hitmen sent by the NOI.  Though his life is tragically cut short, he leaves behind a lasting legacy which in typical Spike Lee fashion is spotlighted through a montage of civil rights movements that have grown ever since.

It cannot be understated what a monumental piece of filmmaking Malcolm X is.  Spike Lee clearly was inspired by epic biopics made by Hollywood over the years, and this was his opportunity to show that the same ambitious storytelling on a grand scale could be accomplished by a Black filmmaker for a Black audience as well.  In all of it’s 3 1/2 hours, Spike Lee commands a huge multifaceted epic tale of race in America without it ever sagging under the weight of it’s ambition.  It’s frankly remarkable that he made this movie (his sixth overall) at the age of 35.  Most filmmakers often have to work a lifetime in order to make something this grand in scope, and he did it almost fresh out of film school.  What is equally impressive is that he brought along all the same crew that he had worked with before on his other films from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to Mo Better Blues (1990); cinematograhy by Ernest Dickerson, costumes by Ruth Carter, and music by Terence Blanchard, all of whom working for the first time on a period set drama.  The movie shows him and his crew growing by leaps and bounds with their craft, and making a statement for their own place as people of color working in their respective fields within the Hollywood machine.  But what is especially impressive is that they were able to make the subject of Malcolm X, one of the most divisive figures in Civil Rights history, and give him mainstream recognition in a big Hollywood.  For many reasons, Spike Lee needed to be the filmmaker to tell Malcolm X’s story, because most filmmakers would’ve been too afraid.  Given Malcolm X’s violent rhetoric towards whites in the past (something which he later retracted in his last years), filmmakers had largely been reluctant to tell his life story on film, with the Civil Rights movement largely being framed on screen through more peaceful figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Spike Lee was the one and only filmmaker who could form a nuanced portrait of the controversial figure and show us, especially White audiences, that Malcolm X was much more than the firebrand activist with the violent racial rhetoric that he characterized with.

Above all else, what was crucial towards making the movie work as well as it did was the casting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.  By this time, Washington had risen to leading man status in Hollywood, with an Oscar win for Glory (1989) already on his resume.  There was no doubt that he would take a meaty role like this and run with it.  What makes his casting so perfect is that he nails every aspect of the character through his transformations over the course of his life.  From his gangster days to his firebrand activism to his late stage self-reflection, Denzel captures so much of Malcolm X’s journey through his performance.  What he really brings to the character is soul; you feel the weight of history that informs the person that Malcolm X is, both as a black man in America and also through just the personal trauma that he has had to go through.  He is definitely supported with a dynamic ensemble cast around him, including Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, and Al Freeman Jr., but this movie is first and foremost a showcase for his talents as an actor.  Naturally, this would lead to a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, though he would lose out to industry veteran Al Pacino who finally won for Scent of a Woman after losing for so many other iconic performances.  Though the movie was well received in critical circles, it did only modest business at the box office.  This sadly caused Spike Lee to no longer have the unfettered studio support that he once had, and he returned to more low budget fare for a while, with many believing that he peaked too early as a filmmaker.  His more recent resurgence has proven that he still has it as a filmmaker.  But it’s hard to know for sure if he has another movie on the scale of Malcolm X   in his future.  For what it’s worth, he is fortunate to have made the most of the short window that was open to him in order to make that kind of movie with the support that he was afforded at the time.

The Criterion Collection has included Malcolm X in their library with a special 4K UHD release.  Started in 2021, Criterion has entered the 4K market with a few of their high profile releases, and Malcolm X is one of the beneficiaries of this move towards high end home presentation.  The film’s original negative was taken out of the Warner Brothers Archive and was rescanned in 4K resolution.  A team of restorationists worked with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to clean up the film’s picture and sound, and the new digital master was given approval by both Dickerson and Spike Lee for this UHD release.  The film’s 4K presentation is given it’s own UHD disc in the set and features full Dolby Vision HDR picture quality.  Several DVD and Blu-ray releases have done the movie justice in the past, but this new 4K presentation is remarkable in it’s fidelity.  Spike Lee for one thing is a filmmaker known for his bold uses of color in his films, and while Malcolm X is more subdued and muted compared to some of his other movies, the colors that are present definitely pop off the screen with the HDR support.  The fine detail of the picture really stands out in 4K resolution, which really makes you appreciate the period details that went into this movie; especially the costumes from Ruth E. Carter.  The film’s soundtrack is also something to admire too.  It’s almost identical to the 2012 5.1 mix that was conducted for the film’s original Blu-ray release from Warner Brothers, but it does sound even better with the uncompressed UHD disc.  The Criterion set also includes a Blu-ray copy of the movie which was sourced from the same 4K restoration master.  No matter what version you watch, you will be seeing this movie in the best possible version that has been on the market to date, helping to keep the movie looking just as good as it did when it was first released in theaters 30 years ago.

There is also a healthy helping of bonus features here as well, some from previous Blu-ray releases of the movie, as well as some made just for this release by Criterion.  The 4K UHD disc features just one bonus feature and that’s an audio commentary track.  Recorded in 2005 for the movie’s DVD release by Warner Brothers, this track features Spike Lee himself alongside comments from Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and Ruth E. Carter.  Though all were recorded separately, the track is edited together to create a very insightful conversation about the making of the movie from their first hand experiences.  The same commentary track is also found on the Blu-ray version of the movie.  A third disc includes all of the remaining bonus features.  First, there is a featurette called Spike Lee in Conversation, which was made just for this release by Criterion.  It’s a conversational interview with Spike conducted journalist Barry Michael Cooper.  You can tell these two are long time friends as the conversation remains casual as they reminisce about the early years of Spike’s career when they first knew each other, and they eventually touch upon the turbulent times that surrounded the making of Malcolm X.  In addition, Criterion also film two separate interviews with two of Lee’s longtime collaborators, actor Delroy Lindo and composer Terence Blanchard.  Both of them offer their own interesting anecdotes about working with Spike and being a part of Malcolm X.  The bonus disc also carries over some of the features from the Warner Brothers Blu-ray, including the making-of featurette called By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X as well as nine deleted scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.  The most substantial feature, however, is a feature length documentary from 1972 about Malcolm X, narrated by James Earl Jones.  The documentary helps to give more historical insight into the person that Malcolm X was, and it’s a valuable document considering it was made within only 5 years of X’s assassination.  Like most other Criterion titles, this is a bonus collection that does justice to the movie it is complimenting, and any Criterion collector will be please by what they are given here, both with the old and the new features.

There are several movies that should be considered essential viewing when learning about the fight for Civil Rights here in America, and I think Malcolm X is one of those titles.  It is an exceptionally well crafted movie made on a grand scale that bravely puts a controversial figure at the center of it’s story and shows his important contribution to the struggle with nuance and intelligence.  With Denzel’s iconic performance and Spike Lee’s fearless direction, they managed to make a movie that expertly breaks down what kind of a man Malcolm X was, and why it is important to share his story.  You may not have liked everything Malcolm X stood for, but you cannot deny that part of the reason Civil Rights had been achieved to some extent in America is because of his contribution to the movement.  Spike Lee uses his own unique style to drive home Malcolm X’s message in a way that connects with modern audiences, while at the same time drawing upon cinematic inspirations of the past.  You can see echoes of other epic biopics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970) and Gandhi (1982) in Spike Lee’s film, with it’s attention to period detail and the generation spanning nature of it’s narrative.  There’s no doubt that Spike was making this film as a statement for black audiences, but the style of movie also appeals to audiences of all races with it’s epic filmmaking, and that seems to be the ultimate intent of Spike’s purpose for making this movie.  He wanted to put Malcolm X into the same league as these iconic figures that shaped history, and in a sense he had to do that by making his story appear as mainstream Hollywood as it could.  But, at the same time, Spike Lee is not selling out and going Hollywood.  Malcolm X is still a Spike Lee Joint to it’s core and only has the added benefit of it’s grand scope and mainstream appeal to help it endure with audiences of all kinds, black or white.  It’s an ideal choice to join the Criterion Collection and they’ve given it a worthy presentation to boot with insightful bonuses included.  For those who haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, please do yourself a favor and carve out some time to give it a watch because Malcolm X’s activism is an essential chapter to learn in the course of Black History and Spike’s movie is a cinematic event that puts the perfect mythic spotlight on this larger than life figure.

No Ordinary Film – How A24 Made the Oddball Oscar Worthy

Since the rise of the independent cinema over the last 30 or so years, there have been a number of labels that rise up from obscurity to become major players in the market of films, especially when it comes to awards and acclaim.  These independent movie houses often start out as distributors for films that make a lot of noise coming out of the film festival circuit, and over time they have established themselves well enough to become a mini-major studio in their own right, capable of producing films in house.  Each decade sees a significant rise in brands that suddenly become staples in awards season, though their rise often is followed up by a steep fall.  In the 80’s, Orion Pictures became the most successful distributor of award winning films, including Best Picture winners Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), and Dances With Wolves (1990), only to go bankrupt while their fourth Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs (1991) debuted in theaters.  Emerging in the 90’s was the Weinstein Brothers backed Miramax, with their awards favorites like Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).  At the turn of the millennium emerged Dreamworks, a new studio formed by industry heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, with movies like American Beauty (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001).  And though it was bankrolled by a mega corporation, Netflix as a film producer also emerged in the 2010’s to change the game within the industry.  And that’s what unites all of these independent producers together; they were the ones changing the direction of the industry by their curating of rising talent and fresh ideas.  These studios also built their brands to be synonymous within the industry with a certain level of quality, and this was often what led to the choices of films they sought to either make or distribute.  Other independent studios have followed in the same steps as those of the past, but as we go further into 2020’s, one independent studio has remarkably emerged in a way that few industry insiders may have expected, and it’s leading Hollywood into a very peculiar new path.

A24 stands out amongst all of the independent studios both past and present mainly due to the kinds of films they have chosen to attach their name to.  The “A” in their name could easily stand for atypical because that’s often the best way to describe their catalog of movies.  They are not producers of gritty realist dramas like Orion, or a mixture of auteur driven statements like Miramax, or socially conscious historical epics like Dreamworks, or expensive passion projects like Netflix.  A24’s brand is about finding the most unique films out there and getting them seen, no matter how outside of the box they are.  When you see that A24 logo pop up on the big screen, which often appears in clever movie specific variations during the trailers, you just know you’re going to see something new and different, and even a little strange.  That has been the brand they have developed for themselves over their last decade of existence and it has worked out pretty well so far.  So much so, they are now finding themselves not only awards contenders, but the overall leaders in the race this year, with more nominations for this year’s Oscars than any other producer.  Though the decade is still young, it can be safe to say that they are the most valuable brand in the industry right now, and the ones that are beginning to shape the direction of the industry.  This is evident by the dominance of their top awards contender this year, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022); a movie that likely would’ve flown under Hollywood’s radar if it came out 10 years ago or more, but now is garnering unparalleled attention for a movie that is quite frankly outside of the Hollywood norm.  But, how did A24 manage to achieve this while still maintaining their mission to seek out the strange and genre-bending in both their in house productions and in their acquisitions.  In many ways, it all comes down to the awareness of what an audience is looking for.

A24 was founded in 2012 by the trio of Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges.  The industry professionals had all worked in various other positions within the industry, but they joined together with the goal of finding movies that fell outside of the norm and give them a spotlight with their collective expertise in marketing and distribution.  Initially, they were just a distribution label, collecting films from festival circuits, often the ones that other independent distributors found too strange to spend their money on.  For A24, these outsiders were the movies that they were confident they could find an audience for, and all it took was connecting the right audiences to the right movie.  In their first year, they managed to find surprising success with the Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers (2013).  Korine’s movies have often been too controversial for Hollywood or mainstream audiences, like Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), but Spring Breakers ended up finding a mainstream audience thanks to A24, because they successfully marketed the movie to the right audience; namely college kids.  Korine’s art house film suddenly became a must see movie for college audiences who, as you would guess, identified with the culture that was depicted in the film, even if it was showing the darker side of Spring Break festivities gone awry.  Though modest, it still showed that the A24 model of seeking the weirdest movies and targeting them to the right audience could be a profitable model to base their studio’s mission on.  And it was something that helped them to quickly rise in esteem within Hollywood.

Perhaps the year that marked A24’s arrival as an important player in Hollywood would be 2017, because that was the year that they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history.  Only two years into the game, A24 did manage to gain Oscars attention right away.  In 2015,they had a nominee for Best Picture with their Toronto International Film Festival champion Room (2015).  The movie would go on to win a Best Actress award for Brie Larson, but it lost out to Spotlight (2015) for the top award.  The story would be different a year later.  A24 would again be in the Best Picture race with their critically acclaimed queer themed drama Moonlight (2016), but that film was up against a juggernaut called La La Land (2016).  As the latter kept sweeping up awards throughout the night, the inevitable seemed certain.  But, when the final award of the night was announced, even a mix-up passed by without raising an alarm.  Of course what ensued was one of the craziest moments in Oscar history as the wrong card was read for Best Picture, and Moonlight had indeed pulled the biggest upset in Oscar history.  In a way, A24’s first Best Picture win seemed destined to be as chaotic as it was, because it is on brand for them.  But indeed, Moonlight put A24 on the map in Hollywood, and they have been a fixture at the Oscars almost every year since, with movies like Lady Bird (2017) and Minari (2020) being some of the standouts.  But now they have gone from Oscar spoilers to Oscar front-runners with their latest Everything, Everywhere, All at Once leading all other contenders.  Whether or not it can translate into an Best Picture win is still yet to be seen, but it’s definitely another sign of how far A24 has advanced over the year.

So what has turned A24 into this success story.  One thing that has worked in their favor is having the right kinds of movies and getting them to the right audiences.  Their awards bait fare certainly has the right ingredients to grab the attention of voters, but their other movies that fall outside of Awards season also do their part to connect with the ideal kinds of audiences.  Where A24 has really built their brand the most successfully is with horror movie audiences.  They emerged at the right time when horror fans were growing tired of the slasher flicks and gore fests that were flooding the market over the last few decades.  Most horror films during that time were pandering and often regurgitating old franchises that had long worn out their relevance.  Horror fans wanted to see movies that were challenging and unique again.  A24 found this as a perfect avenue to seek out strange and unsettling horror flicks that could fill that need for new ideas into the genre.  One thing that really distinguished A24 horror flicks was their often more tempered pace.  Their movies didn’t rely on jump scares or buckets of blood, but instead built their horror around atmosphere and unsettling themes.  One of their most famous horror flicks to date is also one for their first in-house productions; the Ari Aster directed Hereditary (2018).  Hereditary showed that a horror movie could be terrifying without cheap tricks like jump scares, and instead have building tension, disturbing imagery, and unforgiving atmosphere be the driving force behind the horror; not to mention incredible performances helping make all that believable as well, including the criminally overlooked Toni Colette.  Aster continued that atmosphere driven horror with his follow-up, Midsommar (2019), another A24 production, and you can see a lot of the studio’s other horror movie output following the same pattern.  Other unconventional horror movies like Gasper Noe’s Climax (2019), Robert Eggers The Lighthouse (2019), and Ti West’s Pearl (2022) have all shown many different faces of horror that has greatly helped to diversify the meaning of horror in recent years, and similar to their like minded horror competitors Blumhouse, they have shown you don’t have to throw a ton of money towards horror movies in order to make them more horrific.  Like with all of A24’s movies, it’s about making movies that are unique, and that drive for uniqueness has helped to make A24 one of the drivers of contemporary horror.

One of the keys to their success has also been in their dedicated working relationship with some of the most unique filmmakers in the business today.  Here is also where their rise in the horror genre has been valuable to their overall brand.  People like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers continue to return to A24 because they know that the studio will gladly put their money behind their oddball ideas for movies.  I’m sure that Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse would’ve been a very hard sell to any other production company in Hollywood; a black and white character study set on a remote island with two loners growing increasingly insane as they tend to a secluded lighthouse.  And yet, it’s a movie that is on brand for A24.  It’s not just among horror filmmakers that they have found committed creative partnerships.  Another auteur filmmaker that has collaborated frequently with A24 is David Lowery.  Lowrey’s filmography is interesting because of how frequently he changes up genres.  His two films with A24 are A Ghost Story (2017) and The Green Knight (2021) and they couldn’t be more different in genre and story, and yet fit very much in the director’s own style.  It’s also interesting that Lowery’s time with A24 coincides with another unexpected creative relationship he has with Disney, as he’s directed Pete’s Dragon (2016) and the upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy (2023) there, again while still maintaining his own unique voice.  A24 is a film company where a little bit of risk is welcomed on the creative end, and that’s what’s helped to attract filmmakers who want to work outside of the Hollywood norms to their label.  They are definitely finding out that curating talent with outside the box ideas is a good strategy for them right now, as The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) have presented them with their biggest hit ever in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.  And it was a wise choice to keep them involved with A24 after their first film, which was also unusual; Swiss Army Man (2016), which featured Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting corpse throughout the whole movie.  A24 managed to miraculously connect that film with an audience, and they reaped the reward of that investment as they secured The Daniels as an exclusive partner in what may now be an awards season juggernaut.

So, can A24 manage to continue staying on top like they are now, or will they inevitably decline like Orion, Miramax, and Dreamworks behind them.  For the first year ever, their output of in-house productions exceeded their distributed titles that they acquired in the festival market.  They are now not just a seeker of unique movies, they are the makers of them from the ground up.  But, growth is difficult to maintain long term.  It’s going to really depend on how much bigger A24 plans to get.  What kinds of movies do they plan on making in the years ahead.  Thus far, their movies have remained relatively modest in terms of their budgets.  Even movies like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once that are ambitious in concept have been made on relatively small budgets.  Is A24 ready to make bigger films; some in the range of $100 million per budget?  No plans for those kinds of movies are in the pipeline now, but A24 is planning on broadening their reach into a variety of different genres, each reaching a different kind of audience.  Last year, they put out their first ever G-Rated movie with Marcel, The Shell With Shoes On, and while it may be too weird of a movie for young audiences, it nevertheless shows that they are willing to make a movie appropriate enough for all audiences.  They are also starting to develop more documentary films as well, lending their brand to a selection of non-fiction filmmaking that likewise also fits outside of the norm.  One thing that has also benefitted them over the years is their forward thinking distribution deals with big streaming platforms.  They started off with DirectTV and Amazon as their go to streamers, but an exclusive deal with Apple in 2018 marked a new phase that has helped them secure funding for a number of projects, including co-productions with Apple just for the Apple TV+ platform.  Things could certainly change, and A24 may lose out their status as a driver of the industry, but there is no doubt that they know what they are doing in this moment, and that’s building an expectation when you see the name A24 on a new film or television show.  They have curated a brand, one that is an indicator of quality built the atypical, and it’s something that they are hopefully going to try to live up to in the years ahead.

What is really interesting about A24 in the grand scheme of things with independent filmmaking is that they’ve managed to build a brand for themselves with the kinds of movies that normally wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the market.  There are some movies out there that are just hard to sell to executives and even more difficult to market to a wide audience.  And yet, A24 has managed to make these types of movies work for them over and over again.  Sure, they’ve wisely avoided movies that are way too big for their modest budgets, but the movies that they have put forward are still no less ambitious in their own way.  The A24 marketing team seems to be especially skilled in knowing exactly how to market the unmarketable, and get people excited for things as strange and challenging as Swiss Army Man, The Lighthouse, or The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  There are up and coming filmmakers out there that are crafting what they see as an A24 style film in the hopes that the open-minded studio will consider their project.  Perhaps the fact that there is a concept of an A24 film buzzing around the industry that may help to keep the studio relevant for some time.  A24 doesn’t need to grow beyond their means like Miramax and Dreamworks have in the past.  Their brand is being atypical to the Hollywood machine, and that enables them to remain defined by modest films as long as they still exhibit a sometimes unusual quality.  To A24’s benefit, the rest of the film industry is taking notice of this, and rewarding the studio with a whole lot of accolades and awards.  It’s also making studios reconsider what an Oscar-worthy movie is now; it’s no longer the star-studded serious minded drama, but rather the movie that demands recognition for defying the standard conventions.  It might just be A24’s time right now, and their style is clicking with both the industry and audiences, but if they continue a commitment towards curating new and fresh voices for years to come, it might be the key to their longevity.  We’ll see how well that plays out at this year’s Oscars, but for now we know that when that A24 logo shows up on the big screen, something bold and unusual is about to follow, and that’s helping to set an example that hopefully changes Hollywood for the better.