A Look Back at “Mickey’s House of Villains”

Does anyone else remember Mickey’s House of Mouse?  It was a TV show with a fun, wacky premise: Mickey and his fellow “classic” Disney characters (i.e. Minnie, Donald, and Goofy) ran a night club that played old and new Disney cartoons.  The guests could be anyone from the Disney animated films, from Chernabog in Fantasia to Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King, and they would all interact with their hosts, depending on the episode.

It hasn’t aged very well for me- I thought the jokes were hilarious when I was younger, but not so much anymore.  Nonetheless, I love the idea behind it and how it brought all of the Disney characters together under one roof.

As a kid, when I found out that Disney was planning to release a Halloween special in which the villains would team up to take over the House, I just about exploded with excitement!  Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.

Technically, there’s a plot.  It’s Halloween at the House of Mouse, but the villains aren’t having a good time.  Cruella de Vil complains that with Mickey running the club, it’s “all treats and no tricks.”  This year, however, Jafar has a plan: they’re going to wait until midnight and then take over the show.  Unaware of any problems, Mickey kicks off the Halloween party with some spooky cartoons.

Now, a typical episode of House of Mouse involved Mickey presenting his guests with short cartoons starring himself and his friends.  Some of them were old theatrical shorts, and others had been created recently.  That took up a significant portion of each episode.  Yet, from what I remember of the episodes that I saw, there was a balance between how many cartoons we saw vs. the daily antics going on in the House of Mouse.  And sometimes they’d change things up a little, by having the guests watch things like Clarabelle’s gossip rumors.

House of Villains doesn’t have much in the way of balance.  We see Donald trying to scare the guests, Jafar telling the villains they’re going to take over the House at midnight, and then it’s one cartoon right after the other.  There’s no breathers in between.  Mickey announces a cartoon, and then another Halloween cartoon is shown.  It ends, the movie cuts back to the House of Mouse for a split second, and then it’s on to the next cartoon.

And then, forty-five minutes into the movie (keeping in mind that House of Villains is just a little over an hour long), the villains take over.

Yes, the plot doesn’t get started properly until the movie’s more than halfway finished.

AND THEN, with Jafar, Ursula, Cruella de Vil, Hades, and Captain Hook in charge of Mickey’s club, they decide to do…NOTHING!  (Jafar is the proud owner of a Magic Conch Shell, apparently.)  The nice characters get locked in the cafeteria, Mickey gets kicked out, the House gets redesigned to have a sinister red glow, and then Jafar starts showing cartoons again.

Cartoons.

Again.

(Gif found here)

It’s such a shame because the movie had a cool premise and they hardly did anything with it.  Iago accuses the group of being “a bunch of dull villains” in one of the opening scenes.  They don’t exactly prove him wrong here.  Plus, there’s no reason why the Disney heroes couldn’t have lent Mickey a hand.  How did they all get locked in the kitchen so fast?

It is nice getting to see some of the old Halloween cartoons.  The best one stars Goofy in “How to Haunt a House,” followed by the last cartoon that has Mickey and Minnie reenacting “Hansel and Gretel” to the music of “Danse Macabre.”  In that sense, the movie gets me into the spirit of Halloween, so I like watching it in October.  But it’s a guilty pleasure at best.  Plus, any enjoyment that one can get out of the cartoons feels tainted because they’re not what we came to watch.  Disney advertised a big epic showdown between Mickey Mouse and the worst of the Disney villains.  Yet that’s not what we’re getting.

The result?  House of Villains has a nice Halloween vibe at times, but it feels cheaper and lazier than your average direct-to-video Disney sequel.  Last year, I put it on a list of fun Disney movies to watch around Halloween; but after watching it again this year, I think I was being too kind.

If you’d like to experience your favorite Disney villains teaming up to cause havoc, do yourself a favor and play the Kingdom Hearts games instead.  Their plots may be too complicated to follow, but at least they have plots.

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The Plot Twist Villain: Too Much of a Good Thing?

From the moment that the storybook opened in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we knew that Snow White’s stepmother, the Wicked Queen, would live up to her name.

That’s been the case with almost every film in the Walt Disney Animated Canon.  Whether it was the handsome Gaston, the “scary beyond all reason” Yzma, or a collection of characters creating obstacles for the heroes in Pinocchio, we didn’t have to guess the identity of the villains.  They were bad news from the get-go.

But that’s not the case anymore.  For their past three animated features, Disney’s been giving us “the plot twist villain.”

It should go without saying that this will be a very spoiler-heavy post.

For those who care, I will mention details from the plots of the following movies: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2 & 3, Up, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.  If you want to remain completely unspoiled for any one of these films, back out now.

What’s a plot twist villain? That’s what I’m calling the bad guys featured in the latest animated Disney movies. They act like friends, mentors, or even love interests to the protagonists throughout the film. Then, in the third act, the protagonists make a horrifying discovery: that friend, mentor, or love interest was the REAL bad guy all along! Also, there’s usually a character that serves as a red herring, acting like the typical Disney villain so that everybody will feel even more shocked when the twist happens.

However, it’s not so easy to fool your audience when you try to pull off this trick three times in a row.  That’s how the stories unfolded in Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.  As much as I love these movies as a whole, I’m tired of seeing this trick.

Although I wonder, is that fair?  We’ve had at least fifty films in the Disney Animated Canon where the villain was very obvious from the beginning.  So shouldn’t Disney be allowed to make a series of films with plot twist villains for a while?

Maybe, but it’s different when we’re discussing a plot twist because plot twists are meant to be surprising.  When we know to expect a plot twist villain, it takes some of that expected emotional response away.  We automatically ask ourselves, “Okay, who’s the last person we’d expect to see as the villain who isn’t the Hero, Goofy Sidekick, or Love Interest?”  Chances are, you’ll get it right on the first try.  With obvious villains like Maleficent, it doesn’t matter if we get decades and decades of them because we were never meant to be surprised by them.

Then, once the initial shock’s over, what’s left to these plot twist characters?

Individually, I like their motivations and I think if you look at each of the three films on their own, with no additional context, they work very well.  I like how Frozen actually demonstrates why marrying a man you’ve only just met would be a terrible idea instead of simply making fun of the concept like Enchanted did.  I like how Professor Callaghan serves as a foil to Hiro in the ways they handled their grief and anger.  I like how Bellwether starts off as another example of a member of the “prey” class who gets mistreated, and then the movie shows what that can do to a person.

Again, it’s when these movies get released one right after the other, using the exact same type of plot twist three times in a row, that the concept loses its emotional value.

Now, Prince Hans wasn’t necessarily the first “twist” villain in Disney history.  Pixar started it with Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2, the forgotten, unpopular toy who comes across as a voice of reason when Woody’s trying to decide between going to a museum or going back to Andy.  Towards the end of the movie, when Woody chose Andy, he showed his true colors by trying to force Woody to go to Japan instead.

Then, Pixar did it again in Monsters Inc.  Randall’s the main villain throughout the film, but again, in the third act, the heroes learn that he’s been getting help from their boss, Mr. Waternoose.  Previously, Mr. Waternoose acted like a father figure to Sulley.

But after that, they didn’t do it again until Up, with Charles Muntz, and Toy Story 3 with Lotso.

Also, unlike the Hans/Callaghan/Bellwether Trio, these Pixar examples weren’t always the main antagonists.  Compare Big Hero 6, where Krei was an insensitive jerk at worst, to Monsters Inc., where Randall orchestrated the whole evil plan to steal Boo’s screams and convinced Mr. Waternoose to go along with it. In Up, there’s no real villain at all until Muntz shows up, if you don’t count his dogs.

Back in the land of Disney Feature Animation, they also technically have an example before Hans: Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.  He’s part of the crew helping Milo get to Atlantis, and by the third act, Milo learns that he’s a mercenary who wants to steal the Atlanteans’ crystal.  But for some reason, I distinctly remember watching this movie as a kid and thinking, “Okay, that’s the bad guy,” long before his motive was revealed.  I can’t remember if Disney promoted him as the bad guy or not.  Does anybody else?  In any case, he never shared a close relationship with Milo, real or pretend, so his betrayal didn’t hit hard in the way Hans’ betrayal did.

There’s also King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph.  Still, the Disney writers executed the twist to King Candy differently than they did with the twists to the villains in Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.  With the exception of one very well done scene, King Candy never comes across as a good person. He encourages everyone to bully and ostracize Vanellope Von Schweetz. When he gives Ralph his sympathetic reason for doing so, it doesn’t take long for Ralph to realize that he’s lying. His motivation for attacking Vanellope and his real identity are the twists. In the other three films, the twist is simply that these seemingly friendly characters are the real bad guys. That’s pretty much it.

I’m really curious to know whether Disney’s next film, Moana, will have a plot twist villain or not. Based on the synopsis that Disney released, the story doesn’t look like one that would lend itself to a plot twist villain. It doesn’t even look like the kind of movie that would have a real villain. But then again, neither did Up, and Pixar still gave us Charles Muntz.

It’s not easy to write a story. I think most writers try to create scenes and characters that they believe will have the most emotional impact on audiences. So plot twists are particularly fun to write because it’s so satisfying to watch people’s shocked reactions. But I sincerely hope that Disney takes a step back and avoids more plot twist villains for now. When we come into the theater expecting the villain to be a “surprise,” it stops working as an effective plot twist.

I have faith that they’ll figure things out though.  There are no storytellers quite like the Disney artists.  They’ve made a name for themselves for a reason.

UNLESS“Disney” isn’t even a real company anymore…and all those people claiming to be “Disney artists” are actually DREAMWORK EMPLOYEES IN DISGUISE!!!  And they’re trying to monopolize the animation industry by pretending to be different companies!  AHHHHHH, WHAT A SHOCKING TWIST!  We’d better get the Queen of Arendelle, Big Hero 6, and the Zootopian police department on this case immediately.

Musical Monday #30: “I Put a Spell on You” and “Come Little Children”

I was supposed to go to Disney World this October for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, but it didn’t work out.

I am really trying not to feel upset about that right now:

Hats off to the actresses who played the Sanderson Sisters in this show!  They did a fantastic job!

Hocus Pocus fans are still waiting for Disney to officially release these songs; for some reason, they’re not on the soundtrack.  Let’s hope and pray it actually happens if this show is really well-received.  Otherwise, my Halloween playlist will feel incomplete.

We should also feel very grateful that Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker are not real witches with the power to enchant people with their music, or we would all be so, so doomed.  Case in point: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched this YouTube clip.  Yet in the original movie, Winifred uses “I Put a Spell on You” to curse all of the parents in Salem so that they can’t stop dancing.  Thus, they can’t help their children as the Sanderson Sisters try to eat them.  But they’ve got no idea what’s happened because they believe they’re just listening to some very talented singers.  They even happily chant the spell along with Winifred and doom themselves as they bop up and down to the music.  They look so ridiculous, and yet here I am rocking out to the song too!

Before the Dazzlings terrified fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, there were the Sanderson Sisters.  (Come to think of it, is it possible that the writers of MLP took some inspiration from Hocus Pocus?)  In addition to singing “I Put a Spell on You,” they use Sarah’s song, known by fans as “Come Little Children,” to lure their victims to their deaths.  It’s such a terrifying scenario because I think we all know just how effective it could be.  It’s hard to stop listening to a song when the music is so catchy, even when/if we don’t approve of the lyrics.  Winifred never had to use anything like mind control on the people of Salem, because music is that powerful.  If nobody knew any better, what would stop her or her sisters from bewitching everyone in America?  Even if you did know better, would you be able to stop yourself from listening to Bette Midler rock out?  I still can’t!  I’m listening to “I Put a Spell on You” again as I type!  SOMEBODY HELP ME.

Luckily, it’s just a fun movie and there’s nothing truly dangerous about these songs.  We can all kick back and enjoy another viewing of Hocus Pocus this Halloween with nothing to fear.

…right…?

Preliminary Thoughts Before I See “Maleficent”

“With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand either. […]  Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.  Some men just want to watch the world burn.” – Alfred, The Dark Knight

It looks like Maleficent has done very well in its first weekend at the box office, but I haven’t seen it yet.  I have strong mixed feelings about the whole idea.  The special effects look amazing and Angelina Jolie sounds like the most perfect choice to play a live-action Maleficent.  She’s got the laugh down and everything.  It’s just…the whole “dark re-imagining of that classic fairytale you grew up with” with a touch of “sympathetic backstory and characteristics for the villain you loved to hate” is a recent cinematic trend and I’m already tired of it.

On the one hand, from a broad perspective, I realized I can appreciate the whole “let’s make the princesses action heroes so we can congratulate ourselves for being feminist” and “let’s readapt these classic stories to reflect our modern, enlightened values,” not because I think it’s feminist or enlightened, but because it’s a reflection of Western values at this point in time.  From a historical standpoint, that makes these movies fascinating.  Future generations will be able to analyze what we produced today the way we look at movies from past decades and books from specific periods of history.  Popular art may not speak for everybody, but it does give clues about the kind of people that found it entertaining.

So in that sense, I think movies like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and Mirror, Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz the Great and Powerful, and now Maleficent are very interesting.  I even liked those first two movies when I watched them.  But the whole idea bugs me for several reasons: 1) the attitude expressed when promoting these films feels, at least to me, like the people involved are trying to “fix” the original story.  Snow White and Cinderella just waited around for their princesses to come, so let’s turn them into action heroes this time around!  That’ll make them COOL!  Maleficent didn’t have any real motivation to curse Aurora, so let’s give her a backstory!  And 2) I know we need to have a greater variety of female characters beyond the Love Interest, but “updating” the classic princess characters to over-the-top action heroes implies that there’s something wrong with women who don’t want to be action heroes.  More variety ought to mean more variety, not a choice between two extremes.

When I played Kingdom Hearts for the first time, I didn’t think much of Maleficent.  I knew she tended to be the go-to villain that Disney used to lead the others whenever there was a crossover: Fantasmic, Kingdom Keepers, and then Kingdom Hearts.  I couldn’t figure out why.  She didn’t seem that interesting.  She was just another ambitious villain who wanted to destroy the heroes and conquer the worlds.  Then I watched Sleeping Beauty and my opinion changed faster than the color of Aurora’s dress.

No, Maleficent has no “real” motivation for cursing Aurora in the animated film.  (Last time I checked, however, there ISN’T any good reason to curse a baby.)  She just says she was “rather distressed at not receiving an invitation” to the celebration of Aurora’s birth.  But she doesn’t sound very distressed when she says that.  She’s grinning throughout the whole scene.  She didn’t care about getting an invitation.  She didn’t scheme to steal the throne from King Stefan.  She just wanted to ruin everyone’s lives.

That’s what makes Maleficent so memorable and scary.

Maleficent reminds me of the Joker, especially Alfred’s speech about the Joker in The Dark Knight.  She’s a terrifying villain because the characters can’t reason with her.  She doesn’t want any money from them; there’s nothing they can give her.  She wants to watch them suffer and she’s got the brains and the magic power to make it happen.  She doesn’t need a backstory to be interesting.  The fact that someone even wanted to make a movie exploring her character proves that she left a strong impression on people who watched Sleeping Beauty.  That’s why I got irritated when I read an article from Entertainment Weekly that shrugged off animated Maleficent’s goal as “pretty thin” and “shallow.”  Yes, it is shallow.  That’s the point.  She found an excuse to use her evil powers and she took full advantage of it.  Disney didn’t need to give anyone an explanation about it.

Sometimes no explanation is more effective.  It’s definitely scarier.

A Look at the Disney Pirate, Part 2: The “Treasure Island” Adaptations

Remember this? 😀  I haven’t forgotten about it; it just took me a long time to summarize my thoughts on three movies in one post.  But they’re all based on Treasure Island, so I didn’t want to be redundant and write individual posts on each one.

In Disney’s multiple takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island, we see a slight change from the way pirates are shown in Peter Pan.  For the most part, they’re still ruthless villains with no sympathetic sides to be found, but the relationship that Jim Hawkins has with Long John Silver grows more complex with each new adaptation.

The many faces of Long John Silver, played by Robert Newton, Tim Curry, and Brian Murry (Pictures taken from the Disney Wiki, Muppet Wiki, and IMDb)

I’ll admit that I’ve only just started reading the book, but having watched all three movies, I think I’ve got a pretty good gist of the story: a notorious pirate, named Captain Flint, buried a legendary treasure on an island, but nobody knows where it is.  That is, nobody knows until a dying member of Flint’s crew, Billy Bones, passes the map to the protagonist, Jim Hawkins.  Jim turns the map over to his friends, Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livingston, who decide to undertake a secret voyage to find the treasure.  But like all important secrets, the story leaks out anyway.

As the crew gets closer to the island, Jim discovers that one of his closest friends on the voyage, Long John Silver, is actually a pirate who served under Captain Flint.  In fact, most of the crew consists of pirates that Silver hired in the hopes of stealing the treasure.  Jim, Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livingston, Captain Smollet, and the rest of the loyal crew have to find a way to defend themselves and the map once they reach the island.

As I said before, there’s no real question in this story about the morality of pirating; they’re clearly the bad guys, no matter what version we’re watching.  But the exception to the rule has always been Long John Silver.

Disney’s first live-action treatment portrays Silver and Jim much like it plays out in the book: as soon as Jim learns the truth about Long John’s loyalties, he cuts off all emotional ties to the pirate and rejects the offer to keep Silver’s parrot once the adventure comes to an end.  While he’s certainly hurt by the betrayal, he doesn’t dwell on it beyond, “Oh my God, my buddy/mentor is actually a vicious murderous pirate!  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

It’s Muppet Treasure Island that changes the dynamic between the two characters by giving Jim “Daddy issues.”  It’s implied that his father died at sea (in the book he has a nervous breakdown and dies after taking Billy Bones in), and Jim idolizes him.  So when Jim forms his inevitable connection to Long John, he idolizes him too and takes the betrayal hard.

Treasure Planet takes thing up to yet another level: in this version, Jim’s father walked out on the family before the story begins.  So Jim is very hostile towards Silver, but as Silver grows to care about Jim he becomes a much better mentor figure than Mr. Hawkins ever was.  When the pirate’s true reasons for coming on the voyage are revealed, Jim takes the betrayal very hard.  But, to make a long, complicated story short, they find a way to mend the fences and Jim lets Silver sneak away as they return to their home port.  He even accepts Silver’s pet Morph, in direct contrast to the book and the original Disney version of Treasure Planet.

Why does Silver’s character grow more sympathetic with each adaptation?  I think it’s mostly a product of our changing times and values.  Nowadays, we tend to either like bad guys who are so evil that they’re fun to watch (like the Joker or Voldemort) or we want to see bad guys that redeem themselves.  (Usually this is in direct proportion to how handsome or charismatic they are.  Just saying.)  We want to know why they do the horrible things that they do, and if the writers give them enough of a sympathetic motive, then gosh darnit to heck, we find ourselves wanting them to win!  And it’s gotten to the point where, if a story doesn’t show more than one side to a villain, said villain risks getting labelled as flat and one-dimensional.  Long John Silver has always been a popular, charismatic villain, so giving him some humanity and implying that maybe, just maybe, he actually does care about Jim, appeals very much to modern audiences.  We eat it up like a bowl of double fudge brownie ice cream!

Nonetheless, Long John Silver remains morally ambiguous in every Disney Treasure Island adaptation, and while they’ve turned him into a more sympathetic character, he’s got nothing on the pirates we’ll be looking at in the next two posts.  Stay tuned!