You want to know how I spent my New Years this year? What the first movie I threw on the TV was after bidding adieu to 2021? For as much as I love The Criterion Channel and Mubi and every other streaming service like it, it was Disney+ that I went to in order to get 2022 off on the right foot. Sometimes what you really need is a song and a dance and a good cry, and Disney’s premiere streaming service has all three in spades.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
New years are great opportunities to reflect on not only where we’re going, but where we’ve been. And as is often the case with such matters, the beginning is the very best place for one to start: in this case, the beginning of Disney’s run of animated features way back before any of us (I assume) were born. This colorful, gorgeously-rendered fairy tale set the mold that the company has only recently begun to diverge from (the kind of mold that other countries, like China, are gleefully adopting when it comes to their own national mythologies). And I’ll be damned if everything about it just works. It’s a little dated, I’ll grant, and its seems certainly show when compared with what came in its wake, but the bones of the film are as strong as ever, and its charms would certainly not be wasted on a new generation of budding cinephiles that happens to come upon it.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Before Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man (2008), superhero movies were rather slim pickings. Sure, you had a few classics like Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), but they were few, far between and of wildly different levels of quality. This led to a few interesting genre entries that ran well astray of the usual DC vs Marvel rivalries. The best of these was probably Disney’s The Rocketeer, which combined the basic precepts of Iron Man with the then-emerging trend of turn-of-the-century pulp adaptations (think The Shadow, The Mask of Zorro and The Phantom). The result is a genuinely fun, mid-century action romp with trick fliers, gangsters and Nazi spies. It’s a great deal of fun, and something that anybody who’s seen Iron Man more than a couple of times could stand to put on for a delightful change of pace every once in a while.
I love Encanto (2021), don’t you? The colorful characters, the lived-in family dynamics, those earworm musica; numbers. When you stop and think about it, the only thing wrong with it is that there isn’t more of these things to dig into after your third or fourth rewatch (or, if you have children, seventh, eighth and ninth rewatches). I mean, we have four Toy Stories, three Aladdins and two Frozens, but only just the one adventure for Mirabel and her familia to go on. That doesn’t exactly sound fair, now does it? Fortunately, we can cheat a little bit on that front with this monochromatic Pixar joint, which hits a lot of the same emotional beats that Encanto hit so well. Whereas Encanto thoroughly steeped itself in family drama and its richly realized characters, Up is more of a rip-roaring pulp adventure about a man starting over with a newly found family. The emotional whallop comes so early in this one, however – and everything that comes afterwards is so lightly viewed – that it’s actually pretty easy to overlook this as something of a lesser Pixar entry, but the film has earned every inch of the praise once heaped on it (not the least of which is as one of the best films of 2009).
Into the Woods (2014)
I had a too-cute-by-half reason for including this movie on the list, but the truth of the matter is just that I really like Into the Woods and wanted to watch it again while the urge had a hold of me. An eminently fun and funny adaptation of an equally enjoyable stage show, the film slots comfortably between Enchanted (2007) and the Frozen movies in Disney’s knowing, post-modern princess canon: cheekily dressing down the kinds of family-friendly fantasies that Disney themselves popularized starting in the 1930s while also playing into some of their strongest and most generationally beloved beats. The characters are all buoyantly written, the songs are all infinitely hummable and this may very well be the only time in history that James Corden was even remotely tolerable on-screen. Far better than you remember it being, this is the pithy little princess movie that deserves a second look on Disney’s stuffed-to-the-gills streaming service.
The Eternals (2021)
The internet, it seems, will never stop rooting for one of these bulletproof Marvel projects to fail. And, sure, if a $402 million global take during the middle-years of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and decidedly more mixed-to-positive reviews than the MCU is generally used to seeing is what constitutes “failing,” then I guess The Eternals is guilty as charged. However, now that the online frenzy surrounding this colorful, idiosyncratic and thoroughly nuanced tale of Marvel’s new off-brand Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has settled and those of us who elected to wait out the pandemic in our living rooms have a chance of catching up with it, I’d wager that a great many new fans of the franchise are going to discover one of the deeply interesting studio movies of this last year.
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