September 17, 2017

So they’ve done mermaids, beauties, beasts, genies and lions. But can Disney make a rousing musical about a bespectacled — not to say bediapered — nonviolent historical figure? Well, you’d better wipe that smirk off your face and buckle your seat belt, because nothing has prepared you for the souped-up surprises and adrenaline-jolting thrills of Mohandas!, Disney’s latest no-holds-barred feature animation chronicling the extraordinary life of India’s political and moral leader, Mohandas (The Mahatma) Gandhi.

Historical purists ought to know up front that some small liberties have been taken with the facts; for one thing this Gandhi’s no 97-pound weakling. But rest assured they’re all more than made up for in some absolutely riotous summer entertainment! The tale of Gandhi’s physical make-over is a story in itself. Initially Disney’s animators set out to turn the tables on the traditional image of a frail Gandhi, pumping him way up for fitness-conscious 90’s audiences (insiders say Liam Neeson and Sly Stallone were the chief inspirations) so that he looks more like a bronzed, shirtless Mr. Clean than anything else. To soften the effect, they subsequently incorporated features from Michelangelo’s “David” and later, Oscar Wilde. Still, something seemed to be missing, particularly in the hunger-strike sequences. Somehow Gandhi just wasn’t sitting like a hunger striker. At much publicized expense, Disney flew its animators around the globe in search of the real article. I still don’t know what kind of celluloid sorcery can make cartoons look hungry, but three trips to the concession stand tells me it worked.

In case there’s still someone out there under the age of 90 who hasn’t heard yet, the voice of Mohandas is provided by none other than the self-styled king of pop himself, Michael Jackson. Jackson’s shy, tentative voice, particularly coming from Gandhi’s newlv chiseled torso, seemed incongruous unless one thinks of Mike Tyson. (Yes,they did actually consider him for the part.) But one listen to the singing quickly puts an end to any lingering doubts: the songs are absolutely fantastic. The first of them, a moving coming-of age ballad titled “The Man in the Diaper” is sure to make a blubbering wreck of anyone over the age of four — especially Jeff Katzenberg, who has just got to be eating his heart out. Its liquid riffs and in-your-face lyrics are the ethereal stuff of which Grammys are made:

Won’tcha look beyond my shyness
And my childish pride?
Don’t let this diaper fool ya
I’m a man inside!

There’s also a jazzy Hinduistic number, “We’re All Part of That Great Big Something (So Let’s Not Kill Nothing),” which will have children canwheeling and slap-fighting with one another for years to come.

As one might expect, some politically correct themes are in evidence. For example, Whoopi Goldberg provides the voice of the sassy Sacred Cow, a radical vegetarian and animal-rights advocate who becomes Gandhi’s chief political adviser. The audience I watched this movie with went into hysterics when she saucily declared: “I’m a burger hater, baby. You got a problem with that?” then launches into an over-the-top rap-style number titled “What’s Your Beef?” On her shoulders perch the two reincarnated Jiminy Crickets of this film, a pair of endlessly spatting lovebirds named Tandoori and Vindaloo, who feature the brilliantly — if implausibly–matched voices of George Plimpton and RuPaul.

The boldest liberty taken with the facts of Gandhi’s life is the addition of a tempestuous love affair with the ultra-left-leaning daughter of a pompous and periwigged British magistrate. (Tracey Ullman pulls out all the stops in both parts, though the evil magistrate looks suspiciously like Jeff Katzenberg.) This episode doesn’t add much to the overall story, but the incredibly brutal pillow fight that ends their relationship — and nearly costs Gandhi the use of his lower jaw — is an animation wonder to behold.

Gandhi’s fetish for khadi, homespun cotton cloth, is covered as well: taking a page out of the Beauty and the Beast anthropomorphic-happy book, they’ve got Jackie Mason as an animated and endlessly mugging Schpinning Vheel that spouts Yiddishisms and Borscht Belt one-liners– not to mention the poignant tune “Khadi, Khadi, Khadi on My Mind.” There’s also a — hold onto your hats — leering, animated loincloth! Here, in giving voice to Gandhi’s less noble aspirations, Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey or Robin Williams might have easily stolen the show. Unfortunately all three of them were busy with sequels (Cuckoo’s Nest 11, Dumber and Dumberer and Popeye Returns). One would have still hoped for Dana Carvey, or even Michael Keaton, but instead we end up with Chevy Chase, who panders rather shamelessly to the youngest members of the audience by relying on embarrassingly lowbrow sound effects.

But the one place Mohandas! truly dazzles and outdistances even Disney’s previous animation masterpieces is in the dance sequences, which are downright stunning. Of particular note is the famous 240-mile march to the Dandi seashore to protest the tax on salt, an eye-popping, high-stepping terpsichorean extravaganza that employs a conga line of cobras, two funky jackals that “do the hustle” and a sea of slamdancing, pogoing pachyderms that recalls — and surely outdoes — the famous pirouetting hippos sequence from Fantasia. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Mahatma Gandhi leaping, tap-dancing, break-dancing — and of course, moonwalking — his countrymen toward self-rule and independence. For the premiere, Ben & Jerry’s and Fruitopia are co-sponsoring a Sacred Cow-In in Central Park; Christo’s wrapping the Statue of Liberty in a monster-sized loincloth, and rumors continue to circulate — keep your fingers crossed — of temporarily defrosting Walt! See you real soon!

Originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, 1996