You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Feature films’ category.

Directors: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: February 7, 1940
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Pinocchio © Walt Disney‘Pinocchio’ was Walt Disney’s long awaited successor to his hugely successfully first animated feature ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Its release was beaten by Max Fleischer’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, making ‘Pinocchio’ the third animated feature made in the United States.

In many ways ‘Pinocchio’ is a much darker affair than both earlier films. In fact, in many ways the feature is Disney’s darkest film, not only due to its deep oil canvases, but also because none of its villains are punished.

The film starts merrily enough, though, and the first 26 minutes take place in the cozy home of gentle woodcarver Geppetto, where his countless original cuckoo clocks, based on drawings by Albert Hurter, provide a lovely background. But as soon as Pinocchio leaves his house troubles start, and his predicaments go from bad to worse. And perhaps Geppetto might have known. I’ve always thought it strange to let the boy go to school on his own on his very first day of existence…

The dark atmosphere the film of course shares with the original book by Carlo Collodi from 1882, with which it also shares its episodic character. But Disney made the character entirely his own. Pinocchio’s design is cute and childlike, not the gaunt wooden puppet of many earlier illustrations of the book. This child-like design was developed by Milt Kahl, and surpassed an earlier, less appealing design by Fred Moore. This incidentally marked the start of the latter animator’s demise. Where Collodi’s Pinocchio was an obnoxious rascal, made out of some stubborn wood, Disney’s Pinocchio is a tabula rasa, an innocent child not yet corrupted by society. Indeed, the fairy’s task, to let his conscience be his guide, is seriously tested once Pinocchio enters the real world.

Pinocchio’s conscience is personified by Jiminy Cricket, a Disney invention based on a minor character from the book, which in the original all too soon is smacked against the wall. Jiminy Cricket is spared that fate, however, and in many ways is even made the main protagonist of the film. This little insect, developed and predominantly animated by Ward Kimball, is far less recognizable as an insect than the grasshopper had been in ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ (1934). Jiminy looks more like a tiny man, with his antenna looking more like two hairs. This design would resurface in that of Bootle Beetle, introduced in 1947.

It’s Jiminy Cricket who sings the famous opening tune, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, which leads us to the little cricket himself, who introduces us to the story, as he opens the book for us, and we literally hop with him to Geppetto’s toy shop. He’s voiced by Cliff Edwards, who in the 1920s enjoyed a famous career as ‘Ukelele Ike’, but whose career since then had been in a steady decline. ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ alone ensured him eternal fame, and the lovely tune would become Walt Disney’s signature tune from then on. Edwards gave the little insect cheerful lines, and rather modern remarks that makes us connect to the otherwise otherworldly story. Jiminy Cricket also shows a rather mundane interest in dames. He’s not only clearly impressed by the blue fairy, who indeed looks like a glamorous Hollywood girl, but also in the French can can dancing puppets who share the stage with Pinocchio in Stromboli’s theater. Jiminy Cricket surely is a lovable character, and it’s hardly surprising that he was reused again in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ to bridge that film’s two stories, even though he seems quite out of place there.

Apart from Jiminy, the film is stuffed with great characters, most notably the cute kitten Figaro and his female goldfish companion, Cleo, also two Disney originals. Cleo is the direct ancestor of the sexy fish in the Arabian Dance of the Nutcracker Suite-sequence in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). They, too, would return to the screen in a short called ‘Figaro and Cleo’ (1943), after which Figaro was coupled to Pluto to star three more cartoons. ‘Pinocchio’ remained unique in this spawning of shorts, with ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) being the first Disney feature to do the same.

The villains, too, are delightful. The first rogues Pinocchio encounters are the petty criminals Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat. Norm Ferguson and John Lounsberry animate the duo with gusto, and the interplay between fox and cat is full of delightful classic vaudeville routines. More evil than those is the explosive puppeteer Stromboli, whose temper matches his name, taken after the Italian volcano. Stromboli is animated by Bill Tytla, and in a way he’s a variation on Grumpy in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Like Art Babbit’s Geppetto, he’s halfway cartoon and realism, showing the animator’s grown confidence with the human form, and like Ferguson’s Fox and Cat, his moves are broad and theatrical, and they have a charming quality despite the menace.

Not so with the fourth criminal, the sinister coachman. His menace is downplayed, except from one frightening outburst, making him all the scarier. The coachman takes Pinocchio to pleasure island, where things turn very dark indeed. In many ways the pleasure island episode forms the abyss of an already pretty dark film. On the ride to the isle Pinocchio immediately befriends Lampwick, delightfully animated by Fred Moore, who may be naughty, but who remains sympathetic throughout. His metamorphosis into a donkey is therefore a moment of genuine horror, and like the one metamorphosis scene in Snow White absolutely the scariest moment in the entire movie.

Pinocchio manages to escape Pleasure Island, and even manages to return home, only to find it empty, and even covered by cobwebs, as if he had been gone for months. This is very incongruous, as he had only been away for two days… Anyway, in a rather deus ex machina-like scene a dove delivers our heroes a letter stating that while looking for Pinocchio Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale. This weak story device is luckily easily forgotten, for this leads to the first moment in which Pinocchio takes matters in his own hand, bravely jumping into the sea without any reluctance. The subsequent sea scenes form the second incongruity in the film: we watch Pinocchio wander with ease on the sea floor, but his sea adventures end with his drowning…

At sea, Pinocchio meets his final adversary, that tour-the-force of villainy, Monstro. In the original book the puppet got swallowed by a shark, but the Disney studio made it into a very large whale. Like the whale in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Whalers’ (1938), which by all means looks like a study for this film, Monstro is a strange combination of a sperm whale and a finback, blown up to really gargantuan proportions. This leviathan is able to devour complete ships and shoals of tuna. It’s admirable that the film manages to feature both such a tiny character as Jiminy and this giant whale. Monstro absolutely dominates every scene in which he’s in, and his moves, by Woollie Reitherman, are a stunning effort of animation of force and weight, greatly helped by a multitude of effects animation. In any case Monstro’s chase of our heroes accounts for a stunning finale, crowning the already breathtaking film.

The abundance of effect animation give ‘Pinocchio’ a stunning look anyhow. For example, all characters are airbrushed with lovely shadings, the blue fairy is strangely translucent, and there are great water effects during Pinocchio’s walk on the sea floor. All these extras give the film an extra luxuriant look, only matched by the Silly Symphony ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ (1939) and by ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

The staging, too, is often no less than stunning. Especially Pinocchio’s village are given two extraordinary bird eye’s view pan shots, based on designs by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren: the first starts with doves flying from a bell tower, which leads us to an elaborate shot through the village, showing it to be full of life. The second follows Honest John and Gideon leading Pinocchio to a career in the theater, on the delightful tune of Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee. Jiminy Cricket’s small size also accounts for some very original settings, like the detailed billiard table. All these settings were painted in rich oil canvases, which replaced the lighter water color backgrounds of ‘Snow White’.

Apart from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’, the film features two other delightful songs, all composed by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington: ‘Give A Little Whistle’, and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’. However, when events turn dark, the songs disappear from the screen.

When compared to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Pinocchio’ is easily the better film. Unfortunately, like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ ‘Pinocchio’ suffered from an unfavorable comparison to ‘Snow White’ and from the cut of the European market due to World War II. Thus the film was far less successful at the box office than hoped. ‘Pinocchio’ had cost the studio 2,6 million dollars, and by the spring of 1940 the studio was no less than $4,5 million in debt. This prompted the Disney brothers to go to the stock market. This was a successful move, and allowed the Disney studio to complete and distribute ‘Fantasia’. However, it also marked the end of an era, and when ‘Fantasia’ too, proved to be a financial disappointment, it was clear that Disney’s golden days were over. In that respect, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ form the crowning achievements of a stunning career that had begun so humbly with ‘Plane Crazy’ twelve years before.

Watch ‘Pinocchio’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Advertisements

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 22, 1939
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Gulliver's Travels © Max Fleischer

Following the huge success of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ other Hollywood animation studios considered the making of an animated feature themselves. In the end, only the Fleischer studio really attempted it, persuaded by their distributor, Paramount.

In fact, the Fleischers’ plans for a feature film dated back to as early as 1934, and the three Popeye two-reelers (‘Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor’, ‘Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp‘) can be regarded as exercises in the longer format. Nevertheless, it was the enormous success of Disney’s first feature that prompted Paramount to demand a Christmas feature from the Fleischer animation studio.

To achieve this, the Fleischers moved to a completely new studio in Miami, Florida, and hired a lot of new personnel, including Snow White veterans like animators Grim Natwick, Al Eugster and Shamus Culhane. This huge undertaking resulted in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, becoming America’s second animated feature, beating Disney’s second feature, ‘Pinocchio‘, by more than a month.

As often, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ only depicts the first part from Swift’s famous book: Gulliver’s visit to the island of Lilliput. Indeed, the film seems to take considerable inspiration from the Soviet adaptation ‘The New Gulliver’ (1934), which looks surprisingly similar. Nevertheless, the story deviates mostly from Swift’s book, focusing on two kings who quarrel over a song to be played at their children’s wedding, instead. This quarrel and the discovery of Gulliver by a night watchman called Gabby completely take up the first part of the film. In fact, Gulliver only awakes halfway the feature!

Only after Gulliver’s rise the film gains some momentum, being otherwise surprisingly slow. For example, the scene in which the civilians find Gulliver and tie him up lasts no less than a quarter of an hour, one-fifth of the complete film. Luckily, in the second half there’s some suspense, when three spies conspire to kill Gulliver with his own gun, and Gulliver tries to reconcile the two estranged kingdoms.

Unfortunately, Gulliver and the wedding couple, Princess Glory and Prince David, never become real characters. Glory and David are clearly based on Snow White and Prince Charming, and they are even blander than the originals. Their semi-realistic designs are devoid of character, and only after 70 minutes they utter a little dialogue. One just doesn’t care about them. Gulliver, on the other hand, looks good – especially the coloring and shading on him is very well done, with the night banquet scene as a particular highlight. Yet, his realistic design and hi slow, rotoscoped movements don’t blend well with the cartoony inhabitants of Lilliput. And he, too, is surprisingly devoid of character.

In fact, only three protagonists have clear characters: king Little, king Bombo, and the omnipresent Gabby, who must be regarded as the film’s star, even though he fails as a comic relief, and lacks a story of his own. Indeed, the film’s best comical scene doesn’t feature Gabby, but goes to the three spies trying to think of a plan to kill Gulliver. This is great silent comedy, unmatched by the rest of the film.

Together with ‘Pinocchio’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ can be regarded as the epitome of 1930s aesthetics. The feature is very well made, with beautiful background art, very much influenced by that of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, beautiful coloring and shading, and spectacular effect animation, especially in the storm scene with which the film opens. The animation belongs to the best ever produced at the Fleischer studio, and certainly is the most Disney-like. Yet, at the same time the animation fails to reach the heights of the Walt Disney studio, and at times is over-excessive, for example in the scene in which King Bombo remembers his friendship with King Little. The songs, too, are pleasant, but nothing more than that. Most catchy is ‘It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day’, a clear attempt to give the film its own ‘Whistle While You Work’. More impressive than the songs, however, is the lush score by Victor Young.

In all, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is a beautiful film, but a slow one, and with a story that fails to catch the audience. Indeed, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ doesn’t stand the comparison to its model, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and it was only a small success upon release. What certainly didn’t help was that World War II had broken out in Europe, depleting the film of a huge foreign market. These problems of course also troubled Disney’s own ‘Pinocchio’, released in February 1940.

Despite the film’s modest profits, the Fleischers decided to make another feature to keep their enormous organisation at work (resulting in the 1941 release ‘Mr. Bug goes to Town’). This economically unhealthy path would eventually lead to their downfall.

Watch ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is available on the Thunderbean Blu-Ray/DVD set ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’. All other copies are considerably inferior to this one and should be avoided.

Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date:
 March 2, 1933
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, King Kong
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

King Kong © Universal‘King Kong’ is, of course, a live action movie, but I follow Andrew Osmond in including the film in the animation canon, as it is the first live action movie to feature an animated star – indeed Kong gets star billing in the opening credits, after the live action actors. The feature is also arguably the first live action movie in which animation is used not incidentally, but extensively, to the point of dominating several scenes.

‘King Kong’ is the father of all monster movies, and much of animator Willis O’Brien’s animation can be regarded as spectacular special effects, but in his portrayal of Kong himself O’Brien has put a surprisingly amount of character. Especially Kong’s death scene is astonishing. There’s real tragedy and sadness in Kong’s eyes and in his last caresses of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, the first of all scream queens). This is no mere feat, as character animation was still unheard of at the time – even Walt Disney was not that far – and it would take stop motion artists several years to reach a similar sense of emotional depth.

Most of the film, however, is not as much about emotion as well as thrills. The film’s main focus is to thrill the audience, and as soon as Ann Darrow is kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island, it does so relentlessly. The complete island is one big threat to the hapless crew that tries to regain Ann from the giant ape. But also to Ann and Kong themselves, for Kong has to rescue his human love interest no less than three times: from a large Tyrannosaurus rex, from a Plesiosaurus, which moves remarkably comfortably on land like a snake, and from a Pteranodon. This results in three fights, in which O’Brien can show off his skills. Especially the first fight is magnificent. It’s surprisingly lengthy, and it has a real sense of effort, with both forceful animals fighting for their lives. O’Brien also animates a surprisingly lifelike Stegosaurus, and a sauropod that strangely enough has gone carnivorous. And, of course, the girl, some other people, and the planes, at times, when in interaction with Kong.

Obviously not all the 1933 special effects have stood the test of time, but the trick photography is surprisingly good, and at times live action and animation blend into each other seamlessly. Some scenes are no less than astounding in this respect, even after all these years: a good example is a scene depicting Kong handling a tree trunk on which several crew members are clung. One really does believe the animated figure handles the tree trunk, which is filmed in live action. O’Brien has managed to bring a great sense of weight into Kong’s actions.

Another wonderful example of great blending of animation and live action is Kong peeling off Ann Darrow’s dress. This scene is a little erotic, and deepens Kong’s simple and playful character. Of course, O’Brien was not solely responsible for Kong’s portrayal. At times we see close-ups of Kong’s face, which is a giant non-animated model, and some scenes feature a large, mechanical hand. Nevertheless, most of Kong’s appeal is due to O’Brien’s animation. And the big ape has appeal! Indeed, the film is so iconic that Kong is still pretty famous today.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the movie have aged well. For example, the natives, all portrayed by black people, are pretty backward, and even worse is Charlie, the Chinese cook, who is as cliche as possible, and who even cannot talk right. But the film succeeds in being a real thrill ride, and Fay Wray manages to squeeze more feelings in her one-dimensional role than one would expect. The other actors are less interesting, and pale when compared to O’Brien’s classic creation.

The film’s last 18 minutes take place in New York, and these scenes really make the film into the ancestor of all monster movies, with Kong wandering the streets, causing havoc, and crushing a subway car. However, Kong’s final scene on top of the Empire State Building changes the monster into an utterly tragic figure. Even Mark Steiner’s score, which follows the action closely, adds to the feeling, turning into sadder themes when Kong nears his end. The sole scene elevates the film above most of its successors. And it’s this particular scene, in which Kong battles the aeroplanes on top of the Empire State Building, that provides the movie’s most iconic picture.

Watch an excerpt from ‘King Kong’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

Directors: Robert Zemeckis (live action) & Richard Williams (animation)
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Stars: Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, Bob Hoskins, Jessica Rabbit, Christopher Lloyd, Yosemite Sam, Dumbo, Hyacinth Hippo, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Betty Boop, Goofy, Droopy, Tweety, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Koko the Clown, Pinocchio, Woody Woodpecker, Pete, Porky Pig a.o.
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Who-Framed-Roger-Rabbit © Touchstone PicturesVery rarely a film comes out that raises great expectations, but also lives up to it. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is such a picture.

Brought to us by golden team of film entertainment professionals, producing company Walt Disney, executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ stands among the great fantasy films of the 1980s.

More importantly, however, it heralded a renaissance in the animation world after ca. 20-25 dark years, in which animation got cheaper, lousier, more commercial and more and more directed at kids. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ showed that once there was a golden age of animation, in which animation was impressive, massively funny and directed at adults. The film clearly pays homage that period. For example, the Baby Herman cartoon with which the film starts, combines Disney-like elongated prop-gags with Tex Averyan takes and Tom & Jerry-like cartoon violence. Indeed, Tom & Jerry seem to be the cartoon’s biggest influence with its household setting, fast pacing and violent takes on Roger.

The film renewed the attention for the golden age (roughly 1930-1955) and spawned a new era, in which Disney found inspiration again. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is one of the least typical Disney-features Disney ever made, and the introduction of Warner Bros./MGM-like cartoon humor was a great injection for the company, resulting in genuinely fast and funny animation in its own features, most notably in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and ‘Hercules’ (1997).

Moreover, in the age following the movie, TV-animation suddenly got interesting (Nickelodeon with series like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, Cartoon Network with series like Cow & Chicken and Dexter’s Laboratory), and animation returned to evening television, aimed at adults (The Simpsons, Duckman, South Park). For people like me, who had grown up in the deserts of 1970s and 1980s this change in perception of what animation was and could be was very welcome, and in my perception it all began with this film.

‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is not only a milestone, however, it’s a hugely entertaining movie itself, with a strong plot and great scenes. The animation, led by Richard Williams, is pre-computer, but an enormous improvement on similar earlier films combining animation with live action (e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros‘, ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Elliott and the dragon’). Not only are the character animated very well, they’re staged stunningly fluently, following the camera, and they’re shaded like they are actually in the set, giving them a 3D quality like no cartoon character in a live-action setting ever had before.

This sense of the cartoon characters being in the same space as the actors is greatly helped by an endless string of very convincing special effects, using real props. For example the weasel gang leader handles a real gun, and when he splashes water, the water is real, too. Meanwhile, of course, the characters remain drawn on cells. To contemporary eyes there’s a great lesson here, in that cartoon characters needn’t be animated in 3D to get a real sense of existential body…

Part of the fun of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ of course, is the presence of several classic cartoon stars, coming from different animation studios and appearing for the first (and only) time together in one film. It’s a great pleasure to watch Disney characters (a.o. Donald and Mickey) appearing together with Warner Bros. characters (a.o. Daffy, Bugs, Tweety, Yosemite Sam), MGM (Droopy) and even from former Disney-rival Fleischer (Betty Boop, and for a brief moment Koko). Only Walter Lantz’s star Woody Woodpecker doesn’t get the screen time he deserves, and Popeye and Hanna & Barbera’s Tom & Jerry are notably absent. The fun is raised by the presence of two of the original voice talents, Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety & Porky Pig) and Mae Questel (Betty Boop).

However, the film’s own stars are hardly less entertaining. Roger Rabbit, voiced by Charles Fleischer, easily carries the film, and Jessica Rabbit is not only a female attraction, but a wonderfully subtle character, with great lines like ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way‘. The live action stars are equally strong, most notably Bob Hoskins, who brings a very subtle tragic edge to his cynical character Eddie Valiant, the film’s starring role.

The story has surprisingly critical overtones, with its plot circling around the loss of Los Angeles public transport in favor of freeways, something that really happened in the late 1940s (the showing of ‘Goofy Gymnastics‘ places the film’s time setting firmly in 1949). Judge Doom’s vision of what the freeway looks like is the film’s most cynical moment. Especially when his lifeless vision of commerce, cheapness and efficiency is placed against the loss of Toontown – symbol of fun, creativity and the extras of life.

In all, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is a great film, a classic which doesn’t fail to entertain. It was not the first film to blend cartoon stars in the real world (the idea is almost as old as animation itself, going all the way back to ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (who interacted with her creator Winsor McCay in a theater), or Fleischer’s Out of the inkwell films from the 1910s) – nor was it the last (less successful successors include ‘Cool World’ from 1992 and ‘Space Jam’ from 1996), but it is arguably the best in its kind. It’s questionable whether we’ll see a film like this again, as nowadays there’s a tendency of recreating cartoon characters in 3D, with ‘The Smurfs’ (2011) as the most appalling example.

Watch the trailer for ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: René Laloux
Release Date: January 28, 1988
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Gandahar © René Laloux‘Gandahar’ was to be René Laloux’s last feature, and like his former two feature films, ‘La planète sauvage‘ (1973) and ‘Les maîtres du temps‘ (1982), it’s a science fiction film set on a strange planet.

The film is especially related to ‘Les maîtres du temps’. Not only in visual style, but also with its story line involving mindless oppressors and time travelling. This time we’re on the paradise-like planet Gandahar, which is suddenly attacked by a powerful, yet unknown force. Soldier Sylvain is send away to find out who these enemies are…

‘Gandahar’ is the least successful of Laloux’s features. Its story, based on a 1969 novel by Jean-Pierre Andrevon, is entertaining enough, but the film’s narrative style is terrible. Practically everything that’s happening is explained by the main characters to us, even when we as viewers had come to our own conclusions. This is most preposterous in an early scene in which Sylvain finds his love interest Airelle, who immediately exclaims she’s falling in love with our hero. This must be one of the worst love scenes ever put to the animated screen.

The film’s ultimate villain is rather surprising, as is his downfall, even though he’s killed off ridiculously easily. Strangely enough the creature is given a long death scene, before the film abruptly ends. We don’t even watch Sylvain reunite with his love interest! Not that we did care, anyway, for the film’s main protagonists are as characterless as possible.

It’s a pity, for the film’s aesthetics are quite okay for a 1980s film. The animation, by a North-Korean studio, is fair, if not remarkable, and the designs by French comic book artist Philippe Caza are adequately otherwordly. Sure, he’s no Moebius, let alone a Roland Topor, and he never reaches the strangeness of the latter’s fantastic planet from 1973. In fact the film rarely succeeds in escaping the particularly profane visual style of the 1980s (e.g. ‘Heavy Metal’). Most interesting are the backgrounds, and Gabriel Yared’s musical score, which is inspired and which elevates the film to a higher level.

Watch ‘Gandahar’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 3, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Alice © Jan SvankmajerOf all classic literature, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is certainly the most dreamlike, and it’s no wonder that it came to the attention of Czech master surrealist Jan Švankmajer.

Already in 1971 he had made a film on Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, but arguably, this film has little to do with the poem. ‘Alice’ continues the surreal atmosphere of his earlier film and remains faithful to the book.

‘Alice’ was Jan Švankmajer’s first feature length film, and it really shows his craft and strikingly original vision. It is one of the best, probably the most original, and certainly the most disturbing film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world famous book. In any case, it’s among the best animated features of all time.

Where the Walt Disney version focused on the loony, fantastic parts of the story, Švankmajer emphasizes its irrational, surreal character. Švankmajer puts the story in a setting completely his own. Although the film opens with the classic opening near the brook, after the titles, the action takes place mostly indoors, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere typical for this film, only matched by Švankmajer’s second feature film, ‘Faust’ (1994). In Švankmajer’s film ‘wonderland’ consists of an endless string of dirty old rooms, connected by many doors and desks with drawers, all of which the knob comes off. Even the lovely garden is no more than a stage with props.

The drawer knobs form the running gag in a movie which is low on humor, but high on unsettling and impressive images, starting with the stuffed rabbit suddenly coming to life and smashing the glass of its glass display with its scissors. Other highly memorable scenes are the stuffed rabbit eating sawdust, which falls out again its open belly; the mouse cooking on Alice’s head, the room of hole-digging socks; and the mindless and mechanical repetition of the mad tea-party scene, timed to perfection.

Švankmajer’s wonderland is a morbid world. Its inhabitants are stuffed animals, dolls, playing cards, and even a bunch of macabre fantasy creatures, oddly joined together from body parts from different animals and lifeless objects, and which form a real threat to the little girl. In this world, anything can become alive, as demonstrated by e.g. Alice’s own socks. At the same time, Alice remains the only really living thing, and even she turns into a doll three times. Death, too, is near: at one point in the film we see the mouse, still in his clothes, caught by a mousetrap, dead. And in Švankmajer’s wonderland, the queen of heart’s orders are executed, and several characters are decapitated, including the mad hatter and the march hare…

‘Alice’ uses a perfect blend of stop motion and live action, and has an excellent protagonist in young actor Kristýna Kohoutová. If the film has one flaw, it must be the girl’s voice, which provides all the dialogue and narration. It’s often unwelcome and out of place, and it doesn’t really work well in dialogue-rich scenes, like the mad tea scene or the trial scene.

Švankmajer is at his best when the action is silent and the images speak for themselves. These scenes are greatly added by superb sound design, provided by Ivo Špalj and Robert Jansa, which add to the creepy, wretched atmosphere of the film. ‘Alice’ is certainly not your average family film, but the viewer who dares to enter this film’s unique world, will not be disappointed.

Watch the trailer for ‘Alice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener & John Musker
Release Date: July 2, 1986
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Great Mouse Detective © Walt DisneyIn the dark ages of animation that were the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the Disney studio produced two animated features that shone just more brightly than the others: ‘The Rescuers’ (1977) and ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, coincidentally both about mice.

Thirty years later ‘The Rescuers’ has gained some kind of classic status, whereas ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ has not. That’s a pity, for it’s a surprisingly entertaining film, far outshining all other Disney features between ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

Based on the children’s book series ‘Basil from Baker Street’ by Eve Titus, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ tells about the Sherlock Holmes-like mouse Basil, who – indeed – lives in the same house as his far more widely known human counterpart.

The story is propelled by an intro, a story device also used in ‘The Rescuers’, in which the father of little mouse Olivia Flaversham is kidnapped. Enter Dr. Dawson, a Watson-like mouse, who, like Watson, is the narrator of the story, and who teams up with Olivia to find Basil, the famous detective. Soon the plot directs to the film’s supervillain, Professor Ratigan, brilliantly voiced by Vincent Price, who had collaborated with Disney before in the Tim Burton short ‘Vincent’.

Although all characters are voiced and animated well, Ratigan, animated by Glen Keane, arguably the best animator of his generation, stands in a class at his own: every single frame of his screen presence is a delight. He even gets the first of only two songs in the movie, and his pompous screen persona, both enjoyable and threatening, is comparable with the other classic Disney villains Hook (‘Peter Pan’, 1953), Shere Khan (‘Jungle Book’, 1967) and the later Jafar (‘Aladdin’, 1992).

In its final scene ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ introduces one novelty: computer-animated backgrounds, which blend surprisingly well with the hand-drawn characters. It’s an impressive piece of work, and it shows the possibilities of computer animation. Needless to say, more was to come later.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ covers much more familiar ground than the erratic ‘The Black Cauldron’ did, and indeed the studio feels clearly more at ease with this picture. It doesn’t really look forward, except for the stunning computer animated clockwork backgrounds of the final scene, but who cares? It is the first film by the new young team to show sheer joy. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is a delight from the introduction scene to its grand finale. By now, the studio could leave its lowest point behind.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Ted Berman & Richard Rich
Release Date: July 24, 1985
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Black Cauldron © Walt Disney‘The Black Cauldron’ was the first new Disney animation film I saw when I was a kid. At the age of twelve I found it an exciting and scary adventure. Unfortunately, watching it again many years later my views have changed.

‘The Black Cauldron’ was a clear attempt by a young team to bring something new to the screen. It was to be Disney’s first and only step in the realm of ‘epic fantasy’, a genre explored before by Ralph Bakshi in the unsuccessful features ‘Wizards’ (1977), ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1978) and ‘Fire and Ice’ (1983), by Jim Henson’s much more interesting puppet movie ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982), and by the then popular television series ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ (1983-1985), whose evil character, Skeletor, looks remarkably similar to the Horned King in ‘The Black Cauldron’.

The film’s source however, is much older, and lies in the first two novels of the children’s fantasy series ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander, and the Disney studio already started working on it in 1971. The film tries to squeeze the contents of Alexander’s two books into 77 minutes and it shows.

The Disney studio clearly is at unease with the serious atmosphere of the epic fantasy. It’s the only animated Disney feature not to feature any song at all, and even the comic reliefs Gurgi and Flweddur Fllam are hardly funny. Instead, the studio follows ex-Disney artist Don Bluth into a much darker realm. With ‘The secret of NIMH.’ (1982) Bluth had shown that an animated feature could contain a more serious and darker tone, and ‘The Black Cauldron’ is clearly Disney’s own attempt at it.

This is exemplified most by the Horned King, and his army of skeletons. The horned king is nothing more than a skull himself, and remarkably scary for a Disney film. Not only this villain, but most of ‘The Black Cauldron’ is drawn in grim tones, however, and there is hardly any air from the gloomy atmosphere.

The story, on the other hand, is remarkably light. And here lies the main problem with ‘The Black Cauldron’. Despite his evil appearance, the Horned King never tries to harm our heroes, and his castle is leaky as a sieve. Taran and princess Eilonwy can wander about in the dungeons of the castle undisturbed, where Taran absurdly easily finds a magic sword. The escape, too, is an easy one. And it seems that outside his castle the horned king has no power, at all. And when he finally has his army of the dead, it is destroyed when it’s still crossing the drawbridge. Ironically, the feature’s scariest scene is when the horned king dies.

The story is hampered by its episodic character. Most of what happens is a result of chance, and our heroes wander around cluelessly throughout the film. The film’s hero, Taran, suffers from a badly cast voice and remains a bland character, who, unlike Gurgi, fails to steal the audience’s heart. Moreover, the character animation wanders at times, sometimes becoming over-excessive, and the film contains one conflict scene that feels utterly forced and superfluous. The film’s message only appears at 56 minutes, with an almost gratuity ‘you must believe in yourself’, which hardly forms a turning point in the series of events.

The film’s undisputed highlight lies in its inspired soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and in the character of the furry creature Gurgi, who, with hindsight, looks like the inspiration for Gollum in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, in his speech and behavior. The cowardly Gurgi for example attaches to Taran half-heartedly, calling him ‘master’, just like Gollum does with Frodo in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

‘The Black Cauldron’ was a failure at the box office. And thus it proved to be an experiment the studio never repeated. The next year, Disney returned to much more familiar territory with ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ with much better results. Indeed, the studio’s final breakthrough in its attempts to rejuvenate, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), was the result of a return to the successful princess films ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Cinderella’ (1950) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959).

Watch the trailer for ‘The Black Cauldron’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 24, 1942
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, Joe Carioca
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Saludos Amigos © Walt Disney‘Saludos Amigos’ was the first result of a two-month trip to South America Walt Disney made with eighteen people from his staff, including animator Norm Ferguson and designers Mary and Lee Blair.

This trip was financed by the Coordinator of Inter-American affairs, and ‘Saludos Amigos’ feels like an advertisement for South America. It’s the first of several ‘package films’ Disney made in the 1940s, and like its followers, it is uneven. There is not much of a story, just a live action travelogue across Bolivia, Chile, Argentine, and Brazil. In between there are four cartoon sequences: Donald Duck as a tourist at Lake Titicaca, the story of Pedro the airplane, Goofy as a Gaucho and a samba sequence featuring Donald and a new character, Joe Carioca.

Donald’s antics at Lake Titicaca are only mildly funny, until its finale, the suspension bridge scene, which evokes a genuine sense of heights. Pedro the airplane is a children’s story using a narrator. It’s probably the first animation film starring a humanized vehicle, and very successful at that. Pedro is well-designed, being both a plane and a likable little boy. His story reaches an exciting climax when Pedro gets caught in a storm near Aconcagua. ‘Goofy as a gaucho’ is a nice follow-up to ‘How to ride a horse’ from ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1941), with Goofy acting as an Argentine gaucho. This sequence is based on the art of Argentine painter Florencio Molina Campos (1891-1959), without being as gritty. The result is both educational and funny.

However, the real highlight of the film is its finale, in which Donald meets the Brazilian parrot Joe Carioca. Both dance to a samba, following a background which is created ‘on the spot’ by a brush. This sequence is alive with creativity, seemingly introducing a new era of more stylized images and brighter colors, which would dominate the 1940s and 1950s.

Joe Carioca was such an intoxicating character, he was returned to the screen, where he would reunite with Donald in ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944) and ‘Melody Time‘ (1948), in still more stylized and colorful scenes.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Saludos Amigos’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
Release Date: November 24, 2010
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Tangled © Walt DisneyWith ‘Tangled’ the Walt Disney studio arguably released their first really successful computer animated feature.

Despite the modern techniques with which it has been made, ‘Entangled’ really looks back, even more than the hand-drawn ‘Princess and the Frog’ from one year earlier. First, it’s a musical in the vain of ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), and indeed the songs are by same composer, Alan Menken. Second, it’s based on a classic fairy-tale (Rapunzel), placing it in a tradition looking all the way back to ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and ‘Cinderella‘ (1950). And third, there’s even an animal sidekick, the chameleon Pascal, something we hadn’t seen since ‘Mulan’ (1998).

Like in all these films the main protagonist is a young female yearning for love. With Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’, Rapunzel is the most overtly adolescent of the lot. She displays many behaviors of teenagers: not only is she torn apart between loyalty to her ‘mother’ and the longing for freedom, she also displays the naive and intoxicating excitement typical of her age. It seems like ‘Tangled’ was clearly marketed for this age group.

However, the studio changed the film’s name from ‘Rapunzel’ to ‘Tangled’ to attract other people than teenage girls, and rightly so, for the film has more to offer. However, it’s not necessarily to be found in the male protagonist, Flynn Rider. Flynn is a somewhat cliche overconfident macho, who discovers his softer side, and he is more of interest to young girls than to young men, who may have difficulties relating to him. In fact, I dare say they will more relate to Rapunzel herself.

No, it’s found in a well-told story, in which both the evil witch and Rapunzel’s hair gain new dimensions. Apart from its magical power, it is amazing what Rapunzel can do with her hair. It clearly defines her as a strong, independent and creative character: not submissive and to be won, but active, and with a will of her own.

The story knows plenty of fun, action and romance, but also allows for some deep emotional moments. For example, there is a short scene in which we see Rapunzel’s grieving father, and his emotion is played so well, it breaks your heart. Alan Menken’s songs aren’t the greatest, and can sometimes be missed, but the ‘I have a dream’ sequence in the tavern is acted out with so much bravado, it’s a great fun to watch.

I doubt whether ‘Tangled’ will become a modern classic like e.g. Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ (2008), ‘Up’ (2009) or Disney’s later ‘Frozen’ (2013), but it seriously showed that the Disney studio still was able to make good animated features, even computer animated ones. That alone was a relief after a series of seriously bad (‘Chicken Little’, 2005), forgettable (‘Meet the Robinsons’, 2007) and average (‘Bolt’, 2008)  films.

Watch the trailer for ‘Tangled’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: July 26, 1951
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Alice in Wonderland © Walt DisneyOf all the classic Walt Disney features, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had the longest and most troublesome history.

Lewis Carroll’s book had intrigued Walt Disney for years. It had inspired the Alice cartoons, if only in name, and already in 1933 the first ideas appeared to turn the literary classic into an animated feature, starring Mary Pickford as Alice – being Disney’s first feature idea ever. Unfortunately, the idea was dropped because in 1933 Paramount released their version of the classic tale.

More serious work on Alice started in 1939/1940 when illustrator David Hall made numerous, exceptionally beautiful concept drawings. After the failures of ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) at the box office, these ideas were shelved, and virtually nothing of Hall’s ideas entered the final film. At one point even novelist Aldous Huxley cooperated, turning in a literary script in 1945, which the Disney studio found useless. Only in 1949 real work on the film began, resulting in Disney’s second feature of the 1950s, after the successful ‘Cinderella‘.

The final film unfortunately was poorly received when it was finally released in 1951. It performed rather badly at the box office, losing the studio almost a million dollars, practically evaporating the profits that ‘Cinderella’ had made the previous year. The film was critisized even by its own animators. Marc Davis said the film “gave us nothing to work it” and called it a “cold film”. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston hardly mention the film in their elaborate book ‘The Illusion of Life’. In ‘The Disney Villain’ they reveal why: they felt they “had failed to find the intriguing combination of fantasy, satire and whimsy that made the original book popular”. Even Walt Disney himself denounced the film, saying it lacked heart.

However, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has aged suprisingly well. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the best adaptations of the book to the screen, its only serious rivals being Jan Švankmajer’s disturbing stop motion film from 1987, and a NBC production from 1999. Certainly not Disney’s feature from 2010, which, although visually stunning, owes very little to the original story.

The film’s most overt weakness, its episodic character (which, of course, it shares with the original book), is also its strong point: none of the Disney story cliches are apparent, and there’s a welcome lack of sentimentality to the film. In fact, the film’s low point is reached when the studio does try to squeak sentimentality into the story: in the Tulgey Wood scene, an invention of the story department and not found in the original book, Alice has enough of nonsense, wants to go home and feels lost. She sings the feature’s weakest and most forgettable song with a sobbing voice, with some fantasy birds sympathizing with her in stereotypical Disney fashion. Despite the inventive bird designs, this scene is wide of the mark.

Luckily, it is one of only two weak scenes (the other one being the flower scene, squeaked in from ‘Through the Looking Glass’) amidst the wonderful series of utter nonsense, which evoke the zany spirit of the book very well. The film is literally stuffed with great characters, most of them voiced by well-known British and American actors: the white rabbit (Bill Thompson, the voice of Droopy), the dodo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Pat O’Malley), the caterpillar (Richard Haydn), The Cheshire Cat (Disney favorite Sterling Holloway), The Mad Hatter and the Marc Hare (Ed Wynn & Jerry Colonna), the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), and the little king. Eleven year old Kathryn Belmont is a perfect Alice: pleasantly normal, and a little pedantic, just like the one in the book.

Of all Nine Old Men, the Disney animators who worked on the film, Ward Kimball in particular seems in his element, as Lewis Carroll’s work has much in common with his own zany type of humor. Kimball supervised animation on Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Mad Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat, and all characters are delightfully loony.

However, the film’s strongest point may be in its design, which is nothing like Sir John Tenniel. In contrast to his gloomy black-and-white engravings, styling artists Mary Blair, John Hench, Claude Coats and Ken Anderson present a vibrant world of colors. The stylized backgrounds are superb with their angular designs and highly original color combinations, evoking a perfect dream world. It’s these designs that give the movie unity. They are matched by the looniest animation within any Disney feature, all bringing the zany Lewis Carroll perfectly to life. Both the animation and the countless visual gags complement the textual madness of the original book. Moreover, the film is surprisingly speedy, and still enjoyable for a 21st century audience.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ may not be Disney’s best or most successful feature, it’s a very pleasant ride through a colorful world, and more of a timeless classic than anyone would have imagined in 1951.

Watch ‘Alice in Wonderland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: George Scribner
Release Date: November 13, 1988
Rating: ★★
Review:

Oliver and Company © Walt DisneyOliver and Company’ is the Walt Disney studio’s third film about dogs, after ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1955) and ‘One Hundred and One Dalmations’ (1961). Three of the first film’s characters, Peggy, Jock and Trusty, even have a cameo during Dodger’s song.

‘Oliver and Company’ contains some nice and easy looking dog animation, but it is hardly a worthy successor of the two classics. The opening scenes of ‘Oliver & Company’ introduces Oliver, a cute little orange cat to us, in a scene set to an ugly 1980s song. Oliver teams up with a cool dog called Dodger, who appears to be part of a dog gang. Only when the gang’s owner, the poor tramp Fagin (excellently voiced by Dom DeLuise) is visited by the film’s villain, Sykes, some kind of drama begins. By then the film already is 18 minutes underway.

During a totally incomprehensible framing act Oliver is taken sway by a little rich girl called Jenny, much to the dismay of her house’s star dog, poodle Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler). The gang ‘rescues’ Oliver, which leads to the only continuous and songless story part of the complete film. Surprisingly, the upper class world of Jenny and Georgette and the lower class world of Fagin and his dogs don’t seem to clash at all in this film. As soon Jenny is kidnapped, Georgette naturally teams up with the dog gang. The film ends with a wild and totally unbelievable chase, killing Sykes.

Although released five months after ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?‘ it’s difficult to regard ‘Oliver & Co.’ as part of the Disney renaissance. It’s not as bleak as ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ or as misguided as ‘The Black Cauldron‘, but the film still feels as a continuation of the 1960s and 1970s, instead of something new, making it part of animation’s dark ages.

There are several reasons for this: first, the use of xerox, first used in ‘One Hundred and one Dalmations’ (1961), and defining Disney’s graphic style up to this film. Second, the equally graphic backgrounds, which are uninspired, dull and ugly, as are the all too angular and unappealing cars and machines. Third, the animation, which is erratic and at times downward poor, with the animation of the little girl Jenny, a far cry from the endearing Penny from ‘The Rescuers‘ (1977), being the low point. Fourth, the human designs, which apart from the main characters, look the same as in any generic animated television series from the 1980s. And fifth, the story, which, vaguely based on Charles Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, is ramshackle and formulaic. Moreover, the attempt to ‘modernize’ Disney by moving the setting to contemporary New York is forced, and only a change of setting. There’s no new spirit to the film. And finally, the anonymous 1980s songs have aged the film very quickly.

There are some highlights: the dogs are all good, if not particularly inspired and owing much to ‘Lady and the Tramp’, Jenny’s butler Jenkins is well animated, as is Fagin when he struggles to give Oliver back to Jenny. But overall the film fails to entertain: Oliver himself is not particularly interesting, he is just the straight man, the little girl Jenny is too bland to gain sympathy, the songs are generic and the story (penned by no less than thirteen people) is too erratic to suck the viewer in.

Luckily, ‘Oliver and Company’ was not part of a new era, but the last convulsion of an old one. With its next film, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney would really enter its renaissance.

Watch Dodger’s song from ‘Oliver & Company’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Don Bluth
Release date: July 3, 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Secret of NIMH © Don BluthDissatisfied with the studio’s policies, Don Bluth left the Walt Disney Studio in 1979, taking some fellow animators with him, thus severely delaying the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

Bluth set up his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make animated features in the spirit of the early Disney masterpieces he admired. In doing so, he became the first serious competitor of Disney in the animated feature field since Max Fleischer, who had made two animated features in 1939 and 1941.

‘The Secret of NIMH’ was the brand new studio’s first feature, and a testimony of Don Bluth’s high ambitions. Like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ it is set in more or less modern times, in a rural era, but here all similarities stop. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is darker, and more mature than Disney’s film. It’s more akin to the earlier ‘The Rescuers‘ (it’s about mice and a rescue mission), to Disney’s next movie ‘The Black Cauldron‘ (grim atmosphere, swords and sorcery), and even to the non-Disney film ‘Watership Down’ (rodents grouped in all too familiar societies, a goofy bird helping the heroes). The rich and detailed backgrounds look all the way back to ‘Pinocchio‘ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Despite all its ambitions, the film therefore lacks a forward-looking vision. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful film, and both the voice cast and the Disney-school animation are top notch throughout.

The story is based on the children’s novel ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by Robert C. O’Brien, and tells about the mouse Mrs. Brisby (a mother, a very rare type of hero in animation films), who tries to protect her sick son from the coming of the field-destroying tractor. In her quest she gets help from the goofy crow Jeremy and by a society of highly intelligent rats, living in a bush nearby.

The whole atmosphere is dark, and grim; the cat, the spider and the owl all look way scarier than anything in any Disney film since ‘Fantasia’ (1940), and there are no less than three deaths in the end. The rats also bring in some misplaced and hard-to-believe fantasy elements, including a magic mirror, an amulet with gravity-defying powers, and an epic sword-fight.

In spite of the great voice acting, the only characters really to come off are Mrs. Brisby (great acting by Elizabeth Hartman), Aunt Shrew (Hermione Baddely), and Jeremy the crow (voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise). The rats come into the story rather late and one gets the feeling that Bluth wanted to tell too much in too little time, leaving the viewer puzzled after the film is over.

With all its flaws, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ remains Bluth’s most satisfying film, together with one of his last films, ‘Anastasia’ (1997). After ‘The Secret of NIMH’ Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the more successful ‘An American Tail’ (1986) and ‘Land before Time’ (1988), but after those more commercial and less original films his productions became more uneven and forgettable, never fulfilling the promise he appeared to have made with his firstborn.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Secret of NIMH’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: René Laloux
Release date: March 24, 1981
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Les maîtres du temps © René LalouxIn the science fiction film ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Jaffar, the muscular pilot of a spaceship, tries to rescue the little orphan Piel, who is the sole survivor of a massacre on the dangerous planet Perdide.

Jaffar’s only means of contact with the little boy is through an egg-shaped microphone which Piel calls ‘Mike’. Jaffar is aided by a jolly old man called Silbad, and two little telepathic creatures Silbad rescued from a flower, called Jad and Yula. His only passenger, however, the evil prince Matton, on escape with a treasure, tries to kill Piel in order to get sooner to Aldebaran…

‘Les maîtres du temps’ was René Laloux’ second animated feature film and it shares many characteristics with his first, ‘Le planète sauvage‘: it’s a science fiction film based on a novel by Stefan Wul and using designs by a famous french illustrator, this time comic artist Moebius (Jean Giraud). ‘Les maîtres du temps’ nevertheless is less outlandish than ‘Le planète sauvage’: it’s an ‘ordinary’ cel animation film and Moebius’s drawings are less surreal than Topor’s. Yet, they still manage to give the film an otherworldly quality. Especially his designs of Perdide are disturbing, rendering it an uncanny, dangerous planet, indeed.

Moebius’s style is very visible throughout the picture, except for the humans, who are drawn pretty uglily and fail to live up to Moebius’s own high standards. Only the little orphan Piel and the jolly old man Silbad are true to Moebius’s designs. Consequently, they are both very believable and likeable characters, where the others remain flat cardboard examples of ‘the hero’, ‘the beautiful woman’ and ‘the villain’. Their animation, too, remains stiff and unconvincing  In contrast, the funny little gnomes Jad and Yula are rendered very flexible and are responsible for some of the most beautiful animation in the film, which was practically all done by the Hungarian Pannonia Film Studio.

‘Les maîtres du temps’ is far from perfect, but mainly thanks to Piel’s character, with whom we can identify immediately, it’s a film with a heart. This, combined with some impressive science fiction images, especially of Perdide and of the planet Gamma 10, make the film one to return to over and over again.

After ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Laloux would make yet another Science fiction feature, now based on drawings by French comic artist Caza: ‘Gandahar‘. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the weakest of the trio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Les maîtres du temps’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bill Meléndez
Release date: December 4, 1969
Stars: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus van Pelt, Schroeder, e.o.
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown © Lee Mendelson FilmsMade after six television specials, ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ is Meléndez’ first feature film about the Peanuts gang.

It is a film with a slow, but steady pace: unhurried, yet not too slow. Being totally relaxed, the film takes a long time to introduce the characters, citing a lot of Peanut comic strip gags, and showing Charlie Brown’s troubles in flying kites and playing baseball. Only after 30 minutes the head story kicks in, when Charlie Brown enters a spelling bee.

The laid-back feel of the film is further enhanced by two surprising musical numbers: Snoopy’s playing of the American National Anthem and Schroeder’s playing of the complete second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata pathétique, which is arguably the film’s highlight. Snoopy receives a fair deal of screen-time, and two of his fantasies are shown: him as a pilot in World War I and as a skater in Holland and in an ice-hockey game. Nevertheless, the story remains with Charlie Brown and his doomed attempt to gain respect. His frustrations and failure are funny, but remain genuine and heartfelt. This focus make the film a well-made tribute to Charles M. Schulz’s strip of the early 1960s, when Charlie Brown’s frustrations were the strip’s main focal point.

Overall, the designs are gorgeous, especially in the musical interludes, which feature bold, colorful images. The jazzy score, too, is a delight, and enhances the film’s unique atmosphere. In all, ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ is a great film which has a typical 1960s feel without ever getting cheap.

Watch ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 16, 1955
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lady and the Tramp © Walt Disney‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a mild and friendly film based both on story ideas by Joe Grant that went as far back as 1939, and a short story by novelist Ward Greene. It tells the story of Lady, an upper class female Cocker Spaniel living around the turn of the century.

Lady’s life of luxury seems to be threatened by the coming of a baby, but it is the babysitter, aunt Sarah, who’s her real nemesis. The cat-loving old lady quickly has Lady muzzled, and it’s up to the tramp to rescue her. They spend a night out together, but in the morning, while they’re chasing chickens “together”, Lady gets caught and ends in the city dogpound. There she discovers that the tramp is quite a ladies’ man. It seems their short-lived relationship is over, but then the tramp helps her catching a rat that has sneaked into the house and into the baby’s room…

‘Lady and the Tramp’ was the first animated feature in Cinemascope. The film uses the new technique to great effects, with the action carefully laid out to the broad screen. Its backgrounds are very beautiful, and remarkably lush or, when necessary, highly dramatic. Only in the love scene they become somewhat stylized, showing a Mary Blair influence otherwise absent from the film.

The high quality animation is a delight to watch and stands out in an age of stylized and limited animation, something the 1950s more and more became to be. Like the animals in ‘Bambi‘ (1942), the dogs have a look and feel of real animals, while, at the same time, being full characters one can relate to, with a complete range of human expressions. Even the minor characters, like the dogs in the dogpound, are perfectly animated in that respect. The voices help in this dualism, often being a combination of human and dog-like sounds.

The humans, on the other hand, are hardly seen, and only the strongly caricatured ones, Aunt Sarah, Tony and Joe, have something of a character. It is telling that the most famous and probably most romantic kiss in animation history can be seen in this movie and is a kiss between two dogs. In this scene Lady and the tramp share a meal of spaghetti, accompanied by romantic music by the two Italian restaurant owners. This scene, animated by Frank Thomas, is the undisputed highlight of the film. Honorable mention goes to the very lifelike fight between the tramp and a large rat, a strongly dramatic scene animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, which can compete with the fighting scene in ‘Bambi’ in its impact.

Watch the dining scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens
Release Date: July 10, 1981
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Fox and the Hound © Walt Disney‘The Fox and the Hound’ tells about a young adopted fox called Tod and a young hound dog called Copper, who become friends, but later enemies, partly due to their nature.

‘The Fox and the Hound’ was the feature in which the last of the nine old men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, passed on their knowledge and their legacy to a younger generation of animators. In this respect it’s the most transitional film in Disney history. And unfortunately, it shows, because it’s neither an old classic, nor does it have the spirit of a film by young Turks, despite most of the animation being nothing less than great.

On the contrary, the end product is a tame, slow moving and rather tiresome movie more belonging to a time long past than to the 1980s, the decade in which it was made. Its main flaws are in storytelling: none of the actions of the protagonists are very well motivated, the villains are hardly threatening and a lot of screen time is spent on the totally non-related antics of a sparrow called Dinky and a loony, rather annoying woodpecker called Boomer trying to catch a caterpillar. These birds, like the friendly old female owl Big Mama (voiced by black jazz singer Pearl Bailey), do nothing more than watching the main action.

The songs do not propel the action forward, either, but tend to drag the film down. And in the scenes in which Tod tries to survive in the forest, it becomes very difficult to see him interact with birds and furry animals. How he’s going to survive in the forest without killing animals remains unexplained. Finally, at the end of the film, a bear appears out of nowhere, like a deus ex machina, to be the sole reuniter of the two friends.

In fact, the only appeal of ‘The Fox and the Hound’ lies in the quality of the animation itself, and in the film’s beautiful backgrounds. Because of its out-of-time setting the film can be regarded timeless, but a timeless classic it ain’t.

Watch the fight scene from ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and tell me what you think:

Directors: Jill Culton, Roger Allers & Anthony Stacchi
Release Date: September 29, 2006
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Open Season © Sony PicturesWith ‘Open Season’ Sony Pictures joined the American computer animated feature pool, being the fourth major company to do so. And because in this world American animation films from the same year share the same features, ‘Open Season’ is about forest animals living near the civilized world, just like Dreamworks’s ‘Over The Hedge‘.

The story of ‘Open Season’ (a domesticated bear called Boog is left in the wild and tries to find his way back home) is fairly original (although similar to ‘Cars’), but like its setting, its execution is not. Like ‘Shrek’ (2001) and ‘Ice Age‘ (2002) it’s a buddy film full of fast-talking, wisecracking animals, with the sap deer Elliott (voiced by Ashton Kutcher) being all too similar to Donkey in ‘Shrek’.

Moreover, some scenes are rather formulaic, like the break-up scene after the waterfall ride (see also ‘Shrek’, ‘Monsters Inc.‘), the ‘we-can-do-this-together-scene’ (see ‘A Bug’s Life’, ‘Robots‘), and the almost obligate near-death of Elliott in the end, which goes all the way back to Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967).

The film’s designs are okay, and are more akin to Dreamworks and Blue Sky than to Pixar. The studio’s the animation is mostly of a high standard, if not inventive. The effect animation is adequate, with convincing lights, waters and smokes. Especially the furs look good, but the human hairs are very bad, and in one scene one can watch some very unrealistically animated bank notes flying around.

In the end, ‘Open Season’ is an entertaining film, but too standard to be a classic. Its foremost selling-point may be that it is one of those rare animated features in which the main protagonist (Boog) is voiced by an Afro-American (Martin Lawrence).

After this modest start Sony Animation would do better with its next feature, ‘Surf’s Up’ (2007), with its ‘documentary’ style. But the company really hit its stride with ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009) with its overtly cartoony animation approach.

Meanwhile the reuse of formulaic story building blocks like the ones in ‘Open Season’ came to hamper more and more American computer animated features, with Disney’s ‘Planes’ (2013) as the ultimate low-point, as it consists of nothing but cliches…

Watch the tailer for ‘Open Season’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick
Release Date: May 19, 2006
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Over The Hedge © DreamworksBased on a comic strip, ‘Over the Hedge’, Dreamworks’s sixth computer animated feature, is a charming, if unassuming film, which belongs to the better half of the Dreamworks features, if barely so.

Unlike the unappealing movie ‘Shark Tale’ (2004) for example, all the actions of the characters have their origin in real animal behavior: they hibernate, they forage and they’re threatened by a human environment to which they have to adapt.

The film’s story is original in that it’s not found in the comic strip on which the movie is based. However, at the same time the story is not too original as it contains some standard, almost obligatory scenes, a feature that hampered more and more American animated feature films from 2005 on.

Nevertheless, the film’s story is well executed: the storytelling is lean, the contrast between the two likable protagonists, the brazen raccoon RJ and the cautious turtle Verne, is well-played, as are the two villains: the mafia-like bear Vincent and the Verminator. Even the side-characters are developed enough to like and to care for them (unlike the many personas in Blue Sky’s ‘Robots‘ (2005), for example).

Even though it contains some very realistic effects, like the animation of fur, the animation generally is not very lifelike, and more akin to the jerky animation of Tex Avery films than to the flow of Disney. Especially, the animation of the ADHD-squirrel Hammy is frantic. This character is also responsible for the highlight of the film, in which Hammy, on caffeine, has sped so much that he sees the world practically motionless.

‘Over The Hedge’ is by no means a classic, but it’s entertaining and well-told. In the world of American computer animated features this is already a plus.

Watch the tailer for ‘Over the Hedge’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Release Date: September 23, 2005
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride © Warner BrothersThe shy Victor and Victoria are forced by their unsympathetic parents to marry each other.

Luckily, they actually like each other, but then Victor accidentally marries the deceased Emily who takes him to a world underground, while Victoria is forced to marry the evil lord Barkis…

‘Corpse Bride’ is a typical Tim Burton film, especially in its art direction, in its 19th century, gothic setting, in its dark humor, and in its jolly portrait of death. Because the film is also a Danny Elfman-penned musical, it feels like a successor to ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’ (1993). Nevertheless, it is far more enjoyable than that sometimes tiresome film: ‘Corpse Bride’ features only three songs, two of which help to tell the story. So, even though one could do without the musical element, it doesn’t dominate the complete film.

Also, the art of ‘Corpse Bride’ is a great improvement on ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. The dull greys and blues of the living world contrast greatly with the vivid colors of the underworld, which is clearly more fun to ‘live’ in. The designs of the puppets are extreme, and their almost flawless animation is jawdroppingly rich and expressive. The story is lean, and focuses on the three protagonists, Victor, Victoria and Emily, who all three are very likable characters. The voice cast is impressive, and includes Johnny Depp (Victor), Emily Watson (Victoria), Helena Bonham Carter (Emily) and Christopher Lee (Pastor Gallswells).

All this make ‘Corpse Bride’, together with that other stop-motion film ‘Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘, the best animated feature of 2005/2006, surpassing all computer animated films of those years. It proves that traditional animation is still viable and relevant in the computer age.

Watch the tailer for ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 875 other followers

Bookmark and Share

Follow TheGrob on Twitter

Categories

Advertisements