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Directors: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Stars: Graham Chapman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

A Liar's Autobiography‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ is a film adaptation of Graham Chapman’s own nonsensical autobiography.

At first the film appears to follow Chapman’s book closely, using his own voice over from a audiobook recording. In fact, apart from one song all of Chapman’s vocalizations are by Graham Chapman himself, using various sources. Other former Monty Python members provide some voices, too.

The film adaptation of Chapman’s book is excellent, perfectly blending his dry humor with tongue-in-cheek images. However, the film makers want to make the film a biopic, leaving the book half way and adding some chapters of their own. At this point the film starts to drag. It becomes less humorous and more wandering, with lots of images drenched in sex and alcohol. And so, the film fades out ingloriously, leaving less an impression than it did when it started.

‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ was made by no less than fourteen different animation studios, and the overall array of styles is refreshing and at times mesmerizing. At the same time it can become a bit tiring to watch a changing of style at every scene, and sometimes the design is subpar, or downright ugly. The result is a moderately entertaining film that remains shallow and unmoving, nonetheless.

Watch the trailer of  ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Release Date: August 24, 2012
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

t's Such a Beautiful Day © Don Hertzfeldt‘It’s such a Beautiful Day’ tells about Bill, a man with some kind of terminal disease, which affects his memory. The film uses an episodic, non-linear narrative, and at times feels as confused as the protagonist’s mind.

Hertzfeldt uses some unconventional ways to tell his story. He himself tells us the story in a dry, matter-of-factly, slightly worrying voice over, which makes the sometimes poignant episodes even more gripping. The images themselves are very simple: the people in the film are no more than stick figures. But because of Hertzfeldt’s perfect sense of timing, these simple images are richer than many more elaborately drawn animation films. The stick figure images are interchanged with 8mm-film-like live action fragments of details in streets, trees, the sea etc. Hertzfeldt’s basic screen is black, in which often more than one of his images is projected. This technique harks back to the silent era, and gives his film a timeless look.

Hertzfeldt uses all these techniques to tell a fragmented, associative narrative, which is rich in detailed observations on daily life. The scenes motivate the viewer to try to connect the presented information into an overall story. The scenes are often comical, even hilarious, with Bill watching a man with a leaf blower as a particular highlight. As often, however, the scenes are moving and very emotional. Throughout the feature the deterioration of Bill’s mind becomes clearly visible, and when he decides to take a walk around the block, the result is as funny as it is painful. The most beautiful part, however, is when Bill celebrates life, paying attention to details that normally go unnoticed. The film’s finale, too, is no less than glorious.

‘It’s such a Beautiful Day’ is a compilation of three short films released earlier: ‘Everything will be OK’ (2006), ‘I Am So Proud of You’ (2008), and ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ (2012). To compile these into one feature is a very logical step. In fact, watching them together as one continuous story actually makes much more sense. The result is one of the most original feature films ever made, and also one of the most moving. An impressive effort by any standard, and especially when considering that this is a one-man-project.

Watch the trailer of ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ and tell me what you think:

Directors: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney
Release Date: October 5, 1949
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad © Walt DisneyThe adventures of ‘Ichabod and Mr. Toad’ was the last of the Disney compilation features so typical of the 1940s.

Like ‘Fun and Fancy Free‘ (1947) it consists of only two stories, this time both drawn from literature. Both use a narrator, which gives the films a feeling of moving illustrations. Neither of the stories is particularly endearing: the story of Mr. Toad lacks the poetry of the original story, the story of Sleepy Hollow lacks speed. It would be a happy return to direct story telling (opposed to using voice overs) in ‘Cinderella‘, the next year.

The six directing animators of this feature all belong to the group of ‘nine old men’.

‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’ consists of the following two episodes, which I will discuss in more detail elsewhere:

1. The Wind in the Willows
2. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Watch ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske
Release Date: May 27, 1948
Stars: Donald Duck, Joe Carioca, The Aracuan Bird
Rating: ★★
Review:

Melody Time © Walt DisneyMelody Time’ is a compilation film in the same vein as ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).

It consists of seven unrelated episodes, connected by a voice over and an animated brush. The songs of these sequences are sung by popular artists, who, except for the Andrews Sisters and Roy Rogers, are all but forgotten today. Even more obviously than in ‘Make Mine Music’, these songs are clearly designed for the cartoons, instead of the other way round, like in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). In any sense ‘Melody Time’ is a far cry from that latter film, and the most interesting feature of this film is not the animation, but the film’s beautifully stylized backgrounds, especially in ‘Once upon a Wintertime‘ and ‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed‘.

The sequences themselves are mediocre, often slow and only moderately funny at best. Luckily, Disney would soon return to real features, for ‘Melody Time’ shows that the studio’s compilation features had outstayed their welcome.

Melody Time consists of the following episodes, which I will discuss in more detail, elsewhere:

  1. Once upon a Winter Time
  2. Bumble Boogie
  3. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
  4. Little Toot
  5. Trees
  6. Blame it on the Samba
  7. Pecos Bill

Directors: Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske & Bill Roberts
Release Date: September 27, 1947
Stars: Jiminy Cricket, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Edgar Bergen, Luana Patton
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Fun and Fancy Free © Walt DisneyFun and Fancy Free’ was the fourth of six package features Disney released in the 1940s.

It consists of two unrelated stories, which were both originally conceived as feature films in 1940/1941. The two stories, ‘Bongo’ and ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ are loosely linked by Jiminy Cricket, who sings the happy-go-lucky theme song.

He plays a record to a sad doll and a gloomy bear which features Dinah Shore telling the story of Bongo in rhyme and song. This cute, if unassuming and forgettable little film (after a story by Sinclair Lewis) tells about Bongo the circus bear, who breaks free from the circus, falls in love with a cute female bear called Lulubelle, and combats a large brutal bear called Lumpjack.

Immediately after this story has ended, we follow Jiminy Cricket to a live action setting: a private party with a little girl (Luana Patton), Edgar Bergen and his two ventriloquist sidekicks, the cynical Charlie and the dumb, but gentle Mortimer.

Bergen tells a version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, starring ‘famished farmers’ Mickey, Donald and Goofy in their last classic trio outing. This part had a long genesis, the early drafts of this film go back to 1940. Apparently Pinto Colvig had returned to the Disney studio, because Goofy has his voice back after having been silenced for eight years. Pinto Colvig would do Goofy’s voice in two subsequent shorts, ‘Foul Hunting‘ (1947) and ‘The Big Wash‘ (1948), before leaving again, leaving Goofy voiceless, once more. This sequence is also the last theatrical film in which Walt Disney does Mickey’s voice. Halfway the production Jimmy MacDonald took over.

This second episode of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is a delight, if a little bit slow. Its humor derives mostly from Charlie’s sarcastic interruptions. Nevertheless, the animation of the growing beanstalk and of Willie the giant is stunning.

Willie would be the last giant Mickey defeated, after having done with giants in ‘Giantland‘ (1933) and ‘Brave Little Tailor’ (1938). Unlike the other giants, Willie is an instantly likeable character, and he was revived as the ghost of Christmas Present in ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol‘ (1983).

‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is a lighthearted film. Like Disney’s other package features, it is not too bad, but it is certainly not among the ranks of masterpieces.

Watch the opening scene of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: David Hand
Release Date: August 13, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Bambi © Walt DisneyAlthough it was released after ‘Dumbo‘, ‘Bambi’ is essentially Disney’s fourth feature, and it was also the last in which the studio really pushed the envelope.

‘Bambi’ had been long in the making, with initial work already starting in 1937. In fact, it was initially planned as Disney’s second feature, but soon pushed back in favor of ‘Pinocchio’.

After having made such great and diverse efforts as ‘Snow White’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, Disney set the stakes even higher in Bambi, reaching a zenith in naturalism. But the film is way more than that: it’s a symphony of nature, utterly romantic in its depiction of forest life. It’s also a coming of age story and a depiction of the circle of life.

‘Bambi’ is full of great scenes, starting with the stunning opening scene, a long and complicated shot, which shows the vastness and depth of the forest using a multiplane camera, and which leads us straight into the story, when we come to follow friend owl in his flight.

The storytelling is very lean, it uses little dialogue and it consists of only a few distinct parts, which all concentrate on Bambi’s experiences. Most of the story is told by images and music only, and there are three pure mood pieces very reminiscent of a Silly Symphony like ‘The Old Mill‘ (1937) and parts of ‘Fantasia’: the April Shower sequence, the autumn sequence and Bambi’s love scene. In these sequences especially, it’s clear that atmosphere prevails above character development, and the studio indulges in beautiful imagery that is still impressive and enchanting today.

The film can be divided into eight sections (the titles are all mine):

1) Birth: which also introduces the lovable little rabbit Thumper;
2) Discovery of the world: including the introduction of the little skunk Flower and a rain scene, set to the beautiful song ‘April shower’;
3) The meadow: where both danger and other deer are introduced, including Bambi’s father and his later love interest, Feline;
4) Autumn: a short transitional mood piece;
5) Winter: which includes the famous skating scene, inspired by Pluto’s difficulties on ice in ‘On ice‘ (1935) and which ends with that harrowing, yet off screen death of Bambi’s mother;
6) Spring: where all our characters have become adolescents and discover the power of love;
7) Man: where man, who never is seen on screen, but whose threatening presence is so much more felt, once again brings danger into the forest, shooting animals (including Bambi) and causing a forest fire, which leads to great dramatic and apocalyptic shots of the burning forest;
and finally
8) Birth again: in which the cycle is completed.

The first five sections take almost two-thirds of the film and are responsible for Bambi’s reputation of being a childish film full of cute animals. This may be partly true, but is does no justice to the complete film, for the last three sections, starting with the death of Bambi’s mother (which essentially ends his childhood) are more artistic, more expressionistic and more dramatic. These scenes belong to the most powerful animated images ever brought to the screen.

But throughout the complete picture the artwork is stunning: the backgrounds, based on designs by Tyrus Wong, are lush and suggestive,  the use of color is very clever and often amazing, and the music, which is very important to the narrative and which uses off-screen songs to evoke moods, is rich and effective. Indeed, Bambi’s soundtrack, by composers Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb, ranks among the best scores of any animation film. Backgrounds, design, color, music – all these make  the film a mood piece of an astonishing quality.

The animation itself, too, is a highlight. It was supervised by four of the later so-called ‘nine old men’: Eric Larson, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and it’s the first testimony of their legendary status. The animation is amazingly well-done both in its naturalism as in its sense of character. It ranks from pure naturalism in Bambi’s mother exploring the meadow and Bambi preparing to fight to pure character animation. A highlight of the latter is Bambi having to say hello to Feline. Bambi’s behavior in this scene is perfect that of a young bashful boy.

The only deviation from believability is during the Twitterpated sequence: Eric Larson’s animation on friend Owl is zany and cartoony, as is the animation of the lovestruck Flower. The whole sequence is a little bit ridiculous, and out of place with the rest of the film. Luckily as soon as Bambi falls in love with Feline, the last part starts, which in its drama, powerful imagery and stunning effects is the undisputed highlight of the whole movie.

Bambi never ceases to amaze: it is simply beautiful.

Watch the skating scene from ‘Bambi’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: October 1, 1965
Rating: ★★★
Review:

West And Soda © Bruno Bozzetto‘West And Soda’ has a classic Western story: an evil villain is after the land owned by the lovely Clementine. Luckily she is rescued by our cool hero, Johnny, who doesn’t talk much, but who can shoot!

‘West and Soda’ is Bruno Bozzetto’s first feature film and unfortunately, it shows. The Italian animator is at his best in short, well-timed pantomime gags, and he clearly has difficulties with this longer medium. Neither the animation nor the designs are particularly appealing, and the feature suffers a little from its length. Generously mocking almost every aspect of the classic western, ‘West and Soda’ is as silly as it is predictable. Luckily there are many throwaway gags to keep the viewer laughing from time to time.

However, Bozzetto’s comic genius really shines through in two offbeat scenes, in which Bozzetto does what he does best: like his funny short ‘I Due Castelli’ from 1963, these two scenes use a fixed long distance perspective, pantomimed action and a perfect timing, with hilarious results. The first of these two scenes shows us several failing attacks of ferocious ants on Johnny, who is buried up to his head in the desert. The second depicts the villain’s attempts to drop a huge rock on our hero.

Watch the ant scene from ‘West And Soda’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors:Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Release Date: February 15, 1950
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Cinderella © Walt Disney‘Cinderella’ was Disney’s first fairy tale movie since ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and Disney’s first real feature animation film in eight years.

With its classic fairy tale story featuring a heroine, whose unhappy fate is turned, Cinderella seems to be like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, Disney’s only million seller feature up to that point, and, indeed, ideas for this film go back as far as 1938. However, it is very clear many things had changed for the studio since then:

First: Gone are the lush water color backgrounds. They’re replaced by way more stylized oil backgrounds, based on the colors and styling of designers Mary Blair and John Hench, who both favored bright and unrealistically vivid colors. Mary Blair’s influence is particularly strong in the dreamlike ‘So This Is Love’ sequence and the chase of Cinderella’s pumpkin couch: here the stunningly beautiful backgrounds lose all sense of realism, in favor of emotional storytelling.

Second: The animation of humans, hardly mastered in 1937, now looks fluent, convincing and even easy. It’s also striking how very realistic humans (Cinderella, the prince, the evil stepmother) blend easily and convincingly with more caricatured humans (the king, the grand duke and the two stepsisters) and anthropomorphic animals. The Disney studio clearly had matured.

Indeed, the animation studio had been greatly streamlined in the forties. Gone were the experimental, time consuming and costly work methods of ‘Snow White’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’. For his new feature Disney would take no chances: all human scenes would be filmed first with live action actors, in order to perfect the staging before it went into animation. Only one short scene with outrageously colored soap bubbles evokes some of the earlier experimentalism.

Disney’s animation unit was now led by a group of younger, highly talented animators, who had matured their skills in the forties, and whom Walt Disney affectionately called his ‘Nine Old Men’. In Cinderella these Nine Old Men are all credited as supervising animators (alongside, like a ghost from the past, pioneer animator Norm Ferguson [see ‘Frolicking Fish‘ and ‘Playful Pluto‘], although his contribution remains unclear). The Nine Old Men would be responsible for Disney Feature animation way up to ‘The Rescuers‘ (1978). The fluent and confident animation in ‘Cinderella’ clearly shows why.

Especially the stepmother (animated by Frank Thomas) is a wonderful character: she’s very nasty, but her evilness is acted out in the subtlest way. She’s only indirectly responsible for the most dramatic scene of the film, in which the two stepsisters tear Cinderella’s dress from her body. The horror of this scene is heartfelt, especially because we had seen that this dress was made for her by some friendly birds and mice in an earlier scene .

These animals star a huge subplot with leading roles for a keen mouse called Jaq, a fat, dumb mouse called Gus, and a mean old cat called Lucifer (all animated by Ward Kimball, who went berserk on the outrageous animation of Lucifer). This subplot provides a funny counterpoint to the familiar fairytale and even completely dominates the first twenty minutes of the film.

Cinderella was a huge success and paid the studio well. Once again Disney’s attention and reputation rested with animated features and the studio would dominate the scene up to the 1980s, being practically the monopolist on animated features in the United States.

In a time when TV would cause the decline and fall of the animated cartoon industry, this was no luxury, at all.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Cinderella’:

Director: Norm Ferguson
Release Date: December 21, 1944
Stars: Donald Duck, Joe Carioca, Panchito, The Aracuan Bird
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Three Caballeros © Walt DisneyDonald stars in his first and only very own feature film.

In the opening scene he receives a large package full of presents. When he opens these presents, they lead him to the mild story of Pablo the cold-blooded penguin (narrated by the melancholy voice of Disney-favorite Sterling Holloway), and to the childish story of ‘Gauchito and his flying donkey Burrito’, before it reintroduces Joe Carioca from ‘Saludos Amigos‘ (1942). Joe takes Donald to Baía, where they dance the samba with Aurora Miranda, nicely blending animation with live action, something that occurs throughout the picture.

Another package introduces the Mexican rooster Panchito. Together the trio sings the intoxicating theme song, wonderfully animated by Ward Kimball, who regarded the scene as his best work. Panchito takes Donald and Joe on a magic serape ride over Mexico, visiting Mexico City, Veracruz en Acapulco Beach, where Donald plays blind man’s buff with a bunch of girls in bathing suits. Actually, Donald keeps hunting girls like a hungry wolf throughout the picture.

‘The Three Caballeros’ was the second of two ‘Good neighbor policy’ features, focusing on South America, and the second of six compilation features Disney made until returning to real features with ‘Cinderella‘ in 1950. When compared to ‘Saludos Amigos’, ‘The Three Caballeros’ is brighter, bolder and more nonsensical. It is noteworthy for its bold color design and for its beautiful color book artwork by Mary Blair, which in its modernity looks forward to the 1950s (especially in the opening titles, during the train ride and in the Mexican Christmas episode).

It is most interesting however, because of its zany surrealism, which invades many scenes with associative images, where metamorphosis and abstraction run haywire, not even sparing Donald himself. In this respect ‘The Three Caballeros’ is the boldest feature Disney ever made.

However, its lack of story, its strong touristic content, its outdated live action imagery, its sentimental songs and the two childish stories at the beginning of the feature all harm the picture. Thus watching the movie feels like being on a colorful journey full of beautiful images that nevertheless turns out to be unsatisfactory in the end.

Watch the title song from ‘The Three Caballeros’ below:

‘The Three Caballeros’ is available on DVD

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