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Directors: Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Rating: ★★½
Review:

In the early nineties the Walt Disney studio was on a roll. Since 1989’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ all its features met with both critical acclaim and huge box office successes. Especially, the studio’s previous film, ‘The Lion King’ (1994) rather unexpectedly broke all box office records, being the highest-grossing motion picture of all time until ‘Finding Nemo’ came along in 2003.

Thus, not surprisingly, the expectations were high for Disney’s next feature, ‘Pocahontas’, only to be followed by a huge letdown, even though the feature did rather well at the box office. ‘Pocahontas’ fails in almost every aspect Disney’s previous features succeeded: the film lacks an engaging story, interesting protagonists, a threatening villain, appealing sidekicks, inspired humor or great songs. Of course, being a Disney film, the film’s animation is outstanding, and so is the film’s design, but that’s unfortunately not enough to rescue a film that collapses under its own pretentiousness.

The film is very, very loosely based on the historical John Smith’s accounts of Pocahontas (ca. 1596-1617), and is terribly unhistorical in almost every aspect. Worse, the film is saturated by political correctness to a fault, and can count as a document of historical revisionism. The film tries very, very hard to portray the native Americans as real people, but nevertheless falls into the trap of the ‘noble savage’, reinforcing the myth that native Americans were living in more harmony with nature than Europeans ever did. Of course, the coming of the Europeans was a tragedy to the native Americans, as it started their demise (only a mere handful of the Tsenacommacah, the tribe depicted, still survive today), and it is practically impossible to make a positive film, let alone an uplifting Disney musical, out of such subject matter. In that respect the film was doomed from the outset.

The film starts In London with governor Ratcliffe (1549-1609) wanting to explore the new world to regain status at the court of king James I. We watch Ratcliffe establish Jamestown , and in the finale of the film Ratcliffe is overthrown by his own men, a very unlikely event, by all means (in reality Ratcliffe was killed in an ambush by members of the Pamunkey tribe). While in Virginia Ratcliffe is obsessed with gold only, regarding the native inhabitants as mere pests.

The misunderstanding between the Tsenacommacah and the British almost leads to war, while the love between Pocahontas and John Smith shows that this does not need to be so. The film is one large advertisement for mutual understanding. A welcome message, for sure, but delivered with heavy-handedness and aplomb. In fact, the rather hippie-like message of love conquers all has been stale since 1970, and is in fact rather painful considering the real events following the establishment of the British colony in Virginia.

Additionally, the film suffers from dire dialogue, and an all too obvious emphasis on delivering its message. Most of the movie progresses slowly and sentimentally. What doesn’t help is the uneasy mix between the serious clashes between the human groups, and the fluffy child’s world of the animal sidekicks. Perhaps the film’s best scene is the final one, in which, against all rules of Disney logic, Pocahontas and John Smith part, never to be reunited again…

Part of the movie’s problems are the leads themselves. Admittedly, star animator Glen Keane has animated Pocahontas very well – especially the scenes just prior the first meeting between her and John Smith are outstanding. However, Pocahontas is presented as a brave, mature and independent woman, which contrasts highly with her childish animal friends, and, to be frank, with her rather irresponsible behavior. Moreover, she has very little to do with the historical Pocahontas, who converted to Christianity, while the movie Pocahontas practically converts John Smith to animalism, in a historically very, very unlikely sequence. Even worse, the real Pocahontas later married a planter, and died already at the tender age of 21. These facts are hard to bear when looking at the stout and proud woman Pocahontas is in the Disney film.

Yet, Pocahontas fares much better than her lover John Smith, Unlike Pocahontas, it’s pretty hard to love John Smith, who’s presented as a fearless and almost flawless hero from the outset. John Smith is surprisingly blasé, and pretty vain, too. In fact, in a way Smith has more in common with Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ than the animators would be willing to admit, and there’s nothing really interesting about him. In fact, Smith remains a remarkably blank character, having a bland design and a weak story arc, typified with the song ‘Savages’, in which Pocahontas teaches him a lesson on the subject of ‘savages’, the worst of the all too clear messages of political correctness in the film. Animator John Pomeroy must have had a hard time breathing some life into this dull character.

More interesting characters are Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who, to me, has actually a more appealing character design than Pocahontas herself has, and her father, Chief Powhatan, who arguably is the best designed character in the whole movie. These two Indians are more interesting than all Europeans. Best of these is Thomas, a youngster that is so clumsy he would have died within months in the real world. Governor Ratcliffe is a very unhistorical character, who looks more Spanish than British, and who is foolish enough to try to dig up gold at a random shore. In the 17th century they certainly knew better than that. Ratcliffe is a rather poor excuse for a villain: he’s more vain than scary, and at no point a real threat to anyone, as is proven by the film’s finale. He’s accompanied by a servant called Wiggins, who provides the only convincing comic relief in this all too serious film.

Wiggins certainly is more tolerable than the three animal characters, the overtly cute raccoon Meeko, ditto hummingbird Flit, and Ratcliffe’s pet pug Percy. The three steal considerable screen time, they have their own subplot of enemies befriending each other, and are completely out of tune with the serious subject of clash of civilizations, and threat of war. By the time ‘Pocahontas’ was released, one got the impression that ‘animal sidekicks’ were obligate additions to the rule book of Disney feature film making, a feeling that was corroborated by ‘Mulan’ (1998), in which the animal sidekicks (a dragon and a cricket for God’s sake!) were even more outlandish and superfluous.

Yet, the worst character in the whole movie is Grandmother Willow, a talking tree. Apart from the fact that she’s brought alive by dated computer animation, this is a concept that even in a world full of spirits I will not buy. Grandmother Willow is such an outlandish, unbelievable character, she hampers the whole movie, and makes it very, very difficult indeed, to take the more realistic events seriously. Someone should have vetoed her presence early in the conceptualization of the story.

The soundtrack isn’t of any help either. The songs are by composer Alan Menken, who provided the hit songs for ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Not one of the songs in ‘Pocahontas’, however, reaches these heights. Instead, we are treated by very generic and surprisingly forgettable nineties-musical songs. What certainly doesn’t help are the trite lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which suffer from the same political correctness as the rest of the movie. The ‘Savages’ song forms the low point of the film in that respect.

No, the film’s unquestionably strongest point is its design, and it’s art director Michael Giaimo and artistic coordinator Don Hansen who should be praised most. More than any other Disney film of the Disney renaissance ‘Pocahontas’ looks back to the stylized designs of the late 1950s. For example, the film starts with a 1607 scene that is very reminiscent of the London scene in ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’ (1957), while in the rest of the film the background art, supervised by Cristy Maltese, is a straight echo of Eyvind Earle’s artwork for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), including square trees. The human designs, too, are more angular than ever, even to a fault, rendering some of the characters stiff and unappealing, especially some of the Indians, who at times look like technical art school drawings instead of living humans.

In fact, the film is most interesting for its outstanding color design, which with its grand greens, blues and purples is comparable to the best of ‘Fantasia’ (1940) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and one must admit that ‘Pocahontas’ certainly is a film worth looking at, if not necessarily one to watch. Indeed, I believe ‘Pocahontas’ will be remembered for its design elements, a clear product of the animation renaissance, especially as an early product of the school that looked back to the cartoon modern age (ca. 1948-1965), as exemplified by several television series from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network from the second half of the nineties, which were, not surprisingly, often made by former CalArts students of Giaimo.

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

‘Pocahontas’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Kevin Lima
Release Date: April 7, 1995
Stars: Goofy, Max, Pete
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘A Goofy Movie’ arguably is the least known of Disney’s theatrical movies from the studio’s Renaissance period. The film is not even in its official canon of animated features. Maybe because it was Disney’s first animated theatrical feature based on a television series, in this case ‘Goof Troop’, which run from September to December 1992.

Now I’ve never seen an episode of this television series myself, but I comprehend that it does resolve around Goofy being a single father of his son, Maximilian (in short Max), and being neighbor to Pete, who is a single father of a son, too, Pete Junior or P.J. in short. ‘A Goofy Movie’ uses exactly this premise, focusing on the relationship between Goofy and his son, with Max being the undisputed main character of the movie.

Now, Goofy’s family life has always been odd, being the classic Disney character that changed the most during his career. And indeed, he has been seen having a son in a few of his classical cartoons, starting with ‘Fathers are People’ from 1951, but by that time Goofy had transformed into everyman George J. Geef, and this son clearly isn’t Max, as he’s called George Geef jr. In both ‘Goof Troop’ and ‘A Goofy Movie’ Goofy once again is his clumsy self, so he has evolved once more. Pete, too, has had a son in earlier entries, most notably in ‘Bellboy Donald’ from 1942. In ‘A Goofy Movie’ he’s not really the villain of the old days of old, but still a disruptive voice, not taking Goofy for full, and giving him ill advice.

Voice artist Bill Farmer reprises his role as Goofy from ‘Goof Troop’ and is an excellent successor to Pinto Colvig. Max is voiced by Jason Marsden, a different voice than in ‘Goof Troop’, in which he was voiced by a woman (Dana Hill). But this is understandable as the events in ‘A Goofy Movie’ take place several years after the ones in ‘Goof Troop’. Max’s singing voice is provided by Aaron Lohr.

Added to the mix, and apparently not present in ‘Goof Troop’, is Max’s love interest Roxanne, and the film starts with Max’s last day at school, on which he tries to impress Roxanne, in which he succeeds, and he manages to ask her on a date to a party. Unfortunately, his father, realizing he might be losing grip on his son, has planned a trip for two to some fishing lake, and Max invents a totally unconvincing lie of why he has to cancel the date, involving both Max’s and Roxanne’s pop idol Powerline (who, voiced by Tevin Campbell, sounds a little like Michael Jackson).

As said, the father-son relationship between Goofy and Max is the focal point of the cartoon, and as such the film is surprisingly realistic and down to earth, with Max being ashamed of his old-fashioned, awkward and clumsy father, and Goofy uncomprehending of Max’s interests as an independent teenager. However, the two learn to know and to respect each other on a rather forced road trip through America. In this respect, one can see ‘A Goofy Movie’ as a forerunner of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), which explores a similar theme.

The road trip, which takes place on Route 66, and which takes the two Goofs all through America, forms the main part of the film, and it’s surprising to note that this piece of Americana was animated in studios in Paris, France and Sydney, Australia. Unfortunately, ‘A Goofy Movie’ defies all realism in several scenes, hampering the heartfelt story with outlandish scenes, like the two Goofs encountering Bigfoot, falling off a cliff with their car, and escaping a waterfall in an all too improbable and inconsistent series of events.

Moreover, for a film starring Goofy there’s surprisingly little humor – it’s all not that goofy. Yet, the team has managed to keep Goofy’s optimistic and naive character, while adding some depth to the former simpleton, mostly his struggle in being a father to Max. Indeed, the film is at its best when keeping focus on the relationship between Goofy and Max. This focal point remains interesting despite the deviations from reality.

As a film of the early nineties, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is an obligate musical, and the movie knows three nice if forgettable songs by Carter Burwell, sung by Max, with Goofy joining in in two of them. They at least succeed in not being obnoxious.

The animation is of a very high quality, with considerable attention detail. There are some nice touches, like Max’s reflection in a window, or colors turning blue when Goofy gets sad.

In all, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is a nice little movie with a surprisingly mature theme. The film may not be a masterpiece, it’s of enough quality to be worth a watch.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Goofy Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Goofy Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: October 29, 1993
Rating: ★★★

Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is an impressive film. Combining replacement techniques with puppets with complex armatures, computer-controlled camera movements, and a bit of drawn animation, Burton’s team takes the art of stop-motion to new heights.

Moreover, the film is surprisingly elaborate, and uses nineteen stages, 230 sets, sixty characters, and hundreds of puppets to tell its story. The opening scene alone is a tour-de-force of mind-blowing images, with too much happening to register it all.

The result is a stop motion film with the highest production values thus far, and simply bursting with stunning visuals. Together with Aardman’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’ from the same year the feature easily sets new standards for stop-motion.

So why don’t I give this film a five-star rating? The main reason is the songs. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was made at a time when American animation film practically equaled musical, but even so in this film soundtrack composer Elfman takes the musical idea to the max. There are no less than eleven songs within the 68 minutes the feature lasts, taking a staggering 43% of the screen time.

But Elfman is no Alan Menken, and all his songs are terribly meandering and forgettable, slowing down the action, with characters halting to express their emotions, like in a Baroque opera.

Low point arguably is Sally’s song, which could have been a moving expression of feelings, but turns out to be an all too short and completely aimless bit of music, lasting only 96 seconds. If one compares Elfman’s absent song-craft to the strong melodies of Menken’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992), it becomes clear that Elfman’s efforts don’t add to the story, but drag it down, to a point that one screams to be freed from the omnipresent singing.

The film is typical Burton with its friendly take on horror, and Burton’s head animator Henry Selick rightly calls the film’s overall style a mix of “German expressionism and Dr. Seuss”. Selick and his team manage to make Burton’s pen and ink drawings come to life in believable puppets, despite the often very long limbs and unsteady balance of some of the characters.

With this animation effort Selick turned out to be a strong new voice in the animation field, and after ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ he continued to impress, first with ‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996), then with ‘Coraline’ (2009), although his feature ‘Monkeybone’ (2001) was much less of a success.

Burton’s story is based on an original idea, but is not worked out too well. The idea of Holiday lands is a good one, but how does one return from Christmas land to Halloween land? And there is a focus problem: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ follows two main characters, Jack Skellington and Sally, without choosing one as its principal character.

Jack is a bit of a problematical character anyhow: he’s king of his land, but remarkably bored, and he’s willing to take a huge risk to fill his own feelings of emptiness. Moreover, his selfish plans means a year without Halloween, not to mention the disastrous Christmas he makes. Jack does develop during the film, but his remorse and recovery come too quickly to be entirely convincing.

In the end, it’s Sally who turns out to be the most interesting character of the two: when we first watch her, she literally falls apart. She’s controlled and hold back by her maker, the possessive Dr. Finkelstein, and naturally very shy, but during the movie she becomes bolder and more venturous.

The film’s villain, The Bogeyman, is scary, but his role in Burton’s universe is obscure: why is he the only nightmarish character that is genuinely scary and unfriendly? I have no idea. A nice touch are the Cab Calloway influences on this character. He even literally quotes Calloway when saying “I’m doing the best I can” like Calloway did in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘The Old Man from the Mountain’ (1933).

The film’s story flaws would certainly be forgivable, given the film’s stunning visuals, if it were not for the songs. The biggest problem of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ remains its unappealing soundtrack, reducing an otherwise fantastic film into a hardly tolerable one. An immense pity, for one remains wondering what the film could have been if it had not been the obligate and ugly musical it turned out to be.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Directors: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Release Date: June 15, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

When ‘The Lion King’ was released I went to see the film three times in a row. At the time I lived on the tiny Caribbean isle of Tobago, and I went three times, partly because there was little else to do, partly because the film would disappear from the screen in ca. five days, anyway, but most importantly because the film made a deep impression on me. Strangely enough, I hadn’t seen the movie since, so after 25 years it has become high time.


Luckily, the film holds up very well after all these years. Indeed, not only was ‘The Lion King’ the highest grossing animation film thus far on its release, the movie still is one of the most popular animation films of all time. For example, it takes place 34 at IMDb’s top rated movie, as the second animated movie, after ‘Spirited Away’ on place 27, checked on November 21, 2020).

In that regard ‘The Lion King’ can be seen as the pinnacle of the Disney renaissance, because it tops an excellent row of Disney features (‘The Little Mermaid’ from 1988), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from 1990, and ‘Aladdin’ from 1992), while the subsequent Disney movies of the nineties, while still good, would not reach the same heights again, nor stir the same sensation as these first four features did.

According to Mark Mayerson in ‘Animation Art’ this was partly because Disney’s success “caused other companies to start producing animated features. This diluted the talent pool and forced up wages and budgets” prompting management to interfere more in the film making process. Mayerson also detects pretentiousness and a lack of warmth in these later pictures (Animation Art, p. 305).

What certainly didn’t help was Toy Story’s big hit in 1995, suddenly shifting the future of animation from traditional to computer generated animation, a process that more or less was completed ten years later, after which traditional animated features would become extremely rare, at least in the United States.

Indeed, even in ‘The Lion King’ one of the biggest stirs among audiences (including me) was the computer generated stampede of wildebeests. This tour-de-force of computer animation was an impressive feat on the big screen, and though computer animation has been pushing the envelope ever forward since, the scene still holds up today, interestingly partly because the wildebeests are based on hand drawn designs.

There are more technical stunts to be found in ‘The Lion King’, both aided by the computer and not. Especially the opening scenes are literally stuffed with them, showing a sequence of mind-blowing images of African nature to the song ‘The Circle of Life’.

But much more impressive in the end is the character animation, which is top notch throughout, and which has an apparent effortlessness to it that never ceases to amaze. Especially the work by Andreas Deja and his team on Scar is impressive, making him a worthy successor of that other outstanding feline villain of the silver screen, Shere Khan (Jungle Book, 1967), greatly helped by his voice artist Jeremy Irons, who gives the character the perfect mix of self-pithy, sarcasm and sinister slyness.

Another stand out in the voices are Mufasa’s voice, which is deep and commanding, yet fatherly and compassionate, and which is provided by James Earl Jones of Darth Vader fame. Yet another is Whoopi Goldberg as the leader of a villain trio of hyenas.

Being a nineties Disney film, ‘The Lion King’ of course is a musical, a genre that certainly is not my favorite, but I must admit that Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s songs hold up very well, greatly aided by the imagery. ‘The Circle of Life’, as said, makes an impressive opener; ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ is spiced by very bold colors, and stylized background art (as well as anteaters, which do not occur in Africa – a strange and unnecessary error); Scar’s song ‘Be prepared’ is accompanied by evil greens and purples in a clear echo of Maleficent in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), and the love ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ is rescued from sappiness by the inclusion of Timon and Pumbaa mourning the loss of their friend. All these songs propel the story forward, none more so than the best song of all, ‘Hakuna Matata’, which neatly changes the infant Simba into the adult one.

Which brings me to the main reason the film still is a great classic: it’s told so well. The pace of the film is almost flawless, with exciting and more relaxing scenes distributed in perfect fashion. The only implausible scenes come at the end of the film: first there is Rafik’s all too simple cure of Simba’s guilt complex. I bet many psychiatric patients would die for such a quick resolution of their youth inflicted mental problems. Moreover, this scene includes a very unconvincing mystical dialogue between Simba and his deceased father. The finale uses two little too evident symbols of change and renewal (fire and rain), and how Simba manages to turn the wasteland of his kingdom into a prosperous country again, remains an utter mystery.

Nevertheless, the guilt that haunts Simba makes him an interesting and relatable lead character – like Aladdin he isn’t a flawless hero. And while it’s understandable he embraces Pumbaa’s and Timon’s relaxed lifestyle, it clearly cannot cure him from the haunts of his past, which he just has to face in the end, which means he has to overcome his biggest fears and insecurities.

It’s a great feat that the film makers have managed to weave such a deep theme into the more classic usurper tale, which is notably dark: we watch both a murder and a dead body on the screen, in what must be the most harrowing scene in a Disney animation film since the death of Bambi’s mother in ‘Bambi’ (1942), the film with which ‘The Lion King’ has most in common: both follow the main protagonist in his youth and in his adult life, both depict a very romantic concept of nature, and both have ‘the circle of life’ as their main theme, with ‘The Lion King’’s opening and closing scenes being undisputed echoes of the closing scene of the classic from the 1940s.

Because ‘The Lion King’ is a rather serious tale, it’s a little low on comedy. Indeed, there are very few real gags in this film, one of them unusually self-parodying: at one point a caged Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) starts singing ‘it’s a small world after all’, which immediately prompts Scar in an anxious ‘No, no, anything but that!’. The other great gag of the movie is when Timon refers to the sad Simba as ‘He looks blue’, on which Pumbaa replies ‘I’d say brownish gold’. That said, the film is absolutely balanced in its mix of humor and drama, and never becomes heavy-handed.

In all, ‘The Lion King’ has hold up after these 25 years, and has his rightful place as one of the greatest films of all time, animated or not. And I seriously wonder why a remake was at all necessary or welcome, for in my opinion the original cannot be topped.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Lion King’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Lion King’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

One Hundred and One Dalmatians © Walt Disney

Among the classic Disney films ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a rather underrated little gem. Pretty modest in its story and ambitions, the film nevertheless is a milestone in Disney animation, introducing a completely new style to Disney feature animation.

After the costly debacle of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) it was clearly time for a change, and in many respects, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. The new feature is no fairy tale, but set in contemporary times, it has an unprecedented crime plot, and it has a modern design which was a complete departure from earlier efforts, and which was fit for a more modern age.

Modern design had invaded Disney feature animation as far back as ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1945), but ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to have a modern outlook from start to end. The film is also the first Disney feature to be set in contemporary times, even if this is a little confusing: the English setting gives most of the film a vintage look, Roger Radcliffe is a jazz composer in the style of the 1930s, and Cruella drives a Mercedes Benz 500 K from the mid-1930’s. Moreover, Roger and his wife Anita may be depicted as being rather poor, at least in the eyes of Cruella de Vil, they nonetheless manage to have a maid, an anachronistic anomaly in the post-war age of television.

No, the modernity of the film is more present in it looks: ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to make use of Xeroxed cells, preserving the black outlines, which give the film a more graphic look. Initiated by art director Ken Anderson, and developed by Walt Disney old partner Ub Iwerks, the process was first tried out in the short special ‘Goliath II’ (1960), and deemed successful enough for further use. No doubt the xerox process was conceived to save money, and the process is particularly helpful in this particular film, which its 101 duplicate puppies, which are essentially black and white characters, anyway. Yet, the method preserved the rough animation outlines, which were more vivid than the cleaned up cells, and the xeroxed cells give the animation an extra swinging touch. Indeed, the new process was a hit with the animators themselves, who, for the first time, saw their own drawings directly on the animated screen.

Iwerks even managed to xerox a cardboard model of Cruella’s car with marked black outlines. Thus, in the film Cruella’s car is essentially rotoscoped. This experimental method also accounts for the only unconvincing special effect in the film: during the finale Cruella’s car gets stuck in the snow. This scene was filmed using the cardboard model and real sand, and unfortunately the photographed sand is clearly visible, as its roughness deviates from the otherwise very clean artwork. Moreover, one can see this piece of xeroxed live action move on top of the background art.

Never mind the cost reduction of the xerox process, the depiction of 101 dalmatians could only be done at Disney’s at the time: as all the dogs’ spots had to be animated independently. The studio set up a sole unit for this task alone. No wonder, as Pongo alone has no less than 76 spots!

In ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, the xerox cells are matched by xeroxed background art lines by e.g. Ernie Nordli, which make an ideal match with the background paintings by Walt Peregoy, with its bold coloring: the results are very intricate, very graphical, yet stylized, decorative and very appealing backgrounds, which belong to the most artful ever produced, and which give the film its unique look. The new style, with its original mix of depth and flatness, works best in the urban setting, with all its straight lines. The scenes in the countryside have a more traditional feel, and are more akin to earlier artwork by e.g. Mary Blair.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney himself disliked this background art, most probably because they are devoid of any romanticism. The xeroxed animation works particularly well with these graphic backgrounds. Yet the latter were not repeated, while xeroxed animation lasted until the mid-1980’s. By that time the style had become jaded, and gotten a cheap feel and outdated feel. No wonder, Don Bluth chose to go back to painted cells in his nostalgic feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982). Nonetheless, in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ the xeroxed cells look fresh and modern, and they certainly contribute to the film’s timeless appeal.

That ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a new, less pretentious and more fun film than ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been, becomes immediately clear in the startlingly modern opening credits, with its visual puns on spots. This sole sequence itself is a sheer delight, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The introduction uses a voice over by Pongo (Rod Taylor), Roger’s Dalmatian dog, and tells how he managed to get Roger and Anita meet each other, acting like a canine matchmaker. As Anita has a female Dalmatian dog, Perdita, this event also marks the welcome end to Pongo’s bachelor life.

Soon, Perdita is pregnant, and gives birth to no less than fifteen puppies. This event introduces the arch villain of the movie: Cruella de Vil, apparently an old schoolmate of Anita. Cruella must be the all time best of Disney villains: she’s both ridiculously outlandish and genuinely menacing. Her voice by Betty Lou Gerson is spot on, giving her the perfect mix of class, disdain, selfishness and temper. The voice is matched by Marc Davis’s design and animation, which give the character an unprecedented screen presence: Cruella has the energy of a Stromboli, the deftness of a captain Hook, and the icy coldness of a Malificent all rolled in one, and then some. She’s the undisputed star of the film: a villain one loves to hate, from her first entry until her last lunatic car ride.

This was the last animation Marc Davis did before he moved over to designing for Disney parks. Cruella de Vil can be seen as his masterpiece, and is his impressive farewell to animation. She undoubtedly inspired several subsequent Disney villains, like Medusa in ‘The Recuers’ (1978), Jafar in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and Yzma in ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000).

Cruella de Vil may be an animation highlight, all of the animation in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is excellent. Led by six of Disney’s nine old men, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ shows that these veteran animators were on top of their game. Roger and Anita (animated by Milt Kahl) have the perfect mix of caricature and realism, and make a believable real couple, if not a too memorable one. Likewise, Horace and Jasper, the pair of crooks that function as Cruella’s henchmen, have that great combination of silliness and threat, which make them so lovely to watch. The dogs are all good, and it’s clear that the animators could rely on years of experience on this particular mix of naturalism and anthropomorphism, dating back to ‘Bambi’ (1942), but of course most notably to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1956), which also features numerous dogs. Indeed, Jock, Peg, Bull and Lady herself can all be seen during the ‘twilight bark’ scene, one of the highlights of the film.

As if to illustrate how for the animators had come, Disney shows a short excerpt from the Silly Symphony ‘Springtime’ (1929) on television in a scene in the old De Vil mansion. The old short provides the score for a large part of this scene.

Highly unusually, the film’s story was storyboarded by one man only: Bill Peet, and his story is a prime example of lean storytelling: there’s absolutely no unnecessary fat on this film, which moves to the grand finale on an excellent speed, with an increasing sense of danger. Thus, the film is over before you know it. Even better, Peet manages to tell the story without relying on too obvious story tropes – for example, in a modern version Pongo doubtless would estrange his friends, or break down in doubt just before the start of the finale. None of that in this movie! Even Dodie Smith, who had written the original book in 1956, thought Peet had improved on her story.

Apart from the Twilight Bark scenes, other highlights are the soot scenes in the mythical village of Dinsford, and the preceding scenes at Suffolk, featuring ‘The Colonel’, a very British and rather deaf sheepdog (voiced by Pat O’Malley), and his brave tabby cat Sergeant Tibbs. These scenes made me laugh out loud.

Apart from its modern looks and setting ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is remarkable for its surprisingly lack of songs. With ‘Bambi’ this feature is the only classic Disney feature not to be a musical. In fact, there are only two (not counting a silly song accompanying a commercial for dog food on television), which is the more remarkable, as Roger Radcliffe is supposed to be a songwriter. Indeed, Roger sings both songs: first one about Cruella de Vil, just before she enters herself, and the second one at the film’s Christmas finale. This second song, ‘Dalmatian plantation’ lasts only 25 seconds, before dissolving back into the background score. This score, by George Bruns, is another departure from earlier Disney features: Bruns’s score is less lush, more brassy and more jazzy than previous scores, and matches the scenes very well.

In all, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is an undisputed highlight within the Disney canon: the film is forward looking and unpretentious, modern and timeless, exciting and funny, all at the same time. Indeed, the feature did well at the box office, evaporating the studio’s deficit of 1960. With ‘Jungle Book’ the film certainly is the best of Disney’s feature output from the 1960s and 1970s, and even if the feature heralded a less classy era, the film itself is one of sheer delight that can withstand the wear of ages.

Watch the trailer for ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 21, 1961
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Litterbug © Walt Disney‘The Litterbug’ is the very last Donald Duck cartoon, ending a theatrical cartoon career that had lasted 27 years.

The cartoon uses a voice over in rhyme to describe ‘the litterbug’ as if it were some kind of harmful insect species. The short starts with live action footage of litter and garbage, then we cut to a book full of pests, containing the mosquito, the boll weevil, the termite, and… ‘the litterbug’, with Donald Duck representing the latter.

‘The Litterbug’ is one of the earliest environmental cartoons ever. Nevertheless the tone is light, helped by the joyful song by Mel Leven. Donald looks more angular than ever, and is clearly xeroxed. Al Dempster’s background art resembles that of ‘101 Dalmations’. Both xerox and background art give this short a particularly graphic look, which doesn’t suit Donald very well. Nevertheless, ‘The Litterbug’ is a fitting goodbye to a great career, and certainly better than Mickey’s last cartoon, ‘The Simple Things‘ from 1953.

Watch ‘The Litterbug’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is the last Donald Duck cartoon
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald and the Wheel

‘The Litterbug’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume Four 1951-1961’

Director: Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 21, 1961
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating:
Review:

Donald and the Wheel © Walt Disney‘Donald and the Wheel’ is an educational special lasting almost 18 minutes.

The short features two ‘spirits of progress’, an old one and a junior, who are depicted by grotesque looking live actors, of whom we only see their silhouettes. These spirits are voiced by The Mellotones, who provide the rhyming dialogue, and who sing two swinging songs by Mel Leven: ‘Wheels of progress’ and ‘That’s the Principle of the Thing’. Donald Duck is only a pawn in this cartoon, and throughout the picture he’s depicted in his stone age appearance, introduced at the beginning: wearing a bear skin, and suddenly bearing a red scalp.

The educational value of this short is very limited: we watch how wheels are used in all kinds of transport, and in various machines – that’s about it. Thus soon the tiresome dialogue and the irritating duo of spirits wear out their welcome.

The short is further hampered by ugly colored live action footage of cars and industrial wheels, looking forward to the cheap look of Ralph Bakshi’s features from the late 1970s.

Watch ‘Donald and the Wheel’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 118
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: How to Have an Accident at Work
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Litterbug

‘Donald and the Wheel’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume Four 1951-1961’

Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: July 1, 1959
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

How to Have an Accident at Work © Walt Disney‘How to Have an Accident at Work’ is a clear follow-up to ‘How to Have an Accident in the Home’ from 1956.

Like its predecessor the tale is told by J.J. Fate, a little bearded variation on Donald Duck, who shows us that carelessness and fate are not the same thing. The short is more a spot gag cartoon than strictly educational, and features a running gag of Donald repeatedly ending up at the (human) first aid nurse. Luckily, Donald’s ways of getting an accident are less gross than they would have been in real life.

Extraordinarily, the short depicts our feathered friend as being married and as a father of a son. Also noteworthy are some beautiful depictions of industrial machines, wonderfully laid out by Eric Nordi, and artfully painted by background artist Al Dempster.

Watch ‘How to Have an Accident at Work’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 117
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald in Mathmagic Land
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald and the Wheel

‘How to Have an Accident at Work’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume Four 1951-1961’

Director: Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 26, 1959
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Donald in Mathmagic Land © Walt Disney‘Donald in Mathmagic Land’ is a long educational special, lasting almost half an hour.

The film starts with Donald Duck entering a surreal landscape, dressed as a tropical hunter and wondering where he is. His questions are answered by the spirit of adventure, who remains unseen throughout the cartoon. The Spirit of adventure takes Donald on a trip through mathematics, trying to convince him it’s not only for eggheads.

The film tells about the golden ratio, the pentagram, and billiards. Also featured is a stop motion game of chess, of which the mathematics remain completely unclear. This episode shortly changes Donald into Alice in Wonderland, which makes him look particularly goofy.

The looks of this short are very beautiful: Mathmagic land is rendered in appealing reds, blues, pinks and violets, giving it a magical atmosphere, indeed. Pythagoras and his friends are rendered in Cartoon Modern style, echoing Ward Kimball’s earlier works from the 1950s. The short also uses some live action footage of a jazz band, and of a star billiard player.

The complete cartoon is a charming piece of education, if still rather shallow, and more impressive in memory than when actually watching it.

Watch ‘Donald in Mathmagic Land’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 116
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: How to have an Accident in the Home
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: How to Have an Accident at Work

‘Donald in Mathmagic Land’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald Volume Four 1951-1961’

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 21, 1960
Rating: ★★
Review:

Goliath II © Walt Disney‘Goliath II’ is a slow and gentle children’s film, penned by storyman Bill Peet, about a tiny elephant, who is the shame of the herd, until he bravely defeats a cocky mouse, which scares all the others away.

With its fifteen minutes of length, Reitherman’s all too relaxed timing, George Bruns’s uninspired score, and studio favorite Sterling Holloway’s dull narration, ‘Goliath II’ is one of the most boring of the Disney specials. Moreover, there are several instances of reused animation (e.g. the tiger from ‘Tiger Trouble’ (1945), the crocodile from ‘Peter Pan’, and an owl from ‘Bambi‘), giving the film a rather cheap look.

Nevertheless, ‘Goliath II’ is a milestone, as it is the first animated film to exploit the xerox technique on cel animation, an innovation developed by Ub Iwerks in the 1950s. The xerox process meant the characters needn’t be retraced by the ink department, and could keep their vibrant animated lines, giving them a more graphic look. For better or worse, the xerox technique dominated Disney animation up to the late 1980s. By then it had long lost its charm, and was finally discarded (‘The Little Mermaid’ is the first film in the new style).

The xerox technique, combined with Reitherman’s direction, the film’s setting and elephant characters, make ‘Goliath II’ a forerunner of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967). The short even introduces the gag in which the elephants are forced to stop their march, and fall on top of each other.

Despite the new techniques, and fine animation, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Goliath II’, but I would like to single out the extraordinary background paintings by Richard H. Thomas, Gordon Legg and Thelma Witmer, which schematically indicate a jungle without going into too much detail.

Watch ‘Goliath II’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Goliath II’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Bill Justice
Release Date: November 10, 1959
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Noah's Ark © Walt DisneyThis is the second of no less than three Disney interpretations from the classic story from Genesis, the other ones being the Silly Symphony ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933) and a sequence from ‘Fantasia 2000’ (1999), starring Donald Duck.

This second version is the most extraordinary of the three as it exchanges the ordinary cel animation for stop motion, an animation technique not practiced at the Disney studio. Yet animators Bill Justice and X Atencio gave it a go. For novices in this particular technique, the stop motion is of a remarkably high quality, on par with other stop motion films of the time.

In classic animation tradition, the film start with human hands handling the material, and even the film’s title is animated in stop motion, using a string of wool. Justice’s and Atencio’s designs, too, are refreshing: all characters are mostly made of ordinary material, like corks, pencils and clothespins, often still very visible. The cinematography, too, is superb. For example, there’s a clever montage scene of Noah and his sons building the ark.

The story (by T. Hee) is told by Jerome Courtland in rhyme and features a jazzy score by George Bruns and several songs by Mel Leven. The makers don’t take their story too seriously, and at one point there’s even room for a blues song sung by an abandoned female hippo who grieves, while her husband Harry dances with all other female creatures.

In all, ‘Noah’s Ark’ is a nice departure for Disney, and the film’s looks remain unique within the Disney canon. At 20 minutes the short may be a little too long, but the sheer fun with which this film has been made is contagious.

Watch ‘Noah’s Ark’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Noah’s Ark’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Ward Kimball
Release Date: June 18, 1959
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Eyes in Outer Space © Walt DisneyWhile eight of the nine old men were busy with feature film animation, like ‘Sleeping Beauty‘, number 9, Ward Kimball spend his energy to quite different films, blending science with science fiction.

‘Eyes in Outer Space’ is an excellent example of Kimball’s trade. Made when satellite technology was still brand new (by the time of this short’s release ca. 13-14 satellites had been successfully launched into space, the majority by the U.S.), ‘Eyes in outer space’ tells how satellites can help mankind not only to predict, but even to control the weather. The film first shows us the new technology: rockets and satellites, then it shows the destructive and beneficial powers of the weather.

After this we cut to the animated sequence. This lasts not even five minutes, but is an absolute joy to watch: first we watch a funny sequence about how weather affects our emotions, and how we used to try to predict the weather in the past. This is a delightful little piece of cartoon modernism, but the designs get bolder and more abstract when narrator Paul Frees tells about the life-cycle of a droplet. This is a very beautiful piece of avant-garde animation, featuring bold colors and designs and greatly helped by the rhyming narration and George Bruns’s jazzy score.

Unfortunately, it’s not to last, and soon we’re back to live action footage telling how meteorologists predict the weather today and how satellites come in handy. The last eleven minutes are devoted to a particularly noteworthy piece of infotainment. Here we cut to a future in which we cannot only predict the weather (months in advance!), but control it, too. The film shows us how a global weather station alters the course of an Atlantic hurricane, with the help of e.g. robot planes and a space station. This is a nice piece of 1950s science fiction. Needless to say nothing of this has materialized, yet, and it’s highly questionable if it will ever.

Watch ‘Eyes in Outer Space’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Eyes in Outer Space’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrow Land -Disney in Space and Beyond’

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: January 28, 1959
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sleeping Beauty © Walt Disney

Taking six years to make and costing about six million dollars ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was destined to be Walt Disney’s grandest animated feature film ever. Unfortunately, the result never reaches the heights aimed at, and at times the film feels as trying to be too smart for its own good.

It certainly didn’t help that Walt himself was hardly involved in the film’s production process, as by this time he had become more interested in live action movies and his pet project, Disneyland.

The first of the film’s problems is the extraordinarily detailed background art. Art director Eyvind Earle clearly put his stamp on the artwork, which he based on Gothic art, especially late medieval tapestries. The result is a strange mixture of stylized forms and extremely dense textures. This artwork without doubt is very beautiful, so much so that the backgrounds steal the attention in almost every scene. But unlike Mary Blair’s artwork Earle’s style is devoid of charm and warmth, and the much less detailed animated characters don’t read well against the intricate backgrounds.

The characters were designed by modernist Tom Oreb, who gave them a rather angular outlook, which diminishes their attractiveness. Especially the goons and the drunk minstrel look rather poor, and their designs look forward to the leaner designs of the 1960s and 1970s.

The film’s second problem is its story, which takes a long time to even start. Sleeping Beauty’ was Disney’s third fairy tale princess film, after ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Cinderella‘, and like the earlier films the feature starts with a fairy tale book. But after that the story moves slowly, and up to seventeen minutes it still requires a voice over for the narration. Only after 30 minutes something happens (the Sleeping Beauty meets a stranger). The film is three quarters away before conflict sets in (she is lured away by Maleficent). Moreover, the central theme of the original fairy tale is thrown out of the window: after all, in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred years. The studio plays that time span down to a mere day, and the sleeping doesn’t occur before two-thirds of the film.

The third issue is with the characters themselves. The Disney studio christened the Sleeping Beauty Aurora, but she doesn’t really gain a character of her own, and she remains less appealing than Cinderella had been. Worse, nowhere is she is in control of her own destiny.

Her love interest, prince Phillip, fares hardly better. There are only two scenes in which he goes his own way: first when he hears Aurora’s voice, and second when he rushes off to meet her again, despite his father’s objections. True, he is less bland than the prince in ‘Snow White’, but nonetheless he never becomes a full or engaging character, and it’s a pity that he has to guide the audience through the film’s last fifteen minutes.

No, the real main protagonists of the film are the three fairies, who in the original fairy tale only appear at the beginning, but whom the Disney studio has made instrumental to the plot throughout the movie. The studio has made the three (called Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) into three gentle, but fussy old aunts, and especially Merryweather is very well done. In fact, she’s arguably the most interesting character of the whole movie, a striking notion, given the fact that actually the love between Princess Aurora and Prince Philip should stand central.

The villain, Maleficent, is good, too. She’s certainly the most powerful Disney villain since Chernobogh from Fantasia. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by a highly incompetent army of ‘goons’, whose inability contrasts too much with Maleficent’s own frightening powers. The goons provide a ghoulish dancing scene, reminiscent of the Night on the Bare Mountain sequence of Fantasia, but which in fact harks all the way back to the dance of the devils in the Silly Symphony ‘The Goddess of Spring’ from 1935. Earle and his team gave Maleficent and her scenes a striking and rather eerie color mix of green, purple and black. The eerie green was influential enough to return in the depiction of Minas Morgul in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Maleficent also provides the film’s most moving scene, in which she sketches her release of prince Philip, then an old and frail man, to awake his love, eternally young in her sleep. Of course, nothing of that image comes true, and prince Philip defeats the evil sorceress in the film’s deservedly most famous scene: the battle with the dragon. The animation of the dragon is one of sheer power, and the towering figure is impressive even on a small screen. However, this iconic scene not even lasts ninety seconds, and in fact the dragon is slain surprisingly easily, and not by Phillip, but by Fauna – Thus even the final victory is denied to the hero…

The other characters are even more forgettable. The two kings have a rather superfluous scene together, hampered by the antics of the drunken minstrel, and Aurora’s mother is actually nothing more than a moving picture. None of the characters mentioned are funny, and the movie is painfully devoid of humor, love and empathy.

The fourth issue is the soundtrack: composer George Bruns was largely based on Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for the fairy tale. This accounts for a sophisticated score, but not for any memorable songs.

Certainly no issue is the animation. Done by eight of the Nine Old Men (by this time Ward Kimball was pursuing other interests), the animation is, of course, top notch. But this cannot save a film that crushes under its own pretentiousness, and that is in fact remarkably unsubstantial and boring. Indeed, the film grossed $5.3 million at the box office, which didn’t even meet the production costs. Thus, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ stands as Disney’s last lavish production, a sad and questionable end of an era.

Watch the trailer of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: James Algar
Release Date: December 17, 1958
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Grand Canyon © Walt Disney‘Grand Canyon’ is not an animation film. I include it in my blog though, because of its obvious ties to ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

In fact, ‘Grand Canyon’ feels like an extra ‘live-action segment to Fantasia (like ‘Fantasia’ the film starts with the sounds of the orchestra preparing to play). Fantasia-veteran James Algar directed this extraordinary Cinemascope short, which was photographed and produced by Ernst A. Heiniger and set to Ferde Grofé’s ‘Grand Canyon Suite’ (1931). It’s a genuine mood piece, a visual interpretation of Ferde Grofé’s impressionistic music. Thus ‘Grand Canyon’ is not really a documentary, nor does it tell a story. It’s a combination of the music and images of the vast landscape only.

Grofé’s suite is in five parts, which all are played. Part one, ‘Sunrise’, is accompanied by panorama shots, made from a plane. In Part two, ‘Painted Desert’, we dive into the canyon, with images of a rather turbulent Colorado river. Part three,’On the trail’ is devoted to animals, with shots of a lynx, a spider, a roadrunner, a snake, a Gila monster, a Western spotted skunk, and a puma with some cubs. Part four, ‘Cloudbust’ shows us images of clouds, a thunderstorm and snow, and finally, part five, shows us miscellaneous images of a landscape in the now, an owl, a hare, and an eagle who takes us back to the plane shots, while the sun sets.

The complete film lasts almost half an hour. The result is a strange and only moderately entertaining mixture between Fantasia and the True Life Series.

Watch ‘Grand Canyon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Grand Canyon’ is available as an extra on the ‘Sleeping Beauty Platinum Edition’ DVD-set

Directors: Bill Justice & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: August 28, 1957
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Truth about Mother Goose © Walt DisneyThis fifteen minute short tells about the historical origin of three nursery rhymes: ‘Little Jack Horner’, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ and ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

Each rhyme is first sung in quasi-jazzy style by the The Page Cavanaugh Trio, then a voice over takes over, telling the real stories. The presentation is rather dour, with only a few rather poor attempts at gags. These ‘gags’ are at times uneasily at odds with the grave subject matter, like the tragic fate of Mary, queen of Scots or the London fire of 1666. In fact, the short is quite educational, but also remarkably boring, and fails to entertain.

The short is noteworthy, however, for its very intricate background art, e.g. by Eyvind Earle. Unfortunately, against these elaborate backgrounds the rather angular characters don’t read very well. In this respect ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ foreshadows the problems of ‘Sleeping Beauty‘ (1959). The design is stylized and baroque, but not very elegant, except for some silhouette scenes in the Queen Mary episode, which combine blacks and blues in an graceful way, reminiscent of the color scheming in ‘Cinderella‘ (1951).

Nevertheless, the background art is far more interesting than the animation, and several shots contain little or no animation at all. The best animation goes to two knights in a tournament, otherwise a rather superfluous scene, adding little to the narrative.

The short is further hampered by the ugly, uninspired music, and consequently, ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’ must be regarded as one of the weakest of all Disney one-shots, despite the clear effort that went into the film.

Watch ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 5, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Chef Donald © Walt Disney‘Chef Donald’ opens with Donald gluing some recipes in a book.

This sets the stage for the single premise in this cartoon: when following a recipe for waffles on the radio Donald accidentally puts in some rubber cement (glue) into his mix instead of baking powder. This leads to remarkably stubborn dough, and the rest of the cartoon is filled with Donald trying to deal with it.

‘Chef Donald’ is full of surprising gags, like an iron ironing Donald’s chef hat by accident, and a large crack splitting his complete house. The most bizarre gag is when the dough takes the air like a helicopter. The animation on Donald himself is wonderful and absolutely inspired, but because the short milks the glue-gag until the end the end result is less than satisfying.

Watch ‘Chef Donald’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 29
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Village Smithy

‘Chef Donald’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: October 24, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Donald's Camera © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Camera’ opens with Donald reading a sign saying ‘Shoot nature with a camera instead of a gun’.

Donald immediately becomes anti-hunting, eschewing the sight of a gun and deploring the fate of some stuffed animals in a hunting shop’s window. In the next scene Donald is on his way in the forest, trying to photograph some wild animals. He fails to take a picture of a chipmunk, and is laughed at by a whole bunch of cute animals, who seem to have entered the cartoon straight from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937).

After three-and-a-half minutes Donald meets the main adversary of the cartoon, the obnoxious woodpecker from ‘Self Control‘ (1938). The angry bird doesn’t want to get photographed and gives Donald a hard time. Thus in the end, we watch Donald wandering the forest, carrying two guns and dragging a miniature canon with him in search of the pesky little bird.

‘Donald’s Camera’ is a genuine gag cartoon, and contains some very fast animation, but the short is hampered by Lundy’s gentle approach to directing. The silliest gag is when Donald puts the woodpecker into two ridiculous poses.

Watch ‘Donald’s Camera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 28
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Old MacDonald Duck
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Chef Donald

‘Donald’s Camera’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 12, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Old MacDonald Duck © Walt Disney‘Old MacDonald Duck’ was the cartoon announced three months earlier in ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘. As Donald Duck explains himself in that feature in this cartoon he’s a farmer.

The short opens with a musical routine on ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ (naturally). This almost Silly Symphony-like sequence lasts ninety seconds. Then the main body of the cartoon starts, in which Donald milks his cow Clementine, hindered by a fly. This leads to a battle between Donald and the fly, with Donald using milk squeezed from Clementine’s udders to bomb the little insect, in a rather early war analogy (predating the attack on Pearl Harbor by two months). Of course, it’s the fly who has the last laugh.

Clementine, whose theme music is, of course, ‘Oh My Darling’, is wonderfully animated. The fly is the second of a line of insects Donald had to deal with, after the bee in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The battle between duck and fly is well done, but never becomes hilarious. There’s a little too much emphasis on the fly being a small, innocent creature unnecessarily bullied by Donald. Apparently to give the otherwise obnoxious animal some sympathy, something that’s typical for all the Donald vs. insect cartoons. I guess, however, that the humor would have worked better, if the audience’s sympathy had remained with Donald himself, with the fly playing the same role as the inanimate objects did in contemporary, much better cartoons like ‘Donald’s Vacation‘ (1940) or ‘Early to Bed‘ (1941).

Watch ‘Old MacDonald Duck’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 27
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Truant Officer Donald
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera

‘Old MacDonald Duck’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: August 1, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Truant Officer Donald © Walt Disney‘Truant Officer Donald’ opens with Huey, Dewey and Louie having fun at the lake.

Unfortunately, they’re soon caught by Donald, the truant officer, who uses quite some fisherman’s gear to catch the brats. Nevertheless, the hooky playing trio succeeds in escaping from Donald’s car, and flee into their ‘pirates’ den’. What follows is a great chase routine with Donald trying to enter the hut, and the nephews defending it in ingenious ways.

The film’s highlight is the scene in which Donald tries to smoke out his nephews. Huey, Dewey and Louie use some roast chickens to pretend that Donald has killed them. They even take the gag further by letting one of them go down dressed as an angel to punish their uncle. Donald nevertheless has the last laugh, only to discover that the school is closed for summer holidays.

‘Truant Officer Donald’ is a great gag cartoon and one of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s finest. Carl Barks, who had worked on the story for this film, would revisit the idea of Donald being a truant officer and battling his nephews, in his Donald Duck comic WDC 100 (1949), with equally funny results.

Watch ‘Truant Officer Donald’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 26
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Early to Bed
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Old MacDonald Duck

‘Truant Officer Donald’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

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