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Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.

Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.

The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.

After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.

Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.

Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.

For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.

Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.

Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.

Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.

Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.

But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.

The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast.  Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.

The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.

The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.

The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.

Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.

Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.

In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:

‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: April 12, 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl from 1961 ‘James and the Giant Peach’ is, in fact, a hybrid, starting and ending as a live action movie, with the middle forty minutes (ca. half the movie) being done entirely in stop-motion.

The opening scenes set ‘James and the Giant Peach’ as one of the great fantasy films of the nineties. The sets and atmosphere are magical and dreamlike, with no attempt at reality. James’s horrific aunts, too, are grotesque and deeply rooted in caricature. They are excellently played by British actresses Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley, who are allowed to play their personas as broadly as possible. Young James, in contrast, remains perfectly normal, and Paul Terry’s performance is on the brink of boring.

Despite the great opening scenes, the real fun starts when James descends into the giant peach. During this scene he transforms into his puppet self, and inside he meets a sextet of giant ‘insects’ (in fact, three of them are insects, the others being a myriapod, an arachnid and an annelid), with whom he decides to fly to New York, cleverly using sea gulls to propel the peach into the air.

Except for the all too bland glowworm, the arthropods are delightful characters: there is a very American sounding boastful and bragging centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly ladybug (Jane Leeves), an aristocratic and knowledgeable grasshopper (Simon Callow), an anxious and gloomy earth worm (David Thewlis), and a femme fatale-like but friendly French female spider (Susan Sarandon). The design of these is less eccentric than that of the protagonists in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, but still have some freaky touches, most notably Miss. Spider’s eyes, which each consist of two yellow eyeballs. Moreover, they all have the correct number of legs, with Miss Spider’s eight legs all ending in elegant boots. The animation, too, retains some creepy-crawly quality, and Miss Spider remains a little scary, despite her friendliness.

The voice cast is excellent, and most of the humor originates from the interplay between these characters, but there is plenty of action anyway, with the bugs having to battle a mechanical shark, defend themselves against a ghost ship, and fight starvation.

Unfortunately, after 59 minutes we return to live action, when James and his friends land in New York. True, this New York remains a fantasy-product, with very stagy and crooked sets, but lasting a staggering 30 minutes this finale turns out to be overlong and weak. It does not really help that the film makers decide to make the aunts survive the crushing of their car and to follow James into New York, an idea not in the book. Believability is certainly breached in these scenes, because of the fake character of the sets, some wooden action of the crowds, and the strange interplay between the grotesque aunts and the more down-played Americans. Moreover, the insects are mostly absent from these scenes, which only show that young actor Paul Terry cannot carry these scenes on his own, which seem to drag without inspiration.

Another letdown of this film are the four songs by Randy Newman. All four are weak and forgettable. Even worse, they are clearly superfluous, and they threaten to stall the action instead of helping the story forward. Luckily, there are only four of them, making ‘James and the Giant Peach’ much more tolerable as a film than ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was, but nevertheless I regard this film yet another victim of the unwritten rule that every animation film should be a musical, which was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

The overlong finale and unwelcome songs prevent ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to become an all-time classic, and certainly it was not well received back then, becoming a box office bomb. With this the short Disney adventure into stop motion ended. This is pity because the stop motion animation is excellent and delightful to watch throughout.

There is also a fair deal of computer animation, surprisingly executed by Sony Pictures Image works, who did an excellent job on the rhinoceros, some dancing clouds, and the mechanical shark. The latter, especially, is a great piece of computer animation, as it blends surprisingly well with the stop-motion and never loses its fantastical character.

Disney thus may have stopped making stop motion films, but both Tim Burton and Henry Selick continued to follow this path, with Tim Burton making ‘Corpse Bride’ in 2005 and ‘Frankenweenie’ (again for Disney) in 2012, while Henry Selick joined Will Vinton’s LAIKA studio in 2005 to make the widely acclaimed ‘Coraline’ (2009).

Watch the trailer for ‘James and the Giant Peach’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘James and the Giant Peach’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Rich Moore
Release Date:
October 29, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★★
Review:

2012 was the year in which Disney computer animation surpassed Pixar computer animation. Sure, Disney’s ‘Tangled’ from 2010 already was a good film, but Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 3’ from the same year happened to be outrageously good. Pixar’s 2012 film ‘Brave’ on the other hand was a disappointment, while Disney delivered the excellent ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. It seemed executive producer John Lasseter had transferred the magic from his former studio to Disney’s counterpart.

As it turns out ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a pretty un-Disney-like movie: it’s not a fairytale, it’s not a musical, there’s no talk of family values, and although there’s a sense of nostalgia, it’s one to the fairly recent dawn of computer games of the early 1980s. Because ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a delightful ode to the classic Arcade computer game, in the same way ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) an ode was to classic cartoons. Thus, Roger-Rabbit-style, there are many cameos from classic video games, like Pac-Man, Super Mario (the dragon Bowser), Frogger, Streetfighter, as well as Sonic the Hedgehog and his nemesis Doctor Eggman. I’ve never played many games myself, so have to admit I missed many of the cameos, and was actually surprised to learn that ‘Tapper’ had been a real game back in 1983.

None of these cameos contribute to the story, however, except for Q*Bert (1982), who directs Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun to Wreck-It Ralph’s whereabouts. For the main story the studio designed three totally believable new games: ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’, which is clearly modelled on Nintendo’s ‘Donkey Kong’ (1981), ‘Hero’s Duty’, a first-person shooter game reminiscent of ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty’, and ‘Sugar Rush’, a candy-themed racing game starring little girls. Especially the latter game is excellently designed, with marvelous world building and great characters and scenery based on sugars and sweets.

These arcade games, and others, are connected to each other by the electricity cables, which come together in a central power strip, which is shown as some sort of train terminal for the game characters. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ further borrows the concept of ‘Toy Story’ that the characters are alive and behaving independently when no humans are around. Thus, when the arcade closes, the game characters’ workday is over and they go and visit each other.

Star of the film is Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy of the game ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’. He opens and closes the film with his voice over (which appears to be his monologue for ‘Bad-anon’, an ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’-like support group for bad guys in computer games. Ralph is fed-up being a bad guy, and when his fellow game-mates celebrate their game’s 30th anniversary without him, he sets out to become a hero, too, and win a medal, thus seriously jeopardizing his own and other games. He accidentally ends up in the game ‘Sugar Rush’ where he meets the bratty little girl, “glitch” and fellow outcast Vanellope von Schweetz. Despite Ralph’s initial dislike for this kid, the two must team up to get what they want, thus adding a surprising buddy element to the film.

‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a remarkably well-told film: the pacing is excellent, the story unpredictable, the characters must fight no less than two enemies, cleverly intertwining several story elements. Even the obligate break-up scene, which invades so many American feature animation films from this era, actually works for once, because the two don’t break up because Ralph is behaving selfishly, but because he actually tries to protect Vanellope. Indeed, when he does what he does this leads to a particularly heartbreaking scene, which forms the emotional highlight of the movie.

Moreover, the comedy comes directly from the characters themselves, and doesn’t rely on cultural references or fart jokes. And what great characters! Ralph (aptly voiced by John C. Reilly) is a pretty straight guy, lovable as an outcast in search for recognition and acceptation, Vanellope von Schweetz (excellently voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman) is delightfully bratty, annoying and adorable. Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) only talks in heavy-handed, overblown sentences like “Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby and it… is… ugly!”, in which she keeps true to the genre of her game. But my favorite character is Fix-it Felix jr. (Jack McBrayer), a character so goody-goody his speech is of the prissiest character. His interaction with the super-tough Calhoun is a delight to watch. The only letdown is King Candy (Alan Tudyk), whose voice and mannerisms are too obviously based on Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter in Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951). Why the character couldn’t get a voice or mannerisms of his own is a mystery to me.

The animation, too, is also excellent. The animators have managed to mix character animation with the typical jumpy animation of the earliest games, especially in animating the other characters within Ralph’s game, but at times also Ralph and Felix are animated this way. The story is so captivating, and the quality of the animation, design, background art and cinematography is so high, one all forgets about these technical aspects, allowing one to get totally submerged into the film. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ feels effortless, which is the highest degree an animated feature can obtain. Especially when considering this is a film with a surprisingly complex plot, set in several, mostly totally original worlds. The film is not the best animated feature of 2012, that distinction must go to Don Hertzfeld’s ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’, and it must allow Laika’s ‘ParaNorman‘ getting second place, but of all computer animated features premiered that year, it’s the absolute winner.

Watch the trailer for ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ yourself and tell me what you think:

’Wreck-It Ralph’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Tim Burton
Release Date:
September 20, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Frankenweenie’ was the third horror-themed animated feature of 2012, after ’ParaNorman’ and ’Hotel Transylvania’. Based on a short live action film director Tim Burton made way back in 1984 when still working at Disney, Again made at Disney, the new ‘Frankenweenie’ is obviously an ode to classic horror cinema, and to ‘Frankenstein’ from 1931 in particular.

Indeed, the references to other films are all over the place, and as horror is not my specialty, I’m sure I have not nearly caught half of them. It already starts with the town’s name, ‘New Holland’, which is a direct reference to the Dutch settlement in which Irving Washington’s tale of horror ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ (1820) takes place.

Main protagonist Victor’s surname is Frankenstein. His eccentric science teacher takes after horror actor Vincent Price, while Edgar, one of his school mates, looks like the hunchbacked Fritz in ‘Frankenstein’. Another school mate looks like a mix between Buster Keaton and the monster of Frankenstein, and so on and so forth. In the finale Burton even throws references to 1950s movie monsters into the mix, unfortunately diluting the theme on the way.

In any case ‘Frankenweenie’ suffers from a lack of focus. Not only can’t Burton stick to the Frankenstein theme, but his film is also stuffed with ideas that lead nowhere. For example, there’s an evil neighbor, whose role is hardly played out. He lives up to a festival day called ‘Dutch Day’, but again very little is done with the concept. This neighbor guards one Elsa van Helsing (yes, there’s another reference), a probable love interest to Victor, but this story idea isn’t developed beyond conception. Then there’s the father who worries Victor becomes too weird – and again, this story idea is only used to get the story at the point at which Victor can revive his deceased dog, after which this subplot never returns.

There’s a particularly large number of villains in this film: the neighbor is evil, Edgar is evil, Toshiaki (yet another of Victor’s schoolmates) is evil, but like the other story elements their particular stories are touched, not played out. We mostly learn that reviving animals apparently is deadly easy. Best of the oddball characters that fill the film is a wide-eyed girl with a cat that prophecies in its poo.

Tim Burton certainly has indulged in stuffing his film with references, but what he wanted to tell with his story is less clear. There’s even a completely idiotic message (voiced by Victor’s science teacher) that science can only succeed when you put your heart into it. Really?! If you’d believe this, you’d believe science is more like magic than a method.

Despite the weak story, the film’s finale consists of twenty minutes of pure action and excitement, ending in a burning windmill (yes, echoing ‘Frankenstein’). This sequence is full of stunning cinematography and complex sets. There’s even a moment of real horror, including a scare moment. Unfortunately, after the action sequence the films ends forced and cliché with e.g., an applauding crowd, missing an opportunity for a more intelligent and daring ending.

It’s a shame ‘Frankenweenie’ doesn’t deliver story-wise, for the film’s looks are a delight. In design ‘Frankenweenie’ is clearly the successor of Burton’s earlier and similarly horror-themed stop-motion films, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993) and, more obviously, ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005). Like in those earlier films, the puppets are top-heavy, with long slender limbs. But unlike these two earlier films, ‘Frankenweenie’ is no musical, and Burton made the bold move to film this movie in black and white, enhancing the classic feel. The cinematography is at times no less than marvelous, like in the reviving scene, or the scenes at the graveyard.

The animation is fine, but sometimes on the bland side, especially on Victor’s parents and secondary characters, whose expressions are too often rather empty gazes. Moreover, nowhere do the animators manage to blow genuine feelings into the puppets (most of the characters are just weird anyway), and the film lacks proper emotion, even in its most desperate scenes.

‘Frankenweenie’ is not a bad film, it’s too well crafted for that, but when compared to Burton’s earlier movie ‘Corpse Bride’ or to Laika’s contemporary and comparable ‘ParaNorman’ it just falls short on its potential. Especially ‘ParaNorman’ does well what ‘Frankenweenie’ does not: staying focused, spinning a tale with a clear message, building characters you care for, and giving the film a surprising twist. At least we should be thankful that 2012 brought us no less than two stop motion features, keeping the old technique alive and kicking in a sea of computer animation.

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

’Frankenweenie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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 traditionally 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 film, with 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: 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: 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 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: Alfred L. Werker
Release Date: June 20, 1941
Stars: Robert Benchley, Clarence Nash, Florence Gill, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Donald Duck, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Reluctant Dragon © Walt DisneyAfter three stunning feature films, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was a much, much more modest affair.

The movie must have come as a letdown to contemporary audiences, and many considered it a cheater, as little more than half the film is animated. Indeed, it’s not even included in Disney’s official list of theatrical features, and has only been released on DVD in the limited edition ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ series.

This is a pity, for despite its modest ambitions, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ remains an entertaining feature, especially its animated sequences. The film was made in a not so prosperous time for the Walt Disney studio: both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, mainly due to World War II, which had broken off the complete European market, and its necessary revenues. As a consequence, the number of theatrical shorts was reduced, ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was shelved, and two smaller features were planned: ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ and ‘Dumbo‘.

Especially, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was conceived as a low-budget production in order to get a quick return on investment. Trying to capitalize on Disney’s popularity, the film is a virtual tour through the Burbank studio, to which the company had moved in the end of 1939. Apart from the orchestra sequences in ‘Fantasia’ this was Walt Disney’s first foray into live action since the silent Alice comedies, and he hired a live action director, Alfred L. Werker to shoot the live action scenes. As Leonard Maltin points out in his introduction to the film, the film had been storyboarded like any other animated film, thus Werker can be regarded as the first live action director to have worked with storyboards. Filming in live action was far cheaper than shooting animation, and thus greatly reduced the costs of the feature. Unfortunately, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ didn’t earn the studio enough money to cover the film’s costs. Nevertheless, the film pointed Walt Disney to the future, in which the company ventured more and more into live action film making.

Apart from Werker, several actors were hired to play various studio employees, and the film tour is more fiction than fact. The tour thus is hardly documentary, even though it does show the real studio lot. This became painfully clear when the film was released on June 20, 1941. At the time the studio experienced a severe strike, revealing that the company was not such a happy place, after all…

The film starts with Robert Benchley’s wife (Nana Bryant) suggesting to the popular humorist that he should suggest to Walt Disney to make a picture out of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1898). Benchley reluctantly agrees, and is more or less forced to drive to the Disney studio, where his wife leaves him on his own, taking the car to go shopping.

Benchley soon starts to wander through the studio on his own, visiting an art class (hoping to see a nude model), and the sound studio, where he witnesses Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) and Florence Gill (Clara Cluck) performing a duet from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ (1847).

Benchley continues his wanderings through the sound effect department, and the camera department. At this point the film suddenly changes into color, even to Benchley’s own surprise, who immediately starts checking the colors of his own suit, as if he had really been black and white all before.

Benchley’s tour continues through the color department, the story room, the animation department, and finally, the screening room where he finally meets Walt, and joins in the screening, only to find out that it’s the screening of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, the very story he had wanted to sell…

The color department sequence is set to an instrumental version of ‘Hi-Ho’ and looks like a ballet of paint colors, and not at all as anything real. When Benchley continues to the story room he passes several statues of Disney characters, including Captain Hook, Tinkerbell and Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’, a film that would only go into production ten years later! One can also notice both a little statue and a drawing of two Siamese cats who would not be seen on the animated screen until ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956).

At the animation department Benchley meets real animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson (we can watch the latter one panting like his creation Pluto). There Benchley admires some ‘paintings’ of Donald Duck in the style of old masters. The paintings were actually drawings in crayon, done by animators John Dunn, Phil Klein, and Ray Patin.

In one way we could consider the whole tour as a long introduction to the twelve minute animated version of the tale, and as such the film harks all the way back to Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo‘ (1912) and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914), which also featured long live action footage showing how the film was made, before showing the end result.

However, none of the animation on ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself is shown before the last part: instead we watch unique animation on the train Casey Jones jr. from ‘Dumbo’, Donald Duck from the upcoming short ‘Old MacDonald Duck‘, and unique animation of Bambi (this film also being in production) being scared of Benchley.

The film only features three completely animated sequences: ‘Baby Weems’, the Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ and ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. All three are excellent and forward-looking, and make the film a must watch for every animation lover:

Baby Weems © Walt DisneyBaby Weems
‘Baby Weems’ is no less than a milestone of animation: the segment is told in story boards only, with little movement and added special effects. Conceived by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, the short features drawings by John Miller, whose more angular style looks forward to the more stylized cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, one can say that the concept of Animatics is born here. The story in itself is a delight: Baby Weems is an exceptional prodigy, whose fame goes all over the world. Unfortunately, his parents don’t get to see him. However, the film shows the black side of fame, and as soon as Weems loses his extraordinary abilities, he’s soon forgotten by everyone, except his happy parents, who can finally start to raise him…

How to Ride a Horse © Walt DisneyHow to Ride a Horse
The Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ strangely enough only exists within this film, yet it’s presented as a regular short. The segment plays an important part in the evolution of Goofy: it’s the first of all ‘how to’ cartoons, it’s Goofy’s first venture into sports, and it’s the first to use blueprint-like schematic drawings and the ridiculous use of the “slow motion camera”. Most probably the series had been inspired by Robert Benchley himself, as he had done a ‘How to…’ series of short films, too, from 1935 to 1939. The short uses surprisingly spare monochrome backgrounds, with only few details in pastel. These graphic backgrounds are absolutely forward-looking.

The Reluctant Dragon from the movie of the same name © Walt DisneyThe Reluctant Dragon
‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself, too, looks forward to the 1950s: the character designs are more streamlined than before, and the backgrounds are simplified and rounded, never trying to evoke any sense of realism. Sir Giles is the most convincingly animated human character thus far. He certainly is cartoony, but he’s also a real human, with visible joints, muscles, and five fingers instead of the normal four. The dragon itself is animated elegantly, moving with a deftness that defies its size and weight. Voiced by Barnett Parker (and not Ed Wynn, as I thought) – the dragon sounds pretty gay, perhaps to make it the opposite of the masculine fighting machine it is supposed to be. The dragon even shows a Tex Averyan double take, suddenly producing five separate heads when he hears that his invite Sir Giles is a dragon killer.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ can be regarded as the first of the package features, which would dominate the Disney output the rest of the 1940s, and like all its successors it suffers from its disjointed and scrambled character. The film certainly is not a perfect film: the live action parts remain a strange mix of education and self-promotion, and in many respects the film is rescued by its animated sequences, which are all three excellent. Yet, the picture is certainly worth a watch, and deserves to be more seen than it is now.

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

 

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ is available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is available on DVD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Black Cauldron’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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