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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:

 

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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Release Date: June 21, 2002
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lilo & Stitch © Walt DisneyStitch is a genetic experiment (called ‘experiment 6-2-6’) designed to destroy, but sentenced into exile by an intergalactic councel.

All too soon our fluffy little mutant escapes and he ends at the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he befriends lonely little Lilo, who lives a difficult life with her older sister Nani after the death of their parents. Here Stitch learns to tone down his inclination to destruction and how to love and care.

‘Lilo & Stitch’ is a very appealing film. Its designs, based on Chris Sanders’ idiosyncratic story drawings, are round, cuddly and original. Adding to the friendly atmosphere are the lush watercolor backgrounds, the first in a Disney feature since ‘Bambi‘ (1942). The animation is superb throughout, and Lilo, Stitch and Nani are round and instantly likable characters, who have nothing of the wisecracking arrogance of many other animated characters from the era. The film’s familiar family theme never gets cloying and is countered by a lot of humor. The result is a film full of love and joy.

Probably, because it was made in Orlando, Florida, far from the main company, the film also eschews the rather tiresome Disney musical convention, and features an original soundtrack featuring Elvis Presley songs and Hawaiian chants, instead. True, the plot borrows freely from ‘Men in Black’ (1997), and the science fiction setting feels a little awkward in a Disney film, but the story of loneliness, love and acceptance is well-told, and equally appealing to the young and old.

Moreover, the film proves that one can perfectly well make a good movie out of original and typical elements. A film maker like Hayao Miyazaki knows this, off course. But unfortunately, this message has been lost on the American animation studios, as very few of the subsequent American feature films succeeded in displaying this level of originality in characterization, soundtrack and design. Thus ‘Lilo & Stitch’ remains as Disney’s best attempt at an ‘author film’ (not counting the almost forgotten ‘Teacher’s Pet’ from 2004).

Unfortunately, ‘Lilo & Stitch’ seemed to be Disney’s last masterpiece of traditional animation. Even though it was followed by yet two other 2D animation features, it marked an end of an era lasting 65 years. Disney soon jumped the computer animation band wagon with rather mediocre results, arguably only hitting their stride in 2010 with ‘Tangled‘. Luckily, in 2009 the studio made a surprising, but unfortunately isolated return to the traditional medium with the excellent ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Lilo & Stitch’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lounsberry, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens
Release Date:
 June 22, 1977
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Rescuers © Walt Disney‘The Rescuers’ was a joint venture of an old and a new generation of animators at the Disney studio. It is without doubt the best of the three features the studio made in the seventies.

It was Disney’s first feature film since ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ in which Wolfgang Reitherman shared the direction duties, and this fact alone arguably improves the end product.

Unlike the earlier features ‘The Aristocats’ (1970) and ‘Robin Hood‘ (1973) it doesn’t contain any reused animation (with a possible exception of animation from ‘Bambi‘ in a minor mood scene). And while ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘Robin Hood’ relied on proven formulas, both being very reminiscent of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967), ‘The Rescuers’ has a fresh story (based on a children’s book by Margery Sharp), and a unique, surprisingly gloomy atmosphere. In Sharp’s book the mice rescue a prisoner, but for the film the Disney story men chose an orphan girl named Penny to be rescued. A masterstroke, for the lovable little girl easily becomes the center of the story, which contains a lot of heart.

However, all the film’s main characters are adorable: the lovely Hungarian mouse Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her companion, the superstitious yet valiant janitor Bernard are such great characters that they were able to spawn Disney’s first sequel, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ in 1990. Medusa is a real and wonderful villain. She hasn’t got any special powers and at times she’s portrayed as preposterous, but mostly she’s sly, mean and genuinely scary: a worthy adversary for our heroes to deal with. She was animated by Milt Kahl, the last and arguably best piece of animation he ever did for the studio.

Medusa may steal the show, but even the minor characters like Orville the Albatross, Rufus the cat, Evenrude the damselfly, Snoops and the two Alligators are delightful. They all contribute to a story, which is concise and well-told. It evolves without delays or side-ways, and leads to a great finale in Devil’s Bayou.

‘The Rescuers’ is also the first Disney feature since ‘Bambi’ (1942) not to be a musical, but to use songs to evoke moods only. All these elements contribute to a story which is both thrilling and moving. The film’s opening credits use a song and beautiful oil paintings by Mel Shaw to start the story. Unfortunately, the background paintings in the rest of the movie are more prosaic, mixing moody oil paintings with more graphic backgrounds to an uneven effect. The animation on the other hand is superb throughout.

Unfortunately, ‘The Rescuers’ proved more of a swansong of the old generation of nine old men than the beginning of a new era. The following features were much weaker, and only with ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney found a genuinely new and strong voice. Thus stands ‘The Rescuers’ as a beacon of light in the dark ages of animation that were the 1970s and 1980s.

Watch the trailer of’The Rescuers’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date:
 November 8, 1973
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robin Hood © Walt Disney‘Robin Hood’ was Walt Disney studio’s 21st feature. The film’s story and designs lean heavily on the 1938 feature ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, starring Errol Flynn.

But by now the characters are portrayed as animals, a relic of an abandoned feature film project about Reynard the fox called ‘Chanticleer’. This great idea doesn’t lead to a great film, however. Despite the fine character designs, the strong voice cast and the often superb animation, Robin Hood must be placed among the weaker Disney features.

Many of the character designs are so reminiscent of those in ‘Jungle Book’, the film almost feels like a rip-off. There’s a bear, voiced by Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, there’s a snake with the power of hypnosis and there are some funny vultures. The story evolves at a remarkably slow pace, with some sort of plot only setting in after 29 minutes. More than any earlier Disney feature ‘Robin Hood’ seems particularly aimed at children: both great drama and great comedy are absent and danger is never really felt. The great finale is anything but that, and King Richard serves as an off-stage Deus ex machina, putting an equally welcomed as unsatisfying end to the film.

In a 1973 letter to animator Larry Ruppel, cited in John Canemaker’s book ‘Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation’, animator Frank Thomas expressed the film’s shortcomings:

“We obviously decided to keep it on the ‘fun’ side, but I have worried that the audiences would feel it was too flimsy – that we were not being quite serious enough with our characters. For instance, does anyone really fear Prince John? Is Robin ever worried about his ability to achieve something or even how it should be done? Did winning Maid Marian make any difference in Robin’s behavior. In real life it would have.”

The rather tinned music doesn’t help, either. Even worse, the film’s three forgettable songs are all presented within a twelve minutes period of the film (0’46-0’58), and the dance scene blatantly reuses complete dance animation sequences from ‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Jungle Book’ (1967) and ‘Aristocats’ (1970). All these aspects give the film a cheap feel. It frustrated younger animators like Don Bluth, who thought the film lacked both quality and soul, and it indirectly led to Bluth’s departure in 1979, during the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

The film’s only real treat is King John. This is by all means a marvelous character, perfectly voiced by Peter Ustinov. Because of the film’s strong visuals (after all, it’s the only Robin Hood film starring foxes), the film fares better in memory than by actually watching it.

In all, Robin Hood is a sad feature, which makes painfully clear that in the seventies Disney’s glory days lay years behind. Indeed, it would take the studio another fifteen years to crawl out of the uncertain times the studio went through after Walt Disney’s death.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Robin Hood’ and tell me what you think:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bambi never ceases to amaze: it is simply beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch an excerpt from ‘Cinderella’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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