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

Sleeping Beauty © Walt DisneyTaking 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 becomes real, 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 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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

Directors: Chuck Jones & Abe Levitow
Release Date: January 10, 1959
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Baton Bunny © Warner Bros.

‘Baton Bunny’ is the last of Chuck Jones’s great tributes to classical music, following ‘Long-Haired Hare‘ (1949), ‘Rabbit of Seville‘ (1950) and ‘What’s Opera, doc?‘ (1957).

The short also forms the closing chapter on a long tradition of concert cartoons with cartoon stars conducting, which goes all the way back to the Mickey Mouse short ‘The Barnyard Concert‘ from 1930. True, ‘Baton Bunny’ is not the last of such cartoons (it was e.g. followed by MGM’s ‘Carmen Get It (1962) starring Tom & Jerry, and ‘Pink, Plunk, Plink‘ (1966) starring the Pink Panther), but these cartoons are hardly the classics ‘Baton Bunny’ certainly is.

Bugs Bunny is the sole performer in the cartoon – we don’t even see the orchestra members, only their instruments. Bugs Bunny and the orchestra play Franz von Suppés overture ‘Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna’ (1844), which Bugs conducts not only with his hands, but also with his ears and feet. Like earlier conductors Mickey (‘The Band Concert‘, 1935) and Tom (‘Tom & Jerry at the Hollywood Bowl‘, 1950) Bugs has some troubles while conducting: with a fly, echoing Mickey’s problems with a bee in ‘The Band Concert’, and with his collar and cuffs, echoing Mickey’s problems with his over-sized costume. Highlight is Bugs’ reenactment of a Western pursuit featuring a cowboy, an Indian and the cavalry, only using his ears to change into each character.

But throughout the cartoon Bugs is beautifully animated, with strong expressions, and deft hand movements. It’s a sheer pity that in the end, the fly turns out to be Bugs’ only audience. But Bugs is not too proud to bow for the tiny creature that had troubled him so much just before. Apart from the animation and Michael Maltese’s entertaining story, ‘Baton Bunny’ profits from Maurice Noble’s beautiful background art, and great staging. Thus the short is a wonderful testimony of Warner Bros. cartoon art of the late fifties.

Watch ‘Baton Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 140
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Pre-hysterical Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Hare-Abian Nights

‘Baton Bunny’ is available on the DVD-box ‘The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 1″

Director: unknown
Production Date: 1959
Stars: Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle
Rating:
Review:

The Bungle Cure © Toonder Studios‘The Bungle Cure’ is based on the Tom Poes comic strip ‘De Bommelkuur’ (1953), one of the weakest of all Tom Poes comics. And indeed, the film based on this story, is equally weak.

The short starts with Tom Puss driving the sick Ollie Bungle to the mountains, because the doctor has advised the sick bear to get some mountain air. Unfortunately, in the mountains they end up in a feud between two mountain tribes, the Grimps and the Knarks. The two tribes are equally fanatical in helping Mr. Bungle to heal. Their zeal make Mr. Bungle flee to a deserted island in a mountain lake, where Tom Puss discovers that Mr. Bungle has been cured, after all.

‘The Bungle Cure’ may function as a nice story for children, but has little to offer otherwise. As with the other Tom Puss & Mr. Bungle films the animation is extremely limited and the short relies heavily on dialogue. Most interesting is the minimal background art, which has maintained some of the panache of Marten Toonder’s own comic strips.

‘The Bungle Cure’ is available on the DVD inside the Dutch book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’

Director: unknown
Production Date: 1959
Stars: Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Weather Crystal © Toonder Studios‘The Weather Crystal’ is the second of nine Tom Puss films that were made for the American television market, but which were never released.

This short is based on a Tom Puss comic made for the Dutch Donald Duck magazine in 1959. In this film Tom Puss and Ollie find find a crystal that controls the weather. Ollie Bungle immediately conceives a plan to sell the weather, but as every client asks for something different, all goes wrong.

This is a very weak story, with both Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle behaving completely out of character (in Marten Toonder’s original comic strip none of the two would think of exploiting a commercial enterprise). Moreover, the short places the two in a human world, instead of the fable world they usually live in.

‘The Weather Crystal’ is available on the DVD inside the Dutch book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’

Director: unknown
Production Date: 1959
Stars: Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Magic Hat © Toonder StudiosIn 1959 an unknown American distribution company asked Marten Toonder to produce some animated shorts for the American television market starring Toonder’s comic strip stars Tom Poes (Tom Puss, a white cat) and Olivier B. Bommel (Ollie Bungle, a large bear).

Nine films were conceived, but the Americans were displeased with Ollie Bungle’s voice, which was provided by a black man. Even worse, the so-called distribution company turned out to be a fraud, and these films were never shown anywhere.

The DVD accompanying Jan-Willem de Vries’s Dutch language book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’ has included eight of these films. They are a strange mix of Toonder’s elaborate cartoon style and Hanna-Barbera-like cartoon modernism. For example, Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle look more angular than ever, and both suddenly wear bow-ties, an all too obvious Hanna-Barbera influence. The animation in these shorts is very limited, and unfortunately the films rely too heavily on rather tiring dialogue, but this is countered by some effective staging.

‘The Magic Hat’ is clearly based on the Tom Poes story ‘De kniphoed’ (1955), and apart of Tom Puss and Ollie Bungle, features Bungle’s butler, Joost, magician Hocus Pas and a rather unrecognizable chief constable Bulle Bas (all unnamed in the cartoon). As the 65 page comic strip has been squeezed into a five minute film, the story has been greatly simplified. The result is no masterpiece, but still makes a pleasant watch, and the film is a good example of the huge influence the Hanna-Barbera studio had on the rest of the world.

‘The Magic Hat’ is available on the DVD inside the Dutch book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’

Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: January 16, 1959
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Picnics are Fun and Dino's Serenade © UPA

‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is the last of only four Ham and Hattie cartoons, and one of UPA’s last theatrical cartoons, overall (it was followed by only four Mr. Magoo cartoons).

‘Picnics are Fun’ is a particular highlight within the series. In this charming children’s song Mel Leven, with his ukelele, sings about the delight of picnicking. His song clearly is about picnic in the countryside, and features a pool, a waterfall, and wild flowers. But Lew Keller places Hattie on the roof top of a tall building, juxtaposing the song’s rural lyrics with surprisingly urban images. Especially when Leven sings about “the clean country air” the brown images become poignant indeed. At the same time this little film is an ode to children’s fantasy, which can change a roof top into a forest worth picnicking in.

‘Dino’s Serenade’ is less successful. The song is sung by Hal Peary, who had used mock-Japanese in ‘Saganaki’ and who uses mock-Italian in this song. ‘Dino’s Serenade’ is a song about love, and Lew Keller’s images are most original, as Dino provides the complete setting for the song himself: not only his violin, but also the Italian restaurant, and the girl, who long looks like a lifeless doll. Unfortunately, a rival uses Dino’s serenade to woo the girl, leaving Dino empty-handed, yet the song ends on an upbeat note: “It’s a good day to make love”.

Like all ‘Ham and Hattie’ cartoon, ‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is a delight to watch: the designs are beautiful, and the characters are appealing, even in their extremely limited animation. It’s a pity no more were made.

Watch ‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Picnics are Fun and Dino’s Serenade’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: Grigori Lomidze
Release Date: 1959
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves © SoyuzmultfilmFilmed in two colors, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ is a long puppet animation film from the Soviet Union.

The short takes half an hour to retell the famous story from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights quite faithfully. The film features the death of two characters, but the grim ending of the original story is lacking. Instead of being killed, the forty thieves are captured by the townspeople.

Interestingly, Ali Baba is not the real hero of the story, but rather his wife, a girl he bought on a slave market, unfortunately run by the very thieves he had robbed earlier. It’s this slave girl who decoys and fools the thieves to their own destruction.

The film uses a narrator who does all the voices, and a very lush score by composer Eduard Kolmanovsky. The film is quite slow and the puppet animation isn’t as sophisticated as in contemporary films by Jiří Trnka. The puppets have no facial expression whatsoever, and cannot move anything in their face, except for the gang leader, who can roll his one eye. Only occasionally their emotions become apparent. The best example of this may be the terror of Ali Baba’s neighbor when he realizes he’s trapped inside the thieves’ cave.

About the film’s director, Grigori Lomidze, little is known. He also directed the propaganda film ‘To You , Moscow‘ (1947), which combines live action and cel animation. Nothing points to a long experience in stop motion, and unfortunately, it shows. Nevertheless, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ is a charming film, succeeding in evoking the typical atmosphere of the Arabian Nights.

Watch ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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