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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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