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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:

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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:

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:

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