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Director: Dmitry Babichenko
Release Date: 1950
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Stag and the Wolf © SoyuzmultfilmA wolf gets trapped under a tree. A stag helps him out, but as soon as he is free, the wolf tries to catch and eat his helper.

The stag claims this to be unjust, and the two animals ask a bear to be a referee. The bear restores the initial situation to be able to judge the argument, but then runs off with the deer, leaving the wolf under the tree again.

‘The Stag and the Wolf’ is a typical Russian animation film from the early fifties, this time based on an ancient tale (it’s even found among folk tales in Cameroon, albeit with different animals). Like contemporary Soviet films, it has the distinct flavor of Russified Disney. The film pushes the limits of Soviet naturalism, especially in the backgrounds. The bear, however, is very Disney-like, and a little at odds with the particularly realistically designed stag.

Watch ‘The Stag and the Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Olga Khodatayeva
Release Date: 1950
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Magic Windmill © Soyuzmultfilm‘The Magic Windmill’ is one of the classic fairy-tale films produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

In this short an old man, a cat and a cock are having trouble to feed all the animals who seek shelter at their place. Therefore they ask the mountain god for help, who gives them a magical little windmill, which produces endless amounts of breads out of of a few grains of corn. Unfortunately, rumor spreads, and soon the little windmill is stolen by a greedy king. But the cock flies to his palace and brings back the magical object, despite several attempts on his life.

‘The Magic Windmill’ is a gentle, if what overlong little film based on a Russian fairy-tale. It uses a naturalistic style, clearly influenced by Disney, with watercolor backgrounds, and a multiplane camera effect in its opening scene . The animal designs are an interesting mix of the Disney style and Russian illustration art. The animation, however, leaves a lot to desire. The animation of movement is awkward, with most characters moving in a slow, all too constant speed. The film uses dialogue in rhyme, but the lip synchronization with the characters is poor.

Despite these flaws, ‘The Magic Windmill’ is a film of great poetry, and one of the best of the Russian fairy tale films of the fifties. Indeed, director Khodatayeva was a veteran of soviet animation, having made films since the 1920s.

Watch ‘The Magic Windmill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://multmir.net/multfilm-1174-chudo-melnitsa

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: 
January 15, 1943
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Education for Death © Walt DisneyBoth propaganda shorts Disney released in January 1943, ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face‘ and ‘Education for Death’, were the most powerful propaganda the studio ever released. However, the two couldn’t be more different: while ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face’ is an outrageously funny satire, ‘Education for Death’ is, some funny scenes notwithstanding, the most unsettling short the studio ever released. Its general tone is black, grim and its purpose is to shock, not to entertain.

Based on a book by Gregor Ziemer, ‘Education for Death’ tells us how Hans, a typical German boy, is indoctrinated by the rulers of the Third Reich. The short is conceived in a quasi-documentary style. The narrator makes us believe that the scenes we’re watching, are happening right before our eyes, and unlike any other cartoon of the period, the Germans speak real German, which is translated by the narrator.

Moreover, most of the human designs are quite realistic, with Hans’s mother, animated by Milt Kahl, being the acme in human naturalism by the studio thus far. On the other hand, all scenes are heavily dramatized, using colors like red and black, vast shadows, and extreme camera angles, which depict every Nazi as a towering and threatening figure.

In the beginning we are still allowed to laugh at a ridiculous version of Sleeping Beauty, in which Hitler, dressed like a ‘handsome knight’ rescues a fat, Valkyrie-like Germany from an evil witch (said to be democracy). But after the school scene, the short turns decidedly black, with images of book burning, a bible being replaced by ‘Mein Kampf’ and Jesus by a Nazi sword. In the final scene, Hans has grown into a grim soldier, who, wearing chains, blinders and a muzzle, marches to his own death. No matter how blatant this propaganda short is, this is one of the most disturbing endings of an animated film ever put on screen.

Watch ‘Education for Death’ 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:

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: November 25, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, The Orphan Mice
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Giantland © Walt DisneyMickey tells the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to his numerous nephews with him in the starring role.

These nephews come out of nowhere, even though they had appeared in ‘Mickey’s Nightmare‘ (1932), where they were, indeed, part of a nightmare. In ‘Giantland’ they’re real alright, and they would star in five other Mickey Mouse cartoons of the 1930s.

In his story Mickey meets the first giant of his career. This giant is very well drawn, with great use of perspective and realistic details, especially in the hands. This must have been the closest the studio could come to the human form in 1933. The cartoon also contains many shadows. Both features are a testimony of Disney’s urge to master more naturalism in his cartoons.

Nevertheless, one can see that the animators were still struggling with such elaborate designs. The giant is not drawn very consistently, and some sequences are more convincing than others. The best and most beautiful scene is when Mickey ends up inside the Giant’s mouth. This is an original scene by all means, and one that could almost only be done in animation.

Notably, the cartoon emphasizes that the story is a fantasy, with Mickey only telling it. Mickey was slowly becoming more settled, and while he’s still the hero of this cartoon, as the years progressed his quieter nature meant that he lost more and more screen time to less timid characters, like Pluto, Donald Duck and Goofy.

Mickey would deal with giants again in ‘Brave Little Tailor’ (1938) and in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ (1947), a re-telling of the same fairy tale. ‘Gulliver Mickey’ from six months later follows the same story line as ‘Giantland’, but now in reverse, with Mickey himself being the giant, while Floyd Gottfredson retold the story of ‘Giantland’ in his Sunday Mickey Mouse comics from March 11 to April 29, 1934.

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


This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 62
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Pet Store
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Shanghaied

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: April 8, 1933
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Father Noah's Ark © Walt DisneyThe biblical story of Noah has been quite popular with the Disney Studio: it has retold the story three times on film .

‘Father Noah’s Ark’ is its first version, the others are a stop motion film from 1959 (‘Noah’s Ark’) and a sequence from ‘Fantasia 2000’ featuring Donald Duck.

This cartoon belongs to Disney’s operetta phase (see also ‘King Neptune‘) and tells the age old story as a musical, including some gospel singing. The story is quite straightforward and the short contains only a few mild gags, the best of which are in the building sequence, e.g. the wives using an assembly line of porcupines and some monkeys using a rhinoceros to make planks out of a log.

The designs seem to be halfhearted: Father Noah’s sons look ridiculously cartoony, wearing Mickey Mouse type gloves, for instance. His sons’ wives, on the other hand, are designed in art deco fashion.

The animals, too, are in different stages of naturalism, but the cows portrayed are much more realistic than the ones featured in the Mickey Mouse shorts of the same time. Moreover, when the animals flee into the ark, we see some unprecedentedly realistic giraffes, sealions and lions.

The most stunning naturalism is found in the animation of the sea when the ark is at the mercy of the waves. This is a spectacular scene by any standards. The storm part also features a complex scene of several animals rolling from side to side. There’s a good sense of weight in this sequence, with the elephant moving last.

Watch ‘Father Noah’s Ark’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 35
To the previous Silly Symphony: Birds in the Spring
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Little Pigs

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 24, 1934
Rating: ★★
Review:

Funny Little Bunnies © Walt Disney‘Cute Little Bunnies’ would have been a better title for this easter short, for the bunnies are very cute, not funny.

In fact, “Funny Little Bunnies’ is so cute it can only have been meant for children. It makes one wonder what movies it was supposed to support in the theaters (surely no grim gangster thriller!).

Because everybody copied Disney at that time, other studios were copying this ‘new cuteness’ as well. Especially 1934 saw an explosion of Silly Symphonies imitating series, combining the appeal of color with sugary tales. Former Disney associate Ub Iwerks was the first, releasing his first Comicolor cartoon on December 23, 1933. He was followed by Max Fleischer (Color Classics, August 1934), MGM (Happy Harmonies, September), Van Beuren (Rainbow Parade, September), Columbia (Color Rhapsodies, November), and Walter Lantz (Cartune Classics, December). This resulted in a spread of cute (and severely unfunny) cartoons in the mid-thirties.

One is therefore particularly thankful that in the late thirties Tex Avery (at Warner Brothers, which were the only studio, together with Terrytoons, not to jump the Silly Symphony bandwagon) restored nonsense, wackiness and absurdism in the animated cartoon. These qualities Disney sometimes seemed to have forgotten during his pursuit for greater naturalism and beauty.

Notice how, for example, ‘Funny Little Bunnies’ uses animation to tell a story that cannot be told in live action, but how it tries to tell this story in the most conventional, ‘live action-like’ way. Especially the opening shot of this short is stunning, with two bunnies hopping realistically and lots of birds and butterflies flying around.

Watch ‘Funny Little Bunnies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 43
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Grasshopper and the Ants
To the next Silly Symphony: The Big Bad Wolf

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 30, 1932
Stars: Pluto
Rating:
★★★★
Review:

Just Dogs © Walt Disney‘Just Dogs’ opens with a dog pound, with several dogs howling to the tune of Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 hit ‘The Prisoner’s Song’.

Then a little black dog escapes, and helps Pluto and several other dogs escaping, too. Once outside the little dog repeatedly tries to gain Pluto’s sympathy, to no avail. Not even when it shares a large bone with Pluto. When an annoying little Pekingese warns the other dogs of the bone, trouble starts, but the little dog saves the day with the help of legion of fleas, while Pluto remains busy with an alarm clock. Only then he gains Pluto’s much wanted sympathy.

‘Just Dogs’ is not a particularly funny or beautiful short and its star, Pluto, is most of the time quite unsympathetic, but it does show the advancements in animation Disney was making at the time: we’re not watching ‘just dogs’, we’re watching several recognizable types of dogs, among them a very lifelike St. Bernard.

By now, the Disney animators didn’t need to stick to stereotyped ducks, pigs, cows, horses, or in this case, dogs, but were able to draw and animate real dogs, who looked like dogs, moved like dogs and behaved like dogs. This kind of naturalism is quite unprecedented in earlier films. ‘Just Dogs’ is still a mixed bag: some of the designs are still very primitive, especially during the escape scene, but there are some striking new designs here, not in the least, the small, optimistic black dog, who ‘s the real hero of the short.

The two main protagonists, Pluto and his clever comrade, are two distinct characters, which behave and move differently, a great advancement in character animation. Disney would develop both naturalism and character animation into perfection in the coming seven years.

Two years later the little dog would reappear as Pluto’s rival Terry in Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics.

Watch ‘Just Dogs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 28
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Bears and the Bees
To the next Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees

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