You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Sterling Holloway’ tag.

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:

Advertisements

Director: Hamilton Luske
Release Date: January 7, 1944
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Pelican and the Snipe © Walt DisneyMonte (a pelican) and Video (or Viddy, a snipe) live on top of a lighthouse in Montevideo, Uruguay (hence their names).

Viddy tries to prevent Monte, who’s crazy about the practicing war planes nearby, from ‘sleep-flying’. Unfortunately to no avail…

‘The Pelican and the Snipe’ probably is the cutest cartoon relating to World War II. Told by Sterling Holloway, its story is simple and short, and about friendship instead of sex or violence. Typical in its South American setting, it was originally intended for ‘The Three Caballeros‘,released later that year.

‘ The Pelican and the Snipe’ marks Sterling Holloway’s debut as a voice over artist in a Disney short, after appearing in ‘Dumbo‘ (Mr. Stork, 1941) and ‘Bambi‘ (adult Flower, 1942). Holloway would become Disney’s most  favorite voice actor, providing voices and voice overs for Disney cartoons up to the late 1970s. In fact, he will be most remembered as the voice of Winnie the Pooh (1966-1974).

Watch ‘The Pelican and the Snipe’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pelican and the Snipe’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 8, 1952
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Little House © Walt DisneyHalf a year after ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion‘, voice actor Sterling Holloway returns as a narrator for a Disney cartoon.

Here he tells the story of a little house on a hill in the country side who is soon surrounded by the city and forgotten. The house’s first neighbors are arrogant and aristocratic wooden houses, which soon burn down. The second neighbors are sloppy brick houses, which are pulled down in the end. Her third neighbors are enormous skyscrapers. When the little house thinks she’s finished, she’s moved to start anew on the countryside.

This sweet little story is based on a children’s book from 1942 by Virginia Lee Burton and uses a slightly different design to remain faithful to her original illustrations. Like ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion’, the story is very sweet, not funny. Its main attraction are the humanized houses, excavators and such.

However, the story is well-told, thanks to story man Bill Peet. It contains heart and has a strong sense of nostalgia. In fact, conservative nostalgia has rarely been put more convincingly to the screen. The film is strongly anti-urban and anti-progress, and full of longing to the peace and quiet of a bygone era. Its message is expressed at the end of the cartoon, when Holloway tells us that “the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house on a little hill way up in the country”.

Watch ‘The Little House’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Little House’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: February 8, 1952
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Lambert, the Sheepish Lion © Walt DisneyDisney’s  favorite voice, Sterling Holloway, returns for the first time since ‘Peter and the Wolf’ (‘Make Mine Music’, 1946), to lend his voice to a child-delivering stork like he did in ‘Dombo’ (1942).

Holloway tells the story of Lambert, a lion cub who’s accidentally delivered to a mother sheep. Because he’s different, he’s bullied by the other lambs, and he grows into a cowardly lion, until he rescues his mother from the clutches of an evil wolf.

Like the similar ‘Morris, the Midget Moose‘ from two years earlier, the story of ‘Lambert, the Sheepish Lion’ is slow, sickeningly sweet and terribly unfunny. What Lambert eats during his stay among the sheep remains a puzzling mystery. The cartoon’s only delight are the facial expressions on the adult Lambert.

Watch ‘Lambert, the Sheepish Lion’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lambert, the Sheepish Lion’ is available on the DVDs ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’ and ‘Melody Time’

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:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 940 other followers

Bookmark and Share

Follow TheGrob on Twitter

Categories

Advertisements