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Director: Dick Rickard
Release Date: November 25, 1938
Rating: ★★★½

Ferdinand the Bull © Walt DisneyThis gentle film is based on the children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ (1936) by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, and tells about Ferdinand, a gentle Spanish bull, who loves to sit quietly and smell the flowers.

One day “five men with funny hats” come along, in search of suitable bull for a bullfight, and because the unfortunate Ferdinand has sat on a bee, his ferocious antics make him the one. However, once inside the arena, Ferdinand refuses to fight, much to the dismay of the matador.

Ferdinand is a really peaceful, pacifistic character, and a remarkable persona in 1938, when war already was around the corner. This character must have been an inspirational one at the time, and the film won an Academy Award. The short has a friendly atmosphere, and the only really funny part is the matador trying to persuade Ferdinand to fight by making faces, a scene animated with gusto by Ward Kimball.

Yet, there’s room for some more fun, as the banderilleros and picadors are caricatures of Disney personnel, drawn by Ward Kimball. We watch Ham Luske, Jack Campbell, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt as banderilleros,  Bill Tytla as the second of the picadores (the other two are probably caricatures, too, but I don’t know of whom), and Ward Kimball himself as the moza de espada, carrying the matador’s sword.  All humans are animated very well, proof that after ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, the animators were more confident with the human body than ever.

Nevertheless, the human designs range from from very cartoony, like the Matador, to quite realistic, like the Spanish ladies, who all look like copies of Snow White. No wonder, as they were animated by Jack Campbell, who had been a key assistant to both the two units that animated the title heroine.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ was the first Disney cartoon not to be part of any series. It could have been a Silly Symphony, as in 1938 that series had not ended, yet, but apparently, the studio chose the film to be no part of that. Perhaps, because in ‘Ferdinand the Bull’, music doesn’t play an important part, belying the series’ origin. Instead, the film uses a voice over to tell the tale, being the first Disney short to do so. The voice over technique is a rather lazy narrative device, but the Disney studio adopted it whole-heartedly. And so, unfortunately, voice overs would be deployed in many non-star Disney shorts and parts of package features of the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is the first of only two Disney shorts directed by Dick Rickard, the other one being ‘The Practical Pig‘ (1939). Rickard had been a story artist, working on a few Silly Symphonies and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ between 1936 and 1939. Otherwise he remains an enigmatic figure, as I cannot find any other information about him…

In December 2017 Blue Sky released their feature length adaptation of ‘Ferdinand the Bull’. I haven’t seen this film, yet, and therefore cannot compare the two films. Can you?

Watch ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is available on the DVD set ‘Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts 1920s-1960s’


Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: July 26, 1951
Rating: ★★★½

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’ (1939) and ‘Fantasia’ (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:

Director: Ward Kimball
Airing date: December 28, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Ward Kimball, Wernher von Braun
Rating: ★★★

Man and the Moon © Walt DisneyAfter ‘Man in Space‘ (1955), ‘Man and the Moon’ is the second of three Disneyland broadcasts documenting man’s plans to conquest space.

‘Man of the Moon’ deals with the conquest of the moon, and consists of four parts. The first, largely animated, tells about man’s fascination for the moon. This sequence is a highlight of ‘cartoon modern’ style, and is full of director Ward Kimball’s trademark zany humor. It’s also the highlight of the documentary, despite the studio’s efforts to evoke the first mission to the moon in the fourth part.

The second features Ward Kimball in real person, telling us facts about the moon. The third part is hosted by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who tells about a possible mission to the moon. Surprisingly, Von Braun does not try to land on the moon, but merely wants to fly around it.

His plans are shown in the fourth part as an “on the spot account of the first expedition to the moon”. Unfortunately, this is not as exciting a finale it possibly was in 1955, even though weightlessness is shown quite convincingly using special effects.

In 1957 Disney even showed more ambitious space plans, in ‘Mars and Beyond’.

Watch ‘Man and the Moon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Ward Kimball
Airing Date: March 9, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Ward Kimball, Wernher von Braun
Rating: ★★★★

Man in Space © Walt Disney‘Man in Space’ is a Disneyland special about man’s conquest of space, which, two years before the launching of Sputnik, was still a dream at that time.

The documentary includes information about rockets, weightlessness and concludes with an exciting account of man’s first space travel, based on the designs by rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. Von Braun is one of three German scientists featured in the program, the others being Willy Ley and Heinz Haber, demonstrating the enormous influence of German scientists on American science. Ley had fled Nazi Germany in 1935, but Haber stayed there till the end of the war, and Von Braun was even responsible for the deadly V2 rocket, a technical tour-de-force, but also the Nazi regime’s most fearful weapon.

‘Man in Space’ is shortly introduced by Walt Disney himself, quickly giving the presentation to director Ward Kimball, who remains the main host of the program. Kimball is clearly in his element here. His own wacky cartoon animation style is featured in a short history of man’s attempts to enter space, and in Haber’s accounts of ‘space medicine’. Indeed, he later called the space series, of which ‘Man in Space’ is the first entry, the creative high point of his career.

Throughout the movie, the use of animation is sparse, however, and the animation itself very limited. Nevertheless, its use is very effective, especially in the visionary concluding part, with its typical fifties science fiction designs.

‘Man in Space’ would be followed by ‘Man and the Moon‘ (1955) and ‘Mars and Beyond’ (1957), taking ideas on space travel even further.

Watch ‘Man in Space’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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