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Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

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

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  May 4, 1913
Rating: ★★
Review:

Bewitched Matches © Éclair New YorkAfter short stints at Pathé and Eclipse Cohl sailed to the United States to join Éclair New York.

‘Bewitched Matches’ is one of the few films Cohl made in the United States before sailing back again to France in 1914.

‘Bewitched Matches’ has a rather zany fairy tale plot of a witch visiting three daughters. When their father chases the witch out of his house, the witch bewitches the matches. This leads to a long animation sequence in which the matches form images of a horse, crosses, a windmill, the American flag, a pipe smoking man, a radiant sun, an acrobat on the tightrope and a skeleton.

Neither the framing story nor the animated part is too interesting, and ‘Bewitched Matches’ should be regarded as one of Cohl’s lesser inspired films.

‘Bewitched Matches’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

 

Director: George Pal
Release Date: March 27, 1942
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Sky Princess © George Pal‘Sky Princess’ tells the tale of a prince rescuing a princess from a witch, who holds her in a castle in the sky.

In the beginning the story is told by a voice over. But all too soon the prince arrives, serenading his love with a violin. The love between the two destroys the witch’s power, and a great deal of the cartoon is devoted to the couple dancing in the castle in the sky. This sequence reflects the MGM musicals of the era, and excels in lighting and staging. Yet, as nothing really is happening, it’s also a bit boring. In the end we watch the couple sail away on the prince’s sky ship.

‘Sky Princess’ is a lovely cartoon, full of pretty colors, and a feast for the eye. The score makes great use of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Flower Waltz. What the short lacks in story, it covers with its beautiful looks and dreamlike atmosphere.

‘Sky Princess’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Puppetoon Movie’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 19, 1932
Rating:★★★
Review:

Babes in the Woods © Walt Disney‘Babes in the woods’ is a free adaptation of the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

In Disney’s version the two lost children encounter some merry dwarfs before they meet the witch. The witch takes them for a ride on her flying broom to her gingerbread house.

Once inside the witch’s abode the cartoon takes a nightmarish turn. in the dark and gloomy inside the witch reveals she turns little children in newts, rats, spiders and bats. We watch the with turn a cat into stone, which immediately falls down and brakes. Then she turns the boy into a spider. When she wants to turn the girl into a rat, she’s interrupted by the dwarfs, who have come to the rescue. While she’s fleeing for the squadrons of gnomes firing arrows at her, the girl discovers a potion to turn the spider and all other animals present in the witches house into children again. In the end the witch is turned into stone by falling into her own potion.

This re-telling of Grimm’s classic tale introduces some story ideas that made it into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ five years later: there’s a scary forest with trees looking like monsters and there are of course the witch and the dwarfs. Indeed, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for most of the looks of both this Silly Symphony as one of the chief designers for Disney’s first feature.

The storytelling is economical, with a lot happening in the mere seven minutes. As soon as the witch enters the scene, the action is relentless. The pretty scary scene inside the Witch’s house is particularly gripping. The short also contains a small dance routine, reminiscent of, but a great improvement on ‘The Merry Dwarfs‘ from 1929. The children’s designs of this particular film became stock designs in most studios in the rest of the 1930’s, in which more and more films would take a childish character, anyway.

With ‘Babes in the Woods’ embarked on a series of Silly Symphonies that were adaptations of familiar fairy tales and fables. Other examples are ‘Three Little Pigs‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ from 1933, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ from 1934 and ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ from 1935.

‘Babes in the Woods’ is a stunning tour-de-force for 1932, but four days before its release Disney had started its first in-house art class, hosted by Don Graham. With these twice-weekly art classes Disney’s animators got better and better, and all subsequent Disney films clearly show that, with the Silly Symphonies in particular showing an enormous growth during the rest of the 1930’s.

One trivial remark: Hansel and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes typical for some Dutch fishing-villages. However, the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European). Talking about being lost!

Watch ‘Babes in the Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 32
To the previous Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love
To the next Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop

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