Disney’s “classic era” runs more or less from when they started making feature films up to the death of Walt Disney in the late 60s. This broad “classic era” can itself be divided into three eras, there was the widely respected “golden age” from 1937-1942 that I examined in the last installment of Disneyology, and there was also a mixed period in the sixties and early 70s when they were kind of heading toward decline. Then of course there was the era during the 1950s which I’ll be looking at this time around where they began to lose some of their critical cache as the novelty wears off but also return to box office prominence and in many ways become the durable cinema institution that they are today. It was also an era when they increasingly started to diversify their business interests. It was in this era that Walt Disney spent less time personally producing movies and started focusing his attention on hosting TV shows and opening amusement parks. Meanwhile he trusted a group of subordinates to rebuild his feature film empire after it went into hibernation after World War II killed some of their classic features during their initial runs. These subordinates were forced to work with compromised budgets at first but over the decade they slowly started to regain their confidence, especially as the money came roaring back in.
After nearly a decade out of the feature length animation game Disney finally felt that the time was right to make a comeback and to do it they weren’t going to leave anything to chance. There would be no classical music experiments or tender ecological narratives here, they were instead going to do everything they could to recreate their biggest success: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Cinderella isn’t a beat for beat remake of Snow White exactly; they have different structures which reflect fairy tales that are pretty different, but most of the major creative decisions are transferred over. Both films begin with live action footage of a storybook opening, both films have these perfectly angelic princess protagonists, and both films intersperse their fairy tale recantations with slapstick bits on the part of said princess’ allies (in this case the talking mice, which are basically this film’s equivalent of the dwarfs). Incidentally those mice are probably the worst aspect of the movie. Disney seems to have employed some version of the sped-up Chipmunk effect on all their voices, and while I’m not sure whether or not they invented that effect I certainly think it’s annoying and all the time they waste on these talking rodents’ antics is time that could have been spent developing out protagonist. Cinderella is certainly a more well-rounded character than Snow White was but she falls into the same pitfall of being this ridiculously idealized paragon of morality and patience rather than a truly three dimensional character, and conversely her step family is almost cartoonishly evil to the point where they name their cat Lucifer without the slightest hint of self-awareness.
To some extent this is a hard movie to analyze critically as most of the film’s flaws can be written off as simply being a by-product of the film being a fairy tale. Why does this lady just randomly have a fairy godmother willing to act as her deus ex machina? It’s a fairytale. Why does her clothing and carriage arbitrarily run out at midnight (but not her slippers for some reason)? It’s a fairytale. Why does this shallow prince just fall head over heels for Cinderella at this wack-ass party where his father parades maidens in front of him for his snap judgement? It’s a fairytale. Why does the prince get to pick his betrothed anyway rather than marrying the princess of some neighboring kingdom in order to forge diplomatic alliances? It’s a fairytale. One’s enjoyment of the film will largely be determined by how willing you are to just go along with it in the spirit it’s intended. For what it’s worth, by the end of the movie I was surprised to find that it actually had it hooks in my more than I thought. I actually found the film’s climax, in which Cinderella’s animal friends race to free her from her prison so she can try on the slipper, to be pretty suspenseful and effective.
The film’s animation certainly seems to be part and parcel with the Disney house style but there are certainly fewer frills than there were in the earlier movies. Cinderella doesn’t have much in the way of major set-pieces and there’s nothing here as challenging to animate as the woodland creatures from Bambi or the more outlandish images from Fantasia. Like Dumbo it was done on a relatively cheap budget because of the challenges the studio had been having at the time and while they do a lot to hide this it remains that this isn’t a visual powerhouse. Audiences at the time didn’t seem to mind, but ever the perfectionist Walt Disney certainly did and he was no big fan of the movie because of it. The film is probably better remembered for its music and is notable for being the first Disney movie to employ Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Ironically the most famous song these professional songwriters came up with, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” consists mainly of non-sense words… can’t say I’ve ever seen the appeal of that one. Beyond that song and the “I Wish” song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” most of the rest of the music here falls into the dated “disembodied 50s chorus” songs, so I’ve got to say I’m not much of a fan of this soundtrack, but the public certainly was. In general this movie was a pretty big hit and it almost certainly saved Disney’s movie division and probably its entire empire. Personally, I’d say it’s okay. It’s basically the simplest and most prototypical example of the Disney fairy tale formula and aside from Snow White (which had its own set of “first time out” quirks) is probably the standard upon which the rest could build on.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Out of all the Disney movies from the “classic era” Alice in Wonderland strikes me as being one of the least famous. I might just projecting my own experience with the film as it decidedly wasn’t part of my childhood, but I definitely don’t see the movie referenced too often. That may in part be because this is unique from other Disney movie in that (among other things) it is an adaptation of a much more famous source novel than what they usually tackle. Where Dumbo, Bambi, and to some extent even Pinocchio were all based on relatively obscure books whose identities have been more or less subsumed by their animated adaptations, Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels have remained ingrained in the literary cannon and most references to the story in popular culture feel like they hearken straight back to the source rather than Disney’s take on them. The film’s relative lack of fame may also simply be an extension of the film’s failure back in 1951. Though not a complete bomb, the movie was not well received by critics at the time and it only made $2.4 million, which if you adjust for inflation is actually less than what some of the “failed” Disney movies of the 40s made and it only started to become something of a success in the 60s and 70s when hippies re-discovered the movie for its retroactively psychedelic properties.
There is something of a long tradition of movies and TV shows that are ostensibly for children but actually for adults who are on drugs (see: Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob Squarepants, and the complete works of Sid and Marty Krofft), and this practice can probably be traced back to this movie. Now to be clear, I’m sure all of this was unintentional on the part of the people making this movie at Disney. LSD wasn’t a thing yet when this was getting made and I have no doubt that the hallucinogenic weirdness was simply supposed to be a replication of child-like whimsy vis-à-vis 19th Century proto-surrealism, but it remains a rather intoxicated movie that goes from strange episode to strange episode with little in the way of character development or narrative arc. As someone watching the whole thing sober I’ve got to say I was kind of weirded out by the whole thing. I think the problem with the movie is Alice herself. Alice certainly has a neat look to her but the way she behaves through the whole movie is simply bizarre. Whenever she runs into Wonderlandian weirdness she reacts with insane nonchalance rather than abject horror. Why make your lead character an outsider if she isn’t going to act as an audience surrogate?
From a craft perspective there isn’t too much to complain about here. The animation certainly isn’t as vivid as some of their golden age movies, but that’s probably something I’m just going to have to get used to, and they certainly have a lot of elaborate visuals to play with in the world of this movie. There aren’t a lot of memorable songs here but the movie does boast a pretty impressive collection of voice performances with a number of their regulars like Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts), and Bill Thompson (white rabbit/dodo) and also make good use of some featured performers like Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter) and Richard Haydn (Smoking Caterpiller). At the end of the day though this doesn’t quite work for me. To Disney’s credit I feel like more of the blame probably falls on Lewis Carol than anything, as most of what doesn’t work for me like pointless digressions (that walrus story totally put me to sleep) and Alice’s nonchalant behavior appears to be inherent in the book that’s being adapted. This is certainly an interesting and slightly off-formula entrant to the Disney cannon even if it doesn’t quite work for me. It certainly has its moments, I’ll give it that.
Peter Pan (1953)
If Cinderella was meant to be the ultimate little girls’ fantasy (from a traditional gender roles point of view) then Peter Pan is the story that’s probably supposed to represent the ultimate little boys’ fantasy what with it taking place on a fantastical island where children can spend endless hours fighting pirates and “injuns” without consequence. Like Disney’s last movie it’s based on a relatively recent children’s book (or in this case play) which has been remade a billion times but in the case of this one I do feel like Disney laid claim to the story a bit more firmly before the story went public domain and everyone from Steven Spielberg to whoever the hell directed Pan tried to get a piece of the action. In fact this is probably one of Disney’s more popular movies having been a huge box office success on its original release (it was the highest grossing movie of 1953) and continues to be a huge part of its brand identity. And yet, it’s also the first of the Disney movies I’ve watched in this article series which I pretty thoroughly disliked…. like, straight up hated.
In part my distaste for this is rooted in the story that’s being adapted. The central theme at the center of J.M. Barrie’s story is this reluctance that children have to grow up, and frankly I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. In actuality children are not remotely reluctant to grow up and no longer have to deal with bedtimes or lack of money or any of the other small indignities of being young. It’s only when they finally grow up and find out that adulthood also involves mortgage payments and 40 hour work weeks that they start to realize what they lost and reminisce about the carefree days of youth. As such I feel like this story is less an authentic representation of how kids feel and more a product of parents projecting their own nostalgia onto their kids. As such you get a lot of curious scenes in the movie like its inciting incident where Wendy is told that she’s too old to still be sleeping in the nursery, leaving her in much distress. How does this jive with actual human behavior? Any real tween girl would not be angry to be given her own room, quite the contrary she’d be overjoyed not to have to share a room with bratty siblings anymore. And I also don’t really buy that Peter and the lost boys would be all that excited to stay a child forever rather than grow into someone old enough to be able to be Captain Hook’s peer rather than some punk kid with a slingshot.
That philosophical difference aside, there’s a lot about this movie that just doesn’t appeal to me on a number of other levels. For one thing, the aesthetic design of a lot of the characters seems off to me. Whoever did the “costume design” on this thing definitely should have been fired. Peter Pan’s green tights certainly makes him look more like a wacky elf than a junior swashbuckler but that’s less confounding than the weird animal themed onesies the lost boys are decked in or the fact that all the real world kids wear pajamas through the whole movie for seemingly no reason except that the animators didn’t want to draw more than one character model. The only one here who actually looks pretty slick is Captain Hook, but the film totally neuters that character by subjecting him to slapstick comedy from the word “go” and draining him of any menace. Then there are the Native Americans… I don’t want to dwell on this too much because I don’t want to give the impression that this was a huge factor in why I didn’t like the movie (I’m not one to demand that old movies live up to modern standards of political correctness) but good lord was this even more racist than I expected it to be. But even if this had been an entirely respectful depiction of natives the concept of them being there in the first place seems rather odd. Neverland would appear to be a tropical island so what the hell are plains Indians doing there? It just looks stupid. In fact a lot about this movie just doesn’t connect and seems silly and cartoony from the antics Wendy’s parents at the beginning (which gave me trauma flashbacks to the unbearable first fifteen minutes or so of “real world” framing that would mar most of the early Harry movies), to Captain Hook’s comic relief sidekick, to the way Tinckerbelle (a much less sympathetic character than I would have expected given her continued importance to this company) backstabs her friends out of petty jealousy. In general, this is everything I was afraid Disney movies were going to turn out to be and it has me worried about what’s in store going forward.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Out of all the movies in Disney’s classic era Lady and the Tramp has always been the one that the culture has always been the most… indifferent to. It certainly doesn’t have the popularity of a Peter Pan or a Jungle Book, there’s no princess in it to market for decades, it’s fairly unlikely to be turned into a live-action remake until they really start running out of options, and it isn’t even remembered for being any kind of major misfire, it’s always just sort of been there. The shot of the two dogs accidentally kissing while eating spaghetti is certainly iconic but beyond that one two minute scene it’s never really felt like a particularly popular entry in their cannon. Surprisingly enough the movie was actually a much bigger hit in 1955 than I would have thought it was, in fact it was Disney’s most successful movie since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… even more successful than Cinderella and Peter Pan, which suggests to me that its failure to persist in pop culture has less to do with the movie itself than with the difficulties of merchandising it down the line. It certainly wasn’t one that I was looking forward to watching in this little series. It is after all a romantic comedy about dogs and I don’t particularly like romantic comedies or dogs. And yet, having actually watched it I am surprised to find that it’s definitely my favorite Disney movie so far outside of Fantasia (which is sort of a separate beast altogether) and clearly one of their more mature efforts.
I called the movie a romantic comedy before but I’m not sure that’s quite right, in many ways it actually reminded me more of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the era like All That Heaven Allows, although that might have as much to do with its small town suburban milieu than its formula even though this is ostensibly set in the early 1900s rather than the 50s. Either way it’s a very small and intimate story, especially when compared to the two straight adventure stories that preceded it and like the other two talking animal Disney movies before it (Dumbo and Bambi) it doesn’t have the distinction of being based on a particularly famous book or fairy tale. That’s kind of a brave move and it works out in part because they put some real work into making these two dogs likable opposites from different sides of the tracks and unlike other Disney movies which rely on simplistic love-at-first-sight tropes this one actually has its relationship evolve over time. Both dogs a quite literally well drawn and also have quality voice performances by Barbara Luddy and Larry Roberts. The movie seems oddly class conscious coming from a guy who once exploited the McCarthy hearing to quash union activity in his studio.
The film also boasts a unique visual style in that it is sort of shot at dog’s eye view with human heads often above frame. It doesn’t do this in a gimmicky way and will occasionally show a wide shot when its necessary, but its commitment to unconventional framing is noteworthy and makes the film feel more unique and cinematic than the last three movies they made. Another thing that sets it apart is that it is the first (and also second from last) animated movie to be done in the newly introduced Cinemascope format, which gives it the same 2.55:1 aspect ratio that Quentin Tarantino recently tried to reintroduce with The Hateful Eight. While it’s almost certainly true that this was done more out of a desire to latch the film onto a hot trend than out of a true belief that this film would uniquely benefit from the format, it does play rather perfectly into the dog’s-eye-view aesthetic of the film in a way that a taller format wouldn’t and does look pretty sharp. This is also one of the stronger Disney movies musically with Singer/ voice actressce actress Peggy Lee providing the film with a pair of interesting songs in “The Siamese Cat Song” (which is catchy even if it indulges in some slightly uncomfortable Orientalism) and the credibly Jazzy “He’s a Tramp.” So between the film’s unique style and mature subject matter, this film seems like a win all the way around. It maybe loses its way a little at the very end when a rat with suspiciously evil intent suddenly comes into the picture just because the film needs a heroic moment for the Tramp and the movie also maybe could have benefited from a little more runtime to let the central relationship develop, the fact remains that this is clearly above and beyond most of what the studio was putting out this decade.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Going into this article series I expected the production values for these Disney movies to be fairly consistent over the years but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The studio was at its most opulent during its golden age of the 30s and 40s but after WW2 led to a string of underperforming films they found themselves limping into the 50s and the first few movies they made in that decade clearly had to cut a bunch of corners but by the end of the decade they clearly had their mojo back and were ready to start dumping a lot of money into their movies again. This reached its peak with Sleeping Beauty, which is probably the most ambitious production they ever had or ever would produce. To say that no expense was spared on this one would be a massive understatement. The movie cost $6 million to make, which doesn’t sound like a lot today but to put that in perspective it only cost $2.8 million to make The Bridge on the River Kwai. Like Lady and the Trap before it, this was done in Cinemascope but went the extra mile of being filmed in a special 70mm format called Super Technirama which looks absolutely gorgeous all these years later. It’s a little hard to tell exactly how much of how good the film looks can be attributed to that format since, unlike the last three of these Disney movies I watched, I was able to see this on Blu-Ray instead of DVD and it’s clearly been restored to the nth degree but the fact remains that the film was clearly meant to be a huge showpiece and features a boatload of interesting designs and magic effects.
The money, resources, and skill dumped into the film resulted in a film that was clearly a visual wonder… however, watching it you really wish they had thought to put a few more resources into the writing on the movie because the narrative here is quite the mess. The central plot, in which Maleficent (a cool looking but rather one dimensionally eeeeevilllll villain) plots to kill a princess for no reason using an insanely convoluted scheme that takes sixteen years, does not make a lot of sense and wouldn’t have worked if everyone involved hadn’t made a lot of mistakes along the way. The princess is quite boring even when she’s awake and the prince is a rather bland hero who reminded me a lot of Dirk the Daring from the video game “Dragon’s Lair.” Copious screentime is given to the fathers of these two protagonists even though they’re little more than peripheral comic relief and for all intents and purposes the film’s protagonists end up being the middle aged nanny-looking fairies who aren’t terribly interesting in and of themselves and have rather vague and undefined powers. It’s a little more realistic about the nature of medival royal marriages than Cinderella was, I’ll give it that, but the dopey rom-com twist of the two young royals meeting and falling instantly in love before they know they’re betrothed is weak.
So, yeah, the movie is far from perfect but having said all that I the fact does remain that this movie looks great and its visual strengths do kind of make it work for me. The movie diverges from the usual Disney art style in a number of ways and seem to replicate the look of Medieval tapestries and also benefits from having a slightly harder edge than a lot of the studio’s movies. The film feels just a little bit more like a Tolkien-esque fantasy movie than some of the gentler fairy tale movies that the studio put out and ends with a really cool set-piece involving Maleficent in dragon form. Because of that I’m pretty sure that if I had seen this as a kid it almost certainly would have been one of my favorite Disney movies messy plot be damned. Seeing it now, I’m kind of torn, part of me wants to dismiss it as style over substance but part of me wants to simply say “who cares, the visuals make it a one-of-a-kind spectacle. Critics at the time were less forgiving and panned the movie and it was generally seen as a failure. The movie actually did make money, it was the second highest grossing movie of the year after Ben-Hur, but it ultimately didn’t make its gigantic budget back and Disney responded in kind. They cut budgets on the next handful of projects noticeably and wouldn’t do Cinemascope again and would only indulge in an aspect ratio wider than 1.66:1 again on two more occasions (The Black Cauldron and Atlantis: The Lost Empire) prior to the CGI era. What’s more the studio more or less retired the idea of adapting fairy tales altogether up until the “Disney Renassiance” of the 90s. It’s unfortunate that they over-reacted so much because I feel like they could have made something pretty special if they’d just applied these production values to a better script.
Collecting some thoughts
I’m now ten movies into the Disney retrospective and I’ve got to say that my thoughts are pretty mixed. At this point I’ve watched most of their most famous movies and while I’ve liked some of them I haven’t loved any of them not do I see myself fully embracing any of them down the line. On the other hand I can’t say I’ve regretted watching any of them. The more of these things I see the more I feel like they are important pieces of pop culture that are worth knowing about. This particular era seems to be particularly impactful and it’s probably no coincidence that four of the five movies that Disney made in the 50s have already been the source of big budget Hollywood adaptations, or multiple adaptations in the case of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Of these five Peter Pan was the only one that I really couldn’t stand. I had issues with Alice in Wonderland, but that movie has grown on me a bit since I watched it, and Cinderella was just “okay.” Then when we got to the end of the decade we were treated to Lady and the Tramp was one of the studio’s best and Sleeping Beauty, which was too interesting to really dislike. So overall, I’m mixed to positive, and I am sort of looking forward to finishing out the classic era when I restart the series in a month or so.