Disneyology 101: The Reitherman Years

Director credits are always a little weird when it comes to mainstream animated movies.  There are certainly names like Brad Bird and Henry Selick that actually mean something when you see them but usually the “directors” on animated movies are just the people doing the most busy work and the true auteur is either a team of people or a producer overseeing a whole division.  During the 30s/40s “golden age” there would often be something like six or seven credited directors, and during their 50s comeback they would routinely have three often interchangeable directors credited to each film… in part because we all knew who was really in charge: Walter Elias Disney himself.  However, things changed in the 1960s.  Disney’s health was waning and whatever attention he had to give was directed towards other endeavors like building theme parks and hosting TV shows, something was going to change in their process and it was in this decade that a man named Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman stepped in as the head of the animation division at Disney and would start to have a director or co-director credit on all the movies that the studio made for a period.  I’m not exactly sure yet if his had is actually noticeable on these movies, but it’s clear that his tenure does mark a distinct era in the studio’s history and that he was somehow able to guide them through a rather tenuous period.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

1961One Hundredand One DalmatiansAs I look at the history of Disney I begin to see a bit of a pattern: the studio continually respond to success by increasing their budgets and pushing their art forward… only to end up having a big budget dud at one point that sets them back and forces them to go back to square one and make something on the cheap.  After Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed they were forced to dumb down their style and make Dumbo.  After they were derailed by World War II they again pared down their style and made Cinderella on the cheap.  And it would appear that the same thing happened after Sleeping Beauty went wildly over-budget and they were once again punished for their ambition/hubris.  Their next film was probably their biggest budget slash yet with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a movie with none of the Cinemascope grandeur or wildly detailed animation of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact the movie is largely defined by the introduction of another technology behind the scenes courtesy of a little company called Xerox.  This new technology would transfer drawings directly to animation cells rather than having them inked onto them by hand, and you definitely see them struggling with this new method here.  The detail is greatly diminished, there are noticeable outlines around characters, and color saturation is greatly affected.  To my eyes it’s their ugliest movie yet, but I remember finding their style change in the early 50s being jarring at first as well and I eventually got over it.

Generally Disney movies fall into two categories: fairy tale/children’s lit adaptations and talking animal movies.  This obviously falls into the latter category and is also notable for being a second dog movie in close proximity with Lady and the Tramp.  In fact this could almost be seen as a spiritual sequel to Lady and the Tramp as that movie ended with dogs forming a family unit while this one more or less begins there.  That’s about where the comparisons between the two end as that earlier film was a well thought out romance with an interesting class consciousness to flesh it out while One Hundred and ONe Dalmatians is primarily just a movie about rescuing puppies who have fallen victim to one of the most ridiculous kidnapping schemes in film history.  The early parts of the movie are pretty good but as soon as Cruella de Vil enters the picture everything gets stupid fast.  For one thing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the owners of these Dalmatians are hanging out with this bitch in the first place.  She’s introduced as an “old schoolmate” of the wife, but she appears to be twice her age and she’s also really obviously evil, like, to the point where her name is a play of the words “cruel devil” and the husband has written an entire song about how awful she is.  Why the hell was she allowed near these dogs in the first place.  What’s more, her scheme makes very little sense.  There’s clearly no market for dog fur, so she must be wanting to murder and skin man’s best friend just so she can walk around in a polk-a-dotted fur coat herself.  Even if one was this fur-crazed it’s unclear why she thinks kidnapping these dogs is the best way to do this.  They do appear to live in a world where “dognapping” incidence ends up on the front page of the paper and triggers investigations by Scotland Yard and it did appear to be possible to simply buy other 84 dogs necessary to make this coat.

There are other plot holes I could point out (like the fact that the adult Dalmatians suddenly appear at de Vil’s hideout despite not having transportation or having been told where to go), but the bigger problem is that this movie is just kind of dull and pointless.  It feels like they realized that Dalmatians in large numbers would be an ideal subject to test their new Xerox technology on and they threw together a half-assed story in order to justify it.  Fortunately for Disney cute dogs do sell movie tickets and the movie ended up being a pretty big success and the studio was once again saved from a financial bind.  Like most Disney movies from this era it is seen as yet another classic but I think that reputation is not really earned.  It’s not an offensively bad movie exactly but it certainly seems kind of half-asses compared to what came before both narratively and stylistically.


The Sword in the Stone (1963)

1963 Sword in the StoneOut of all the Disney movies from the studio’s “classic era” (which more or less comprises the movies released during Walt Disney’s lifetime) The Sword in the Stone is easily the one I know the least about.  I definitely never saw it when I was younger and of all these movies it’s probably the one that had the least impact on pop culture.  There have been other movies in this retrospective like Alice in Wonderland  that I don’t have much of a memory of, but at least that’s based on a story that’s been adapted a million other times.  I suppose you could say the same about The Sword in the Stone given that it’s based on Arthurian legend, but it’s based on a very narrow portion of the King Arthur story, a part that I’m not too familiar with.  Specifically it’s based on a 1938 novel by T. H. White, which was the first part of his tetralogy called “The Once and Future King,” and focused entirely on King Arthur’s childhood leading up to his drawing of the titular sword from the stone.  The movie actually made a lot of money when it first came out but it’s fallen out of favor for a reason: the movie is terrible.  It’s not just bad by the standards of other Disney movies, it’s piss poor even when compared to your average animated movies from other studios.

The film opens with the “live action storybook” opening that was seen previously in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, seemingly to align it with those other fairy tale movies but it doesn’t really play out like any of them.  There’s no princess for one thing, no romance, only barely a villain, and the structure is generally different.  In fact this film’s structure really seems odd to me as its extremely episodic and largely plays out like an extended prologue (probably because it’s based on the first in a series of four novels).  At the film’s center are three “lessons” that Merlin gives to Arthur in which the two of them turn into fish, squirrels, and finally birds and it isn’t really clear what he’s learning from any of them.  Merlin constantly tells him to value brains over brawn but it’s harldy clear what being a fish has to do with that and the squirll bit is even more perplexing as the whole skit seems to mostly revolve around Arthur nearly getting raped by a lady squrill who has a Pepe Le Piu thing going on.  In fact they never actually seem to get to the lesson in any of these sequences, Arthur just keeps almost getting killed in them before Merlin saves him.  In fact Arthur does almost nothing for himself throughout the movie and none of his lessons actually comes to anything.  It’s as if the movie The Karate Kid consisted almost entirely of Daniel waxing cars, never being told what that has to do with martial arts, and then having Mr. Miyagi fighting off the Cobra Kai for him at the end, and then maybe having a title card at the end saying that Daniel would one day become the next Bruce Lee or something.  It’s the worst “heroes journey” story imaginable.  I suppose you’re supposed to surmise given you existing knowledge of the King Arthur character that these lessons about becoming animals are really formative, but Merlin’s preachy credo of academic learning doesn’t exactly jive with what we know about Arthur, who is probably more associated with smiting people with Excalibur than he is with scholarly study.

From a production end this movie is also a pretty big fail.  The animation in the movie is… it might be going to far to say it’s horrible because I’m sure there were other studios doing worse at this time, but it’s a far cry from the great looking stuff they did earlier.  One Hundred and One Dalmatians sort of got away with this new Xerox look because it had a different setting than most of their previous movies and had kind of a unique style to it, but this movie invites comparisons to better looking movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and woefully unimpressive when compared to both.   This also marks the first movie with songs written by the Sherman Brothers, which I’m told is a big deal because they would write some pretty famous songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but very little of their talent is apparent here because the music in this thing sucks.  The most famous song is a bit of lyrical gibberish called “Higitus Figitus” which is a complete ripoff of the already lame “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”  Finally I despised the movie’s sense of humor.  Part of Merlin’s magic is that he knows about the future and about things that haven’t yet been discovered and brings this up in some of the most eye rolling fourth wall breaks you can imagine.  I suppose in many ways he’s a precursor to the genie from Aladdin in this way but the dude doing the voice is no Robin Williams.  This reaches its nadir in the last scene where Merlin shows up to Arthur’s coronation in Bermuda shorts and references that this all may one day become a movie.  Eyeroll.  There’s almost nothing about this movie I liked.   It’s a failure creatively, narratively, artistically, and cinematically and Disney is right to want to downplay this in their history as much as possible.


The Jungle Book (1967)

1967 Jungle BookOn December 15th, 1966 Walt Disney died of lung cancer after forty six years of working in film and creating an animation empire.   This news was greeted with worldwide mourning and in a bigger way it seemed like the end of an era.  Louis Mayer had already died at this point, Darryl F. Zanuck was close to being booted from 20th Century Fox, and Jack Warner was three years from retiring at Warner Brothers.  It seemed like the end of an era and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the company he built.  In his last years Walt had one final mission: to make his swan song.  It would be an exaggeration to view The Jungle Book as being the product of his singular vision and the film’s credits certainly wouldn’t indicate him as having had more creative input on it than with any of the studio’s other films, but all evidence points to him having had a more hands on role in the film than he did on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, and his influence definitely shows as this is a clear improvement over both of those movies.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Mowgli sucks.  He’s this really punchable little shit who does dumb stuff constantly and seems to be on the verge of getting himself killed throughout the movie.  This would be a bigger problem if I thought he was the film’s true protagonist, but he isn’t really.  That distinction would fall on Bagheera and Baloo, who are sort of the Henry IV and Falstaff to Mowgli’s Prince Hal.  In fact the side characters in this movie across the board are quite strong, in part because this is one of the first Disney movies to cast somewhat recognizable names for the voice cast… well, recognizable at the time anyway.  The villainous Shere Khan, voiced by veteran character actor George Sanders , is a really cleverly drawn foe given his generally understated mannerism and interesting motives.  King Louis is also a really fun (if somewhat incidental) presence both because his mannerisms are very well animated and also because jazz bandleader Louis Prima really kills it on the “I Wanna Be Like You” number.  The only voice performance I didn’t care for was Sterling Holloway as Kaa the python, which is a character with some cool animation behind him but who probably shouldn’t have had the same voice as Winnie the Pooh.

In general this just seems like the first Disney movie that’s really interested in engaging with the slang and music of its time… or at least the slang and music of the ten or so years preceding it.  I can definitely see that instinct backfiring in a big way, but here it mostly works.  The film’s animation also seemed like an improvement over what they were doing in the last two movies.  They’re still animating with Xerox machines but they seem to be getting better at it and they used more hand painting for the backgrounds this time around.  Make not mistake, the animation here still doesn’t hold a candle to what the studio was doing in the 30s, 40s, or even 50s but it didn’t bug me as much as the last two movies did.  Ultimately this movie did work for me although at times it felt more like a series of sketches than a full narrative.  There’s an interesting theme somewhere in there about whether Mowgli really “belongs” in the jungle which is never really fully explored and the ending where Mowgli does a complete 180 turn on his insistence on remaining in the jungle the second he gets a glimpse of some poontang is kind of a cop-out.  The rest of the world seemed to like it as was a big hit at the box office, well-liked by critics, and to this day is probably one of Disney’s five most famous movies of all time.  By pretty much any measure it was a pretty good movie for Walt to go out on.


The Aristocats (1970)

1970 AristocatsDisney’s 1970 film The Arisocats was moderate box office hit in 1970.  I repeat, the movie was a moderate box office hit.  It made about $20 million at the box office (I think, it can be kind of hard to tell with movies made before 1980) which is around what other Disney movies of the era made.  It got decent reviews too.  You wouldn’t know that today however because the movie hasn’t had anywhere close to the cultural impact of other Disney movies.  If it’s remembered at all its for its place in film history as the moment a lot of people identify as Disney’s shark jump moment which not too coincidentally  comes right after the death of company patriarch Walt Disney.  Walt was not entirely divorced from this production.  The film started out as a proposed live action episode of Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series (not sure how that would have worked) and shortly before his death Disney approved the story as an animated feature to follow The Jungle Book.  It would probably be inaccurate to say that it’s Disney’s most obscure film as that distinction probably goes to one of their various misfires in the 80s and early 2000s but it’s definitely the least well known of the Disney movies I’ve watched so far for this series.  Hell I didn’t even know what this thing was about before turning it on except that it presumably involved aristocratic cats.

So is this deserving of its crappy reputation?  Well it is and it isn’t.  If the movie has a bad reputation it isn’t because it’s the most awful thing the studio ever made, I can see why critics at the time gave it a pass anyway, but it doesn’t surprise me that the movie was swiftly forgotten as “forgettable” is probably the best word to describe it.  The movie is basically the “pampered female pet falls for a roguish street animal” plot of Lady and the Tramp combined with the “animals get kidnapped by a crazy person” plot of One Hundred and One Dalmatians but is less effective than both of them.  The romance feels secondary forced in a way that the Lady and the Tramp courtship didn’t and the kidnapping plot makes even less sense than Cruella De Vil’s scheme.  This lame butler is in a position where his boss is going to leave money to her cats which will then go to him after the kitties die… to me that doesn’t sound like a half bad deal.  He’s still going to get the money eventually (cats don’t live that long) and even if he did need those cats out of the way it makes zero sense for him to try to bump them off while their owner is still alive.  The second the cats are gone this old lady will have no incentive to leave the money to the butler anymore.  It’s moronic, and it doesn’t help that this butler isn’t moustache twirlingly fun as a villain the way Cruella is.  The plot isn’t really the problem though, the characters are.  We don’t really get to know that much about Dutchess the cat except for her role as a mother to the kittens, who are all quite annoying in part because the real kids who voice them don’t really give them distinct personalities.  Thomas O’Malley has a little more personality… but that personality is a lot like Baloo (also voiced by Phil Harris) to the point where it just seems like another lazy lift from a previous success.  The side characters are also kind of lame and none of the characters in the movie really sell us on the emotional stakes or even give us the sense that they’re in much danger.

There are some saving graces here.  For one thing, Disney has continued to improve on their use of Xerography to the point where the animation here finally looks like it’s at least on par with some of the stuff they made in the 50s.  The animation isn’t good enough to make the film a visual marvel or anything but it wasn’t a distraction like it was for the first two movies in this installment.  The songs in the movie aren’t half bad.  The Sherman brothers returned to write songs after their success with The Jungle Book and it would be the last Disney movie they’d work on.  The song “Thomas O’Malley Cat” works pretty well for Phil Harris and has some fairly complex lyrics that fit well in the melody.  The song that gets most widely cited is “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” which is a decent song but the scene it shows up in seems really superfluous and jazz music does not really make sense showing up in 1910 Paris.  In fact I’m not really sure why this thing was set in Paris anyway, the film doesn’t do a lot with the setting and given the music involved it would have made a lot more sense to set it in New Orleans.  So this movie wasn’t painful to watch exactly but it feels less more like the work of a competitor doing a Disney impression than like an actual Disney movie, so ultimately I feel like its status as the “forgotten” Disney movie is mostly deserved.


Robin Hood (1973)

1973 Robin HoodI’ve mentioned before that Disney movies can generally be split into two categories: storybook movies (including fairy tale movies) and talking animal movies.  Robin Hood is the one place where these two strands of Disney movies combined into a sort of Super-Disney movie.  Like most of the fairy tale movies the film opens with a live action book being opened on a table and the story more or less plays out exactly as it would if it were a straightforward adaptation of the old late-medival folk tale, but all the characters are bipedal anthropomorphic animals.  I think they went the talking animal route with this one because, unlike earlier fairy tale adaptations they did, Disney had to contend with a number of previous Robin Hood adaptations starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks which were already classics in their own rights and they needed something to make this stand out given that it is more or less a standard re-telling of the most common Robin Hood story.  The selection of animals to characters is interesting in that most of the “commoners” are European woodland creatures while most of the villains are African jungle animals, possibly to reflect that they were stand-ins for Noman rulers rather than the native brits that the “common” characters represent.  Deciding to make Robin Hood a fox was certainly a smart choice and there is a certain logic in making Prince John a rather weak looking lion (especially giving his brother’s nickname).

Disney does not really have the easiest job in trying to get this story into a short 83 minute timespan.  The movie starts really abruptly more or less right in the middle of the story and has to establish the historical context through dialog later in the film.  The film also ends rather abruptly, with King Richard swooping in and Deus Ex Machinaing Prince John into jail.  This happy ending is totally historically inaccurate BTW, Richard spent about six months of his life in England and shortly after his return from the Crusades was killed violently during a siege (as depicted in the opening scene of the 2010 Ridley Scott Robin hood) and Prince John would be his successor, but I digress.  In many ways the film suffers from the same problem as Peter Pan in that it makes its villain such a source of comedy and its hero such a hyper-competent swashbuckler that there really isn’t that much suspense about how things will end up and whenever Robin Hood does make a mistake (like, provoking Prince John into punitively taxing his subjects in retaliation for Robin Hood’s blustery stunts) the film never really explores it.  There is a little bit of progress though in that they seem to be giving the film a hint of an edge by making the protagonist an outlaw.  The whole “rob from the rich, give to the poor” thing is a degree of moral relativism that I don’t know would have been present under Walt Disney’s squeaky clean standards.  The movie also has some very slightly bawdy (by family movie standards) jokes here and there involving boobs.

In general the visual design and animation in the movie is pretty decent.  It’s kind of the opposite of the last couple of movies in that the characters and objects look pretty decent but the backgrounds look really weak and washed out.  The film’s voice cast is also kind of odd.  Half the voice actors a British but half of them seem to be very noticeably American, including Phil Harris, who has been brought back for the third straight movie and has lazily been cast once again as an easygoing bear.  The whole film has a kind of strange sense of culture, emblemized by the decision to score the movie with bluegrass music performed by an omniscient minstrel voiced by country singer Roger Miller which seems really bizarre in this context.  There are a lot of strange choices here really and some of just don’t work at all and others they kind of get away with.  In general this movie seems to have a rather mixed reputation today, some people view it as one more step towards an era of irrelevance at Disney, but others seem to have fond memories of it and view it as one last gasp of greatness from the old Disney.  I sit somewhere in the middle on this, I think the movie has a lot of weaknesses but it is a little better to me than some of the studios worst efforts.


Collecting some thoughts

The usual narrative around Disney is that they totally dropped the ball shortly after Walt died and slowly ran the studio into the ground during the 70s and 80s before they were saved by the “Disney Renaissance” but it seems to me that they were already clearly slipping before then.  In fact, if it wasn’t for The Jungle Book this whole era would be entirely lackluster.  I started this out by asking if Wolfgang Reitherman’s hand would be noticeable and the answer is… not really.  It’s obvious that something shifted during this era but that seemed to have more to do with technological and budgetary change mixed with a sort of dearth of creativity from the team, I don’t think old Woolie is really the one to blame and despite what the credits say I don’t think he had more of a singular influence over any of these movies than the parade of co-directors we saw on the earlier movies.  To be fair to all involved, I don’t know that the 70s were ever going to be kind to Disney.  In the film world the 70s were a very “adult” decade and one of the often unexplored reasons for this was a demographic reason.  Everyone knows that the late 40s saw a “baby boom” in America and around the world and it probably isn’t a coincidence that the height of Disney’s profitability occurred during the 50s right when all those baby boomers were right in their demo, but by the late 60s and 70s those kids were grown and more interested in things like acid using motorcyclists, morose gangsters, and demonic possession.  With less of a possible audience base comes less resources and lesser ambitions and the sudden dip in Disney’s output at this stage starts to make at least a little sense.


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