Disneyology 201: The Live Action/Animation Hybrids – Part 2

This is part two of a two-part retrospective of Disney’s live-action/animation hybrids.  For part 1 check here.

Mary Poppins (1964)

I’ve said many times that I absolutely despise the movie Mary Poppins even though I’d only been something like 60% sure I’d even seen it.  I knew for sure that I’d seen large portions of the movie over the years and I’ve hated what I’d seen but I wasn’t sure I’d seen it from beginning to end, and if I had it was when I was very very little and wasn’t really in the best of positions to give a reasoned opinion about it.  So I decided to more or less watch it anew for the first time as an adult for this Disneyology installment and I was very ready to revise my opinion of it like I had with previous Disney movies like Lady and the Tramp or at the very least come to the conclusion that it wasn’t “so bad,” but nah, this movie sucks.

The film is something of an aberration for Disney as it in many ways felt like an attempt to more directly compete with the musicals that the other studios were making rather than something that would strictly fit within their own brand, and looking at you can see why it would be pretty comparable to stuff like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music.  Now, I’m not a  musical person and to my eyes those movies are themselves too sugary sweet for their own good, so to take that formula and then make things even more saccharine and family directed and you’re really messing with some dangerous territory.  The film is almost wall to wall musical numbers, many of them featuring songs that have been so heavily repeated in the culture that they’re hard to really evaluate on their own at this point.  “A Spoonful of Sugar” sounds like it could basically be at home in any musical whereas “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” both indulge The Sherman Brothers’ rather annoying penchant for making songs out of nonsense syllables.  There isn’t really as much animation mixed in here as I was expecting and the few animated sections that are here don’t impress me spectacularly.  The film apparently used some pretty innovative proto-bluescreen technology but the actual animation is the same kind of scratchy “Xeroxed” stuff Disney was using for their animated features.

If I had a central complaint about the movie it’s that Mary Poppins herself is not really a character.  That’s somewhat by design as she is seemingly quite literally not supposed to be human, but for narrative purposes she’s still essentially a manic pixie dream babysitter who exist to show up in the kids’ life, take them on these endless whimsical adventures that are largely disconnected from one another and then more or less inadvertently make their father less uptight.  If the movie Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed that redemption ark for the father was extremely important to the original author of the books this was based on and I must say she was right to not care for the film’s treatment of that character the movie views him one dimensionally.   It’s basically just the prototypical family movie that exists to shame fathers for having jobs and, like, not wanting to come home to find a bunch of weird chimneysweeps dancing through his house.  And then Dick Van Dyke is here as this peripheral side character who behaves like a dope and has an infamously horrible cockney accent (seriously, British people cannot shut up about how much they hate his voice in this).  The movie is largely premised on the assumption that the audience will find the various musical numbers and hijinx this crew goes on very amusing and I really don’t, almost every bit goes on way longer than it probably should as does the movie itself, which runs a good two hours and twenty minutes despite being largely devoid of substance.  Just a painfully unpleasant experience for someone with my sensibilities.

*1/2 out of Five


Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

During the contentious negotiations with P. L. Travers for the rights to Mary Poppins there came to be certain moments when it looked like they would never be able to make that movie and as a fallback they picked up the rights to the children’s book “The Magic Bedknob & Bonfires and Broomsticks” by Mary Norton and considered applying their live action/animation hybrid ideas to that instead, but eventually Travers caved and Mary Poppins was back on.  After that movie became a giant hit they weren’t quite sure whether to strike while the iron was hot and get out a similar movie based on Norton’s book or to drop that idea because it would look like a retread.  After Walt Disney’s death they did return to the idea of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the film they came up with is often kind of viewed as the redheaded step-sibling of Mary Poppins.  I’d heard the film’s title here and there but had never seen it and frankly didn’t know much of anything about it aside from the Mary Poppins association and basically didn’t know what to expect from it but my expectations were very low.  Mary Poppins is annoying enough to me and seeing some second rate lesser version of something I don’t like seemed like it would be quite the endurance test, but while I certainly didn’t like the movie I was rather pleasantly surprised to find I generally rather preferred it to its predecessor.

The similarities between Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks should be readily apparent to even the most casual observers.  They’re both anglophilic musicals about plucky magical women intervening into the lives of a family and going on whimsical magic adventures including one that’s animated.  David Tomlinson is in both films, but here he’s closer to being in the Dick Van Dyke ally in whimsical fun role while the oldest of the three children takes more of the stick-in-the-mud role that Tomlinson held in Mary Poppins.  The biggest difference between the films is that Julie Andrew’s titular protagonist has been replaced by Angela Lansbury’s Miss Eglantine Price, who is a different character in many ways.  Price is not depicted as some kind of perfect pixie like Poppins was but is instead a rather fallible human who is only just becoming involved in (friendly) witchcraft.  This isn’t to say she’s any kind of deep character and there is certainly a lot of Disney in her but she isn’t the same kind of paragon of wholesomeness.  The kids here also aren’t the perfectly behaved moppets we got in Mary Poppins and are actually kind of brats who actually stand to learn something from the evens of the film.  Furthermore, the actual animation hybrid scenes here are generally more interesting than the ones in Mary Poppins, particularly the “Beautiful Brimy Sea” sequence which feels like a predecessor of some of the stuff we’d eventually see in The Little Mermaid and the sequence of animals playing soccer, which is a solid comic cartoon in its own right.

So, if this movie is in many ways better than Mary Poppins why is that one viewed as a beloved classic while this follow-up is kind of ignored?  Well, partly it’s a matter of there being no accounting for good taste, but the bigger factor is almost certainly context.  Mary Poppins came out in 1964 and was perfectly aligned with the tastes of that era while Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out in 1971 and kind of a lot had happened between those two years and in many ways Bedknobs and Broomsticks felt like a complete dinosaur in a year that gave us much grittier fare for adults and also the much more popular Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for kids and drug users.  Also, while I may have said some nice things about Bedknobs and Broomsticks those were only in comparison to the relatively rank Mary Poppins, on its own I do not consider Bedknobs and Broomsticks to actually be “good,” in fact there are plenty of bad things about Mary Poppins that it carries over without improving, namely the fact that it’s still in many ways structured like a series of sketches rather than a story and that a lot of them really wear out their welcome after a while.  And the one thing that Mary Poppins almost certainly does do better than Bedknobs and Broomsticks is music as the latter movie doesn’t have a single song that I found to be overly memorable or good.  So this is certainly not a movie for me either, but I do find it weird that the rankings of the two films seems to be backwards.

** out of Five


Pete’s Dragon (1977)

While it’s pretty easy to pair up Song of the South with So Dear to My Heart and to pair Mary Poppins with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney’s 1977 live-action animation hybrid Pete’s Dragon does not as easily fit in within a clear Disney trend (that I’m aware of).  Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie; I knew of the film as a child but I don’t think I ever saw it and it doesn’t really get talked about all that much and I’m not sure how remembered it is.  I think I expected it to be a short small scale movie for particularly small children, but it was actually a full on musical with reasonably large production values and its existence makes very little sense in 1977.  I’ve talked about this before but the 70s were generally kind of a terrible decade for Disney, in part because there simply weren’t as many kids as their used to be.  The baby boomers had grown up, so that population spike was no longer in Disney’s demo and the next population spike (the millennials) had not come along yet.  So that’s a big part of why pop culture in general was relatively adult during that decade; music was dominated by rockers and singer-songwriters and the movies that excited people were either social realist movies or violent exploitation flicks.  Disney only released three major animated movies during the decade and I would argue that most of them were pretty weak (I know Robin Hood has its fans), and it was also a pretty terrible decade for the traditional Hollywood musical.  There were some stragglers in the very early 70s like Fiddler on the Roof, some experiments in modernizing the form for a new era like Caberet, and there were some counter-culture based musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but by the late 70s Hollywood was done with bubbly musical numbers (Grease notwithstanding) and yet along came Disney with this thing.

I was pretty surprised at exactly how much of a musical the movie was, there’s almost wall to wall musical numbers each one going pretty long and many of them with full on Hollywood dance choreography to go with it.  All of this is a tad odd as the movie isn’t exactly going for that widescreen roadshow look you expect from traditional musicals but it is very much playing with that film grammar and the live action filmmaking is generally more competent than in some of Disney’s earlier live action/animation hybrids.  Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s songs here don’t really seem to be terribly popular, probably because a lot of them wouldn’t work terribly well outside the context of the plot, but I generally found more to like in them than in a lot of the Sherman Brothers’ music from the last two movies even if I think the movie generally would have benefited from cutting a few songs and shortening the ones that are there.  The animation here is also distinct from what we saw in the previous live-action/animation hybrids is that, rather than having certain fully animated sequences or animated sequences with humans walking through them, this movie uses animation more as a visual effect the way filmmakers would use CGI now to bring the titular dragon to the screen even though he’s a rather silly looking 2D animated cartoon rather than something that’s actually trying to look “real.”  It almost certainly isn’t a coincidence that this was directed by Don Chaffey, who also directed a lot of the Ray Harryhausen effects movies and is probably something of a unsung innovator in visual effects direction.

Now, having said some nice things about how this movie was made, there’s still a whole lot about this movie which is intolerably corny.  Even by Disney standards this movie takes place in a world where the good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad.  Pete himself is another insanely clean-cut white boy out of a Horatio Alger book, his dragon is this cuddly cartoon, and the people who take him in are these saintly parental figures.  Meanwhile the villains of the film are this insane family of hillbillies and a snake oil salesman who has a very Snidely Whiplash demeanor who sings a whole song about how he’s an evil person who will kill the dragon out of pure greed.  The movie also tends to swing pretty dramatically from the kid wanting to keep his dragon a secret and just openly talking about it and making himself look crazy in the process.  It’s all very silly.  Yeah it’s meant for kids… but what kids?  This must have seemed incredibly square to all but the lamest of the emerging Gen X kids who had just made Star Wars into a blockbuster earlier that year.  As such the movie only kind of came and went at the box office and was viewed as something of a disappointment by Disney brass and they would more or less leave the whole live action/animation musical hybrid thing behind.
** out of Five


Enchanted (2007)

After Pete’s Dragon Disney wouldn’t make another major live/animation hybrid for another thirty years until the release of the 2007 film Enchanted, and admittedly calling Enchanted a live action/animation hybrid is a bit of a stretch.  The film does begin with a scene of traditional animation and briefly has another such scene but 95% of the film is either live action (or CGI effects) and the animated segments are more or less pure animation that doesn’t incorporate live action actors.  Having said that the movie doesn’t really fit well in any of the studios other usual trends but is nonetheless kind of an important release by them.  It came out right when Disney was in the process of switching from making traditionally animated films of their own separate from Pixar and at the time their live action family movies were pretty disconnected from the studio’s legacy and branding.  This however was extremely connected to the Disney brand, in fact it was a sort of parody of their signature style and their first three “princess” movies in particular and it predated their upcoming attempts to revive that old style by a good three years.

The film begins in an animated sequence that is essentially an exaggerated version of what we saw in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.  This ends in the our princess (well, soon-to-be-princess) being sent through a portal by the villainess (who probably could have saved herself a lot of trouble by just killing her) and winds up being transported from the animated universe into modern day Time Square, at which point it becomes a live action fish out of water story along the lines of Splash.  In this Amy Adams deserves a lot of credit for really committing to this performance as a hyper-wholesome lady with naïve Disney notions of love at first sight and the like.  She also needs to sing as the film is also a musical of sorts, one that doesn’t have a ton of songs but does have at least two rather notable numbers both written by Disney veteran Alan Menken the lyricist Stephen Schwartz and she acquits herself well on that front.  There are some other performances here that stand out; James Marsden is also strong as the dimwitted prince who chases Adams into the real world and if nothing else it’s amusing to see Timothy Spall show up in a movie like this as the henchman.

So there are some amusing things in the movie but I must say that as a parody of Disney movies I found the movie to be toothless to the point of just being a rather pointless piece of work.  The film’s screenplay was written in the 90s and was not necessarily meant to be produced by Disney itself and was meant to be a more adult oriented satire and you can pretty easily see the roots of that in the movie.  The basic concept of this G-rated heroine being dropped into the real world is kind of undercut by the fact that the New York she’s dropped into is itself rather cleaned up and PG rather than being the mean streets that would really clash with her aura.  Even without the more adult humor this could have still been a lot better if it had simply had more of a philosophy to it but Disney never really lets it.  It basically sets up this satire about everything wrong with their old princess movies and why they’re sexist and nonsensical but then it never really goes in for the kill shot and instead just transitions into some silliness where they fight a CGI dragon.  The movie also doesn’t really put a lot of effort into arguing the opposite, that this person’s innocence is admirable and replicable, so it’s really kind of a pointless movie about nothing albeit one with some fun moments along the way.
**1/2 out of Five


Collecting Some Thoughts

Well, I think that’s the most negative I’ve ever been on one of these Disneyology things, not a single positive score in the bunch.  Even at the darkest periods of their fully animated run Disney would usually had at least one winner in each bunch but not here.  Clearly I’m not very receptive to what the Mouse House was going for with these movies, but I still feel like this was worth doing.  Having an informed opinion on Song of the South has been on my “to do” list for a while, I’ve also been meaning to make sure that I have actually seen Mary Poppins and thinking Bedknobs and Broomsticks is superior to it will be a fun hot take to trot out from time to time.  Enchanted is also a somewhat important movie in Disney’s recent history that is worth knowing about and even Pete’s Dragon had a couple of slightly charming elements worth knowing about… probably could have gone without seeing So Dear to My Heart though, that thing was dull.


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