Disneyology 101: The Late Renaissance

I noted in my last installment the strange confluence of events that resulted in my having been the perfect age to have been there for what was arguably the commercial and artistic peak of Disney’s prowess, at least outside of the original Golden Age.  Between 1989 and 1994 Disney had completely transformed itself into an absolute behemoth which put out four straight blockbusters (and some Rescuers thing that they wanted everyone to forget) and seemed like there were set up to be a permanent fixture in Hollywood that would continue to dominate animation forevermore.  Then the rest of the 90s happened and everything went to shit.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, these movies are all still considered part of “The Disney Renaissance” and the true low-point is yet to come, but by all accounts Disney quickly squandered a lot of the goodwill they built up in the early 90s with the next five films leaving the door open for competitors like Pixar and Dreamworks to step in and eat their lunch in the 2000s.  Of course I speak entirely from reputation, for all I know these movies are actually hidden gems.  Unlike the movies in the last installment, I didn’t see any of these movies as a kid.  I aged out of that demo during these years, perhaps quicker than some of my peers as my long time aversion to family movies was building during these years.  So, no better way to find out the truth of this narrative than to jump in.

Pocahontas (1995)

When Beauty and the Beast became an Oscar-nominated critical hit it definitely gave Disney a boost of confidence but the two films they had in production, Aladdin and The Lion King, were for whatever reason deemed to be more commercially oriented and wouldn’t have much of a shot of repeating that film’s award success.  As such they decided that their next film would be the one where they went for broke aiming towards prestige, and that project was an adaptation of the famous Pocahontas legend.  Of course this would be something very different from what Disney has done before as it would be the first Disney movie (outside of certain elements of Robin Hood) to be based on actual history rather than a fairytale or children’s’ book and not just that it was also a movie about a rather prickly moment in history that would require a lot of sensitivity.  As such they did a lot of research to make sure that they knew how the Powhatan Indians dressed and what social customs they had and to make sure it was clear that they were not villains… except that for all the time and effort they put into accurately depicting certain details the people making the movie seemed to be blind to the fact that making a Disneyfied version of the Jamestown story was just an immensely terrible idea to begin with and that the story they were trying to tell was wildly misguided.

If The Lion King was Disney’s attempt at making a cute version of Hamlet, Pocahontas was their attempt to make a kid’s version of Romeo and Juliet.  The historical John Smith and Pocahontas have been turned from the story of a by all accounts rather hardened 30 year old British captain who once maybe got saved by a twelve year old girl into a story about two star-crossed teenage lovers who start a whirlwind romance despite the fact that they come from different cultures who are feuding over silly misunderstandings.  Of course the problem with this idea is that it requires both the Capulet and Montague stand-ins to be equally irrational in their animosity which very much was not the case means setting up the Powhattans and English as both being equally irrational in their distrust of one another, something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history will recognize as a ridiculous dichotomy to be setting up.  The film certainly namechecks the notion that the Jamestown settlers were a potentially murderous threat to the Powhattans but rather than suggest that animosity towards the natives was widespread among the British they instead pin all the blame on their goofy villain and then have the gall to suggest that as soon as this villain was defeated that everyone lived happily ever after.  Bull. Shit.  They might as well have just made “Disney’s The Diary of Anne Frank” and then made Anne older and hotter so that she can have a romance with Goebbels and then suggest that the Holocaust was one big misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up once their love inspired the SS to turn against Hitler and avoid disaster.

Now, before it starts to seem like my aversion to this movie is entirely rooted in liberal bellyaching let me make it clear: this movie also sucks for any number of entirely apolitical reasons.  First and foremost the entire movie rests on a pair of astonishingly boring protagonists.  Pocahontas herself is an entirely wooden and ill-defined character.  We’re told that she’s seen as “different” from the other villagers, presumably because she spends so much time doing dramatic poses on top of mountains, but really she’s just completely devoid of personality and Irene Bedard’s incredibly boring voice over does not help.  As for John Smith?  He’s… certainly very blond and, uh, daring I guess.  He decides to stop calling the natives “savages” after Pocahontas puts him through a musical montage but that’s about it.  They clearly spent a lot more time worrying about how these characters were going to look than what they’d actually do and the film suffers because of it.  The film’s villain is also really terrible.  John Ratcliffe was a real leader in Jamestown and he did have some conflicts with the natives (which would eventually result in his being ambushed and skinned alive) but by all accounts he wasn’t any worse than the rest of the English at Jamestown and even if you don’t know that you can still clearly tell he’s just ridiculous here.  I mean, this is a guy who straight up sings the line “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” at one point, which is about as nuanced as this movie’s view of intolerance is.  He’s not just evil he’s downright stupid and incompetent in his evil and he’s not even a very fun or well rendered in his over the top villainy.  Then there’s the movie’s rather bizarre prologue before the title card depicting John Smith setting sail and saving a guy in a storm, which feels incredibly stiff as an opening and feels oddly tacked on, if they’d completely cut it out the film would hardly change.

The movie also has this weird interest in “respecting” native people not by making them three-dimensional characters but by portraying their religion as being literally true and essentially making them all into magical shamans who talk to trees and conjure vague ill-defined swirling leaf magic at will.  There are of course ways to depict Native American connections to the environment without literally making them magical as Terrence Malick would go on to prove with his infinitely better Jamestown/ Powhattan movie The New World.  It’s also kind of clear that they were sort of making up these aspects of native culture as they went.  Like, do you know what “blue corn moon” means?  It means nothing.  Songwriter Stephen Schwartz straight up made it up because it sounded right in the song and I have a pretty strong hunch that this also goes for other touches like the talking tree grandmother and the rest of the new age bullshit they’re trying to sell as authentic culture.  This culminates in the film’s ultimate “what the fuck” moment in which Pocahontas suddenly learns to speak English in two minutes through her swirling leaf magic.  I mean, the language barrier is something the film was going to have to pave over in some way, but why in the world would you even bother to bring attention to it if they were just going to cheat like that.  There was a much easier way out of this too: the Chesapeake area had already been explored by whites for upwards of a hundred years before John Smith landed, it’s a stretch but it’s plausible that some of the Natives would have already learned English.

Now, I’ve been very careful not to use the “R” word when discussing the film’s portrayal of history, in part because I think everyone involved had mostly good intentions when making the film.  The problem is that none of them were thinking through the implications of what they were trying to do.  They didn’t seem to realize that America’s painful history isn’t some fairy tale that they can just smooth out the edges on and give a happy ending.  It isn’t just that though; this failure to see the bigger picture is what plagues this entire film.  They were so focused on little details like what the characters were going to look like and how the animal sidekicks were going to behave and where the songs would be placed that they didn’t seem to notice that the film didn’t really have much of an arc, that its characters were dull as dishwater, and that they’ve accidentally denied a national tragedy.  The result is a mess of a movie and to some extent audiences seemed to pick up on that.  The movie did make some really good money, which is mostly a reflection of how hot the Disney brand was at the time, but the movie did make less than half of what The Lion King made and about two thirds of what Aladdin made.  It also got rather mixed reviews, which to me was a big overly generous.  If the movie had been made today in the climate of the hot take and the think piece it almost certainly would have been raked over the coals, and to me that would have been deserved.  I’ve been about as sick as anyone at how demanding and political the online critical climate has been lately, but watching this movie was a good reminder of just how wrong things can go when filmmakers try to deal with material like this without having to think about what they’re doing and take their responsibilities seriously.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the second straight Disney movie that I didn’t see in the theaters “back in the day.”  In the case of the first of these, Pocahontas that was largely my parents’ doing.  My mother had heard (correctly) that that movie was offensive to Native Americans and wasn’t too jazzed to take me to that one.  I’m sure that if I had begged a bit more forcefully to see it she would have relented, but it looked like a movie for girls anyway which was enough for seven year old me to be cool with skipping it.  My reasons  for not seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big closer to what would become my usual attitude towards children’s movies.  At the time I was very into reading these abridged and essentially re-written editions of “classic literature” and among the ones I’d read was Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which I was pretty fond of.  When I heard that Disney had made this classic literature into a cartoon which gave it a happy ending I was downright offended and every time I heard any of my friends talking about it I was happy to give them a lecture about it (I wish I was making that up).  This is a level of pretentiousness that… well I can’t say I disagree with it but I don’t think eight year old me had really earned that yet: I was getting angry about a movie I hadn’t seen failing to live up to a book the real version of which I hadn’t read yet.

That said, as much as I want to slap my younger self, he kind of did have a point, this was a really weird source text to turn into family entertainment at least on the surface.  Hugo’s 600+ page novel was actually called “Notre-Dame de Paris” in France and only took on the title which emphasized the hunchback in its English translation.  The book is actually more of an ensemble piece than most of its adaptations would have you think.  It also dealt with all sorts of historical, religious, and intellectual themes that would not be of a whole lot of interest to children and some of it was decidedly not G-rated.  The financial motivations behind the movie make a lot more sense when you consider that Disney was branching out to Broadway around this time with “Beauty and the Beast: The Musical” having opened in 1994 and “The Lion King: The Musical” on the way .  With that in mind you remember that the two most successful musicals in Broadway history were “Les Misérables” (which was based on a Victor Hugo novel) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (which was about a deformed quasi-horror figure who hides out in a Parisian landmark who pines after a woman who may or may not be into him) and when you consider that you begin to wonder why it took someone as long as it did to try to turn this thing into a musical.

To Disney’s credit, they did maintain more of the book’s themes than I thought they would.  In particular they seem to have been awfully faithful to the fact that the villain Frollo is in many ways driven by the fact that his sexual lust for Esmerelda conflicts with his religious celibacy.  They soften this a little by making him a judge here rather than an Archdeacon and also try to distract from it by also making him a bigot who despises the Romani people (a sub-plot absent from the novel which sort of injects it with modern concerns) but at its heart it’s still a pretty dark idea for a Disney movie.  In fact the whole movie seems to have a pretty healthy suspicion of authority and religion and is even at its heart a story about someone lashing out a rebelling against a father figure, which I have to assume isn’t necessarily something parents are super thrilled to teach their kids about.  Frollo is actually in many ways more of a prick here than his is in the book (where he does have his redeeming qualities) and to some extent that does put him at risk of becoming one of these cartoonishly evil Disney villains, but unlike Ratcliffe in Pocahontas the film actually explores him and tried to find motivations and roots to why he is the way he is.

It also doesn’t hurt that Disney was able to make Esmerelda into a total dime.  I don’t just mean that she’s hot (which she is) but she’s also tantalizing.  She’s feisty, she’s rebellious, she’s virtuous, but also has a way of moving and carrying herself that is about as sexual as a lady is going to be in a Disney movie.  This all matters because the movie needs to convince the audience that Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Frollo would all fall head over heels for her despite many reasons not to for all involved, and I think they pull this off pretty believably.  Phoebus is also pretty well expanded and changed from his book counterpart, who is an asshole horndog who seduces Esmerelda, gets stabbed by a jealous Frollo, then does nothing when she is accused of the attack and eventually executed.  Here is made into more of a heroic character actually deserving of her affections, which would seem to be the more conventional approach but they make it work.  He’s made into someone who ostensibly works for the government/church but eventually follows his conscious and rebels making his arc an interesting parallel to Quasimodo’s and it’s also a sign of maturity that the film doesn’t take it’s whole ugly duckling “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” theme and simplistically makes all the pretty people into Gaston-like villains to drive the point home.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve gotten pretty deep into this without really talking about the film’s title character and ostensibly protagonist Quasimodo, and that’s because his transition to film is a little more clunky.  As I said before, Quasimodo was never really supposed to be the central character of this story so much as he’s this colorful figure on its periphery.  In the novel Quasimodo is deaf and I believe mute and is treated as being sort of “simple.”  He does love Esmerelda and helps her at times, and while she does have some sympathy for him she’s repulsed just the same and there’s kind of a King Kong thing going on with the way he tries to give her one-sided affection.  He does eventually kill Frollo at the end, but this is more of a murder than a heroic act of saving the day and in many ways they the arc they present in the movie is invented and not entirely successfully.  I don’t know, when you’ve got a power made judge trying to wipe out the Romani population and Esmerelda fighting off said oppression the self-esteem issues of Quasimodo seems a bit off-topic, the movie doesn’t feel like it should be his because it shouldn’t be.

Then of course we have to get to his gargoyle friends who are your standard trademark Disney comedy relief.  Don’t get me wrong I don’t like any of these characters but generally they haven’t been as big of deal breakers for me as I’ve been watching these.  I could take or leave the servant antics in Beauty and the Beast but they generally didn’t do obnoxious fourth wall breaks and kept themselves in check, Pumbaa and Timon had their annoying moments but also had kind of a neat Abbot and Costello thing going on, and the silly animal antics in Pocahontas mostly just seemed like a waste of time and were hardly the worst thing about that movie.  These gargoyles on the other hand did bug me, partly because the writers were clearly taking notes from Aladdin and made them more prone to fourth wall breaks, but really it has less to do with the fact that they were any more annoying than what came before and more because they feel more out of place here than some of the previous comical characters did.  When you try to be more adult and weightier than what you did previously it’s all the more jarring when you have legless stone figures voiced by Jason Alexander anachronistically breaking the fourth wall.  The film does introduce the tantalizing, and kind of dark, possibility that these talking gargoyles don’t really exist and are just voices in Quasimodo’s head but it doesn’t really commit to this and by the time they’re comically participating in the battle at the end they seem to have given up on it.

There’s a lot about The Hunchback of Notre Dame I appreciate, but for all it does right I still can’t help but think that Disney bit off a bit more than they could chew here.  Of course (to belabor the metaphor) they did more to chew it than the people who made Pocahontas and just swallowed and immediately started choking, but there’s still a sense that adapting this book was a mistake.  It was too weighty for the people who just wanted an adorable fairy tale movie and it was too silly for anyone who was that interested in seeing a Victor Hugo adaptation and consequently it didn’t really find an audience.  Some critics appreciated it, but it wasn’t really championed and audiences sort of shrugged at it.  It made about a hundred million dollars at the box office, which is not much of a success by Disney’s standards at that point.  Part of that might be that audiences felt burned by Pocahontas, part of it might be that kids were just baffled by all the medival politics, part of it might have been that parents didn’t think it was appropriate (I’m honestly not sure how they managed to snag the G-rating), but one way or another it failed.  I do think the movie deserved better than that and that it’s one of the studio’s best efforts of the era, but I also sort of understand.  That Disney magic just wasn’t there despite a lot of good effort.

Hercules (1997)

While politics and snobbery conspired to make sure I didn’t see Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when they first came out, I didn’t really need a reason to skip Hercules, I had quite simply grown out of the demo.  By 1997 was had pretty firmly graduated from PG movies to PG-13 movies and was having all kinds of fun seeing the likes of Men in Black and Austin Powers during the summer of 1997 and never even gave a thought to seeing the latest Disney flick.  What little I did remember of the film’s marketing campaign (which was massive and extensive) made it look even stupider and more immature than usual.  The movie was actually coming at a pretty strange time for Disney.   Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were both clear disappointments for the company, they weren’t total disasters and they actually made decent bank overseas, but it was clear that they were losing a lot of momentum and by the time Hercules came along it was clear they needed a hit.  It’s almost analogues to where the studio was back in the 40s when they spent too much on Pinocchio and went too highbrow with Fantasia and proceeded to make Dumbo to be a pared down audience pleaser that would earn a profit.

Hercules was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the movie clearly takes after the latter more than the former.  More specifically it takes after the parts of Aladdin with the genie.  Out of all the movies Disney made in the 90s this (and I guess The Rescuers Down Under) is the only one that more or less ignores everything about the Disney Renaissance style and kind of just does its own thing.   This is pretty much a full on mad-cap comedy and rather than just having a couple of comic relief side characters pretty much everyone in this movie with the possible exception of Hercules himself is a fourth wall breaking jokers.  The Greek gods are goofballs, the villain is a comical figure who talks like an agent rather than a menacing force, the hero has a sidekick who is basically an extended parody of a character from the Rocky movies, and the love interest spends the entire movie doing a Rosalind Russell impression.  The movie opts for irreverence and mirth at pretty much every turn right down to the decision to have the film be narrated by a gospel group for no particularly clear reason.  They also change up the art style and the movie doesn’t really have the look or feel of the other Disney movies from this period.

The resulting film kind of feels like a strange hodgepodge at times.  The film seems to view Hercules as a super hero of sorts and borrows liberally from the Superman story (and specifically the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film) to build up Hercules’ origin story, which is very different from the mythological version.  Then the film also has this odd idea of making successful heroes into Ancient Greek celebrities akin to Michael Jordan with endorsement deals and whatnot and the film occasionally frames itself as a sports movie with a coach much talk about “going the distance,” which is odd given that Hercules was born with superhuman powers and doesn’t really need to work that hard to become a success.  Then the movie throws in a gospel choir for some random reason.  All of these ideas have some merit but there’s no coherence to the vision and I’m not sure they even wanted there to be.  It’s in some ways a movie defined by chaos and irreverence, something at almost feels more like a descendant of the old Warner Brothers cartoons rather than classic Disney.

Given how much distaste I had for the Genie in Aladdin you’d think every moment of this would grate on me, did it?  Well, sort of but not exactly.  What made the Genie so annoying is that he felt out of place in that movie, which was otherwise a pretty straightforward adventure movie and that was also the problem with the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Here the tone is pretty consistently comedic if nothing else and that makes it less of a flaw and more a matter of taste.  Do I like the humor here?  Not really, but it wasn’t painful to watch exactly.  Some of the gags were kind of clever but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny to me or anything ultimately the whole thing just feels completely disposable.  It’s certainly not a movie made for me or even for ten year old me but I would have thought all the pandering would have made it work for its target audience, but it actually didn’t.  The movie made a hundred million domestic, which isn’t any more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame made and certainly didn’t make it the comeback the studio was hoping for.  I think in some ways it may have been ahead of its time and in some ways it almost seems like a dry run for what Jeffrey Katzenberg would do when he moved to Dreamworks and started making snarky movies like Shrek.  That worked for Dreamworks because they were positioning themselves as the anti-Disney but from Disney itself people wanted something a little grander, at least in this era.

Mulan (1998)

By 1998 Disney had just tried getting very serious and literate with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and super goofy and farcical with Hercules and neither approach really did much for them.  Their next movie, Mulan, was an attempt (perhaps one last attempt) to get back to the Goldilocks zone between the two extremes and get back the mojo of their success earlier in the decade.  The movie had that sort of epic sweep that had characterized those earlier films and like a lot of the Disney movies of the 90s it was interested in transplanting the tropes of a Disney movie into a different culture’s mythology.  Having already done movies in France (twice), the Middle East, Africa (sort of), North America, and Greece it only seemed natural that Disney would go to Asia next and specifically they set their sights on China.  In 1998 China was not the vital market that it is today but I’m pretty sure the Disney executives wanted to build bridges there just the same and they had had some success selling The Lion King there.  To do that they came upon the legend of a female warrior named Hua Mulan, a sort of Joan of Arc figure who passed herself off as a man in order fight in a war in her aging father’s place.  It’s a story that would both move the Disney aesthetic into Asia while also subverting the traditional Diseny princess figure in the most radical way yet by making a female protagonist into a full on fighter.

Mulan is in many ways an attempt to do a Disney take on two genres that would be fairly familiar to adult audiences: the gender bending comedy and the “ragtag platoon bonds before going to war” movie.  So it’s like Tootsie meets Stripes but on an epic scale and for kids.  Kind of an odd direction to go but I’d say they actually pull it off fairly well.  Comedies about men and women pretending to be one another for contrived reasons obviously go back to Shakespeare’s time probably has precedent a lot earlier than that too.  It is interesting however that in cinema we tend to get a whole lot of men pretending to be women and not a whole lot of women pretending to be men.  I’m sure that college dissertations have been written about why this is but it’s probably just a simple matter of men in dresses being a much stranger sight to most audiences than women in pants.  The gags here about Mulan trying to fit in with “the guys” aren’t terribly novel but they are mostly cute.  The basic concept is kind of ludicrous of course and Mulan does not make a terribly convincing man during these scenes (in part I think because Disney still wants to make sure she’s “hot” despite the disguise) but the fact that this is animation helps.  The film also does a pretty decent job of establishing the comradery between the soldier during the training sequences and by the time they’re actually marching on the enemy you do believe their cohesion.

Of course what’s notable about these scenes is that the humor in them seems awfully grounded and human jokes rather than the goofy pop culture referencing slapstick that took over Hercules and infested other Disney movies like Aladdin.  To provide the stupider comedy that kids apparently demand Mulan was of course given a talking sidekick in the form of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu the dragon, a character I certainly expected to hate but who frankly could have been a lot worse.  He’s a little out of place and the movie would have been better off without him, but he doesn’t totally break the fourth wall as much as the Genie from Aladdin or the Gargoyles in Hunchback and he actually does serve something of a purpose to the plot as Mulan’s masculinity advisor of sorts.  On the musical front this movie presented some changes from the norm as Alan Menken finally stepped away to do other things and their go-to lyricist in this period Stephen Schwartz had defected to the newly formed Dreamworks to make songs for The Prince of Egypt.  As such they brought Jerry Goldsmith in to do the score and the songs were done by a dude named Matthew Wilder (best known for the pop hit “Break My Stride”) and David Zippel.  The new blood seems to have worked for the movie because musically it’s almost certainly Disney’s best work since The Lion King and that “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song is really something special.

So the movie has a lot of good things going for it, so why isn’t it better remembered?  Third act problems.  Much of the movie’s running time has everyone getting ready to go to war but once they finally go on their adventure it seemingly ends something like fifteen minutes later in a fairly cheap fashion.  At this point Mulan’s secret is revealed, everyone over-reacts, then they get over it something like five minutes later when the (rather boring) villain comes back shortly and launches an urban attack that is not terribly epic compared to what came before.  Then there’s this strange coda where Mulan comes home, then Li comes chasing after her but at that point the movie just kind of ends.  That isn’t handled very elegantly and there are a few other shaky moments here or there, but overall there’s not really too much to complain about here really, it’s a serviceable little movie though not an extraordinary one.  The improvements here did not however turn the movie into the comeback film Disney had likely hoped for.  It made $120 million domestic, which was $20 million more than Hercules but still not really anything to write home about.  It also didn’t end up making the killing in China that they had likely hoped, in part because Disney was on the Chinese Communist Party’s shit list because Touchstone pictures had put out the movie Kundun the year before and the Chinese government was not thrilled about it.  You could tell at this point that Disney was not “planning for success” at this point and they reported gave the film half the marketing budget that Hercules had.

Tarzan (1999)

If I asked the average person what the two highest grossing Disney Renaissance movies were they’d probably say The Lion King and Aladdin and they’d be right.  What may be more surprising is that the third highest grossing Disney Renaissance movie wasn’t Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, it was their 1999 film Tarzan.  Ticket inflation likely had a little bit to do with this but it is still noting that the movie made $170 million while all their other late 90s films had only managed to make between $100 million and $140 million.  Granted that still isn’t anywhere near the heights of The Lion King but it does certainly feel like a bit of a comeback after a lot of decline.  I was certainly shocked when I discovered this firstly because the movie does not seem to be terribly well remembered and also because even back in 1999 the movie didn’t actually seem to make all that much noise.  It just kind of seemed like the annual Disney movie that would come and go and I don’t really remember the advertising campaign nearly as well as I do the campaigns of some of the other Disney movies of the era.  Of course it’s also worth questioning if this movie should even be called part of the Disney Renaissance.  “Disney Renaissance,” much like the real Renaissance, is kind of a vague term that was invented after the fact.  It has a pretty clear beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 but it’s less clear when it ended.  Mulan certainly seems to fit but this next film seems to be actively moving away from some of the conventions we associate with that era of Disney.

For one thing this is not a movie based on a fairy tale or legend or myth or even a famous work of literature; it’s an adaptation of a copyrighted 20th century pulp character and one with something of a long history of cinematic adaptation.  The film also has a new animation style born of a technological innovation called Deep Canvas, which allows the filmmakers to use CGI to make backgrounds that look painted rather than digital.  It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what it is about this look that seems distinct from the earlier films but the aesthetic change is noticeable.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this stylistic change a definitive change for the better as it does kind of rob the movie of that signature Disney style and in some ways makes it look more like a generic animated production, but it does look pretty cool.  Disney had been increasingly incorporating CGI into their films with varying degrees of success since The Great Mouse Detective.  Sometimes it looks good like certain shots in The Lion King, sometimes it looks god awful like the hydra fight in Hercules.  Of course the irony is that this was a half-measure of sorts and that the wave of the future was going to be fully CGI animated films of the variety that Pixar was pioneering at this time, but Disney was heavily associated with 2D animation and were clearly trying to find a compromise style to run with.  The jungle that Tarzan resides in certainly looks pretty good and the action scenes here have a lot more speed and heft than a lot of what we’ve seen before from the studio.

Another thing that differentiates this from the Disney movies of old is that it isn’t a musical.  In an interview director Kevin Lima explained that he “just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song… it would be ridiculous.”  I agree, this adventure story did not need conventional musical numbers, however the alternative they came up with was probably worse.  Instead of having characters burst into song they hired Phil Collins to record vaguely on theme songs that would play non-diegeticly at various points in the film.  I’m not a fan of Phil Collins but that’s not really the point, I’m sure these songs would sound fine within the context of one of his albums but they seem pretty out of place here.  Nothing about the music of Phil Collins screams “jungles of Africa” to me and I’m not sure what made them think it was a good idea to hire him outside of the fact that they’d had some luck working with Billy Joel and Elton John in the past and Phil Collins was next on their list of adult contemporary stars who are sort of past their prime but are still kind of famous and will appeal to the parent demographic.  Then again he managed to steal and Oscar from Aimee Mann for his trouble, so what do I know?

Ultimately I think the bigger problem here is just that this Tarzan character is a bit too bland to carry a movie like this.  Tony Goldwyn doesn’t really bring this character to life and his confusion with the other humans just isn’t as touching as the writers seem to think it is.  Jane is a little better and walks a pretty good line between being a realistically Victorian woman without seeming like a regressive doormat, but the villain is really lame.  Clayton is basically just a combination of Percival McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and the fact that Jane and her father seemed to trust him as long as they did makes them both look like morons.  Overall I think this proves to be a very thoroughly average movie more than anything.  Disney was clearly trying to use this movie to make a slightly cooler and more boy friendly kind of Disney movie, a direction that would probably turn out to be disastrous in the long run but I can see why the producers would have seen the movie to be fairly promising even if it clearly wasn’t a homerun out the gate.

Collecting Some Thoughts

Throughout this installment I’ve referred to a lot of these movies as being “disappointments” but let’s be clear: Disney didn’t lose money on any of them.  Yes, a lot of them underwhelmed at the domestic box office but a lot of them actually did quite well overseas and even beyond that I’m sure Disney made plenty of money where it mattered: merchandising.  All of these movies had toy lines, likely sold a million VHSs and DVDs, and they all had marketing tie-ins with companies like McDonalds.  In fact the lowest grossing of all these movies, Hercules, is reported to have had marketing tie-ins with no fewer than 85 different licenses.  Still, Disney is a mega-corporation and after the massive success they had earlier in the decade you have to assume that someone in a suit somewhere must have been furious about how things had gone.  So what went wrong?  Well the movies got worse obviously, but they weren’t terrible and there are certainly worse kids’ movies out there, why weren’t they able to spin the likes of Mulan into gold?  Part of it must have just been fatigue.  When Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King came out they seemed like events but these later movies didn’t; releasing a movie every single year for a decade tends to have that effect.  Still, I’m pretty sure that if things had been reversed and Pocahontas and Tarzan had come out first and the earlier renaissance classics had come out later it wouldn’t have necessarily meant that the former would have been received better.  I feel like the bigger problem was just hubris.  By the time they made The Lion King they simply felt that they could do this in their sleep and that the public would be endlessly willing to follow them wherever they went and the proved not to be the case.  Meanwhile competition was coming into place.  Pixar emerged during this era and instantly began out-grossing their older sibling with pretty much every movie right up until Frozen and it wouldn’t be long before they also had to contend with Dreamworks and as we will soon see this combination of creative stagnation and increased competition will come to bring Disney to its true low point.

Disneyology 101: The Early Renaissance

It’s been a little while, but now that award season 2016 is over I’m finally ready to get back in the groove of this series.  In the first part of the series I looked at the first forty-nine years of the Disney Animation Studio, which consisted of about twenty movies.  For this second half I’ll only need to look at about twenty years of the studio’s history between 1989 and 2009 and yet I’ll actually be watching twenty-two movies, which is a function of Disney’s increased production and general strength during this era.  The last installment, which spanned 1977 to 1988 showed Disney at its alleged lowest point, but you could see signs of what was to come in those movies.  They were clearly upping their game on a technical level and were also growing more confident about commissioning popular music and hiring celebrity voice actors in that period and by the end you could see the infrastructure in place.  What we had not yet seen was Disney applying their improved craftsmanship towards stories that harkened back to the studio’s golden age.  Enter the Disney Renaissance.   This period, which lasted more or less throughout the 90s was Disney’s big comeback and it set the standard by which most of the studio’s films are judged today.  It’s also notable moment in the studio for me personally as this era (and specifically the five movies in this installment) was occurring during the time when I was actually the target audience for these movies.  However much I shunned them when I got older these movies were a part of my childhood if perhaps not as big a part of it as it was for some people of my generation.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Oliver & Company had been Disney’s attempt to return to relevance by being cool and hip and reaching out to the MTV generation and for the most part they kind of fell on their face doing so.  For their next project they decided to go in the other direction and making a movie that was a bit more dignified and that brought more modern techniques to the “Disney Fairy Tale” format that had built the company.  That seems like an obvious direction for them to have gone with 20/20 hindsight but it certainly wasn’t that obvious at the time.  It’s easy to forget now but there had really only been about three or four true “fairy tale” movies in their first fifty years and the last one they made, Sleeping Beauty, was kind of a financial boondoggle.  Fortunately someone at Disney decided that this more traditional approach was worth giving a shot and the team Ron Clements and John Musker, both hot off their work on The Great Mouse Detective, were chosen to direct and the film was given more resources than most of their recent movies to make it the comeback project they had been hoping for.

As the movie began I was immediately struck by the fact that the film does still show its age in the animation.  The colors aren’t quite as sharp as what I associate with the Disney Renaissance look but that isn’t to say that there aren’t a whole lot of tricks here that were very impressive; for instance I’m sure that a megaton of painstaking work was put into making Ariel’s hair look right while underwater.  This was, incidentally, the last Disney movie to still be primarily animated through traditional animation cels so it maybe isn’t surprising that the look is a bit transitional.  The film’s other most notable feat is almost certainly the music.  The decision was clearly made at some point that this should be a musical, which wasn’t exactly new for Disney but the way they did it was new.  The earlier Disney movies had songs but they always felt a bit like afterthoughts and didn’t advance the story as much.  This one by contrast seems structured more like a Broadway musical, which may be a function of the fact that Broadway was kind of booming during the 80s with super-productions like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” raking in billions.  To do this they brought in Alan Menken, who had written “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier that decade to both write the score and compose some original songs.  His score is clearly more substantial than what we’ve heard in previous Disney movies and sounds very classical.  At times it’s actually a little over-done like in an early scene with a shark where the music just does not seem to stop, but in general it gives the film a lot more class and weight than it otherwise might have.  As for the songs, well I thought the big “I Wish” song “Part of Their World” was less impactful than I expected it to be but those Sebastian Calypso songs hold up remarkably well both as songs and as musical sequences in the movie.

Outside of the music and visuals the move starts to show some weaknesses.  I think the biggest problem in the movie is probably the Ariel character who ultimately seems kind of one-dimensional.  She really wants to see the surface and marry that Prince, it’s her single minded obsession and seemingly the only thing that really drives her and it drives her to do some really stupid things.  The traditional feminist rejoinder to the movie was that the heroine “gives up her voice for a man,” which didn’t bother me as much as just how generally reckless she is.  King Trident likely has very good reasons for forbidding contact with the human world what with humanity’s tendency to murder anything they don’t understand so Ariel isn’t just putting herself in danger by chasing her every whim and that contract with Ursula is the kind of horrible deal that only a complete moron would sign on to.  There’s a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” quality to Ariel’s romantic insistence on chasing her desires beyond all rationality, but unlike that play (and the original Hans Christian Anderson story upon which this is based for that matter) this doesn’t end with the star-crossed lover dead in a tomb, instead the mess that Ariel creates is just kind of luckily cleaned up by the Prince minutes after everything goes wrong. Of course a lot of this kind of stuff is a lot worse in some of the older Disney movies so I guess this deserves kudos as a sort of step in the right direction just the same.

The Little Mermaid, came out late in 1989 when I wouldn’t have even been two years old yet so I’m pretty sure I missed the movie during its theatrical run but I’m pretty sure I did watch it on VHS more than a couple of times.  In fact I actually have clearer memories of my family owning the movie’s soundtrack on cassette than I do of actually watching the movie but I am pretty sure it was a childhood favorite just the same.  Disney itself was certainly happy with the product and it was pretty immediately recognized as a turning point by the press and by general consensus.  It won two Oscars for its music and the film made about $85 million during its theatrical run placing it at number 13 for the year in-between The War of the Roses and Steel Magnolias  (good lord have box office trends changed) so it wasn’t quite in world-conquering blockbuster mode quite yet but that was more than any Disney movie had ever made in raw box office numbers and was clearly their first unambiguous success in a very long time.  It was readily apparent to all involved that Disney had struck upon a new mold upon which they would be able to go forward and the big question now was just how they were going to be able to do it.

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The Little Mermaid was a very big deal for Disney and their subsequent output makes it incredibly clear that they recognized it right away and immediately started to capitalize one it, they did not however have this revelation until that movie’s release late in 1989 when their backup plan was already in production: a belated sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers.  The film sticks out like a sore thumb right smack in the middle of all these other Disney Renaissance movies  but truth be told it probably would have been an odd direction for them to have gone at any time.  Disney just does not make fully produced theatrical sequels, even in today’s crazy franchise obsessed film landscape they have yet to make another real sequel (though a Wreck-It-Ralph 2 is currently in production) and yet they did this time and to what would seem like one of their less popular and less well remembered films to boot.  It’s something that only makes sense when you remember just how desperate Disney was for a hit all through the 80s and how they didn’t know at the time that The Little Mermaid would be that hit.

In many ways The Rescuers Down Under feels less like a true sequel so much as a glorified remake of the original movie that’s been relocated to Australia (a country that America was oddly obsessed with in the 80s) and it maintains a lot of that original film’s weaknesses.  Like the first film it has the titular rescuers out to save a wildly bland and annoying kid from a ridiculously evil bad guy with a reptilian henchman who’s kidnapped them.  I also still don’t see the appeal of this weird organization of mice interested in saving kids (who are inexplicably able to talk to animals) despite mice being seemingly the last species of animal to be capable of such rescues.  There is however one thing the movie has which the original film didn’t have: computer generated animation.  This was the first Disney movie made using something called the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) system rather than any kind of hand drawn cels and it’s abundantly clear that they were very excited to play with their new toy.  The movie is filled with sweeping camera moves and chase/flight scenes that show off what this new system is capable of.  Sometimes this does look very cool even if some of that 2D animation charm gets lost, other times it can kind of just look bad like an early shot of the New York City skyline which looks like something out of a particularly cheap PS1 game.

The Rescuers Down Under does not really feel all that much like a Disney movie for better or worse.  There are no songs, it’s not based on some age old fairy tale, and it’s oddly action driven.  As an adventure story it works pretty well and I’m willing to bet that if I was a seven year old and I was watching it in 1990 I would have loved it, but I’m not and it’s not.  The film has maintained some stature among nostalgic Disney fans, but it tends to be ignored otherwise.  For that matter it was kind of ignored at the time too.  It got middling reviews and only made $27 million at the box office, which I’m pretty sure makes it a bomb.  This might have to do with the fact that it’s a sequel to a movie that was thirteen years old at the time (meaning someone who was five when the first movie came out would have been old enough to vote by the time the sequel came along), and by 1990 the three major voice actors in it were all geriatrics.  Of course part of the extent of its box office failure was the result of Jeffrey Katzenberg pulling advertising for the film after it opened fourth at the box office behind the likes of Home Alone and Problem Child 2 so as not to throw good money after bad.  Part of me feels that wasn’t simply a cold business calculation so much as a tacit admission that the film simply didn’t fit in with the brand that Disney would soon be building.  It was a holdover from a different era of Disney that the studio was happy to forget that just so happened to be made with techniques from the era to come.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

If The Little Mermaid was Disney’s big comeback Beauty and the Beast was where they perfected the formula and cashed in.  I would have been about four when it came out so it was still just a little bit before my time.  I might maybe have seen it in theaters but I don’t really remember it, I also don’t remember it being a fixture of home viewing either but I do think I eventually saw a lot of it on VHS at some point, maybe at school or something.  Honestly, of the four big Disney movies of this era this is probably the one I least remember the kids of my generation being crazy about but it seems to have been the one adults liked the best and finally watching it now (possibly for the first time seeing it from beginning to end) I can see why it’s the one that got all the Oscars and acclaim.  The movie is just made with a whole lot of confidence and seems to be where a lot of strong decisions were made.  You can tell right from the opening with the stain glass windows and the ominous music that the people making it were serious about taking the Disney fairy tale to the next level in terms of both animation and tone.  Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise do not shy away from some of the more dark and ominous imagery that this castle and this beast would seem to invite and the animation itself is clearly on some next level shit.

I’m almost inclined to be suspicious of the look of the movie on this blu-ray I watched it on, the movie has clearly been restored to the nines and I have trouble believing the movie always looked this damn clean.  However clean it originally looked it’s plainly obvious that the animation technology used for the film is another huge leap forward; it definitely looks better than The Little Mermaid and also uses the newfound technology with a lot more discipline than The Rescuers Down Under did.  The ballroom scene looks a little wonky today but otherwise I have few complaints about the film’s look.  The design elements are also pretty neat.  The beast himself looks like a really cool bear/wolf/lion thing that swings from being wild to being human rather seamlessly when needed and I also dig that effect that they put on Robby Benson’s voice.  As for the “Beauty” side; according to the Buzzfeed quiz I took when researching this series Belle is “the Disney princess that I am,” I think because I said I enjoy reading.  I think the people making this thought they  were making something really subversive by making Belle a lady who is smart enough to read and doesn’t swoon for the handsome guy, I don’t know that I was that impressed by this, but it’s not too far off from the “groundbreaking feminist” women who populate  the newest Disney movies.  Of course if you’re going to subvert fairy tale conventions this probably is the best one to do it with, after all there is already a bit of a subversion baked into the story given that it’s a fairy tale where it’s the man who needs to be saved from a magical affliction by the love of a woman rather than the reverse.

The usual talking point that arises when discussing this movie is the fact that, looked at objectively, it’s essentially a movie about a woman falling in love with her captor with her Stockholm Syndrome being quickly established though a montage/inner monologue song.  The problem is there and it doesn’t make a ton of objective sense, but that’s really kind of just something that’s inherent to the original fairy tale and I’m not sure if there was really a way they could have dealt with it too much better.  Where the movie does start to lose me is with the Gaston character, who is just really over the top with his doucheiness.  I get that he’s meant to be something of a send-up of the traditional Prince Charming but this is handled without even the slightest bit of subtlety and he has a whole lot of screen time too.  I also really found Gaston’s voice to be kind of old-fashioned and grating, especially when he was singing.  Speaking of singing, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are back making this into a musical and they certainly wrote their share of good tunes for it.  I’m not sure anything here is quite as catchy as the calypso numbers from The Little Mermaid but the Oscar winning title track is of course a classic of film music and there are some other songs here that are certainly well executed, maybe a few too many.  I haven’t counted them out but it feels like there are twice as many songs here as there were in The Little Mermaid and it feels a bit excessive.  If they’d cut out a few of the weaker numbers the showstoppers would have probably worked a bit better.

So there’s some stuff to like here but did it deserve to be the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture?  Actually, it just might have been.  Don’t get me wrong, I doubt I would have personally put it in my top five for that year but with the Disney animated film being the fifty-plus year old institution that they are it kind of seemed to make sense that they be acknowledged at some point and if they were going to do that it probably was right to do it for a movie that actually raised the envelope in the genre like this movie did.  At the end of the day the movie did end up leaving the 64th Annual Academy Awards with the exact same two music Oscars that The Little Mermaid won but this was definitely an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” moment as this reflected the movie’s prominence in the wider culture.  The movie made $145 million in theaters domestically, which doesn’t sound like a ton today but considering that no other Disney animated movie had ever broken the $100 million barrier and that it was the third highest grossing movie of the year behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  That is a huge victory especially given that the movie allegedly actually cost less to make than The Little Mermaid (no floating hair to animate).

Aladdin (1992)

The circumstances of how I first saw The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are hazy in my memories, but the same cannot be said about Aladdin.  In fact Aladdin is very likely the first movie I saw in theaters, it’s certainly the first one I distinctly remember seeing.  I don’t want to over-romanticize the experience but it did seem pretty damn special at the time.  I remember the screen seeming huge to me and the packed theater felt almost like an extension of the cave of wonders from the film and I also distinctly remember leaving the theater and it being kind of later at night than I’d usually be out of the house.  Needless to say it was an experience that stuck with me.  I think I saw the movie in theaters at least one more time during that initial run and probably watched it a couple more times on video but it has probably been well over twenty years since I last saw it.  I was not alone in having seen it that year as it was the highest grossing movie of 1992 by a decent margin.  If Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney movie to make over a hundred million Aladdin was the first to make over two hundred million.  It didn’t have quite the critical support of the last two films and it didn’t have quite the same Oscar success (though Alan Menken did three-peat for song and score), but the world was still very much on Disney’s side at this point.  But does the movie hold up?

After the incredible success of Beauty and the Beast it would have been a mistake to do another straight-up European fairy tale right after it.  So from here Disney would begin looking to less obvious sources for their movies and would specifically begin looking to the traditional stories of other cultures and given this going to one of the stories from the Arabian Nights certainly made sense.  Aladdin draws from the storybook version of classic Arabia as well as the Hollywood adventure serial version of it seen in films like The Thief of Bagdad and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  This is probably what the film does best.  The film’s fictional country of Agrabah is really well wrought despite some strange geographical features like the inclusion of Tigers and Parrots and the whole film has a lot of strong design elements from the guards’ costumes to the Sultan’s palace to the cave of wonders’ interior.  The adventure elements also work quite well with some really strong set-pieces like Aladdin’s final fight with Jafar and the animation is also sharp looking and a little more stylized than what we saw in their last two films.

Where the film starts to falter a bit is in the characters.  In particular, I found Aladdin himself to be kind of a bore.  It is kind of interesting to begin with that Disney was attempting to make what is essentially one of their fairy tale movies but from the perspective of a male protagonist and you can tell that the people involved were not quite sure how to handle that.  Unlike Belle and Ariel, who were both unfulfilled at the beginning of their movies, Aladdin seems pretty comfortable in his own skin from the beginning of the film and while he’s theoretically not happy about the fact that he lives in abject poverty he seems to manage his street life just fine.  Eventually he sets his sights on wooing Princess Jasmine as his motivation in the film, but you never really feel that deep desire in him, he just says he wants her to fall in love with him and you roll with it.  That I don’t care much for Scott Weinger’s voice performance is part of the problem.  He makes the character sound like this privileged surfer dude and that just makes you not that excited to get on board with him.

Of course the most notable voice actor here isn’t the voice of Aladdin, it’s Robin Williams as the genie.  Regardless of what he did, Williams’ presence here would have been noteworthy.  Semi-recognizable actors had been periodically doing voices in Disney movies for decades at this point, usually either aging character actors or cult figures but this was probably the first time that they gave a prominent role to a major celebrity at the height of his fame and invited him to very much be himself in the voice booth.  The results are fucking annoying.  I should preface this by pointing out that I’ve always found Robin Williams’ rather caffeinated stand-up/talk show persona to be a bit annoying in long chunks and it’s doubly annoying here when he seems interested in taking the viewer out of the movie at every opportunity with his fourth wall breaks and his impressions that were probably already dated when he was doing them in 1991.  The animators do do interesting things with the genie from a visual perspective and there is certainly some raw skill in the way they try to react to all of Williams’ digressions but pretty much every time that character was on the screen I just wanted him to go away so I could get back to the classical Arabian serial adventure.

I dislike that genie character both for how he is in this movie and for what he did to childrens’ movies in general.  I feel like the roots of everything I hate in the Dreamworks style probably stem from him and that is unfortunate.  This is not an easy part of the movie to overlook, for me it’s kind of a glaring flaw, but the overall package here does have a lot to offer.  Alan Menken’s new roster of songs (half with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and half with lyrics by frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice) are once again strong, if not quite as strong as Beauty and the Beast’s and they’re used a bit more judiciously than they were in that movie.  Rework Blue Deadpool 1.0, punch up the main character a bit, and maybe add an extra layer or two to the story and you’ve got a pretty solid Disney flick here.  I have a feeling that when I get deeper into this series and I find myself looking at the likes of Treasure Planet and Home on the Range I’m probably going to regret being so hard on this one, but when surrounded by other better movies this starts to seem a bit weaker by comparison.

The Lion King (1994)

Throughout its history there have been two major brands of Disney movies: the fairy tale movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and the talking animal movies (Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, etc) and it was decidedly the fairy tale movie that defined the Disney Renaissance.  There was however one exception to this, and it was a big fucking exception: the ultimate Disney 90s hit The Lion King.  The amount of money that The Lion King made is frankly astronomical.  It hit the record that Aladdin set two years earlier and then made an additional hundred million dollars on top of it.  It was the highest grossing animated movie ever made at the time by a wide margin and held that record until Finding Nemo came along almost a decade later and worldwide it was the second highest grossing movie of all time behind Jurassic Park (though oddly it wasn’t that year’s highest grossing movie domestically, because holy shit, Forrest Gump made so much more money than you think it did).  It was frankly world conquering.  I was part of that wave as well.  I didn’t have some wildly memorable milestone first time viewing experience with it like I did with Aladdin, my mother just brought me to it on a random weekend afternoon and I presumably enjoyed it.  Since then though I’ve had a lot more exposure to it than I did to most of the Disney movies of this generation.  It was a go-to VHS in schools and summer programs and oddly I also ended up watching it in both Spanish and German while trying to learn those languages in middle school and high school respectively.  So this isn’t as uncharted a territory as some of the other movies I’m looking at here, but there is something to seeing it within the context of its place in Disney history for this series.

The most notable thing about The Lion King is actually something you might not immediately think about: it’s the first wholly original Disney movie.  This is perhaps original in the legal sense rather than colloquial sense.  It clearly borrows liberally from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi but there’s no one text that the film claims to be based on.  Every other Disney movie up to this point has either been explicitly based on a famous story, novel, or children’s book, even the ones like 101 Dalmations or The Rescuers whose source material has largely been forgotten.  The idea apparently had its genesis out of a desire to follow up their Arabian movie with a movie set in Africa but without all the baggage of making a movie about actual African humans, so they went with a movie about African wildlife living out in a version of the Serengeti that’s never been intruded by humans and where animals have created their own monarchical government.  From there it essentially plays out like a feline version of Hamlet with a young prince left to slay an uncle who usurped the throne through regicide.  It differs a bit from Shakespeare’s story in that Simba is led to believe that he’s personally responsible for the death of his father for much of the film and Pumbaa and Timon probably resemble a pair of Falstaffs more than they resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but either way there is some legitimately ambitious and heavy stuff here that sets the film apart from most Disney movies.

Animation-wise The Lion King is yet another big step forward.  You can see right from that amazing “Circle of Life” opening that this is being made by people who are incredibly confident in their talents and a lot of what they started earlier in the renaissance has kind of been perfected here.  There aren’t really any of those moments of dated CGI like the stairs in The Little Mermaid, or the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, or the opening of the cave of wonders like in Aladdin, everything here just looks great and they render the animals beautifully.  They also really embrace celebrity voice actors here throughout the cast, which is often a red flag but here it’s done the right way rather than out of a calculated effort to put names on the poster.  James Earl Jones adds a lot of gravitas to the film, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick both bring the right tone to Simba, Jeremy Irons makes for a very fun villain, and even Rowan freakin’ Atkinson somehow seems like an inspired casting choice here as Zazu the king’s aid.  Alan Menken finally took a break with this one, which you’d think would have been a blow but Elton John somehow stepped in and somehow, with the help of Tim Rice, managed to write songs that were right up there with what came before and Hans Zimmer managed to step in and do a pretty good job with the rest of the score.

I tried to resist this movie’s charms and do the grumpy person pickiness  I normally employ with these movies, but try as I might I really just couldn’t hate on it.  I expected Pumbaa and Timon to come in and wreck it but even they didn’t seem too bad, especially not after the genie horseshit from the last movie.  I could have done without Pumbaa’s fart story butting in on “Hakuna Matata” and Timon doing a luau to distract the guards, but Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane do have good chemistry and the two characters have kind of a Laurel and Hardy thing going on.   I also thought the movie’s final resolution could have been handled better.  Scar just sort of admits to all his wrongdoing way to easily and some of the animation looks kind of weird when it goes into slow motion during the fight scenes, but as a sort of metaphorical fated duel to restore the throne it still works and it looks pretty cool with the fire and the dark sky.  Really though this movie is hard to complain about, it’s clearly a pretty big win all around and I think I appreciate it all the more having seen all the proceeding Disney movies and having a clearer idea of how many of the pitfalls this doesn’t fall into and how many improvements it makes on what proceeded it.  What can I say, they hit it out of the part this time.

Collecting Some Thoughts

The Lion King was clearly a major triumph for Disney and was the culmination of five nearly perfect years of growth and unprecedented success for Disney and it felt like they were going to go as the clear standard-bearers for animation for decades to come.  Little did they know that their hubris would quickly get the best of them and that things would start to slip very quickly afterwards.  Seeing them all now I can confirm that this era does indeed more or less live up to its reputation.  Granted some kind of latent nostalgia may be having some effect on my opinions but given that I had clear issues with the one movie I should have the most nostalgia for I don’t think that’s the case.  The Lion King was actually the last Disney movie I would end up seeing in theaters for a variety of reasons and I aged out of their demographic shortly thereafter.  It is perhaps a strange quirk of fate during the five year period that Disney had its peak of critical and commercial popularity right when I happened to be of the exact right age to have been its intended audience while it was still going on.  You’d think that something like that would have made me perfectly situated to become a lifelong fan but perhaps it had the opposite effect and led me to take Disney for granted, to demand something even better than peak-Disney before I’d be impressed by any kind of family movie again.

Disneyology 101: The Disney Dark Age

This is the installment of this series that I’ve been weary of but also morbidly curious about.  The period of Disney’s history between 1974 and 1988 are infamous.  They were considered a clear low point for the venerable studio (at least until they hit a new low in the 2000s) and are now largely seen as a dark age that the studio needed in order to bounce back with their famous “Disney Renaissance” in the 90s.  This was caused by a number of factors: a general decline in standards that began after Sleeping Beauty under-performed, a lack of direction from a strong figure like Walt Disney, a whole lot of artistic and business infighting, a generally less hospitable environment for family movies, the list goes on and the result was a number of very bad years for the studio which nearly killed off their feature animation studio (for neither the first nor the last time) and for a brief moment saw them playing second fiddle to a rival.  But were these movies really as bad as they’re made out to be?  I do have some reason to suspect that they have at least a little more going for them than their reputations would suggest, or at the very least I have reason to be curious about some of them.

The Rescuers (1977)

The Rescuers is notable for being the one and only Disney movie to ever get a theatrical sequel, which is really kind of amazing for a number of reasons.  Today we live in a world where sequelization is the norm rather than an exception but it’s still something Disney has avoided this trend almost entirely, at least outside of their direct to video business (which is lame but which has had the unintended benefit of preventing real sequels).  That sequel actually took a full 13 years to come to fruition, to the point where it actually came out in my lifetime while the original feels like ancient history by comparison.  This isn’t to say I was actually all that familiar with The Rescuers Down Under but I do vaguely remember seeing parts of it when I was a kid (there’s an eagle in it, right?).  By contrast I knew almost nothing about original aside from the fact that it was about mice that presumably rescue things and was actually rather surprised to see just how much older the film was than the sequel.  So of all their movies, why was this the one that got the sequel treatment?  Well, to my amazement, my research tells me that this was actually a huge hit in 1977… like, to the point of being one of their biggest hits ever up to that point.  It was also an especially big hit overseas for some reason and actually managed to outgross Star Wars in France.  Who knew?

This amazing financial success feels strange to me mainly because it just seems like a wildly mediocre movie to me.  Its basic concept just seems really lame.  Mice who are in some sort of club that… rescues people for some reason?  That seems less like the premise for a movie and more like a premise for a Saturday morning cartoon… in fact Disney more or less went and did that with Chip and Dale.  So who are these mice rescuing?  An orphan girl with seemingly no personality or character traits beyond being cute and helpless who has been kidnapped for reasons that are loopy even by the standards of Disney villain schemes.   We have a villainess named Ms. Medusa who is plainly a rip-off of Cruella De Ville (and actually was Cruella De Ville in early drafts of the script) who has kidnapped this orphan and moved her across the country to what appears to be the Louisiana Bayou so she can be lowered into a cave to retrieve a large diamond that has somehow been placed into this inaccessible cave by pirates.  I would think it would have been a lot easier to just pay a midget to go into the cave, but what do I know?  Anyway, the mice arrive on the scene, defeat the villains with relatively little trouble and everyone lives happily ever after… and that’s it.  Our heroes don’t really develop much and there’s no real allegory or moral, it’s pretty much a pure adventure story but without particularly memorable set-pieces.

So what does work here?  Well, our two mice heroes are pretty likable.  Eva Gabor’s is a nicely spunky heroine who exudes confidence and Bob Newhart’s Bernard makes for a nice foil to her with his general nervousness.  Also, the movie is pretty decent in setting its atmosphere and creating interesting locations out of New York and the Bayou even if the animation is as muted and dull as most Disney movies from this era.  I suppose the songs by Shelby Flint (which are played in the background rather than sung by characters on screen) are decent if not overly memorable.   Beyond all that though, I don’t know, it certainly isn’t gratingly annoying but it doesn’t have much going for it either.  As for its box office success and critical reception, I’m going to have to chalk that up to a general lack of competition.  There just weren’t that many movies being made for children in the late 70s, animated or otherwise, and people looking for that sort of thing kind of had to take what they could get.  In retrospect it feels like a pretty transitional film.  Wolfgang Reitherman is on board as a co-director but clearly had less influence over it and there would be some turnover before their next project.

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

The Rescuers had turned out to be a pretty decent hit for Disney and at the time they’d gotten plaudits for their work, but it seems clear that there were quite a few people internally at Disney who weren’t as forgiving and it would greatly affect their follow-up The Fox and the Hound.  There had been a sort of civil war brewing between Disney’s old guard (who were really close to retireing) and the younger animators (who thought Disney needed to update).  These tensions reached their peak during the making of The Fox and the Hound and resulted in the most vocal of the younger (and “younger” is a relative term here, many of them were in their 40s) animators, Don Bluth resigning and taking eleven other animators with him to start a rival studio.  This set back production on their current movie and put a bit of a pal over the whole production as they were forced to hire on some new animators , but I suppose Disney had the last laugh because (like a lot of the so-called duds in this era) the movie ended up being another box office success for them.

The film is, at its heart, a kid friendly take on the old story of two childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of a conflict.  That’s the heart of it anyway, but the movie gets distracted by a bunch of weak sub-plots and side characters that dilute a lot of its impact.  It feels like a bit like some of the bad patterns that Disney would fall into later where they’d mar some of their better movies by feeling obligated to throw lame comic relief characters into otherwise relatively serious movies.  The whole movie seems to have this tension where the makers weren’t sure whether they wanted to just make a cute movie about talking animal or make a movie that was serious about exploring the tension its characters were going through and this is most clearly apparent in the way they wuss out and have the character of Chief injured rather than killed (as he was in the source novel) midway through the movie.  This was apparently one of the main points of contention between the two generations at Disney and it’s plainly obvious that the younger writers (who were on Team Dead Dog) were right.  It makes zero sense to have the hound and his owner out for revenge over an accident that merely injured that character and they just seem even more pointlessly obsessed.  That’s a beat the film so clearly wants to have and it’s patently obvious that they blinked and changed things.

However, the film does recover a little at the end.  The Fox’s courtship of a lady fox is pretty well handled as far as these things go and the chase scene at the end is also pretty effective, especially once that bear gets in on the action.  Disney also seems to have had more resources to put into this one than some of the other movies they made around this time and the animation does look better because of it.  It was actually the most expensive movie Disney had made up to that point, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case if they adjusted for inflation and other variables because it still doesn’t look great per se, just not distractingly cheap.  Overall I kind of see why this movie became the frustrated middle child of the Disney cannon.  It’s far from being their best but certainly not their worst and it just doesn’t have that many standout elements that really make it stand out in the crowd.  It was something of a last hurrah for Disney’s old guard and the last movie Disney would make for a little while which wasn’t seen as some sort of embarrassment for the company.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Out of all the Disney movies I planned to watch this year, The Black Cauldron is definitely one of the ones I’ve been most curious to see.  This is in partly because it was an attempt to make a darker Disney movie that skewed older but also because, more than most of these movies, it is a total unknown quantity.  The movie had very little impact on pop culture and I’d hardly even seen a clip of it much less the whole movie.  If the movie is remembered for anything it’s for its incredible critical and commercial failure and, rightly or wrongly, is seen as the moment where the studio hit rock bottom.  It’s a shame because the people behind the movie clearly had high hopes for the project as they dumped a lot of money into it.  This was made for $44 million dollars, which is almost four times the cost of The Fox and the Hound, which was itself the most expensive animated movie ever made (without inflation adjustment).  That would have been money well spent if this had indeed gotten a wider audience interested in what they were doing and given themselves a cooler image, but things didn’t really work out for them.

While I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that Disney can just spend their way into making a good movie, the extra resources certainly don’t hurt.  This is easily the best looking Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty and it isn’t even close.  You can tell that that 1959 film was their model as this was the first time they experimented with wide screen, 70mm, and special animation effects since that movie’s relative box office failure and it makes it so that if nothing else The Black Cauldron is a very pleasant movie to look at.  The movie’s darker than usual tone is also a pretty interesting move.  This was Disney’s first PG rated movie, and this is before that rating had been completely devalued.  The film’s villain, while kind of generic and lacking in personality, has real menace and there’s a lot more of a sense of threat to the whole thing.  It’s a pretty fascinating direction to go in from a studio that, in its last movie, was too pussy to kill off a damn dog.  The problem is that while the movie seems really unique amongst Disney’s cannon it feels pretty generic by the standards of 80s fantasy movies in general.

The film’s protagonist is really boring.  He’s a 14 year old kid who… has brown hair and, uh, seems fairly noble I guess.  There’s also a princess here who’s more feisty than usual but otherwise doesn’t have much of an effect on the story.  There’s also a furry little comic relief thing that is absurdly annoying and the film has a really weird MacGuffin in the form of some kind of magical pig.  The story is also just a really basic Lord of the Rings ripoff and beyond that there really isn’t that much to say.  The film starts off well enough but really loses steam fast in its second act.  It picks up a little toward the end but by then it’s too little too late.  It’s a frustrating movie because it feels like the ingredients are there for something cool and they just blow it at every turn and the result is a movie that never lives up to its potential.  The general public rejected the movie so emphatically that the goddamn Care Bears movie ended up outgrossing it, many people at Disney were fired, and the decision was made to leave “edgy” animated movies to Ralph Bakshi going forward.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Heads rolled over The Black Cauldron and it coincided with a lot of changes to the greater Disney Corporation and the animated film division.  Michael Eisner had been brought it from Paramount to be Disney’s CEO and he appointed future Dreamworks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the motion picture division and by all accounts he hated what he saw of The Black Cauldron and personally cut 12 minutes out of it.  Clearly he felt the whole studio needed a big shakeup and different creatives started to take charge of their feature animations.  The Great Mouse Detective was the first post-Katzenberg production by the studio and he apparently made demands to it on a script level while also cutting the budget to avoid another overpriced bomb.  Whatever he did it seemed to work because The Great Mouse Detective was a very pleasant surprise for me and easily the studio’s best movie since The Jungle Book even if that’s not saying much.

Looking back, it’s clear that this movie was something of a trial run for some of the principals that would have been instrumental in the famous Disney Renaissance.  Most notably, two of the film’s four directors were a couple of guys named John Musker and Ron Clements who would together direct such movies as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and they’re even directing Moana later this year. The thing is, they were kind of stuck with a stupid concept to work with the first time around.  Rather than working on an epic fairy tale they were stuck making a movie that answered the question no one was asking: what if Sherlock Holmes was a mouse?  Honestly I’m not sure why this studio is so obsessed with mice, animals which most people hate these rodents but Disney saw it fit to make one its logo and fund two major motion pictures about them within a ten year period and this one really does not do a whole lot with the whole animal angle.  Come to think about it, they don’t do a lot with the Sherlock Holmes angle either.  We know from moment one that Professor Rattigan is the villain, so this isn’t really a whodunit so much as it’s about figuring out where the villain is and what his evil scheme is.  That’s less a Sherlock Holmes formula and more the format of a James Bond movie complete with a scene where the villain leaves the hero tied up to an elaborate machine he can escape from.

The movie is also pretty sharp visually.  It lacks the show-offy scope of The Black Cauldron but it’s clearly cleaner and more confidently staged than most of the other movies they made in the previous twenty years.  They do a good job of animating the London fog and they also use some computer animation and use it pretty well during the film’s rather exciting finale in the gears of Big Ben.  In general, the execution here is pretty strong; it’s just that this whole premise is… silly and not very Disney-like.  The public sort of seemed to agree because the reception of the movie was strong but nothing great.  The movie made about $25 million on a $14 million budget, which would have been considered to be a moderate success except that for the second movie in a row Disney found themselves coming in second to a rival animation studio, in this case Don Bluth’s most successful movie An American Tail (again, what the hell is it with animators and mice), which made $47 million dollars.  Disney is not a studio that was used to coming in second on its own turf so I think this thing was ultimately seen as a commercial failure, but clearly they felt like they were going in the right creative direction and they were probably right.

Oliver & Company (1988)

By 1988 it was pretty clear to everyone that Disney was in a bad place and that they may or may not be able to dig their way out and they were becoming very open to experimentation.  Oliver & Company was in many ways an experiment to see if the thing that had ailed Disney the whole time had simply been that they were behind the times and needed to start getting hip with the MTV generation and the results were… kind of hilarious in retrospect.  This is actually one of the few Disney movies to be placed in a contemporary setting and one of even fewer Disney movies to fully embrace its modernity, and because of that it has become dated a lot faster than most of their output because this movie is what you’d call “totally 80s.”  You can tell this right from the first moments of the movies where we immediately start seeing 80s New York as the setting and start hearing Huey Lewis and the News on the soundtrack.  In fact there’s a lot of pop music in the soundtrack here and it feels less like the Broadway-ish fare that Disney usually traffics in and more like fully produced MTV ready songs by artists like of Billy Joel (who also voices a major character during a very brief moment in time where he was considered cool and youthful) and while these songs are catchy enough for what they are they feel out of place and it’s more jarring than usual when characters suddenly break out into this kind of song than normal in part because they sound like they particularly sound like studio recordings rather than an approximation of someone singing on the street.

As a story the best way I can describe this movie is… rushed.  The movie is an attempt to re-tell Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” as the story of a stray kitten in New York, which I’m willing to bet seemed like a good idea at one point and they do find some semi-clever ways to adapt the story, but in the long run I’m not so sure that turning a 600 page novel set over a long period of time into a 74 minute movie set over three days was such a smart move.  “Oliver Twist” is a story that’s primarily about how its young protagonist moves between class stratas and the way he falls in and out of certain social circles be it the chaotic world of Fagin’s gang or the comforting world of the Brownlows, but in this version there’s very little time for him to really integrate with any of these worlds and he seems to build these lifelong loyalties after hanging out with people for all of a single day.  But let’s not ignore the obvious; even the most rock-solid of storytelling here would have almost certainly been lost amid this movie’s overwhelming “‘tude.”  Hell, they might as well have renamed Dodger to Poochie, because that Simpsons episode more than exemplifies what seemed to be going on with this movie and its general datedness is probably a big part of why it was never really embraced by future generations of kids.

From an execution perspective the movie is… mostly fine.  Disney had really started embracing celebrity voice actors at this point, a practice that they would sort of cool on shortly afterwards.  The animation is pretty decent for the most part, you can tell their craft has kept improving and they do an admirable job of filling the New York streets with activity although their use of computer animation is a little less impactful and a bit more distracting than it was in the last movie.  Critics were not fond of the movie but it did make decent money although once again the studio’s success was kind of overshadowed by Don Bluth.  This movie opened the very same weekend as Bluth’s The Land Before Time and lost the weekend $7.5 million to $4 million.  Oliver & Company surpass Bluth’s film and gross $53 million to LBT’s $46 million, which is pretty much a draw.  Disney would have the last laugh though as this would be the last time that Bluth would be viewed as any sort of threat.  The film’s bigger legacy though is probably one of failure as I kind of suspect that Disney was a little embarrassed by their sellout attempts here as evidenced by the fact that they ran as fast as possible in the other direction shortly thereafter.

Collecting Some Thoughts

So, I’ve waded through the Disney Dark Age and obviously the big question is “was it as bad as its reputation suggests?”  Objectively, I’m inclined to say “not really but I understand why people think so.”  Simply looking at my star ratings I definitely gave higher scores to the movies during this installment of the series than I did to most of the movies in my last series on the “Reitherman Years” and I think that era has been given something of an unfair pass in part because The Jungle Book came out in the middle of it and that movie is seen as a sort of classic.  What I think has directed so much ire towards this era, aside from sour grapes over what was going on behind the scenes, is that this was the first time that Disney didn’t really seem like Disney.  Even when they had put out bad movies in the past there had still been little doubt that they were the undisputed kings of mainstream animation and that wasn’t necessarily true of their 70s and 80s output.  They had some real competition now and you could sort of see them flailing.  On top of that they had abandoned a lot of what had worked for them in the past.  Instead of alternating between fairy tale movies and talking animal movies they had doubled and tripled down on the talking animal movies in this era and the one fairy tale like movie they did attempt was a far cry from their earlier formula that people were so nostalgic for.

Despite Disney’s problems during this era you can definitely see them rebuilding towards something better as they went.  The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were basically extensions of the Reitherman era and had all the problems associated with it and while The Black Cauldron had plenty of problems itself I feel like it marked a point where the animators were learning and they used tricks from it to make The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company work better than they otherwise would have.  Those last two movies are the real transitional efforts.  You can see the techniques that would finally bring The Disney Renaissance to life but they were being used towards story ideas that weren’t worthy of them.  As everyone knows, Disney was about to break out of its doldrums in a big way and that will be the subject of my next installment, but that is going to have to wait because I’m going to be putting Disneyology on hiatus for a few months and resuming it after Award season ends.  Fortunately I’ll be able to hit the ground running with the movies that most exemplified what Disney was all about to my generation.

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)

As 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)

Out 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)

On 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)

Disney’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)

I’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.

Disneyology 101: The 50s Resurgence

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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.

 Cinderella (1950)

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 DwarfsCinderella 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.

Disneyology 101: The Golden Age


For years I refused to watch any kind of children’s or family movie and while I don’t think I was missing out of a whole lot I did eventually come to realize that if I wanted to be a fully rounded film expert I probably shouldn’t be completely cutting myself off from one of the most popular genres in all of film.  So, in 2011 I embarked on a little viewing odyssey to catch up on the acclaimed films of the Pixar animation studio and when I was done with that I expanded my little odyssey to get a broader knowledge of the contemporary family film landscape.  However, something was missing.  I’d been focusing so much on the modern state of family cinema that I hadn’t really gotten a better idea of the broader history that had led us to that point.   That will end with my next series which will go all the way back and examine the roots of this genre vis-a-vis the studio that pretty much invented it: Disney.  This will be a little different from my other two series in that I had a little more experience with some of these movies… sort of.  I know I’ve seen some of these movies during my youth but that was so long ago that I’m not even really sure at this point which ones I actually saw in their entirety and which ones I just saw a few clips of at one point.   Either way I think it would be for the best to give them a view with adult eyes to better appreciate their place in film history and to see if they actually hold up.  From a writing perspective this series will be a little different than the earlier series in that I’m taking something of a quantity over quality approach to my write-ups.  I’m thinking I’ll be making a bunch of short-ish reviews rather than the long ones I wrote for the other two series.  I’m also not entirely sure what the pacing on this is going to be and I am planning to take some longish breaks at certain points in the series, so we’ll see how things develop.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Where to begin with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  To a certain extent it’s a movie you don’t even need to watch in order to know it has earned a place in film history.  No matter the film’s actual pros and cons, the fact remains that it was the first feature length animated film and that alone makes it a clear landmark and for whatever flaws it has (and it has many) they can all kind of be understood given that Disney was learning the grammar for this kind of movie from scratch in a number of ways.  The film’s greatest asset, by far, is its animation.  Disney had carefully honed their animation style in the decade between Steamboat Willie and this feature debut and they came out of the gate with a pretty fully formed and fluid animation style which only seems better with age.  You can really tell that most of what’s onscreen here was painstakingly hand drawn and it gives you an idea of just how many corners are cut in modern 2D animation on television and elsewhere and beyond the film’s technical merits it definitely has some cool visual design elements.  The film’s audio elements, by contrast, haven’t aged nearly as well.  The film’s voice acting generally feels stilted in much the way a lot of the early talkies were and Adriana Caselotti’s performance as the title character is particularly weak.

Truth be told, Caselotti’s squeaky voice performance is emblematic of a bigger problem: Snow White is a really terrible character.  There’s just nothing to this woman; she’s everything that people claim is wrong about the stereotypical Disney Princess.  She begins the movie as this flawless paragon of “traditional” femininity and doesn’t evolve in the slightest throughout the movie.  After being chased out of town under threat of death she just magically gets accepted by all the forest animals (who all have this disturbing grin on their faces), drifts into the home of the seven dwarves, and is quickly accepted as this perfect wife/mother figure by them.  We get no evidence that she has a single interesting thought and also proves herself to be this naïve moron who’s stupid enough to eat a poisoned apple given to her by someone who is obviously a witch (a move that even the woodland animals are smart enough not to fall for).  The film doesn’t view the fact that Snow White is almost killed by one of the dumbest murder schemes in fairy tale history as a character flaw so much as a natural result of her apparently desirable innocence and she’s quickly saved by a deus ex machine of a prince who just shows up to fall in love with her for no reason and save her with a basically unearned kiss.  When you watch stuff like this you start to get a better idea why the moderately well-developed protagonists of movies like Frozen were as heavily praised as they were.

Most of the character problems I outlined above could easily be chalked up to problems that are inherit to bringing a fairy tale to the screen and I’m not unsympathetic with that, but this movie has other problems that are more inherently cinematic, namely that the film has a pretty strange story structure and pace to it.  The film really streamlines its own first act, relegating most of the exposition to a text introduction, which is strange because there really isn’t a lot of story here and the rest of the film actually feels pretty padded.  An inordinate amount of time is spent with Snow White just hanging around with the dwarfs and the story kind of comes to a halt as we wait for the witch to finally show up.  At this point the film basically turns into a slapstick comedy with cartoony gags that are sort of interestingly staged but which I wouldn’t say I found to be particularly funny and as such the film’s rather long second act gets rather dull at a certain point.  So when it comes to this movie I’d say it’s something I have a certain respect for and a certain interest in for its place in film history but which I can’t say I particularly “liked” exactly.  Fortunately for Walt Disney that isn’t the dominant opinion about it.  This thing was a humongous success when it came out and was briefly the highest grossing movie of all time until Gone With the Wind came along.  Adjusted for inflation and including all the re-releases the film remains the studio’s biggest hit of all time and gave Disney a whole lot of momentum that would sustain them through tough times ahead.

**1/2 out of Five

Pinocchio (1940)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a resounding financial success for Disney and with that under his belt Walt Disney decided to pull out all the stops and make his follow-up project bigger, better, and more impressive and in many ways he succeeded.  Pinocchio cost twice as much to make as Snow White and you can definitely see the money up on the screen.  There are more locations, more moving parts, and more animation effects in this movie and they definitely go a long way to making it feel more like a fully formed vision than Disney’s debut.  There are a lot of showy moments in this like an early money-shot of Geppetto’s village that begins above the skyline with birds in the foreground and zooms in on a building below with various people walking around on the roads below.  Later of course there’s the film’s finale where the principal characters escape from a whale that creates a bunch of cool splashy effects on the ocean.  There’s substantially more here in terms of big visual set-pieces like that than there were in Snow White (which largely seemed to take place in one house) and in general it’s just a more exciting watch.  The voice acting is also generally improved in so much as the actors don’t feel distractingly stilted and I might even single out Cliff Edwards’ performance as Jiminy Cricket as being downright charming in a folksy kind of way.

In terms of story-telling the film is also a big step forward, but perhaps not as big of a one as it needed to be.  On its face, the storytelling here is really kind of weird.  The whole movie seems to operate on a strange sort of dream logic where a puppet that comes to life is just blithely told to go off to school literally the next day by a father figure who doesn’t even take a day to consider the craziness that just came into his life.  It’s a film where almost all of the characters are just regular humans but two random anthropomorphic animals walk into the film and interact with humans out of nowhere, where there’s a weird nightmarish episode set at an island where naughty boys are turned to donkeys in what has to be one of the least efficient scams ever, and where characters return home in time to learn via a note that their father figure just happened to be swallowed by a whale in what has to be one of the most random third act developments you can think of.  All that is… pretty far removed from the conventional way stories are supposed to be structured and an audience’s willingness to go along with it may vary.  It’s also interesting that the film doesn’t really have one central villain but various ones like Stromboli, Foulfellow, the coachman, and the whale, none of whom are even defeated by the end.

If the movie has one fatal flaw it is its simple moralizing and borderline preachiness.  It’s not hard to see what the message of the movie is: work hard, listen to your parents, develop morals, and go to school and you’ll be a success.  The film doesn’t hide any of this in the slightest, it pretty much comes out and says all of it and even goes so far as to declare a character to be the protagonists’ conscience and one of its villains as temptation.   This attempt to speak directly to the smallest of children and instill these very middle class American values upon them all comes off  a little simplistic and almost PSA-ish and gives you a slightly queasy sense that you’re being preached to by a condescending rich guy who thinks he knows what’s best for you.  Still, there is at least something there at the center of this one, which is probably more than I can say about the last Disney movie and the film’s advanced ambitions alone make it a pretty essential part of the Disney cannon.  Oddly enough, the movie was actually something of a failure at the box office in its initial release.  Part of that was simply due to the fact that they couldn’t rely on European box office returns due to the war, but the novelty of seeing a cartoon at feature length had also worn off and while the film was certainly popular by most standards it actually didn’t make its entire budget back and start making a profit until a later re-release.

*** out of five

Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia is different from most of the movies I planned to look at for this series in that it is basically a compilation of shorts and that it incorporates some live action elements, but it’s considered key to Disney’s work in this era so I don’t think I can overlook it.  Also, this is the one movie from this era that I’m 100% sure I’ve seen before in its entirety in that I distinctly remember that my family owned a copy of it on VHS back in the day.  Today it would seem like sort of the ideal movie for me in that it provides me with a way to admire classical Disney animation without forcing me to deal with a silly fairy tale story filled with dumb jokes for babies.  In fact I think the film, with its blending of high culture and low culture was very much meant to be a film that would help win over the hearts and minds of snobs like me who might have minimal interest in watching a feature length cartoon but who might be won over by the prospect of seeing a classical music presentation and Disney seemed to indulge this highbrow appeal by giving the film a roadshow presentation with an intermission in order to give audiences the feeling of spending an evening at the orchestra.

You can kind of see the film using its first two segments to ease these kind of audiences into the world of a Disney cartoon by making the first segment abstract and the second segment being a slightly surreal scene of small objects dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.  From there it quickly gets a lot more Disney with the film’s most famous segment: The Sorcerer’s Apprenitce, which was actually the first part of the movie they made.  Originally this was supposed to be a standalone short but once it was clearly too expensive to make money as a short they got the idea of combining similar shorts into a feature.  You can tell things were a little different on this one both because the star is Mickey Mouse and also because it tells a clearer story than most of them.  The next segment is the most ambitious in that it depicts the dawn of life on the planet and evolution up through the death of the dinosaurs, but it’s also probably the weakest in part because The Rite of Spring is probably the dullest of the classical music pieces here and that kind of carries over into the short.  Still, seeing dinosaurs was no small thing in 1940 s I’ll give them a pass.  From there we get the Pastoral Symphony segment, which is I always remember liking as a kid because I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  Watching it now I’m surprised at how daring it was with its partly nude centaurs and its bacchanalian drinking character.  The next segment, with ballet dancing animals, is one of the least narratives but it’s also one of the segments that most directly synchs with the music and is generally amusing in its use of animals that you wouldn’t guess would be natural choices for ballet.  That is perhaps the pallet cleanser for the film’s true masterpiece, the segment I usually fast forwarded to when I was a kid, the Night on Bald Mountain segment in which a demon on a mountain chills with other various ghouls and ghosts. This bit of German expressionist inspired awesomeness makes up for any and all earlier shortcomings but I could have done without the Ave Maria closer.

If there’s a fatal flaw to the film it’s that some of the segments perhaps overstay their welcome a bit.  In fact at 126 minutes this is the longest animated feature Disney has ever released and by a relatively wide margin (to the point where the second longest Disney animated movie, Zootopia, is only 108 minutes long and very few of their traditionally animated films were over 90 minutes).  This is perhaps a byproduct of the fact that Disney was working with classical pieces that had a set length and you couldn’t exactly just cut those pieces down at will.  What’s more, I kind of think that a shortened version would sort of miss the point.  The movie is supposed to feel like a night out at the symphony, but with cool imagery added to give you something interesting to focus on while you listen.  When it played in urban centers in its roadshow version at nice theaters with an intermission for effect it did quite well, when it played in a heavily cut form with all the orchestra interstitials removed it did very poorly.    It also suffered from all the same distribution challenges that Pinocchio faced and as such it wasn’t a box office success, but over the years it was re-realeased just as often as the other Disney classics and built a reputation, but the damage was probably done.  Disney wouldn’t try to go in a mature direction like this again anytime soon.

**** out of five

Dumbo (1941)

Having lost money on two straight movies, Walt Disney realized that in the economy they existed in they couldn’t afford to make projects as lavish as Pinocchio and Fantasia anymore and went into their fourth feature intent on making a cheaper project that would turn a profit and the result was Dumbo: a sixty-four minute feature about a misfit circus elephant.  The corners that were cut in the animation on this one is readily apparent from moment one.  The style here is simpler and more in line with the kind of animation I tend to associate with television rather than film in a number of ways.  Just compare the elephants here with the ones from the penultimate Fantasia segment and the downgrade is striking.  Of course this is different from the other “golden age” Disney films in a number of other ways as well.  Unlike Snow White and Pinocchio, this is not based on a timeless fairytale or decades old children’s book, it was instead based on a truly obscure illustrated children’s book that was meant to be a prototype for a short lived invention called a Roll-A-Book.   Most people who weren’t paying close attention to the credits probably just assume it’s an original Disney story rather than another adaptation.  It’s also the first Disney movie to take place in the “here and now” and the first one to primarily be about talking animals.  It’s also less of a musical than previous Disney movies.  There are songs in it but until very late in the movie most of them are performed non-dietetically by singers who are off screen

The movie starts off pretty weak, establishing quickly that this isn’t going to be as serious of an effort when it’s shown that this is set in a world where baby animals are delivered to their mothers by storks and train engines have a personality of their own.  If Snow White operated on fairy tale logic and Pinochio operated on dream logic, this operates on cartoon logic.  It’s a world where trying to run while having very large ears will inevitably lead to you tripping into a stack of elephants and having them tumble to the ground while finding various unlikely ways to survive said fall.  Hell, the central idea of having an elephant fly by flapping its ears is itself a cartoonishly ridiculous idea with no bearing at all on real world physics.  It should probably go without saying that this style isn’t really my jam and during the first half I was pretty ready to write the thing off, but it did start to win me back a little in its third act.  The whole “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is… interesting.  It’s adventurous and different in a way the rest of the movie isn’t.  I hear a lot of people list that scene alongside the likes of the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz in the cannon of scenes that allegedly traumatized them as kids but I’m not exactly sure why, especially after watching that Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia.  It’s more trippy than scary.  I also found the crows that showed up shortly thereafter fairly entertaining even though I realize they’re “problematic.”  They are clearly a caricature of the mannerisms of African Americans, but in their defense they were (mostly) voiced by a real African American entertainment troupe, their dialect appears to mostly be accurate, and the characters are mostly positively portrayed and don’t really play into many negative stereotypes.  The one thing that kind of makes it queasy is that a white guy (Cliff Edwards, voice of Jiminy Cricket) was brought in to play their leader, and his voice acting does seem a little more exaggerated than the others.

Despite a couple of highlights I still think this story is kind of weak.  This is the second straight Disney narrative feature where the sidekick pretty clearly outshines the star.  Dumbo himself is kind of lame.  He’s mute and spends much of the film moping around and has few personality traits outside of his general victimhood.  His mouse buddy by contrast is this amusing plucky little guy with a really amusing New York accent provided by voice actor Edward Brophy.  Beyond that this just doesn’t feel terribly cinematic to me.  Between the second-class animation and the fact that it’s only a little over an hour long, the thing almost kind of feels like a long short film or something that would play before a real movie.  David Mamet once claimed that this was a perfect movie and it is seen as a Disney classic right alongside the other Golden Age efforts, but I just don’t see it, it seems notably inferior to me.  Audiences at the time seemed to dig it though, sort of.  The thing actually made slightly less than Pinocchio did in its initial run and only slightly more than Fantasia did, but all those cost saving measures that Disney employed meant that it cost significantly less than either of them so it and Snow White remain the only of the “golden age” Disney movies to turn a profit in their initial runs.

** out of Five

Bambi (1942)

Out of all the Golden Age Disney movies Bambi is the one I have the haziest memory of from my past, to the point where I don’t think I ever saw it at all as a kid.  Since then it’s probably the Disney movie I’ve spent the most time blindly scoffing at.  After all, it’s a movie about adorable talking animals frolicking around in the forest: lame.  Where’s Godzilla when you need him?  That was probably a bit misguided though because, outside of Fantasia, it’s probably the most mature effort out of all the early Disney movies.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel written for adult audiences called “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” which was written by an Austrian named Felix Salten and was meant as an environmentalist work of the “how would you like it if you were in the animal’s shoes” variety.  It doesn’t have any fantastical elements really (aside from the fact that the animals talk of course), it has fewer stupid jokes than usual, it doesn’t really have any musical numbers outside of a few non-diegetic bits and there’s a definite undercurrent of melancholy and struggle at various points in the film.

Watching it now the movie felt a bit familiar.  You have a film that begins with animals gathering to see the birth of forest royalty, a young kid who would tragically lose a parent, live in exile until adulthood only to then return, save people from a threat, and then mate with a childhood friend so that the film can then end with the birth of his children (again witnessed by a crowd of animals) in order to underscore the circle of life… yeah, The Lion King was kind of a ripoff.  The one difference between the two (aside from the setting and species involved) obviously the presence of the Scar character in the later film, which doesn’t really have an analogue here.  Adding that villainous element in that version of the story was probably an improvement as it gives the hero something to fight against beyond simple survival and generally provides more in the way of story, but on the other hand there’s something to be said for the relative simplicity of Bambi’s story.  The movie is only about six minutes longer than Dumbo and yet it feels more complete and feature-like and while Bambi’s character arc does seem to skip a couple of beats there is something oddly dignified about the way we simply see this animal go from boy to man over the course of the film.

With Dumbo we saw Disney move in a more frugal direction in order to adjust to the new realities they were facing and the effects were noticeable.  Fortunately production on their last golden age project was already well under way by the time it was a fiscally irresponsible project and they were already kind of committed to making it as another large budget production.    The film has a pretty interesting art style in that the characters are rendered using the conventional Disney style while the backgrounds are these immaculately painted settings.  These backgrounds really give a great sense of mood but the downside is that they don’t move at all and the characters don’t exactly blend in seamlessly.  The style oddly reminded me of the old PS1 Resident Evil games of all things in the way the moving characters seemed different from the highly static and better looking environments.   It’s a pretty visual film in general so it’s a good thing that they had the budget to make it happen.  Unfortunately the movie did suffer from most of the same box office woes as Pinocchio and Fantasia.  It made about as much money as Dumbo but cost a lot more to make and didn’t make a profit in its original theatrical run.

***1/2 out of Five

Collecting some thoughts

The five films I’ve watched so far are believed to constitute Diseny’s golden age and are almost certainly the movies that Walt Disney himself had the most pride in.  Watching them you could see the company creating an art form and seeing how far they could push it.  Granted they generally used that art form in ways that aren’t entirely in line with my tastes but seeing the stylistic choices has been interesting just the same.  I’ve talked a lot about these movies underperforming at the box office, but it would be a mistake to read too much into that.  If anything Disney was guilty of bad timing, if the European market wasn’t mired in war and destruction all of these movies would have played overseas and made a profit and most of them did just that eventually after a re-release or two.  Either way, the domestic hauls that the movies raked in would have been pretty respectable if not for the large budgets and the studio’s financial woes during this era shouldn’t be viewed as a public rejection and if nothing else all of them did a lot to bolster the company’s brand.  Still, financial problems are financial problems and if they hadn’t done the studio in Pearl Harbor would have.  With America entering the war a sizable number of Disney’s animators found themselves drafted and the ones that stayed behind were enlisted to make instructional cartoons for the army (these are pretty interesting BTW, if you aren’t familiar with Private Snafu you should check Youtube).  Those government contracts actually probably did a lot to get the company back onto its feet but they’d be out of the feature film business for the rest of the 1940s.  However, they would be making a pretty big comeback during the Eisenhower years and that will be the subject I cover when I return to this shortly.