Sunday, January 31, 2010

#19: The Jungle Book (1967)

Walt Disney was a man who was always thinking of new ideas and innovations, and in the early 60s he had plenty of them in the works. His live-action films were getting bigger and bigger, with 'Mary Poppins' an achievement in live action-animation integration, winning praise and awards. His 'Wonderful World of Disney' TV specials took advantage of the new medium as a new venue for entertainment, but also for promotion for Disney's other big projects, giving audiences sneak peeks. Disneyland was built and well received, and Disney was hard at work planning and developing a barren stretch of land in Orlando into his new resort getaway. With all this in mind, one has to wonder what the man would have accomplished if he'd lived just another decade, maybe two? Where would the Disney company be then? Unfortunately, Walt died of lung cancer in 1966, an understandably huge blow to the studio. 'The Jungle Book' was the first film to be released after his death, though Walt himself was very much involved in the project. Too bad this intro has kind of put a damper on things though; it's a whimsical, wonderful movie that hopefully audiences then and now feel truly captures the essence of Disney animation.
Based VERY loosely off Rudyard Kipling's book (Walt's first instruction to the animators: "Do not read the book."), the movie focuses on Mowgli, a young "man cub" who has been raised by wolves since infancy. However, when they hear of the vicious tiger Shere Khan's return to the jungle, the animals agree that the child must be returned to his own kind, so Bagheera, the panther who found him, must take him back. What follows is basically various encounters the two have with characters who want the boy for their own reasons. First is Baloo, a care-free bear who takes a shining to Mowgli, and vows to teach him the "bare necessities." Mowgli is then taken by monkeys to bestow to their leader King Louie, a jazz-happy orangutan who desires to learn the secrets of man's fire. There's also Kaa, a python who continuously tries to eat Mowgli, but is too bumbling to succeed, a gaggle of laid-back, but sort of solemn vultures, and of course an encounter with Shere Khan himself.
Like 'Alice in Wonderland,' this is a film that succeeds in that it's not so much about a compelling story as it is watching your main character interact with the various creatures they meet. Although there is a bit more of an ongoing force driving the movie than 'Alice'; Bagheera and Baloo sort of act like two foster parents who want the best for Mowgli, but disagree on what that is, with Baloo's carefree attitude and Bagheera's responsible air to return him to his own kind. The film is set up rather episodically (almost tailored to be later aired on 'Wonderful World of Disney' now that I think about it...), but the characters are so damn fun to watch, it's all the better it's set up that way. The animation, while nothing radically different, is stellar as always; the animals go back and forth from their animal nature to swinging and dancing like humans, but they always feel like they have weight and presence. A highlight for me is where Bagheera pushes Mowgli up a tree; you can feel the sense that the boy has mass as he presses back against the panther. It's the kind of animation where you completely forget that these are just colored drawings, it's fantastic.
Great animation aside, the movie really shines in its audio, both in voices and song. Disney had used famous radio and stage personalities in films before, but really wanted this one to be full of recognizable voices, inadvertently starting a trend that has (unfortunately) continued to this day. Musician/comedian Phil Harris gives Baloo such a jovial, lovable air, locking his character in as one of the most likable in Disney history, while jazz legend Louis Prima voices King Louie, with the "I Wanna Be Like You" number a showstopper in every sense of the word. Then of course there's the "Bare Necessities" song, a true classic as well. George Sanders gives Shere Khan a true suave, devilish tone, and almost seems like a precursor to 'The Lion King's Scar. There's also Sterling Holloway as Kaa, although hearing the slippery conniving snake speak in almost the same voice as Pooh Bear is a little unnerving. Another interesting tidbit comes with the four vultures, who sort of look and sing like the Beatles. Actually, they were originally intended to be VOICED by the Beatles, but John Lennon refused, allegedly hating the Disney company. Sourpuss. Can you imagine how cool that would have been, having the Beatles do voices and SING in a Disney movie?
So as I said, this movie shines in its characters, all of whom are kind of multi-sided. Shere Khan is the film's villain, but is more debonair and cocky than downright sinister. Kaa is sort of a threat, but it's counterbalanced by his incompetence. And King Louie is a rambunctious, fun-loving character, but it's not exactly clear what his motives are, or how far he'll be willing to go to squeeze Mowgli of information. All of these guys are counterbalanced by the flip-side of this in Baloo, the true genuine character. Idn't that sweet.

Verdict? A real fun movie, filled with absolutely fantastic performances, great music and songs, entertaining characters and top notch animation as always. It's one of the studio's more breezy and low-key movies, but in the end turns out to be one of their best.

...oh, and speaking of animation, around this point began the trend of reusing animation poses and cycles from other movies. Both a time-saving measure and also a desire to not let good animation go to waste, the scene where Baloo and Bagheera are trying to keep Mowgli away from the monkeys is nearly identical to a scene from 'Mr. Toad' where Toad and his gang are trying to get the deed to Toad Manor away from the weasels. Take a look for yourself and see. Don't know exactly what to make of this, but hey, it's only maybe thirty seconds of footage, and the studio needed to cut corners. If they re-use a little bit and can still produce phenomenal feature animation for the other 97% of the film, it's fine by me.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

#18 - The Sword in the Stone (1963)

'The Sword in the Stone' is yet another of Disney's films taking place in England, this time in medieval times, telling the story of King Arthur. Well, a young Arthur, anyway. No one pays much mind to him; his foster father and brother basically make him do busywork and berate him with an unflattering nickname "Wart." But a wise old wizard named Merlin sees good things in his future, and decides to apprentice him and give him an education, by which I mean turn him into different animals and tell him stuff. I guess.
I kind of don't know what to make of this one, so let me try to break it down. Merlin, the wise old wizard, and his grumpy sidekick owl Archimedes see that Arthur can be so much more than what he is, and decide to give him an education. So we've instated that Arthur is our hero, and is to be taught the ways of the world by Merlin, the sage teacher. So Merlin turns Arthur (and himself) into a fish to teach him how to use brains over brawn against a vicious-looking sea dweller. Alright, that's important. Then they turn into squirrels, so Arthur can learn about relationships, as a girl squirrel immediately clings to him and won't let up. So I guess this will pay off later when Arthur finds a human girl? Maybe that'll be the future queen? Nope, there's no pay off. And it's even kind of mean of Merlin; he laughs at the situation the whole time, and pays no attention that the girl squirrel is crestfallen when Arthur is revealed to be a human.
The whole character of Merlin is kind of confusing to me. He's very ambiguous in everything he goes about teaching Arthur. His final "lesson" in turning Arthur into a bird really teaches him nothing, so basically only one of his lessons really helped. His ambiguousness is at least played off on Arthur, who doesn't understand the wizard either. When Arthur tries to explain that he can't be king because he's not of noble birth, a valid argument, what does Merlin do? He leaves in a huff. It's all very strange. So Merlin is somewhat unable to be trusted, Arthur is sort of a nobody, his father and brother are kind of amusing, but not very, and then you have our... villain? Madam Mimi, who is billed as the villain, even though she shows up with fifteen minutes left to go and she only occupies ten. And Arthur doesn't fight her. He just watches as she and Merlin go at it against each other. Kind of amusing, but since there's no build-up or purpose, what's the point?
So in the end (with four minutes left of film), Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king. Too bad he doesn't know how to rule the kingdom. How could he? He's a little kid, and Merlin certainly didn't teach him anything. He and the owl then try to escape, but can't. At this point I began to become interested. This movie could have been something more, a fractured retelling of the story, of a townspeople so deluded and won over by this mystical stone, that even though Arthur unearthing it was a fluke, they make him king and abide by his every word, even though Arthur wants no part of it. Disney certainly could have done something that irreverent, as within this film Merlin makes reference to 20th century inventions he's claimed to have seen and returns at the end of the film from Bermuda (in the proper shorts, of course). That would have at least been interesting, but instead, we have a movie with no real focus or purpose. I don't get what it's trying to be, really...
As for the animation, it's quite alright. We're still using xerography, but here it looks a little out-of-place in this ye olde fantasy story, which you'd think would look a bit more grandiose. The character animation is quite fine, but the backgrounds are a bit washed out, and some kinda look like lame watercolors. But all and all it's a pretty nice looking movie, but with not much else going for it.

Verdict? With a lack of characters with a purpose or a logically progressing storyline, I understand why this is one of Disney's oft-forgotten films. Its visuals are strong enough, but the film falls flat due to its lack of meaning or purpose. Gags involving transformations to animals and a sarcastic owl are fine, but don't mean bupkis unless there's a strong story to back it up.

#17: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

After their insanely huge last project, Disney followed with a decidedly smaller picture 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians.' It has more in the vein of the film before it 'Lady and the Tramp,' but seems to be even more down-to-earth. It's a sweet, entertaining romp, even from the get-go with its incredibly lively opening title cards, with spots, spots, spots galore!
Dalmatian Pongo and his songwriter "pet" Roger end up enraptured with a lady and her dog, Anita and Perdita respectively. They're married and live happily, with Perdita expecting puppies. Unfortunately Anita's old classmate the vile Cruella di Ville wants her hands on them as soon as possible, knowing they would rather take the money. When the fifteen puppies are born though, Roger refuses to sell them. So Cruella has her two goons take them, and throw them in with the rest, ninety-nine in total, which he intends to skin and use for her coats. Pongo and Perdita inform the dogs across the area through their barking, and eventually locate the puppies, and what follows is an endurance to get back home, as Cruella and her henchmen go after them.
What's immediately noticeable is the film's look, which is decidedly more scratchy. This is the first film to use xerography, that a Xerox camera can be used to transfer drawings directly to cels, eliminating the inking process, and saving a lot of time. This was especially true in the case of this story; can you image having to draw AND ink each and every one of those dalmatians' spots? This look would continue throughout a decade or so, constantly gaining improvements. I personally like the look a lot, it's charming in that the sketchiness makes the characters more illustrative, and the backgrounds are also really great, dour in their surroundings, but still beautiful. In fact, visually, I'd say this is one of Disney's strongest pictures yet.
The story's real sweet, with the two parents' endeavors to retrieve their puppies. The human owners are fine characters as well; Roger gets a highlight as he finds lyrics to his song out of his detestation of Cruella, and persists to play it with various instruments during her visit. As for Cruella, she is a classic villain of course, but truly deserves her title. She's stark raving mad on a mission, and persists with such reckless abandon that she's an absolute thrill to watch in action. I mean, any woman who wants a hundred puppies killed with no remorse has got to be a total monster. She's also got the pimpest ride of any villain I've ever seen. Class act all the way. The chain of dogs and animals who assist the dalmatians on the way are also fine in their roles.
I also enjoyed Disney's self-referentials, like placing dogs from 'Lady and the Tramp' (or at least similar looking dogs of the same breed) in a montage, as well as having the puppies be watching what seem to be a Silly Symphonies-style short on the TV. It's just fun to seem some sense of interconnection, like these characters could run into each other randomly, but lead completely different, expansive stories. I guess.

Verdict? Another one of my new favorites. I really do love the xerographic look (at least for now), the characters are engaging, the artistry is top notch... it's just a damn great film, and a true classic. Praise, praise, praise...

Friday, January 29, 2010

#16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

'Sleeping Beauty' was quite a big project by Disney. And by 'big' I mean massive. From story to finished film, it spanned a decade, and is one of the studio's most ambitious projects, being shot in Technirama widescreen (ie: super duper widescreen), done in six-channel stereo sound, and printed on 70mm film. It was also their most expensive to date at $6 million. Thankfully it was a rousing success, as audiences embraced this new fairy tale as they did with 'Snow White' and 'Cinderella' before it, and for me, I'd say 'Beauty' falls somewhere between those two.
In a medieval kingdom, king and queen welcome a baby girl Aurora into the world, and set up an arranged marriage to the young prince of a neighboring kingdom to unite them. Unfortunately, the mistress of evil Maleficent is right pissed about not getting invited to the baby shower (not making this up) and curses the child, setting forth that on her 16th birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinner's wheel and die. However, the three Good Faeries, who had been previously blessing the child, manage to modify the curse to make it so the child merely falls asleep, to awaken at love's first kiss. They pose as mortals and go off into the woods to raise the girl to avoid rousing suspicion. As Aurora's 16th birthday arrives, she meets the Prince in the forest and falls in love, neither knowing they're set to marry anyway, and are irate about their arranged marriages. Meanwhile Maleficent finds out her hiding place and is ready to stir the shit, leaving it up to the Prince and the Faeries to save the day.
In attempting to distinguish itself from the fairy tales before it, this film implements a more illustrative style, almost like medieval-like drawings come to life, with a less rounded look. I like how they were shifting up their character designs slightly. The backgrounds are lush and beautiful, although at times some of the shots of the kingdom start to become bothersome with a bunch of pinks and purples. The super widescreen here looks great, with the artists taking full advantage of the full frame, and works especially well in long wide shots of the castle, and serves to make the final dragon battle more epic.
While the look is good, I can't help but say I had issues with the story. In a similar fashion as 'Cinderella,' there is not so much emphasis on Aurora or the Prince; the whole movie is spent with the three Good Faeries, who are serviceable maybe as side characters, but since they get the most screen time, we have to treat them as primary. Unfortunately they're rather uninteresting, and also rather reckless. They haphazardly alert Maleficent's raven to their forest hideout, they leave Aurora alone in a room in the castle to get taken away a few moments later as they sit outside, and what do they do when Aurora has been put into a deep sleep? They put the whole damn kingdom to sleep as they go off to find the Prince. That's nice. Now Maleficent or some other neighboring force can ransack the whole place and no one would ever know. That's wise. Their methods of equipping the Prince to fight is odd too. They give him the sword and shield, and meanwhile leave him to fight through the sharp thickets. Hey, why not turn his horse into a unicorn? That way it can fly and impale shit with its horn? I could go on and nitpick like this, but it's not really nitpicking to me when these characters keep picking and choosing when to best use their magic powers. You also may be thinking I shouldn't be thinking too deep into the plot of a Disney cartoon. By thinking that, you therefore view animation as a lower form of storytelling, which it isn't, and I shall ask you to leave this blog now before I stab you.
So yeah. With the boring Faeries getting most all of the screen time, we don't really feel much of Aurora's despair or the Prince's determination since we're not too invested in their characters. At least I wasn't. However there are a few scenes that perked my interest. Anything with Maleficent was great fun to watch: she has no real motives for her evil (although that kind of makes her more awesome) but she's incredibly well designed and has a great evil presence. The squabbling kings of the two kingdoms are great too, as is their loyal bard who's constantly trying to get drunk. Yep, classic Disney.

Verdict? An artistic and filmic masterpiece, that I'm sorry to say falls a bit short in the story department. It's nowhere near as scatter-brained as 'Cinderella,' but is not even close to the level of solid storytelling as in 'Snow White.' I put this one right smack dab in the middle. Yep, that's where it belongs.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

#15: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

I was wondering at what point we'd get to this: 'Lady and the Tramp' is the first Disney film NOT based off a pre-existing story... pretty much. Story artist Joe Grant submitted storyboard drawings to Walt of his cocker spaniel Lady in action back in the 30s, but Walt apparently wasn't won over. The art stayed behind when he left the studio, and eventually a story was written around them, and 'Lady and the Tramp' was born. Walt actually had Ward Green, novelist whose short story reignited the project, write a novelization of the film two years prior to its realize, as he always wanted audiences to be familiar with the story beforehand. The result may not be one of the studio's most ambitious films, but it's one of their most wonderfully structured and beautifully told.
So what happens when two worlds collide, eh? Privileged cocker Spaniel Lady has lived with her masters (brilliantly referred to, by her respective, 'Jim Dear' and 'Darling') for years, but begins to get a bit neglected once the lady of the house becomes expecting. When the two go off for a few days, they leave the house to Aunt Sarah, whose Siamese cats reign havoc, but of course Lady is blamed. She eventually turns loose and ends up under the tutelage of the scrappy mutt Tramp, who lives life by his own rules, free of leeches or human companionship. And wouldn't you know it, these opposites attract! Can you believe it?
It seems like the Disney artists just get stronger and stronger; this is one of their best looking films ever. The backgrounds are so rich, the designs so strong, everything just looks so beautiful, even a place that's supposed to look shitty like the dog pound is gorgeous to look at. The animation is superb too; they really focused on making these animals move like dogs, while still taking liberties while they could, and the results are right there and they're astounding. There's also some really fantastic voice acting here, particularly Lady (Barbara Leddy), who gives an air of sophistication to the character, but still remains sweet and a bit naive. Same with the Tramp (Larry Roberts), who manages to balance smarmy vagrant and scrappy hero. Side-characters like the Scottish terrier and the bloodhound are great too. In fact, they all sound great. Idn't that great?
As for the story, it's a rather straight narrative, and a worn one too (opposites attract... and how!), but nothing about it really feels formulaic. Everything just plays out smoothly and it's all quite a treat to watch unfold. From the beginning with Lady as a puppy (with cuteness quotients reaching Bambi levels) to the two neighbor dogs acting like mentors of the world to Lady, to Tramps's scampering about town, to him showing Lady a night ON the town. I'm literally running short on words here, because I'm basically just going to keep going on about how great the movie was. I mean, everything worked phenomenally: the story, the character animation, the style, the music, the voices, the art design, and the heart; this film may not be one of Disney's epics, but it's a down-to-earth tour-de-force.
I guess I'll end with a few random points. Now like the unfortunate portrayal of Indians in 'Peter Pan,' here we get unfortunate portrayals of Asians in Aunt Sarah's Siamese cats. They look and talk Asian (at least like stereotypes, anyway), and they wreck up the house to let Lady take the fall. Originally when this was being drafted during the war, the cats were a larger villain, okay at the time I suppose since we were fighting them, but afterward I guess they got reduced to a smaller role. Thankfully. They might be the one thing about the movie I wasn't thrilled by. They serve their purpose, but they were kind of annoying. Then you have your famous scene outside Tony's, the spaghetti scene. A truly great scene of course, with two great characters in the Italian chefs who do their little serenade, but man, how slow must their night be that they can cater like this to two stray dogs? It's nice and all, but I hope they have enough paying customers to stay afloat. I love those guys...

Verdict? The first Disney movie that I can say I was truly enchanted by. Sometimes the best stories are the old favorites that are just told in a new, fresh variation, and this may be the best example of that. As I said before, the film comes through on all fronts, and is just a great piece of work from the studio. You may not remember a lot from it if you saw it a long time ago, so I heartily recommend you see it again. It will not disappoint.

...oh yeah! This was the first Disney film to be shot in Cinemascope widescreen, leaving the artists having to reinvent how they framed and animated scenes. From what I've seen, they seem to have done a great job, but unfortunately I got stuck with a fullscreen copy. Fullscreen is TERRIBLE, I HATE IT! HATE IT.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#14: Peter Pan (1953)

'Peter Pan' is another story that Disney had long wanted to put to the screen (original treatments were being written before WWII). It's the classic tale of the mythical wonder boy Peter Pan, who escorts three English children to Neverland, a place where kids never grow up and adventure is abound. There they encounter fellow lost childrens, mermaids, politically incorrect injuns, and a gaggle of pirates, headed by the nefarious Captain Hook, who's got a bone to pick with Pan ever since he fed his hand to a blood-thirsty croc.
Now 'Pan' is somewhat similar to 'Alice in Wonderland,' in that a lot of the audience intrigue is from the splendorous scenery and colorful characters of this new environment. Neverland is lusciously painted and designed, as Disney continues to move forward in its artistry. Your main characters are a little less interesting; they serve their purposes, I suppose, but the main children and lost boys are mighty bland, both in personality and design. Peter gets a pass for being a spaz, and his utter resistance of aging, but when the kids get the bulk of the screen time, I sat back waiting for Hook or Tinkerbell to reappear.
There is somewhat of a story here, with Hook seeking out Peter's hideout for a final showdown, but a lot of the film is just going from set piece to set piece, from the surprisingly sultry mermaids to the... somewhat indelicately handled Indians. They talk and "woo-woo" like your normal Indian caricature, then sing a song of questionable content, inferring that their skin is red due to their unflappable attraction (read: hornyness) toward the ladies. But PC or not, the scenes are still a lot of fun to watch, as are most every scene where Pan interacts with the locals, which usually means screwing around with them. In some ways he sort of acts like an anti-hero. He's clearly good intentioned, but there's something somewhat questionable about him; you can chalk his lack of understanding that taking three children away from their parents forever as either being uncaring, or just out of cluelessness that this is even a problem.
With the main cast being somewhat dull, the side characters make this movie, and we've got some great ones here. I was surprised how much I liked Tinkerbell, who could have easily been made into a little irritant, but she's treated as an actual character here. She manages to convey emotions perfectly without making a sound, and is one of the most fantastically animated characters I've seen so far. Her strange infatuation with Peter and burning jealousy of Wendy raises further questions about her, questions that thankfully are left up to the audience. Then of course you've got Captain Hook, one of the finest Disney villains, alternatively hilarious and dangerous (he KILLS one of his men in his FIRST SCENE). Voiced brilliantly by Hans Conried, Hook is a dastardly character, a constant schemer, and a character you can almost relate to on some level. Wouldn't you be pissed if some punk kid cut off your hand? I know I would. His bumbling first mate Smee is great too (Bill Thompson, who was previously the White Rabbit), with a truly distinctive voice and design. One of the truly genius moments between them is their reactions, particularly Hook's, to the approaching crocodile. With reactions timed to the ticking of the croc's literally internal clock, Hook looks positively terrified. He doesn't have to say one word, and you know that he's been absolutely traumatized by the events of the past. He's sympathetic in that sense, I believe; Hook may be one of Disney's first fully fleshed out characters.
As great as Hook may be, I have to say my absolute favorite moments in the film occur at the very beginning, with the movie's unsung hero: the father Mr. Darling. Also voiced by Conried (what a MIND SCREW!), his eight or so minutes of screen time at the beginning and end is unbelievable. Conried gave Hook a pretty outlandishly angry voice, but with Mr. Darling, he went all out; it's proof positive that strong voice acting can truly make the character. Despite his scoffing and punishing his children, Darling never crosses over to a bad guy, for most of his words and actions come out of his flustered condition of trying to get out of the house for a fancy dress party. Honestly, he may be my favorite Disney character now: he's THAT great. Trust me on this.

Verdict? The movie may have its problems, and its share of slow scenes (ANYTHING with just the children), but it's a truly fun and gorgeous looking movie. Regarding the overall premise itself though, I wish it had gone a little further into some of the themes only briefly brought up. The whole idea of arrested development in Neverland, and Peter's fighting Wendy over the merits of growing up could have made the film a bit more interesting, and their character dynamics a bit stronger if delved into more. But no matter, if those scenes were sacrificed in favor of racist caricatures and more Hook antics, I can live with that.

#13: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Disney's association with Alice actually predates Mickey Mouse if you can believe it. And you should believe it, because I'm smart. Back when he was a struggling filmmaker out in Kansas, Walt Disney finally found something lucrative in a short he did incorporating a live-action girl with cartoon characters called 'Alice's Wonderland.' When he got financing, the Disney studio was born, and all the soon-to-be-infamous animators came in to work on the Alice Comedies, which were made in the early 20s. Disney never forgot about Alice; he actually wanted his first film to be a full-length Alice Comedy, but Snow White was favored instead. So finally thirty years after the original shorts, Disney brought Alice in Wonderland to the screen in its full animated glory, and it's damn good.
Alice is an English girl with her head in the clouds, less interested in her studies and more of an imaginary world where everything is topsy-turvy and makes no sense. Things get real once she spots a hustling white rabbit in a dashing jacket and large pocketwatch, and makes chase. Falling down the rabbit hole, she enters Wonderland, a strange exotic place where she runs into a myriad of crazy creatures, like the prose-telling twins Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, the not-so-extinct Dodo, an impatient caterpillar with a knack for smoke rings, a not-very-helpful Cheshire Cat, a not-very-helpful-either Mad Hatter and March Hare, and of course the ever-temperamental Queen of Hearts.
In terms of its overall structure and feel, this is the polar opposite of 'Cinderella.' Despite all the padding, 'Cinderella' had its feet firmly planted in its linear story. This one is basically a series of vignettes featuring the different Wonderland characters, and it works fantastically. The movie wastes no time either; the White Rabbit shows up five minutes in and we're on our way. Now Alice might not have too much depth, but she works for the purposes of the story, as she is kind of a sub for the audience in their shared reactions to the wild nonsense occurring... even if she is a bit too cavalier about rapidly growing and shrinking in size.
The art and animation? Superb. All the scenes are so lush and colorful, not garish though, it all looks beautiful and other worldly. The characters are also fantastic in persona and in motion, between the Caterpillar's quiet indigence to how the Queen's face seems to deform when she bellowing at her subjects. These are really the best kinds of characters, the ones who you just relish every moment of screen time they have, and the great thing about this movie is that EVERY character is like that. Between their voice, their design and their movements, each one is just a treat to watch in action.
I was glad at how much the movie embraced nonsense. While I've certainly seen much weirder, I must applaud the film anyway. I can watch some of these scenes over and over (which I have, the tea party and caterpillar scenes especially). I also love how every proceeding eventually de-evolves into madness: the fantastic courtroom finale (which is a great design, by the way) features the tea party denizens as witnesses who were not even witnesses at all, and eventually even the hot-headed queen is submitting their non-testimonials as evidence and celebrating her unbirthday, while Alice just looks on, exasperated. She'd basically gone from doe-eyed wonderment to the start to just being fed up with the whole proceedings. Fantastic.

Verdict? So, so, so, so SO SO SO very good. Like 'Dumbo' and 'Bambi,' this one completely enraptured me, and I'm a sucker for strange and interesting characters, which this film is stuffed to the brim with. Watch this one immediately if you haven't seen it, especially since the new one's coming out soon. Tim Burton's got some act to follow, but he's already gone on record that he hates this version. I do like his movies... but he IS kind of a pretentious snob.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#12: Cinderella (1950)

Alright, so after slogging through all those package films, here we are back to business with the studio's feature-length 'Cinderella.' Disney was banking everything they had on this one; it was their most expensive film to date, and most analysts predicted if the film didn't perform, the whole studio would go under. But of course it was a rousing success, managing to keep Disney going well into the 50s, and is a beloved classic even to this day. But is that all just wonderful nostalgia? How will this one fare against the classics before it. Well, here we go then...
'Cinderella' is definitely one of Disney's simpler stories (not that many of them are THAT complex, anyway): Cinderella is a beautiful young girl who is under the oppressive heel of her stepmother, who is only concerned with her ugly and annoying daughters, and forces her to basically be slave to the castle. Meanwhile the king of all the land is beyond frustrated that his son isn't seeking out a suitable bride, so he arranges a ball to get him one, inviting all the ladies of the kingdom to come out. Of course the stepmother fucks Cinderella over once more and leaves her home, but luckily, her fairy godmother assists with a pumpkin... dance... glass slipper... oh forget it. You know all this...
I've got to say, I was not as enchanted with this one, and can really only point to its huge gaping problem: the running time. Now it's only seventy minutes, but since the story is so thin, boy oh boy do they pad it. The story doesn't kick in until the thirty minute mark (and we don't even see the stepmother until about twenty), so what's the hold-up? The mice, of course. You know these guys, a troupe of mice who serve as the only people (err... mice people) in Cindy's corner, two main ones being your standard fat oaf character and the fast-talking leader whose accent I can't quite pin. Oh, and they talk in squeaky voices. And not like Chipmunks squeaky, even HIGHER than that. They become a chore to listen to, ESPECIALLY when they do their working song. It's almost as if Ross Bagdasarian saw this movie and said, "I'll do that eight years from now, but not quite as annoying." But my main problem with that is that at a movie's start, we really should be spending as much time with our main character as possible; the more we see her on screen, the more we start to relate and root for her. But instead, her screen-time is literally cut in half by the mice trying to outwit the evil cat. It's inconsequential, and it slows the story down, so when later when they're a big part of the climax (which takes fooooooorreeeevvveerrrr), you're just waiting (im)patiently for the movie to end.
Even aside from the mice, the film seem so long. It takes quite a while for the godmother to show up (FORTY FIVE MINUTES!), and before that it's just scene after scene of Cinderella getting abused. I know that's the whole point of the story, but it's kind of a bummer to watch. Speaking of, let me talk visuals. I will say the movie looks great, its backgrounds and sets are lush, and there are a lot of great effects with the nighttime sky and the magic sparkles. But something struck me odd about some of the characters: Cinderella has very clear realistic movements (one of the many Disney characters drawn based on a real model's movements), her stepmother had a very static look that fell between too realistic and very creepy (but not in a good way), and her sisters were bombastic caricature-types. Now certainly different forms of design and animation can work (a real Snow White and cartoony dwarfs), but here it all seemed very strange. Combine that with the typical animated animals and it's like it was all just pick-and-choose.
I don't want to be too rough on this picture... even though I've bashed it up to this point. If there's one thing that saves it, it's good old fashioned Disney craziness. The prince's father is a maniac. He wants his son to get married IMMEDIATELY because he wants grandchildren, so he makes it the duke's mission to arrange the ball. During said ball when the prince meets Cinderella, the king orders the duke to monitor them and make sure nothing goes wrong, or else, and he does the throat-cutting motion. This isn't done playfully mind you, he's serious. If the girl gets away, the king WILL kill the duke. So later on when the king awakes he's on cloud nine about his son getting married, and when the duke eventually stammers out that the girl ran off, the king cries treason and CHASES THE DUKE AROUND WITH AN AXE. He is literally going to kill his servant over this. These scenes are so crazy, I say they almost save the film.

Verdict? The weakest one so far, bar none. There's just so much padding and lack of focus that it really doesn't feel much like Cinderella's story, and the character animation is not nearly as strong or cohesive as we've seen in the past. But I will say there's quite a good amount of artistry here, and there are absolutely far worse ways to spend seventy minutes. I say give it a watch, especially if you remember it fondly as a child. Prepare to have your nostalgia broken...

Oh, and Cinderella has no toes. Seriously, when you see her feet, the toes just aren't there. And she's not wearing any stockings or anything. So what, did the animators just forget? How very odd...
Where are they... WHERE ARE THEY?!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

#11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

The final of Disney's six package films is a doubler header, telling the classic tales of 'The Wind in the Willows' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.' Combining these two stories I felt was a wise move; it's almost as if the animators knew that neither could sustain a full movie length, so they cut it in half and gave each story their respective due. Both of them are truly satisfying and appealing extended shorts, almost as if they serve as a transition back to the feature-length stories that would soon follow.
Despite the organization of the title, Mr. Toad's story is first. J. Thaddeus Toad is the wealthy proprietor of Toad Hall, and is an eccentric adventurer who's always getting up to mayhem and mischief. As a result, he finds himself horribly in debt, and his friends and constituents are at the breaking point. Before they can put a stop to it however, Toad ends up losing the deed to Toad Hall, and is arrested for car theft, and thanks to a fraudulent testimony from a shady tavernkeeper, he is thrown in jail. Much time passes, and eventually Toad's horse assists in his escape, and he must enlist his former friends to clear his wrongfully accused name.
Contrasting many of Disney's pure, innocent characters of the past, Mr. Toad is absolutely out of his mind. He's got his head in too many places at once, and is a absolutely lovable maniac, despite the fact that you completely agree with the utter frustration of his friends. The story is a rather simple one, but told in a loose and fun way. There are plenty of great scenes, like the court case with the incredibly irritable prosecutor interrogating Toad's horse, and Toad's hijacking of a train to escape the cops, and his utter jubilation of it all despite him being under fire. And best of all, just when you think Toad is a reformed man... err, toad, he of course goes back to his old ways. No polished traditional ending, he's still the same irresponsible chap he was before, and that's good enough for me.
Following that crazy character comes another, the life and times of Ichabod Crane. He blows into Sleepy Hollow as the school's new headmaster, and his oddball appearance leaves him open to mockery from the town bully, but for some reason he captures the hearts of all the women in town. However Ichabod is instantly smitted by Katrina Von Tassel, the only daughter of the wealthiest farm owner in the area. He competes with the bully (whose name is apparently Brom Bones) for her affections, and he comes up on top. Later during the Halloween ball, all is going well for Crane, until Bones takes advantage of his superstitious nature by telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, who of course ambushes Crane on his ride home, and his whereabouts are unknown the following day.
Ichabod Crane may be a more crazy character than Toad, believe it or not. He sweeps into town, this lanky strange-looking fellow, and for some reason all the women love him. That and he seems to be taking advantage of all of his student's mother's hospitality... and who knows what else. But his motives are truly strange on his pursuance of Katrina. First it seems he is truly in love with her like everyone else. Then it seems like he's interested in her family's delicious line of crops. Then he seems to be a gold digger wanting the family estate. None of his motives seem clear or just, but we seem to like the character anyway for some reason. Perhaps it's because Bones is a humongous asshole; at the dance he shuns the attention of a short fat lady, but then tries to use her to butt into Ichabod's business, then tosses her into the cellar. But as for the whole short, it's just as good as Toad, silly, fun and breezy. The animation's real good too, the appropriate mix of Disney's looser shorts and their more realistic film work, particularly the frenzied chase of the Horseman.

Verdict? Definitely my favorite of all the package films, mostly because it just tells two strong stories, full of craziness, humor and great visuals. It's a real fun movie, that's all I can really say of it, starring two great anti-heroes. Well, they're not quite anti-heroes. Just heroes of questionable integrity, and aren't those the best kind?

#10: Melody Time (1948)

'Melody Time' is done in the style of 'Make Mine Music,' featuring the Disney animators working to the stylings of famous musicians of the time, as well as some radio performers too. There's a bit more variety than last time, with a mix of light melodies, folk tales, samba rhythms, and jazz madness.

At this point I feel like I'm struggling to figure out what to write about these package films, which is understandable since it is very reminiscent of the previous ones, and it's all basic standard Disney fare. This and 'Make Mine Music' don't have the artistic mastery and ambition of 'Fantasia,' they're low-rent follow-ups, though for understandable reasons. I just find a lot of these shorts to be forgettable padding. The opening 'Once Upon a Wintertime' of two young lovers cavorting on the ice is sweet, but nothing new or interesting. I did enjoy the 'Bumble Boogie,' but it seemed a tad short. Another short 'Little Toot,' of a rambunctious little tug boat who learns responsibility, is also rather tepid, despite the sight of his antics causing a giant ocean liner to smash through a whole city. What a little bastard.

Hmm... this is sounding a bit more negative than I intended. These films are enjoyable, just not quite as compelling as the masterpieces that cane before it. However, a few of the segments were fun: the tale of Johnny Appleseed, the God-fearing apple-tree-plantin' pioneer, is told in classic Disney form, and is a pretty nice piece. Donald and Jose Carioca return in 'Blame it on the Samba,' as they dance it up with another live-action beauty playing the organ, in a trippy (though not as trippy as their last escapade) sequence taking place inside a wine glass (...yeah).

The finale is by far the winner, though not quite at opera whale levels. Live-action Roy Rogers tells the animated story of Pecos Bill, the rootin'est tootin'est cowboy ever to roam the wild west. There's a lot of great and loose animation on Pecos and his horse, as they proceed to show up each and every critter they can find. By the time Pecos is lassoing a tornado, and using a LIGHTNING BOLT to LIGHT HIS CIGARETTE, you start to wonder where your mind's gone. It's a crazy piece, alright.

Verdict? Not sure if it's as strong as 'Make Mine Music;' both are pretty much at the same level. These package films are kind of hit-or-miss, and at this point the ratio of those is about at dead center. We're almost out of the woods though, as there's only one package film left to go...