Even in these bumbling backward Medieval times, you have got to know where you’re going!

JamesNostalgia ain’t what it used to be. I had fond memories of watching Pete’s Dragon as a kid, with Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney and even Helen Reddy making a very positive impression (Candle on the Water, amIright?). So a few years ago when I saw it in ASDA for £3 I couldn’t resist, and put it on almost as soon as I got home. It sucked. Sure, there were some good moments in, some nice songs and some charming animation. Unsurprisingly, these were the bits that made an impression on me. Disappointingly, there was an awful lot in between. After years of talking about it alongside Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I realised this film just wasn’t in the same league. As the film went on positive certainty turned to hope turned to embarrassment turned to morosity.

Regrettably, I went through the same emotions again with The Sword in the Stone. I know that it, like all Disney, is predominantly a kids’ film (or at least a family film). I know the sugar-tinted glasses of youth trick your memory even into adulthood. But after finding so much to praise in all the Disney efforts to this point, even the underwhelming ones, I’m really disappointed that it’s so hard to praise this one which is, I fear, the weakest Disney film we’ve covered. It does have its positives (again, the stuff that stuck in my mind was by far the best material), including a surprisingly powerful moment that we’ll discuss later, but overall it is riddled with flaws, some surprisingly new to Disney, which is not a good sign. I listed it as my favourite ‘Classic Disney’ in our introductions, despite not having seen it for years. I shall certainly be taking more care with my careless questionnaire answers in future.

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I would like to add to the tragedy by shouting out to my wonderful sister Hannah, who, upon reading that it was my favourite classic, bought it for me on DVD. She is still wonderful, and it’s still an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I PROMISE to watch ALL THE EXTRAS. Even the singalongs (that are mostly speakalongs, surely?).

One of the most disheartening things is the way that the storytelling seems to have regressed by 20 years. After a decade of films with pretty strong narrative arcs from start to finish (even when not so well paced), we’re at another incredibly segmented film. You could shuffle around all but the opening 20 minutes and the closing ten minutes and not lose track of the through-narrative because, well, there isn’t one. Heck, the titular sword isn’t even in the story until the last five minutes. Each sequence is self-contained with virtually no consequences of what came before nor any set-up for what comes after. Curiously, the best moments of the film are entirely in those middle, interchangeable sequences, and so I’m not sure how you could restructure the film to a more coherent narrative without losing some of those… but the film sure doesn’t work as it is.

The main villain (if Madam Mim is supposed to be that – if she isn’t, why does she get the big battle sequence at the climax of the film?) isn’t mentioned outside of her ten minute arc; the longest running villain outside of that is the comedy wolf who unceremoniously disappears in a log floating down the river. It’s possible the villain is supposed to be Arthur’s foster brother Kay, or merely Arthur’s station in life, as the two unpleasant aspects of his life established at the start and resolved by the end. The problem with that is, neither are presented as particularly intimidating threats that Arthur either wants or needs to defeat. More to the point, Arthur doesn’t actually do anything to defeat them; he is made King by unearned lineage, not by having grown into a strong, worthy person.

This is our protagonist. 30 seconds from the end of the film. What's his victory, exactly?

This is our protagonist. 30 seconds from the end of the film. What’s his victory, exactly?

Anne: James asked me if I had some positive things to say about this film, and actually, I do!

So, The Sword in the Stone is not just based on Arthurian legend, but on the first third of T.H. White’s unbelievably good novel The Once and Future King. (The other two-thirds became the musical Camelot.) It’s been a while since I read it, but I loved it, and I think the Disney version gets a lot of things right…which may be why it doesn’t work so well. The source material isn’t a story with a beginning and an end, a good guy and a villain. It’s about Arthur’s initial education, when he’s been sent to live with Sir Ector and Kay (though why, I can’t remember…possibly to keep him safe, since Arthur is the product of a marriage between a daughter of Avalon and a Christian, and he’s basically the only person who CAN rule Britain…I may have read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s sexy feminist version a few too many times…). Merlin actually does turn him into a fish and a squirrel and a bird, and those are my favorite sequences because they feel the most true to the source material.

This movie could be re-titled Archimedes Does Not Approve.

This movie could be re-titled Archimedes Does Not Approve.

Anyway, I find myself willing to forgive some of the faults in the storytelling in this movie because it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of only part of a book, and I’m not so sure that part stands alone very well (though it was published independently before it became part of the longer novel). That said, where I think this movie shines is in the translation from page to screen of the tone of White’s novel. I so wish I had a copy with me here in Florida so that I could quote from it, but I’ll do my best from memory.

One of the things that makes White’s novel so great is that it’s not just a re-telling of Arthurian legend. It’s re-telling of Arthurian legend through the lens of the first half of the twentieth century. There are references to cricket (in relation to the jousting and games of medieval England), modern technologies, 20th century wars, and other things that have nothing to do with Arthur’s story. As I see it, The Once and Future King is to Arthurian legend what something like The French Lieutenant’s Woman is to the Victorian era, offering amusing commentary and comparisons on a bygone era. Of course, White has more leeway to talk about whatever he wants, since he’s commenting mostly on legend.

Back to the film, though. The question becomes, how do you create that kind of charmingly anachronistic ambiance onscreen? The answer: Merlin.

Back from Bermuda...wherever that is.

Back from Bermuda…wherever that is.

According to Wikipedia, White’s Merlin lives through time backwards, so he already knows that Arthur will become king; that’s why he goes about educating him. I don’t think he had that kind of time travel capability in the novel, but his relationship with the human timeline is clearly fluid. It’s not much of a stretch to give him the ability to jump ahead a couple thousand years so that he can tell Arthur about airplanes and clocks and television. Most of the anachronistic details are in the narration of White’s novel, rather than coming from the characters.

I think Disney’s Merlin is an utterly charming, intelligent creation, and the film goes dead in the scenes that don’t involve him (though luckily, most of them do!). His relationship with his talking owl Archimedes is hilarious and sometimes touching; we especially liked that the cantankerous owl stayed with Arthur when Merlin disappeared upon hearing that the boy was going to be Kay’s squire.

This film is drawn and animated in a similar style to 101 Dalmatians (though I think it could have benefited from some of the medieval designs from Sleeping Beauty), and Merlin’s cottage interior is lovingly rendered. There are a lot of anachronistic details in the background of each scene there–and sometimes in the foreground. I mean, people weren’t drinking tea in Arthur’s time in Britain–this is, after all, before the discovery of most of the rest of the world. Book-binding? Tobacco? Entomology? How about that telescope?

Galileo's head was on the block...

Galileo’s head was on the block…

Of course, none of the characters but Merlin and Archimedes (who disapproves) really appreciate the anachronistic stuff for what it is. Arthur is awed by the flying machine Merlin has, but he doesn’t dwell on the idea that people will fly one day, even when Merlin tells him he’s seen it. The anachronisms are for the audience–possibly mostly for the parents of the audience.

One thing I did NOT like about this film (okay, there were a few things I didn’t like, but I won’t wallow) was the battle with Madam Mim. Entertaining? Yes, very. Pointless? Yes, very. I appreciated the idea behind it–Madam Mim only turned herself into powerful or dangerous animals, while Merlin thought about what animal would best handle each situation, usually something small and agile.

A sssssnake, am I?

A sssssnake, am I?

It was cleverly animated, I’ll give it that. But I’ll take up an argument that is usually James’s purview: this scene is in the classic “boss battle” position in the film, but it doesn’t involve the character who is arguably the protagonist. In previous films I haven’t had a problem with it (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind especially), but the whole Madam Mim sequence felt tacked on so that the kids could have somebody to boo hiss. I can understand the reasoning behind it–the story has no villain, so what are we fighting against?–but I think it’s misguided and unnecessary. Funny, though. Very funny.

James: The Merlin/Mim battle is fun and imaginative, and could have been a fantastic showdown… if it mattered. Really, the stakes aren’t any higher than in the fish fight (that seemed like a sensible phrase before I typed it) or when chased by the wolf, except this time Arthur isn’t even involved. Or, if Merlin and Mim are supposed to be the protagonist and the antagonist of the film, then they’ve been very, very badly set up. If Mim was set up from the start as a credible threat to Arthur (or even just to Merlin), and if Arthur in some way helped Merlin to defeat Mim (either physically aiding or simply by suggesting the final form he takes) then the whole sequence would have some sort of bearing on the story. As it is it’s the final, most meandering detour on the way to Arthur finally getting the sword.

I don’t know if the film could be reworked to make Merlin the protagonist, but by God it should be. Merlin is the most charismatic character in the piece – with the most convincing English accent. Disney, you did so well with English actors in Mr Toad (Angus MacBadger aside), and you did a pretty good job in Dalmatians… where are all the Englishmen here? Some are unashamedly American – Arthur, Archimedes, Mim, and a bunch of citizens near the end – of which the only acceptable one is Archimedes (it’s a talking owl, who’s to say he wouldn’t have an American accent?). The other main characters in the film are the ‘cockney’ Kay (who sounds just awful – Dick Van Dyke may get a pass by comparison) and the RP Sir Ector and Sir Pellinore, both played by genuine Englishmen… and yet even Sir Ector sounds more American than Merlin for the majority of his dialogue.

Arthur is of course the biggest issue, astonishingly played by THREE Americans! Would it have been so hard to source one genuine English kid?

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Which, via that image, leads me to the animation. Anne is right that it’s a very similar style in theory to 101 Dalmatians; a rough, very handdrawn look. And yet, where Dalmatians looked stylistic, here it more often than not looks crude. Arthur’s eyes don’t even stay the same colour, for Pete’s sake! Certain sequences are better than others (the squirrel scene is very handsomely rendered), but too many scenes lack the beauty or style of previous Disney efforts, and seem content just to convey the events in the script.

In fact, the whole film seems just perfunctory. The events just sort of happen, without affecting anyone. The dialogue and jokes are sort of half written, with many coming across as forced (Merlin’s beard slapstick fails almost before it begins, and the long-suffering wolf is a pale and softened Wile E. Coyote). Once Arthur is King, Merlin returns and everything is just sort of made fine; there are no emotions in the final moments, no conflicts and no celebration. We’re at 79 minutes and Arthur’s the King, so the film stops. The most successful part of the film is the one that takes the characters and their emotions seriously, and actually ends on a very emotional beat.

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Because, wow. This scene. The two things I really remembered from the film, the reasons I had such fond memories of it, were Merlin and the squirrel scene. And I’m pleased to say I was very, very right about both of those. As I said earlier, this scene is probably the best animated in the picture, but it also has the most conflict in. We get a Manic Pixie Dream Squirrel for Arthur-squirrel, which is pretty much a Disney go-to by now, but the red squirrel rises above the love interests of Bambi and Bongo by being brave, passionate and, ultimately, rejected. We also get a more overtly comedic love interest for Merlin-squirrel, who I’ll just refer to as Squirrel Carruthers (if you laughed, you’re a G&S geek.).

I'm a miserable old man, and I've done it.

I’m a miserable old man, and I’ve done it.

The comedy in this sequence is great, but it’s the emotions that sell it, because the characters are so well defined here. Red Squirrel is enamoured, Squirrel Carruthers is lusty, Arthur is confused and helpless, and Merlin is terrified. Add in the wolf trying to eat them all and you have a scene with personal and physical danger for everyone involved. All of the characters go through a variety of emotions, particularly the Red Squirrel. She becomes one of the best characters in the film by a) being committed to something and b) suffering. She goes through more emotions and changes in 8 minutes than Arthur does in the entire film. She also shows more courage than him, single handedly taking on a wolf to save Arthur (making her perhaps the most proactive female character in a Disney film yet – thoughts?). And then when she finds out her crush is a human, Red Squirrel isn’t terrified like Squirrel Carruthers, she is confused and heartbroken. And, you know what? So was I.

Excuse me, I think there’s some dust in my eye…

Anne: Aww. You can console yourself with having come up with Squirrel Carruthers. Tush in thy teeth, OLD MAN!

I think you’re probably right about Red Squirrel being the most proactive female character so far, but I’m not sure it matters. Her actions would have been admirably selfless and brave whether she was male or female–Archimedes does something similar earlier in the film trying to save Arthur from the giant fish. Maybe this is just me wishing that it didn’t need to be pointed out and applauded every time Disney writes a strong-willed, courageous woman. (OH, what about Tinkerbell? She risks her own life to rescue Peter Pan, doesn’t she? Or am I thinking of the stage version…hmmm.)

On a different subject, this is the first Disney film to feature the songs of the Sherman Brothers, which to my mind indicates a pretty significant boost in quality. Unlike many of the previous Disney films, the songs in The Sword in the Stone are tailored to the action; it feels like they had a storyboard and said to the Sherman Brothers, okay, this is the part when Arthur learns a lesson about love. The villain is called Madam Mim, write her a song. Even so, they’re not quite as film-specific as the songs will become in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks later on. I think before I saw this movie if you had played me “That’s What Makes the World Go Round” or “A Most Befuddling Thing,” I might have been able to tell you that they were written by the Sherman Brothers, or at least hazard a guess, but I probably couldn’t have told you which film. (“Higitus Figitus” and “Mad Madam Mim” being the exceptions, of course. But even “Higitus Figitus” isn’t as good as the Substitutiary Locomotion song from Bedknobs!)

Also, quickly before we wrap this up, there were a lot of visual moments in this movie that made me think of future Disney films, especially The Little Mermaid during the scene in the moat (when the giant scary fish got his nose stuck in the chain link, all I could think of was Flounder escaping the shark in a similar way). And Merlin himself brings to mind the Genie from Aladdin–a magical presence of bygone days who nonetheless makes contemporary references. When Merlin flew back in from Bermuda, I was reminded of the bit right at the end when Aladdin grants the Genie his freedom and he blasts off to Disneyworld.

I think The Sword in the Stone suffers from a bit too much cleverness–to the point that some of what Merlin was talking about went over MY head–muddled plotting and what sometimes looks like very hasty animation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated it, or even disliked it (after all, I was mostly entertained!), but the technical aspects just don’t add up to much and I don’t think I’ll bother revisiting this one in the future. 4/10.

James: It’s certainly got the seeds of some great moments in it, which lead to some wonderful sequences further down the line for Disney. It also has a couple of great sequences and a delightful co-lead… but the film is a mess. I’ll also give it 4/10. The animation, the music, the characters, nothing works quite as well as it should, and we know Disney can do better.

Speaking of, the wind’s in the East…

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No dog’s better than Dad.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1960)

Anne: And now we come to a movie for which I have actually read the source material…which will have no bearing on my review of the film adaptation since I remember nothing except the author’s name. (Besides, if we’re talking Dodie Smith books, wouldn’t everyone rather have I Capture the Castle?)

Anyway. 101 Dalmatians is a splendid, sophisticated movie that is just jam-packed with interesting animation, exciting action, and quirky well-rounded characters. The style of animation couldn’t be any further from Sleeping Beauty, and yet both films give an impression of moving artwork. In the earlier film, it was 14th-century tapestries, and in this film, it’s book illustrations–hardly surprising given that children’s book author and illustrator Bill Peet was at the helm (I feel like his books played a big role in my childhood, but the only one that’s sounding familiar upon further research is Chester the Worldly Pig). The sketch-like quality of the animation gives every frame a lot of texture and movement.

I love the children’s-book-illustration version of London that houses the Radcliffes and their pets (or is it the other way around–that is, the Pongos and their pets?). A world in which struggling songwriters live in adorably quirky flats with lots of spare brass instruments lying around, and people really do look like their animals.

And it’s a world in which when Scotland Yard and all the other human police services fail to track down two incredibly bumbling thugs with a truckload of puppies, the dog population implements the Twilight Bark, sending messages all the way out to the country. As in Lady and the Tramp, we don’t just see well-to-do city dogs–we see farm dogs and dogs belonging to grocers in the suburbs. Once again, the voicing of the canine characters is inspired; I particularly liked the collie and of course, the Colonel, voiced by our old friend J. Pat O’Malley.

15 spotted puddles stolen? Ridiculous.

The dogs (and their sidekicks–Lucy the Duck, a resourceful cat named Colonel Tibbs, a stable full of generous cows, to name a few) look out for each other and join forces to get the Pongo family plus 84 other Dalmatians back to London. There aren’t any villainous animals in this story; the dog world is apparently one in which you can count on and trust just about anyone.

The same can definitely not be said for the human world. Has there ever been a more despicable villain than Cruella De Vil? I mean, think about it. All the villains do pretty evil things, but Cruella De Vil wants to KILL PUPPIES and MAKE COATS OUT OF THEM.

NO SPOTS! NO SPOTS AT ALL!

I have to wonder if Cruella was markedly different as a girl, otherwise what on earth drew Anita to this character in the first place? We’re told that she’s Anita’s old school friend, but I can hardly imagine quiet, bookish Anita hanging out with that monster, can you?

It’s not really worth contemplating too much, since the point is that she’s evil now. Roger writes a song about how creepy she is, and she lives up to every word. We mostly see her lying around in her dressing gown or furs and smoking. Smoking a lot. Could a Disney movie be made now with that kind much smoking? Probably not.

Okay, I’m rambling a little now, so I’ll turn it over to James.

James: The animation is mostly very fun: definitely not as downright beautiful as Sleeping Beauty, but often just as graceful, within an entirely different style. The storybook-like illustrations allow for cheaper artwork, but animated at a high enough rate and with enough flare to make for a fascinating combination of smoothness and roughness. Furthermore, the easier animation style means that the foreground more often matches the background than in previous films. For about the first time in a Disney film, it’s hard to tell what’s static and what’s going to move, because it all blends so well together. As Anne said, it’s like the pictures in a children’s book have come to life.

And yet, it’s not flawless. The mouths often don’t match the dialogue as well as they have in the past, and when the animation changes perspective there’s sometimes a severe incongruity between images. For example this:

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is immediately followed by this:

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This is the sharpest and quickest contrast in the film, but there’s inconsistency elsewhere through the film as to how storybook and how cartoony it’s supposed to look. The cows in particular look much more like typical Disney cartoon characters than the others, and some of the dogs are lifted straight from Lady and the Tramp! Still, the Dalmatians all move pretty consistently, as do the human characters. You believe the leads as book characters, and that’s the important thing. Cruella in particular has a fabulous design and movement; I love how she’s kind of thin and frail, only built up to an intimidating shape by the enormous coat she wears.

Much as with Maleficent, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Cruella and her motivations when you start thinking about it. Villains like this surely don’t start out fully formed, they have to become that way, right? I suppose that’s why after the upcoming Maleficent we’ll be getting a live action Cruella movie (I personally can’t wait until we get a live action Ratigan origin story.)

Not you though, Ms Close. Sorry.

But, as Anne said, she’s evil now. And a particular kind of evil, not one that takes enjoyment in suffering but one that has no consideration for such basic human concepts as compassion and, you know, NOT KILLING PUPPIES. More a sociopath than a maniac, but still detestable in her current form. Could one possibly reason with her and try to convince her that what she’s doing is wrong? At least Jasper and Horace seem to understand their crimes, but Cruella just doesn’t care. That’s a fabulous change to the usual villain rota, even the more comedic ones (like Hook).

Oh, and she is comedic. Cruella is a wonderful character, both funny and a real threat to our protagonists. Captain Hook didn’t become genuinely threatening until the end of Peter Pan, but through Pongo and Perdita’s early established fear we are able to recognise the danger the puppies are in by Cruella simply existing. She can steal the puppies, and she can and will kill them.

She’s part of large ensemble of wonderfully drawn characters. The first half of the film establishes the Pongos and the Radcliffes as eminently compatible yet distinct people (and dogs). The courtship as it plays out makes perfect sense for all four characters, and culminates at the ten minute mark with an oh so adorable (yet earned) double wedding. Cruella and her henchmen are easily understood and well presented, and great fun to watch to boot. However, the film’s true strength lies in the wealth of characters Pongo and Perdita meet on their rescue mission. Each dog (and cat) is vivid and distinct, and very, very funny. So much effort has gone into making the dog society a vibrant world filled with real characters with unique identities. For example, at the 51 second mark:

Danny and Scottie are only in the film for a minute (and Danny is in it again for another minute later in the film), but they are so real, and so much fun. I could watch an entire film about those two, and there’s mileage in each of the characters we see briefly along the Twilight Bark. A mark of the excellent world building is Prissy, the artist’s look-alike-dog, who is established in the first scene, returns in the park scene, and then eagerly takes her part in the barking chain when she’s needed (much to her owner’s chagrin). This really feels like a world in which every dog plays their part, in which every character matters.

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Anne: Oh, I don’t think they used the dogs from Lady and the Tramp because they couldn’t or didn’t have the time or money to come up with new dogs. It seems more like an homage to the earlier film to me. Especially since they didn’t use just any dogs, they used Jock, Peg and the bulldog, all of whom have significant screen-time and would be recognized by any Lady and the Tramp fan. (I gasped when I saw Peg in the shop window. That is one distinctive dog!)

I think this is the first film we’ve watched where I’ve got something substantive to say about the credit sequence (other than, wow, this song is AWFUL…*coughIchabodcoughcough*). It’s funny, whimsical and jazzy, and it hearkens back to the package films where a single shape or visual theme was animated to the tune of an existing piece of music. In this case, it’s the dalmatian spot, which gets plopped all over the screen and manipulated, and even turned into unexpected images, like this one:

Maybe Roger should write his music this way...

Maybe Roger should write his music this way…

The abstract shapes, upbeat jazzy soundtrack and even sound effects (notably the typewriter, and the sort of mechanical scene-changing sounds) all serve to place us squarely in a contemporary setting–perhaps not the exact present, but a world with telephones and word processing and fast cars. It occurs to me that we haven’t seen a Disney movie set in the present…well, EVER…with the possible exception of “All the Cats Join In” and one or two other segments in the musical package films. I like that the filmmakers took this credit sequence as an opportunity to engage the audience before the action even started; we weren’t sure if it was actually longer than previous Disney credits, or if it just felt longer (in the best sense) because we wanted to see what the animators would come up with next.

Ummm…where to go next…oh! I did want to mention how much I loved the art direction in this film. Okay, yes, I know there wouldn’t be an art director on an animated film–they don’t need to go around finding all the period artifacts and dressing the set with appropriate props–but some of the interiors were so marvelously specific. Like this shot of Roger’s bachelor pad:

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And then of course when Roger and Anita get married, all of that tumult gets smushed into one little room.

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I didn’t want to clog this up with too many images, but there’s also a moment just after Horace and Jasper leave the house with the puppies and Nanny is shouting out the attic window–and next to her in the dark you can see a set of golf clubs. Because of course that’s where the golf clubs would be kept.

I was also struck by the specificity of Cruella De Vil’s boudoir. These interiors tell us so much about the characters, and the little details give them an incredible depth. And they’re all things that aren’t referred to explicitly or even mentioned out loud in dialogue. I mean, look at that bowl of cigarette butts, the uncorked bottles on the nightstand, the stockings and shoes strewn everywhere. The painting on the wall is crooked. Even if we didn’t know from her actions that Cruella was reckless and impulsive (well, I guess at this point in the film we don’t know the half of it yet!), we could read it in the state of her bedroom.

Granted, I don't do much better myself at keeping my room clean...

Granted, I don’t do much better myself at keeping my room clean…

There was something to notice in every scene. We loved the fact that after Cruella’s first entrance, Pongo and Perdita had an important conversation under a cabinet–because dogs can do that. (Though I seem to recall spending a lot of time playing board games under the dining room table at a friend’s house growing up…but never never mind.) In fact, I think I may have to watch the movie again and just pay attention to the interiors and what’s in them.

James: I’m going to take a moment now to talk about the accents. First, it’s nice that it’s still set in London. Disney could have transposed the entire story to, say, New York (I’ve been watching a lot of Elementary lately) without fundamentally changing the characters or the story. It would have been more relatable to the primary American audience, and it would have been easier to cast the Disney regulars. Even if they hadn’t transposed it geographically, they could still have made the dogs American; only the humans would need to sound English for the story to be realistic, dogs speak Dog anyway. So it’s nice that it’s firmly based in London, with the story sprawling our damp little island, and the network of dogs is allowed to feel like it’s nationwide.

However, those accents… Okay, so most of the main ones are fine. The Radcliffes (I still want to call them the Dearlys, as per the original!) and Perdita all sound very good (all natural English accents). Betty Lou Gerson is American, but plays Cruella with a very heightened Posh English accent, which matches her heightened, fashion obsessed persona. However, Pongo is Australian. At times more so than others, but it’s very definitely there. The puppies especially sound almost uniformly American, a result I presume of casting children within reasonable distance of the California studios. It’s a shame, though, that the studio were able to film whole pictures in the UK yet couldn’t set up a recording studio over here to capture half a dozen children’s voices.

It’s also a pity that, for a story featuring characters across the country, the accents are so limited. There’s all sorts of accents they could have thrown into this story (where’s Cyril Proudbottom when you need him?), but they’re almost all RP or Cockney. There’s an amazing wealth of accents in our tiny island, some deep, some beautiful, and pretty much all hilarious. To prove it, here’s Patrick Stewart:

Actually, that proves very little. But who doesn’t love Patrick Stewart?

One final criticism: some of this film is downright daft. The scene where Lucky has ‘died’ and is resuscitated is ridiculous and, in the grand scheme of things, unnecessary (why does he need to be lucky anyway?). That the henchmen know about the hole in the wall through which animals can escape and don’t cover it up is insane (even for idiot henchmen). There’s also no reason for Cruella to have kept the dogs alive this long at all; why not kill them as soon as she gets them? Would the Radcliffes really be that happy to find themselves having to support 101 dogs? How exactly does defeating Cruella once stop her from kidnapping them again, or just killing other dogs? Are dalmatians covered in soot really indistinguishable from labradors? How did Roger sell a song about a real woman referring to her as a devil and NOT get sued for libel? And in the film’s crowning moment of silliness, there is a cake that exists solely for this purpose:

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This film is ridiculous. But, goshdarnit, I loved it. It’s funny. It’s lively. It’s energetic. It’s packed. It is an imperfect film but a real delight. It’s absolutely packed with humour from almost all characters, starting with the subtle humour of Pongo’s view of humans (and by extension the outlook of all dogs) and moving through Cruella’s manic insensitivity and Roger’s joyous teasing to the perfect mismatching of all the dogs our protagonists meet. There’s some fabulously funny lines too, particularly from Captain and Sgt. Tibbs. A particular favourite of mine was the mistranslation of the Twilight Bark: ’15 spotted puddles stolen? Oh, balderdash.’ ‘Better double check it, Colonel.’

(There’s also some delightful humour for the adults, such as when Anita asks about the puppies ‘Well where did they all come from?’, and Roger replies ‘Oh, Pongo, you old rascal!’. Not a gag for the kids.)

It's been like two days. How bad is Roger's biology knowledge?

It’s been like two days. How bad is Roger’s biology knowledge?

Anne: I think Roger and Anita are the only two people in the world who would be thrilled to move to the country and buy a Dalmatian Plantation (see what I did there?) with their earnings from the sale of “Cruella De Vil.” Good thing they found one another, eh?

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Most people wouldn’t even consider keeping all fifteen of the original puppies. But then, the world of 101 Dalmatians is a world in which dogs have the same connection to their children as humans do, and separating Pongo and Perdita from any of their puppies would be a monstrous, unthinkable atrocity. Or maybe that’s just how Roger and Anita roll, and anybody else would consider that a little nuts. Either way, I’m not too fussed about logic.

You know, I don’t think we’re ever going to see a perfect film, but 101 Dalmatians comes pretty darn close for me. I want to live in the sketchbook alternate-reality Disney imagination version of London and have tea with the Radcliffes and their dogs and their dogs’s friends–and that’s the highest praise I can give. 9/10.

James: This film was an absolute treat (treat! ha!), full of real humour and real heart. The ridiculous elements of the plot don’t matter because the world is so much fun that you can just buy it. The characters are vivid and the interactions are delightful. The pacing is much better than, say, Sleeping Beauty, although it could still be tightened a bit in the first half. I’m tempted to deduct half a point for the accents… but to heck with it. 9/10.

Besides, without this film we probably wouldn’t have had The Simpsons: Two Dozen and One Greyhounds:

Got to give it credit for that.

Anne: Next on our list is The Sword in the Stone. Since the last time I saw this movie, I read and loved The Once and Future King, so it will be interesting to revisit it!

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Not in death, but just in sleep, the fateful prophecy you’ll keep.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

James: It may be early, I know we’re only on the 16th Disney Animated Classic, and only their 10th full length animated feature film, but I’m calling it: Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful film Disney have ever made. Oh, there are flaws (which I’ll come back to later), but in terms of sheer visual images Beauty is just that, a beauty. Absolutely and unreservedly. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed watching a film as much as I did with this one. Despite the fact that every shot is fairly static (due to the limitations of hand-drawn backgrounds) the characters’ movements are perfectly calculated to make every image active. The backgrounds are like works of art, literally; the ornate detail and the hand-drawn style make each shot look like a painting hanging in a gallery, giving the impression of a classical masterpiece which happens to have come alive.

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The curious thing is, the foreground characters aren’t in the same style at all. This makes sense, since it would be nigh-impossible to animate all the action with the same intricacy as the backgrounds, but rather than aiming for a simplified version of the same style, the animators eschew  that approach and go for another look entirely: a tapestry.

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The stylised shapes, the smooth curves leading into distinct points, the tendency to keep many of the characters in near profile or face on, all suggest a story which could be conveyed in a series of woven images, rather than trying to establish a 3D geography to any of the proceedings.

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See how evocative that image is? It’s not just a frame of a sequence, it’s an image of exactly what happens at that part of the story; it just happens to move in the film. And the characters are again stylised in that tapestry shape. Even the animals are:

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Amazingly, these two different styles of animation work phenomenally well together. The styles (along with the music) both help to really sell this as a classical tale from centuries past, come alive for us now. The animation also moves beautifully; I don’t know if they animated a higher frame rate for this film than previously, but every single movement is as graceful and flowing as if it were live action. This film is not only enjoyable to watch, it’s also incredibly easy to watch. That doesn’t sound like a compliment, but trust me, it is.

Anne: I don’t really have much to add. Sleeping Beauty really is a work of art.

I said I loved this moment and James made me a gif!  He's a keeper.

I said I loved this moment and James made me a gif! He’s a keeper.

And yet I don’t love it the way I love, say, Cinderella. Technically speaking, this is probably the superior film, with its exquisite backdrops, gorgeous visual development of the characters, music by Tchaikovsky–let’s face it, Sleeping Beauty is a class act. It’s also got one of the greatest villains of all time in the elegantly wicked Maleficent, and some of my favorite supporting characters in the Disney canon in the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. (To say nothing of Disney voice-acting royalty–Verna Felton, Barbara Luddy, Eleanor Audley and Bill Thompson all have significant roles in this film.)

What I noticed as I was writing the above paragraph was that after the animation and the music, the first characters that came to mind were the supporting ones. And I think that’s the reason I don’t love this movie the way I always want to. Whereas in Cinderella, we have a warm, richly human main character, in Sleeping Beauty the eponymous character is a bit of a cipher. I like her a lot, actually: she’s beautiful, her singing voice is lovely, she has a sense of humor, she can talk to the animals. All the things you want in a Disney princess, really. But in the end, it’s not really her story, is it?

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It’s almost the story of three good fairies who volunteer to eschew magic and raise the Princess Aurora in obscurity to protect her from Maleficent’s spinning wheel. For me they are the highlight of this movie–they are wonderfully animated and each have a completely different character. Flora is the leader and the bossy one, Merryweather is the stubborn one, and Fauna, bless her heart, is the daft one.

There’s potential in those characters for a whole movie about the trials and tribulations of sixteen years without magic, but unfortunately there isn’t room for that kind of growth and development when you’re telling Sleeping Beauty. They pretty much initiate all of the action of the movie (even the pivotal moment when Prince Phillip faces off with Maleficent and Merryweather’s spell sends his sword straight into her heart), but the skinny blonde gets all the fame. Go figure.

Speaking of Prince Phillip, it could almost be his story as well, couldn’t it? He’s the first romantic male lead to not just be a pretty face–though he’s pretty easy on the eyes, I must say (and he can sing!).

All of the funny horses in the Disney canon should get together and make a movie.

All of the funny horses in the Disney canon should get together and make a movie.

I remarked to James after the movie was over that even though I feel like I’m not supposed to, as a 21st-century woman and all that, I kind of appreciated the good, old-fashioned princely hero on a horse risking life and limb to get to the heroine and administer True Love’s Kiss (TM). And you could almost argue that Prince Phillip changes from that happy-go-lucky, singing in the forest, romantic kid into a full-fledged MAN who is not afraid to face the eeeeeevil Maleficent, to say nothing of a thicket of briar and Maleficent the Dragon (marking the first of two films in which the villain transforms into a giant reptile).

I say almost because although he has the nearest thing to a protagonist’s arc, he isn’t shown to have a choice in the matter. James pointed out that they seem to have skipped the reaction shot when Maleficent revealed to him that the girl he met in the woods was actually the Princess Aurora–that’s a pretty complicated thing to find out!–and also the moment when the fairies appear to him in prison (“Why, you must be–” “Your fairy godmother? But of course!”) and send him off to the Forbidden Mountain. We don’t know how he felt about that–was he reluctant? Galvanized into action by the thought of his sleeping beloved? Afraid? Confused, quite rightly? I guess we’ll never know.

This is Prince Philip’s determined face.

And last but certainly not least, it could be Maleficent’s story. Except that she has exactly no motivation, and she disappears for most of the middle section of the movie, appearing for a moment only to cackle menacingly over her minions’ stupidity (they were looking for a BABY all that time?! Why can’t these villains get themselves some proper sidekicks?!). Why exactly does she lay that curse on Aurora? Is she really that cranky that she wasn’t invited? She probably didn’t want to be there anyway.

“Maleficent doesn’t know anything about love, or kindness, or the joy of helping others. You know, sometimes I don’t think she’s very happy.”

Eleanor Audley does a brilliant job of making Maleficent a very different character from Lady Tremaine. She’s very attractive in her straight up evilness; there’s no doubt at all that she needs to be destroyed, and nobody feels a twinge of guilt when she’s gone, because good has triumphed over evil. But the 1959 film is not her story, which is probably why they’re giving her the live-action treatment now.

To be honest, though, none of this is the fault of the people at Disney. It’s mostly the fault of whoever wrote the original fairytale. Princess Aurora is a character whose fate is entirely guided by the whims and wills of others, which makes her a less-than-stable center for the story. So while Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful film with a whole lot going for it, it’s missing that core of human strength and interest that, to my mind, makes Cinderella such a wonderful movie.

James: I have certainly seen Aurora draw criticism as an empty character only defined by her romantic interest and moved through the story by other powers, and as an example of the inherent sexist approach of Disney to the Disney Princesses. While the former is undoubtedly true, I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a sexist demonstration, as Phillip is pretty much identical. He too is only motivated by his love interest, and is guided through the climax entirely by Maleficent and the good fairies. Given what we see of him and Aurora, I feel that if the roles were reversed Aurora would do the same for Phillip. But then it wouldn’t really be Sleeping Beauty.

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New from Walt Disney Studios: Sleeping Hunk

(Besides, Disney princesses sexist? This is the first Disney prince to even be given a name.)

Regardless, a definite problem with the film is the lack of focus. Since it can’t really be Aurora’s story, it needed to be either the Prince’s or the fairies, and we don’t see enough of either for that to be the case. Everyone here suffers from a lack of motivation; the good fairies protect Aurora because they’re ‘good’. Maleficent attacks her because she’s ‘evil’. Aurora and Phillip love each other because, well, they’re hot. None of these are particularly defining characteristics, no matter how true they may be.

One of my favourite ideas in the film is when, with Phillip locked up in the tower, Maleficent gloats over Phillip’s state. The film goes very meta for a little while, perhaps the most a Disney film has ever been, as Maleficent discusses the 100 year sleep the audience will be familiar with from the tale. She discusses how he’s now trapped in a fairy tale (explicitly referring to it as such), destined to be trapped there until that time. At the end, Phillip tries to lunge at her, but is held back by his chains. We can understand Phillip’s reaction, but because we’ve seen so little of his emotional turmoil to this point (which must surely be great by now) we can’t really empathise with him. We should see him realising everything she’s talking about every step of the way, and see his responses to it all, but instead it cuts to the end. If we knew Phillip a little more (for example, if he actually had any DIALOGUE in the last half hour of the film!) the speech would be devastating.

As it is, it's just 'awesome'. Way to go, Eleanor Audley!

As it is, it’s just ‘awesome’. Way to go, Eleanor Audley!

Actually, that speech makes no sense at all. Where did Maleficent get the notion of a 1000-year sleep? From the fairy tale itself? Come to that, how does she know Aurora is asleep and not dead, did someone tell her about Merryweather’s counter-curse? Why would she even let him go in 100 years? And would he find Aurora, or is she making a sadistic joke? What exactly is she suggesting? I’m sure it’s part of an effort to tie together the various Sleeping Beauty stories (a way of including the 100-year sleep without actually making it part of the plot, since that would preclude Phillip as an established love interest), but as written it makes no sense as a threat or a prophecy. 

Speaking of prophecies making no sense, what exactly is it that Maleficent does at the start? If it’s a curse she lays on Aurora, why does she need to go to such trouble to fulfil it? If it’s a threat, what good does a counter-curse do? Why a spindle anyway, is Maleficent a former tailor? Why does it take her 16 years exactly to realise her henchmen are looking for a baby? Why do the good fairies take her back to the castle on her 16th birthday instead of, say, the day after? How do they not bake or sew in the 16 years before they realise they need to use magic? Are there any limits to their powers, or Maleficent’s? Where do Phillip and his father think Aurora has been for 16 years, that they can have no idea this other girl might be her? Why do the good fairies put the entire castle to sleep instead of, say, enlisting their help in rescuing the Prince, Aurora’s only hope for recovery? Why is Maleficent’s castle so easily broken out of with the help of three fairies she should have been expecting? And, most importantly, what would be the name of our all-horse Disney feature?

It's a good thing most of them are mute, because they'd never get to talk with Cyril Proudbottom in the picture anyway.

It’s a good thing most of them are mute, because they’d never get to talk with Cyril Proudbottom in the picture anyway.

None of those questions are unanswerable, but they’re all left disconcertingly unanswered by the film, particularly the matter of the horse film.

Anne: Of course, none of these unanswerable questions stop the film from being iconic. I think there might be more “princess movie” tropes in the “I Wonder/ Once Upon a Dream” sequence than anywhere else in the Disney canon. When I think about recent send-ups of the genre like Enchanted and Shrek, the first thing that comes to mind is singing to summon the animals.

And the original:

It’s so easy to lampoon that I forget how beautiful this whole sequence is. From Aurora’s ethereal coloratura moments at the beginning, to the contemplative “I Wonder” and the ebullient “Once Upon a Dream,” first with the animals and then with Prince Phillip, it just flows so smoothly and effortlessly from section to section. (Another unanswerable question: why was the owl awake in the middle of the day?)

Something that occurred to me while watching the movie and listening to the Tchaikovsky soundtrack was that this is the first full-length feature since Fantasia to be animated to existing music. As I understand it (and I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject), the film doesn’t preserve the structure and sequence of Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, but instead re-arranges it to suit the Disney version of the story. I read somewhere (possibly IMDB) that the music that plays when Maleficent is luring Aurora into the fireplace and up the stairs to the spinning wheel (AND HER DOOOOOOM) is actually a humorous dance with little plot significance in the Tchaikovsky. It puts me in mind of the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia, where Stravinsky’s music was made to fit Disney’s vision of the creation of the world. But somehow in Sleeping Beauty the re-purposing of the score doesn’t bother me; I wonder if it’s because the film itself is a mash-up of different versions of the story (both Grimm and Perrault are represented) and original elements.

The big group scenes in this film fascinate me. They’re almost structured like oratorio, with the chorus commenting on the action and what’s being said. After the opening narration there is a short chorus heralding the arrival of Princess Aurora; as each fairy gives her gift to the baby, the chorus interjects with a short interlude. And at the end of the film, when Flora recites the spell to put the whole kingdom to sleep, the off-screen chorus sings a melody about sleep. (Off-topic for a moment, before I forget to mention it: we also loved the care that the animators took in creating individual townspeople for the fairies to put to sleep, and also that they were allowed to give the moment a little humor.) I can’t decide whether this structure is really effective–on the one hand, it’s pretty inspired, musically-speaking, but on the other, having the chorus repeat the idea that was just expressed in dialogue does cause the action to stagnate. The opening scene takes a surprisingly long time to unfold…but I do think those interludes and their accompanying animation are needed to set the tone of magic for the rest of the film.

As long as I’m on the subject of music, SKUMPS! SKUMPS! SKUUUUUUUMPS!

And that’s all I have to say about that.

James: The narrating chorus is an interesting choice, and one that works well in places… but the film suffers when it dawdles, telling us AND showing us what’s happening. If the story is Aurora’s or Phillip’s, we need to get to them grown up, not spend so long with them as non-speaking kids/babies. If it’s the story of the fairies, we need to see the story from their point of view, not just when they have a critical role in the narrative (or a comic relief scene). Really, that whole opening 15 minutes is set up, and it needed to be quicker. It would be like if the Lion King spent 15 minutes on Simba’s ‘baptism’, incorporating all of Mufasa’s fears and all of Scar’s jealousies (and introducing Timon and Pumbaa as ridiculous but wise guardians), before cutting forward to Simba when he could talk. You could make a decent attempt out of that (after all, that’s where much of Scar’s jealousy would be at its strongest, surely), but instead the film wisely cuts forward straight after its opening song, so it can introduce Scar and Simba at the same time.

Alternatively, The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens with a 5 minute song explaining the entire backstory for the central conflict (and with catchy music, too!). Or you have Up, which opens with a <10 minute backstory which sums up everything you need to know going into the rest of the film. It struck me that, especially with the chorus explaining a lot of the action, a similar approach was needed here; a five-ten minute mini-saga covering all the plot points with panache, instead of the steady expository sequence we get. Not that it’s without its charms, you still have some fun moments with the good fairies and some awesome speeches from Maleficent. But I just kept wishing they would get on with it, so we could start the actual story.

This isn’t the only problem with the film’s structure. There’s a LOT of comic material in the middle of this film. Both the fairies baking/sewing and the drinking Kings scene last too long, for scenes that don’t add to the story or the significant characters. Maleficent doesn’t actually get to Aurora until 48 minutes into the film; that’s nearly forty minutes (more than half of the film) since she laid her threat/curse/prophecy on the princess, almost entirely filled with fluff. Now, it’s mostly enjoyable fluff, but it’s still holding off the main drama for far too long. The sequence where Maleficent essentially wins (from her luring Aurora to gloating over her victory) is then nicely paced at about 15 minutes, but then the entire escape and final battle is done and dusted in only 5 minutes. With all of magic at Maleficent’s disposal (unless she has some unexplained limits as noted above), that final battle could have been immense, and could have easily been twice or thrice the length without dragging. If it were a matter of exchanging frames from elsewhere, sorry Skumps, I don’t need you in this picture.

What the heck are skumps anyway?

What the heck are skumps anyway? It’s not like it rhymes with anything in the song, so what gives?

But the skewed pacing likely comes down to the central problem: who is our protagonist? Without knowing that, it’s hard to know who we should be spending our time with. I could see a version of this story where Phillip’s father is vital to his character arc and his motivations, in which case ‘Skumps: The Drunk Musical’ is a perfectly valid little scene. But in that version you’d certainly have to cut ‘Two eggs…fold’. And that’s much more fun.

It’ll look better when it’s baked.

Anne: I could do without Skumps: The Drunk Musical (SKUUUUUUMPS!), but I couldn’t bear the loss of the fairies’ hilarious attempts at mortal cake-baking and dress-making, followed by the wonderful sequence where Merryweather brings out the wands and they start over, using magic this time. MAKE IT PINK! MAKE IT BLUE!

All in all, I think we can agree that Sleeping Beauty is at the very least a tour de force of animation and a visual masterpiece, in spite of plotholes and structural flaws And it’s got a happy ending!

I’ll give it an 7.5/10. I think taking the film purely based on storytelling, I would score it lower, but the artwork, animation and music add so much to my enjoyment of it. (Also, I still want to team up with some people and be Flora, Fauna and Merryweather for Halloween. Who’s with me?)

James: It certainly is a masterpiece visually. And the music to boot. It’s also notable for the way it directly acknowledges its own reputation, perhaps the first bit of meta commentary in a Disney film at all. It understands very well the tropes of the genre (as evidenced by Maleficent’s climactic speech and by little references along the way, like the immediately above gif) and uses the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter to its advantage. This approach is later touched upon in films like Beauty and the Beast (with Belle’s book at the start and the self-acknowledging title song) and expanded upon greatly in Enchanted and Frozen. Here, however, it’s used unironically and for dramatic effect, whereas in recent years it’s more used as a tongue-in-cheek nod or an all out parody. It’s one of several nice touches in the film which would have been enhanced by stronger character beats.

I really wish the plotting and character focus were better, as the animation and the score are worthy of 10/10. At least. But, as much as I enjoyed watching this film, I found myself waiting for the characters and the story too often. 7/10 is all I can muster. But I will probably be watching clips from this film daily for the next few weeks. Seriously, it’s beautiful.

Next up, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and with it another horse. We’ll add him to the roster of Disney’s all horse epic, Foal Play. Or The Common Colt. Or Stable Professions. Or Haven’t you Herd? I’ll leave now.

Captain’s the ‘funny’ one.

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He’s a tramp, but they love him.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Anne: So, remember at the end of the last post when I said I had never liked Lady and the Tramp?

I have officially reversed my position.

What a charming, funny, touching and downright romantic movie this is. And not “for an animated film” either–for ANY film. I was enchanted from the moment Darling opened that hat box and Lady was inside.

Which begs the question, why didn’t I enjoy Lady and the Tramp this much as a child, or even the last time I watched it? I think a lot of it has to do with the sophistication of the screenplay and voice acting–a lot of the more subtle details would have gone straight over my head. For example, all of the dogs had different accents and styles of speech depending on their breed. Would I have caught the references to Maxim Gorky and the Cossacks from the Russian wolfhound slash philosopher Boris?

"Quote.  Miserable being must find other miserable being.  Then, is happy!  Unquote."

“Quote. Miserable being must find other miserable being. Then, is happy! Unquote.”

Probably not.

As a child, this movie was just that dog movie for me, and I wasn’t really interested. In general I’m not into movies that are entirely about talking animals–it’s the reason that The Lion King has never been a particular favorite of mine. But what I found this time through Lady and the Tramp was that it’s not just about dogs, even though the main players are all dogs. While maintaining a realistic style of animation–that is, the animals always move like animals, despite some anthropomorphic detailing–Disney manage to tell a universal story that has also been told in live action and with human actors. Girl from a wealthy family, boy from the wrong side of the tracks, they fall in love, but not without complications, boy has to win the trust of girl’s family.



At one point during the film, during that iconic scene at the Italian restaurant, I remarked to James, “It’s like they’re humans! But they’re dogs!”

Speaking of all that mushy romantic stuff with the spaghetti and the accordion and “Bella Notte”…it’s all much more interesting when you’ve got someone special to watch it with.

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</sappy mess>

James: Awww. It’s certainly the most romantic film Disney have done to this point; although arguably Lady has the larger role, it’s very much a partnership between the two leads, learning about each other and falling in love together. It’s also a surprisingly mature view of romance; they court, they learn about each other, they argue and they work together. Even in later films I can’t think of an example of such genuine conflict coming out of the romantic leads’ basic character traits; it’s always a villain stirring things up.

And right there is one of the reasons why Lady and the Tramp strikes me as a much, much better film to watch as an adult than as a kid; there’s no villain. Sure, there’s occasionally some Siamese cats or a rat to contend with, but most of the time the characters are just acting, well, human. The drama comes from the people and the animals being not bad but flawed. Heck, even Aunt Sarah is just doing what she can to protect the baby; inconsiderate to Lady she might be, but uncaring towards the innocent she is not. One of my favourite small touches is that right at the end, after all the drama and misunderstandings are cleared up, Aunt Sarah sent a box of dog biscuits for Christmas. Even she could admit her mistakes.

Which leads me onto another reason why it’s better as an adult. I never picked up on the line about Aunt Sarah sending a box of chocolates as a kid, for the same reason that I never realised just how funny this film is; so much of the good stuff is given to the parents off screen, while our attention (particularly at a young age) is drawn to the dogs scampering about on screen. Jim Dear gets some very funny material, but Lady is so beautifully animated that she steals the attention away from the brilliant lines being delivered. For example:

Lady’s movements there are just delightful, but if you pay attention to her you’re likely to miss the wonderful delivery on lines like ‘Doctor, it’s a boy!’ ‘Yes. Yes, I know.’   And of course the delightfully indicative line ‘Have you noticed, Darling, since we’ve had Lady we see less and less of those disturbing headlines?’

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A lovely, telling line. This script would have likely gone way over my head when I was younger, but as an adult the dialogue is perhaps the best thing about the piece.

Anne: I agree with you. At the beginning of the film you asked if we were ever going to see Jim Dear and Darling’s faces. We did–but only as much as Lady does, which means that we mostly see their feet, legs and hands. It’s hardly like Nanny on Muppet Babies.

I think the voice acting in this movie is particularly good–and not just the performances themselves, but the casting. Lady is voiced by Barbara Luddy, whose voice is low and whispery and ultra-feminine, while Tramp’s voice is provided by Larry Roberts, who sounds a little like Gene Kelly, which gives his character even more of that playful rakish quality that we love him for.

(One of my bugaboos about voice acting in more recent animated films is that instead of focusing on finding the best fit for each character, film studios are going for famous people. Case in point: when James and I went to see Frozen, I remarked that there wasn’t enough contrast between the voices of Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). It was more important to hire Veronica Mars and Elphaba than it was to find actors who could give the characters an indelible quality that would make it impossible to hear any other voice in the role. I’m not saying that famous people can’t create these characters–witness John Goodman and Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc., Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story, Robin Williams as the Genie, of course–but how about some personality? And just because they’re both ingenue characters doesn’t mean they can’t have interesting voices–how about Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara and Kathryn Beaumont? Okay, moving on.)

The supporting cast of this film is particularly good–not a single character is given short-shrift in the voice department. Aunt Sarah is the stalwart Verna Felton (upon hearing her first line, my response was “Bibbidi bobbidi boo!”–Aunt Sarah is much closer to the fairy godmother than to the Queen of Hearts!); Jim Dear and Darling have attractive but not especially distinctive voices, and that’s not a bad thing for their characters.

As I mentioned before, something I loved about Lady and the Tramp was the wonderful range of dog voices and the different accents according to breed.

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To me it’s clear that everybody involved loved this movie, because so much care was taken to give every dog a distinct sound and characterization. From the chihuahua in the pound with his Mexican accent to the wonderful Jock (Scots) and Trusty (Southern), they are all memorable–so memorable that I’m not sure why I didn’t really remember them from the last time I saw the movie!

Speaking of Jock and Trusty, I think they might be my favorite part of the movie. I love how they are recognizable characters despite being dogs–the retired old Confederate soldier who tells stories about his grandpappy Old Reliable (Trusty) and the scrappy slightly crotchety Scotsman who always comments on how expensive things are (Jock–this is not a comment on Scotsmen in general, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that character in another movie somewhere). They are Lady’s kindly old uncles who watch over her and educate her as best they can, and of course, in the end they save the day. I definitely cheered when Trusty found his sense of smell again to track down the dog pound truck and save the Tramp…and then teared up when Trusty seemed to have been run over.

But SPOILER ALERT! He makes it.

They've got their mother's eyes...

They’ve got their mother’s eyes…

And that final scene is so endearing, with Jim Dear ushering Jock and Trusty into the house with a hearty Merry Christmas, and Darling going to find the aforementioned fancy dog biscuits.

(You know, I’m finding it much harder to write coherently about a movie I loved than one I didn’t care for…hmmmm.)

James: It is an excellent supporting cast, led by Jock and Trusty. They become very significant characters, not just for their role in the climax of the story, but for their colour; they are the first and most substantial exploration of dog ‘society’ within the film, explaining the significance of collars, the dangers of the outside and the relationship with these peculiar creatures called ‘babies’. If I have one gripe with their role in the film, it’s that the climax becomes slightly too much their story; They are tasked with rescuing the Tramp, they are the ones with the character twist (in Trusty’s smell being excellent) and they are the ones with the emotional peak (when it seems Trusty has perished). For what should be the most important sequence in the film, Lady and the Tramp are completely ineffective. It’s not quite as bad as the climax of Cinderella being between mice and a cat, but it’s still not a strong moment in the story of the two leads. If at least Lady was with them then there would be some sense that it’s still a part of her story. Narratively, it’s an unfortunately positioned weak point.

That said, I can’t be too mad at it. It’s not a long sequence, and the general point is still made. And it’s not like Jock and Trusty are thin characters; they are set up well all through the film, and it’s a genuinely heartwarming moment when Trusty realises he has a whole audience of pups to tell the tales of his grandpappy.

(I’m just going to criticise the narrative once more here: the rat attack is kind of silly. A mute threat seen only once before, who was only kept at bay by Lady not being on a leash? Who goes straight for the open window, straight to the baby’s room? Whom Lady immediately knows is a direct threat to the baby (and is proven right)? Whom the Tramp can track down so easily in a strange house? And then Jim Dear and Darling find the dead rat and immediately leap to the correct conclusion that the stray dog had intruded into the house and tracked down the rat to protect the baby and only caused such destruction by accident in his heroic actions? Doesn’t hold together in the slightest. Couldn’t the Siamese Cats have been the final villain? They’d explicitly expressed their willingness to harm the baby, and their return would have made a lot more narrative sense than their absence from the most crucial part of the film. Okay, I’m done.)

To end on a positive, here’s a frame from the film I particularly enjoyed, just after Tramp explains to Lady that Tony calling her his girlfriend was just a bad translation:

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You can practically see him pulling his shirt collar. These characters are so alive, so real, so human. This is a mature film, perhaps too much so for kids. I can’t give it a perfect score, because it has a messy narrative near the end and is almost pitched at the wrong demographic, but it’s an utterly delightful piece, and with some of the funniest dialogue to date. 8.5/10

Anne: I’m not sure I agree with you about the climax of the film. The rat isn’t the strongest threat to the baby, and you’re right, how on earth did the rat know where the baby’s room was, et cetera? BUT I think that’s at least partially deliberate. I think the fact that the Tramp risked his life–quite literally, since if caught he was going to be sent to the pound and probably euthanized–for a not-particularly-threatening threat reveals his true nature and his feelings for Lady, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for her. And Jock and Trusty see that and decide to help him, because they realize that he’s deserving of Lady after all. It’s a pretty strong statement, really.

Also, I don’t mind that Jock and Trusty are the ones involved in the chase scene. I cared about their little story as much as I cared about our hero and heroine, and I appreciated seeing the two nicely groomed upper-class dogs running like crazy through the mud to stop the dog-pound truck. Besides, it couldn’t have been either of the title characters who saved the day–Lady needed to stay with Jim Dear and Darling and the baby, and the Tramp was locked up in the truck. It doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers you that neither Lady nor the Tramp are involved in the last push to the happy ending.

I just realized that we never talked about the music in this movie, so let me give it a quick run-down before I wrap things up. It’s not my favorite Disney score–“What Is a Baby?” and the lullaby that Darling sings are both pretty forgettable, though pretty enough, and man, did I squirm during the Siamese cat song–but it contains a couple of my favorite musical moments in the canon. I love that for “Bella Notte” the animators drew inspiration from the idiom of the song to create an indelible image, arguably one of the most famous Disney visuals of all time. To be fair I haven’t read the source material, so maybe the Italian restaurant isn’t an original Disney creation, but I find it so thrilling that somebody said, here’s this great song called “Bella Notte,” it has nothing to do with this movie’s plot on a thematic level, but what if the Tramp had friends at an Italian restaurant and they gave him and Lady a plate of spaghetti and played the song on the accordion? And as I’ve already mentioned (or did I?), it’s a beautiful, romantic sequence that fits perfectly into the arc of the film.

I’ve already talked a bit about how much I love the dog pound sequence, but I’ll talk about it a little more. With all of those different dog types and voices, what could be more fitting than a Barbershop Quartet style opening number? There are no lyrics, it’s just howling in harmony, commiserating over a shared fate. I almost don’t like to laugh at it, because we all know what happens to dogs who get taken through the door at the end of the hallway…don’t even get me started, that scene is like an ASPCA commercial, only without the Sarah McLachlan song…but it’s still pretty funny. And then there’s Peg, voiced by Peggy Lee (who also does the voices for Darling and the Siamese cats), who gets to sing one of the great cabaret numbers in the Disney canon.



One day I’d like to program a cabaret show including this song and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. But that’s a project for another night.

(ETA: When I initially shared this blog post on Facebook, one of my friends pointed out that I had neglected to mention that in addition to voicing all of those characters, Peggy Lee also wrote the songs in this movie, in collaboration with Sonny Burke. Again, I don’t really care for some of them, but the good ones make up for it!)

Also, one last thing to note while I’m on the topic of the music, there’s a moment in this movie that I found particularly effective for its total lack of music, and that was the fight scene between the Tramp and the big dogs that were chasing Lady. Right at the most heated moment of the fight, the music stopped completely; the only sounds were growling and gnashing of teeth and bodies hitting garbage cans. Awfully gritty stuff, actually, and I noticed it because I think moments like that are pretty rare in Disney movies (I’m remembering a couple in Bambi, at the first encounter with Man and also when Bambi’s mother…well, you know).

Finally, my score for Lady and the Tramp is 9/10. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it was a delightful surprise and I will happily revisit it in the future.

Next up, it’s back to the princess genre with Sleeping Beauty!

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Why, you blithering blockhead!

Peter Pan (1953)

James: We actually watched this before Christmas, but the manic period has held us both up in our deliberations. Apologies, oh few but valued readers.

So, Peter Pan is another of Disney’s adaptations (and the last in a run of Disney features to be based on an existing text; the next is an entirely original piece), and the first thing we notice is the title song. It’s actually GOOD!

Well, not exactly good, but it’s a) relevant to the story and b) not just ‘Peter Paaaaaaaaan’ over and over again (Looking at you, Ichabod and Mister Toad). I’ll let Anne talk more about the music (as she’s eminently more suited to do so) but suffice to say it got us off to a good start.

I’m going to talk about the characters, because they are pretty great here. There’s a lot of characters in this piece, and most of them are very, very strong. Every named character is distinct and memorable, and it’s surprising  how even those with minimal screentime make a good impression.  This starts with George Darling (well meaning but delightfully pompous) and extends to minimal characters like the Crocodile (who, despite less than three minutes of screentime – THREE MINUTES – elicited the biggest laughs of the picture from both of us).

More importantly, the central characters are incredibly strong, particularly the women. Wendy and Tinkerbell are both fully developed characters, very different and very relatable. These are Disney’s strongest female characters up to this point, and are the first female protagonists to undergo natural and enjoyable character arcs. Both are selfish in their own way at the start, and both grow through their interactions with Peter and Hook. Tinkerbell is perhaps the best character in the film, allowed to be selfish and mean yet caring, and ultimately redeem herself. She’s allowed slapstick comedy (usually reserved for male characters) and her reactions to Wendy and Peter’s interactions are mined for both drama and comedy. She becomes the most developed, the most sympathetic and the most interesting character in the film without every saying a word.

It also surprised me how affected I was by Peter and Tink’s relationship; although they may inadvertently hurt each other, they also risk their lives to save each other, and when Peter says ‘You mean more to me than anything in this whole world’ you believe it. They love each other, and while there may be a suggestion of romantic feelings it’s actually a pure and platonic love. The heart of this film is a friendship between a boy and a girl, and that is rare to see in film, and it’s beautiful.

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Anne: Oh, the dreaded STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS!

(Courtesy of Kate Beaton at Hark, a vagrant, though I found the picture on Google Images.)

Tinkerbell is brilliant, really–she has wit, spirit, sparkle, sex appeal, anger, jealousy, fear, and loyalty, and she does it all without saying a single word. Spectacular animating job, just going to show that a picture (especially a moving picture) is indeed worth a thousand words.

But for me, this movie is about Wendy. Wendy Moira Angela Darling.

So, a little background about me. I’m 26 years old, and I have two younger brothers who are now 23 and 21 (plus three stepbrothers). And there’s Wendy, stuck in Never Land with that horde of rambunctious boys, going on adventure after adventure…and finally getting sick of it after being told for the second time that “squaw no dance.” (Which is a whole other problem, but never mind for now…) She’s the only girl, she’s the oldest, and Peter Pan was her fantasy to start with—but then the boys hijack it and she realizes that actually, she wants to grow up. Peter Pan is a real jerk for most of the movie, and Wendy doesn’t get to see his redeeming qualities. She just sees a self-indulgent man-child who puts everybody else’s lives in danger in the pursuit of fun and adventure. Of course, he does come through for her a few times, but always at the absolute last second. By the end of the movie, Wendy is ready to move into her own room instead of staying in the nursery with her brothers. It’s like finally getting to sit at the grown-ups’ table at Rosh Hashanah instead of being relegated to the kids’ table with your brothers.

The focus on Wendy is strengthened by the fact that Kathryn Beaumont is a much more engaging voice actor than Bobby Driscoll is as Peter Pan. She sounds like an adult and a child simultaneously; her line readings are often quite sophisticated, but her voice is youthful and high. I like hearing how the actress matures between Alice and Wendy—and Wendy is really an older version of Alice. I remarked in our Alice post that I didn’t think Alice’s misadventures in Wonderland would prevent her from daydreaming in the future, whereas Wendy’s experiences in Neverland change her and allow her to take the next step towards becoming a woman.

I also think the reason I never realized before that Peter Pan was really Wendy’s story was because I was really only familiar with the 1960 television special, and when Peter Pan is played by no less a legend than Mary Martin, it’s hard to see any other sides of the story. And the musical version of the story presents a much warmer, less selfish Peter, who styles himself as Father to Wendy’s Mother. He takes care of the Lost Boys, looks after them, and teaches them (after a fashion–“I Won’t Grow Up”). The Disney Peter Pan has one or two beautifully human moments, but in the musical, the character is allowed to show his vulnerable side more frequently. Not to mention that he’s actually played by a middle-aged woman, which is traditional dating back to the original stage production of Barrie’s play, as I understand it…but there’s a big difference between a mature woman playing Peter Pan and an actual BOY playing him. Bobby Driscoll gives Peter Pan a very real boy quality, complete with total jerkiness.

As long as we are talking “strong female characters,” it’s really too bad that Tiger Lily doesn’t get any kind of character development whatsoever.

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I like her–she’s a pillar of quiet strength and resolve–but she’s pretty much an object. She exists to get saved by Peter Pan and then later in the pivotal “squaw no dance” scene, she exists to make Wendy jealous. It’s not really any better in the stage version (nor is the song any less offensive), but at least Tiger Lily has lines and music of her own and she seems to be the leader of the Neverland Indians.

James: Eesh. And I thought ‘What Made The Red Man Red?’ was bad.

Actually, it still is. The Red Indians are slightly defensible as they are a) taken straight from the Barrie original (as the Mary Martin version affirms), and b) not actually Native Americans, but heightened thematic characters playing a role in the narrative of Never Land alongside (also highly fictionalised) pirates, and mermaids and fairies. However, neither of these are particularly good defences. It’s pretty embarrassing to watch.  Whereas Song of the South, despite its already noted issues, attempted to present a non-white society in a positive and multi-dimensional way, the main take-away here is that Red Indians are a misogynistic, brutish people. Heightened fiction they may be, but their image is inextricably linked with Native Americans.

Oof. That was a heavy paragraph. Let’s have a picture of a mermaid to calm things down. How do those clamshells stay on?

I was going to say how much I envy those clams, but I could never be that shellfish.

Now, let’s talk about the animation. Although this movie was their most expensive animated feature to date, I can’t say it shows in the art. Particularly in the opening few scenes I felt a lot of the movement was quite rough, and when George is tying up Nana outside even the colour is a bit off. It all settled down when it got to Never Land, although certain movements, such as the Red Indians’ dances, still struck me as coarsely animated (but maybe that was the point there?)

However, the individual designs are fascinating. Vibrant and distinct, they show a tremendous amount of character, as evidenced by the mute Tinkerbell stealing every scene. I particularly liked how Peter Pan isn’t actually good looking; he’s got a kind of squished up face that put me more in mind of Cyril Proudbottom than a Disney protagonist. But then, that balances well with Peter as a character and as a character device for Wendy; charming and rogueish in the shadows, but less attractive as you actually spend time with him.

'That's good, Peter. We don't want any more light on you than that.'

If only he’d stayed in the shadows, maybe Wendy would have stayed in Never Land.

Anne: I thought Peter Pan looked like Lampwick from Pinocchio. Given the choice I’d rather be Cyril Proudbottom, who at least has the advantage of being English. And really, why shouldn’t Cyril Proudbottom be a Disney protagonist? I’d watch that movie.

I was maybe supposed to say something about the music, wasn’t I? To be totally honest, it takes a bit of effort for me to remember the music from the Disney movie because I’ve got the Broadway score running through my head. It’s got music by Jule Styne and Comden and Green, and with the possible exception of “Ugg-a-Wugg” (see above), I think it’s vastly superior to the songs in the Disney version, which was clearly conceived as a movie with music as opposed to a musical movie like some of its predecessors. Peter Pan himself doesn’t sing in the movie, and the most famous songs–“The Second Star to the Right” and “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”–are sung by a disembodied offstage chorus. (I think I like “The Second Star to the Right” more than James does, but to me it pales in comparison to “Never Never Land”–I know a place where dreams are born / and time is never planned…) “Following the Leader” is entertaining enough (and I think I had a Disneyworld VHS growing up that used it as background music, which would explain why I know every word).

Speaking of “Following the Leader,” I found Peter Pan to be more laugh-out-loud funny than most of the films we’ve watched so far. One of my favorite gags in the whole thing was when Michael and John were following the Lost Boys all over Neverland in search of Indians, and as Michael was climbing over a rock to cross the river, it turned out to be a hippopotamus.

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And then you know what happened? Ten seconds later, as James put it, they got me again!

Not a great picture of it, but you get the idea.

He never even saw that rhino coming…oh wait, wrong movie.

I feel like this movie was full of all kinds of delightful little surprises like that one, and it all goes towards making Neverland a complete world visually. Of course the rocks turn out to be animals–of course there are hippos and rhinos and monkeys in Neverland, and within the space of ten seconds you can cross from rainforest into savannah. Why on earth not?

We haven’t talked about Captain Hook yet, have we? Hook is an interesting one, because while he is functionally speaking the villain of the story (complete with bumbling sidekick, Mr. Smee), he’s spectacularly non-threatening. He spends all of his time plotting revenge on a Peter Pan, his crew have no respect for him at all, and on top of that, he’s terrified of that pesky crocodile who is always on his scent.

Seriously, never smile at a crocodile. You’ll regret it.

I think Hook is one of the most well-rounded villains we’ve seen so far, in that he’s the victim in one story and the predator in another. In fact, Neverland as a setting is complex in that way–the Lost Boys go hunting for Indians, but actually the Indians have it in for the Lost Boys, and the pirates have it in for everybody, and the crocodile has it in for Captain Hook.

James: I think you’re right. Certainly he’s the most sympathetic of the Disney villains to this point. As I’ve said before, when a character suffers you can’t help but engage with them, and Hook suffers a lot in this film, not just at the Crocodile’s hands (hands? paws? feet?) but at Peter’s too. He’s lumped with a completely incompetent crew and he’s up against a nimble, two-handed urchin who can FLY. He never really stood a chance.

By the way, this is an opportunity for me to show my favourite bit of animation in the entire thing:

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It’s beautiful, no? The close up on his face, the perfect perspective of his movements and of the ground falling away beneath him, the steadily rippling sea, all of which make this the most grounded and realistic moment in the film. And for the first time in the film Hook seems like a credible villain, not because of his competency but because of his anger, because of his sheer determination. He really does provide the audience with a full range of emotions in this film, what more could you want from a Disney villain?

(Besides a song. All good villains should get a song.)

Incidentally, the 1992 film Hook is a good flick, and does a similarly great job with Hook as funny, almost sympathetic and very, very occasionally threatening. We should watch that.

Well, I don’t think I’ve got any more to say about this film. It’s pretty great. The characters and their relationships are generally strong, about the strongest we’ve seen from Disney to this point. The music is more than adequate, the performances are excellent, and the direction is fabulous. The animation itself isn’t the strongest we’ve seen, and Peter is a comparatively weak lead who has no character arc (I could have done with another 5-10 minutes towards the end to give Peter some character growth). But then, he’s meant to be the boy who doesn’t grow up. The real protagonist is Wendy, who does learn and does change and does grow up. And Tinkerbell’s awesome. This gets an easy 8/10 from me.

Anne: I think I mentioned this when we were watching the movie that in the stage version of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys follow the Darling children back to London so they can be adopted by loving parents. And as in Hook, Peter returns years later only to be disappointed by the fact that Wendy is now a grown woman with children of her own; then the cycle of enchantment starts all over again with Wendy’s young daughter. It’s a little sad, really, because once all of the Lost Boys have gone, Peter is alone in Neverland (okay, with Tinkerbell, not totally alone), and he comes back in what always felt to me to be a desperate plea for attention and love. Everybody is growing up and leaving him behind.

In the Disney version, I’m not sure that this ending is really necessary given how Wendy-centric the plot is. I like the way this film ends, with Mr. and Mrs. Darling remembering that they had once believed in Peter Pan, or something similar. Once again, the clever people at Disney have given adult viewers an inroad to the world of the film, via nostalgia for childhood.

I’m giving Peter Pan a 7/10. Thoroughly enjoyable and genuinely funny, but I thought the pace dragged a little after the fantastic opening sequence, which may actually be my favorite part: the boys swordfighting all over the nursery, Mr. Darling looking for his cufflinks and discovering a treasure map drawn on his dickie (that’s part of his shirt, get your minds out of the gutter!), and poor Nana trying to keep order and getting banished to the doghouse. (In the musical, Mr. Darling crawls into Nana’s doghouse in contrition at the end, once the children come home safely from Neverland.)

Poor old Nana!

Next up, one of the few Disney films that I didn’t like the first time around: Lady and the Tramp!

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After this I should think nothing of falling down stairs.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Anne: Aaaaaaand we’re back! James was actually HERE, if you can believe that, and we watched Alice in Wonderland together and had a very merry un-birthday party. Anyway, he’s gone back to England, and even though it’s technically his turn to start a post, I volunteered to get the ball rolling because he’s still jetlagged.

Which feels a bit like this, if I remember correctly.

And with that incredibly clunky segue, the movie!

The last time I had seen Alice in Wonderland was my freshman year of college. As part of the Bachelor of Arts degree which I later dropped in favor of focusing full-time on my Bachelor of Music degree, I was required to take two Freshman Seminars, writing-intensive classes meant to introduce new students to the rigors of college-level thinking and analysis. In the fall of my freshman year, I took Imagining Identity in Francophone Fiction and Film (*snore*), and in the spring, I took The Progress of Nonsense–which brings me to Alice. We read both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and then I went to the library multimedia center and cued up the Disney movie.

Why, that's me!  In the multimedia center!  I've got a ponytail!

Why, that’s me! In the multimedia center! I’ve got a ponytail!

I commented to James while we were watching the Disney version that I had the exact same reaction to the film as I had had to the source material, and it was lukewarm. The movie is 75 minutes long, but it felt much, much longer. It’s a pretty successful adaptation of the Lewis Carroll original, which unfortunately means it falls short of being a great movie because of that thing that James brings up in nearly every one of our reviews and which I usually try to refute: lack of continuous plot or throughline. I find it hard to actually criticize the film for that problem since it is based on nonsense literature in which events tumble along with no real pattern and there’s no way to guess how any given character is going to react.

All that said, there is a lot to enjoy in Alice in Wonderland. I’m a fan of Alice herself, actually; she’s voiced by ten-year-old Kathryn Beaumont, and I appreciate that they let her sound childish, especially in the singing. There’s a moment in “Golden Afternoon” when her voice cracks on a high note and instead of dubbing it or seeking to fix it, they kept it in and animated the moment, so that the on-screen Alice looks embarrassed at the sound she just made. And some kind person made a gif of it for me, thank you, whoever you are!

I like her spunk, her imagination, and her willingness to play along–but also the fact that she’s a kid and not impervious to hurt and confusion. She’s an easily relatable protagonist–although now that I’ve called her the protagonist, I’m wondering if she actually has a journey. Does Alice CHANGE by the time she wakes up and returns to her usual life? I think she’s probably glad to get out of wonderland, but I doubt she’ll really stop dreaming and infuriating her poor governess. Thoughts?

You can tell the animators just had a field day with this movie. The characters are so varied and richly colored, and each section has a different visual mood (I just made that up right now, so take it with a grain of salt!). I love all of the different creatures they invented–the bread-and-butterfly, the rocking-horsefly, the walking eyeglasses, the mirror bird, the horn duck things that make a honking sound, all of the gorgeous flowers…the list is really endless. It’s fascinating to watch this movie after having seen all of the package films, during which we were constantly noticing how the animators breathed life into inanimate objects in a believable way–and here they really go all out and turn inanimate objects into animals and plants.

James: The company really went to town on this film, didn’t they? They’ve been fans of the surreal stuff in the past, crowbarring something dream-like into almost every feature to date, and here they got the chance to just really be weird and imaginative right the way through. I don’t know how much of it is in the book, but creatures like the bird pictured here are just the kind of thing Disney has been sneaking into their pictures; things that make sense if you look at them in just the right way (in this case, through a pair of legged spectacles).

Unfortunately, as with many Disney protagonists up to this point (particularly the female ones), Alice undergoes no real character arc. She learns some things (that she might have just dreamed anyway), but the creators don’t seem interested in exploring how those things might change her. And, while I’ll agree that she seems to have a fairly distinct personality (one of the strongest for a protagonist to this point), there was one inconsistency that kept nagging at me all the way through: At times, Alice seems perplexed by the strange leaps of logic the characters make, whereas at other times she makes insane (yet correct in the context of the story) leaps of logic independently and takes them in her stride. The former makes more sense than the latter from a character standpoint, in my opinion, as it makes Alice the voice of sanity, and therefore the voice of the audience, amidst the madness.

Like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Geek anecdote here: In the HHGG radio series, there is a sequence wherein Arthur confuses a man into doing something his way using warped logic. For the book and TV versions, it was changed to Ford using the confusing logic. This is because it makes more sense for Ford, the alien, to use warped logic than for Arthur, the human. When Arthur tries to use confusing logic, he is always surprised that it works. If Alice were the sane one, she would be surprised when her nonsensical analyses yield positive results.

Now, arguably Alice could be as mad as the Hatter; this could be a strong interpretation, if the idea was that children are imaginative enough to understand anything, no matter how seemingly ridiculous. The problem is, she’s not consistently one or the other; she’s sometimes a child, and sometimes grown up, with no reason given for the changing perspectives. Perhaps that’s in Lewis Carroll’s original, or perhaps it’s a mixture brought in by Disney. Either way, I found it distancing.

Now don't give me that look.

Now don’t give me that look.

Anne: But the thing is, it does all turn out to be a dream–both in the original novel and in the Disney film. With that in mind I’m not sure that it hurts the story if Alice behaves one way in one scene and another way in the next, though I can see how it might be confusing until you realize that it’s all a dream. Or you can just embrace it and enjoy the silliness.

On to the music, which I love. There seems to be more music in Alice than in its predecessors, which may just be because with the exception of the song over the credits, all of the songs are diegetic, sung by characters on-screen. Maybe that’s because they’re all mad in Wonderland, or because there are a lot of “songs” in the book, but the characters really do seem to be always singing. The only song that I think was just an excuse for the animators to do something really cool is “Golden Afternoon”–but is it ever cool!

It also takes its title and one line of the refrain (“All in the golden afternoon”) from the poem that Lewis Carroll wrote as a preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That’s where the similarities end, but I like that they kept it connected.

Anyway, as the Mad Hatter (voiced by the splendid Ed Wynn) says, “Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.” First, there’s “In a World of My Own,” which I think is a wonderful expression of character for Alice, and it’s not only well-sung but well-acted by Miss Beaumont. A little clunky to end with “I keep wishing it could be that way / because my world would be a wonderland”? Oh well, maybe. But as soon as she says the word “wonderland,” the White Rabbit appears, singing “I’m Late,” of which only a few lines actually happen before he scurries down the rabbit hole. I think this is one of the most distinctive voice performances in the Disney canon–fussy, petulant, sycophantic, but somehow sympathetic, especially when he’s having his watch torn apart by the Mad Hatter and Hare.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. (Also, that image is from an Italian website; the Italian title is Alice nel paese delle meraviglie, which has a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?)

And then we have the Caucus Race song, which isn’t really important, though the Dodo Bird is a character who sings every time we encounter him–first during the Caucus Race and then when discussing how to get rid of the “monster” in the White Rabbit’s house.

I realized as I was listing out all of the songs in Alice in Wonderland that I’ve never really connected the two Dodo Bird moments with the more distinct songs in the movie, because they really are just the character improvising, no set-up, no introduction, very organic. I think that’s something we haven’t really seen yet. Ditto the Caterpillar’s A E I O UUUUUUU.

Anyway, the next real musical “number” we get is “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” which actually comes from Through the Looking-Glass originally and is sung by Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (both voiced by our favorite Lancastrian horse, J. Pat O’Malley!). I’ve always liked this sequence, mostly because awwwww, little oysters!

According to Wikipedia, when the Mother Oyster indicates the calendar and tells her babies to stay underwater, it’s because oysters are only eaten during months with R in their names, and it’s March. The more you know!

I think this segment is wonderfully whimsical, and by setting it to music the composers and filmmakers have ensured that I will always be able to recite most of this poem verbatim. Calloo, callay, no work today! We’re cabbages and kings! I’m also really impressed by O’Malley’s voice work here–I actually didn’t realize that he played all of the characters in the story, not just Dee and Dum. The Walrus especially is such a departure from the voice I’ve come to recognize.

At this point I checked IMDB to see an official song list, and I forgot about the little song that Dee and Dum sing when they first meet Alice and also “You Are Old, Father William,” which thankfully is not included in its entirety. Apparently mad people like to sing! Every time the Cheshire Cat sings a little setting of the first stanza of Jabberwocky: ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe, / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the momeraths outgrabe! But it didn’t occur to me that somebody had written that song–I just figured that the multi-talented Sterling Holloway had made it up. His voice is ideal for the off-his-nut Cheshire Cat, and I think it was a nice touch to give him Jabberwocky as entrance music (since it’s one of the most iconic poems in the original novels).

I’m going to go out of order for a moment (sorry, Mad Hatter!), because I want to touch on “I Give Myself Very Good Advice” before I turn it over to James. I’m not sure I ever quite realized that this was officially a song before. Kathryn Beaumont’s performance of it is so seamless, seguing straight from a spoken line and staying sort of half-sung, half-wept the whole time, that it doesn’t read as a separate piece of music. I think it’s one of the first times in a Disney movie that a song is used to tell a little story about the emotions and the personality of the character who is singing; Alice gets lost in the Tovey Wood, and in the dark surrounded by all of these bizarre Wonderland creatures, she starts to sing about how all of this is her fault, and the awareness of how her curiosity and impatience have put her in this pickle overwhelms her and makes her cry. She doesn’t even finish the song: the chorus chime in when she can’t control her sobbing anymore. I think it’s a very effective dramatic moment, and as she’s singing and getting more and more distraught, even the creatures who have been watching and crying with her begin to slowly disappear.

James: Err, I don’t want to contradict you, Anne, but I’m pretty sure Alice nel paese delle meraviglie is a pasta dish. The ‘Alice’ is the herb they use.

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And yes, that is a powerful moment for a girl going through a lot. Although she doesn’t exactly develop through the film, she does at least go through a variety of emotions. My favourite part of the film, though, coincides with what is probably Alice’s: The Unbirthday Song. For the first time, everyone is having fun in the story, and the mood is infectious. The song is fun and silly,  and the characters and their ways are the only ones in the film that one might actually enjoy spending some time with. Not a lot of time, but I could certainly join them for the odd tea party on my next unbirthday. They’re just so happy, and so friendly, a nice comparison to the rest of the film which often seems more nightmareish than dreamlike.

There’s one other song brimming with happiness and friendliness, but it’s in the execution rather than the lyrics:

You’ll now be singing that for the next five minutes. Sorry. But it’s just so much fun, and all too brief. These are fun, nicely harmonising characters doing something utterly ridiculous. Elsewhere the characters are just as ridiculous, but they’re less fun. Take, for instance, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. While their designs and performances are enigmatic and interesting, and their story not without its charms, I couldn’t really enjoy that section in the same way because, amid all the deliberate nonsense, I couldn’t find myself to actually like any of the characters. They’re all kind of mean and selfish, which made it that bit harder for me to engage with (and while the story is fun on its own, it stops what little action there was dead, and our lead is essentially put on pause for five minutes). This is of course even more true when the Queen of Hearts shows up. The Queen is a mean character, and yet no more fearsome than most of the creatures so far featured in the film, and so I found myself neither engaged nor awed by her. She does have a few funny moments, though, in particular when compared with her morsel of a husband.

Anne: Tee hee, her morsel of a husband. I like it. Hooray!

You’re right that none of the characters are likeable–except Alice (and mayyyyybe the Cheshire Cat, but while appealing he’s not very helpful, is he?). I think in previous films there was a better balance. In Cinderella, we had the title character, the mice, Bruno, the Fairy Godmother, the Prince and the King, who were all likeable enough to form a sort of united front against Lady Tremaine, the stepsisters and Lucifer. In Alice, there’s no clear villain. Except that the Queen of Hearts has the power to officially decapitate people and playing cards, is she really any more menacing than those flowers when they think Alice is a weed? Or the Dodo Bird and White Rabbit on their way to smoke the monster out? Or the caterpillar, or the bird who thinks Alice is a serpent? Obviously we root for Alice, but against what, or whom, exactly? There’s no EVIL as such in this movie, but most of the forces of Wonderland do seem to be on the opposite side from Alice.

There’s no logic, no reason, no way to overcome the challenges because they don’t function in a real world way. (I was thinking of it as a video game, but except for the Red Queen, there’s no one to “beat.) I find it hard to fault Disney for that, because they’re constrained to a certain extent by what’s in the books. Maybe they could have included the White Knight from Through the Looking-Glass (as long as they were drawing material from both books), whom I remember as being a bit hang-dog and more sympathetic than the other characters. But they made a conscious decision not to include him, or to give Alice any kind of companion–maybe their intention was to distance the audience from the Wonderland characters so that they would only relate to Alice. Alice is, to borrow a term that you’ve used before, the audience surrogate; she’s our in, so to speak. I think it wouldn’t have worked if any of the characters had gotten as much screen time as Alice, the way the mice and Cinderella get approximately the same amount of material, or Snow White and the dwarves, or Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.

All that said, I’ve always really enjoyed this movie. I like the whimsy and the colorful characters, and the utter nonsense of the whole thing. It works for me. But as far as scoring goes, Alice in Wonderland is the first of the full-length narrative films to bore me a bit, particularly towards the end, so as charming as I find it, I’m giving it a 6/10.

James: If Alice had been guided by Jiminy Cricket I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. Or even if she’d been accompanied by one of the Wonderland characters like the Cheshire Cat, but who was slightly more on her side (while still providing a contrast between the Wonderland and the Earth points of view), the narrative might have been more enjoyable.

I’m finding the scoring tricky because on the one hand, I don’t think it’s a great film. Through its cluttered narrative and cluttered characters there’s very little to get a grip on, and I’ve never been a fan of nonsense. Silliness yes, but not nonsense. Still, I’d say it’s probably a pretty good adaptation of the source material, and I think there’s only a few missteps in Disney’s bringing the story to life (and Alice’s character inconsistency should certainly have been ironed out). I don’t know that there’s much that Disney could have done to make a better film and keep it feeling like Lewis Carroll. I’ll also give it a 6/10.

Next up on our list, Peter Pan. I will be imagining Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles, and I trust it’ll be entertaining and disorienting.

Anne: You think Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman will be disorienting? Mary Martin is the Peter Pan in my head.

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His and hers…I feel like a bathroom towel.

The Parent Trap (1961)
The Parent Trap (1998)

Anne: Last night I decided to re-watch the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap…and then I decided that it wouldn’t be a proper trip down memory lane without re-watching the original Hayley Mills movie. I wasn’t necessarily intending to write about them–obviously they’re not on our blog list, not being animated, plus we would have had 11 years of movies to get through between Cinderella and the original Parent Trap anyway–but I had so many thoughts that I decided to hijack the blog and go rogue with a non-canon solo post (with my partner-in-crime’s blessing, of course!).

All I really remembered about the original was the camp stuff–the wonderful pranks (“Where are you going to find ants at night, silly?”), Susan telling Sharon that she looked like Frankenstein, the hapless Miss Inch, the march to the isolation cabin, eating Fig Newtons, the discovery that Sharon had a photo of Susan’s mother (“She’s my mother too!”), coming up with the plan, cutting Sharon’s hair, each girl teaching the other to play her part. And I remembered “Let’s Get Together,” of course, and certain bits and pieces of the material in between. But I didn’t really remember what makes the movie so good, which is the fact that once the girls leave camp, it’s a story about their parents, played by Brian Keith and the glorious Maureen O’Hara.

In the Lindsay Lohan version, Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson) is a wedding dress designer and Nick (Dennis Quaid) owns a vineyard. They both achieved success and built exactly the lives they wanted for themselves after getting divorced–and they seem very happy in those lives. What struck me about the Hayley Mills film is how UNHAPPY both Mitch and Maggie are, and that makes the plot to bring them together even more poignant. Mitch has lots of money and a big house in Monterrey, but he looks uncomfortable with them; his engagement to the evil Vicki (Joanna Barnes) seems like the logical next step in attaining affluence and status, rather than an older man in love with a younger woman. Maggie is an old-fashioned Boston society matron living with her aristocratic controlling mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) and her doormat of a father (Charlie Ruggles).

Natasha Richardson’s character was reluctant to go to Napa to see her ex-husband…but Maureen O’Hara’s Maggie clearly (to me, anyway) can’t wait to get out of her stifling life at home. She gets her hair cut (with some prompting from her father, and Susan), buys some new clothes, and goes straight to California–in fact, straight to her ex-husband’s house and shower!–to show that Mitch how utterly fabulous she still is.

I think what makes this movie stronger than its remake (among other things) is that before they set the Parent Trap in motion, neither Sharon nor Susan have such great home lives. They’re certainly loved and cared for, but I think they way they describe their parents when they’re at camp is wishful thinking, for Sharon especially. Maggie is beautiful at the start, but oh, so tight-laced and stoic; somebody so dutiful that she almost goes to a Red Cross fundraiser instead of spending the day with her daughter who just came home from camp, and who defers to her mother in all things. And Susan says that everything is just “Dad and me” in California, but Mitch is running a ranch; it seems like Susan is actually closer to Verbena, the housekeeper, who says, “You used to confide in me.” Unlike Dennis Quaid’s Nick, Brian Keith doesn’t seem like the kind of father you could talk to or really connect with.

But when Mitch and Maggie meet again for the first time in thirteen years, it is instantly clear that when they were together they were the best versions of themselves. Maggie loosens up, relaxes, and becomes the kind of “divine” mother that the twins wish they had; Mitch becomes softer, less hyper-masculine, a little more romantic. I love the scene when Mitch sees the girls together for the first time and becomes, well, more like Dennis Quaid, actually.

What we also get to see in the original version that is totally absent from the 1998 film is the reason Mitch and Maggie split up in the first place. In the Lindsay Lohan version when Nick and Elizabeth are reunited, there is no indication of what may have passed between them to bring about the separation and the his-and-hers kids arrangement; we are informed that Elizabeth once threw a hair-dryer at Nick, then packed her bags and left, but we see none of the fire that must have once been there. Mitch and Maggie, on the other hand, immediately fall to verbal sparring. The chemistry is palpable–it’s easy to guess that the passion that brought them together also brought about their eventual separation. They can barely have a conversation without fighting, and in their first scene together she punches him in the face (and this is after not having seen each other in almost fifteen years!).

To me it’s absolutely clear that Maggie goes to California knowing that if she sees Mitch again, sparks will fly–but she’s tired of tamping down her fiery temper and fabulosity. Maureen O’Hara pretty much steals the second half of this movie for me. My favorite moment is when the girls tell her that Mitch is going to be married on Saturday, and you can see the heartbreak cross her face for just a second, before she pulls out some of that Boston self-control and makes a conscious decision to make everyone in the house fall in love with her. Including the Reverend Mosby and Vicki’s mother, Edna. When she insists that Vicki go on the camping trip with Mitch and the girls, Maggie knows exactly how badly it will go…and upon his return, Mitch finds her adorably barefoot and aproned. And there’s the moment where she has a knot in her apron (put there on purpose, perhaps?) and she asks Mitch to help her untie it, and a look flickers across Maureen O’Hara’s face, like, I’m going to get him to put his hands on my waist right now.

I think my point is that this is one of those really special movies that starred a young girl and was marketed to a Disney audience, but that both children and parents could enjoy. There are even things in the camp section that went over my head as a kid (who were Pelléas and Mélisande, for instance? Who, come to think of it, were Gilbert and Sullivan?). The Parent Trap is not only a feel-good family movie that is entirely appropriate for kids, but also a surprisingly sophisticated story about two grown-ups who never stopped loving each other.

And I haven’t even talked about Hayley Mills yet, have I? Gosh! Okay, so…this may be a little blasphemous, but I think I enjoy Lindsay Lohan’s performance as Hallie and Annie more than Hayley Mills’s performance as Sharon and Susan. That said, Mills gives a more impressive performance by actually managing to create two distinct characters. Lohan had the easier job–to play Annie, most of the work was done as soon as she put on the English accent. Sharon and Susan are both American, with slightly different American accents and inflections. “Cahn’t, shahn’t, aunt!”

Sharon is clearly meeker, more bookish and thoughtful, while Susan is brash, boy-crazy and athletic. (On that topic, while it makes sense for Sharon not to have heard of Ricky Nelson, growing up in her very strict Boston home in the 1960s, there is NO WAY that Annie, a Londoner with a fashion designer for a mother, would not have heard of Leonardo DiCaprio. Moving on.) Mills does a lot of that just with the voices of the two characters, especially in the beginning when they are so distinct. And I love Susan as the belty pop singer and Sharon more classical in “Let’s Get Together.”



To me it’s a very thoughtful performance, while Lohan’s–much as I enjoy it, and it’s pretty seriously cute–is more gimmicky. She’s a good child actress who could put on a creditable English accent, but has to mostly rely on the writing to get the differences in the characters across (Annie says things like “You gave me a fright” and “It’s a horrid habit,” while Hallie says “like” a lot). Hayley Mills really does give two different performances–and it’s fun to see what happens when Sharon and Susan are posing as one another, because the slip-ups are very, very subtle.

With regard to supporting characters, I like Chessy (Lisa Ann Walter) and Martin (Simon Kunz) very much in the 1998 movie, though I find it highly implausible that they would end up together (mostly because my gaydar goes crazy when he comes onscreen!). They both have lovely relationships with the girls, and I love the scene when Chessy realizes that Hallie is actually Annie. But I also think that Una Merkel’s no-nonsense housekeeper Verbena–“I’m not saying a word, not a single word”–and Crahan Denton’s soft-hearted ranch hand Hecky are more interesting, and it’s a lot funnier when they become co-conspirators, especially Hecky’s turn as a gypsy when the girls recreate their parents’ first date at Martinelli’s. The two fiancées–Joanna Barnes as Vicki and Elaine Hendrix as Meredith–are suitably evil, both uttering the classic Elsa Schraeder line about shipping the girls off to boarding school as soon as they’re married. “Baroness Machiavelli!” I think Barnes is slightly funnier in the camping scene, and she does get to have a full-out temper tantrum…but Hendrix gives Dennis Quaid the acid ultimatum: “Them or me?” T-H-E-M, them.

All in all, I enjoy both films, but I think the original has the upper hand. It’s richer, better-written, more complex, and much more witty in a grown-up way. And much as I like Natasha Richardson as the twins’ mother in the re-make, Maureen O’Hara is absolutely the life-blood of the original movie, and creates an indelible film character even independent of the mixed-up twins plot.

To conclude, let me just say that when I went to summer camp, nobody ever managed a prank quite like the one Susan and her friends play on Sharon–the one with the honey and the strings everywhere. And what’s great about that prank is that it becomes a pretty strong plot device later on, when the twins recreate it in Vicki’s tent on the camping trip. It’s pretty epic in the re-make as well (pretty impressive Rube Goldberg-machine-type rigging from little Hallie!), but instead of using it on Vicki, the girls drag her air mattress into the lake. Which is funny enough, but we don’t get that flash of recognition we get in the original when we realize that they’re calling back to the earlier plotline, when the twins were enemies. A neat bit of storytelling, that.

Our next canon film is Alice in Wonderland, and guess what? We’re going to watch it TOGETHER! In Chicago! Unheard of! Absurd!

Anne

P.S. “And remember, you must bring Mother to California. Boston is no place to re-kindle a romance!”

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