But technicolor pachyderms are really too much for me!

Dumbo (1941)

James: As a kid I watched Dumbo, but it was never a favourite. It had some fun sequences in, sure (can anyone ever really forget Pink Elephants on Parade?), but it was never one that called out to me in the same way as, say, Aladdin or The Sword in the Stone. I can see why it didn’t click with me, although it has some fabulously fun sequences and one of the strongest elicitations of emotions in the entire Disney canon.

It’s an odd piece. Disney still haven’t at this point managed to carve together a full narrative that lasts the length of the film, and Dumbo (like its predecessors) is a succession of short sequences that occur to two elephants, but aren’t really linked. In isolation, almost any of the sequences would work, and almost all of them could be dropped without affecting the narrative. There’s several different storylines here which could have been a complete narrative, but none take up more than a few minutes of screentime. The longest story in the piece is Dumbo being separated from his mother and trying to get her freed, but the only real sequence detailing this is the (admittedly heartbreaking) “Baby Mine” scene, and then the plot is dropped for Dumbo to be a clown or get drunk or learn to fly. Timothy Q. Mouse suggests becoming famous to get her freed, but it never actually comes across as a motivator for Dumbo, partly because he never talks (a characteristic which makes him completely adorable but narratively impotent) and partly because all the events just sort of happen to him.

Maybe I’m being too harsh here, judging it by modern standards of filmmaking. We expect a narrative throughline in a film because that’s the way films are now, but perhaps this is not only what Disney were comfortable making, but what the 1941 audience were comfortable seeing: stories from a character’s life. But, much like Snow White, the central character of Dumbo is defined primarily by his physical attributes rather than his desires or actions, and the story comes from characters around him deciding what role he should be playing, and where the story should go.

Anne: Ooh, we are going to differ on this one. I think I loved Dumbo. Would I call it my favorite? Probably not. But what I loved about it was that it made me really feel something. I cried from the heart during “Baby Mine”–because let’s be real, there’s almost nothing sadder than a crying baby elephant and Betty Noyes.

And then I could not have been happier at the end when Dumbo flew and achieved success. I’ll give you that it’s not perfect, that the narrative is patchy and it’s missing a few crucial scenes–but so far, I haven’t had that kind of emotional reaction to any of the films we’ve watched, and looking ahead, I’m not sure when the next time will be (oh wait, Bambi is next, isn’t it…hmmm).

I think in the same way that Snow White was an experiment in animation and Pinocchio advanced the storytelling aspect of Disney films, Dumbo takes a step forward in emotional content. (Granted, there are some moments of Pinocchio that are very affecting, but not in the same way as “Baby Mine.”) Eventually, the Disney filmmakers will figure out how to combine gorgeous animation, storytelling worthy of a real Hollywood movie, and genuine emotion–but I don’t think they had quite hit upon the perfect combination by the time they made Dumbo.

I also want to touch on something that you pointed out when we were watching the movie yesterday, about the animation. You noted that Dumbo looks a lot more cartoonish than the previous films we’ve watched–more solid colors, less attention to visual realism. And it occurred to me that this is the first Disney film to be set in America–and the last for a long time, if I remember correctly. It’s an American story, about an American institution (the circus), and as Benjamin Franklin put it in 1776, Americans are “rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined” than Europeans or Englishmen. I’m not saying that I necessarily believe that, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the filmmakers would have made a conscious choice to simplify the animation, brighten the colors and aim for raw emotional payoffs for this purely American story.

Basically, I was always going to like Dumbo more than you did. It’s in my blood. 😉

James: I’m not sure if simplifying the design was deliberate or necessary. Dumbo was made at a troublesome time for the studio; the last two films had lost money, and don’t you know there’s a war going on? The budget was much lower than the previous films, and so simpler animation was needed to keep the costs down. However, it does work, thanks in part to the setting as you suggest, and in part to just how lovable the characters are. And, even with simpler animations and a smaller colour range, they still manage some damned impressive moments. The introduction of all the animals is simple but lovely, with them all getting a creature appropriate reaction. And, of course, there’s Pink Elephants on Parade.

This sequence is just beautifully choreographed, with the shapes seemlessly moving together in a wonderful, dizzying haze. Tapping into the surrealism of dreams and the eerie shape of the music, the artists here have managed to create something that maintains its own visual logic moment to moment but expands into something strange and amazing.

Pink Elephants on Parade? More like Pink ELEGANCE on parade! Chortle chortle chortle.

Anne: You are hilarious. Never change.

To be honest, Pink Elephants on Parade was my least favorite part of the movie–and something that I had completely forgotten about. The sequence started and I thought, wait…Heffalumps and Woozles?

(The Wikipedia page for Heffalumps and Woozles concludes with “See also: Pink Elephants on Parade.” I feel validated.)

Anyway, moving on, I thought I would talk about the music, because it is a bit unusual, and also because I want to shake the dust off some terms from that time I minored in musicology in college.

I would argue that the first diegetic song in Dumbo doesn’t occur until the last ten minutes of film: “When I See an Elephant Fly.” (Okay, okay, unless we’re counting the stork singing “Happy Birthday,” or the clowns drunkenly singing after their act.) Diegetic music is music that originates within the world of the film–in this case, sung by the band of crows that Dumbo and Timothy Mouse meet when they find themselves up a tree. But most of the songs in Dumbo are non-diegetic, meaning that the source of the song isn’t visible onscreen. The stork song, “Casey Junior,” the song that plays when they’re setting up the circus tents, and “Baby Mine” are non-diegetic. They are closely tied to the action but they don’t come from the characters themselves.

(NB: “Pink Elephants on Parade” is an unusual case, because there are moments where one of the elephants in Dumbo’s dream seems to be singing the song, but most of it is sung by the offstage chorus, so to speak.)

We’re in the era of Disney films when the songs were written for the film but expected to have a life outside the film as popular songs. But the songs in Dumbo, despite not actually being sung by the characters, are pretty film-specific; as far as I know, the only one that became popular afterwards was “Baby Mine.” (I have a recording of Marilyn Horne singing it, on her album of lullabies from around the world.)

One more word on the sounds of Dumbo–I was pretty pleased to have recognized the voices of both Verna Felton (as the meanest circus elephant, who goes on to voice the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp) and Sterling Holloway (as the stork–in a hilarious coincidence, he later voiced both Winnie the Pooh and Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book). Soon we’re going to hit the series of films in which Eleanor Audley voices all of the villains!

James: The voice actors are all good in this film, although in my opinion the characters rarely shine. They’re all fairly gentle and inoffensive, but none have the depth of character that we’ve come to expect from Disney. Part of that is its place in the canon; they’re still very much in the early years. And yet Timothy Q. Mouse is in no way as strong a character as Jiminy Cricket a year and a half earlier, who has his place in the world very firmly established at the start, and his motivations to help Pinocchio (and earn his gold star) inform everything he does. Timothy is nice, and clearly cares for Dumbo… but why? He wants to help Dumbo get his mother freed, just because he’s nice? He’s wearing a ringmaster outfit to fit in the circus theme I presume, but is there a character or narrative reason why?  Who is Timothy Q. Mouse, and what’s his place in the circus?

Dumbo is similarly comparable to Pinocchio, who is born and finds himself moved around by events beyond his control… except that Pinocchio very clearly has control; part of the message of that movie is that he’s choosing not to use it, and must take affirmative action at the end to save his father. Dumbo just gets pushed around by everyone, even his mousey friend, until the story is told. Still, there is a nice variety of characters. The elephants are all distinct, and the Ringmaster and the actors have little definitions that colour their screentime nicely. And although Dumbo’s mother’s story fades out to allow Dumbo to be the lead, she is well-established enough that “Baby Mine” is affecting and very, very real.

My favourite characters, though, are definitely the crows. Admittedly, they hold the potential for offence. Their language, their personalities… yeah. But that’s a question for someone else’s blog. I love the crows, they are fun, jovial and have a cracking song. What a pity they’re only in the last fifteen minutes, I could have spent at least twice that on those characters. But then, I’m strange. I like clowns too. I loved the movement of the clowns, but planned and when dealing with the flying elephant. They move so full of joy and silliness, and with their own special kind of logic guiding everything they do (much like Pink Elephants on Parade). I don’t ever remember finding them scary or creepy, so if I was supposed to dislike the clowns… I guess I was the wrong demographic.

Anne: See, I thought we were going to completely disagree about this movie, but I liked the crows and the clowns too! I think I remarked during the movie that I probably wasn’t supposed to find those crows so entertaining, but I really did; they add such a sense of fun and levity to the proceedings.

Slightly off-topic, but one of my favorite moments was when the elephants were discussing Dumbo after he ruined their balancing act, and the one with the Southern accent said, “They made him…a CLOWN!” And then they take a vow that Dumbo will never be an elephant again. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but he showed them, didn’t he?

Pick-a-little, talk-a-little, pick-a-little, talk-a-little…

You know, in writing the last couple of paragraphs it occurred to me that Dumbo, as a movie about not fitting in, is at its most engaging when it focuses on group culture. I love those catty elephants, each with her own personality and voice (“Put on a little weight, honey?” “You’re no cream puff yourself, dear!”), and the clowns, while less developed, are also distinctly animated and voiced. I think what I like best about the crows is that each one is a different type of character, and they interact in a realistic way with each other. The filmmakers create excellent group dynamics among the supporting characters in order to better isolate poor Dumbo and his mother–and Timothy, who does seem to be a bit of a lone circus groupie.

I give Dumbo an 8/10. Intellectually I know it’s flawed, but my heart, Anita, but my heart–!

James: Mine is a heart of massive rock unmoved by sentimental shock. 5/10. I love some parts of it, but it doesn’t hold together in the way I’d like it to.

You know what? 6/10. “Baby Mine” is too good.

Anne: You’re such a softie. *sniffles*

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Spinning through an empty sea of nothingness

Fantasia (1940)

Anne: I have a confession to make.

I’m twenty-five years old, I work in the classical music industry, and I cannot make it through Fantasia in one sitting.

There. Make the most of THAT, blogosphere.

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Granted, it has been a very long day, mostly spent driving, and it’s dark out, and I’m full of post-rehearsal cake. These are perhaps not ideal Fantasia viewing conditions, so I am pausing the video and putting it on hold until tomorrow morning, over breakfast (which will not be cake, I promise). I will reserve most of my judgment until I’ve finished it. But not all of it. It may be late, but it’s never too late for a little judgment.

I don’t understand the first segment at all. The music is the Toccata and Fugue in D-minor by J.S. Bach (which isn’t an orchestral piece, so…hmmmm), and apparently all the animators could come up with was the musicians and conductor silhouetted against bright colors, and then some abstract shapes moving in the rhythm of the music—some of which was very nifty, I’ll admit. Mostly, though, I found the images more than the music to be sleep-inducing. I understand the concept of “absolute music,” music conceived by the composer with no story or image in mind—we talked a lot about “program music” versus “non-program music” in my music history classes in college. But just because the music has no narrative scheme or particular imagery, why couldn’t the animators invent one?

James: I also struggled to watch it in one sitting, at one point breaking up the segments with clips of Animaniacs and South Park. Perhaps it would have been different if it was in the cinema, emulating (as the movie does) a concert approach, rather than watching it in the real world where there’s windows. Perhaps it would have been different if it didn’t feel so dry for so much of the (longest yet from Disney) runtime. Perhaps the movie is just hard to engage with…

I have a theory. The MC says near the start that the animators have tried to make artwork that emulates what you might see in your mind’s eye at a concert. Which is fair enough, and for the most part they do just that. The question is… why? You’re already seeing it in your mind’s eye. Devoid of levity (and often imagination), this film can feel like a spectator sport, watching the animators do their darndest to succeed at their challenge. They do succeed in their challenge, certainly. Many of the segments are beautifully animated, the problem is they’ve already been established as… irrelevant.

It has a slow start, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. You can take your time to set up a really good movie, or you can waste time inching towards the good bits. I understand the opening segment, I think, in the sense of easing the audience in, and attempting to explore their third option (pieces that are stories, pieces that are themes, and pieces that just are) so that they don’t have to worry about it later in the film. This is their test run, and for the most part works. It takes slightly too long for the animation to appear; too long playing with the shadows of the orchestra rather than animating the music, but when they do I find it lovely. And very much the kind of images that go through my head at a concert: the orchestra swept up in the music, floating around me. I don’t feel that a narrative is needed for this opening, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more going on. Or be shorter.

Anne: They did manage to give the Nutcracker Suite a throughline of sorts—nature through the four seasons of the year (which begs the question, why not just use the Vivaldi?). I was much more engaged with the specific images and dance animation than I was with the vague muddle that was the Bach. I LOVED the dancing mushrooms in the Chinese Dance (okay, so maybe that’s a little un-PC, but so cute anyway!) and the hilariously enthusiastic flowers in the Russian Dance. I wish they had done more with the waltz music, but those fairies were lovely and delightful to watch. I especially liked the moment in…one of the sections, can’t recall which now that I’m editing and posting this…when the fairies were bedewing the spiderweb. Breathtakingly beautiful animation.

…apparently that’s all I’ve got about the Nutcracker Suite. Don’t worry. I’ll make up for it later.

James: I was just amazed by how many famous themes there are in that Suite. Ask me to hum The Nutcracker and I might go through a couple of the tunes, but I’d find it hard to believe this many great melodies could belong to the same piece. The very beginning was slower than I expected, but other than that it was a delight to hear it. They presumably wanted that piece, and then fit the story to it… and it doesn’t quite work. It’s not really four seasons, although the fairies fit in naturally, naturally. There’s lovely little segues between the movements, such as a rise of bubbles changing the setting and the tone, and there is gorgeous animation. Including a return of the amorous fish from Pinocchio.

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Anne: I noticed the amorous fish too! I wonder if this and Pinocchio were being worked on simultaneously (must have been, to both come out in 1940), and the animators were practicing Cleo.

Now, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a different story from the first two segments, since, well, it actually HAS a story. I could have done with less explanation at the start from Deems Taylor (speaking of, could those narrations be any drier?), since it is perfectly clear what is going on both musically and visually at every moment. It’s deservedly iconic, and Mickey Mouse is adorable and impish. I particularly liked the escalation in the music as the apprentice showed the enchanted broom what to do and the broom began to carry out his task at increased speed. The sorcerer himself was appropriately imposing, and I loved the whack of the broom on poor Mickey’s behind on the final chord of the piece.

Interestingly enough, this was the only segment where I genuinely wasn’t sure if the music had existed before the film–which is probably a testament to how beautifully the animated story fits with the music. Paul Dukas’ “L’apprenti sorcier” is such a descriptive piece of music; I think hearing it by itself in a concert hall, it might even be possible to come up with something very similar on one’s own. But alas, I don’t think that piece is ever going to escape the Mouse!

James: With this segment,  they created something iconic and definitive. No mean feat. The music does fit the animation beautifully, with the slight exception of Mickey’s dream, which comes out of nowhere to fill time and make him miss the broom doing its stuff. But the more important part, the reason this segment is so well known (and about the most enjoyable in the film) is that it’s fun. Really fun. The brooms are playfully malevolent, Mickey is playfully violent. The hat is playfully bad. There’s plenty of moments (character and otherwise) that seem there just to get a small laugh out of its audience. And really, that’s all it needs. Even when Yen Sid is mad at Mickey at the end, his scowl turns into a grin, and (kicked or not) Mickey will be fine.

Mickey, all interns are frustrated. Be grateful you’re not being sent for coffee.

Anne: Okay. After a three-day break from writing this post, it’s time to tackle the Rite of Spring. Good thing I wrote the subsequent paragraph immediately after viewing the segment!

I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly that bothers me about this segment. I will admit that it’s impressive in scope and ambition, and very imaginative visually; I kept remembering that this movie came out in 1940, before it was possible to insert realistic-looking dinosaurs into live-action movies. I can’t imagine having seen it before the advent of Jurassic Park, for instance. But something about it rubs me the wrong way. Possibly the fact that the Rite of Spring is a ballet and does in fact have a story, but that fact isn’t acknowledged and is completely overwritten by Disney’s insistence on this history of the earth concept. Why not use the story already being told? What I liked about the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, for instance, was how closely coordinated the animation was with the music; but in this segment, I was perplexed by fast-moving, rhythmically-complex music accompanied by slow-moving dinosaurs. (This was not always the case—I liked the pterodactyls opening their wings on the woodwind licks in the orchestra, and the rhythmically-exploding lava bubbles. Shades of the Cave of Wonders?). It just felt like the wrong piece of music to go with the story they wanted to tell, and as a result to me that decision feels a bit arrogant.

Those dinosaurs were really cool to watch, though. I did chuckle a bit when it skipped from one fish tentatively popping out of the ocean straight to ALL DINOSAURS ALL THE TIME.

James: I’ve been told this is a controversial thing to say, but I’m just going to come out with it: I found the music bland. Not all the time, not all the way through. The atmosphere at the start, and (as you said) the exploding lava moments were visually great and had some exciting music, the animation working with the audio to create a sense of natural chaos. But the introduction of the dinosaurs, well, bored me. The music is eerie but scarcely intense, accompanying scenes where dinosaurs just move around, eating (occasionally eating other animals, but still). There’s no characters to invest in, and even when T-Rex shows up you can’t root for the underdogs being chased because the music’s been so creepy you can’t be on the side of any of the dinosaurs. The whole piece is one for observing, not engaging with.

Unfortunately it also never really explores the majesty of the animals. The opening creates a certain amount of wonder surrounding the creation of the planet, but when the animals show up there’s little of that wonder remaining. The whole thing peters out, as it always had to, given the music and the narrative attached. A necessarily drawn out end to an animation and soundtrack that never quite worked together.

INTERMISSION!

Anne: After intermission there was that soundtrack thing. They managed to make a straight line cute–“Awww, the shy little soundtrack.” But I didn’t really pay attention while that was happening, so you can comment on it if you’d like.

On to the Pastoral Symphony! Greece! Mount Olympus! Centaurs and centaurettes! I liked this segment, because I felt like the animators really took their cues from Beethoven; in this case, although the composer didn’t have Mount Olympus in mind when he wrote the piece, it seemed like the logical choice because the animation was so tuned in (so to speak) to the contours of the music. I thought the movement of the flying horses was just gorgeous, even if their babies looked like pastel-colored versions of the donkeys from Pinocchio (I hope that’s where poor Alexander ended up…*sniffles*).

What I noticed particularly in this segment was that none of the centaurs or centaurettes had any physical definition—okay, I know it’s a Disney movie, but it was distracting! I thought the transition from the idyllic country afternoon to the storm, with Hephaestus forging lightning bolts and Zeus throwing them down—in time with the music, I might add—was excellent, as was the transition back out of it, with the two gods lazily throwing leftover lightning bolts down.

Also, super cute wee flying animals. Can’t go wrong there.

James: For me, the ‘Soundtrack’ was cute but superfluous. It was basically reestablishing how the music had made the animators think visually and the kind of images it could inspire, much as we saw in the first segment of the film. However, it’s after a [fifteen?] minute interval and at least one choc ice, so people in the cinema might have liked the reminder. I’d also just like to add that the walk off and walk on of the orchestra takes nearly two minutes. That’s two minutes of musicians walking. Might not have been so bad with the interval in the middle… but still.

The Greek sequence was delightful for all the reasons you said. A new setting was applied, but other than that the action seemed to flow naturally out of the music. The attention to detail on the individual characters is fantastic. One of the little moments I enjoyed was when a female centaur used her hind leg to brush away her hair from under her feet (hooves?), without faltering for a moment on her forelegs. A lovely little moment for the animators there. There is a sense of fun to all the characters, and this gives them a real personality, even when only onscreen for seconds.

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Anne: I will admit to having fast-forwarded through the whole interval, so I have no idea how long it was.

Anyway. When we arrived at the Dance of the Hours, I thought, “Now THIS is what I’m talking about.” The animators took the ballet music from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and choreographed it brilliantly

(Side note: On Sports Night, Joshua Malina’s character Jeremy tells everybody that the woman he’s dating is a choreoanimator—somebody who choreographs the dances in animated movies. She’s not. She’s a porn star. But I still like to think that “choreoanimator” is a real thing, because if it is, they would have had a bunch of them working on this segment. Moving on.)

And if a choreographed dance segment seems like the obvious choice for ballet music, the dancers certainly are not! I think the decision to use hilariously unwieldy animals—ostrich, hippo, elephant and alligator—as ballet dancers was an inspired one. It presents a particular challenge to the animators, because despite the weight and awkwardness of these animals, the dance still has to be graceful, and it really is: the animators succeeded in conveying heaviness and lightness simultaneously, and the effect is hilarious.

I smiled the whole time. Which may also have been because I could see the light at the end of the tunnel that is Fantasia.

James: I smiled the whole time too, and I’m sure it wasn’t (entirely) down to relief. It’s a magnificent segment, and incredibly fun. It all starts out fairly innocuously – the ostriches are reasonably graceful, and with their long legs and feathers they do look like they could be dancers – but then the hippos show up. And the directors have done an incredible job here, because as soon as the lower pitch melody kicks in, it seems so obvious. Of course this is the hippo section! Of course she’s shaking water of her shoes. That must have been in the original score, right? And the alligators with capes must have been what inspired Ponchielli in the first place.

Thos alligators, by the way, are my favourite element of the whole thing. At first seeming villainous, they reveal themselves to be merely mischievous, but oh what fun they have. Then when the one alligator pairs off with the hippo and they start seducing each other through dance (although I initially thought the former might be trying to eat the latter…), it’s a magical, ridiculous, brilliant moment. The alligators just bring so much cheeky fun to the proceedings, it’s a delightful end to a brilliant piece. Not just charming. Brilliant.

Anne: Also, I’m fairly sure that all of those animals appear again in the soccer (I’m sorry, football) game in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

So…I may have zoned out during the last segment. I think maybe it was scary? Or it would have been when I was a kid, but at this point, not so much. I’m going to let you take this one, because I’m sick of thinking about Fantasia and I don’t feel like rewatching. *cranky*

James: That’s fine, I’ll wrap up. Have a cup of tea and think about Iolanthe.

The last section is fabulous, though. It aims for the same epic scale as Rite of Spring, but is a lot more fun with its characters because, well, it has characters. The Devil, the demons, all of whom are having a whale of a time, going around and doing devilish things. The music evokes menace and its put to great use here, with the characters going from eerie creeping to terrifying bounds. The Devil changes fire into animals into pained figures into malevolent demons, and grins maniacally the whole way through. The whole sequence manages to be that little bit chilling… and rude. It’s rude. Now, there were some questionably topless centaurs earlier, some distinctly naked (and anatomically vacant) babies, and some surprisingly well defined bottoms in the Greek section, but nothing quite prepared me for this:

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Censored. Otherwise, it’s far, far too rude. Seriously, this is a kids’ movie. Who the heck thought harpy nipples would be an appropriate thing to throw in?

Anyway, the sequence is resolved by the ringing of a bell as the Devil disappears for the night, and morning breaks to the sound of ‘Ave Maria’. Ave Maria is a very serene sequence, but for the most part it is still interesting, as figures with candles make their way through a forest as the sun rises. It does go on that little bit too long, with a final shot that well overstays its welcome, lovely though it is. (And I can have a qualm about singing Ave Maria in English… but we’ll let that pass.) A slightly dull end to an overall decent segment, and an overall mixed movie.

This film has faults, as they all do, but this is the first one we’ve encountered where the faults actually hampered our enjoyment of it. The overall tone is often far too dry, with the MC’s dialogue seeming boring at best and patronising at worst. Some of the sections go on too long, and others don’t work at all. There is, however, gorgeous animation. Some sequences are fantastic (the ballet in particular), with animation lining up perfectly with the music provided, and if the individual segments were rated then some would score very highly.

However, I’m too lazy to do more than one score, and too pedantic to do one out of sequence with the others so far. 5/10. An interesting idea and a good effort, but too dry and too long.

Anne: Welcome to our house again, Iolaaaaaaaanthe…

Before we wrap up this interminable entry, I also wanted to point out that it had been so long since I heard Mickey Mouse’s voice that when he went to talk to Maestro Stokowski, all I could think of was South Park. I’ll leave it there.

4/10, one point for each of the segments during which I did not allow my mind to wander.

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You buttered your bread, now sleep in it!

Pinocchio (1940)

James: We both remembered the various sequences, the traumas that the titular character experiences through the story, but what surprised us most about Pinocchio was just how gorgeous it is. It’s a fun story, to be sure, with a more substantial dramatic throughline than Snow White, but either because we’d never noticed as kids or because we’d forgotten, we were completely unprepared for how beautiful the animation could be. The characters move fluidly and naturally, the scenery is sumptuous and the action setpieces (like the escape from the whale) are breathtaking. While the more intricate animation was at times flawed (for example the faces in crowd scenes, or the cat’s attempts to pull more human expressions), there’s something lovely about almost every animated movement in the picture. The eyes still aren’t perfect, but they are more cartoony than those of the previous film. They are less nuanced by design, and overall are more successful. Overall, gorgeous animation.

Too gorgeous, in some cases.

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Anne: To paraphrase Imelda Staunton in Cranford, it was a series of continuous delights (except for Stromboli’s bottom, as you quite rightly point out). When we were watching the sequence right at the beginning when all of the clocks start chiming, my first thought was that the animators were just plain showing off.

It’s really amazing. And as you pointed out, every single moment of the film has something eye-catching in it. They could have phoned in the fish in the ocean sequence, but they didn’t. They created twenty different kinds of fish. (By the way, IMDB tells me that the animators who worked on The Little Mermaid fifty years later looked to Pinocchio to see how they handled the characters being underwater.) That’s the way the world is, which is why this movie is so thrilling, I think–the animators and inkers and everybody created a complete world for the characters to inhabit. It’s a fantasy world, of course, but it’s almost as detailed as reality.

I definitely saw an improvement in the characters’ facial expressions between Snow White and Pinocchio, but I think they really hit the jackpot with Jiminy Cricket. First of all, he has no facial definition, so I have to imagine that creating very specific expressions for him was fairly easy, compared to animating a human being, or trying to make a cat have human expressions. He is also just a delight of a character, bringing a little levity to what is otherwise a true downer of a story. (I mean, okay, happy ending, but poor little Pinocchio is just put through the wringer before he gets there!) In talking about Gilbert and Sullivan recently, you pointed out that writers often have more fun developing characters who aren’t essential to the plot; Jiminy Cricket is pretty much superfluous to the events of the story, but man, Pinocchio would certainly be a lesser movie without him.

James: Jiminy Cricket is inessential to the plot, true, but seemingly vital to the audience. Against all odds, this little tramp insect is the audience’s way into the film, a fun little character with whom we empathise as Pinocchio is constructed and finally given life. Without Jiminy, the first fifteen minutes would only be observable, as our protagonist doesn’t yet even exist.

As with Snow White, the structure of the film is again a curious one, a sequence of shorter adventures which barely connect to each other. You could split the film into 15-20 minute chunks  and play them separately, without losing much dramatic momentum (the only running thread through the middle of the film is Geppetto searching for Pinocchio, which is almost entirely unfelt on Pinocchio’s side). Each little story has a beginning, middle and end before the next one can begin. Part of this will come from Disney’s experience with shorts, and part will come from the book’s narrative structure (a book which started out as a weekly serial). Despite this serial structure, it has a stronger narrative feel than Snow White. There are very few moments where the protagonist is just biding his time, and when he is Jiminy is actively trying to help him escape whatever danger he’s in. Whereas Snow White spends most of the film waiting for the Queen to show up, there’s only a few minutes where Pinocchio is, say, smoking heartily and unaware of the danger. The protagonists are much more active, and that helps an audience to engage with the character, especially a young audience. Not only is he more active, but Pinocchio is also genuinely heroic at the end: he risks his life to save Geppetto’s.

Anne: Aha! That’s my cue. Pinocchio is a really interesting protagonist in that at the start, whether or not he will be the hero of his own life remains to be seen (to paraphrase some more classic literature). But it really does seem like it’s going to be Jiminy Cricket’s movie (I would postulate that Mr. Cricket does in fact steal the movie, but let that pass for the moment)–he sings the opening song, and we see the introduction of Gepetto and the entrance of the Blue Fairy through his eyes. By the end of the movie, Pinocchio has–as you put it last night–EARNED his position as protagonist. From the moment he reads the (conveniently dove-delivered) note that says Gepetto has been swallowed by the whale, Pinocchio springs into action, and from then on, he drives the story. Before that, he was being swept along by the current of the plot, so to speak.

We were talking last night about Jiminy Cricket as the original Disney sidekick/conscience character, and how many parallels he has in later Disney films. My first instinct was to compare him to demoted dragon Mushu in Mulan, who isn’t really qualified to protect Mulan as she goes to war, but who steps up to the challenge and earns back his place among the ancestors. (Not quite as cute as the Blue Fairy giving Jiminy a badge certifying him as an official Conscience, however.)

But Pinocchio himself isn’t much like Mulan, really. She is clearly the protagonist of her story from the first moment, and it doesn’t take her long to set the plot in motion. A few minutes of discussion later and we had hit upon a more apt comparison: Kuzco and Pacha from The Emperor’s New Groove. Although Kuzco isn’t an innocent, he is totally oblivious and also not much of a hero–as emperor, he is entitled and arrogant and spoiled, and if it weren’t for the marvelous Yzma, we would probably tag him as the villain. But something happens to him–he is turned into a llama. LLAMA FACE.

Pacha is a peasant who, earlier that day, tried to save his home by pleading with the Emperor to build his summer palace on a different mountain. He is not looking for trouble or adventure, when he discovers the unconscious llama Kuzco in his cart. Suddenly the two are allied, by virtue of proximity. Kuzco has to get back to the palace; the reluctant Pacha has to get him there. Pacha, like Jiminy Cricket, falls into the role of protector/conscience/agent of change. We root for Pacha and boo hiss the selfish Kuzco, until Kuzco saves Pacha from falling off a crumbling canyon wall (BOO-YAH), and becomes a character worth rooting for.

Pinocchio is certainly not unlikeable at the start of the film, but he is a cipher for other, more interesting characters until he sets off to find and save Gepetto. But as I see it, by the end of the film we don’t have a protagonist and a sidekick anymore–we have two protagonists. And it’s the same with Kuzco and Pacha. In the end, both characters have had a significant journey and work as equal partners. One of the most affecting moments of Pinocchio for me was when Pinocchio reaches the ocean and begins to wordlessly tie a rock to his tail so that he will sink. He says, “Goodbye, Jiminy,” and Jiminy replies, “Goodbye? I may be live bait down there, but I’m with ya.” The carefree hobo Jiminy who almost ditched Pinocchio after “I Got No Strings” has evolved into a brave committed cricket who will stick it out till the end.

James: I suppose that it’s two protagonists for two different parts of the audience: kids and their parents. Pinocchio is obviously there for the kids to empathise with. He’s trying to have fun, going with what seems like a good idea despite what he’s told by his conscience, and there are always ramifications. He learns at every step, doing things wrong and understanding what he should have done instead. At times the messages are so unsubtle you bruise.  ‘Kids, go to school or you’ll be abducted by actors!’ ‘Kids, don’t lie or you’ll be deformed by a fairy!’, ‘Kids, don’t drink and smoke or you’ll be turned into a donkey!’. Not particularly original lessons, and certainly not done delicately. But it works for the protagonist: he learns. He tries to go to school, he stops lying, and he presumably quits drinking and smoking, although we don’t see how the nicotine withdrawal affects him after the film’s end. The kids at home grow with Pinocchio, face some horrors with him, and hopefully learn a little by the end.

But the parents have a protagonist too. Jiminy Cricket is a new parent, thinking it’ll be easy. All he has to do is tell the kid what’s right, and he’s sorted for life. But it isn’t that easy. Of course it isn’t. The kid doesn’t listen, not because he’s mean or rude, just because he’s a kid. He goes off and does stupid things, despite his guardian’s advice. And then Jiminy even questions his own advice, contemplating that he might have been wrong to stop Pinocchio from going along with the actors. He knows that he’s fallible, he recognises that he might not have all the right answers, but his main concern is always for the boy’s safety, and he’ll look out for him no matter what, live bait or not. Geppetto may be a pretty lousy father (he doesn’t even walk him to school on his first day, when Pinocchio is only a few hours old!), but Jiminy is there through thick and thin, land and sea, and his success as a parent earns him a little gold badge.

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Curiously, the lessons don’t stretch to the antagonists. The Queen in Snow White suffers all the way through her acts of villainy, and is defeated distinctly (and a mite brutally). By comparison, none of the antagonistic figures in Pinocchio get any kind of comeuppance. The victory is only that Pinocchio survives, not that the villain is defeated. Stromboli loses his act, but he will surely go on to further crimes. The whale (evil or not) is still left to persecute other sea creatures, swallow other ships. Honest John gets his money and gets away scott free. The Coachman who runs Pleasure Island continues his business, and the poor boys (one’s called Alexander! Awww!) remain at his mercy, turned into donkeys for sale to salt mines. There’s no happy ending for them; their punishment serves as the cautionary tale to Pinocchio and the kids watching. Hopefully, though, these things are forgotten by the final sequence so that the ending can be unmarred. Maybe it can be tied up in ‘Pinocchio 2: Lampwick’s Revenge’.

Anne: Oh, poor Lampwick. And Alexander. *sniffles*

Before I wrap this entry up, I want to give a shout-out to Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, who wrote the soundtrack music to Pinocchio. Expertly done, and beautifully coordinated with the movements of the characters. I noticed it particularly in the opening scene–Jiminy Cricket’s every jump was underscored, and I especially loved the music under Figaro the cat opening the window. Wonderfully descriptive. The songs are good but there aren’t enough of them–about halfway through, you said, “There aren’t any more songs left!” I find “When You Wish Upon a Star” completely magical–and you commented that it must have been a surprise for the original audiences to discover that a cricket was singing! “Give a Little Whistle” is the original “Tiny Scout” song (that’s from An Affair to Remember) without the aggressively cute children. And “I Got No Strings” is a cheery little ditty that ought to be fun, but in context it’s just incredibly sad, because despite being a fully autonomous puppet, Pinocchio is definitely not free. As W.S. Gilbert put it, “Ah, is not one so tied / a pris’ner still?”

I find the scoring somewhat difficult, but I’m going to give Pinocchio a 9/10 for sheer beauty of animation, attention to detail, and Jiminy Cricket.

James: It does have its narrative flaws – I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of retribution come to the villains – but really it does everything it sets out to do, and does it well. Beautiful, dark and funny, I’m with you on a 9/10.

Anne: And with that, we–and Smitteny Cricket–bid you adieu!

-Anne and James

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Please make Grumpy like me!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Anne: I think what’s particularly interesting about Snow White–especially watching it from 2013–is how much it looks forward. It’s really not quite a stand alone feature as far as satisfying drama and storytelling goes; this is more of a showcase for the animators and storyboard people. Everything that shows up first in Snow White gets expanded and elaborated upon in later features, but the characters become more expressive–especially the heroines–and they figure out how to integrate inventive animation with real plot and character development.

Though I have no real objection to hilariously cute animated critters. How about that adorable turtle, who has a lot of trouble going up and downstairs…

…and who grows up to be a mode of transportation in Mary Poppins?

James: One thing that struck me about the film is how defining it still is for Disney. Snow White with her blue and yellow colour scheme is perhaps the best recognised Disney Princess, and the songs Whistle While You Work and Someday My Prince Will Come are well known even still. The faces in the forest, the helpful woodland creatures, the ‘Ah-ha-ha-ha’ singing, all of which have been used in Shrek, Enchanted, and plenty of other pop culture films and television series since as distinct parodies of Disney. Whether they seem silly or even childish today, one thing is certain from 1937 to 2013: they are definitely, distinctly Disney.

And yes, the turtle is ridiculously adorable. It’s hard to tell whether the film was aimed at girls in particular or at children in general, but either way there is a clear effort to include a lot of humour in it. I’m not sure I know another musical Disney film with this high a joke rate, for extended portions of the film’s run-time. Part of that comes in the structure of the film; Snow White is less a narrative than a sequence of setpieces, and while the beginning and closing segments are presented with some weight, almost all of the material in between is very light, and so the best way to keep the light material enjoyable is just to make it gosh-darned funny.

That said, even through the dramatic moments the dwarfs are humourous. The race through the forest back to Snow White isn’t played for laughs, exactly, but it maintains the slapstick stylings of the dwarfs. I suspect that one of the reasons it seems like a sequence of setpieces is that, until this film, that’s all Disney had made. They’d done shorts, each with a clear intention and resolution after 7 or 8 minutes, with no need to have any characters remember beyond that point. (As I recall, Pinocchio similarly felt like a sequence of small stories. Fantasia of course is nothing but, and then there were a number of package films in the forties, so it might take a while for them to come up with a story that lasts the full duration of a movie).

In this film, from about fifteen minutes in, there’s almost no drama in Snow White’s life. She merrily sweeps with the animals, engages easily with the Dwarfs, and sets herself up a very neat life, until (with about ten minutes to go) she is finally confronted by the Queen. Almost all of the characters in the film are thinly defined, with only a sole notable characteristic (the dwarfs exemplify this) but at least the Queen gets a real dramatic through-line. She sees obstacles and attempts to overcome them. At any given moment you know exactly what her goals are, and what she must do to achieve them. She is the only character with real motivation all the way through, and real character change.

Oh, besides Grumpy. He was so smitten with Snow White, I was rooting for him to get the girl in the end. He’s much more deserving than Pretty Lips who shows up when it’s all over.

Anne: Tee hee. Pretty Lips. But seriously.

I’m glad you brought up the Queen, because I still consider her to be the scariest Disney villain of all time. I think it’s precisely what makes Snow White and her Prince such non-entities that makes the Queen such a terrifying antagonist: lack of definition. I agree with you that she has a journey of sorts, but the only motivation she has is ego, and we don’t know anything about Snow White’s father, or who the Queen was before she was Queen. Even all that text at the beginning doesn’t tell us.

The first time we get any inkling that the Queen is human and not merely this icy embodiment of evil is during her transformation scene. Unlike the later Disney villains who transform themselves into something else–Maleficent, Ursula, Jafar–the Queen’s transformation causes her real, tangible physical pain. All of a sudden we realize that she is in fact willing to go to any lengths to destroy Snow White. It raises a lot of questions for me, actually–how was she planning to change back, for example? Did it occur to her that in her quest for vengeance on the fairest one of all, she would lose her beauty permanently and die an ugly old hag? And that moment when she does finally plunge off the cliff is so haunting, with the vultures giving each other an evil stare as they swoop down to the body, and the only music the sound of rain falling.

It really is a dark statement, the Queen’s death, and a very adult moment in a film that is ostensibly aimed at children. Personally, I remember being scared to death at Disneyworld when I went on the Snow White dark ride with my grandmother, when I was about ten. The main question most people have on exiting the ride is “Where was Snow White?” and it’s true that she doesn’t appear even once in the ten-minute trip through the world of the film. But the idea is that you, the rider, ARE Snow White, experiencing the events of the film as she would have seen them–a technique that only works because, as you pointed out, Snow White floats through the film pretty much effortlessly, with no conflict or drama.

James: The Queen’s transformation is one of the best parts of the film, for sure. It’s a truly horrific sequence, in part due to the terrific animation at that point but also due to the makers’ commitment to the grotesqueness of it. She does go through real pain, and it makes her simultaneously more human and more inhuman. It isn’t putting on a disguise, it’s allowing agony for the sake of ego. A stark message, there. Contrasted with later witches and sorcerers in the Disney canon, for whom (as you said) there is no real pain involved, no inconvenience; essentially the only reason not to use their wicked powers is because they might be stopped by the protagonist. Maybe this is more due to the time this aired, where villains had to suffer for a notion of justice. Maybe it was always Disney’s intention to have that level of brutality for the villains (I recall some horrific moments in Pinocchio, coming next), and it’s been lost over the years. But here is a very stark comparison between being the villain and being the hero; the hero sings, the villain suffers.

The animation is truly gorgeous in that sequence (gorgeous in its grotesque way, of course), but there’s a lot more good animation through the film. The way the characters move is beautiful: the walks, the flow of the clothes, it’s all beautifully done. However, the eyes aren’t always so good. It may seem like a small thing to pick at; after all, it’s only a small part of the face. But the eyes are key. As we all know, they are the window to the soul, and particularly with the Queen and the Prince they often seem unfocused. It’s not something I noticed as a kid, however, but I found it distracting this time around. You also commented that Queen, Prince and Snow don’t have jawlines. Presumably they were considered too unattractive for the three prettiest faces in the kingdom.

Anne: Well, the Queen kiiiiiind of has a jawline, because she’s wearing that hood thing, which helps to define her.

I’m totally with you on how stunning the animation is overall. I’ll just go ahead and point our readers (whoever they may be!) to one of my favorite Vanity Fair articles ever, about the women who were responsible for inking the earliest Disney films. The amount of painstaking work and attention to detail that was required to create films like Snow White and its immediate followers is mind-boggling to me, and that kind of craftsmanship elevates the film in my estimation.

You asked me last night, as Snow White started singing into the well, what I thought of her voice. Snow White is famous–or rather, infamous–for having a high irritating voice with a bleaty vibrato. But I suspect that movie-goers in the 1930s would not have heard it that way, so I’m willing to cut Adriana Caselotti some slack. The Prince has a beautiful voice, and the dwarfs are wonderfully baritonal. I was impressed while watching the film last night that the dwarfs all have voices in a similar range with a similar timbre, and yet each one is distinct and unique. Bravi to those voice actors!

This is also the era in which the songs in Disney movies were written to be marketable outside the context of the film. I can’t decide whether this makes them more memorable or more easily forgotten, or possibly some combination thereof! Of course “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Heigh Ho” are the most iconic songs in the film, but there are others that I just kind of knew without recalling that they came from Snow White, like “One Song” and “With a Smile and a Song.” (You suggested last night that the wishing well song had been forgotten, but I’ve been to Disneyland in the last few years, and there is a pond/wishing well set-up in the Magic Kingdom that plays “I’m Wishing” on repeat.) I also can’t help but love the song that the dwarfs sing for Snow White; it’s so charmingly animated and sung.

James: It is very enjoyable music, on the whole. But it’s also a testament to the film that these songs are not only known as Snow White songs but as quintessential Disney tracks. This film truly put Disney on the map, and its impact is still being felt to this day, overtly and subtly, through everything Disney does and is known for.

I give it 7/10. The story and drama is lacking, but the heart is there, and the animation is beautiful (eyes excepted- I mean, look at that picture of the Queen! She’s clearly a bit sozzled.).

Anne: Sozzled on POWER. Obviously.

I think I’ll give Snow White a 7.5/10 for being so unexpectedly entertaining, all flaws aside. Also for the scene where Snow White prays, which I forgot to mention earlier but which struck both of us as very gutsy. Way to not shy away from religion, Uncle Walt.

Before we end our first post, a question to ponder. Is Snow White actually a kids’ movie?



We beg to differ.

And on that note, on to Pinocchio!

-Anne and James

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It starts.

SCENE: The outskirts of an African jungle. Anne looks up from the lake as the wind picks up. The clouds above her shift steadily, magically, into the form of a middle-aged man in a suit. A booming voice calls out; ‘Anne…’

Anne: Walt Disney?

Disney: Anne, you have forgotten me.

Anne: No. How could I?

Disney: You have forgotten my films, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Anne. My films live in you. You must take your place in the Blogosphere of Life.

Anne: How can I blog about your films? There’s too many of them! And Home on the Range sucks!

Disney: Remember who I am…

Anne: You’re coming across very egotistical, you know that?

Disney: Remember…

James: Asante sana, Squash banana. We we nugu, mi mi apana.

And so it was that two intrepid Disney fans—Anne and James—decided to embark on a whirlwind journey through all of the major Disney feature films.

Well,  okay.  It didn’t go quite like that.  We just wanted to grab your attention right away so that you’d keep reading.  Here’s what really happened.

Anne and James just spent two wonderful weeks together at the Buxton International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (“The Nerdiest—or MOST AWESOME—Place on Earth”).  Their respective homes are lamentably separated by the Atlantic Ocean and slightly less than half of the United States, so they came up with a plan (see above) to while away the time until November, when with any luck they will be reunited.

In costume!

Out of costume!

Before we plunge into the substance of our mission (Tuesday night: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), perhaps you would like to know a bit about who we are. Or you wouldn’t.  That’s okay.  We’re going to tell you anyway.  Those of you who aren’t interested may allow your minds to wander.

James.  25.  Lincolnshirian.  Writer-to-be. Anglo. Bookworm. Doctor Who enthusiast, despite.

Favourite Classic Disney: The Sword in the Stone

Favourite More Recent Disney: Aladdin

Fun Fact: In 2000 James sang his first big solo on stage: “The Circle of Life” in the county Scout/Guide Gangshow. The piece was originally intended as a chorus item, but the chorus were tired and James had a big gob.

Anne.  25.  Adopted Chicagoan.  Opera singer.  Anglophile.  Bookworm.  Doctor Who tolerator and supporter.

Favorite Classic Disney:  Cinderella, Mary Poppins

Favorite More Recent Disney: Beauty and the Beast

Fun Fact: One Halloween in high school, Anne tried to rope two of her male friends into doing a joint costume with her:  Miss Bianca, Bernard, and Jake the Kangaroo Rat.  The only part of this plan that came to fruition was Anne wearing mouse ears all day and having to explain them to everyone.

And that’s us!  Despite our flippant tone we are really excited to be starting this project, and we hope that you’ll follow along!

-Anne and James

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