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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They can’t order me to stop dreaming.

Cinderella (1950)

James: We made it! We’re out of the obscure ones, at last! Swinging back in full force to a Disney classic with the second Disney Princess, and she’s a goodun. While she doesn’t get a tremendous amount of character development (or involvement with the plot), she is a strong, kind woman who works hard for those around her, even for those who don’t appreciate it. She has a stronger starting personality than any Disney feature protagonist yet, and while she’s not entirely relatable (how many kids in the audience would really have been their family’s slave to this extent?) she is very sympathetic due to what she goes through and how she responds. It really feels like she deserves her happy ending.

With the return to the feature films comes my return to dissecting the narrative. Sorry about that. Still, it may still be early days but the film is already feeling less segmented than the company’s previous efforts. Yes, there are still set-pieces, but more than before they’re incorporated into the narrative. It helps that the protagonist’s plight and the villain are established at the start, even if it takes them a while to be explored (and even if it takes 25 minutes to get to the main plot). Even the long ‘the mice get breakfast’ scene helps to establish the characters of the mice for later in the film, and their antagonistic relationship with the cat (subtly named Lucifer). I wouldn’t have minded the sequence being a bit shorter, and some more time given to making the Prince a real person… but at least it’s fun, and original to Disney at this point.

'This is our cat, Lucifer. And this is our pet rabbit, Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.'

‘This is our cat, Lucifer. And this is our pet rabbit, Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.’

It’s actually a very curious narrative, given that the supposed protagonist doesn’t really do that much in the plot. The most active thing she does is tell her stepmother that she has a right to go to the ball; after that, the story is dictated by the actions of the stepmother, the Fairy Godmother, the Duke and the mice. The entire climax is a battle not between Cinders and the Stepmother but between the mice and Lucifer. It’s a good thing their antagony is so well set up earlier in the film, because the cat makes sense not just as the Stepmother’s ally (and therefore Cinderella’s enemy) but as the mice’s enemy as well.

Lucifer! Have you been tormenting the souls of mankind and luring them into horrific and shameful acts again? Bad devil. Bad, bad devil.

Lucifer! Have you been tormenting the souls of mankind and luring them into horrific and shameful acts so they may be recruited to your eternal war against God again? Bad devil. Bad, bad devil.

Mice’s enemy? That sounds like bad grammar, but I have no idea what it should be. Anne?

Anne: Maybe scrap that construction and say “enemy of the mice”?

I LOVE Cinderella, so I could very easily just gush about it for half a blog post. I think maybe I wanted to be her when I was little, and even this time through I was thinking, man, she is SO graceful. She was graceful under pressure, she even scrubbed the floor in a graceful way. And I didn’t care about the glass slippers–I was all about those big wooden shoes she put on over her teeny-tiny regular shoes to go feed the animals. I used to make my mom pretend to be the fairy godmother while I wept into my arms, shoulders heaving, pretending that I was wearing that terrible ripped up dress.

She’s even graceful when they’re tearing her dress apart, poor thing. Okay, maybe she’s not the spunkiest heroine in the world, but let’s be real–we won’t reaaaaaally get a spunky heroine until the 1990s. But she’s REAL. I think that’s what I like so, so much about this movie–the heroine and the villain both feel very human. Cinderella has her moments of being so sweet it makes your teeth hurt. James asked while we were watching why all of the animals liked her, and I said, because she’s NICE to them. She doesn’t try to trap them, or eat them like Lucifer, she makes them cunning little clothes (I’m sorry, how cute are those clothes?).

I don’t think you’re giving kids enough credit for imagination–of course most of the people watching this movie have never been slaves to their wicked stepmothers. There would never be movies if we could only relate to characters in our exact circumstances, and life would be so boring. But I do think that the people behind the scenes on Cinderella did a really good job of fleshing out their heroine, if not in character development, then in human details. It’s in her best interest to be good, but she has her lapses like anyone. Cinderella loses her temper and almost whacks Lucifer with a broom. She gets to have a wink-wink moment with the mice about interrupting the, er, music lesson. *smirk* She’s a little vain about how pretty she is and how well she sings!

I love the moment when she realizes that she can’t go to the ball, and she tries not to let herself betray her disappointment: “Oh well, what’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and…boring, and completely…completely wonderful.” Haven’t we all had a moment like that? And when her fairy godmother (about whom I suspect more will be said later) is magicking everything in sight, we can see and feel Cinderella’s impatience and nervousness–what if she forgets about the dress? The gloriously magical animation of the dress transformation is made even more marvelous by the fact that the fairy godmother came perilously close to forgetting to do it.

I read once that that was Walt Disney’s favorite bit of animation in any of his movies–and I agree with him. It’s breathtaking.

I don’t find the stepsisters especially interesting, and actually, I think it’s pretty clear that the animators didn’t either–they don’t have much definition (I’m sorry, Disney, but even ugly stepsisters have breasts!), and their movement is much less realistic than that of both Cinderella and Lady Tremaine, who is probably the most intricately drawn of all of the human characters. I think the wicked stepmother is a particularly insidious villain and, like Cinderella, she’s effective because she’s a real person. Granted, she’s not very well-rounded–her main character trait is EVIL. She doesn’t seem to be especially nice to her own “awkward daughters”, and she is evil for no reason to poor Cinderella. But she’s not a witch, or a sorceress or a fairy–she’s a human being with no magic at her disposal, which makes her even scarier to my mind. It’s frightening to contemplate a human being who is straight up evil, without being some kind of wicked witch, which is easier to understand, I think.

Honestly, the most overtly wicked thing she does is lock Cinderella into her room when the Duke arrives with the glass slipper. But that is one terrifying sequence, with the slow boil up the stairs, and the sloooooooow opening of the door and the mice trying to get Cinderella to notice what’s happening–and the classic murderer in the mirror image.

James: Oh, the Stepmother. She is a fab villain, and not just because she is so delightfully evil. She and the stepsisters are all about equally evil, taking such pleasure in Cinders’ misery. What sets her out as the villain is her subtlety, her trickery. It’s obvious to the audience that she’s evil, but Cinderella is so under her thumb that she can’t tell. She smiles when she talks to Cinderella, using kind words to suggest that she’s on her side, but with delightful malevolence underneath. Cinderella’s first realisation that she’s not on her side is in the above scene where she locks Cinderella in her room, the first time she’s directly mistreated her as opposed to working through the stepsisters and her matriarchal authority. She’s a villain Cinderella never sees coming, yet the audience has been terrified of her from the start. It’s a harsh moment, and it cuts you in two to see Cinderella seem to lose to the villain in such a manner.

And yet, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more from her. She does only take matters into her own hands occasionally, and there are so many characters in the film it’s small wonder she (and the title character herself) get comparatively little screentime. The big climax comes between the cat and the mice, and all the stepmother can do is trip up the Duke to try and scotch the narrative. (I’m quite interested in seeing Cinderella 3, which involves the Stepmother traveling back in time and succeeding in her plan; already she sounds more proactive than she is in the original). The moving animation is very simplistic in its design; while the backgrounds are ornately created, the figures in front are some of the simplest yet. Each figure is three or four colours for the most part, with no shading or texture added. The pallette is very basic, leading to some cute but very cartoony images. However, the simpler design is a worthy sacrifice for the beautiful motion of the characters. I found myself captured by the mere movement of Cinderella’s dresses, the way they flicked out, or billowed when she danced. It reminded me of the movement of the ‘Two Silhouettes’ in Make Mine Music, except of course that was actually two people dancing with animation added over the top, so I have absolutely no idea how they made the animation here move so naturally and beautifully.

As you say, the stepsisters move much more crudely, perhaps deliberately or perhaps just because the animators took less care with them. Either way, it works well, because it helps to make the lead and the Stepmother look that much more graceful. Simplistic though the designs may be, I’m going to believe it’s a deliberate stylistic choice, because this movie still looks gorgeous, and that can’t be an accident.

Anne: I’m not convinced that the animation in Cinderella is any more simplistic than any other Disney movie. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a Disney character who is truly TEXTURED. Even the animals in Bambi are comprised of one or two colors, with the impression of fur (like the mice); ditto the cast of The Lion King. But if it was a conscious decision to simplify the figures, I agree with you that it was a positive change if it made it easier to give the character such realistic ranges of movement.

I was actually going to ask you not to talk too much about the mice because I wanted to talk about the mice, but I forgot. Good thing you didn’t really talk about the mice!

SO. The mice.

What I love about Cinderella (apart from, well, pretty much everything) is that we see the house from two different perspectives: human and mouse. We see the whole room–as in, say, the music lesson scene–and then we see a close-up of the molding near the floor where there is a little round door that opens, and the mice enter through there. Every time a human character goes up the stairs, the animation pans upwards on the wall, showing us how Jacques and Gus-Gus are going to get upstairs. When Lady Tremaine is guarding the key to Cinderella’s room, we see her pat her pocket as if to check that it’s still there…and then we see Jacques in her pocket, trying to get the key out and being knocked around. I think it’s a brilliant way to visually flesh out a very familiar narrative, and to give the mice more to do than just being horses. Plus, Cinderella is working all the time, and that doesn’t make for much of an entertainment, so the mice give some much needed levity.

Also, I think–mind, I say I think–that “Cinderelly” is one of the first songs in a Disney movie that can’t be removed from its film and turned into a pop standard (not that so many of them really did, but there’s a lot of generic music in pre-Cinderella Disney movies). It’s a fore-runner to the later films that are structured more like a movie musical than an animated film that happens to have music. I love that sequence; I think the creativity of the animators really shines through here. You can hear them thinking, okay, if a bunch of mice and birds need to sew a dress, but individually are too small to manage any of the fabric or tools, what would that look like?

I also love the way the mice scat their way through “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” because awwwwww!

We also haven’t spent much time discussing the charmingly absent-minded Fairy Godmother, voiced by Verna Felton (previously heard as a gossipy elephant in Dumbo).

“Why, you must be–”
“Your Fairy Godmother? Why, of course!”

Well, OBVIOUSLY. She turns up out of the blue just when Cinderella thinks there isn’t anything left to believe in, and her appearance proves to everyone–the characters and the audience–that even when things seem really dire, there is hope. To be honest, I think I prefer “Impossible” to “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” as a song for the Fairy Godmother, but then, the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a much younger, chic-er model than this one. That said, I still find the “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” sequence completely magical and just so much fun. I smiled through the whole thing.

James: “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” is a great song, perhaps the most enjoyable in the feature. It’s just so alive, musically and lyrically, that it’s impossible not to get caught up in it. The Fairy Godmother is another character with an odd place in the film; for such a vital character to the story, she is only in the film for a little over five minutes. Again, I’d like to see more of her character, which is strong but regrettably unfounded. I do enjoy the detail given to the mouse world, but I wish that it hadn’t taken up the runtime in favour of more work on the main characters like the Fairy Godmother. There’s no buildup to her arrival, no fallout from her actions, she just moves the plot to where it needs to be. Still, she does it with panache, and her time on screen is certainly not wasted.

The music is mostly very good, although it starts with a highly uninspired title song. While not quite as daft and bland as the previous year’s ‘Ichabod and Mister Toad’ opening number, ‘Cinderella’ is still a nothing of a song. It does little more than pass the time until the film actually starts, and we get the far more enjoyable (if even less specific) ‘A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes’. As with other ‘pop standard contenders’, it could lift right out of the film without doing any harm to the song or the plot. But it is lovely, and the act of getting ready (with the help of the animals) is delightful. I also am a big fan of the mice singing; it’s delightful and is a welcome expression of character. When I think back to how many Disney protagonists to date have been non-speaking characters, the fact that it’s easier to connect with mouse extras in a three minute song than with Dumbo or Bongo in most of their pictures. A little speaking or singing goes a long, long way.

Look down, look down, don’t look ’em in the eye… Oh, wait, that’s the other Work Song.

‘So This Is Love’ is a pretty forgettable song, if rather pleasant. The notable thing about it is that it is not sung by the characters but over the characters, as their thoughts (one presumes). This makes it essentially a sung piece of incidental music, but it helps to establish how they feel each other and how, even without saying it out loud, they have a connection. The Prince may be a non-character in the piece, but at least the song confirms that, whoever he is, he is right for Cinderella.

Anne: While we’re talking about the music, I was very impressed by the underscoring/orchestral score for this movie. The scoring syncs up so beautifully with the animation that I’m just not sure which came first.

A little off-topic just for a moment. With James’s permission, I would like to make it known that in the previous section where it says “if even less specific” with regard to “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” it originally said “if even less relevant.”

Them’s fightin’ words.

Now, I might be biased. Okay, I’m totally biased. I sing this song in the shower. I love it, and I love Ilene Woods’ voice, and I think it is the perfect song to open the movie. Cinderella is a dreamer and a believer in her dreams, even in adversity. The strength of her dreams and her faith in the possibility of their coming true is what summons her fairy godmother, and it’s what keeps her from utterly losing her cool as she slaves for her stepmother and stepsisters. In my opinion, it couldn’t be more relevant.

But we discussed it (and a little glimpse into our process–we mostly don’t talk about what we’re writing, we just read what the other has written and decide how to respond and what to go into next), and we came to the conclusion that while the song is definitely relevant to Cinderella, it is also relevant to Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, Beauty and the Beast…you get the idea. Hence the replacement of the word “relevant” with the word “specific.” “A Dream Is a Wish” is not Cinderella-specific–it could very well be the theme song of almost any Disney princess movie (to say nothing of Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame!). Even if I can’t imagine anybody but Cinderella singing the song, I can grant that point.

And I realized over the course of that discussion that we hadn’t really brought up “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” yet.




(I’d have liked to post it with the animation, but I couldn’t embed it, so here’s a link!)

Confession time: a few summers ago I watched a bunch of Disney movies over again, and when I watched Cinderella, I actually pulled out a pad of staff paper and transcribed “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” with all three vocal parts. What made me think of it while we were discussing “A Dream Is a Wish” is that “Nightingale” has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the movie–it is, in fact, not relevant. BUT what it does is show even more contrast between the gawky stepsisters (that fabulously awful music lesson that even Lucifer doesn’t want to listen to) and the lovely Cinderella. Did we need that comparison to be hammered home even more? Not necessarily. But to me this is one of the most beautiful parts of this movie, and it’s one of the things that makes Cinderella special. Its departure from the realism of the rest of the film’s design reminds me a little of the psychedelic stuff during the spell-casting scene in Sleeping Beauty, except that “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” is integrated much more seamlessly.

Did I mention I wanted to be Cinderella when I was a little girl? It’s possible that hasn’t changed that much, and I’ll bet without trying too hard I could find two other women who wanted to be Cinderella when they were little so that we could perform “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” together. (This is the point where I remember Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter and think about all of the people I know who dressed up as Disney princesses for Halloween or obsessed about Jasmine or Belle or Ariel, and still grew up to be fascinating, intelligent, independent women. Anyway, moving on.)

James: I think that’s about all I have to say about the film. It’s certainly the easiest to enjoy since Bambi (possibly since Pinocchio), although it’s definitely got its flaws. It hints at important characters rather than exploring them, and I wouldn’t mind a few more decent songs. Still, the animation is captivating and the main characters are more grounded than any to date (and consequently we feel for Cinderella more than for any previous protagonist). When I mentioned my reservations about the film to Anne, she said it was fine if I wanted to be the bad cop, so here it is: 7.5/10. Over to you, Good Cop.

Anne: Yay! I’m Good Cop! 9.5/10, because I love everything about this movie except that I wish that instead of spending so much time on the King and the Duke, they had expanded the character of the prince, who has a beautiful singing voice, but otherwise is pretty nondescript (though a step up from Pretty Lips of Snow White fame). It was going to be a 9/10, but I gave it an extra half point for nostalgia.

Next up, Alice in Wonderland. If James thought that “A Dream Is a Wish” was irrelevant and non-specific, I can’t wait to see what he makes of “Golden Afternoon”!

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We’re merrily on our way to nowhere in particular!

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Anne: The first thing we remarked on when we started watching Ichabod and Mr. Toad was how awful the theme song was.

I mean, really bad.


Not only does it say nothing but “Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” which are pretty much two unrelated short films, but because it says nothing but “Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” you could never use it out of context, like “Love Is a Song” or the “Fun and Fancy Free” opening song. (James, I think there was a song in one of the last few movies that you said you’d like to sing…but I can’t remember what it was!) Anyway, it was an idiotic song that happily in no way influenced my opinion of this movie.

First of all, the Disney studios have clearly by now earned some money. Watching “Mr. Toad” I was suddenly aware of what I had been missing–animated figures with character, individuality, defined facial features, and unique ranges of movement. Not to mention they managed to hire some really big guns to narrate–Basil Rathbone for “Mr. Toad” and Bing Crosby for “Ichabod Crane.” Not that Roy Rogers, Nelson Eddy and the Andrews Sisters weren’t big enough stars, but I suspect that Rathbone and especially Crosby had more widespread appeal.

I’d never seen the Mr. Toad segment before, but I did go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyworld, and I think it’s a testament to the film that it has a place of prominence in the theme park. It doesn’t feel remotely dated to me–the animation is inventive, the narration perfectly read by Sherlock Holmes, the characters distinctive and memorable, and the story a true classic. Maybe it just takes an Englishman, or a few–we checked IMDB and the whole cast had the good fortune to be English.

Except poor old Angus MacBadger, Toad’s long-suffering accountant, who is a Scotsman (Scotsbadger?) voiced by an American animator. I guess we can’t all be so lucky.

Och, laddies!

Och, laddies, my accent is nae good!

The story initially seems to be set in the animal world–though more anthropomorphized than Bambi or Dumbo. Thadeus Toad has two best friends who are not granted first names (though I’m sure that’s Kenneth Grahame’s fault and not Disney’s!), the Water Rat and the Mole, plus Mr. MacBadger. All animals wearing natty little suits and hats and spats.

The Water Rat looks a bit like Sherlock Holmes, actually.

The Water Rat looks a bit like Sherlock Holmes, actually.

The primary antagonists seem to be a pack of weasels–also wearing suits–but the barman who frames Toad for stealing a car is human, as are the judge, jury and lawyers at Toad’s trial. Toad lives in a human-sized house with human-sized furniture and drives a human-sized carriage (James: “That’s a lot of carriage for a toad!”). It feels a little unusual among Disney films, most of which set pretty solid boundaries between animal world and human world; there are certainly exceptions (The Little Mermaid comes to mind), but this film clearly creates a world in which some people are just animals, and that’s cool with everybody.

James: I can’t remember which opening song appealed to me the most, but they’ve all been pleasant if essentially redundant to the narrative. This is the first that actively distracts from the piece, as it just serves to remind that Ichabod and Mr Toad have absolutely no connection besides both being fictional, and really have no place in the same feature. Still, here they are.

I’ve definitely seen the Mr Toad segment before, and I’ve also seen a few other adaptations of The Wind in the Willows, but it’s the first time I’ve really paid attention to this version. And, well, it’s fabulous. The characters are fun and lively, the set pieces are imaginative and well crafted, and the animation is lovely. And my evidence for all three: Cyril Proudbottom.

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Lor’ luvaduck, yes.

Cyril is my favourite character in the piece, played with aplomb by born and bred Lancastrian J. Pat O’Malley. The accent and the cheeky grin emulated George Formby at his most boisterous, and you can’t say that of most Disney characters. A unique and delightful addition to the story (in most the horse is non-speaking and disappears from the plot once Toad gets his motorcar). The other characters are generally fun and distinct, with the firm Ratty, the nervous Moley and of course the manic Mr Toad. The weakest character is Angus MacBadger, who doesn’t have a tremendous amount of personality beyond fretting about Toad’s money (is that his job? Or is he just a friend with financial expertise who is concerned for Toad?). MacBadger also has the weakest performance, by a man who is not only not Scottish, but not even an actor! Campbell Grant was a writer and animator for Disney right back from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it isn’t clear why he suddenly took to voice acting in this film alone. Angus MacBadger’s sole consistent characteristic might be that he’s Scottish (can you tell by the name?), but any time he talks he undermines that. Perhaps they should have just made him another Englishanimal, or maybe *gasp!* an Americanimal. Or, better yet, got a Scotsman to play the role.

The combination of animals and humans is an odd one, since the animals remain animal sized, as opposed to human sized. Consequently it seems rather strange when a troop of human adult police officers can’t capture a single toad with a ball and chain. It’s also strange to see animals in the witness box of a human court, facing the same justice as humans. However, this is the sort of discrepancy that I never noticed as a kid, and since I never complain about the Muppets mixing humans with animals, I suppose I should just let it go.

But either that's a very large mole or a very small man.

But either that’s a very large mole or a very small man.

I could also complain about the flawed plot (finding the deed surely doesn’t prove he did trade the Hall for the motorcar, and even if it did it wouldn’t return it to his possession, surely?), but such grumbles are largely irrelevant. This segment is a delight from start to finish, fun characters and ideas brought to life extremely well. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand….

Anne: Oh, I didn’t think it was so bad. The problem with this story is that there isn’t really much of a story to tell. It’s mostly about character and atmosphere, which is fine, but compared to the forward momentum of Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow feels pretty slow. The first twenty minutes or so feel like a set-up for the final sequence, and maybe that’s why the Headless Horseman chasing Ichabod through the woods feels so scary.

There’s a pretty exquisite build-up just before we see the Headless Horseman for the first time (this is after a few minutes of Ichabod riding through the forest, jumping at every sound and movement).

First is the moment when Ichabod realizes that his horse’s hooves are not the ones making the hoof beats he’s hearing.

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Then he realizes that the pussy willows (is that what those are? surely those don’t make that much noise) are the source of the noise, and he and his horse both collapse in relieved laughter.

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Then all of a sudden there’s a lull in the laughter and we hear a completely different–and utterly bone-chilling–laugh.

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IT’S REAL! IT’S ALL REAL!

And what makes the Headless Horseman particularly terrifying, and the scene particularly nervewracking, is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to defeat him or get away from him–it’s the stuff of nightmares. As the song said, “You can’t reason with a headless man.”

That said, the rest of the segment was pretty underwhelming. I had no problem with listening to the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby for half an hour, but I think the late-1940s pop soundtrack really dates the whole thing. Whereas part of the reason Mr. Toad felt so sparklingly timeless to me was because Basil Rathbone’s voice doesn’t belong to specific era, and the music more closely resembled that of Pinocchio or Snow White than that of the previous package films where popular music was animated. I thought the most inventive use of the music was when Ichabod conducted the ladies’ choral society, and instead of music that might have actually existed when the story took place, Ichabod sang in a Bing Crosby croon, and the ladies were his Andrews Sisters-esque back-up group. I liked the incongruity of that.

The Headless Horseman song is also excellent, though to my ear not quite forceful enough–but it’s Bing Crosby, so we weren’t going to get “Kill the Beast” or anything.



It also seemed to come out of nowhere, I thought. They spent twenty minutes establishing Ichabod Crane as our sorta-kinda-maybe hero (it occurs to me that he’s set up to be the protagonist but is animated like a supporting player), but it didn’t come up that he was a highly superstitious and nervous man until Brom Bones, Ichabod’s rival for the love of Katrina van Tassel, decides to spook the guy out by singing about a local legend. The whole thing might have hung together more neatly if it had been planted from the start that Ichabod was a huge believer in ghost stories.

No one spooks like Gaston!

No one spooks like Gaston!

James: It certainly wasn’t a terrible segment. There are a lot of things to enjoy about it (I in particular liked the slightly stylised animation; not enough to stop it being Disney, but enough to make it distinct). I just grew weary of waiting for the ghost to arrive, with 20 minutes of unsympathetic characters.

I have a theory about how an audience engages with series: You can engage with something intellectually or emotionally. The best entertainment will do both, stretching your mind with the plot while pulling you in with a relatable character. A good sitcom will engage you intellectually with its jokes and engage you emotionally with relatable characters. Something like Game of Thrones really engages me intellectually through its complex world and characters… but those same characters prevent me getting too emotionally engaged (apart from… well, no spoilers, but yeah). You can emotionally engage with a protagonist either by them being relatable, or by them suffering (which is why many horror movies can have thin protagonists; no matter what happens, you’re on their side by virtue of them being attacked). A good movie will engage you in at least one of these ways (ideally both, but one will do fine).

So the thing about this adaptation of Sleepy Hollow… it didn’t do either for me. For the most part. The characters are all interesting, and are all surprisingly more morally complex than most Disney characters, to the point where I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be rooting for Ichabod or Brom. Ichabod is certainly not designed as a traditional hero, and he wants to seduce Katrina as much for her money as for her looks (no sign of a personality, though). Brom is another brute, but is more amiable and bumbling than most villains, and although reminding both of us of Gaston he is really no more cocky and preening than, say, Aladdin. Although we have another protagonist/MPDG/brute triangle (as seen in Bambi and Bongo already), there isn’t a clear hero out of the two. This is probably as much out of necessity as out of choice, since the final twist (which ‘kills’ Ichabod and marries Brom off to Katrina) mustn’t seem like the hero losing outright – it’s still a Disney film! Still, it’s an interesting character lineup.

The problem with the characters being so morally undefined is that it makes it harder to emotionally engage with them. The first twenty minutes relies on these characters and their antics as Ichabod and Brom court the fair Katrina, but without a clear protagonist it’s impossible to become emotionally invested in the fight. In fact, as Brom is on the losing end of most of the encounters it’s almost easier to root for Brom, despite being the brute. The story is well trod, and so it becomes difficult to get intellectually engaged either, which means that the first 20 minutes feels like little more than padding. The first time we really get emotionally engaged is when Ichabod is unquestionably the victim…

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And then, man. We’re on his side, as he runs from the terrifying Headless Horseman. And, yes, he is terrifying. It’s a real pity he’s only in the last four minutes, as he’s beautifully constructed; he looks fairly realistic, and yet interacts perfectly with the more cartoony Ichabod.

No caption would make sense here.

No caption would make sense here.

It’s a fabulous sequence, which manages to remain lively and fun while still being very intense. It’s genuinely unsettling, and is made all the more so by the bleak ending. Admittedly, it offers the possibility that he lived happily ever after… but that’s not the final message. The final message is that the Horseman is out there, and he will kill. Even if you’re the protagonist. That’s a pretty cool final beat for a Disney movie, even if it’s not totally deserved.

I made a gif! Did it work?

I made a gif! Did it work?

Over all, though, this segment just doesn’t work. Maybe it would be more entertaining if there was more of the Headless Horseman, but that might make it too dark. A good effort with some nice elements, but too long spent with unsympathetic characters doing mundane things.

It’s hard to score a piece like this with two such different halves. It almost feels wrong to give it one score between them… but I’m a stickler for statistics, so I will. 5/10, probably averaging from 7/10 for the first half and 3/10 for the second. It’s certainly not one I’d go back to in its entirety. I’ll rewatch Mr. Toad, but the Headless Horseman can take Ichabod.

Anne: I also wanted to point out, before I score the movie, that we noticed a surprising number of visual similarities between Sleepy Hollow and Beauty and the Beast. According to IMDB, Brom Bones was actually the model for Gaston when it came time to animate him. The final sequence reminded us forcibly of Maurice and then Belle wandering through the woods (James: “All it needs are some wolves!”), and in the very beginning, as Ichabod was walking through Sleepy Hollow, my brain said, “BONJOUR!”

(Keeping this gif in mind for months from now when we get around to Beauty and the Beast…)

I’m going to give the whole thing a 6 out of 10. I loved Mr. Toad in its entirety, and while I didn’t particularly enjoy most of Ichabod, I thought the last sequence alone was enough to score it a bit higher than you did (and I loved the Headless Horseman song).

Guess what’s next? Glass slipper, vapid prince, “Sing, Sweet Nightingale”–the whole enchilada.

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Maybe it’s best to sashay into it kinda gentle-like.

Melody Time (1948)

James: Well. This one did not get off to a good start.

We’re onto our fifth package film (sixth if you include Fantasia), and it really does feel like they’re running out of ideas. Almost every segment feels like a pale imitation of a previous effort, and occasionally even the animation feels well below Disney’s par. Melody Time was released in 1948, and was intended as another ‘contemporary Fantasia‘, like Make Mine Music. Unlike Make Mine Music (in its original release, anyway), Melody Time begins with a complete dud. Once Upon A Wintertime is not a good way to open a movie. Perhaps they could have smuggled it away in the middle of the film and it wouldn’t have been such an egregious element of the picture, although that wouldn’t have changed how cheap the whole piece looks. I know it could be stylistic, but these just don’t look like Disney characters. I mean, look at these. Are these bunnies?

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They just don’t look right. Nor do the horses, or the people or the backdrops. Different styles of animation are all well and good, and it perhaps wouldn’t have seemed so out of place if it had taken place later in the piece, after the more typical, more attractive Disney animation had been demonstrated (and there is much better animation coming up), but as an opening gambit it’s underwhelming. The story isn’t much cop either; while it has some cute moments (the carving the hearts in the ice and subsequent scratching through of them were a nice touch), the characters (man and woman, male rabbit and female rabbit) are blandly in love, blandly fall out, and then somehow wind up on shards of ice crashing down the river towards the waterfall. Pretty much out of nowhere. And then, because the woman faints (for no reason besides being highly wrought?), she has to be saved by the man and the male rabbit and the animals. The men are heroes, and the women fawn over them again.

I am but a  girl, and so, when l am highly wrought, I  faint.

I am but a girl, and so, when l am highly wrought, I faint.

The piece concludes with a largely unearned happy ending, and I’m 8 minutes older than when it started. The whole story seems unoriginal and unmotivated. Even the title, Once Upon A Wintertime, is uninspired and generic! What do you think, Anne? Was this a big misfire, or am I being unduly harsh to a cute segment about love in the winter?

Anne: No, it was pretty bad. You know what would have made it better? If she had been but a girl and hurled defiance instead of fainting. Also if she had had a nose. Even the highly-stylized hep cats in “All the Cats Join In” from Make Mine Music had more definition.

"I say I say I say, this lady's got no nose!" "How does she smell?" "Terrible!!"

“I say I say I say, this lady’s got no nose!”
“How does she smell?”
“Terrible!!”

But it did get better after that, kind of. There was the short, sweet and inventive “Bumble Boogie.”

The music is a jazz re-imagining of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and the animation matched it beautifully. I’m always so impressed when the animators really listen to the music and sync the visuals to its contours. In this segment, the poor little bumblebee is tossed all over the place by natural elements that become musical instruments, or vice versa–flower petals that appear to be made out of piano keys, other flowers that blow sound like trumpets, and my favorite, a piano-key caterpillar.

One side of the mushroom will make you grow taller...oh wait.

One side of the mushroom will make you grow taller…oh wait.

Anyway, “Bumble Boogie” was colorful, appealing, and interesting to watch. I never knew where the animators were going to take me next, and the surprise of every moment was refreshing after the totally predictable “Once Upon a Wintertime” (for the record, I totally called that the bunny–if we can even call it that, was the person who animated Thumper not available?–was going to stick the “thin ice” sign into the thin ice and break it).

The third segment was “Johnny Appleseed,” which I found fascinating–and a little alienating–in that it didn’t shy away from Christian sentiment. To be fair, the real Johnny Appleseed–John Chapman (1774-1845)–was a missionary as well as a farmer and apple-tree enthusiast, and the story is almost entirely about faith. Faith that Johnny could make it as a pioneer, faith in the apple trees growing even if he wasn’t there to see it, faith in the guardian angel. But we both found it a little jarring that the first words out of Johnny’s mouth were “Oh, the Lord is good to me.”

For some reason this song feels very familiar to me, even though I’m sure I’d never seen Melody Time before. Hmmm.

James: The whole piece felt familiar to me. The early American setting (borne out in the costumes and even the music) put Pocahontas to my mind, with the same pioneering spirit and spiritual ideals behind it. As for the animation, what an improvement on the opening piece! So much character in the faces, in the motions, it’s just very enjoyable to watch. They’ve still evidently saved money in places, particularly the slightly static backdrops, but it doesn’t matter when what’s going on in front is so lovely. 

The characters are bright and lively, particularly the delighftully unorthodox angel, a singing, redheaded, moustachioed, coonskin-hatted, Elmer Fudd-accented hillbilly with a penchant for apples. He might be my favourite one-off Disney character, someone who not only serves an important part of the story but does so brightly and originally. Johnny is a pleasant enough character, and the animals show signs of personality, but it’s the angel who steals the short.

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There’s a few minutes of dead weight in the middle of the story, unfortunately, as several colourful but noticeably irrelevant characters enjoy apples. It’s nice, but ultimately a waste of time in Johnny’s story. The conclusion is predictable but lovely, as Johnny is sad to have died when there are still more work to be done on Earth, but is persuaded to lea ve when the angel tells him that heaven is short on – you guessed it – apple trees. All in all, a great segment.

If only the whole film could have been that much fun, and that original. The following short, ‘Little Toot’, feels kind of half thought. The tale of the little tug-boat that could, in theory a cute story (sung by the Andrews Sisters) and yet with some surprisingly dark images; a ship Little Toot ran aground (into several buildings), Little Toot’s father being being relegated to a garbage ship, and Little Toot being escorted past the 12 mile limit by police boats, exiled from home forever. And the Andrews Sisters singing ‘Try, try, try! Do or die! Do or die!’ lead to a curious ambiguity to the tone of the piece. Plus, it’s hard to get a handle on the way the characters’ world works, when there are curious inconsistencies and slight plot holes. For example, Little Toot sank, and then managed to come back above the surface with no help or indication as to how. That’d be a difficult feat for a human, let alone a tugboat. A bunch of boats went out after Little Toot’s distress signal (oddly more noticeable than the ship’s presumed SOS signal), what happened to them all? Are the ships sentient too? If so, where are their faces? Why just the tugs and the police boats? How does a boat have a father? How does tugboat reproduction work?

My brain hurts. I mean, it’s all good, fun animation, and it’s kind of cute at times, but it just really doesn’t gel for me.

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Anne: I particularly loved the song they sang about all of the things they could make out of apples. And I think the angel looks like Michael Jeter.

Ohhhhh, Little Toot. Bravo to the Andrews Sisters for singing that with a straight face!

I think the Little Toot segment is evidence of the good folks at Disney running short on inspiration. I remarked while we were watching it that it was a lot like Pedro the Little Plane That Could in…was it Saludos Amigos? Flying over the mountains of Peru, running into rough weather, saving the day…all of the elements are there. And to add to your list of questions, how does the tiniest tugboat manage to pull that whole enormous ship by himself? Also–and this is a big one–if all seafaring vessels are referred to as “she,” why are there no female boats, and where is Little Toot’s mother? I guess we’re following the Disney model of motherless heroes/heroines.

Next we have a musical setting of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” When it started, I said, “Trees AGAIN?” Seriously, after 10+ minutes of Johnny Appleseed, a story ENTIRELY ABOUT PLANTING TREES, did we really need another segment about trees? It was boring. I was checking my e-mail during this segment; feel free to comment if you’ve got anything to say about it.

I think that I shall never see A poem as lovely as a tree.

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.

And then we hearken back to what feels like forever ago with a jaunty Latin American number entitled “Blame It On the Samba.” As opposed to “Blame It On the Bossa Nova.”

I have to wonder if after the deadly boring Joyce Kilmer business, somebody at Disney said, “Hmmm, how can we liven this up? I know! Let’s rehash old themes and characters!” Not that I’m complaining about more Jose Carioca and the Aracuan bird, or even more Donald Duck, but watching this segment was like going back in time to Saludos Amigos or Three Caballeros, right down to the live-action girl playing the organ in red high heels (who also was not remotely Latina, unlike her predecessors who were more authentic–maybe by this point they couldn’t be bothered?). But it was short and lively and entertaining, and I’m a big Jose Carioca fan.

After that we arrive at the enormous final segment, “Pecos Bill,” narrated by Roy Rogers and once again featuring Luana Patten and also the lead kid from Song of the South, who are unaccountably hanging out with a bunch of very clean cowboys. It was still a little contrived to have the two kids randomly in this situation, but it was miles less creepy than Luana Patten by herself with Edgar Bergen and his puppets, and they also inserted a couple of cowboy women in the background. Plus Roy Rogers! And Trigger, the smartest horse in the West!

Pecos Bill is apparently a famous Texas legend about which I knew nothing before this segment. I found it entertaining but odd, in that most of it was spent setting up the character of Pecos Bill as the Chuck Norris of the Wild West (and his horse, whose name is Widow-Maker–it took a trip to Wikipedia for me to figure that one out) so that with fifteen minutes to go we still hadn’t met Slue-Foot Sue and there had been no plot to speak of.

James: I sort of enjoyed ‘Blame it On The Samba’, although it felt rather like a retread of previous Donald and Jose pieces, and not as lively as their past efforts. It was another segment in which the characters don’t speak, the only words coming from the music/narration. This is a pity, as Donald and Jose live at least as much through their voices as through their movements, and so I would have liked to have heard them as well as seen them.

Pecos Bill was very peculiar. Another story that didn’t really make a lick of sense (he was raised by wolves, and yet can not only communicate with other humans but knows courting etiquette??), for the most part it was a chance for a series of gags about the wild west.

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Not that they’re not good gags, but they don’t really seem to form a complete story. Pecos Bill is almost a microcosm of previous Disney features: a series of practically unrelated events comprising a protagonist’s life. The moments come and go with no real sense of order or purpose. The whole piece was introduced as a tale told by some cowboys to Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, back together again as in Song of the South for a more marketable animated story; this then gets practically forgotten at the end, aside from a cursory image of them still singing. There’s also some odd bits of characterisation in the segment, like Bill’s horse ‘Widowmaker’ who is loyal to Bill… and then commits Bill’s fiancée to a life on the moon. Widowmaker gets no comeuppance, Bill shows no anger, and Slue-Foot Sue shows her face no more. Kind of a downer to end the film on. At least The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met ended with the protagonist singing in Heaven.

All in all, probably my least favourite of the Disney package films. None of the segments completely hold up, and Johnny Appleseed is the only one I’d be likely to seek out another time. Even when the others succeed, there’s just better examples of them elsewhere in the Disney canon. I’ll give it 3/10. Harsh, I hear you cry? Well, bear in mind that I’ve calculated it to be about a third as good as Pinocchio. To put it another way, I’d rather watch Pinocchio three times in a row than watch Melody Time all the way through again. Aren’t numbers fun?

Anne: Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

But I agree with you. While I think overall I enjoyed this more than you did, and it had its entertaining moments, Melody Time is just a place holder until they have enough money to make proper movies again. 4/10.

Speaking of which, only ONE MORE PACKAGE FILM before Cinderella! I just want some princesses and singing mice and bibbidi-bobbidi-boo already.

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