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

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Prince Philip’s determined face.

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

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

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

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

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

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New from Walt Disney Studios: Sleeping Hunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the original:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the heck are skumps anyway?

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

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

It’ll look better when it’s baked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain’s the ‘funny’ one.

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He’s a tramp, but they love him.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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

I have officially reversed my position.

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

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

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

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

Probably not.

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



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

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

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</sappy mess>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But SPOILER ALERT! He makes it.

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

They’ve got their mother’s eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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Why, you blithering blockhead!

Peter Pan (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anne: Oh, the dreaded STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor old Nana!

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

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