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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back from Bermuda...wherever that is.

Back from Bermuda…wherever that is.

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

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

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

Galileo's head was on the block...

Galileo’s head was on the block…

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

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

A sssssnake, am I?

A sssssnake, am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of, the wind’s in the East…

Standard

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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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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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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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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Pretty good, sure as you’re born!

Song of the South (1946)

James: Well, here we are. Partly to visit a controversial part of Disney history and partly to break up the package films with a feature length story, we divert briefly from the Disney Canon to Song of the South. It’s… well, it’s interesting. (And it’s available to watch here.)

Based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus books, collections of genuine African American stories and fables as told by the fictional Uncle Remus first published in 1881, Song of the South is set in the state of Georgia in the later Reconstruction era and follows a boy, Johnny, who moves with his mother to his grandmother’s plantation. He becomes distraught when his father has to return to Atlanta, and finds comfort in the stories of Br’er Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus.

Because of the film’s perceived racially insensitive content, it has never received a home release in the US, and has never had a DVD release anywhere. It was, however, released on VHS in the UK (and in some other parts of the world), and so I actually watched it quite often as a child, and I loved it. Watching it again, it certainly doesn’t hold up as well, and the controversial parts are much more apparent, but much of it still affected me in the same way. If you can look past the racial issues (which, as a dumb kid with no knowledge of slavery or racism, was easy when I first saw it), it’s a well made and well intentioned movie. But… yeah.

Anne: Having been raised in the States and taught from a very early age about racism, slavery, the Civil War, and political correctness, I found this movie cringe-worthy on most levels. Right from the start it’s clear to me why people were and continue to be outraged by Song of the South.

First of all, yes, the stories were written in 1881, and are ostensibly set post-Civil War–and therefore post-emancipation–but I saw no proof of that. What it looks like is a movie featuring a white plantation family and their very happy slaves. I was struck at the beginning of the movie by the way that African-American stories were framed by a story about a white boy who moves to his grandmother’s plantation with his mother. The target audience for this film was undoubtedly mostly white people. James pointed out that this movie does something similar to Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos–creating an surrogate character to ease the audience into an unfamiliar culture. But especially when Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempy (played by Hattie McDaniel, who, by the way, had already won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind and would STILL not have been allowed to go to the premiere of this film) are the most engaging characters on screen, it bothers me that they felt the need to make it a movie essentially about white people.

The animated sections are charming and funny–but all I could think of was how offensive they would have been if they featured people instead of animals. There was an image of Brer Rabbit hanging from a rope that Brer Fox had tied to a tree that took my breath away–I’ll grant that he was hanging mostly by his feet, but I was still a little shocked. And at other points in the film poor Brer Rabbit gets tarred and held over a raging fire; Brer Fox also threatens to hang him for real in one of the animated segments. I know this part of it isn’t Disney’s fault, but I would probably have the same problem with the original stories. Though it’s possible that reading about it wouldn’t have the same impact as seeing the images.

Political correctness aside, I have to say I liked the message of the movie: that imagination and stories and folklore are important. James Baskett gives a wonderfully affecting performance as Uncle Remus, and the scene when he decides to pack up the only home he’s ever known and leave because all he’s good for is telling useless stories is just heartbreaking. And “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” remains one of the most fun songs and sequences in the Disney canon.

James: It’s my natural instinct to defend the film because I was so fond of it as a child, but it really is difficult. I certainly don’t read quite as much into it as you do; the cartoon sequences in particular are (while implicitly dark) still very silly stories about woodland creatures, and the only people they are explicitly connected to are Johnny and the bullies. Disney are still releasing them and incorporating them into their legacy (as per their inclusion in Splash Mountain at the theme parks), and so they presumably aren’t as embarrassed by them as by the rest of the film. In the context of the rest of the film, however, I can understand seeing racial themes in them.

But part of my not-really-a-defence defence is James Baskett’s performance and the role of Uncle Remus. Many of the characters in the film are well-rounded, fully three-dimensional characters, but Uncle Remus is the most vital, and Baskett plays him perfectly. Baskett won an Oscar for his performance, making him the first male black performer to win one (Hattie McDaniel had been the first female performer), and it’s easy to see why. I loved him as a child, the way Johnny loved him. He told me stories, and showed me the world didn’t have to be so hard.

It is frustrating that a film based on stories from African American culture should include a white family as its focal point, but as I pointed out to Anne, that might have been for the best given the circumstances. Writers are always taught to write what they know; white writers writing for white audiences were probably right to write white characters. That was a tricky sentence. Anyway, the result is that Johnny and his family are well formed; his mother is protective but understandably so, his grandmother is delightfully spunky. Bobby Driscoll gives a good performance as Johnny, and he has strong character development. He learns from Remus’ stories, both explicitly (when he tricks the bullies the way Brer Rabbit tricked his captors) and implicitly (when Ginny is sad and he decides to tell her a Brer Rabbit story to cheer her up). Ginny and Toby are fairly perfunctory characters as Johnny’s love interest and best friend respectively, but both get strong interactions with Johnny and make an impact in their scenes. Aunt Tempy isn’t given much of an opportunity to develop in the film, but McDaniel gives a brilliant performance, and her gentle scene with Uncle Remus in the second half of the film is a delight.

The thinnest characters are the white trash bullies, and their only role in the film is as live action versions of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Curiously, they’re actually less realistic than their cartoon counterparts.

Anne: A quick shout-out to our lovely friend Rachel who sent me a message that she was looking forward to our review of Song of the South, and in particular my interpretation of the line “Daddy didn’t come and Ginny’s all dirty!” (referring, of course, to Johnny’s disappointing birthday party when his father didn’t show up and Ginny’s brothers pushed her into the mud and ruined her new dress).

I’m not sure there’s much to it, really, but I think it’s telling that when he says the line, Johnny is thinking of those two events as they affect HIM. A few minutes later, he consoles Ginny by telling her a Brer Rabbit story. As James noted, this is a character who actually matures and learns something from his experiences. He realizes that as much as he needs Uncle Remus’ stories, Ginny might need them even more.

(Also that line just made me guffaw. So innocent!)

Oh, question, something I was thinking about during the movie. Why did Johnny’s father have to go to Atlanta and leave Johnny and his mother at the plantation? He’s a writer, apparently, and he wrote something objectionable in the newspaper…was Atlanta going to be dangerous for his wife and child because of something he wrote? This is one of the things that made me wonder if the movie was set during the Civil War, or at least before emancipation–I was thinking maybe the father was writing anti-slavery, anti-Confederacy pieces for the Atlanta newspaper and it was getting him into trouble. Any thoughts on that?

Also…I don’t know, I find it well nigh impossible to watch this movie without reading a lot of racial tension into it, whether or not it’s there (and while I will accept that the folks at Disney weren’t trying to hide any subliminal messaging in the animated segments, I still find the idea and visual of Brer Rabbit being hanged/tarred/burnt for trying to run away very problematic). Maybe it would have been easier if I had had the opportunity of seeing it as a child, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. I think I just know too much now; I’ve been trained too well.

James: Johnny’s father was called to Atlanta because of an urgent plot device. You’ve got to attend to those quickly, or they can collapse into plot holes. But it’s best not to look too closely at them. Anyway, now we’ve talked about the elephant in the room, it’s time to talk about the bull.

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I’ve got to say, for me this was absolutely the hardest thing to watch. When I was a child and even now, the scene where Johnny is hit by the bull (even off screen) really got under my skin. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s well set up so that when it happens it just makes sense. And then, Johnny’s unconscious, unmoving body being picked up by his mother is a painful sight. When I was a child I often turned off the film just before this bit, or at least looked away, and it was difficult not to close my eyes on this viewing, knowing it was coming. It’s not just the physical pain, it’s that Johnny has been separated from his father and now his surrogate father, and now may lose his life. Gosh, it affected me.

Of course, the happy ending comes shortly after, courtesy of one more Brer Rabbit story. In the best (and corniest) possible outcome, Remus’ story awakens Johnny and convinces his mother of the power of the stories, but still doesn’t overpower Johnny’s love for his father. Remus leaves, contented to have the family reunited. It’s contrived, but it works. Mighty satisfaction.

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And then one final scene, in which Brer Rabbit and his friends appear in the real world (much to Remus’ surprise), for a lovely close to the film. And really, it’s beautifully done. As you’ll see from the video higher up, the way the creatures interaction with the live action material is astonishing. As a kid, I was pretty certain they’d done this by training a real rabbit, frog and bluebird to do those actions, and then animated over them. That’s probably not how it was done, but I still like it as a theory. Another example of the perfect integration is just after Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah:

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Is that fence real or animated? Having watched the whole scene, I have absolutely no idea. Another fabulous bit of integration is at the end of part of a story, where Brer Bear and Brer Fox are dancing around Rabbit, and the camera pulls out as the animation fades into live action, but keeping Bear and Fox dancing around Johnny’s head. It’s a lovely transition, holding on a mix of cartoon and reality for just a few seconds before fading completely to live action. There’s true intelligence to the animation, something I’ve praised in Disney before, and something seldom seen in films today.

Anne: Maybe they filmed a real fence and then animated over it. 😉

Anyway. While I can comment on Song of the South as a piece of entertainment to a certain extent, I feel like I’m never going to be able to enjoy it that way–though as a piece of shameful Disney history it’s pretty fascinating!

I’m not going to score this one. I’ll let James take care of that.

James: The good news is, this isn’t an official part of the Disney canon, so any final tallies we do can ignore it completely!

Going with what’s good about the film minus what’s bad about the film, coupled with how likely I’d be to watch it again… I’ll give it a 5/10. Parts of it are uncomfortable, but parts of it are delightful, and for the most part it really is a well made film. Still, with more aware eyes I’m not likely to watch it again any time soon. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it, and Baskett’s Uncle Remus will always hold a place in my heart, but my VHS can go back into the cupboard for a while longer.

Next up, back to the main canon and the package films with Fun and Fancy Free!

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Yes, a llama can make you feel awfully unimportant.

Saludos Amigos (1942)
The Three Caballeros (1944)

James: So, we begin the package films. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were made with a few goals in mind:

1) Be cheaper than a full film (the reduced budget due to Disney’s previous losses, and fewer people and audiences due to the war effort)

2) Be informative (show the US more about Latin America, the government wanting better international relations, especially during wartime)

3) Give the animators an excuse for a paid holiday.

These being less important in retrospect (and features being more marketable than package films), Disney have never pushed these for re-release in the same way as they have other films, and so for both Anne and me this is our first experience coming to them.

And honestly, they’re pretty great. They’re fun, informative, innovative, with some enjoyable (if far less beautiful than Bambi or Pinocchio’s) animation and some very engaging music and songs. They’re also, at times, downright weird. But we’ll come to that in a bit.

Saludos Amigos, at only 42 minutes, is the shortest film we’ll review here. It’s composed of four animated shorts, connected by live action material of the artists seeing Latin America and learning about it, as we learn about it alongside them. There is no overarching story to this film, aside from the Disney animators experiencing new things and being inspired by them, culminating in each of the animated segments. The first segment shows us Donald Duck, himself a tourist in a strange land, learning about Lake Titicaca (and suffering a deal of slapstick while doing so). For the most part it’s fun if gentle, as the foreign ideas and ways are conveyed with comedy mostly pointed at Donald, carefully avoiding mocking the alien customs by mocking the American instead.

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Anne: Oh right, because mocking the American is ALWAYS funny. Ahem.

I had such a good time watching Saludos Amigos–and not just because I was slightly tipsy from finishing off the open bottle of wine from my Rosh Hashanah party.

One of the things I liked best about this little movie was the live action photography of Latin and South America in the 1940s. I loved seeing footage of Buenos Aires and realizing that that’s what it looked like when the Perons were in power, and seeing natives of each location going about their daily business, 70 years ago. It was fascinating, and seeing the animators’ inspiration made each animated segment even more entertaining and interesting.

The second segment was silly and cute–about the Little Mail Plane That Could, called Pedro. We couldn’t help but wonder why he was wearing his mail bag on the outside.

The story of Pedro the Plane was a perfect opportunity (and really just an excuse) to showcase the mountains of Peru, especially the one that looks like a person.

Wonderfully atmospheric and scary, especially in the scene where little Pedro got his first glimpse of it and hid behind a cloud in fright.

I’m not doing a very good job of reviewing this segment, but it really was mostly scenery and silly plane antics, with mostly unnecessary narration (this was a theme throughout the two package films).

James: Indeed, it’s very much gone from the subtle implications of Bambi to overexplaining a lot throughout both films. On occasion, however, the narrator works with the piece as a character, such as in the third segment. He speaks to rather than through Goofy as he tries to be an Argentinian cowboy, or ‘gaucho’, and dictates and orders much of the action throughout, for humorous effect. This segment has a very strong focus on the funny and mostly succeeds, particularly the slow motion sequence where Goofy is riding his horse and chasing an ostrich. Yeah. Let that sink in.

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I like that picture.

The whole segment culminates with Goofy having a (romantic?) dance with his horse and being narratively flown back to America, because… well, because that bit was over.

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Anne: I guess that makes “El Gaucho Goofy” a dog-and-pony show.

I’ll be here all week.

Anyway, I get to talk about Jose Carioca! LOVE this character, he’s like a suave Latin Jiminy Cricket, or the Brazilian Maurice Chevalier in bird form–and what’s more, before we met him we got to see an animator drawing him. Incredibly charismatic and fun, plus he mostly speaks in Portuguese to the bewildered Donald Duck. Bravi to the folks at Disney for casting a Brazilian actor to voice a Brazilian character–what a concept. (Pet peeve of mine–I remember seeing Ratatouille and wondering why, in the name of authenticity, they couldn’t have hired French actors if they wanted French accents! But I’m getting ahead of myself by about 70 years.)

There’s a wonderfully charming moment when Donald Duck hands Jose Carioca his business card and Jose gets SO excited about meeting THE Donald Duck–el Pato Donald!–that he just talks and talks and talks in rapid-fire Portuguese while poor Donald tries to follow along in multiple dictionaries. Finally, Jose says, “Or, as you Americans would say, let’s go see the town!” (Donald is rightly shocked by this. It reminds me of the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Cornelius Fudge has to sit next to the Bulgarian ambassador, who pretends he doesn’t speak English because it’s funnier that way.)

This segment is lovely all around. Jose Carioca teaches Donald about the samba, then they go out and dance and sing about how wonderful Brazil is. And that’s about it–until Three Caballeros when they get an extended segment about Bahìa and dance with Aurora Miranda (ANNE: “Is that Carmen Miranda?!”).

James: Jose Carioca is a delightful character, and it’s a shame he’s been all but forgotten in Disney history. His banter with Donald is delightful, and his whole attitude is just a pleasure whenever he’s on screen. And then, the movie ends, short but very sweet.

Saludos Amigos was successful enough to warrant a further trip to South America two years later. The Three Caballeros is much less obviously educational than its predecessor, and is much more gung ho with its attempts to entertain… with some success.  The end result is a very, very weird film which mostly seems to know what it’s trying to do, and when it doesn’t it’s even more fascinating than when it does. There is a definite (if convoluted) plot line to the film, more so than even in previous features, following Donald Duck’s exploration of more parts of Latin America. It all takes place on his birthday, as he receives three gifts from Latin America (he won’t be so grateful when it gets to Latin America’s birthday and he has to buy 500 million presents).

First of all, he gets a projector with a video documentary about birds, which leads to our first two segments. The first is about Pablo the Penguin, who- wait, Pablo?

'With a tenacity of purpose seldom found in a penguin...'

‘With a tenacity of purpose seldom found in a penguin…’

Anne: Right, Pablo is the penguin who can’t deal with living in the Arctic because it’s too cold. His best friend is a stove called Smoky Joe, and he dreams about relocating to Latin America. Why? “Well, that’s human nature for you, even if you’re a penguin.”

I thought this segment was funny and charming, but nearly ruined by Sterling Holloway’s narration. Sterling Holloway also voices this guy:

And this one:

It’s an excellent character voice, but there’s something odd and almost a little creepy about it here. Not to mention that the narration is just not necessary. It was even more overkill than Pablo the Plane’s narration; there was virtually nothing explained by the narrator that we couldn’t have figured out from watching the wordless cartoon, which was pretty well-plotted–even if Pablo’s longing to get to Latin America was more or less arbitrary. But rather less than more.

After Pablo is a short segment about all the different birds in Latin America…which somehow leads into a story about a flying donkey.

I mean, I’ve seen an elephant fly, but this is ridiculous!

In contrast to Pablo the Penguin, this section has narration that works FOR and WITH the animation rather than against it. The narrator is an old gaucho reminiscing about when he was a little gauchito; he’s not a reliable narrator, and as he remembers bits and pieces of the story, they appear on the screen. He interacts with his younger self as he tells the story, which makes for highly entertaining storytelling.

James: This bit is actually really fun. As you say, the interplay between the narrator and the story is a highlight, and the final sequence with the race is actually exciting (although I’m pretty sure flying is still cheating). This segment is also the first sign of just how weird Disney were prepared to get with this piece.

The weirdness continues in the main narrative as Donald’s next present is a book entitled ‘Brasil’, in the pages of which is our old friend Jose Carioca, who takes Donald into the book to explore the state of Baia. This segment begins strongly, but it does go on a bit, saying less about Baia as it goes on, and just indulging in the musical number. This would be fine, but the segment is 12 minutes long, and so no matter how fun it is it still feels drawn out. Still, there’s some fun stuff with the Aracuan bird…

…and some neat mixing in of live action.

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Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s sister. Who knew?

After that we are introduced to our third Caballero, Panchito Pistoles!

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Then Panchito, Jose and Donald sing the titular song. I can’t stress this enough, this is a fabulous song. Fun, exciting, imaginative… it’s like the Animaniacs theme tune. It just builds and builds with strongly defined characters and a fabulous sense of style. If you want a taste of the film, check this song out. 

Anne: It doesn’t get much better than “We’re three happy chappies/ with snappy serapes!” Fantastic. I’m not being sarcastic. I love it.

Panchito, Jose and Donald head to Mexico on their magic serape…

…where horn dog Donald proceeds to chase every woman he sees. He dances with a character billed only as “Mexico Girl” on IMDB, and pursues a bevy of bathing beauties at the beach, making him a playa on the playa.

Ouch, I’m sorry. Strike that last remark.

All of the flirting and chasing does beg the question, where precisely was Daisy Duck at this point?

My research tells me that Daisy was created in 1940. So shame on you, Pato Donald. SHAME UPON THEE.

(It’s been a really long day and I’m getting slap-happy. Oh dear.)

Also, I have to say that I find both Panchito and Jose more interesting than Donald Duck. It’s too bad that they don’t appear much, if at all, beyond Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros, because they’re both so charming and funny.

James: Maybe I was just conditioned the right way as a kid, but I do still love Donald Duck. He’s loveable and generally well meaning but also flawed, and more than anyone else this is his movie (although he’s arguably a secondary protagonist to Latin America). He’s not in too much of the film, but when he is he works with the characters around him, particularly Jose and Panchito, to be an enjoyable team player but still distinctly Donald. That said, it’d be great to see a return of the trio (according to Wikipedia they’ve recently been introduced to rides and parades at the various Disneyland resorts, so maybe we’ll see an animated reunion before long?).

And finally we reach the last segment… which is flipping MENTAL. Here’s the setup: Donald watches a video of an attractive woman(‘s face) singing a love song. He kisses the screen, and suddenly trips. I mean, really trips. Most of the last ten minutes is just Donald sliding through crazy animation with a loved up grin on his face. I really can’t describe this segment and get the true experience across to you, even just putting up individual images wouldn’t do justice to this insanity… so here it is in its entirety:

Skip through that, and you’ll see the kind of bizarre visuals I’m talking about. Honestly, I have no idea how I feel about this segment. The animation is fun, but it’s twice as long as Pink Elephants on Parade (which made a heck of a lot more sense). It’s not even really exploring Latin America anymore, aside from a few vaguely Mexican images like cacti and sombreros. It’s just… mad.

Still, at least it ends with a reprise of the titular song, and the three new friends enjoying some fireworks. The ending feels very abrupt, and the whole finale will likely leave you wondering what the heck you just witnessed. Maybe that’s a good thing?

Anne: Yeah, that bit went on a little too long for my taste. It’s too bad, because if it weren’t for that I would probably score Three Caballeros higher. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to score either of these films, because they were geared towards a specific purpose: to educate American audiences on Latin/South American culture, and to foster friendship and positive relationships. I think I’d give Saludos Amigos a 7/10, and Three Caballeros a 6.5/10–the former had the lion’s share of really good animated segments, but the latter had the fantastic “Three Caballeros” number, the flying donkey, and some gorgeous visuals in the Baìa section. It’s not so much that Saludos was BETTER, but Three Caballeros had a few segments that I found really detracted from my overall enjoyment. Subtracting points, here.

James: That’s where Saludos feels stronger because of its brevity, which is an unfortunate thing for it to come down to. Saludos just feels that bit too short for my tastes, not quite enough to get your teeth into… but Caballeros often doesn’t fill its time well enough. I think I’ll have to score both Saludos and Caballeros at 7, because while Caballeros has more flaws, it also has higher ambition in its animation, its character building and its exploration of Latin American culture. That said, they’re both fascinating and fun pieces, and they’ve introduced us to two wonderful new old characters.

Next up, Make Mine Music.

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