No dog’s better than Dad.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1960)

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

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

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

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

15 spotted puddles stolen? Ridiculous.

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

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

NO SPOTS! NO SPOTS AT ALL!

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-02-04-02h41m14s105

is immediately followed by this:

vlcsnap-2014-02-04-02h41m39s82

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

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

Not you though, Ms Close. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-02-04-03h16m18s151

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

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

Maybe Roger should write his music this way...

Maybe Roger should write his music this way…

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

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

vlcsnap-4760837

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

vlcsnap-4764293

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-02-06-18h54m23s187

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-4987982

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

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

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

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

Got to give it credit for that.

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

Advertisements
Standard

He’s a tramp, but they love him.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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

I have officially reversed my position.

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

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

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

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

Probably not.

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



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

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

vlcsnap-250674

</sappy mess>

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-01-15-16h05m49s251

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

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-203741

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

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

But SPOILER ALERT! He makes it.

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

They’ve got their mother’s eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-01-15-15h21m44s40

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Standard

After this I should think nothing of falling down stairs.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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

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

And with that incredibly clunky segue, the movie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now don't give me that look.

Now don’t give me that look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

His and hers…I feel like a bathroom towel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Anne

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

Standard

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

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

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

I mean, really bad.


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

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

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

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

Och, laddies!

Och, laddies, my accent is nae good!

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

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2013-11-13-15h44m33s142

Lor’ luvaduck, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-94309

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

vlcsnap-94727

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

vlcsnap-95303

IT’S REAL! IT’S ALL REAL!

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

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

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



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

No one spooks like Gaston!

No one spooks like Gaston!

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2013-11-14-21h14m47s111

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

No caption would make sense here.

No caption would make sense here.

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

I made a gif! Did it work?

I made a gif! Did it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

I think I’ll run out and wind the sundial.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Anne: Hey, so, remember how we thought we were going to watch 52 Disney movies by Thanksgiving, and we’re still stuck in the package films of the 1940s with a month to go? Yeah, that happened.

But we managed to find a night when neither of us had rehearsal or work or other plans (one must maintain one’s social life, don’t you know) to watch Fun and Fancy Free, which to my mind is really less of a package film than two shorts linked by arbitrary connecting material. The first is the story of Bongo the circus bear–apparently based on a story by Sinclair Lewis!–and the second is Mickey and the Beanstalk, also featuring Donald Duck and Goofy.

Nobody could hate Goofy, even though he always eats peas with a knife.

Nobody could hate Goofy, even though he always eats peas with a knife.

You know, I found the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment really refreshing. Watching this fantastically inventive and charming short film, it occurred to me that the animators could stretch themselves more with a familiar story than they could if they were worrying about whether things were clear enough for the audience to follow the plot. Everybody knows Jack and the Beanstalk–I myself was sitting there going “FEE FI FO FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN!” (though as James pointed out, they were neither English nor men). The story takes care of itself; all that’s left for the animators to do is give it a fresh treatment. Mickey is of course a perfect central character for this particular story–plucky, smart but maybe not too wise (“Only a fool would exchange a cow for beans!”). He’s the Everyman. The Everymouse, if you will. Donald Duck and Goofy complement him–Goofy is, well, goofier, sillier, and Donald is more impulsive and violent.

The original story doesn’t paint the eponymous Jack in a very good light–he steals from the giant for no particular reason and when he is caught, he chops down the beanstalk and the giant is killed. (“Doesn’t anyone care that a giant has fallen from the sky?!” Okay, I’ll desist with the Into the Woods jokes now.) Not much of a hero, is Jack. But Mickey Mouse is a positive role model for kids, so the writers found a way into the fairytale that gave his stealing altruistic motives. Instead of climbing the beanstalk, our three friends are lifted off the ground by the aforementioned plant in a thrillingly clever bit of animation, and, finding themselves in the realm of the giants, they go ahead and explore. Natural curiosity, nothing more. Finding food and being hungry to the point of starvation (as we saw in earlier scenes of Donald trying to butcher the poor cow), they help themselves. And the only thing they “steal,” or rather, recover, is the magical harp that was responsible for the entire wellbeing of Happy Valley. A little hackneyed? Maybe. Easier to swallow than Mickey Mouse wantonly stealing money and a hen that lays golden eggs from a giant and then murdering said giant by chopping down the beanstalk? Absolutely. The overall result is charming, anyway.

(P.S. “I don’t believe that egg came from that hen. Where did you get that egg?” “From the kingdom of the giant. UP THERE.”
P.P.S. “But Anne, I thought you were going to stop making Into the Woods references.” Not completely. Do we ever?)



James: Mickey and the Beanstalk is a curious one. It was originally intended as a full feature, but it becomes apparent while watching that it wouldn’t have sustained the full run time. The story is too brief and too well known; taking too much time with story beats that everyone in the audience is already expecting would have been foolish. Instead they manage to get just the right number of twists on the story material to make it fresh without overwhelming the classic elements, and it all fits into about 20 minutes, not counting the framing story.

I wasn’t overly enamoured by the short as a whole, partly because the story is so familiar and partly because the twists didn’t always make that much sense. I loved the giant’s entrance (an imposing shadow wielding a mace is revealed to be a singing giant bouncing a beach ball), but his personality and abilities were rather inconsistent. His magic abilities featured in maybe two scenes, and then were entirely absent from the rest of the film, not even showing up in the climactic chase scene. His ridiculous geniality at the start faded almost instantly so he could be the villain the film needed (but not the one it deserves… If you’re going to make Into The Woods references, I reserve the right to reference Batman). Mickey, Goofy and Donald are an enjoyable trio, but they’re at their best when they’re bouncing off each other with dialogue, and a lot of the scenes in the castle involve them sneaking around, cutting down on their banter. Mickey makes a very good protagonist for this sort of story, cheeky enough to get into danger, but likable enough to be a real audience surrogate. I’m sure it wouldn’t have distanced him from the audience too much if he’d been more like the original, less noble Jack, but I understand the updates.

vlcsnap-2013-10-25-15h33m56s170

The short is surrounded by and integrated with a framing story of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen telling Mickey’s story to young actress Luana Patten, who we saw recently in Song of the South (and will apparently be in Melody Time as well… obviously the child star of the moment!), the man using his dummies to tell the tale for her birthday. In the 1940s this was perfectly innocent. Today… it’s a little creepy. No names are given to Bergen or Patten, so presumably they’re themselves, but one wonders where her friends and family are, and why she’s spending her birthday with a middle-aged man and two middle-aged puppets. Bergen is affable as always, but he’s no Uncle Remus, and Patten has no backstory to explain why she’s alone with him. These scenes were basically filler, with plenty of good one-liners from the puppets but with no real personalities or story to go with it. Bergen was familiar to me (along with his puppets) from a guest appearance on the Muppet Show, and so it was pleasant to see him crop up in another interest of mine.

Also, he was the father of Candice Bergen.

Candice is the one on the left.

Anne: I really didn’t care that the giant had pointless magical powers or that the plot twists made no sense, I thought Mickey and the Beanstalk was just a rollicking good time. (In fact, I’m not sure that the fact that the plot twists made no sense would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been watching with you, but let that pass.)

Though I absolutely agree about the slight creepiness of Luana Patten’s “birthday party.” I thought the one-liners were brilliant (though again, it’s a story that barely needs narration, so those were just icing on the cake), but whaaaaaat?

Okay, moving backwards now to the beginning.

Jiminy

OCEANS WILL GOBBLE EARTH. Shouldn’t we be more worried about that than a couple of stories about a bear and a giant? Maybe ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is actually post-apocalyptic, and Jiminy, Bergen and Patten are all that’s left?

Our host is the always welcome if in this case pretty much superfluous Jiminy Cricket. The framing devices–I say “devices” because there were several and they segued into one another–were kind of unnecessary, to be honest. But I think if you’re going to connect two completely unrelated short films, might as well bring back one of the most charming characters in the whole canon (up to that point, and arguably ever).

Jiminy sings the catchy title tune, wins over the audience, then puts on a record and disappears for the next half hour as we watch the story of Bongo the Circus Bear, sung and narrated by Dinah Shore. When the title card said “sung by Dinah Shore,” I was hoping for something along the lines of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” (sung by Nelson Eddy). Obviously Shore is not the same kind of singer, and there also was not as much music in this film, but she was a very appealing narrator. Unlike some of the previous narrators (particularly Sterling Holloway), I never felt that the narration was overkill for the story.

This film also has the advantage of a very sweet plucky title character, the poorly treated star of the circus. Check him out–his act ends with him free-falling from the trapeze and landing ON ONE FOOT on a sponge.

Bongo

(James: “Flap your ears, Bongo!”)

Anyway. Instantly likeable little guy who does not get nearly enough credit for his aerodynamically impossible circus act. One night, tired of his circus life, Bongo hears the call of the wild and escapes the circus train on his unicycle.

F-R-E-E, FREEEEE!

F-R-E-E, FREEEEE!

Bongo quickly realizes that life in the wild is harder than he thought it was going to be when he first got off the train. But romance is in the air, and we are introduced to Bongo’s MPDB (that’s Manic Pixie Dream Bear) who in turn introduces Bongo to the finer points of, erm, mating.

We know she's a girl because she's got eyelashes and a flower in her hair.

We know she’s a girl because she’s got eyelashes and a flower in her hair.

James: To be honest, I was fairly indifferent to Bongo for a long while. It covered much the same ground as Dumbo and Bambi before it in narrative terms, and had many sequences that merely seemed like echoes of previous Disney pieces: Fear of and friendliness of the forest and its creatures (Snow White), an extended dream sequence (Donald’s Surreal Reverie, Pink Elephants on Parade) and of course the love triangle between the protagonist, the girl and the brute, lifted straight out of Bambi. It all seemed a bit unoriginal… and then we found out how the bears court.

Bongo, having flirted with this female bear (Lulubelle, apparently), leans in for a kiss. Then, Lulubelle slaps him. He is confused, and she slaps him again. Heartbroken, he starts to leave, and she looks upset. She tries to slap him again, but misses and hits the brute, who sweeps her up into his arms, smitten. She and Bongo both look heartbroken. Confused? So were we… until…

I take back everything I said about it being unoriginal. I’m not sure there’s another song like this in the whole Disney canon. I was mesmerised. It’s a fun, lively, silly song about showing your love through physical abuse. The 1940s, amIright? (Carousel came out on the stage two years before, to put it into some context.)

Now, that’s an overly critical way of putting it. It’s a silly song emphasising a fun narrative twist, and little more. And it really is great fun, combining slapstick with the goofy grins of the smitten. I have no idea if any bears actually do slap each other to show affection, or if hitting the object of your affection is a typical courting ritual anywhere in the animal kingdom, but it’s a good twist and a fun opportunity for the animators to show bears dancing and beating each other up. Still, there’s pretty much no way a song like this would be made by Disney today.

Bongo ends, as all Disney films surely must, with a happy ending. Bongo takes on the brute (his name is Lumpjaw, apparently. That’s a good, brutish name. But I’ll still call him the brute.) and wins the paw of his love. They slap each other up a couple of trees, and nuzzle in the moonlight.

vlcsnap-2013-10-27-23h24m43s152

A fine closing image. But I’ll always remember Bongo for the romance.

vlcsnap-2013-10-27-23h32m43s73

Anne: Actually, the Bongo/Lulubelle/Lumpjaw triangle makes me think of The Pebble and the Penguin, a movie which also involves quaint mating rituals of the animal kingdom (penguins, apparently, give their chosen mates a pebble). For me it was the visual of the two small bears against the outsized bear–though in this case I think it’s weird for Bongo and Lulubelle to be so small compared to all of the other bears. The hilariously ripped villain in The Pebble and the Penguin (voiced by Tim Curry) is another story. He’s the Gaston of penguins.

Anyway, I think I’ve said all I had to say about Fun and Fancy Free. I’ll give it a 7/10, because I think I might be inclined to watch at least Mickey and the Beanstalk again sometime, and because I found both segments charming and entertaining, despite narrative flaws. Plus Jiminy Cricket.

Smitteny Cricket

Smitteny Cricket

James: You could have endless (alright, limited) fun trying to figure out Jiminy Cricket’s chronology. Was this after Pinocchio? If so, where was his badge? If it was before, why was he in smart clothes? Maybe it’s set years before Pinocchio, before his clothes got all tattered. Maybe that makes the cat and fish on display here the ancestors of those in Pinocchio? Who knows.

I’ll give it 6/10. It’s an interesting piece, with some fun moments, but it’s certainly less than coherent. Still,  I’ve already recommended ‘Say it With a Slap’ to several people, so it’s got to have some value to it. Perhaps the simplest review is the title: this film is Fun and Fancy Free, no more and certainly no less. 

Coming up next, Melody Time. We’re nearly out of the obscure ones, people! Just hold on a bit longer!

Standard

You could see that love had kicked him in the face.

Make Mine Music (1946)

Anne: Well, after a week during which our usual movie-watching time was pre-empted by work, rehearsal, and performances of a very depressing opera about nuns (that part was just me, James would make a very unusual nun indeed!), we have FINALLY gotten around to watching Make Mine Music, the third out of however many package films. It feels like the bit in Julie and Julia when Julie Powell has to cook her way through all of the aspic recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

But that said, I really enjoyed Make Mine Music, and I think I can safely say that I enjoyed it a lot more than James did. This is a film that leans heavily on American nostalgia–a baseball game in 1902 (James, on why he didn’t like Casey at the Bat: “Is it because I don’t understand baseball?”), two hats falling in love in a department store window, a whale singing at the Metropolitan Opera. Those last two didn’t necessarily need to be set in an earlier time, but based on the costuming of the characters (and the kinds of hats!), they clearly were taking place before both World Wars.

I think it was deliberate–so much of the film depicted an earlier, simpler time that I can’t imagine there wasn’t some meeting during pre-production when somebody made the decision to tie the longer segments together with nostalgia.

James: I’ll have you know I make an excellent nun. A little more baritone than most, but damn if I don’t look good in a wimple.

I’m not convinced the typically historical settings where deliberate, but they were still probably a result of yearning for easier times during the war. There’s a vibrancy, a sense of fun and a sense of escapism to all the segments that whisks you away completely. That said, I definitely found more misses than hits in this piece.

About half of the 10 segments were brief at around 2 or 3 minutes, and these tended to be emotion pieces, single songs that didn’t try to tell a story so much as evoke a feeling. The longer segments, ranging from 8 minutes to 15 minutes, told complete stories, and it tended to be these that lost me. The longest segment was Peter and the Wolf at the centre of the film, and it kind of bored me. Some combination of having heard the music many times before (even playing it at school), and having seen the character archetypes before, perhaps, meant that the biggest chunk of the film failed to grip me. It doesn’t help that Sterling Holloway is the narrator yet again. He makes a fabulous Kaa, and a lovable Winnie-the-Pooh, but as a narrator I found him grating in The Three Caballeros and grating here. And yet again his narration seems largely unnecessary: the music and the animation tell the story, we don’t need to be told what’s happening alongside it (anyone who’s seen Dexter knows the frustration of being shown something, having it explained in Dexter’s inner monologue and having it discussed with his imagined dead father, thereby telling us the information three times). At times, such as in Bambi, these movies can be beautifully subtle, giving us no more than we need to fully experience the story being told. And then at other times we get it hammered into us, and the mood is lost.

The other segment that lost me was Casey at the Bat, a 9 minute adaptation of the 1888 Ernest Thayer poem of the same name. I don’t think it was the fact that it was baseball that lost me, so much as a failure to connect with the characters.  The animators seemed to be playing both teams as terrible players who fortuitously hit home runs or catch each other out depending on the moment, and so it became hard to empathise with either side. There’s no real sense of who most of these characters are; the strongest one is the pitcher, who is constantly nervous and therefore elicits the most empathy… so is he the hero? He doesn’t even have a name. And he’s against the title character! And then you have the surreal moment where it adapts the final stanza of the poem, a stanza that suggests a place where things are happy and the sun is shining, so that the final reveal that Casey struck out undercuts the suggested happy ending. In the animation, we get a very awkward cut into a dreamlike sequence. It’s not enough to suggest happiness, we have to see it, and the abrupt jump doesn’t increase the tension, it only kills the mood. My comment at the time was ‘Did that story finish?’. We then get another awkward cut so it can finish the poem, and it just doesn’t work. Maybe if I knew more about the poem, or about American vaudeville, or baseball or the offside rule or something else, it might have appealed to me more, but as it is it all felt very hard to connect with.

Also, Disney made a sequel. The first ever Disney sequel? I’m not sure, and I’m not going to find out, but you can find it here.

Anne: I have no problem with the end of “Casey at the Bat.” It’s not a happy ending–he strikes out and disappoints all of the fans. Maybe they didn’t need to animate the “somewhere people are happy” bit before that reveal–I’ll grant you that it was a little confusing–but it didn’t bother me. And it was clear to me that we were meant to be rooting for Casey’s team, the motley crew of more carefully-animated underdogs. The other team all looked the same to me.

Also, I had to google the “offside rule,” and I still don’t know what it is, so I’m not sure that that has anything to do with why you didn’t like it. Vive la différence!

Since we’re not going in order, I’m going to go ahead and name “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” as my favorite part of this movie. I think it just about negates all of those short, boring pop song segments (the Dinah Shore one was lovely, with the silhouettes of the ballet dancers, but I remember nothing of the others).

First of all, Nelson Eddy.

In splendid voice, singing and acting all of the roles. I particularly love the part when he sings the tenor, baritone and bass parts of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor.

(I’m going to resist making fun of Renée Fleming’s hair in this video, mainly because she sounds great and looks terrified.)

Of course, the cartoon does perpetuate some interesting ideas about how voices happen, but since whales can’t actually sing, I’m prepared to give it a pass. Also, a whale singing Pagliacci.

The whole thing was just a rollicking good time, with great singing and lots of laughs. Until the ending, which was surprisingly dark for a Disney film–actually, James pointed out that the end of this segment was the third time we had seen a depiction of heaven in Make Mine Music. The body count of the movie is way out of proportion to its length, especially if you include The Martins and the Coys, which in the interest of completeness, we did.

So, on the one hand, happy relaxed nostalgia of a simpler time…on the other hand, death?

James: Whale was perhaps my second favourite piece of the film, and it was wonderful almost from start to finish. The imagination and the joy in there is astonishing. A delightful story brimming over with silly sights and sounds (and a soundtrack laced with evocative classical music). While watching this film, I posited that the main difference between Looney Tunes shorts and Disney shorts of the same era is that Looney Tunes fits stories around brilliant characters, whereas Disney fits characters into brilliant stories. This short is about as close to Looney Tunes as I’ve seen Disney get (One Froggy Evening springs to mind) and yet this still feels like a stronger story than Looney Tunes could manage. There is an arc, there are hopes and dreams, and the main character is innocent and, ultimately, hurt. This is Disney. (One Froggy Evening is still one of the finest cartoons of all time, and yet it came 9 years later… I wonder how much Whale inspired it…)

If you need to see a strong Disney story that Looney Tunes could never get near, look to the cut short The Martins and the Coys. Originally the first segment in the film, it has been cut from UK and USA DVD releases, allegedly due to the violence. Well…



Yeah, it’s kinda violent. But it’s also a whole heap of fun! Terrific music and some fabulous plot twists, all in the space of 7 minutes. The vibrancy I mentioned earlier is all over this piece, and everyone involved seems to have had tremendous fun throughout. It’s a shame to leave it off the DVDs; even as a special feature with a disclaimer for violence, it’s a great piece of Disney silliness that deserves to be preserved. And it’s a much better opening than Blue Bayou, which is pleasant enough, but doesn’t kick start the film in the same way.

Anne: I thought “Blue Bayou” was pretty and atmospheric, and the animation of the water was really exceptional (as someone with no talent whatsoever in visual art, I’m always astounded by what the animators are able to do, especially in the pre-digital era). But at the same time, had it been any longer I would have been bored. When we were watching, you suggested that the short segments might serve as “palate cleansers” before and after each of the longer ones that contained complete stories. I think you’re probably right about that, but I also didn’t think they were especially interesting overall.

I did very much enjoy “All the Cats Join In”–though maybe a little disappointed that it wasn’t actually about cats! But with all of the nostalgia for the 19-aughts, it was fun to see an animated view of teenagers in the mid-1940s. Of course it was highly-stylized and cartoonish, but I thought that suited the “gotta dance” attitude of the characters.

(AND they’re patriotic! Check out the American flag on that banana split.)

“Without You” I found both boring and sad. I didn’t even like the song. Lots of tears and rain and boo hoo hoo. Moving on.

“Ballade Ballet” was very beautiful. I’m curious as to what technique the animators used to create those two silhouettes, because they were unbelievably realistic. I have to think that they filmed two ballet dancers in a pas de deux and then made them into silhouettes–but such is the magic of Disney that I’m really not sure.

I really liked “After You’ve Gone,” with music by Benny Goodman and the Goodman Octet (who also scored “All the Cats Join In”). The Disney animators have an amazing eye for ways to turn objects into other objects–piano-playing hands into can-can dancers, for example–and the segues between visual ideas are always so innovative and surprising. I’m also consistently impressed by the movements of normally inanimate objects: rather than giving the clarinet legs, they imagine how a clarinet would walk if a clarinet could walk.

And the same goes for hats. Over to you!

James: Indeed, I commented that ‘After You’ve Gone’ with its animation of musical instruments felt like a more fun version of a Fantasia segment. The way the animators bring to life ideas and concepts and suggested links in physicality is amazing.

Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet was probably my favourite segment (Whale threatened to knock it off its top spot, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending), and it immediately showed the fun the animators were having with the design. The shape of the hats is perfect for their make and yet also look so human. No mean feat. The piece was longer than I expected, but was brimming with fun and inventive scenes showing Johnnie’s conflict while trying to reunite with his love. The story takes the surprising turns that (as I mentioned earlier) only Disney could come up with, and yet it feels so natural and makes so much sense, and the ending is genuinely surprising and completely satisfying. The story is brought to life musically by the Andrews Sisters, who imbue it with a sense of fun and a sense of purpose, as a story that’s fictional and yet still meaningful, perfectly married to the animation.  I haven’t seen Pixar’s latest short, The Blue Umbrella, but everything I’ve seen of it seems to have a similar story, and I can only hope it’s as fun and filled with beautiful twists as Johnnie

vlcsnap-2013-09-26-12h30m57s12

Overall, though, I’d give Make Mine Music 5/10. There are some great segments in there, and even the weakest segments have beautiful aspects, but there are only two or three segments I’d watch again, not the whole movie. I’m starting to miss the momentum of a feature length story, as it can get kind of tiring to change gears so often within a film. Still, I’ve now seen a whale singing Mephistopheles. I couldn’t say that last week.

Anne: I’ll give it a 6/10. I enjoyed watching it, but as a package film it’s not as cohesive as The Three Caballeros or Saludos Amigos. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll revisit any of the package films in the future, but time works wonders, so who knows?

Up next we’ve got Song of the South. This one wasn’t on our original list of 52 animated films, but when we realized that because we are both very busy and important people (*wink*), we weren’t going to make it through all of them by Thanksgiving, we decided we could include some in-betweeners. James grew up with Song of the South, but I’ve never seen it, since it was never released on commercial video in the States. It will be an experience!

Standard