Hi everyone! I hope you’re having a great summer so far! You’ve told me about what movies you want me to finally take a look at yourselves, so we’ll be taking a break from the voting system and celebrating six years of Up On The Shelf with a pre-chosen review party that’s going to be over a year long! I want to thank everyone who’s supported the blog for this long by sharing how the new review schedule looks for the time being, as well as who requested what. Mark your calendars and rev up your streaming service/media player of choice, because here’s how things are going down:
January ’23: The Little Mermaid (Ben Walderberger)
I’d like to add that in addition to these film reviews, I’ll be posting a review of every episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre each month. Expect the first shortly after this August’s review is done. See you then!
A long time ago in Russia, a young Jewish man was on his way to his wedding accompanied by his friends. As they passed by an old tree in the woods, the groom noticed to his amusement a stick poking from the ground that resembled a bony finger clawing its way out of the earth. In jest, the groom placed his wedding ring on the stick and recited his vows to his “wife”, performing the wedding ritual and making his companions roar with laughter. Little did he know that he made a grave error indeed.
The ground began to shake beneath them. A enormous hole opened up, out of it where the stick once lay rose a horrifying corpse! She was little more than a skeleton wrapped in bits of skin and a rotting wedding dress with a spider’s web for a veil. The bride had been murdered on her way to her own wedding years before by anti-Semitic Cossacks. Now that the groom had made his vows to her, she claimed him as her own.
In terror and desperation, the groom and his friends fled to the rabbi for help. Surely the wisest and most learned holy man in the village would know what to do. The groom presented his dilemma (as a hypothetical question, of course), but as the rabbi pondered it, the doors of the synagogue burst open, and there before them stood the corpse bride. Once again she laid claim to the young groom, this time with the whole village – and the groom’s living bride – there to witness it. With the situation blown wide open, the rabbi gathered other rabbis from the surrounding villages to consult with them. The village waited anxiously for their outcome, the groom’s living bride most of all. Finally, the rabbi presented his answer:
“It is true, you have put the ring on the finger of the corpse bride and recited your vows, which constitutes a proper wedding – however, the vows state that you must seek a life together hallowed by faith. Since the bride is already deceased, she has no claim upon the living.”
The groom and his living bride were relieved. The poor corpse bride, on the other hand, wailed and collapsed to the ground in tears. “My last chance at a happy life, gone! My dreams of love and family will never be fulfilled, every thing is lost forever now.” She was a pitiable sight, a heap of bones in a ragged wedding dress sobbing on the floor – yet who should show her compassion but the living bride herself? The young woman knelt and gathered up the corpse bride, holding and comforting her like a mother would a crying child.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured in her ear, “I will live your dreams for you. I will have children in your name, enough for the two of us, and you can rest knowing our children and children’s children will be taken care of and never forget you.” The living bride tenderly carried the corpse bride to the river and dug a grave for her, decorating it with stones and wildflowers, and laid her in there herself. At last, the corpse bride knew peace, and she closed her eyes. The living bride and her groom were married, and she kept her promise to the corpse bride: she had many children, and those children had children, and they always told the story of the corpse bride and the kindness she was shown so she’d never be forgotten.
This is a semi-abridged version of an old Jewish folktale that would have remained in obscurity if it hadn’t reached the late Joe Ranft, storyboard artist for Pixar and a little movie called The Nightmare Before Christmas. He passed it on to his good buddy Tim Burton and big surprise, this rather macabre love story clicked with him. Corpse Bride debuted in 2005, the same year as Burton’s Willy Wonka remake, and it’s safe to say that this my preferred film between the two. Obviously, comparisons between this and the previous Tim Burton stop-motion musical (which he did NOT actually direct, see the opening of my Coraline review) will be inevitable, but Corpse Bride is a fine companion piece to Nightmare in nearly every way.
…Then I watched The Princess and the Scrivener’s video on the film (do check out their channel by the way) where they raised a highly pertinent question. If you’ve seen the movie already, I’m sure you’ve noticed one major difference between this and the story it’s based on:
So because Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride changes the setting of this Russian-Jewish folktale to England and made the characters Christian (as well as taking Burton’s own dodgy history when it comes to diverse casting into account), does that make it guilty of Jewish erasure?
Look, events this past year have made me re-evaluate many of my views and privileges as a white person. I want to be as woke and supportive of as many marginalized voices as possible, and that includes reassessing media I previously assumed was harmless or at least fair for its day. I truly want to see more Jewish characters and stories in mainstream entertainment that aren’t overused stereotypes or victims (the only Jewish movies I can think of that don’t involve the atrocities of World War 2 are Fiddler On The Roof and Yentl). After seeing Scrivener’s video, I sometimes wonder how much more we could have gotten if they kept the film more grounded in its Semitic roots. In fact, wouldn’t there be far more tension and a greater commentary on marrying outside of race, class and religion if they kept Victoria Christian but made Victor Jewish? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a thoughtful, questioning rabbi to counter Pastor Gallswell’s narrow-minded austerity?
That being said, however, I still don’t have much of a problem with the changes made in Corpse Bride. Folktales are meant to be retold with changes naturally evolving through the centuries. Sometimes the true strength in a story lies in how it well it can be told through different ethnic lenses. HBO’s animated series Happily Ever After is excellent in this regard, giving us creative cultural retellings of familiar stories ranging from an Inuit Snow Queen to a Rastafarian Rumpelstiltskin. The fact that so much of the grimness and heart of the original tale remains after its conversion to Christianity is a testament to how well they managed to pull this adaptation off.
Whenever I discuss Sleeping Beauty with someone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for Disney, they have an irksome tendency to get it muddled with Snow White; their excuse being “it has the same plot”. I’ll admit, there are some surface similarities that even the most casual viewer can pick up on: a fairytale where a princess is forced into unconsciousness and wakes up with some necking, the comic relief and villain being the most beloved characters, a little frolic in the forest with animals, the antagonist plunging off a cliff, you get the idea. In fact, Sleeping Beauty even reuses some discarded story beats from Snow White, mainly our couple dancing on a cloud and the villain capturing the prince to prevent him from waking his princess. Yet despite that, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are two wholly different movies shaped by the era and talents of the time.
I’ve discussed how Walt Disney was never one to stick to a repeated formula, no matter how successful it was. He must have noticed the parallels between his first movie and this one, but decided to make one crucial change for Sleeping Beauty that would forever differentiate the two: the look. We all know the traditional Disney house style: round, soft shapes, big eyes; charming as it was and still is, Walt was sick of it after several decades. Meanwhile, artists like Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle were producing gorgeous concept art that rarely made a perfect translation into the Disney house style.
Walt wanted to make a feature that took the pop artistry of their designs and made the animation work for it instead of the other way around – which brings us to another animation studio that was doing well at the time, United Pictures Animation, or UPA.
UPA didn’t have the kind of budget Disney normally had for their animated projects, but what they lacked in fluidity they made up for in style. Watch The Tell-Tale Heart, Gerald McBoing-Boing and Rooty-Toot-Toot to see what I mean. UPA were pioneers of limited animation, taking their scant resources and creating some striking visuals with bold geometric designs. Through this, they defined the look of 50’s animation. Though perhaps unintentional, Sleeping Beauty comes across as Disney’s response to UPA, or what would happen if UPA had the funds they deserved. The characters’ contours are angular but effortlessly graceful, defining their inherent dignity and royalty. And the colors, ohhh the colors…
Because of the immense amount of work required to animate in this difficult new style (and in the Cinemascope ratio, no less) as well as story troubles and Walt barely supervising the animation studio now that he had his hands full with live-action films, television, and a theme park, Sleeping Beauty had a turbulent production that lasted the entirety of the 1950s. For a time, Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame was set to direct. Director Wilfred Jackson suffered a heart attack partway through production and Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men, took the mantle from there before Walt Disney replaced him Clyde Geronimi. And even after that, Wolfgang Reitherman teamed up with Geronimi as co-director to get the film finished after no less than three delays. Also, Don Bluth got his foot in the door as an assistant animator for this feature, beginning his short-lived but impactful tenure at Disney. Did all this hamper the movie, or did they succeed in what they set out to accomplish?
Well, one of the reasons why this review took so long was because I had a hard time not repeating “MOVIE PRETTY” and “MALEFICENT AWESOME” over and over. Make what you will of that.
Last year I talked about Fantasia, which is not just one of my favorite Disney movies, but one of my favorite movies in general. And if I may be self-indulgent for a moment, it’s also one of the reviews that I’m the proudest of. Fantasia is a visual, emotional masterpiece that marries music and art in a manner few cinematic ventures have come close to replicating. One question that remains is what my thoughts on the long-gestated sequel is –
…you might wanna get yourselves some snacks first.
As anyone who read my review on the previous film knows, Fantasia was a project ahead of its time. Critics and audiences turned their noses up at it for conflicting reasons, and the film didn’t even make it’s budget back until twenty-something years later when they began marketing it to a very different crowd.
“I don’t wanna alarm you dude, but I took in some Fantasia and these mushrooms started dancing, and then there were dinosaurs everywhere and then they all died, but then these demons were flying around my head and I was like WOOOOOAAAHHH!!”
“Yeah, Fantasia is one crazy movie, man.”
Fantasia’s unfortunate box office failure put the kibosh on Walt Disney’s plans to make it a recurring series with new animated shorts made to play alongside handpicked favorites. The closest he came to following through on his vision was Make Mine Music and Melody Time, package features of shorts that drew from modern music more than classical pieces.
Fast-forward nearly fifty years later to the golden age known as the Disney Renaissance: Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney surveys the new crop of animators, storytellers, and artists who are creating hit after hit and have brought the studio back to his uncle’s glory days, and thinks to himself, “Maybe now we can make Uncle Walt’s dream come true.” He made a good case for it, but not everyone was on board. Jeffrey Katzenberg loathed the idea, partly because he felt the original Fantasia was a tough act to follow (not an entirely unreasonable doubt) but most likely due to the fact that the last time Disney made a sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, it drastically underperformed (even though the reasons for that are entirely Katzenberg’s fault. Seriously, watch Waking Sleeping Beauty and tell me you don’t want to punch him in the nose when Mike Gabriel recalls his opening weekend phone call).
Once Katzenberg was out of the picture, though, Fantasia 2000, then saddled with the less dated but duller moniker Fantasia Continued, got the go-ahead. Many of the sequences were made simultaneously as the animated features my generation most fondly remembers, others were created to be standalone shorts before they were brought into the fold. Since it was ready in time for the new millennium, it not only got a name change but a massive marketing campaign around the fact that it would be played on IMAX screens for a limited run, the very first Disney feature to do so. As a young Fantasia fan who had never been to one of those enormous theaters before, I begged and pleaded my parents to take me. Late that January, we traveled over to the IMAX theater at Lincoln Center, the only one nearest to us since they weren’t so widespread as they are now, and what an experience it was. I can still recall the feeling of awe at the climax of Pines of Rome, whispering eagerly with my mom at how the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue looked like a giant Etch-A-Sketch, and jumping twenty feet in the air when the Firebird’s massive eyes popped open. But did later viewings recapture that magic, or did that first time merely color my perception?
The Rankin-Bass special that even Rankin-Bass fans despise.
Call it a hunch, but I think Charles Dickens really had a thing for Christmas. His most popular novel has the holiday in the title and has been adapted for the screen and stage at least over 200 times. Dickens set a few other tales at Christmastime, no doubt to recapture the magic and spirit of the holiday in the same way A Christmas Carol did, but those were met with less success. Does anyone here remember that classic “The Haunted Man”? That one was a ghost story that also took place at Christmas. Where are the hundreds of versions of that tale? Or “The Chimes” for that matter? Or “The Battle of Life”?
Then there’s today’s tale, “Cricket On the Hearth”, which only received two silent film adaptations (the first directed by D.W. Griffith) and a long-forgotten stage play. For yet-to-be-fathomed reasons, Rankin-Bass deemed it the perfect material to follow up their smash hit Rudolph three years prior. Instead of stop-motion animation, however, we get hand-drawn animation. While that would normally be a plus in my book, I’m not kidding when I say this is some of the cheapest, most unpleasant animation I’ve set my eyes on. It’s heavily recycled, the character designs are unappealing, and it cheats numerous times by just showing long periods of still images with nothing happening. I also had to be careful grabbing screenshots because the far-right side of the video flickered and was several frames off for some reason. And it wasn’t a corrupted file issue either, this is straight from the dvd. They aired this special on national television, how could they not be bothered to fix that?
And those are just the issues I have with the visuals.
The characters are one-dimensional tools, the songs are at best forgettable and at worst unbearable, and the story manages to be both devastatingly bleak and disgustingly saccharine while also insulting to its audience. Now, Charles Dickens was a talented writer knew how to properly mix those elements to tell a compelling and resonant story. In his Christmas tales, the sentimentality and darkness complement each other and ring true.
But guess who did such a bang-up job encumbering a song about ableist reindeer with a meandering hour-long plot that he was given free rein over the story?
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Deny thy special and refuse thy Writer’s Guild card. Or if not, throw thyself into the roaring cauldron of the sea and let the sirens peck at thy swollen flesh…sexist pig.
Well, this preamble has gone on long enough. Grab your insect repellent, folks, let’s look at Cricket On The Hearth.
Ah, back to stop-motion animation. After dealing with Frosty’s nonsense I’m unsure as to whether or not I missed it.
Like most iconic fictional characters, Santa’s been the subject of many origin stories. My personal favorite is The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn, which combines his saintly origins with interesting tidbits about his modern portrayal and a ton of fun historical fiction (he’s helped shape events like Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and instead of elves he has a boatload of historical figures gain immortality to help him including Leonardo Da Vinci, Theodore Roosevelt and Attila The freaking Hun! It had me at hello!) Of course, Rankin-Bass had to do their own spin on the Santa mythos (not for the last time either as one of their final specials was based on L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus) and they did it by combining it with their tried-and-true method of basing it off a holiday standard.
If there’s a reason why we’re able to recall the story of Snow White from memory, and why said princess is usually depicted with short hair, a cute bow and surrounded by woodland fauna, look no further than Disney. Their take on the Grimms’ fairy tale is the prime example of pop cultural osmosis. Even if you’ve never watched Disney’s Snow White, it’s easy to recognize when a piece of work is borrowing from it or spoofing it. And I can definitely see why – not only is it going eighty-plus years strong, but its influence on nearly every Disney feature to come after it is a profound one.
The real story of Disney’s Snow White begins in the early 1910’s when a young Walt Disney saw a silent film version of the Grimms’ fairytale starring Marguerite Clark. The movie stuck with him well into adulthood. One night, well after he had established himself as an animation giant the world over, Walt gathered his entire staff of animators and storymen and re-enacted the tale for them in a mesmerizing one-man show. They were enraptured, but what he told them next struck them dumb – they were going to take what he performed and turn it into a full-length film.
In Tony Goldmark’s epic(ally hilarious) retrospective of Epcot, he performs a quick sketch he summed up as “Walt Disney’s entire career in 55 seconds” where Walt presents his career-defining ideas to a myopic businessman capable of only saying “You fool, that’ll never work!”. Considering how animation is everywhere today, it’s easy to forget that an animated film was once seen as an impossible dream. The press hawked Snow White as “Disney’s Folly”, and Hollywood speculated that it would bankrupt the Mouse House. It very nearly did. Miraculously, a private showing of the half-finished feature to a banking firm impressed the investors enough to ensure its completion.
Snow White is touted as the very first animated movie – admittedly something of a lie on Disney’s behalf. Europe and Russia were experimenting with feature-length animation decades before Walt gave it a try. But consider this: most animated films predating Snow White’s conception are either sadly lost to us or barely count as such by just crossing the hour mark. With all the hard work poured into it showing in every scene, with each moment displaying a new breakthrough in the medium, Snow White might as well be the first completely animated movie after all. Hell, it’s the very first movie in the entire history of cinema that was created using STORYBOARDS. A tool used by virtually every single movie put out today. If that’s not groundbreaking enough, I don’t know what is.
But is Snow White really…but why does it…can it…
“You know what? No. I’m not doing this teasing question thing before the review starts proper. OF COURSE Snow White is a masterpiece. OF COURSE most of it holds up. Let’s skip the middleman so I can explain why.”