If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know how much I love Disney. The projects they’ve announced for their centennial this year have been hit or miss (Little Mermaid and Peter Pan remakes? Not interested. Big history exhibit with Tupac Walt Disney hologram? Very cool. Suing the pants off Ron DeSantis? Awesome!) but the one thing I’ve been looking forward to the most is their next animated film Wish. What little of the premise revealed at D23 revolves around the time-honored Disney tradition of wishing on stars. What really drew me in, though? THE ARTWORK:
Ever since Paperman I’ve hoped that Disney would create a full animated feature blending traditional and CGI mediums in a beautiful, unique way, and now it seems we’re finally getting it. Look at that last picture, it’s like a watercolor illustration! I’ve been keeping tabs on Wish since the D23 debut because the potential here is staggering. Yesterday morning Disney released the first teaser trailer, and if you’ve read this far then you’re probably wondering what I think about it. After all, viscerally reacting to trailers and making bold assumptions before knowing the full context is nothing new on the internet, right?
I’m kind of surprised that I’m reviewing Bedknobs and Broomsticks before the film that was responsible for it in the first place, the one everyone knows and loves – a little movie called Mary Poppins. Everything about Bedknobs and Broomsticks from its conception to creation is inextricably tied to its more popular predecessor. When Walt Disney was still tussling with P.L. Travers over the film rights for Mary Poppins, he sought out the rights to two other books as an alternative. Those stories were Mary Norton’s “The Magical Bedknob” and “Bonfires and Broomsticks” which, by an astounding coincidence, feature a magical woman taking in some children and setting off with them on fantastical adventures. Walt eventually succeeded in getting Mary Poppins on the big screen, and it goes without saying that it was his final crowning achievement, the culmination of every artistic endeavor he undertook over his forty-year career, a joyous musical extravaganza that deserved every award and accolade, and is pretty darn good too. And then he died, leaving behind a directionless studio and some Sideshow Bob-sized shoes to fill.
During that time where the world mourned and the company coasted on the last bit of Walt’s legacy, his brother, Roy O. Disney, remembered they still had the rights to Mary Norton’s books and thought, “Well we had one big hit turning a fantasy story into a big-budget partly-animated musical, why not do it again?” It’s not all that surprising that the studio would try to reproduce Mary Poppins’ success, especially now that they forced to recreate Walt’s brand of magic without him. In fact, they not only brought back a few actors from Mary Poppins and even the same songwriters, The Sherman Brothers, but Julie Andrews was the studio’s first choice to play Eglantine Price! As is often the case, the final product doesn’t fully measure up to the original, and yet…Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still an utterly fantastic film. Much like its heroine, it’s a plucky little feature up against insurmountable odds and its own overwhelming insecurities, but overcomes them both through sheer conviction. Whether its an apprentice witch trying to save her country from war, or a studio rebuilding itself after losing its beloved founder, you gotta love an underdog story. The film boasts a great cast, some memorable songs, phenomenal special effects, and even works as an interesting companion piece to Mary Poppins. Why is that? Well, just in time for its 50th anniversary (give or take a couple of weeks), let’s find out shall we?
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?
Yes folks, after a lengthy absence on this blog, we’re returning to the semi-popular recurring series By The Cover, wherein I discuss my favorite covers of songs entirely from movies. This is a particularly special entry as we’re marking the 80th anniversary of the timeless Disney animated feature, Pinocchio!
When people hear the words “animated musical”, movies like Beauty and the Beast or Snow White come to mind quicker than Pinocchio does. It’s a movie where the characters and story come first and the music comes a close second. That’s not a knock on the soundtrack, far from it. The music is the icing on what’s already a perfectly baked dark and delectable dessert. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington gave us some iconic songs ranging from the fun to the inspirational, and artists have stepped up to the overwhelming task of interpreting them time and again for the past fourscore. Let’s pay them some homage.
Well, I’ve been anticipating/dreading this, but I went ahead and got Disney+. I’m in the middle of the trial period and I confess I haven’t had the time to watch everything yet – not just because there’s so freaking much but I’m in the middle of writing the Rankin-Bass reviews. As of now I’ve finished the first two, am 75% done with the third, and have touched upon the last two (Surprise! There’s going to be FIVE reviews in December! Even if you already know what the original four were, I’m not going to spoil them or what the additional one will be.)
From what I have seen of Disney+, however, I’m impressed. Both new and classic DuckTales and Mickey Mouse shorts coexisting? Legend of the Three Caballeros legally available in the states at last? A place to finally binge watch shows I vaguely remembered like Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck and Tron Uprising? Virtually the entire catalogue of the incredibly cheesy “What Walt Would Have Done” era comedies like The Barefoot Executive and Million Dollar Duck for people who actually remember those? Star Wars’ first live-action series? In-depth documentaries that’ll make any Disney-phile drool? The Black Cauldron, Darby O’Gill and Return to Oz finally getting some recognition? Over a years’ worth of Disney Afternoons you can cram in a week?! They really went all out to entice people into this service!
One of my favorite Disney shows as a kid was The Little Mermaid series. I was particularly eager to return under the sea and let that wave of nostalgia wash over me. It was the very first thing I searched for once it was all set up.
But then I clicked on it, and immediately noticed something was missing – the very first episode.
Don’t be fooled by the numbers. I grew up with this series and I’ll have you know the very first episode of The Little Mermaid is “Whale of a Tale”, aka the one with the heartwrenching opening where a baby orca gets orphaned by whalers and Ariel rescues him while Jodi Benson sings a song about how every creature deserves a loving family and is a punch to the gut every time I hear it!
What could have happened to make the people in charge of getting this series up on Disney+ forget the episode that started it all and is featured the most in the series intro for goodness sakes! I know the first few minutes are a tad…emotional, but it’s a great beginning to a fine addition to one of my favorite Disney movies. This series may not be high up on anyone’s priority, but I still can’t wrap my head around how they made this kind of error.
On a similar note, I see the original Mickey Mouse Club and Spin & Marty there (awesome), and they have The Sign of Zorro, but not the Zorro series itself? Disney’s Zorro was great! Hilarious, swashbuckling, great acting and that classic Walt Disney feel? If all the Herbie movies and Star Wars prequels can get some time in the spotlight, why not this one?
Of course, I can’t forget the Fox in the room. The timing of Disney+’s release with their acquisition of 20th Century Fox is a bit too coincidental..and very problematic in the long run, but that’s a thought for another time. My cable provider didn’t support FXX’s streaming at the time so I had to rely on my trusty worn 480p dvds to get my Springfield kicks. But for better or for worse, the entirety of one of my favorite shows of all time is available to stream in glorious 4K HD…but it’s been badly cropped to fit widescreen TVs, resulting in awkwardly cramped scenes and visual gags cut off by the black. Boo.
(EDIT: I’ve been informed that Disney+ will broadcast The Simpsons in its original 4:3 aspect ratio starting in 2020. Whether “Stark Raving Dad” will be added to the lineup at that time remains to be seen, but considering the controversy surrounding it, it’s best not to hold your breath.)
One issue I worried about was how much of Disney’s, ah, “questionable content” from the Walt era would be included. A notorious rumor that floated around for a while was that movies like Dumbo would be completely re-edited to remove the stereotypical racial characters like the Crows or the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp. While I can’t pretend I don’t see why people would get in an uproar over their inclusion today, hacking these classic films for the sake of political correctness would have been a travesty. My fears were put to rest, however, when those movies were not only left fully in tact, but came with a small content warning in the vein of Warner Brothers’ unedited cartoon releases. Very good, Disney, you’re learning…but that doesn’t excuse unleashing all of those terrible direct-to-video sequels side-by-side with the superior originals! Any poor child could accidentally expose themselves to them! Won’t somebody please think of the children?!
Like I said, nearly every Mickey Mouse short is here as well as many of the Silly Symphonies among others. I wish they could have been grouped together to make them easier to find and watch all at once, but who knows? Maybe they’ll do that in the future.
“Hang on, I’m getting to my point.”
I know this post looks like me complaining, but I’m genuinely excited for almost everything Disney+ has to offer and can’t wait to revisit some of my favorite series and discover new ones. But this service can still do better. There’s some notable flaws that I hope they fix in due time, and even more I’d like to see that I hope they get around to including.
In short, Disney+ isn’t perfect, the “everyone’s here” tag line isn’t quite accurate, and their iron grip on how much of the Fox film catalogue goes in and out of the vault is worrisome, but I have high hopes that they’ll improve as it goes along and I’m thrilled to see what they come out with next.
Besides, what could other streaming services have that this doesn’t?
“New…hand-drawn…animated…I’M COMING NETFLIX! DON’T START WITHOUT ME!!”
Thank you for reading! Have you gotten Disney+ yet? Do you have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you soon!
…Also if we can make #WheresWhaleOfATaleDisney+ a thing I will be eternally grateful to you all.
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Snow White, in addition to being the first full-length American animated feature, was the first movie to release its soundtrack to the public for their listening pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the popularity of its songs saw many renditions by many well-known artists of the day. As time went on and Snow White was viewed as just another cartoon for the kids, the music found its way to many records aimed at young children. But it found new life in the 60s as jazz musicians took turns sampling the time-honored tunes and made them part of their repertoire. And it hasn’t stopped since. Snow White’s status as a Disney classic means there will always be some new iteration of its iconic melodies.
“When You Wish Upon A Star
Makes No Difference Who You Are Anything Your Heart Desires
Will Come To You…”
In my last review, I compared Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Star Wars; a blockbuster that captivated audiences, revolutionized filmmaking, and was an all-around fun adventure with a likable cast. Well if Snow White is Disney’s Star Wars – before Disney owned Lucasfilm, I mean – then Pinocchio is undoubtedly Disney’s Empire Strikes Back: refined visuals, more complex storytelling and characters, and much, MUCH darker.
The success of Snow White marked the beginning of big things for Disney animation. The sizable influx of cash meant Walt could build a bigger studio, hire more staff, and give his projects a noticeably larger budget. The question is, where to go from here? What movie could possibly follow the fairest one of all? Investors were clamoring for a sequel and the idea was toyed with for a time, but Walt was not a one-trick pony. Then animator Norm Ferguson brought a copy of Carlo Collodi’s Le avventuri di Pinocchio to Walt’s attention. Walt and a few of his key guys had attended a performance of Yasha Frank’s successful staging of Pinocchio prior to Snow White’s release and noted the story had possibilities for adaptation – plenty of spectacle, cute comic relief critters, etc. Seeing that book sparked Walt’s memory; after reading it, he intended to make Pinocchio his third animated venture behind the upcoming Bambi. But when that movie ran into production troubles, Pinocchio was bumped up to its place. Does it measure up to Snow White, though? Let’s find out.
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.”
Of all the animated Disney films out there, few have had a history as troubled or as fascinating as The Black Cauldron. Shaped less by the average process of transforming a novel to film and more by the decade, regime, mindset towards animation and internal struggle of power of the studio that made it, The Black Cauldron is considered the black sheep of the canon; those who worked on it have few fond memories of the experience, and the result of all that blood, sweat, tears, and voodoo curses hurled in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s direction is an odd creature Disney is content to let wallow in relative obscurity. To this day it’s looked down upon by all but a few loyal fans who’ve elevated it to semi-cult status. The story of how and why this is is worth a documentary of its own.
As for my thoughts on the film itself…well…
I honestly can’t talk about my feelings towards The Black Cauldron without putting it into some context first. And there’s a LOT of context that needs to be explained. Hence why I’ve decided to split this review into two parts. This first half will go over the history of the movie and behind the scenes shenanigans, while Part 2, which is the review I know you’ve been anticipating, will be released next week. So if you want to avoid an engaging history lesson that discusses the climate in which The Black Cauldron was created in depth and go right to the film itself, I suggest you return at a later date. Or go watch Waking Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fascinating, personal look into the struggle that shaped Disney’s Renaissance era and they devote a good chunk of the beginning into what went down during the making of The Black Cauldron.