A few years back on this very website, I posted an article (since deleted) in which I attempted to rank every Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film from worst to best. I pieced my list together from memory, attempting to allocate places based on half-baked remembrances of films I’d not seen in a long time. Looking back on this article recently, I decided it simply wasn’t good enough and the only way to accurately rank these films was to rewatch them all, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past three months or so. I can now present a full list in which I am more confident, with more extensive reviews to back up the rankings.
In this third part, I’m looking at more of the enjoyable but flawed 3.5 star films. You can read the previous parts here:
All entries contain spoilers.
40. MELODY TIME
The fifth Disney package film, Melody Time has a similar theme and structure to Make Mine Music. A series of short subjects vaguely linked by a focus on music, Melody Time pares down the number of shorts from Make Mine Music’s ten to a more palatable seven. Though the runtime remains the same, fewer segments allows for a greater focus on each and Melody Time sidesteps any underworked experimental bores like the former film’s Blue Bayou, Without You or Two Silhouettes. The closest we get is Trees, a musical version of Joyce Kilmer’s poem of the same name, which follows the progress of some trees throughout the changing seasons. It’s a nice, appropriately short vignette and, if its animation of forest animals already feels like a far cry from the quality of Bambi from six years before, there’s a deliberate stylisation that embraces the studio’s then-current financial limitations and makes this modest tribute to the Golden Age work.
If Trees tips its hat to the wistful ambition of classic Disney, Melody Time is at its best when it is having more fun with its concept. Bumble Boogie, which is set to a jazz variation of Flight of the Bumblebee, is a frantic vision of a small bee beset by blaring instruments and a shifting surrealist environment. Blame It on the Samba briefly resurrects the spirit of The Three Caballeros, as the Aracuan Bird who was first introduced in that film helps Donald Duck and José Carioca lift their spirits with a samba beat, giving way to another surrealist extravaganza which includes a live action performance by organist Ethel Smith. There’s a lovely shift from the sluggish movements of the depressed protagonists at the beginning of the short into the lively dancing that constitutes the main action. In a beautiful use of colour, they go from literally blue to vibrantly hued as the music brings them to life. Donald had become something of a hero of the package era by this point and this was his fourth appearance in a Disney feature. It’s a joyous interlude.
There’s much to enjoy elsewhere in Melody Time too. Opener Once Upon a Wintertime is a stylised romance featuring a human couple and a pair of rabbits whose innocent skating on a frozen lake turns into a perilous endeavour. What starts out looking like a twee, directionless exercise finds purpose in its Buster Keaton-esque thrill-based final act, and the comparatively basic animation style sets the expectations for the whole of Melody Time, leaning into its shortcomings with an infectious can-do attitude that makes it easily likeable. The closing short Pecos Bill, despite some unfortunately cloying live action moments featuring the most insufferable little boy imaginable, is also a lively, amusing bit of lightly satirical myth-making, complete with a dash of the anti-Native American racism you’d expect from a 40s Western and some scenes of smoking that Disney initially removed from home video releases, deeming tobacco more offensive that the genocide of indigenous peoples. Aside from this unfortunate mark of the era, Pecos Bill is a nice, light-hearted comedy short. Still, I think it would’ve been more effective earlier in the film and swapping it with the Johnny Appleseed segment would’ve provided a more fittingly bucolic ending. As it is, Johnny Appleseed slows Melody Time down just as it’s starting to get going. It’s a pleasant enough vignette, if slightly overlong, but I think it would’ve served as a much more fitting finale.
As is often the case with compilations of any kind, Melody Time’s running order would likely emerge differently every time if entrusted to a cross-section of viewers. For my part, I’d have bumped Blame It on the Samba up to the opening act, starting with a bang, with Pecos Bill as a comedy centrepiece and Johnny Appleseed as a winddown. Still, whichever order you put them in, in my book there isn’t a dud among the shorts that make up Melody Time. Few of them rise to greatness but they create a pleasant 75 minute viewing experience which is nicely woven together by an animated paintbrush which renders the name of each performer on the screen at the top of their respective segment. Among them are The Andrews Sisters who enliven Little Toot, the story of a troublesome tugboat, and Roy Rogers, whose folksy telling of Pecos Bill is enhanced by the Sons of the Pioneers’ crooning of the Western ballad Blue Shadows on the Trail.
There’s a modest charm to Disney’s musical package films and Melody Time of the best of the two, largely avoiding Make Mine Music’s slightly odd tone in favour of something more straightforwardly charming. Its slightness might prevent it from really leaping out as a classic but it certainly has moments worthy of a Disney retrospective and on restless nights when settling into a lengthy narrative feels difficult it makes for a charming alternative revue.
For its 50th animated feature under the Walt Disney Animation Studios banner, Disney went back to their roots with a fairy-tale-inspired narrative. They had already done this to an even greater extent with the previous year’s The Princess and the Frog, which was traditionally animated amidst a sea of computer animated releases, but it seemed appropriate that Tangled be a computer animated film, looking to the future rather than the past. Sure, the classic fairy tale backdrop felt like a tip of the hat to Disney heritage, but the combination of the 17th century source material with a sassy, self-aware 21st century sense of humour felt very much tipped towards a Disney for a new decade, just as the blended art style employing elements of traditional animation felt like a small concessionary gesture. Perhaps the most obvious link to the past was the return of songs sung by the characters themselves, something that had been absent from Disney films since the late 90s and which The Princess and the Frog had also reinstated. But any concerns about a backwards-looking conservatism creating a product to which the children in the audience would struggle to relate were pretty much swept away with the appearance of that punchy title: Tangled.
There was some controversy at the time it was announced that the film would be called Tangled rather than Rapunzel, with much speculation that the slight commercial disappointment of The Princess and the Frog had been attributed to the word “Princess” in the title. Tangled was seen as a non-gendered alternative, although an early trailer that placed greater emphasis on the male lead suggested an attempt to skew Tangled towards that overserved audience of boys and men instead. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard denied this was the reason, claiming that it was wrong to single out Rapunzel when there was another main character, but that sounds like poppycock given that the opening voiceover by that same main character acknowledges “this is actually a very fun story and the truth is, it isn’t even mine.” That’s literally in the second sentence spoken in the film. Even without that acknowledgement, if you’re watching Tangled and failing to see Rapunzel as the main character, there’s some level of blinkered gender bias at play. Still, given that the originally proposed title was Rapunzel Unbraided, there was clearly a desire from early in the process to define Tangled as something more modern and for a time it seemed like it would kick off a series of Disney titles that were one-word adjectives, with Frozen following and an aborted Jack and the Beanstalk film set to be called Gigantic. Given Tangled’s slightly more streetwise edge, its eventual title admittedly suited it more than Rapunzel would have.
I must admit that when Tangled first came out I regarded it with cynical suspicion. I thought of it as a forced attempt to be hip and modern that clashed with the classic Disney aesthetic. Of course, as a then-28-year-old who grew up with the first Disney Renaissance, this was more about my own entitlement over what I thought Disney should be. While it seemed a bit jarring at the time, Tangled makes a lot more sense in the context of the string of hits it kicked off, with its slightly too arch tone betraying the fine-tuning that was taking place in service of defining a new era of Disney successes. Although it sometimes feels like it’s straining too hard to please a certain demographic, a desire to cater to the younger audience of a new century is a wise and laudable aim and there’s absolutely no reason that should be stymied by a big kid in his late 20s who thinks he should be the target audience of everything and still uses words like “hip”. Watching Tangled last night, as a big kid in his 40s with broader horizons and a child of his own, I enjoyed it a great deal more.
Tangled is not without its problems. Chief among them is Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s soundtrack, which is distinctly unmemorable. If Tangled as a whole makes more sense in light of what came next, its musical offerings pale in comparison to the hits generated by Frozen, Moana and Encanto. There’s no big showstopping number, with the closest thing being a truly insipid, and of course Oscar-nominated, ballad called I See the Light, which drizzles by with all the uplift of a bad hair day, while Mother Knows Best is an adequate but minimal interlude and When Will My Life Begin? is as drearily generic an example of the Disney Princess “I Want” song as you could possibly imagine. The songs appear at fairly irregular intervals, feeling more like interruptions than enhancements. I’ve Got a Dream, an upbeat singalong that draws its humour from being assigned to a group of tavern-dwelling bruisers, is a prime example of Tangled’s sometimes overeager humour. It’s good to see expectation-smashing gags but the fact that the joke arises from so-called thugs (check the credits) singing about their artistic aspirations betrays a root conservatism that contradicts the positivity.
Speaking of conservatism, at the time of writing Tangled is one of the last Disney films to really foreground a central romance. There’s absolutely no reason this shouldn’t be the case. Sure, it was problematic when every single Disney princess was defined by her search for a husband, but that doesn’t mean romantic love needs to be erased from every narrative, especially one like Rapunzel where its presence feels warranted. But Tangled trips over its romance like a slapstick side-character stumbling over Rapunzel’s trailing barnet. After building quite sweetly and naturally, without any of that written-in-the-stars, love-at-first-sight bunkum, there’s a climactic gag in which Flynn’s voiceover tells us that he eventually married Rapunzel after she practically begged him. We then hear a playfully scolding interjection from Rapunzel herself, and Flynn concedes “OK, OK, I asked her.” It feels like a deeply retrograde concession to courtly love and playing that voiceover over images of Rapunzel dipping Flynn backwards for a kiss feels like a superficial overcorrect. It pairs oddly with a joke that essentially says “Of course it was the man who proposed! God, can you imagine?!” and this is the sour note on which Tangled ends.
Fortunately, there’s also a lot that Tangled gets right. The screenplay by Dan Fogelman, who previously co-wrote Cars for Pixar and Bolt for Disney, fills the gaps between its missteps with strong character comedy and good goofball gags. The running jokes involving Rapunzel’s weaponisation of a frying pan and Flynn’s pursuit by a doggedly-determined horse called Maximus are both great, while Rapunzel herself is one of the most memorable Disney princesses in terms of personality. Despite the occasional injustices the screenplay does her, she is neither revoltingly saccharine nor unconvincingly ass-kicking. Instead, she is abundantly human, instantly lovable and refreshingly comedic, never forced to play the tedious straightwoman in her own story. While some of this can be attributed to the writing, much credit must also go to the voice actor and animators. Mandy Moore is terrific as Rapunzel and the character’s mixture of childlike innocence, intelligence and resourcefulness are brought out further by the appealingly cartoony character design and palpable sense of agility with which the lively animation imbues her. If the dynamic between her and Zachary Levi’s more generic handsome rogue type Flynn Rider is a little underwhelming, there’s a particularly interesting relationship at the heart of Tangled to compensate for this. Mother Gothel, who kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby and raises her in captivity for eighteen years while posing as her mother, is a terrific villain and is more than done justice by a scene-stealing Donna Murphy as her voice. The fascinating dynamic between her and Rapunzel juxtaposes the monstrous act she had committed with a sense that real love has developed between the two, as cleverly illustrated by a habitual routine in which they tell each other they love the other one more. While there is no redemption to be had for this self-serving kidnapper, I wish the film could’ve at least momentarily explored the fallout of this fractured bond when the truth finally comes out, rather than just going “Oh, you’re a baddie. You’ve fallen out of a tower and turned to dust. Good!” Still, a level of emotional simplification is to be expected in fairy tales and fortunately the following scenes of Rapunzel’s reunion with her real family are genuinely moving in their mute simplicity.
Speaking of mute, I really appreciate how Tangled opts to keep its animal characters silent. Pascal the Chameleon is infinitely more effective as a cute sidekick by virtue of having to communicate through facial expressions rather than sassy interjections, while the intensity of Maximus’s obsession with tracking down Flynn is magnified by the numerous grunts and horsey splutters that accompany his frustrations. This reliance on physicality extends to Rapunzel’s parents, whose grief and eventual joy is captured far more effectively through tender looks and touches than it would be through expositional dialogue. With plenty of smart choices like this to offset its numerous stumbles, it’s easy to see why Tangled has been embraced as a semi-classic by many and a flat-out classic by those that grew up with it. While there had been a definite uptick in quality with a couple of the films that directly preceded it, Tangled has come to represent the beginning of Disney’s decisively successful Revival era and soon audiences would once again be coming to Disney films with an expectation of quality rather than apprehension.
38. SALUDOS AMIGOS
The Golden Age was over. With five films under its belt that would eventually be accepted as classics but which, for the time being, included several costly box office failures, the Disney Studio needed to make decisive changes. This meant an era of cheaper films, sometimes bolstered by some form of Government backing, was the necessary route down which Disney was heading. At some point during this era, Walt Disney is said to have declared “We’re through with caviar. From now on it’s mashed potatoes and gravy.” But if this snooty metaphor betrayed an artistic dissatisfaction in Walt, it also failed to acknowledge the fact that most people would probably rather eat mashed potatoes than fish eggs. The Disney package films may have faded into comparative obscurity these days (does caviar stay fresh longer than potatoes? Is my own metaphor breaking down here?!) but this is an unpretentious and fascinating era that is often derided for its anomalous qualities while its continued inventiveness and charm are unfairly overlooked.
Saludos Amigos is often considered the weakest of all the Disney features and, at 42 minutes in length, barely even a feature (the AFI and BFI still currently define feature length as anything over 40 minutes). It’s understandable that those who grew up on a certain type of Disney film find some of the older ones difficult to comprehend. It’s easy to work out the average age of the majority of Letterboxd users from the fact that Treasure Planet, Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove are all higher rated than Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi. But it’s not just our biases towards the films we grew up on that make Saludos Amigos one of the lowest rated Disney films. It is essentially a collection of four animated short subjects with some bridging live action documentary sequences. As someone who grew up watching the theatrical shorts of Disney, Warner Bros., MGM and the Fleischer brothers on TV, this format appeals to me greatly but, far from the ubiquitous schedule fillers they used to be, these short films rarely get an outing these days and their distinct stylistic rhythms may be lost on those more used to longer, more conventionally structured narratives. Two of the four films here are spot gag shorts, essentially a series of jokes punctuated by blackouts or quick cuts. It’s not a style you see much anymore, and their stars, Donald Duck and Goofy, probably mean less to the generations that followed after the 90s animation boom, in which the classic Hollywood animated shorts that inspired the new toons shared space with them in the schedules.
It’s also important to have a little historical context if you’re to fully appreciate Saludos Amigos. There are many cynical but ill-informed reviews accusing Disney of the commodification of a culture here but in reality the motivation behind the film was a lot more laudable. As part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy towards Latin America, the US State Department funded a goodwill tour of South America for Disney animators, with the view to create a film that would increase understanding and interest between central and Latin America. There was also a more important interior motive. Several Latin American governments had ties with Nazi Germany and the film was planned as a way to change this. So while the version of Latin American culture offered in Saludos Amigos may be broadly simplistic, it was born out of attempts to bridge gaps and counteract tyranny rather that just an appropriative money-making endeavour. That its success was a plus for the struggling studio does not take away from the fact that it also positively changed the image of Latin America in the minds of many by showing them scenes of locales and customs they would never otherwise glimpse.
For those like myself who have a great love for the animated shorts of old, Saludos Amigos will probably rate a little higher than it does for those who arrive at it straight from Tangled and Frozen by way of no explanatory context. But it’s fair to say that, even for me, the brief runtime and episodic structure does make for a less thrillingly cinematic experience than one full length story. Saludos Amigos plays as a neat little experiment, with the necessary budgetary cuts being balanced by the undimmed ambition. It feels like a scrapbook assembled by holidaying animators, with new sights, sounds and ideas leaping from every page. The Lake Titicaca and El Gaucho Goofy segments are middling Disney shorts, with sufficient laughs and a couple of smart, unusual ideas jumping out (the slow-motion sequence in El Gaucho Goofy particularly stands out). Pedro, about a small Chilean airplane struggling through adverse weather conditions to deliver the mail, showcases Disney’s ability to squeeze an effective adventure story into a short timeframe, while the closing Aquarela do Brasil introduces the film’s new original creation, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca, who would go on to star alongside Donald in the subsequent Latin American themed film The Three Caballeros. Aquarela do Brasil epitomises both what works and doesn’t work about Saludos Amigos. With its splashy style and loose plot, it shows that the Disney urge to innovate was still strong, but the segment ends too soon, adhering to the standard seven-minute runtime of a short when it really could’ve done with at least double that length to stretch out and achieve its party atmosphere more convincingly.
Saludos Amigos may star two iconic Disney characters in Donald Duck and Goofy but the real star for me was the droll narrator Fred Shields. His warm, informative tone helps prevent the vibrantly colourful but ponderous live-action footage from slipping into tedium, while his narration of three of the animated segments is the perfect mix of authoritative and game, willing to poke fun at himself and his omniscient role when the film demands it. There’s also another great Oscar-nominated Disney score and original song. Playing over the opening credits, Charles Wolcott and Ned Washington’s title ditty immediately creates the necessary convivial tone. It’s a tone that never dips throughout the short runtime and for those who don’t leave the screening fully satisfied, there is hopefully at least a residue of the infectious positivity at the heart of the project.
37. FUN AND FANCY FREE
The Disney package films are often characterised as botched together affairs with little to connect their various segments but this is a claim with which I take issue. I think the studio actually did an excellent job of theming these films in a way that makes their sequences flow really well. There are the Latin America films, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, the music films, Make Mine Music and Melody Time, and the celebration of Anglo-American storytelling that is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The remaining package film, Fun and Fancy Free, is the only one that feels like the Disney staff rummaged through their work-in-progress file and smashed a couple of disparate projects together. Yet even with no unifying theme, Fun and Fancy Free still has plenty to offer in way of a good time. It’s a grab bag of ideas linked by some half-hearted connecting sequences that lean hard on the proven charm of Jiminy Cricket. Jiminy sings a deleted Pinocchio ditty (because this really is a dumping ground for unused ideas) before extolling the virtues of keeping a lighthearted outlook in the face of doom and gloom, in a manner that just screams climate change denier. He then forsakes the supposedly alarmist headlines in a newspaper in favour of a record he discovers of a musical romance story narrated by Dinah Shore, and that is our flimsy way in to the first of Fun and Fancy Free’s two stories.
Fortunately for Fun and Fancy Free, its two main segments are more convincing than the connecting material. While neither is prime Disney, there’s plenty to interest and entertain here. First up is Bongo, a thoroughly peculiar but strangely charming story of a circus bear who escapes the captivity of the circus train and heads into the wild. Here he learns the bizarre mating ritual of wild bears as he battles a ferocious grizzly for the love of a female bear called Lulubelle. Bongo was briefly considered as a sequel to Dumbo, with characters from that film cameoing, but ultimately the decision was made to keep it as its own story. Interestingly, Bongo corrects one of Dumbo’s ideological problems for modern audiences by denouncing the treatment of circus animals instead of being ambivalent at best. Bongo is depicted as mistreated by his human captors and longing to escape to his natural habitat. When he gets there however, he finds it very hard to adapt. I was initially worried that this was going to lead to a realisation that he was better off in the circus (this is what actually happens in the short story by Sinclair Lewis on which this version is loosely based, which ends with Bongo prostrating himself to a ringmaster) but fortunately the short circus portion of Bongo only exists in order to instil a naïvety in its protagonist about his own kind, as well as an excuse to have him ride a little unicycle everywhere.
The scenes of Bongo’s attempts to adapt to the wild are some of the best in the film and Disney could easily have built a whole narrative around this. Instead, Bongo segues into a kitschy romantic dream sequence, filled with floating hearts and Cupid teddy bears. It is self-aware enough to sidestep the nauseating overkill of Fantasia’s centaur sequence but I’m still glad that Bongo undergoes a third shift in tone as it becomes an adventure story, with Bongo battling a ferocious bear thrice his size for the affections of Lulubelle. The excitement of a fight atop a raging waterfall is offset by the utterly weird plot wrinkle which suggests bears communicate affection by slapping each other. There’s a whole song in which courting grizzlies smack the snot out of each other to underline the point. I’ve read several reviews that fear Bongo promotes domestic violence but the film is at pains to make clear that it is about animal mating rituals (albeit apocryphal ones) and not about equating violence with affection in a way that is likely to breed the next generation of wife beaters. Sure, it is a little troubling that Bongo is a love story that works up to a triumphant moment where the male protagonist belts his female love interest in the chops, but the likely fall-out from letting your kids watch this will be some short-term slap fights rather than a warped perspective on romantic relationships. Still, it’s hard to defend Bongo from a storytelling point of view. It is, after all, a big mess, but it’s a mess with some delightful animation and an appealing oddness that makes it fascinating.
The second segment, Mickey and the Beanstalk, is a lot more conventional as a straight adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy. The strange part of this sequence is its delivery, with a narration by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. All three appear in live action sequences that punctuate the animation and their narration, complete with irreverent interjections, continues throughout. A lot of people find the prominent use of Bergen and his puppets to be an irritation but I thought it was great, making a potentially predictable cartoon instead feel highly unusual. The cynical asides of Charlie McCarthy are particularly relishable and balance out the dimpled saccharine of precocious poppet Luana Patten. Mickey, Donald and Goofy had already proved themselves an effective trio in a number of classic shorts, and Mickey and the Beanstalk actually falls short of seven minute classics like Mickey’s Trailer or Clock Cleaners. But there’s plenty to enjoy here, from a terrifying psychotic meltdown from a hunger-mad Donald to the debut of Willie the Giant, an oddly lovable villain who would later return in the more suitably avuncular role of The Ghost of Christmas Present in the excellent Mickey’s Christmas Carol. There are fun scenes of the growing beanstalk carrying the sleeping trio aloft in their beds, an attempt by Mickey to retrieve a key from the giant’s pocket that makes the most of every opportunity for suspense, and a great ending in which the giant breaks through into the real world to literally raise the roof on Bergen’s party. If Walt Disney was right to doubt Mickey and the Beanstalk’s suitability for a full-length feature, I’m glad it saw the light of day in some form.
Fun and Fancy Free is definitely the most loosely taped together Disney feature but if its baggy seams are obvious, they aren’t too distracting given that the pieces they are holding together are so charmingly wrought. The film regularly appears towards the bottom of Disney film lists but the weirdness that puts most people off is exactly what draws in a weirdo like me. While not a classic by any means, Fun and Fancy Free is another fine package film that deserves more credit than its reputation affords it.
The towering critical reputation of Fantasia can be intimidating to those trying to rank the Disney canon, especially those of us with the gall to place it lower than Oliver and Company. But there’s always been a certain push-and-pull between different types of snobbery when it comes to this film. Walt Disney, himself a Classical music novice by his own admission, was caught between a fetishistic attitude to the high status Fantasia seemed to offer and a proud everymanism that saw him align himself with the mass audience to whom he wanted to bring these masterworks. For my part, I’ve never been a fan of Classical music and that’s surely detrimental when it comes to totally falling in love with Fantasia. Disney put almost as much emphasis on the music in Fantasia as he did the animation, even having his engineers develop a whole new sound reproduction system called Fantasound, designed to make the audience feel like the orchestra was in the same room as them (and presumably infused with the great taste of oranges). Conductor Leopold Stokowski was hired to oversee the creation of the soundtrack, which includes music by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky and Schubert. Even a philistine like me recognises most of those names and the music has been carefully selected to be instantly recognisable to the average viewer. Classical music experts were somewhat hostile towards Disney’s bowdlerisation and reinterpretation of the material, but this was one type of criticism Walt had foreseen and preemptively disregarded, given that his intention was to bring the music to the masses rather than pander to the intelligentsia. He might have been partially seduced by prestige but Walt’s first concern was always his audience.
If my lack of appreciation for Classical music somewhat reduces my inclination to adore Fantasia, my obsessive love for the medium of animation provides considerable balance in that respect. I don’t love Fantasia but I admire the hell out of its ambition, its scope and its intermittently jawdropping execution. There’s no denying that sitting down to watch Fantasia is a unique experience. There’s a buzz of excitement that hangs over its prestigious method of exhibition, as the orchestra assembles before us and the master of ceremonies steps forward. Unfortunately, that role has been handed to critic and composer Deems Taylor, a stiff figure lacking in charisma whose blathery interludes overexplain every sequence in advance and, in the case of the narrative segments, render Letterboxd’s “contains spoilers” button thoroughly redundant. Though Taylor is clearly game, throwing himself into the whimsical Meet the Soundtrack interlude after the film’s intermission, his introductions are so dry and tortuous that you begin to dread each segment ending for fear of his inevitable reappearance.
Of course, Deems Taylor isn’t the main attraction of Fantasia but his tedious interruptions are handily illustrative of what a bumpy ride this film is. When it really gets going and the combination of evocative music and dazzling imagery are holding the viewer in thrall, the reasons for Fantasia’s reverent reputation couldn’t be clearer. But there are ample longueurs that prevent this breathless response from breaking through distracted ennui in order to reach full-blown awe. Sometimes these lulls occur within otherwise impressive segments. The Nutcracker Suite vacillates between imagery that is whimsically charming and painfully glacial, while The Rite of Spring, the film’s longest sequence, is a tad too fussy in how minutely it focuses on the beginnings of life on Earth, eventually building to a dinosaur crescendo that is just about worth the wait. The effective horror of the celebrated Night on Bald Mountain finale is tempered by a dreary coda set to Ave Maria in which a vaguely defined candlelit procession marches interminably towards anticlimax. And all the while, Deems drains away the element of surprise by telling us exactly what’s coming.
I get it though, Fantasia is not meant to function like a normal narrative film. The whole show is in the marriage of music and image, and Taylor’s introductions are designed to highlight the coming beats so we can settle into focusing primarily on the artistry. Sometimes that artistry is virtually matchless within the medium. Disney probably has no image more iconic than the newly redesigned Mickey Mouse wearing the sorcerer’s hat, the emblem of Fantasia’s most beloved sequence, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Originally intended as a standalone short to boost the waning popularity of the studio’s star rodent, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice eventually became too expensive to possibly make its money back as a short, which is when the idea was concocted to come up with a whole program of shorts of comparable prestige. The origins of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are clear in how easily it can be, and how often it has been, cut adrift from the rest of the feature, and its immediate familiarity almost inspires a spontaneous ovation from the viewer. The short itself more than lives up to that positive kneejerk, with Mickey proving to be a charming protagonist and the army of broomsticks he raises and then loses control of being equally unforgettable. There are dream sequences, ethereal butterflies, dramatic silhouettes and buckets of endless cascading water. It’s a perfect 8 minutes of film.
Unfortunately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s perfection has a flipside in the nauseating Pastoral Symphony, which is almost three times the length and not even a quarter as effective. A shapeless bacchanalia of classical mythology references in which frisky teenage centaurs pair up under the watchful eyes of hovering Cupid-like winged babies, The Pastoral Symphony is also the segment that later became controversial for its unambiguously racist portrayal of two black centaurettes, one of whom polishes the hooves of the others. These scenes have been permanently removed from Fantasia from as early on as 1969 but even without them The Pastoral Symphony has a strange, uncomfortable feeling about it. It builds slowly to a climax of sorts with a terrible storm sent by Zeus but for the most part this is aimless cutesy capering, the like of which characterised the weaker Silly Symphonies. I love the Silly Symphonies but Fantasia was clearly meant to be a progression from them and instead this flabby, rather ugly sequence feels like a remnant of the recent past struggling to keep up.
It’s fortunate that The Pastoral Symphony is followed up by Dance of the Hours, Fantasia’s most overtly comedic moment. With its intermittent air of pomposity, Fantasia was always going to be ripe for parody and it received memorable ones in Bob Clampett’s short A Corny Concerto (with Elmer Fudd in the Deems Taylor role) and Bruno Bozzetto’s exquisite feature length send-up Allegro Non Troppo. But Fantasia is not so self-serious as to not recognise the open goal it is creating for satirists, and with Dance of the Hours it essentially gets there first by parodying itself before the film has even ended. A ballet performed by creatures too cumbersome and partners too delicate to handle them, Dance of the Hours ends up literally bringing the house down. Nevertheless, its dancing elephants, hippos, ostriches and alligators are as beautifully rendered as anything else in the film and the segment has its cake and digests it before our eyes, a glorious parody that sidesteps conspicuous self consciousness.
Had Fantasia kept up the quality of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dance of the Hours and the dazzling pre-Ave Maria section of the climactic Night on Bald Mountain, it would undoubtedly have been a 5 star chart topper for me. Unfortunately, though its extraordinary ambition is to be admired, Fantasia keeps tripping over its aspirations. An opening attempt at abstract animation for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence was inspired by the brilliant German artist Oskar Fischinger who made the exemplary abstract animation Komposition in Blau. Fischinger himself was hired to work on the segment but his designs were deemed too extreme for Disney’s take on abstraction and he left the project in despair after having his work rejected. The eventual result of Disney’s first dalliance with abstraction is interesting enough but it feels like it has a foot in two different camps, its shapes repeatedly drifting back towards recognisable forms and even, in one regrettably heavy-handed moment, borderline anthropomorphism. It’s an odd way to open an already bold project and the fact that it doesn’t quite work gets things off on an awkward footing from which Fantasia never fully recovers.
Placing Fantasia in a ranking of Disney films is a nightmare task because it features material that absolutely deserves to be at the top end of the ranking but it also includes clumsy moments that would place much lower. In the end I’ve split the difference to give it a mid-table position. Containing some of the best animated moments of the twentieth century is one thing but when you have to sit through twenty minute stretches of tedium to get there it somewhat diminishes the film’s overall greatness.
35. THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is, in many respects, a classic Disney feature. What Disney made of A. A. Milne’s characters has become the first thing most people think of when they hear the name Winnie the Pooh and, while purists rended garments over how its Americanisation refused to pander to their rigid British nationalism, Disney’s version of Pooh managed to capture the light whimsicality of the books without dishonouring the material. Unless, of course, you count adding an amusing and very minor gopher character to the ensemble as dishonouring the material which, God knows, plenty of unbending, Keep-Pooh-British activists/xenophobes did. OK, so I’m probably coming in a bit hard on the critics here. After all, the attachments we form to the books we love, especially childhood favourites, can cause a sort of possessive madness in us that transcends other prejudices. Plus, after the hostile reaction to the first of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh featurettes, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, the studio were able to make some improvements for the next one, the significantly better Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, including the introduction of the previously absent character of Piglet, something for which the critics lobbied hard. So not all the criticisms came from the same hysterically nationalistic place as The Daily Mail’s article ‘Massacre in 100 Aker Wood’, which called for readers to “defend against an extraordinary attack [on] one of the last proud remnants of the British Empire.” Some of it seemed to come from a stubborn ignorance of the art of adaptation, regarding the replacement of illustrator E. H. Shepard’s deliberately expressionless characters with smiling ones and the replacement of Milne’s poem-like “hums” with snatches of songs set to music. These objections crave a facsimile rather than an adaptation and come from the same place as nerdy diatribes that criticise a nine hour Tolkien adaptation for removing the character of Tom Bombadil. Film and literature are different mediums and, while it’s reasonable to expect some level of faithfulness in the adaptation process, really, there’s never been such a hysterical overreaction to the absence of a piglet since the star of Babe was late to set after an all-night swill bender.
At this point, of course, it’s only fair to turn my crosshairs inward. For whole generations, Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh has supplanted Milne and Shepard’s version and I was part of one of those generations, so biased protectiveness over something from my own childhood assuredly plays a part in my sardonic and presumptuous attitude to some of the critics. My Dad owned copies of both of Milne’s original novels and, while I thumbed through both as a result of my love of the Disney films, I was far more likely to seek out the adaptation than the original. It’s fair to say there is something to be mourned when a commercialised imitation usurps a beloved original and I have great sympathy for those fans of original Pooh who were dissatisfied but refrained from getting so damn imperialistic about it. Perhaps it is easier for me to extend this understanding now that, loath though I am to admit it, my love for my own formative Pooh experience (and there’s a phrase that should only be used in the written medium) has started to dim slightly. Perhaps it was the saturation coverage this franchise received, with a continued and monumental popularity that saw Pooh reach out to a new generation by way of being attached to every unrelated, vapid meme going (although to be fair, before I drift into generational prejudices too, E. H. Shepard’s Pooh illustrations have become equally widely used in this respect). Or perhaps I just outgrew it, given that Pooh is frequently characterised as one of the Disney properties aimed at a much younger audience. I don’t think the latter is true in my case though, given that I revel in the medium of animation regardless of the target age of the audience. I’m certainly not immune to the magic of the childhood experience and Winnie the Pooh, in both the Milne and Disney versions, has a certain viewpoint on childhood that adults can understand and appreciate more than the children with whom they’re reading/watching. The final chapter of The House on Pooh Corner, in which Christopher Robin explains to Pooh that he must leave the enchanted place behind as he starts school, is widely regarded as one of those moments guaranteed to make adults well-up in a manner that the makers of Toy Story 3 certainly understood.
I could be wrong about the dimming of my love for Disney’s interpretation of the bear of very little brain. I think the main issue I have with The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which collects together three theatrical shorts made between 1966 and 1974, is that the material works much better in the 25 minute bursts in which it originally appeared, with its leisurely pace becoming slightly wearing across seventy minutes. It doesn’t help that the smattering of new bridging material feels hurried, with Disney squandering the potential of that famous closing chapter when a little more time and love might’ve resulted in one of the studio’s most affecting moments. Taken separately, there’s a beautiful feeling of temporary escape to these films, especially the Oscar-winning Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day which perfected the formula. But string them together into over an hour of footage and by the end I feel a certain yearning to leave the enchanted place and start school myself. Although it is considered part of the official canon, it also seems somewhat unfair to rank what is essentially a compilation film too highly. If we can consider The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh a true classic then The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie would be a forerunner for the greatest film of all time. As an assemblage of pre-existing shorts, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh arguably feels more at home amongst Disney outliers like The Reluctant Dragon and A Goofy Movie. Pooh and his friends would eventually get their own feature length theatrical film in 2011 and it feels right that these characters should secure a more inarguable place in the canon, in terms of production history if not necessarily quality. But finding a place in my ranking for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh leaves me stammering and dithering like Rabbit.
In terms of the actual material itself, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh starts good, middles brilliantly and ends a tad weakly. Disney was right in his decision to kick off the Pooh franchise with water-testing shorts rather than jumping right into a feature, as it allowed for the decent test run of Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree to be quickly worked up into the excellent Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day by responding to criticisms and lessons learned. There’s even a gag in Blustery Day that seems to acknowledge and pander to the negative response to the gopher character, whose brief cameo is cut short when he is inadvertently bonked on the head by his porcine replacement and sent plummeting back down his hole. The final short, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, unfortunately pushes the popular Tigger too firmly to the forefront, something that delighted me as a child but which slightly irritates me as an adult. The fact that I loved Tigger as a child suggests Disney did the right thing by spotlighting him. As a character, Tigger works wonderfully as a fleeting cameo in Blustery Day and Paul Winchell’s voice work is excellent but as an older viewer I find his relentless energy (I almost used the wholly inappropriate adjective “boundless” there!) a bit exhausting. There are other character issues by this stage too, such as Rabbit becoming a bit too mean-spirited in his quest to take the bounce out of Tigger, although some of the blame for this must rest with Milne’s original story which is followed quite closely. By contrast, Pooh and Piglet remain a gentle, anchoring presence through their consistent characterisations and the stellar voice work of Disney legend Sterling Holloway and John Fiedler, the latter best known as Juror number 2 in Sidney Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men. Special mention must also go to Hal Smith as the voice of Owl, a blast as a stuffy but likeable windbag, and Sebastian Cabot whose warm, unpatronising tone makes him the perfect narrator. The changing voice of Christopher Robin is a bit distracting though. Across the three shorts he was voiced by three different boys so he seems to get more British sounding as the film goes along and the pressure to anglicise the franchise mounted.
Although it is generally seen as a cosy, non-threatening entertainment, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh does have a couple of surprisingly scary bits in it. In one scene, Rabbit is lost in the woods and his mind plays tricks on him as the sounds of the woodland mount up around him, until he spirals into temporary madness. It’s a scene that shows how Disney animators were always pushing to innovate, even when working with fairly safe material. In this respect, the disturbing Heffalumps and Woozles nightmare sequence is Exhibit A. With a tip of the hat to Dumbo’s Pink Elephants on Parade sequence, this surreal, carnivalesque manifestation of Pooh’s fear of honey (sorry, hunny) thieves is a classic moment of Disney trippiness. As a kid, I remember finding it more confusing than frightening, although the jibbering woozle jack-in-the-box heads and cackling hunny pot are guaranteed to haunt the dreams of particularly sensitive children. For everyone else though, especially those who find a certain frisson in being mildly disquieted, the Heffalumps and Woozles sequence is likely to be a highlight. Certainly it contains the film’s best song, although the other compositions by the brilliant Sherman Brothers are deliberately and successfully slight in order to mimic Pooh’s spontaneous musicality in Milne’s source text. So the fleeting likes of Up, Down, Touch the Ground and Rumbly in my Tumbly are instantly hummable, Little Black Rain Cloud and The Rain, Rain, Rain Came Down, Down, Down are quite lovely and Tigger’s signature theme The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers achieves iconic status in about thirty seconds.
While I may find Disney’s Winnie the Pooh more effective in short bursts, the 100 Aker Wood is still a soothing world I like to visit now and again and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh does a decent job of rounding up those original few featurettes before the franchise exploded. The design of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in which the characters are depicted as existing within the pages of a book is delightful, with moments where they jump from page to page, slide down the written words or even cause new words to be added to the text. What went unacknowledged by Pooh-loving Little Englanders (another great phrase for the written medium only), is that this shows a reverence for the fact that Winnie the Pooh originated as a novel, in a manner that suggests these characters are inseparable from their equivalents on the page, no matter what accent you happen to give them. And as for the gopher? Well, he’s not in the book, y’know!
34. LADY AND THE TRAMP
I’m not really a dog lover. That is immediately a bit of a problem when it comes to falling in love with Lady and the Tramp as so many did, since a lot of the film’s charm is derived from observational animation that is constantly prodding the viewer to appreciate how cute dogs are. I’d forgotten just how much this was the case. The film spends so long fawning over Lady as a puppy that Tramp doesn’t really come into the plot with any great significance for about half an hour. As they had with deer when making Bambi, Disney’s animators spent time studying real life dogs in order to accurately portray them and their work clearly paid off. The mannerisms of Lady as a puppy in particular are minutely detailed and immediately evocative of real puppies. This will mean the world to those for whom minutes on end of Lady adorably struggling to get through a swing door before being bopped on the behind by it are enough to constitute entertainment. As I said, I’m not really a dog lover or, if I’m honest (and this might sound strange coming from a vegan), an animal lover. I believe in their right to exist unharassed by humans but I don’t feel moved to go “awwww” at their every misadventure. I’ve always been bored by Disney shorts like Three Orphan Kittens or Funny Little Bunnies that are essentially built entirely around provoking such a reaction. I’m a sucker for kids but not dogs, so when, in a moment early on in Lady and the Tramp, a sheet is pulled back to reveal the most inanimate, characterless representation of a newborn baby while a puppy looks on and mugs its way through every cloying facial reaction the animators can wring from it, there’s a part of me that feels I’m just not the target audience here.
Fortunately, Lady and the Tramp isn’t all just frolic and fur. As well as getting the mannerisms of many different breeds of dog down, the animators have done a wonderful job of creating a dog’s eye view for the film, placing the viewer firmly in the position of its canine protagonists in a way that makes them easy to empathise with. Once the film untangles itself from the wet ball of wool of “Look how cute dogs are” and instead establishes an “Imagine how dogs see the world” approach, Disney’s mastery of character quickly creates a vivid community at kneecap level. The contrast between the two title characters even introduces a class system and, while it ultimately ends on a predictable suggestion that the only right and proper path is assimilation into a middle class ideal, for a while the contrast between Lady’s compromised domesticity and Tramp’s freewheeling stray life makes for a compelling throughline. Although he ultimately finds love and a comfortable home, I always think of Tramp as seeming much happier when he’s waking up on the street and improvising a morning shower with rainwater than when he’s showing off his new collar and going “Look, somebody owns me now. I never knew it could be this way.”
If Lady and the Tramp’s message seems a little cockeyed to those for whom upward mobility is not necessarily the desired endgame, it at least keeps the focus more on the love a new family can provide rather than a Back to the Future style materialism. Its ideology is fascinatingly reflective of its era and a great deal of charm is derived from how much of an American 1950s film Lady and the Tramp is. The sumptuous animation captures that vibe we know so well from black and white sitcoms and Technicolor movies and invites audiences to come and revel in its pleasures rather than critiquing its excesses. That the film is one of Disney’s lightest on plot is actually a plus in many respects, allowing viewers to drink in the atmosphere at a leisurely pace. It also gives the characters room to breathe and Lady and the Tramp is full of colourful creations. That they are so thoroughly rooted in stereotype may be a sticking point for some but only the buck-toothed, malevolent Siamese cats push that too far. The dogs at the pound, from a Russian borzoi philosopher to a drawling Mexican chihuahua and a plummy British bulldog, are all caricatures in the extreme and play on that deliberately, as do the Italian humans who own the restaurant where Lady and Tramp have their iconic spaghetti moment. If some of the broken English malapropisms are a bit Mind Your Language, it mostly feels like good natured burlesque rather than negative misrepresentation. Again, the American 50s milieu is a key contextual component, as it is in the exploration of sexual politics in Peggy Lee’s sultry number He’s a Tramp, the one decent song in the film.
If Lady and the Tramp is a trifle episodic, there are nonetheless some terrific episodes throughout, with the scenes at the pound and the Italian restaurant standing out and Tramp’s battle with a vicious rat offering a suitably thrilling climax. Except that isn’t actually the climax. The film’s broken-backed narrative is underlined by the fact that it somehow manages to sideline its leads at the eleventh hour, with the finale becoming more focused on the side characters Jock and Trusty. Even an epilogue showcasing Tramp’s newfound domesticity (inevitably including a litter of pups) seems to be wrested from the protagonists’ paws by Trusty’s rambling intervention. It is this inability to convincingly keep hold of its own storytelling that for me makes Lady and the Tramp less than the classic it’s cracked up to be. As a showcase for great animation and a 50s time capsule, Lady and the Tramp is often magnificent but if you have no interest in animation as an artform and aren’t fascinated by historical context but are still planning to watch Lady and the Tramp, I just hope to God you love dogs.
33. FANTASIA 2000
Fantasia 2000 was the belated culmination of a long term plan that Walt Disney had to continuously re-release Fantasia but substitute newly produced segments each time so that no audience saw the same film twice. Various abortive attempts to realise this ambitious premise occurred down the years, until a successful re-release of Fantasia in the 90s prompted a new version of the film to be greenlit. Initially it was to include four original Fantasia sequences alongside new ones but gradually they were dropped until only the most iconic, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, remained. This was ultimately for the best, not only because it resulted in a less bloated film but also because the streamlined 75 minute runtime was far more in keeping with the comparatively modest feel of the material. The original Fantasia animations had an artistic continuity across their shifting tones, whereas Fantasia 2000 flits between very different styles. Fantasia, though infused with humour, had an undeniably pompous edge, while Fantasia 2000 feels more welcoming, if at times also more crass. One thing Fantasia 2000 strives to, but cannot, reproduce is the original film’s sense of occasion. Fantasia’s working title had been The Concert Movie and it does manage to capture the feeling of attending an event, however intermittently boring. Fantasia 2000 attempts to do the same by employing a series of celebrity guest hosts to introduce each section. But the watered-down results of this decision make Fantasia 2000 feel more like a Saturday night TV clip-show. There’s still a certain sense of occasion to celebrating the weekend with your sandwiches on your lap in front of the telly, but it’s not the sort of cinematic buzz on which the Fantasia franchise most thrives.
Given how dry Deems Taylor’s introductions on Fantasia had been, the much maligned guest hosts on Fantasia 2000 aren’t really that terrible. Penn and Teller are slickly entertaining, James Earl Jones deftly executes an unexpected moment of bathos, and Angela Lansbury exudes an elegant professionalism. Tragically, it’s only one of my great heroes, Steve Martin, who completely dies a death with some gratingly family-friendly shtick, although to be fair he was hardly going to come out and perform his famous pussy joke or recreate the “fuck” scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. As with Fantasia, the introductions in Fantasia 2000 are largely beside the point anyway. It’s the animated segments we’re here to see and, as is usually the case in anthology films, it’s an uneven road. It’s interesting to contrast the two Fantasia’s in this respect: the original film had breathtaking animation for the majority of its runtime but kept hitting bumps when it came to pacing and, occasionally, taste. Fantasia 2000 begins with its two weakest segments and then offers fairly reliable entertainment thereafter, but it never quite reaches the heights of its parent film’s best moments (I can’t possibly give Fantasia 2000 any extra credit for filching The Sorcerer’s Apprentice wholesale). So we’re left with the question, which do you prefer? A sometimes breathtaking but often tedious visual masterpiece or a rarely extraordinary but more diverse, welcoming but modest homage that jettisons its missteps early on. I’ve decided on balance, heresy though it may be to some, that I prefer the latter.
Fantasia 2000 opens with the familiar strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, and in tribute to the original film it is paired with a pseudo-abstract animation. Once again, Disney’s inability to fully commit to abstraction results in a hedged-bet which feels like neither one thing nor the other, with a vague story about butterflies being pursued by bats rendered in bold shapes and colours. It’s fine I suppose, but it lacks the charm of a more defined narrative or the invigorating challenge of something truly abstract. Far weirder is the next sequence, Pines of Rome, in which a family of humpback whales ascend slowly out of the water, through the clouds and into unexplored space. If the concept isn’t strange enough, the primitive computer animation really makes this thing borderline disturbing. It’s commendable that Disney used the anthology format to explore different styles but the CG here looks like a homemade experiment you’d find on YouTube or a cut-scene from a budget video game. I might cut Pines of Rome more slack if I thought these were the limitations of the computer animation medium at the time but Pixar were already two Toy Story’s deep at this stage so releasing lacklustre fare like this feels ill judged. I suppose Pines of Rome’s look may just be a stylistic choice that I find particularly ugly. Computer animation appears elsewhere in Fantasia 2000 and better channels its early limitations. The Steadfast Tin Soldier adaptation, set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, features a hideous Jack in the Box whose angular, carnivalesque nightmarishness is well captured by the computerised image. This sequence combines CG and traditional animation to good effect and tells its story efficiently. As with their previous Hans Christian Andersen adaptation, The Little Mermaid, Disney altered the melancholy ending, with the Tin Soldier and his Ballerina girlfriend spared their fiery death and the Jack in the Box hurled face-first into the furnace instead. Apparently, this was less of a commercial choice than it was dictated by the music to which the story had been set. Its final movement was far too upbeat to justify accompanying it with the roasting of its protagonists.
I’m torn as to the decision to include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as part of Fantasia 2000. On the one hand, it’s a nice tribute to Walt’s original intention for Fantasia and it imbues the new film with a warm sense of reverent nostalgia. If we absolutely had to have one of the original segments included then this was undoubtedly the right one to choose. Unfortunately, following the sequence immediately with Pomp and Circumstance, a new animation starring Donald Duck as an assistant on Noah’s Ark, has the effect of severely diminishing the impact of the latter, which has no chance in hell of living up to the former. Bridging the two pieces with a feeble moment in which Mickey goes to get Donald out of the shower because he’s late for his star turn makes matters worse. Ultimately, Pomp and Circumstance is the weakest of the post-Pines-of-Rome segments but it is still watchably charming and animated with a polished precision, even if it isn’t especially convincing in how it synchs up with the music. It’s not the new Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as the animators may have hoped, but it’s nice to see Donald back in a musical anthology film, recalling his appearances in underrated wartime package films like Melody Time and The Three Caballeros.
If challenged to justify my preference for Fantasia 2000 over its predecessor, I’d point to the remaining three segments, all of which I absolutely love and which, together, epitomise the newer film’s greater sense of diversity, which proves energising where Fantasia’s staunch continuity could be fatiguing. Two of these sequences are directed by animation legend Eric Goldberg and one is less than two minutes long and is about a disruptive flamingo playing with a yo-yo. The original Fantasia would never have admitted such a frivolous piece but there’s an almost punkish defiance to its brazen silliness. Set to The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, it’s a beautifully rendered short, combining watercolour paintings with CGI to create a bold, colourful look. Clashing wildly with its more serious contemporaries, the yo-yo wielding flamingo becomes a metaphor for the segment itself, asserting its goofy charms and emerging triumphant. Goldberg’s other segment is a strong contender for one of the best Fantasia sequences of all. Opening up the brief to include a Jazz classic, it is based on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and set in a stylised 1930s New York, featuring character designs based on the work of newspaper caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In a film series so preoccupied with pastoral images of the natural world, it’s refreshing to see such an emphatically urban short and everything from the exquisite timing and the blending of tones to the use of colour and the intricately interwoven narratives works beautifully. It’s undoubtedly the highlight of the film for me, although its boldly anomalous style would’ve prevented it making an effective closer. For that, we must go back to nature for Stravinsky’s Firebird, which doesn’t skimp on delivering on the drama of that title. Here we see the destruction and then replenishment of the Earth by way of a resilient, shapeshifting Sprite. The segment aims to match the drama of Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain finale and achieves this, with the added bonus of not collapsing into an equivalent of the anticlimactic Ave Maria coda. It is a sumptuous, uplifting ending to the film which, in light of our current environmental situation, feels horribly relevant.
Fantasia 2000 suffers a little from the fluctuating quality of most anthologies, but with five of its seven original animations being good-to-great and only one of them being a complete loss (and with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice stuck in there for good measure), it emerges as an enjoyable and sometimes exceptional work. It wouldn’t exist had Fantasia not laid the groundwork but if presented with the choice between the two, I find the playful, diverse experience of the latter day film far more inviting that the groundbreaking leviathan that lumbers as much as it delights.
32. OLIVER AND COMPANY
I’ve talked a little in reviews of films like Brother Bear and Meet the Robinsons about how certain Disney films have seen an increase in ratings as the audiences that grew up with them reach their early 20s and become the dominant presence on online review sites. I don’t think this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s enlightening to hear the opinions of those who bring certain generational viewpoints to the material that older critics can only access through observation and speculation. Though we tend to snort derisively at the opinions of children, whether a film primarily aimed at them has worked for them or not is surely an important measure of its success. For my part, the extent to which I enjoyed Oliver & Company this time round (and I did enjoy it) was based quite heavily on my nostalgia for a certain kind of 80s and 90s TV animation which, for all its bigger budget and computer generated enhancements, Oliver and Company resembles more than it does its feature length Disney predecessors. As with those later films that currently benefit from an audience reaching adulthood, there is a previous generation who grew up watching Oliver and Company who can vouch for the fact that it did work for kids at the time. And yet I recall seeing the film as a child and not really liking it at all. My change of heart about it is based more on a general nostalgia than a specific one. I remember seeing a poster for Oliver and Company outside a local cinema when I was about seven years old and thinking “I can’t wait to see that.” Thirty odd years later and my ability to fulfil that desire just by flipping on a streaming service gives me a certain time-travelling buzz, as if I could reach back through the ages to that excited seven year old and say “Someday you will watch this and you will have built up enough contextual experience of animation of the era to follow-up with a presumptuous and long-winded review.” And the seven year old child would’ve nodded in comprehension. I was a precocious kid.
All tangential gasbagging aside (for now, at least. It’s too big a part of my character for me to give up completely at this point), Oliver and Company does still work to a degree as a straight adventure but it’s probably enhanced by first-hand experience of the corporate version of cool that defined the mainstream entertainment of its era. The tagline for the film was ‘The First Disney Movie with Attitude’ and I can well imagine the men in the Disney boardroom saying “We need to live up to this claim. Get me the agents of Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and Bette Midler on the phone.” There’s a charm to this out of touch approximation of cool, like when your Grandad put on a backwards baseball cap and attempted to rap. It firmly roots Oliver and Company in its time which, for someone who has always prized a sense of a film’s era over a quest to achieve timelessness, is not entirely a bad thing. And in some of its other aspirations Oliver and Company is quite successful. It effectively establishes a darker tone befitting its grimy urban milieu and in keeping with a grimmer tendency that had sprung up in theatrical animations of the time, chiefly those of rival Don Bluth. Bluth’s bleak The Land Before Time beat Oliver and Company to the top of the box office and, while it eventually lost out financially to the Disney film in the longer term, is arguably remembered more fondly (if its thirteen direct-to-video sequels are anything to go by). But if Bluth’s decision to break away from his job at Disney was inspired by his perception that their quality was slipping, by this point the two studios seemed to be ploughing similar furrows. Certainly there is a flavour comparable to Oliver and Company’s found in Bluth’s subsequent All Dogs Go to Heaven, although Bluth went even darker than Disney.
From the get-go, Oliver and Company has a shabbier look to it than Disney’s more prestige efforts but there’s a verisimilitude to its rough-edged cityscapes that couldn’t have been so effectively captured by the gloss of a Fantasia or a Bambi. Harder to make apologies for is the soundtrack, with the smooth Soft Rock of the opening song, Once Upon a Time in New York City, completely undercutting the intensity of some otherwise effective scenes of abandoned kitten Oliver struggling to survive on the savage streets of New York. There’s something terribly distracting about listening to Huey Lewis croon “’Cause a dream’s no crime, Not once upon a time in New York City” while we watch Oliver being chased down by menacing, red-eyed strays. This whole sequence would’ve made a great opening to the film had it been appropriately scored but instead Oliver and Company trips over its eagerness to cram in some Pop songs. Disney were on the cusp of reclaiming the mantle of musical brilliance but at this point it definitely feels concessionary, especially since all the songs are done and dusted by the half way mark, save for a climactic reprise of the only one that sort of works. That song, sung by Billy Joel’s streetwise pooch Dodger (did I mention this is a vague Oliver Twist adaptation?) is called Why Should I Worry?, though clearly it should be called Street Savoir Faire, a proposition I can only imagine Disney found too French. The song is pretty good but director George Scribner seems unsure of how to stage it. For the most part it is sung by Dodger as he makes his way across town with a string of sausages, but at times he breaks off to engage in bits of comic business and the vocals keep going anyway. It feels like they really should’ve made a decision about whether the song was being performed in the moment or merely soundtracking it. It’s the sort of sloppy error that would never be allowed in the carefully choreographed routines of the Disney Renaissance, just one year from kicking off with 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
If Oliver and Company doesn’t quite cut it as a Musical, it’s much better as a drama. Once the songs have all been used up, it settles into an exciting second half in which some more-than-mild peril takes hold. If the selling point of the film is the animal characters, the human ones are where the real meat of the story lies as Oliver becomes a bargaining chip in a deadly game between a schlubby but lovable loser named Fagin and a prosperous loan shark named Sykes. There’s a compelling nastiness to this plot, with the very real threat of death hanging over Fagin if he doesn’t pay his debts. His relationship with Oliver and the stray dogs he has acquired through natural affinity provides the necessary audience affection for Fagin to increase the stakes. Sykes, with his flashy cuff links and vicious dobermans, is a terrific villain, beautifully designed and never undercut with even a hint of comedic levity. These characters are enhanced by great voice work from Dom DeLuise (whose poaching from the Don Bluth stable really feels like a calculated fuck-you) and Robert Loggia, their teetering tension recalling that of Kaa and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. It peaks with one truly upsetting scene in which Sykes unleashes his dobermans on Fagin and Dodger, its frantic cuts and desperate cacophony creating a moment of devastating intensity.
If the screenplay (whose writers include a young James Mangold) manages to forge a successful human drama, it falters a little in trying to translate its earthy tone to the dogs themselves. There’s a fine line between effective characterisation and awkward tastelessness and it’s a line over which the writers trip to the extent that they inadvertently include a rape joke. After singing a criminally forgettable song about how perfect she is, the Bette Midler-voiced poodle Georgette is shocked to discover the uninvited Dodger in her room. “Don’t come any closer! I knew this would happen someday” she shrieks. When Dodger assures her it’s not her he’s after she replies “It’s not?” and then, offended, demands “Well why not?!” I get that the intention is to make a joke about narcissism and I think the claims by some that the joke suggests women secretly want to be raped are off the mark. The problem with this joke for me is that it equates a justifiable fear of being attacked with blinkered self-obsession. Elsewhere there are a couple more questionable elements: Dodger and Tito are both womanisers who harass female dogs with kissy noises, while lines like Tito’s “Hey, get off my back, woman. I’m driving!” feel of-their-time at best (given the line is addressed to a female dog, I get the impression it was even worse in an earlier draft!). But it’s a tough thing to juggle a convincing grittiness with the concerns of a family film and the rough-edges of these characters at least feel authentic, if not always appropriate.
One of the bigger problems with Oliver and Company is how completely bland Oliver himself is. As he gets passed from character to character, he becomes more of a MacGuffin than an actual entity. The characters surrounding him are vivid enough that it’s easy to forget he’s even there sometimes. I was far more invested in Fagin’s predicament than Oliver’s, while it would’ve been nice to see the relationship between Oliver and the dogs develop a bit more convincingly. It is clear that Oliver is really just an anchor and that the writers are not remotely interested in him, even if the animators do their best to give him some cute moments. Overall, though it certainly has a more primitive look than many Disney films, the animation in Oliver and Company is quite impressive, with Fagin’s jittery response to a life-threatening moral dilemma being a great example of how to mine comedy from an important dramatic moment without breaking the tension. There are occasional lapses that prevent Oliver and Company fully casting an unbroken spell, such as Georgette’s big number in which a Busby Berkeley-esque moment feels curiously slapdash when it needs to be magnificent. This is especially evident given that I watched Beauty and the Beast, a film that thoroughly nails its Berkeleyisms, just a couple of nights before. Still, as the final film before the Disney Renaissance got underway, Oliver and Company has definitely earned its place as a cult film with a scrappy determination comparable with that of its canine heroes.
31. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS
After the expensive box office failure of the lavish Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney began to feel disenchanted with the animated medium, even considering shutting down Disney’s animation department completely. As a result, his increasingly less hands-on approach to his studio’s animated output saw him sign off casually on some quite radical stylistic choices for the next animated feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Art Director Ken Anderson sought to use a recently developed Xerox photography technique which eliminated the need for the time-consuming inking process but resulted in scratchy black outlines around the images that the more delicate inking technique avoided. Anderson wanted to lean into this style for the whole look of One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the disinterested Disney signed off on it with little thought. The result was an artistic triumph. One Hundred and One Dalmatians looks fantastic, its bolder aesthetic in keeping with the growing popularity of limited animation much in evidence in then-recent nominees for the Best Animated Short Oscar category. Despite the success of the film though, Walt hated the result and swore never to let Anderson work as Art Director again. It’s a shame because One Hundred and One Dalmatians was by far the most interesting visual experience the studio had put out in a long time.
While still having enough charm and incident to entertain across its 80 minutes, One Hundred and One Dalmatians unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to its visuals in the storytelling stakes. As I found with Lady and the Tramp, not being a dog lover probably means I’m missing a lot of the cute appeal that canine fetishists find in this puppy-packed production, but One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ idling pace did leave me a little bored by the thirty minute mark. This is where the film picks up considerably however, oddly enough by moving away from its comparatively dull main characters in order to focus on a wide range of supporting animals for an extended period. The opening half hour is all about laying emotional groundwork, establishing the family dynamic of human couple Roger and Anita and their Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita, and then introducing their litter of fifteen puppies. We also briefly meet the villain Cruella de Vil, a gaudy socialite set on purchasing and murdering the puppies to make a fur coat. When she is denied the sale, she employs two thugs, Horace and Jasper Baddun, to dognap them. At this point you might expect the nominal protagonists Pongo and Perdita to set out on a rescue mission but instead they employ a citywide line of communication known as the Twilight Bark, in which news of the dognapping is spread from dog to dog until it reaches Colonel, an old sheepdog, and his compatriot Sgt. Tibbs, a resourceful tabby cat, who pick up the investigation.
By far the best scenes in One Hundred and One Dalmatians are those of Sgt. Tibbs trying to free ninety-nine dognapped puppies from the tumbledown de Vil mansion. With Horace and Jasper standing guard, these sequences are tense, funny and exciting, and the scraggly, brave Tibbs has long been one of my favourite Disney characters. This extended mid-section of the film adds a real sense of variety after a slow moving start, with scenes of the Twilight Bark allowing viewers to drink in the enormity of Anderson’s beautifully stylised London. It also allows for numerous cameos by characters from Lady and the Tramp, who seem to be there as a way of saying “Yes, we’re doing another dog film already. Deal with it!” The problem is that once Tibbs’ investigation ends and the adventure is picked up by Pongo and Perdita again, there’s a sense of disappointment which is always an issue when it’s associated with your main characters. They are just so blandly written and the puppies are cute in a very samey way that prevents any of them standing out from the big mess of Xeroxed spots that consumes the screen. The only one who is instantly easy to differentiate is an overweight pup called Rolly whose dialogue mostly consists of pining for food, a mark of the sort of casual cruelty we used to readily accept as adequate characterisation.
If the main characters leave a lot to be desired, there are great moments of animation throughout that maintain the viewers good will. The way Pongo and Roger are depicted as similar is delightfully highlighted in a moment where they stand frozen with the same contemptuous expression as Cruella casually flicks her fountain pen in their direction and renders Roger as spotty as his canine companion. Roger’s hammy movements around the house to his newly composed anti-Cruella song are wonderfully fluid, and Cruella’s flaunting gait and dismissive gesticulations establish the character perfectly within seconds of her first appearance. Cruella has always been a very popular villain so I was surprised to find that her screentime does not come close to matching her iconic status. The evocative character animation by Marc Davis coupled with Betty Lou Gerson’s relishable voice work make the most of her few appearances but she disappears from the narrative for a surprisingly long time and then receives the most tepid of comeuppances by way of a mild automobile accident that leaves her and her henchmen annoyed but very much unscathed.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians makes a conscious choice to largely avoid musical numbers, with the few snatches of ditties all being diegetic. Making Roger a songwriter allows for the terrific, shameless diss track about Cruella to be incorporated naturally into the narrative, while the only other songs are a brief TV commercial jingle for Kanine Krunchies and the closing Dalmatian Plantation, which the film almost apologetically cuts short after a couple of lines by abruptly ending. This marginalisation of music is a wise choice in what is essentially a crime caper, allowing for the pace to be uninterrupted once it gets going. As the film draws to a close though, there’s definitely a sense of dissatisfaction that tempers the charm. It’s frustrating that a film with such a terrific look isn’t more consistently great in other areas. Still, like an inversion of its dark-dotted protagonists, One Hundred and One Dalmatians has plenty of bright spots to carry it through.