Monthly Archives: June 2017

By the Book: The Fox and the Hound

When I started this article series, I had to make a decision. Officially, nearly all Disney movies are based on some sort of source text. In reality, it is often something really obscure and practically forgotten. So I made a decision early on: That I would only discuss the books, which are known enough to have an own Wikipedia article. This distinction served me fairly well, with one exception and this is The Fox and the Hound.

When this book was published, it was highly praised, and therefore it does have an article. But nowadays it is so hard to come by that you have to pay a three digits sum to actually get an edition – provided that you find one. You will understand that I was unable read this book under the circumstances. But I didn’t want to ignore it either because, well, Disney’s The Fox and the Hound is somewhat infamous for being very far removed from the actual source text. Considering that Disney often tends to use the source text more as a stepping stone, I was wondering why in this case so many people felt compelled to comment on it. So I went hunting for all sources I could find about the topic, trying to figure out what kind of book has been buried by history. This article is the result of my findings.24 Tod

1. Twisting the source

The first thing I noticed is that Disney took a couple of elements of the book, but twisted them around. For starters, it is true that Tod grows up with humans – but not just any humans but the ones who killed his mother and the rest of his litter. It is true that he goes back into the wild, by his own volition though. It is also true that he finds a vixen in the forest…two of them, and in both cases the vixen and the whole litter are killed (there is apparently one cup which is simply not mentioned again in the story and therefore might have survived). It is also true that there is another dog named Chief in the story, but the roles of him and Copper are actually exchanged.

24 HoundIn the book, Copper is the aging dog and leader of the pack, and when Master (that is the way his owner is called all the time) buys the stronger and younger Chief, Copper hates him because he fears that he will replace him. There is a scene in which a bear attacks Master (during a bear hunt, not out of the blue), but Copper does NOT leap to his defence, he is too afraid. Chief is the hero of the day, and the resentment Copper feels grows even stronger.

The scene in which Chief gets hit by a train happens in the book too, but the situation is entirely different. One, Tod deliberately lures Chief on the tracks to get rid of him. In the Disney version, the whole thing is an accident. Two, Chief dies. In the Disney version, he survives. And three, it is Master, not Copper who swears revenge and therefore trains him to hunt no other fox than Tod in the future.

And that is apparently just the beginning of a livelong hunt. During the book, Master loses more and more of his land and every single dog save for Copper. At the very end, there is one last hunt which ends when Tod finally breaks down due to exhaustion (and old age). Copper on the other hand is rescued by his Master and is allowed to live happily for a few months. But then Master has to go into a nursing home where dogs are not allowed. The book ends with him taking his shotgun, ordering Copper to lie down and covering his eyes….I guess it is pretty clear what happens next.

2. A look at the basics

It is pretty obvious that the original book is downright depressing. As far as I can tell, there are three big themes. One is the destruction of the rural areas and in its wake, the destruction of a particular way of life. Connected to it is the second theme, the way humans treat their environment. There is for example one episode in which rabies spread. The solution to use poison in order to get rid of the foxes not only kills a lot of other animals, a child dies when it ingests some of it. The book also points out how everything which is feed the animals moves up the food chain – and unlike Tod, who becomes a vegetarian for a while, because he realizes that something is not right with the flesh, humans are not as sensitive.

The third theme is the way animals think. Daniel P. Mannix did a lot of research into the way, animals actually act and tried to illustrate their thought processes as realistic as possible. Tod is smarter than the other foxes in the forest due to his unusual upbringing, but he doesn’t understand humans most of the time. For him only knowledge which helps him to survive counts. And Copper, despite hunting Tod practically his whole life, doesn’t feel any hate towards him. He does it because he is trained to do his master’s bidding. For him it is about being the leader of his pack and having the attention of his master, nothing more.

Now the Disney version is another matter altogether. For one, all the animals in it act very human. And two, this is the story of an unlikely friendship between two animals who were born to be enemies of each other. Is it a bad story to tell? No, but it has nothing to do with the actual book. In fact, I am wondering why Disney even bothered to buy the rights. Rename the characters, replace the scene on the tracks (it is way too similar to The Aristocats either way), and you couldn’t even accuse Disney of plagiarism.

3. On its own merits

But let’s take a look on the movie independent from the source text. Speaking of the tracks: That is in a way the whole crux in the movie. In typical Disney fashion, The Fox and the Hound glosses over a lot of aspects. Especially over the little fact that most of the animals featured in the movie are predators. They need to kill to survive (how Dinky and Boomer manage to not catch one caterpillar the whole summer and not dying of hunger is a riddle in itself).

But the scene on the tracks is known to have been a bone of contention between the animators (and one of the reasons Don Bluth left the studios). The main issue was: should have Chief died or not? Personally, I think that neither is a good solution. Because the issue is not if he died or not, it is Tod’s culpability. The scene needed a rewrite, with Tod doing deliberately something which might have killed Chief, or at least Copper having reason to believe that he planned to kill him. Copper shifting his own guilty conscience about letting Tod escape (and even having one in the first place) only works if Chief looks like the innocent, the tricked party. While someone dying would amplify the likelihood overreaction and thoughts of revenge, it would still have been a disservice to the movie if the conflict is only based on a misunderstanding and not on Tod acting like a fox and Copper reacting like a hunting dog.

But this aside, there is a lot to like about the movie. The animation, mostly done in more mute colours than usual for an animated movies, the character design and the overall tone, which is a little bit more serious than the standard animated movie, especially since it moves away from the typical hero against the villain structure. Amos Slade is not necessarily a bad man, he is just a hunter. Before he starts pursuing Tod in a protected area, his point of view is somewhat understandable, even if his temper leaves a lot to be desired. It is very appropriate that this movie ends on a positive, alas bittersweet note, instead of the usual villain defeat.

Stand-out scenes are the one when Tod is left in the forest (a real tear-jerker), his first night in the woods and the attack of the bear (which is really terrifying if you see it on the big screen).

4. The Soundtrack

I already mentioned the animation, but let’s not forget the soundtrack. Though there is a lot to forget about. The music choice is kind of odd. One would think that the naturally choice for a story set in rural America would be hillbilly style music and indeed the score often has this vibe, but the songs for some reason don’t. They have obviously been written specifically with Pearl Baily in mind, and her style doesn’t quite fit into the setting. It makes me think more of night clubs or even the stage than of rural America. Consequently the one song I really love is not sung by her. “Goodbye may seem forever” is a beautiful and heartfelt tune though I have to add that I consider the German version superior to the English one.  Partly because the singer puts more feeling into it, she really sounds like she is holding back tears, but also because a small chance in the text. The English version ends like this:

Goodbye may seem forever
Farewell is like the end
But in my heart is a memory
And there you’ll always be

The German version translates to:

Farewell means separation,
to never see each other again,
I wish you with all my heart,
good luck and prosperity.

Which is way, way sadder and fits the mood shown in the scene way better. I am not lying: I can’t watch the German version without crying to this day. The English version doesn’t have half the impact.
4. Conclusion

The Fox and the Hound is a terrible adaptation. But is it nevertheless a good movie. One of the best Disney made during what I call the Impressionist era, though its best moments tend to be the ones which depart the furthest from the usual Disney fare, like the attack of the bear. It has some flaws which prevents it from being one of the truly great Disney movies, but it is certainly worth a watch. It is just too bad that the book it was supposedly based on ended up mostly in obscurity. It does sound like an unusual read.

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By the Book: Alice in Wonderland

Between all the books I’ll tackle in this series, Alice in Wonderland (correctly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) is a very special case. Because, if you ask me: This book is not translatable and it is not adaptable. I don’t even think that the common English reader would nowadays should read it without a ton of footnotes added to the original text, because it is full of in-jokes and references to a very specific time in British history. I doubt that many people even know why the Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat are mad (and if you don’t know either, you just proved my point – if you do, congratulations to your knowledge of English idioms and sayings). Or that the mouse keeps falling asleep because she is a Dormouse. A lot in this book basically consists of a play with language (it’s a gold mine for linguists, really). At one point for example Alice encounters a “school of fish” (a word play on the fact that fish who are swimming together are “schooling” or “shoaling”) in which the fish have shorter lessons every day, because, naturally lessons have to become “less”. Any movie adaptation has to fall short, simply because it’s impossible to put this level of language play on screen – for the most part. But let’s see open the door and find out how Disney fared with their attempt.13 doorknob

1. The Setting

In contrast to Disney’s Peter Pan, there is no doubt that all we see is just in Alice’s mind. And what a strange mind that it. I said in m last review about Peter Pan that Neverland works on children’s logic. The Alice novels do something similar, but they are not really trying to explain the world of a child, but how a child’s mind sees the adult world with it seemingly (and sometimes really) arbitrary rules. This aspect is mostly lost in the Disney movie. You still get a glimpse of it when Alice encounters the Queen of Hearts, but all in all, the movie lacks the referential character of the book. It works more like an experience. Instead of arbitrary rules, there are no rules at all, everything can happen.

2. The Animation

The animation underlines the bizarre character of the world we enter. There is a constant play with colour and darkness, with light and shadow and an abundance of weird angles. When the colour pops, it really pops, but this makes the darker scenes even more unsettling.

3. The Characters13 Alice

There isn’t really much to say about the characters in Wonderland. Most of them just turn up and are gone just a moment later, and really, the only true important character is Alice. The biggest change Disney made was switching the colour of her dress from red to blue. Otherwise she is simply a curious child who explores her unfamiliar surroundings. Her reactions are, for the most part, believable, and even when they are not, this is her world, and everything which didn’t make sense at the beginning surely makes sense towards the end, when it’s revealed that this is actually a dream. In the original books some aspects of the characters she meets are a little bit more fleshed out, but that’s a matter of simply having a little bit more time for them. The only big change occurs concerning the Queen of Hearts. In the book it’s mentioned that her death sentences are rarely carried out (thanks to the king). The movie omits this detail, making her a much more terrifying tyrant (and the king more of a push-over).

4. The Plot

There isn’t one. And that’s not a criticism, there shouldn’t be one. After all, Alice in Wonderland is purposely filled with nonsense stories, so the movie shouldn’t be any different. Disney just picked what they liked the best of the whole Alice series and then edited it down to just the right length for this kind of movie – the result is quite a mixed package. Some of the segments are so short, you are barely have time to think about them. Like the caucus race, which could have been a commentary on politics, but is over way to fast to have a lasting impact. I doubt that many people even notice that the group walking around a rock through the tides is singing about nothing being “dryer” than a caucus race, before the conversation of the Dodo with Alice about getting dry starts.

Personally I have a love/hate relationship with the segments when she changes size. I don’t know why, but the very idea terrified me as a child. I’m fairly sure that the part when she is stuck in the house is meant to be comical, but I truly fail to see the humour in this. Though it’s nice to know that Billy the Lizard apparently survived being blown in the sky and later on became a villain in Ratigan’s gang…. But I digress. Let’s tackle some of the stand-out segments.

The first which comes to mind is the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Mostly because it is a really strange premise that in the middle of the story Tweedledum and Tweedledee just turn up to tell another, totally unrelated story. And a really messed-up one, that is. I mean, really, the poor mother of the poor little oysters. In the book the (slightly different) story results in Alice trying to determine, who was worse, the Walrus or the Carpenter, but whenever she comes to a conclusion Tweedeldum and Tweedeldee reveal another detail about them which makes her change her mind.

13 caterpillar2Then there is the caterpillar. This was always my favourite segment, even though it really looses in the translation. Now, from the eyes of an adult (and knowing the original), I can appreciate it even more. I think this is the part which captures the book the best, because it translates the word-plays on screen, quite literally. 13 madhatterWhat everyone remembers is naturally the mad tea-party. What can I say about it aside from it being utterly nonsensical?

13 Queen of HeartsAlice meeting the Queen of Hearts is naturally the last stand-out segment, and the longest. In a way, the movie has a shift in direction when Alice is alone in the woods. Not only is it a very sad scene, it’s the moment the movie stops being so directionless. Up to this point Alice was simple following the White Rabbit. She was just experiencing Wonderland. Now she decides that she wants to go home and follows the advice of the Cheshire Cat to apply to the Queen of Hearts for help. For the first time, her actions have a purpose, and while the plot still makes some unexpected twists, from then on the segments are no longer interchangeable. Disney also made the situation way more dangerous than in the book. There it’s not Alice who is on trial, she is just one of the witnesses, she doesn’t shrink again and there isn’t chase scene, she simply wakes up. But I guess even a nonsensical movie needs some sort of climax.13 white rabbit

5. The Soundtrack

If this were a more conventional movie, I would complain about the use of music in it. Some of the songs add something to the story, but most of them have the tendency to get off some tangent. But that is exactly the point.

None of the countless songs in this movie are bad by any stretch of imagination, but they all are very short and very 1950s. If someone starts singing the tune, you will remember them, but I doubt that anyone would remember the songs without prompting. The exceptions are – at least in my case – “All in the golden Afternoon”, “The Unbirthday Song” and “Painting the roses red”.

6. Conclusion

I am not really a fan of “Alice down the Rabbit hole” stories, I prefer character development and a plot which makes sense in a world which rules I understand. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an interesting approach to story-telling, or that I can’t appreciate the animation and creativity which went into this movie. The animators made an effort to keep the linguistic aspects whenever possible, and while I wish they had done more in this direction, especially in the lyrics, what is there is fairly enjoyable.

Nevertheless, the movie misses the Meta aspect which makes the book special. But then, this is true for all adaptations of the story I know. Like I said, I don’t think that the book is truly adaptable, something will always be lost. But of the attempts out there, Disney’s might be the best, despite the fact that allegedly Walt Disney himself didn’t really like the movie either. He said that it had no heart. But what it does have is a sense for the nonsensical. Too many adaptations try to change the story into a cohesive plot, but that’s simply not what this story is about. If it does have a deeper meaning, you’ll find it in the Meta which mostly refers to a reality too far in the past, to be fully understood nowadays. This in mind, Disney’s “let’s see which animator can come up with the strangest scene” approach does the material more justice, than any other take I’ve seen so far.13 cheesire cat


By the Book: Peter Pan

Technically Peter Pan isn’t really based on a book because the first version of the story was a play. But: This play was so successful that Barrie also published a novel based on it. Plus, while the play made the figure Peter Pan well known, he actually turned up first in the novel The Little White Bird. See? Not cheating at all when I discuss the movie as part of this series. But it would be naturally strange to ignore the play – I’m a little bit at disadvantage here, though, because I’ve never seen the play, and in my experience, it makes a big difference if you read a play or actually see it. But I’ll try my best to include the most important aspects of it.

1. The Setting

One of the changes most adaptions, including the Disney version, make is that they draw a clear distinction between Neverland and the real world. In the novel the lines are a little bit more blurred, for example the Lost Boys are still sometimes flying after they come back with Wendy. Personally I think a clear distinction is necessary, because if the “real world” described in the book is already unusual (well, more unusual than having babysitting dogs), it makes it harder for the audience to believe in Neverland, since it then become a fantasy world in a fantasy world instead of a concept which could exist right behind our own reality. peter-pan-disneyscreencaps_com-2264

Disney creates a convincing version of Neverland, basically the land of imagination and childhood plays. It has a secret tree house, Mermaids, Pirates and Indians. Yeah, the Indians. I guess I should address the elephant in the room from the get go: If you see the Indians as Native American stereotypes, they are downright offensive, and the only excuse for them is that those stereotypes are not only en par with what was written by Barrie but also more or less akin to what was shown in the very popular western movies which were made in the 1950s. But I think you should see them as what they are supposed to be, not Native Americans, but the kind of Indians which tend to life in the imagination of children. Don’t blame Disney or even Barrie for this one. Blame Buffalo Bill with his Western show, blame Karl May, blame everyone who ever wrote a story about the “Wild West” without really knowing what he is talking about. I don’t think that the Indians would look or act like that if the movie were made nowadays, they would tone it down a bit. But I also think that realistic Native Americans wouldn’t fit into Neverland. It’s not like the Pirates are anything like the real ones either.

Another difference between the original and the Disney version is that in the novel, Neverland is treated like a real place. The children are gone for months, and when they come back, they bring the lost boys with them, who are all getting adopted by their parents. But in the Disney movie, it’s strongly suggested that Neverland is born out of Wendy’s imagination. Not only does the narrator states from the get go that all children have a Neverland, Wendy also tells stories about Peter Pan before she even meets him (and then notes that he looks exactly like she imagined him). And when she “comes back” (after just one night) she is initially found sleeping at the window by her parents.

2. The Animation

Of all the Disney movie from the Romantic era, Peter Pan is in a lot of ways the least distinctive one, even though Mary Blair did work on the designs. What is still noticeable are her typical colour schemes, with a lot of primary colours creating a bright world. But there is something about the designs which is also very 1950s. With most Disney movies it is easy to forget when they were made, but Peter Pan somehow betrays the era it was made in, especially in the design of the main character.

But what is truly remarkable is the character animation, especially the crocodile. Doesn’t speak one word, has basically the same role every time it turns up (terrifying Hook) and yet it might be the most popular character in the whole movie. Part of it is the score connected to it, but also the expressive gestures it makes. I think my favourite moment in the whole movie is this one:

tumblr_n0odynwe881s2wio8o1_500

Do I have to say more?

3. The Characters

Barrie never described Peter Pan, nor did he specify his age. The Disney version has rather elfish features, and he wears green clothes instead of a dress made of leaves. And, like he is supposed to do, he is the embodiment of childhood. He is selfish, convinced of his own invincibility and has no sense for consequences whatsoever. Especially the scene with the mermaids drive this across, when he doesn’t see much harm in them trying to drown Wendy.

I guess this is the right moment to say something about the female characters. We have here a movie from the 1950s based on a story from the 1910s whose secondary main character is mostly praised for her motherly qualities. In this combination the best one would expect a fair for its time portrayal of the females. But when it comes to the novel, it was more than fair. For example the reason there are only Lost Boys and no Lost Girls is because supposedly girls are too smart to get lost. Wendy’s motherly traits are revelled, as are the other females. Aside from Peter Pan himself and naturally Captain Hook, the female character also get way more attention than any of the male characters. This is, after all, mostly Wendy’s story.

And the Disney version isn’t that bad either. It keeps the aspect of honouring the mother role, but it also allows Wendy to draw the line. Looking out for her little brothers? Sure. Getting treated like some sort of servant while the boys are allowed to party? Now you are trying her patience. And when it comes down to it, the female characters in the movie are the truly brave ones. Peter might be the one who fights, but since he is convinced that he will win in every encounter, there isn’t much bravery behind it. Wendy on the other hand would rather go of the plank that betraying her principles. Tiger Lily would rather drown than giving away anything, even though she knows that this way of dying would keep her from reaching her afterlife. And Tinkerbell nearly dies when she rescues Peter from a bomb.

When it comes to the lost boys and Wendy’s brothers – I can take them or leave them. They have just enough character to be not interchangeable, but they are neither particularly memorable nor important in the grand scheme of things. Same for Nana, though it’s certainly fun to watch her react to the situation in the family (and trying to rebuild the castle again and again). This character is just made for a Disney movie (though I never really got the point of a dog which acts like a nanny…it’s just odd…).

Mr. Darling is an example of unintentional symbolic by the writer. In the original play, he and Captain Hook were portrayed by the same actor. The reason for this was simply economic use of resources, since the characters don’t share a scene, they needed one actor less this way. But since there is an undeniable symbolic meaning in this arrangement, it has become tradition. In the Disney version the character designs are different, but the voices are the same. It also lays more emphasis on the father than the mother, by making his role of the “kill-joy” more extreme and his intention to remove Wendy from the play room the central conflict.

In the original story the mother is the more important character. One symbol in the novel I was never really able to figure out is that she has a hidden kiss in the right corner of her mouth which Wendy could never reach. It’s apparently reserved for her husband. But at the end of the novel, Peter Pan takes this kiss with him. 14 Captain Hook

Disney’s version of Captain Hook is easily one of the funniest villains in canon. His whole relationship with Smee and how they constantly play off each other as a comedic duo is entirely Disney (in the novel Smee is mostly notable because he is one of two pirates who survives, telling everyone that he was the only pirate Captain Hook feared). My favourite part is when Smee hammers a “don’t disturb sign” on the door because Hook has a headache (and everything which follows). But Hook is also one of the most threatening villains. Partly because of his design and actions. Causally shooting one of his men, kidnapping and nearly killing Tiger Lily, how he fools Tinkerbell meanwhile pretending that he is all honourable (naturally he isn’t), there is no doubt that Hook is a dangerous man. In the play and the book, Neverland is a dangerous place in general. In the movie though, the source of danger is usually Hook, even if it’s only indirectly.

4. The Plot

When it comes to the broad strokes of the original, the plot is more or less the same. Wendy discovers Peter, attaches his shadow, the children learn to fly (fun fact: the only reason pixy dust was eventually included by Barrie was because originally children got hurt when they tried to fly after seeing the play), they travel to Neverland, experience a few adventures. Wendy nearly dies due to a scheme by Tinkerbell, Peter Pan rescues Tiger Lily, and eventually Wendy and her brothers want to go home again but get captured. Peter survives a murder ploy by Hook thanks to Tinkerbell, and there is a final battle on the pirate ship. After this Peter brings Wendy and her brothers home.

The details though are sometimes fundamentally different, and not just because Disney naturally takes full advantage of the different medium. Memorable scenes in the play include a misunderstanding between Wendy and Peter which makes him believe that a thimble is a kiss (and the other way around), Tinkerbell drinking poison for Peter and surviving if the audience claps in the hands and shows that they believe in fairies and Hook getting eaten by the crocodile in the end because the clock stopped ticking. In the movie, Wendy simply says that she wants to give Peter a kiss instead of a thimble (in both cases Tinkerbell interferes), instead of poison the murder ploy involves a bomb, how Tinkerbell survived isn’t quite clear since the clapping scene is omitted because Walt Disney didn’t think that this would work in a movie, and Hook doesn’t die, instead he is chased away.

The adventures of the children in Neverland have, especially in the novel, a very episodic character. The Disney animators basically picked what they liked and rewrote is in a way that it works as an “it all happened in one night” story. The biggest change is that Wendy and the Lost Boys barely interact with each other in the movie. Peter introduces them to each other after they nearly killed Wendy due to Tinkerbell scheming against her, but then the group immediately splits up. Peter and Wendy explore the island together, while the boys (lost and otherwise) search for their own adventure. The only scene in which there is meaningful interaction is when she later reminds them how great it is to have a real mother.

I already mentioned that the Lost Boys and Wendy’s brothers are not really that important. In the original they are mostly just along for the ride, the focus is on Wendy and Peter. That’s true for the movie too, and to be honest, I never enjoyed the part when the boys go “hunting Indians”. The song is annoying, there doesn’t really happen all that much and while the stereotypes don’t bother me unduly, the very idea that hunting people is an acceptable game (especially since John believes that this is for real) does. Even as a child I always felt uncomfortable watching this part.

14 SmeeThe best scenes are naturally the ones with Hook. No matter if he interacts with Peter, Smee, the Crocodile or Tinkerbell, no matter if he is funny, threatening or both, whenever he turns up he owns the screen. If Disney’s depiction of him has one weakness than that by playing his fear of the crocodile (and by extension the ticking clock) for fun it distracts from him being basically afraid of time.

Disney simply ignores some of the symbolic aspects of the play and the novel, the odd ones as well as the more straightforward ones. In the play and the novel Peter Pan is a somewhat tragic figure. He is trapped in childhood, not being able to move forward, partly because he keeps forgetting his past, because otherwise his mind would grow up. A part of him is constantly searching for some sort of mother figure, and his desire for one is so strong that he initially plans to convince Wendy to stay in Neverland through trickery, and changes his mind only when he sees the grief of Mrs. Darling. The play allows the audience to revisit the perspective of their youth, but it also makes clear that nobody can stay in Neverland forever. The play as well as the novel is very clear that Peter Pan is the only one who will never grow up (it’s also suggested that all the other inhabitants of Neverland eventually die, too – meaning that while Peter remains unchanged, the world around him moves forward).

The Disney version omits this tragic aspect. There the idea that Peter Pan will always be out there is more a comforting one, as if a part of our childhood will always be there, no matter how old we are. Disney also lays more emphasis on the conflict between Wendy and her father, ending it with them both changing their mind by her accepting the need to grow up and him realizing that there is no need to rush it. This leads to his wife and daughter embracing him, a far cry from the way he is treated at the beginning of the movie – yes, he acts a little bit like a dick, but it’s also very hurtful if you fall through the whole room and your family only cares about the dog getting hurt. So while the “growing up” aspect is still there, there seems to be an even stronger message that one should never wholly forget his childhood perspective, no matter how old you are. Well, you are never really too old for Disney movies either, right?

5. The Soundtrack

The songs in Peter Pan are quite a mixed package. The slow paced title song which is typical for the 1950s movies has a nice enough tune, but the other songs have a childish aspect to it, not just in tune, but also in text. It’s not a bad fit for the movie, though, not at all, this is a children’s world after all, epic songs would just overwhelm it, but they sometimes slip too much into triviality.

Ironically the song I consider the best is the controversial “What makes the red man red”. Just hear me out: I think it’s the best partly because it has a drive to it the other songs lack, but mostly because the mind-set behind Neverland is hit spot on in this. The question which are asked in this are typical children’s questions (along the line of “Why is the sky blue?”) and the answers are children’s logic. It’s not unusual for children to make surprising leaps of logic, making connections between things which are not connected at all, and the song transports this perfectly.

Though there is one other song which is even better, but doesn’t really count because it is not quite in the movie. Well, it’s score is. I already mentioned it when I was talking about the crocodile. “Never smile at a crocodile” is one of those songs with a text which doesn’t really make much sense, but has a tune which is a relentless earworm. You can practically hear the ticking of the clock in its rhythm, and it is used to great effect in the movie. We always hear the song before we get to see the crocodile.

All in all the soundtrack is serviceable with flashes of brilliance in it. It doesn’t quite compare to the best of Disney soundtracks and has become a little bit dated at parts, but overall it fits the movie and has its memorable moments.

6. Merchandise14 tinkerbell-the-pixie-with-dust-picture-by-milliesky-520904

Yeah, I normally don’t have this category in my reviews, but I guess I should say something about Tinkerbell. For a classic Disney character she is unusual. Not only is she jealous, she also acts on this jealously two times. In the novel, those actions as well as Peter’s willingness to overlook them are explained with fairies not being able to have conflicted feelings. Since they are so small, they have only place for one feeling, meaning weather they love or hate, they always do it with full force.

The movie omits this explanation, therefore Tinkerbell becomes quite a vindictive character. While her betrayal mostly happens because Hook manipulates her, she is very aware that it’s dangerous to deal with him. That she insist on Peter’s safety being part of the deal, but doesn’t seem to care for anyone else, is a very callous move. Tinkerbell’s willingness to do everything for Peter but also to act against everyone who seems to get between them, makes her unique in the Disney canon. Normally those are character traits you would find in a villain, not in a sidekick. That she oozes sexuality on the other hand is not that uncommon, not really. Disney was never above getting crap past the radar, she is just another example of this.

But one thing for sure: The Tinkerbell in Disney’s fairy franchise has nothing to do with the one in the original movie. Thus said, I don’t think that the franchise hurts anything. I guess it’s enjoyable enough for little (really little) children and easy enough to ignore.

5. The Conclusion

All in all, this is a solid but overly simplified take on the story. From today’s perspective the movie certainly has its problems, the character designs as well as the music are so clearly 1950s that it does look a little bit dated. But the strong point of the movie is the humour, and I’m saying this as someone who is usually not into slapstick at all: The comedic timing is just perfect, it’s impossible, not to laugh, and the best part is that none of the jokes are in any way referential, they are in-universe funny.

The downside of the movie is that it lacks depth, since the message is too anvilious and the plot too simple. It’s the play broken down to its very basic and never ventures out of the safe zone of family friendly entertainment. Therefore it’s more fun for children to watch then for adults, even though they might enjoy the nostalgia, not just the nostalgia of watching something from their childhood, but also experiencing the mind-set of a child again.Bildschirmschoner-TickTock


By the Book: Tarzan

So, in order to give my readers here a little bit more content, I have decided to continue with uploading my old “By the Book” series…with one little change. One of the reasons I have been holding off on this for so long is that I have already covered most book-based movies which have no or only a handful of songs. If I would continue with the current format for this, the section for the song-discussion would become incredible long. For example, I have been writing on and off about the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack (yes, I haven’t forgotten, I am working on it), and even though I am not even half through, it is already a beast of an article (pun not intended). So for the sake of keeping it brief, I have decided to keep the soundtrack discussion more general instead of going into deep analysis.

In the case of Tarzan this makes double sense. I just had the opportunity to watch the musical adaptation and it was very interesting to see how much of the story was changed for the stage, and how the new songs fit in. In case you are wondering: I liked the stage play. I often feel that it is somewhat pointless to watch them because they rarely have something to offer which you don’t get in the movie, too, but in this case, the stage play has managed to step out of the shadow of the movie just far enough to be worth discussing – in another article.

Let’s focus on the movie for now, and on the books it was based on. Which means I have to briefly address the Jungle Book, too, since it is fairly obvious were the inspiration for the Tarzan book series came from. And to be honest: Between those two stories about a child which grew up in the jungle, Mowgli is definitely the better pick. If you ask me, the idea behind Tarzan is better than the stories themselves. An old idea in a crowd pleasing format, which is mostly notable due to its revolutionary marketing strategy. Tarzan is not just a book, it is a trademark (copyright is limited, trademark rights aren’t), and Burroughs did his very best to make as many money out of his idea as possible. He was warned that the public would get tired of his character if he created too much around him. Ignoring all those warnings he wrote book after book and gave the audience as much Tarzan as possible – and the audience couldn’t get enough of “their hero”.

1. The Setting

Burrough never visited Africa. And that’s all you really need to know. His idea of the jungle is some sort of exotic place, a fairy tale land in which he can add dangers however he likes. He also didn’t really bother to do his research. For example Sabor was originally a tiger, until someone informed him that there are no tigers in Africa (which is the reason the “piranhas live in South-America” discussion in the Disney movie cracks me up every time). Therefore he changed it to a female lion (female because there already was a name for a male lion mentioned in the stories), but that doesn’t really work either because lions live in the veldt, not in the jungle.

Disney’s take is more realistic. The audience nowadays is more aware which animals actually live where. It’s also much more sensitive about racial issues, the movie therefore painstakingly avoids to show any “native tribes” living in the jungle. The movie also takes much more care to portray the fauna correctly. Consequently Tarzan grows up with Gorillas instead of a non-existing kind of humanlike apes, Sabor is a Leopard and the Jungle in general feels more like an existing place than some sort of phantasy land.

2. The Animation

Tarzan is a gorgeous movie. Not quite as gorgeous as The Lion King, but it does take full advantage of the setting, especially when Tarzan shows Jane his world. But where the movie really shines is the character animation. The movements are fluid, and there are a number of scenes in which a lot of said through gestures rather than words. I think the most memorable scene of the whole movie is when Tarzan compares his hand to Jane’s. There is so much meaning in this one moment when Tarzan realizes that he might not be the only one of his kind after all, while Jane is finally able to calm down and truly take a look at this weird wild creature which just rescued her, seeing the humanity in his eyes. It’s not just the hands and the call-back to the earlier scene with Kala which makes this moment work, it is also the facial expression of the two characters.

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In addition, this is one of those stories practically made for animation. There is only so much a real human can do, but an animated Tarzan is able to swing through the trees like an ape (and sometimes like a surfer). I guess it might be possible to find an acrobat who is able to do some of this stuff, but finding one who is also looking the part and is also a good actor is a nearly impossible task. Consequently this Tarzan is vastly superior compared to all the other versions out there. 37 tarzan6

3. The Characters

Burrough’s  Tarzan is the most perfect human being ever. Not only is he physically stronger than any human being and fights lions with his bare hands, he also teaches himself to read and write, learns later dozens of languages with no trouble at all, is a good shot even though he doesn’t believe in guns, in short, there is nothing Tarzan can’t do. While in most adaptation Tarzan needs some time to truly adjust to humans, in the books he has no trouble at all to act like a “normal” human being. He even lives some time in England. But he doesn’t feel comfortable with the rules of human society (mainly with the ranks, which don’t make sense for him) and prefers to go back to his jungle ways whenever he can. Oh, and on top of this, it turns out that he is rich, an earl and a natural leader.

Disney’s Tarzan is more realistic, and heavily influenced by the Movies and TV series made about him, mainly the Weißmüller movie series. This is where the sound of Tarzan’s yell was established and this is the source of the “I Tarzan, you Jane” dialogue (even though it never happens this way in the English version). The learning curve of Disney’s Tarzan is a more realistic one, and the only notable talent aside from his powerful physic is the ability to imitate every sound he hears, and both are explained with his upbringing.

The original Jane Porter can be summoned up with three words: Damsel in Distress. In the first novels she doesn’t have much of a character aside from being “the one” for Tarzan, and getting rescued by him all the time. Though, to her credit, she is a woman of integrity. Later (waaaaaay later) on she gets a few abilities of her own. But make no mistake: This is not an equal relationship. Burroughs view on the natural order in the relationship between males and females shines through in all novels and basically comes down to the female being happy to serve the strongest protector.

37 janeheadDisney’s Jane Porter is kind of a damsel in distress, too, but not in a bad way. Following the lead of many other adaptations, she is British instead of American (I guess because the more stiff British society provides a better contrast to the Jungle than the American one). But above all: she is smart, she is just as much of a scientist as her father is. Disney offers the audience a full-fledged female character. When she is in distress, it makes sense, because she is in an environment which is unfamiliar to her. But she does learn, at the end of the movie she might not be as good as Tarzan in jumping from tree to tree, but competent enough to hold on her own, which is a far cry from the usual “Jane sitting in a treehouse” scenarios of earlier adaptations. And she has just as much to teach to Tarzan as he can teach her, which includes way more than just the human language. I also like the detail that it’s not Tarzan’s physic which captures her interest the most, but his eyes.37 jporter22

Jane’s father is mostly just that. In the book he seems to exist mostly because a woman back then would normally stay with her family until marriage. And she certainly wouldn’t travel alone, so to get Jane to Africa, the father has to be there. The Disney version underlines the father aspect more, though. When it comes to father figures in animated movies, Professor Porter is certainly one of the better ones. While not exactly an authority figure, he isn’t stupid either, and is neither overly controlling nor neglectful towards his daughter. He is supportive and has a keen eye for her feelings and needs.

When it comes to the animal characters, they are in the books exactly that. They don’t have (nor need) a lot of personality, they simply act like the author thinks animals would act. It naturally wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the animals didn’t talk, so they get some distinctive character traits: Terk is being a tomboy, Tantor is portrayed as fussy germaphobe. They aren’t exactly layered characters, but they have just enough personality to be somewhat memorable.  It’s notable though that Tarzan can talk to them, but Jane can’t, at least not until she imitates Tarzan.

And then there is the villain – Imho opinion the greatest weakness of the movie. Clayton in the book is somewhat pathetic, but he is much more interesting. He is actually Tarzan’s cousin, who unwittingly usurped his inheritance, and his rival for Jane’s affection. Most of the time he serves as some sort of foil for Tarzan, though, and it’s heavily suggested that his physical weakness compared to him is a mirror of his weak character. While he wants to act honourable, he often takes the cowardly way out. Still, the book version of Clayton has a lot of potential and some pathos.

37 clayton33Movie Clayton on the other hand is a fairly boring villain. While it is a good thing that he isn’t interested in Jane (this would be too much like Beauty and the Beast), greed is really the most overused motivation to pick, especially in a movie about white people entering a native or untouched world. I think this would work much better if Clayton were another scientist and his motivation were more along the lines of taking gorillas (and Tarzan) with him to study them. It would have been a nice contrast to Jane’s and Professor Porters less intrusive approach. Plus, historically speaking, so called explorer have done at least as much damage in their thirst for knowledge than people who were just interested in financial gain. Either way, that’s not the approach Disney picked, and I should judge Clayton based on what he is and not based on what I want him to be. What makes him ultimately a failure as a Disney Villain is that he is too obvious.

Yes, I know, Disney Villains tend to be the epitome of evilness. But in this movie we have a character who is, in a way, part of the close circle around the heroes. This means he has to act in a way which at least makes it believable that the characters wouldn’t suspect him of any ill-will. We need at least a clever manipulator like Mother Gothel or Scar, but even better would be a character, whose betrayal even surprises the audience. Clayton is so obviously evil, I keep wondering why Professor Porter hired him in the first place.

4. The Plot

You could summon up the plot of the novel like this: boy grows up in jungle, kills many enemies, boy becomes king of the jungle, boy meets white girl, boy confronts civilization, boy gives up on girl (though naturally not forever). It’s basically the kind of story I expect from a dime novel (well, Tarzan is pulp fiction, so this is not surprising), a clever mix of adventure and romance which speaks to a broad audience, but, honestly, not particularly well written. The characters are mostly stereotypes and the dialogues are full of unnecessary melodrama.

In the Disney version, the focus is not on the love story or on Tarzan confronting civilization, though both aspects are still there. No, the focus is where it should be, on Tarzan trying to figure out where he belongs. To achieve this, Disney took a lot of elements from the novel and remixed it in a clever way. I normally don’t summarize the plot of the movies I review because I expect that my readers already know the basic plot, but in this case I’ll make an exception. For one because it seems to me that this is the best way to point out how Disney twisted the novel around and two, there are some concerns I have concerning the plot which are easier to discuss in context.

So, the movie starts with a couple fleeing in a boat from a burning ship (in the novel Tarzan’s parents get marooned, but really, same difference). We get a nice montage showing how the couple creates a home for themselves in the Jungle. This part is actually way more detailed in the novel, but really, in the great scheme of things it’s not really that important, so it’s a good thing that Disney puts the whole origin of Tarzan into one song.  Tarzan’s real parents are really well done, and there is some outstanding animation which shows how worried his father is about the situation, and how much courage they both show in their fight for survival. We then get a really well done scene in which Kala loses her child to Sabor and then discovers Tarzan, whose parents were killed by Sabor, too. She convinces her mate Kerchak to give her permission to raise Tarzan.

Now, this is a big change from the book, because there Kerchak is the one who killed Tarzan’s father (the mother already died, most likely from child birth), and Kala isn’t his mate, she is just part of the troop. When Tarzan becomes stronger and stronger, killing some powerful enemies, Kerchak sees him more and more as a treat and finally attacks. Tarzan kills him and takes over his position as a leader. But I like the Disney approach better, because it introduces a more compelling conflict. As sad as it is to watch Tarzan having to deal with constant rejection, it is understandable where Kerchak is coming from. It also leads to some of the best scenes in the movie when Kala tries to comfort Tarzan. 37 Disney_Tarzan_by_zaratus

Though I have to say that overall, the scenes from his childhood are a little bit dissatisfying. I love everything related to Kala, and how the movie explains the iconic yell, I also like Tarzan’s resourcefulness. But the scenes between him, Terk and Tantor, they don’t really work, I guess mostly because they both are reduced to “the tomboy” and “the phobic”. A little bit more exploration of their unlikely friendship (even pointing out that elephants usually don’t hang around with gorillas) would have been nice.

You can divide the Disney movie into two parts. The first part is about Tarzan growing up and ends with him killing Sabor, which, I guess, kind of mirror’s Tarzan killing Kerchak in the original novel, since in both cases the kill changes his status in the troop. But I think, Disney missed an opportunity there. While Tarzan is kind of accepted after this deed, the scene between Kerchak and Tarzan is interrupted to early. This would have been the perfect moment not necessarily to accept Tarzan as son but at least to accept him as part of the troop. Tarzan just rescued him and killed the enemy who was a danger for the whole troop for years, the enemy which killed Kerchak’s child. Plus, if Tarzan already had this kind of acceptance, everything which happens in the second part of the movie would have more of an impact.

Now, Tarzan in the novel is well aware of what he is. There is a tribe in vicinity, though relations are – strained, to put it politely, considering that one of the hunters killed Kala. Jane is not special because she is the first woman he met, but the first white woman he comes across (yes, I know, but when I start to rage about every piece of racist and misogynistic BS in this novel, this review will be endless). And the story focusses mostly on the heritage which is rightfully Tarzan’s.

37 kerchackIn the Disney movie on the other hand, it’s Tarzan’s heritage as a human which matters, not title or money. He grew up in the belief that there is no one like him. And now he suddenly discovers that he is not alone, that there are other people exactly like him. People who show him more acceptance than he gets from Kerchak. And that’s the first reason why an early understanding between those two would have caused a better dynamic in the movie (aside from making Kerchak’s desire to protect his people more relatable for the audience). It would have resulted into Tarzan being more torn about approaching the humans.

Either way, from this point onward all similarities with the novel end (thankfully), since the novel describes Tarzan leaving the jungle. The movie is more about Tarzan deciding if he should leave or not. I give it a lot of credit for making Tarzan’s learning curve believable. I give it even more credit for making the learning process a two way street. It puts the science of Jane’s world in contrast with the beautiful nature of Tarzan’s world, without being judgmental about it. Both worlds have their advantages, and both worlds have the dangers, and Jane is as fascinated by Tarzan’s world as Tarzan is by hers. This part is very well done, though, again, a scene between Kerchak and Kala talking about Tarzan’s activities would have been nice, with him warning her that Tarzan will slip away, perhaps even telling her that this is where Tarzan really belongs.

37 kalaIn the end the ship arrives, Clayton tricks Tarzan into believing that Jane will stay if she sees Gorilla’s and we end up with the most idiotic scene in the movie. Sorry, but this part was really not thought through by the animators. One, the way Terk and Tantor lure Kerchak away is just stupid and the idea that he would fell for it idiotic. Two, I get why Tarzan would bring Jane, but why Clayton with his riffle? At this point he should know how dangerous this weapon is, why would he allow it close to his family? Three, after Kerchak discovers what Tarzan has done, why doesn’t he move the troop elsewhere? Up to this point he was a very careful leader, and now he just stays at a place which has just become unsafe?

Anyway, this is reason two why an earlier understanding between Kerchak and Tarzan would have worked so much better. If Tarzan’s task to protect the family had been more like the final hurdle on the way to acceptance, an opportunity to proof himself once and for all, his decision to throw this away would have been a more tragic one. And could have led to a conversation more along the line of “you are drawn to them, your heritage is stronger than your loyalty”, instead of putting the focus on the “you ignored my orders” part. It’s weird because Tarzan is so clearly wrong, but the movie seems to encourage the audience to root for him, I guess mostly because there isn’t enough time spend on Kerchak’s concerns, and because Tarzan has been rejected so often already.

Well, eventually we get the climax, with a lot of fighting, a little bit fun in-between and finally Kerchak’s dead. And again: how much better would this scene be, if Kerchak were killed protecting just Tarzan and not Tarzan and Kala. That he would protect her is kind of a given. Giving everything for Tarzan’s protection, and his protection alone, would be the kind of finale gesture which would me actually care about his dead. As it is the scene puzzles me, especially since (and this is reason number three why an earlier acceptance would be the right way to go) it doesn’t make much sense to me that he would suddenly accept Tarzan after the mess he caused. Yes, he came back. But the whole act of protection wouldn’t be necessary if he had followed Kerchak’s advice earlier, Kerchak is dying because of his mistake, the biggest mistake Tarzan ever made, and now he suddenly accepts him as his son? If Disney were really gutsy he would die without Tarzan ever getting the acceptance he craved, but deciding to take over the responsibility for troop nevertheless, because that’s the only thing he can do for Kerchak, protect the family which is so important for both of them. I think it would have been a really good lesson to put across that sometimes you can’t correct the consequences of your actions; that you should be careful not to squander away the chances you get. But if you really go for a somewhat happy ending with Kerchak calling Tarzan his son, this would have made much more sense if there were prior indications that he felt this way beforehand and was just unable to admit it.

Thankfully the ending puts the movie back on track. The villain is defeated in one of the more memorable villain deaths, Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and the audience gets a really great end sequence, showing Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle side-by-side, ending the movie on a high note. 37 tarzanjane

5. The Soundtrack

This movie often gets a lot of flak for its soundtrack. Yes, it’s Phil Collins. So what? To me it looks like the complaining about the music is mostly based on Phil Collins being particularly popular with woman. So it’s apparently unmanly to like the music. Well, suck it up, the songs in this movie are really, really good.

Some people are also complaining because they are sung from the off and not by the characters, with the exception of Kala starting “You’ll be in my heart” as some kind of lullaby. But really, can you imagine Tarzan starting to sing? Yeah, I don’t think so. Now you could argue that the songs are not really needed. But with the notable exception of “Destroying the Camp” (which has no text at all), they all have the purpose of providing some narration when the movie skips forward in time. I also like that the songs, while commenting what is going on, don’t spell it out too directly. They offer more an additional layer to what the audience sees on screen.

6. Conclusion

Yeah, I don’t really like the books. I think they are a classic example of someone writing a mediocre story based on a really good idea, and I hate the stereotypes and the sexism in them. I’m normally fast with excusing old fashioned views in older media, because I think it’s stupid to expect them to be conform to modern ideals. But even I have my limits and I still need something compelling in the book, movie or whatever, something which makes it worthwhile to sit through this kind of drivel, and I can’t find anything of this kind in those books.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a Tarzan fan. There was a phase in my childhood during which I watched every Movie and TV-Show about Tarzan I could get my hands on. Until I realized that most of them work the same way (there are intruders in the Jungle, at one point either Tarzan or Jane (or both) end up in dire danger, Tarzan yells, the elephants turn up to destroy everything in sight, Tarzan defeats the intruders, the end). I actually don’t know why I was so obsessed with those movies. Tarzan being less talented than in the books certainly helped to make him a more sympathetic hero, and in some of the adaptations Jane is pretty resourceful, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stories are pretty simple. Though, this might be exactly why they worked so well. It was more about the notion of living in an interesting and colourful world, in which Tarzan is able to make up his own rules, than about the actual plot.

Disney’s take on the source material has all the usual elements, but also adds thoughtful moments and gives the character some new layers. This is a story which was practically made for an animated movie, with its exotic location and the options to design a human who moves at least partly like an animal. All this makes Disney’s take on Tarzan certainly worth a watch. It might not be perfect, but I consider it the best and most thoughtful adaptation of the source material so far. Except maybe the musical, which avoids a lot of the story problems I listed above. But that is a discussion for another day.

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